Merits and Myths Behind Some Esperanto Symbols: The Green Star

Posted on 29. Sep, 2015 by in Uncategorized

One of the reasons Esperanto has remained such a recognizable language over the years might have something to do with its branding. Three vibrant, eye-catching symbols mark both the language and the movement associated with it: the verda stelo [green star], the jubilea simbolo [jubilee symbol], and the flago de Esperanto [Esperanto flag]. If you’ve ever picked up an Esperanto book, or browsed an Esperanto interest site on the Internet, or attended an Esperanto event of any kind, chances are you’ve glimpsed one – or all! – of these symbols. Today I wanted to talk about the first of these three, and address a myth associated with it.

Some Esperantists like to think that the green star symbolizes the planet earth. In this system, the green color indicates the land we inhabit – much like what you might see on a simplified image of the globe, where land masses are shown green, and oceans in blue. The five arms of the green star supposedly signify the five continents.


This part requires a little creativity, since almost any schoolchild you ask would tell you – rightly – that our planet has seven continents. I suppose you could say the five continents are North America, South America, Africa, Eurasia, and Australia/Oceania (ignoring the giant mass of ice at the planet’s southern pole). Otherwise, you could lump the Americas together as one continent, and continue ignoring Antarctica, to say there are five continents.

The mental gymnastics necessary to support this reading of the green star should be one indication that it’s a myth. Also, I can’t imagine Zamenhof wanting to ignore Antarctica. Sure, nobody lives there besides scientists conducting research. But Antarctica is one of the few places on earth where you can see earnest attempts at international cooperation and coexistence – take a look at the Antarctic Treaty System. Since Antarctica is a real-world example of the kind of international cooperation Zamenhof dreamed of, I don’t think it makes much sense for one of Esperanto’s main symbol to ignore it.

Luckily for us, Zamenhof himself addressed the emergence of the green star in a 1911 letter to the Esperanto interest magazine, The British Esperantist. He describes the star’s origin as follows: “It seems to me, that my attention was drawn to the color green by Mr. Geoghegan and from that time I began to publish all of my works with green covers . . . Looking at one of my pamphlets that I had entirely by chance printed with a green cover, he pointed out that this was the color of his homeland, Ireland; at that time it came to me, that we could certainly look at that color as a symbol of HOPE. About the five-pointed star, it seems to me, that at first Mr. de Beaufront had it imprinted on his grammar. I liked that and I adopted it as a symbol. Afterward by association of ideas, the star appeared with a green color.”

It’s a bit less exciting than the globally-minded reading of the green star, but at least it’s a plausible origin story. So Zamenhof liked the color green to begin with, and found it stood for promise (given Ireland’s burgeoning independence movement at the time), so he adopted it as a color of hope. As for the star, that seems to be a mere coincidence. Somebody used it on the cover of an Esperanto grammar book, and Zamenhof found it an appealing symbol. It became a green star through the fusion of these two encounters.

Then again, maybe the myth of the green star is the “true” reading. A symbol derives its meaning from what people take it to mean. If Esperantists want to think of it as the world in miniature, maybe that’s the interpretation to which we should defer!

Esperanto Filmoj and the “New Esperanto”

Posted on 26. Sep, 2015 by in Uncategorized

Have you ever heard of the film production company Esperanto Filmoj? You might recognize it from its affiliation with the prominent directors Guillermo del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth fame, which Esperanto Filmoj helped make), and Alfonzo Cuarón (the man behind Gravity and Children of Men, as well as the owner of Esperanto Filmoj). Its name is slightly misleading, as it has not yet produced any films in Esperanto – which you may have guessed from the grammatically inaccurate name! It has, however, financed both English and Spanish productions, so the company does support linguistic diversity, like any good Esperanto organization should.

I bring up Esperanto Filmoj today because the origin of its name offers some interesting food for thought. It lies in a remark Guillermo del Toro once made about cinema. A 2007 article on Pan’s Labyrinth in La Vanguardia [please note that’s it in Spanish] credits del Toro with the remark, “El cine es el esperanto del mundo actual” – roughly translated, “Cinema is the Esperanto of the modern world.” Cuarón must have found something appealing in that sentiment. In an interview with documentarian Sam Green (maker of a short documentary on Esperanto, The Universal Language), Cuarón reveals that, while he is not an Esperantist himself, he is sympathetic toward the aims and attitude of Esperanto. Calling his production company Esperanto Filmoj, then, is at once a gesture of respect for the language, and a tacit suggestion that film can do the work Esperanto initially set out to accomplish.

I have to wonder whether del Toro and Cuarón aren’t on to something. If anybody can be called an authority on breaking the language barrier, either of these directors could be fine candidates – their films have seen wide international releases, and won numerous international awards in the process. Assuming that cinema could be “the Esperanto of the modern world,” what exactly gives it that status? In other words, what does the cinema do that lets it act like a universal language?

One possibility is that, because the cinema works using pictures, it operates on a level distinct from verbal language. In most instances, people learn how to see before they learn how to speak. We’re visual beings before we’re linguistic beings. Perhaps the cinema taps into this, and relies on a level of human experience that doesn’t require language. After all, many of the most powerful moments in cinema history are not the result of spoken lines, but of astonishing visuals. Consider this still from Cuarón’s Gravity:

Gravity Still

You may not need to understand any of the world’s languages to grasp the emotions and poetry of this scene. The actress’s (Sandra Bullock’s) posture lets you know this is a moment of both vulnerability and comfort. The fetal position she’s curled into – made all the more striking by the wires behind her that resemble an umbilical cord – make her look defenseless, but show her within the shielding confines of the space station, which relaxes and guards her the way a mother might her child. No narration – and no subtitle – is required to convey all that.

If Esperanto was an invention created to breach linguistic barriers, then perhaps cinema is the next step up in the evolution of that invention. Much in the same way that we keep inventing new means of transportation, we might keep developing new technologies of interlingual communication. Maybe cinema is one of those technologies. I wonder what will come after it, and how effective it will be?

What do you think of del Toro’s and Cuarón’s ideas regarding Esperanto and cinema? (Or mine, for that matter…?) Sound off in the comments.

“Fundamentals of Esperanto” by Srikanth Reddy

Posted on 31. Aug, 2015 by in Uncategorized

Continuing the trend of the last couple of posts, I wanted to share another cultural artifact that speaks to Esperanto’s global reception. This time, I have a poem for you: “Fundamentals of Esperanto,” by Srikanth Reddy. It is a relatively new publication, coming from Reddy’s 2005 collection Facts for Visitors. As I understand it, the poem is less about the Esperanto language than the Esperanto mindset, and can be read as a reminder of why humanity needs a language like Esperanto.

The poem begins by tricking you into thinking it is a grammatical primer. Between its title and its first few lines, you would be forgiven for believing the poem is going to teach you how Esperanto works. The opening lines: “The grammatical rules of this language can be learned in one / sitting. / Nouns have no gender & end in -o; the plural terminates in -oj / (pronounced -oy) & the accusative, -on (plural 0ojn)” (1-4). Reddy quickly throws a wrench into this otherwise straightforward grammar, however, for the persona in the poem quickly botches the grammar s/he has laid out: “Ma amiko is my friend” (9), s/he writes, when mia amiko would be appropriate; “La bonaj amiko estas ie. The good friend is here” (14), s/he says a few lines later, failing to make the subject and descriptor agree.

I must assume, per Stephen Dedalus’s instruction in Ulysses, that errors in art are volitional and are the portals to discovery. Otherwise, this poem would seem like a fatuous attempt to appropriate Esperanto for aesthetic purposes. What is going on here, then?

Reddy briefly restores the facade of Esperanto education in the next section of the poem, dropping a block of prose that talks about some aspects of Esperanto’s past and present. The section after that seems as if it will continue discussing Esperanto history – “Esperanto is an artificial language / constructed in 1887 by L. / L. Zamenhof, a polish / oculist” (29-32) – but soon reveals that Esperanto history in an ancillary concern, joining the persona’s recollections to Zamenhof’s great achievement. The other half of Line 32 marks the first time the persona acknowledges him-/herself, and situates how s/he first encountered the language: “I first came / across Fundamento Esperanto, the text / which introduced this system / to the world, as I travelled abroad / following a somewhat difficult period / in my life” (32-37). The persona here has invoked a major theme in Esperanto-language autobiography: how and why one became an Esperantist. I won’t spoil the details of the persona’s story, as they’re rather humorous. However, it worth noting that the poem shifts in this moment from a grammar lesson to something less concrete – and, arguably, something more pressing.

In the next section, the persona discusses purple martins, birds that s/he describes as “the Cadillac of swallows” (56), all of which are “dying or dead” (57). Again, we are treading in metaphorical territory – the purple martin is known for competing with (and losing to) sparrows and starlings for living space, but it is not classified as a threatened species. Reddy’s persona seems to be calling attention to their vulnerability, which s/he accomplishes by ascribing high intelligence to them: “Brainscans of grown purple martins suggest / these creatures feel the same levels of doubt / & bliss as an eight-year-old girl in captivity” (58-60). The rest of this section recalls a story of a man who devoted his life to building shelters for the purple martins, a task which the persona finds admirable, and seems to regret not undertaking him-/herself. This section, then, links the concepts of labor and doing good by it, establishing them as central themes in the poem. The persona’s observation of his/her own inertia when it comes to doing good works explains why the word “sitting” occurs as its own line early in the poem – there is something appealing about a language that, at least by the persona’s understanding, can be learned lazily. Thus, the poem posits another connection: Esperanto is joined to labor. Since labor is only discussed in terms of working good in the world, the poem suggests that Esperanto’s purpose is also to bring about more good.

The final section, as I read it, lays bare the persona’s hand, and reveals why s/he has been obsessing over purple martins. The persona bemoans Esperanto’s “competitor” languages – “Interlingua, / Klingon, Java & various cryptophasic tongues” (92-93) – and declares that Esperanto needs to produce an epic in order to be saved. The remainder of the poem is devoted to describing what this epic should entail. Before launching into this description, however, the persona mentions what the epic ought to do for humankind: “Through its grandeur / & homegrown humility, it will spur men / to freeze the mutating patios so the children / of our children’s children may dwell in this song / & find comfort in its true texture & frame” (94-99). The imagined Esperanto epic will accomplish what all great art should – comfort people through its greatness, its “true texture & frame,” and benefit them thereby. In this manner, the work of writing the epic is likened to the act of building houses for purple martins. Both are ultimately charitable works, done for the benefit of others.

I realize you could probably read the poem as a critique of Esperanto if you were so inclined. The lazy protagonist who never accomplishes anything, talks a big game but never follows through, and doesn’t even grasp the language s/he purports to champion could well be a caricature of the Esperantist. But I read Reddy’s poem as an explanation of what motivates the Esperantist. It is less a fixation on proper grammar than it is a philanthropic outlook. For every language has a grammar that would-be linguists can dissect, but few languages have a mission behind them.