The Language of Dreams
Imagination is the ability of the mind's eye to see things that have never been, and that perhaps can never be. It is the ability to dream while awake. Language is the magic by which humanity becomes conscious of itself and becomes one with itself. It is the bridge between people's dreams.
To dream is to stare at the stars, and see our gods and heroes stare back at us. It is to gaze at the moon and see the future. Our dreams and their meaning survive in our mythology, our poetry, our art. And so do our fears and nightmares.
We mythologize the things that transform our lives: earthquakes and hurricanes, volcanoes and conflagrations, storms and oceans, rivers and floods, famine and disease, war and love, birth and death, fire and language. Language is no less a Promethean gift than fire — perhaps more so.
Be amused that the secret of fire was stolen from the gods and shared with humanity by a thief — through the use of language.
Most of our language-myths see our six thousand languages as a curse inflicted upon humanity for some transgression, or as a consequence of a deluge visited upon us in the oldest Babylonian poems because the gods thought us too noisy. But, there is one myth that stands apart. The Kunwinju people believe that a goddess from dreamtime gave each of her children a distinct language to play with. As far as we know, this is the only myth that sees language not as a human invention, and that sees diversity of language not as a divine punishment, but as gifts from the realm of dreams.
Children are meant to dream and to play, eventually they learn to play with fire. Adults are children that have lost their vitality, their inner fire — children that have slowly become overburdened by the relentless gravity of life.
Esperanto is a young language — barely out of infanthood — a growing linguistic fire. The language , not yet caught in the gravitational field of its own history, is light, nearly weightless. Easy to learn, but not simplistic. Regular, but not inflexible.
Like life on this planet, national languages are organisms that have evolved — slowly and haphazardly — in the ecosystem of the collective national mind. And like all life on this planet, their only requirement for existence is to survive and to propagate — they need have neither beauty nor elegance.
Through the single-minded lense of evolution there is no difference between a city of tens of millions of thoughtful, curious, artful human beings, and an ant-hill with hundreds of millions of mindless ants. And just like any species, a national language is as it is — it changes slowly with the death of old generations and the birth of new ones, it moves slowly with waves of history and culture, and any advantages over other languages are the results of lucky draws from the evolutionary deck of cards.
National languages are complex by accident rather than by design, and this makes them difficult to learn and nearly impossible to master, for those unlucky enough to be born outside the community of speakers. All literature is crafted from the linguistic materials that are on hand — all literature is a struggle in translating image and thought into symbol and sound.
Esperanto is crafted from the same fluid substance that we use to make our stories and our math and our poetry. Like any other magnum opus, Esperanto — as an aesthetic work of artful fabrication and imaginative invention — can provoke thought and self reflection, and invigorate the human spirit. Esperanto is a transparently thin layer of ice over the ocean of our dreams.
Let us close with a concrete example. Most thought is metaphor, and good metaphors exhibit symmetry. Some metaphors cannot be expressed directly in a national language like English — they must be translated into a phrase that is consistent with the rules and idioms of English. When writing the previous paragraphs, I had in mind the rootedness and heaviness of national languages, and the weightlessness and freedom of Esperanto. It would not be wrong to compare national languages to great trees, and Esperanto to a soaring bird. Trees are nourished by the earth and shackled to it by their roots, while birds fly using their wings.
To express this difference in character using a short phrase — rather than the three previous sentences — we would say the following in Esperanto: naciaj lingvoj radikas, sed Esperanto flugilas. Because any part of speech can be turned into any other part of speech (i.e. nouns can become verbs can become adjectives can become adverbs etc), we — very directly and effortlessly — translate what is in our mind into a coherent sentence by verbing the essential anatomical aspects of trees and birds. The "root" is radiko, and its present-tense verb-form is radikas (i.e. to-root or to-do-as-roots-do). The "wing" is flugilo, and its present-tense verb-form is flugilas (i.e. to-wing or to-do-as-wings-do). You will notice that in American English "winging" and "rooting" have nothing to do with the gliding of wings or burrowing of roots — things get even more awkward when you realize that the latter means something else in Australian English.
To properly translate this into English you might at first say: national languages have roots, but Esperanto has wings. After a little bit of thought, you might refine the English version into: national languages take root, but Esperanto takes flight.
This post is the first part in a series on why someone should learn Esperanto — and this series is also the first series in a set of series about various aspects of Esperanto. If you want to get these in your inbox, subscribe to the newsletter.