Jes, Ni parolas fika Esperanto! (Yes we speak fucking Esperanto!)

After a week of acquainting myself with Vienna and beating jetlag, Vince and I finally made our way to the main purpose of this whole trip: The Esperanto Museum. To start off we had to stop by the National Library of Austria to get a membership card to get into the museum and take out books and articles. Yes, the majestic and wonderful library where Kaisers and others royals once walked and roamed, perusing the many different books of wisdom on their shelf!

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“Such majesty!”

Okay…so that is not the actual National library, it’s actually the former state room of the Hofburg (but it was too beautiful to not slip into this post somehow). The actual national library is quite beautiful and impressive though and actually a part of the Hofburg (which is the primary royal palace of the once Austrian Nobility).

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That’s Vince in the forefront! Beautiful library, though funny to think that in 1938, Hitler gave a well attended speech on that balcony

We got in, got our cards, and ordered an article from the Esperanto museum just as a test to make sure it all works. By the time we were done, the museum had closed for the day. Rather than just go home, however, the rest of the day was taken to enjoy the sights and sounds around the old beauty of a palace. While it was amazing walking around arguably the most beautiful part of Vienna (in a city that is already incredibly beautiful all around), both Vince and I could not help but be burdened by the same question: “What if we don’t find what we’re looking for at the museum?” We would have to wait for Monday to find out what lay before us.

Before going forward, it would probably help if I best described what the hell we are even researching…

***

The topic’s genesis came from a simple Facebook post on the part of Vince about constructed and fictional languages. When I told him that I was familiar with one of the languages on the list, Esperanto (a language I had learned about in High School Latin while we were working on making our own languages), a door opened almost immediately. With the goal in mind of working towards a Fulbright scholarship for me (a fully paid year abroad after graduation teaching and researching abroad), Vince and I set our sights on undergraduate research experience for me.  From square one the hope was to work at the Esperanto museum, it was only ever a question of what to research when there? Surprisingly there was almost too many broad research questions that one could think of in relation to constructed languages.

We were getting rather close to the deadline we had set for ourselves to hand in the research proposal and still had no set topic. I was rather frustrated with myself for not being able to think of something up or narrow down an idea. It really felt like a jumbled mess of thoughts and questions. It took an almost all too cliché epiphany moment for an idea to spring into my head. Nearly exhausted with frustration after looking up potential topics online, I heavily sighed “God fucking damn it!” under my breath. I continued searching for a few moments but then proceeded to pause.
“God fucking damn it…”

                                                  “fucking damn it…”

                                                            “fuck…damn…”

Profanity and obscenity had come to save the day. Vince and I formed the proposal from this basis. “Constructed languages and their use or non-use of profanity and obscenity”. On the surface it may seem like a rather silly topic (it is, and you are invited to laugh with us at it). However, there is some real depth to it. To help push the conversation, I’ll roughly quote the famed philosopher, George Carlin:

“There are some words you can say with no problem, like: ‘TOPOGRAPHY!’ And no one has ever gone to jail for screaming topography. But there are some words you can got to jail for! There are some words we’ve decided to not use all the time. You know if you’re chasing a criminal it’s okay if you say “you dirty fucking crook!” But if you’re having lunch with the Bishop it may be best to not ask for where the ‘god damn toilet’ is.”
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMkNsMMvrqk <— My Source)

In all natural languages (ie: languages that have developed and evolved naturally over time and have not been purposefully created), there are taboo words. Taboo words are different from something like “the” or “penguin”, these are words that are heavily charged words with real social effects. If a 7-year-old child calls his mother a “C#nt” chances are he may be in a good bit of trouble. In fact, just by the fact that I’ve chosen to even block out some of these curse words show how powerful some of them can be. So every natural language has these words, that cannot be denied. But what about constructed languages? These are languages that have been made purposefully by a person or set of people with some intent or driving vision behind the language.

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L.L. Zamenhhof                (1859-1917)

Take Esperanto for example. The language was created polish ophthalmologist  L. L. Zamenhof in the late 19th/early 20th century. The idea came about in a time of high tensions for Europe which would soon break out into World War I. Zamenhof grew up in a part of Poland that was surrounded by Polish Speakers, German speakers, Russian Speakers, Yiddish Speakers, and more. His thought behind Esperanto was that it could act as a simple and new international language of communication between peoples and bring people together under this one language. Esperanto continues to be one of the most popular and successful ConLangs (constructed languages) today. Despite never becoming an international language, it does boast a speaking community of about 2 million people worldwide and also a good couple thousand or so native speakers (children who were raised speaking the language as their first language!)

An international language of world peace and love is great and all, but what if you stub your toe while being an Esperanto speaker? I know that whenever I happen to injure myself usually the first thing anyone hears is a long and loud “FUCK!!” Some of the earliest critiques of Esperanto from the 1920’s beg this question. You see, from its original conception Esperanto had no profanity or obscenity in it. It reflected the decent nature of its original purpose. Can a language really be a language without these naughtier elements? Elements that the average person uses amongst people who they are comfortable with,  that are used to give weight to our other words, to insult, to incite, to describe the more saucier realities of life? It certainly would not be a complete language. As you can see, the intent of this project is to not only understand the reasons for adding or not adding taboo words into ConLangs, but it will hopefully also help us to understand the role and importance of them within our own natural languages.

***

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The Esperanto museum/ Department of Planned Languages- the worlds largest collection of ConLang resources (also housed here: The Globe museum and the Department of Music.

The weekend went and Monday came in it’s place. It was hard  to believe it had only been a week since I first arrived in Vienna. We found ourselves at Palais Mollard, a beautiful building by all definitions (Though some construction in front of it obscures the view a bit). The Esperanto Museum makes up the first floor of the museum. Contrary to the vast holdings it hides in it’s storage room, the museum itself is rather small. On display are several artifacts about Esperanto, videos on it and other ConLangs, and language samples of different ConLangs (such as Klingon). We make our way to the back where the research library/reading room rests.

The secretary at the desk was nothing but incredibly helpful and nice, getting us set up and providing the article we had ordered on Friday. Again the article had nothing to do with our topic, but was instead only a test of the system. Now began the real research…

Or well it would have if it were not for the incredibly kind and helpful staff finding stuff for us! Within 5 minutes of being there, we were greeted by the colleague of the woman who helped us. Vince, in introducing us to him also introduced the topic to this man. With a smile the man disappeared into the holdings room in the back and within 15 minutes came back with two items.

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The one article was a CD entitled “Taboo words in the world language”.  It included a lecture on the importance of the topic at a World Esperanto Congress in the 90’s (the talk given in Esperanto), a write up of the talk (also written in Esperanto), a copy of Sekretaj Sonetoj (Secret Sonnets- the original attempt at adding profane and obscene words to the Esperanto language in the form of some erotic poetry 😉 ), and a digital list of taboo words. This CD was incredibly helpful. In particular the write up of the speech about taboo words was a gold mine. The speaker highlighted a couple of problems that have come about through not making known the taboo words in Esperanto. Some highlights:

  • A Swiss speaker telling the author that “Ni trinkis in Puboj!” The person wanted to say “We drank in English pubs” but what they really said without knowing was “we drank in pubic regions!” (the real word for pub in esperanto is drinkejo)

  • Trying to teach words like “Fuko” (Sea weed), and having students giggle at it thinking it means “fuck” when actually the word for fuck is “fiki”.

  • Debates about what words should mean what in Esperanto. For instance a debate about the word “piĉo”, which one Esperantist wanted to mean “musical pitch” but others pointed out was derived from the Slavic word for C*nt. And wouldn’t it be best to know that when talking after a concert in Esperanto about the eloquence of a violinists piĉo in that performance?

The key problems that came up were conflicts of meaning in the “decent language of Esperanto” (ie: the naughty nature of taboo words contrasting the peace and love aspect of Esperanto) and often time the unfamiliarity with the norms, customs, cultures, and taboos of another speakers mother tongue and country (ex: the word gift in English is harmless.  But if you’re going through customs in Germany and put the word “gift” on the form, there is a possibility it could be confused with the German word of the same name that means “POISON”. Think that same problem but in Esperanto).

The other article was another attempt to introduce and familiarize the Esperanto speaking public about taboo words and also insults, metaphors, profanity, and even onomatopoeia! One of the problems that seems to come up is that there are these official Esperanto words for taboo words but most of the general Esperanto public do not know them (either because of Esperanto’s decent nature or other social norms against taboo words at the time). So to avoid Swedish people talking about drinking in English pubic regions, it may be best to make these words more well known. Right?

***

This is how I’ve been spending my summer so far and I love it. I’ve found a few more interesting tid bits on my own (like an Esperanto-English dictionary and vise versa that openly lists taboo words). The hope is to continue and move past Esperanto and look at other ConLangs and their response to the Taboo word question! Who the fuck knows what will happen next? 🙂

 

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