The tongues of Frankenstein (about conlangs)

Esperanto, Dothraki, Klingon or New Latin. We men have been playing God and creating our own artificial tongues. If we got kicked out from the Garden of Eden because of an apple, I guess this is worth a new flood.

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[Lee este post en castellano aquí]

How many things are there which we don’t know?! The concepts that nowadays are simple to us, were great ideas once. How many things do we have straight in front of us but we can’t see them yet? The brilliance is not about describing the gravity law, but about realizing that objects fall downwards and that, maybe, this shouldn’t be necessarily that way (and it wasn’t Newton who realized!). So, at what point of our existence did we realize that languages were arbitrary, that we could use different words and a different grammar? Let’s not forget that old Greek -so wise and stuff- used to call foreigners barbarians, a word meaning those who babble, those who can’t speak a proper language and try to imitate  us with their empty gibberish.

Creating languages has something to do with creating laws. In the past, during Paleolithic Era, there weren’t written rules, and the will of the leader came into force under the power given by an undeniable physical superiority. That is to say, do what I say or I’ll kick your ass. Later, big empires and writing systems appeared. Then the king didn’t have to go personally to your place to give you a bash, he could write down the law so other people, in his name, could fulfil the duty of making you suffer. Thus is how written rules were born.

At this point the epiphinay takes place: If the law is what is written there… can’t we change it by simply changing the written words?

That happened with languages too. It’s not an easy process, the one in which you come to think that you can create a new language. The revelation happens when someone writes down the vocabulary and the grammar of an actual language and someone else feels the urge of sorting it out, changing the language laws as if changing the men laws, the same way a programming code is changed.

 

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Esperanto, the language of world peace

“Eĉ guto malgranda, konstante frapante, tralaboras la monton granitan”

(Even the small drop, constantly hitting, drills the granite mount)

-L. L. Zamenhof-

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Author: Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof
Year: 1887
Speakers: Between 200.000 and 2.000.000
Estimated learning time: After one year you have a C2 level*
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zamenhof

Zamenhof saying “Say my name”

When you hear about conlangs (constructed languages), this is the first one (sometimes the only one) that pops out in your mind. Undoubtedly, it’s the most successful conlang. It was created by a Polish ofthalmologist in 1887 and now it’s spoken by 200.000 or 2.000.000 people, which is impressive. If we consider the lowest estimation, it means that Esperanto has more speakers than the 80% of world languages. If we consider the highest estimation, it means that it has more speakers than Basque, Estonian, Latvian or Icelandic. There are more than 4.000 literary works (translations and original works) and Wikipedia in Esperanto is the 20th in number of articles. This is normal, since usually, Esperanto speakers are high-class educated people.

Ludwik Zamenhof was a very wise man. His genius isn’t based in the making of the language, but in the way he presented it. He let a dead time for the people to get acquainted with it and embrace it before letting the First International Esperanto Congress happen. He replaced the cultural herritage (which Esperanto lacked in its first times) with some axiomatic grammar rules, which (from our point of view) wasn’t a bad idea to keep the language together. He also worked in an unviersal moral system, the Homaranismo, that would have been the philosophical counterpart of his language. He never earned a single cent from all these works. He gave up all the rights. He was an upright man who believed that his language could finish the wars between nations. Actually, the name of the langauge he created comes after the nickname he used to sign his first publication: Doktoro Esperanto, the Hopeful Doctor.

The main criticism towards Esperanto is about the words only based on European languages, its grammar not being that easy (it has articles and grammatical cases, two things that many languages do well wihout), and its phonology not being aproved for all audiences (it has standard Slavic sounds that usually cause problems to romance languages speakers, for example).

Nevertheless, the best thing about Esperanto is how far it reached without the support of any political or economic power behind it. The esperantists are knights in shining armors, swiming against the stream of a world that doesn’t understand them.

The prestige Zamenhof enjoyed in his last years was only comparable to his poberty. Too honest to make money, he got to rise three children who, years later, died  during World War II killed by the nazis.

The story of the film Incubus (1966) is also sad. It was filmed entirely in Esperanto, starring William Shatner (Captain Kirk from Star Trek). Two of its main characters commited suicide in the next years after the shooting, other suffered various family tragedies and the tape itself was lost in a fire, until 35 years later a copy was found in the Cinémathèque Français.

Esperanto resembles indoeuropean. It’s a Latin dish with Germanic garnish prepared with Slavic style. It sounds like Europe, like common herritage, like world. It sounds like past and future, like a utopic understanding dream that vanished long ago.

It sounds like this:

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Ido, chosen and forgotten

 

“Nun la tota mondo havis un linguo e komuna parol-maniero”

(All the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words)

-Babel Myth-

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Author: Louis Couturat and Louis de Beaufront
Year: 1907
Speakers: Between 100 and 200
Estimated learning time: It's even easier than Esperanto*

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Ido_Kongreso_en_Desau_1922

“Oh, f*ck! I think I closed my eyes” -A prestigious vain linguistist

After the creation of Esperanto, a piñata of conlangs appreared in order to sort out the mistakes and tie the loose ends let by Zamenhof or just in order to make it funnier. Some of these esperantidos (the offspring of Esperanto) are the Mundolico, the Romániço, the Esperanto sen Fleksio and the Reformed Esperanto, designed by Zamenhof himself and rejected by the esperantist community. Anyway, those languages came to be very useful for the Esperanto speakers because they started using them in translations of literary works in which two different variations of a language were used.

Ido has the indisputable honor of being the only conlang that has been officially chosen to be the international auxiliary language of humankind, according to the decission taken by the International Congress held at the begining of 20th century, in which a committee of sages became internationally ignored.

The tragedy of Ido is that it was chosen and forgotten, like the best candidate for a position who loses the race because the company is not following very objective criteria.

But, think about it: What are the auxiliary langauges of each era? In Western World we have had English, earlier French, earlier Spanish, earlier Latin… because these langauges had powerful empires behind them. What is behind Ido? Objective reasonable reasons? Ha! Human beings are emotional beings, on a broad scale we are slaves to the powerful, on a small scale we are slaves to our necessities. Who’s going to learn Ido when no one is asking for it on a job?

It sounds like this:

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Lojban, the cyborg language

“le nanmu cu ninmu”

(“one-or-more-specific-things-which-I-describe as ‘men’ are women” aka “This thai hooker has broad shoulders”)

-”Untranslatable” sentence from Lojban-

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Author: Logical Language Group
Year: 1987
Speakers: Between 50 and 100
Estimated learning time: After one year you have B1/B2 level*
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800px-Lojban_flag.svg
The Lojban logo, the lojlog

Once the Esperanto has been devloped and pulished, there’s not a lot of work to do with universal languages… or is there? In 1955 James Cooke Brown created Loglan (Log-ic Lan-guage) with reasearch purposes. He wanted to prove the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states, in broad strokes, that the language you speak conditions the way you think.

sapir3

“Whorf, take a picture of me, so proud after creating such an awesome hypothesis” -Sapir

Conlangs don’t have to be meant to become an international auxiliary language! The problem was that his creator wansn’t very happy about the idea of other people using his language without his permission (and not paying him money). So, in 1987, the Logical Language Group created Lojban, the free version of Loglan, taking its vocabulary from the 5 most widely spoken languages in the world: Madarin Chinese, Hindi, English, Spanish and Arabic.

Its structure is inpired by the first-order logic and doesn’t resemble very much a human language: the concepts are organized in categories. Lojban was designed to be precise and flexible, so you can use it in a more natural way or just like a programming language, as you want.

Lojbanists claim that it could be used for translation software, as a bridge tongue between two different langauges, because in Lojban you can decide what information you are including in the sentence and what you  aren’t (gender, number, tense, honorifics…)

Lojban is the languages of men and computers, the bridge language between our rational being and our natural being. It’s an ideologically and culturally neutral language, it’s the jeans of conlangs, the plain rice ready to be served with whatever you want.

It sounds like this:

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Klingon, the language of warriors (and geeks!)

“Heglu’meH QaQ jajvam”

(Today is a good day to die)

-Crazy Horse (He said it in Dakhota language, not in Klingon)-

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Author: Marc Okrand and James Doohan
Year: 1984
Speakers: About 12 fluent speakers
Estimated learning time: It's a little bit easier than learning Spanish*
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klingon che guevara
Amazed by the stuff people post on the Internet…

Once we’ve met the international and logical languages, we must move to the artistic languages or artlangs, the ones created with the purpouse of being heard or read, rather than spoken. Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki… they are bonded with cultures which are also constructed. They don’t try to fit humanity (like the ones we already talked about), they aim to fit certain imaginary creatures that live in these fictional universes.

2006-05-04-klingoncleavage

Slutty Klingon cosplay.

Klingon, the geek language par excellence, was designed for a race of extraterrestrial warriors. Indeed, it doesn’t really sound human. Also, cultural differences create a huge gap: for example, there’s no word in Klingon for kiss.

Klingon turned out to be a completely functional language, in which you can rise a child, sing a song or write a wiki (Wikipedia closed its Klingon version in 2005, but the articles are still available).

Klingon also has a high popularity in media: Sheldon Cooper speaks it fluently and Frasier gives a speech in Klingon believing it’s Hebrew (So stupid!… or not?). Mila Kunis even said that Russian sounds like Klingon… instead of Klingon sounds like Russian.

In 2013, ‘u’ was released, “the first authentic Klingon opera on Earth”. It was a big success.

It sounds like this:

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Hebrew, the awake golem

“אין אדם מת וחצי תאותו בידו”

(A man does not die with the half of his ambitions fulfilled)

-Optimistic and encouraging hebrew proverb-

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Author: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (project leader)
Year: End of 19th century
Speakers: Between 5 and 7 millions, native speakers and highly proficients
Estimated learnign time: 5 or 6 years of study to get a C1 level*

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Kosher_McDonalds

A rabbi, a priest and an imam get into a McDonald’s and have a normal lunch, they are in Jerusalem.

I couldn’t resist the temptation of including here the most successful conlang in the world, which has 5 million speakers. After its creation in 19th century, it became the linguistic success of sionism.

If you want to understand this situation you can imagine that you and your family belong to religion that is a minority in any country of the world. Anywhere you go, you belong to a minority. Imagine that you all get together and found a new country but… each one of you speaks a different language. What can you do? Imagine that you decide to resurrect Latin and use it as a natural langauge to comunicate with each other. You start teaching it in school, making TV shows in Latin… This New Latin would become the (natural) official langauge of your land after some years but… But it wasn’t the native language of anybody.

When sionism started, the most similar to a inherited langauge that Jewish people had was yiddish, a hybrid between Hebrew and German which currently is still official in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia, the communist alternative to traditional sionism.

Many languages have been “fixed” to some extent. The closest examples are German, Italian and (for us Spaniards) Basque. The difference between these language is that Hebrew was already dead when they relaunched it. Basque got its mouth-to-mouth resucitation when it was at death’s door, Hebrew was exhumed and resurrected with voodoo.

This language, which, by the way, uses the Sephardi standards for phonetics (from the Spanish Jews), is nowadays completely healthy and is the mother tongue of milliions of people (including Natalie Portman).

It sounds like this:

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Interlingua, the Latin from the future

“Si tu pote comprender un lingua sin haber lo studiate antea, allora illo es un bon selection pro un lingua internationa”

(If you can understand a language that you’ve never studied before, then it’s a good choice for an international language)

-Text chosen more or less randomly-

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Author: International Auxiliary Language Association
Year: 1924
Speakers: About 2.000
Estimated learning time: After 6 month you would have a C1/C2 level*
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eng-spa

The coloured countries have a Romance Language or English as official language (maybe among others).

Who said New Latin? Actually there have been many projects to resurrect the giant. Sometimes in its most humungous form, sometimes with an improved renovated version: Latin 2.0.

This is not a mere trifle. Near one billion people speak a romance language as mother tongue. If we also count all the people who speak French, Spanish, Portuguese… as a second language; and also all the English speakers (in English 60% of words have a Latin origin); and also all the languages that have lots of Latin words in them… Then we can say that a resurrected Latin is a good starting point for the creation of an international auxiliary language.

Latino sine Flexione, Lingua Franca Nova and even Esperanto itself were more or less good projects, but Interlingua is the most professional and also the easiest. Most Europeans can understand passively Interlingua texts (even if they never learnt it before). This feature is exclusive of Interlingua (at least to that extent). It was designed by professional linguists and you can tell it.

Interlingua is the porsche of conlangs. Traditional design with the power of the digital era.

Since this is my blog and I can say whatever I want, I will tell you that, from my humble point of view, this is the best candidate for a constructed international auxiliary language. It has its weak points (it’s mainly based on Latin only), but trying to fix them would bring much more. It’s beautiful, it’s graceful, it’s smooth and strong. Like a majestic deer, like a bunker made of bamboo.

It sounds like this:

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Toki Pona, the simplest language

“sin en ante li sin e lawa li pana e sona”

(Novelty and change freshen the mind and bring insight)

-jan Sonja-

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Author: Sonja Ellen Kisa
Year: 2001
Speakers: Between 50 and 200 people use it often on the Internet
Estimated learning time: Less than a week
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34y7l06

“There’s no spoon” (Tool eating be-present not)

If all this is encouraging you to creat your own conlang, forget about it. You don’t have a chance! The markes is cornered. Esperanto is awesome, because it already has a large community of speakers and a lot of literature… Ido is the most neutral, Interlingua is the most understandable, Lojban is the most logical… If you want to place your prodcut, it’s going to be very hard, unless you do something really new.

This is what Sonja Ellen Kisa did. She is a canadian linguist who could see beyond the existing conlangs and, inspired by daoism and primitivism, created a language focused on simplicity. It’s true that Esperanto and Interlingua are already simple, but jan Sonja (her nickname among Toki Pona community, meaning “person Sonja”) reached the edge.

She removed, removed and removed; took the simplest concepts from every language she knew, put them together and simplified, simplified and simplified. In Toki Pona there are no R or F, becasue they are too similar to L and P (respectively). There are only two numbers: one and two. No genders, no articles, no tenses, no cases, no plurals, no courtesy forms… Just 123 words (in which an interjection and an onomatopoeia are included) for a language that is totally functioning.

Thus, Toki Pona is more like an excercise for mind: you have to focus on the deep meaning of what you want to say, distill the esential sense of the words. No ornaments, no additives; demagogy is structurally impossible, euphemisms are highly unlikely.

jansonjalimama

Toki Pona hieroglyphic writing designed by Jonathan Gabel to be cute. It means “jan Sonja li mama pi toki pona”, that is, “jan Sonja is the creator of Toki Pona”.

This langauge was designed to be cute, sweet and lovely. Instead of building its vocabulary from big important languages, it’s inspired in languages that its creator likes (Old French, Esperanto, Dutch, Finish, Cantonese and Tok Pisin -a crazy hodgepodge of language from New Guinea). It has many words based on onomatopoeias: lili (small), unpa (sex), moku (eat) or pipi (bug). Reading a description of its grammar makes me feel the same emotions than a baby dressed like a teddy bear.

Above all, I like Toki Pona becasue of the philosophy within it: focusing on simple, important stuff; getting rid of what is superfluous… It’s the only languge from this post that I can actually speak.

It sounds like this:

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Ithkuil, the tongue of the gods

Aukkras  êqutta  ogvëuļa  tnou’elkwa  pal-lši  augwaikštülnàmbu

(An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly-integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically)

-Description of the painting “Nu descendant un escalier, No. 2″ by Marcel Duchamp-

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Author: John Quijada
Year: 2004
Speakers: 0
Estimated learnign time: Probabbly unlearnable
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marcel-duchamp-nu-descendant-un-escalier-1912

Nu descendant un escalier, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp (But probabbly you didn’t need to see it after such a good description)

If Toki Pona stands out because of its simplicity, Ithkuil is diametrically opposite. What jan Sonja did in (more or less) one year, John Quijada did it in more than 30 years (including dense revisions).

This language is a beautiful monstrosity, a giant so huge that can only be percieved in little portions. Not even Quijada himself is able to speak it and claims that it takes to him about 10 minutes to build a simple sentence in Ithkuil.

Original Ithkuil had 65 consonantal sounds (English has 24, Spanish 17) and 17 vowels (English has 12, Spanish 5). There are 92 grammatical cases (English has none, Latin had 7, Estonian has 14, and those are a lot). Verbs have an impossible amount of tenses that describe details like: Is the action pursuing an aim? Is there any evidence supporting the fact? What is the emotinal attitude of the speaker towards the action described by the verb? What are the relations between the possible multiple entities that perform the verb action? And, on the top of everything, Ithkuil works in base 100.

What John Quijada was trying to do was to lift the human thinking to the next level, by giving it a better thinking tool. Now it seems that the hardware we have doesn’t support that software. It’s like trying to install Assasin’s Creed IV on a Game Boy Color.

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*Obviously, the time you will need to learn a language will depend on many factors: your mother tongue, the langauges you know, the material you’re using, how interested you are, your enviroment and (oh! surprise!) your own skills. The estimations have been made with my own experience and other students’, who have talked about it on the Internet.

**Of course, there are many languages that I didn’t speak about: Modern Indoeuropean, Volapük, Dothraki, the conlang projects by Descartes and Newton… Maybe the best conlangs still remain unknown for me. But, what about you? Have you ever tried to learn a conlang? Or even better, have you ever created one? Or maybe you are one of these people who think that designing and studying conlangs is stupid when so many real languages are still out there?

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11 thoughts on “The tongues of Frankenstein (about conlangs)

  1. cizypij. says:

    Thank you for posting this! I love invented languages and I have shared this blog post with several subreddits on Reddit.

  2. jared says:

    Angos is a really cool one and i wish it would get a little more attention…

  3. Fun post, but just a comment about artlangs: the artlangs you mention, the ones that are associated with a constructed culture, are just the tip of the iceberg. They are the most visible, especially when they are associated with a successful franchise like Star Trek, but they hide a much bigger and more varied group of conlangs than most people realise. In fact, the majority of artlangers don’t create languages to accompany a work of fiction, but rather for the fun of constructing a language itself! When a constructed culture accompanies the language, it’s often the language that gave birth to the culture rather than the other way round (in fact, that’s exactly how Tolkien did it: his first interest was the languages he was creating, and the whole Elvish world and culture was just an afterthought, created to give an environment where his languages would be spoken!).
    And don’t forget personal languages, that are very much a subgroup of artlangs, and are not meant to be associated with a constructed culture. Rather, they reflect a single person’s aesthetics and need to express themself in the way they find fits their thoughts best.
    Really, artlangs are much more than just languages created for works of fiction!
    And by the way, there is no “market” to corner in conlanging. We create languages for the fun of it, not because we want to become rich and famous (although that could be nice ;) ). Like any other form of art, the only justification there should be in someone’s conlanging is that they *want* to do it.

    • cacomanrique says:

      Wow. I love hwo this post is bringing so many interesting comments!

      So… first of all I think I must apologize for my English. This post is just a translation from the original one, in Spanish… and I msut admit that I didn’t pay much attention to it, I didn’t care much about the style, and simply brought the Spanish words into English. Actually I did it just for my international friends to understand what I was talking about, I didn’t expect so many international visitors! : )

      I actually don’t know any artlang that isn’t bonded to a fiction work. Well… Maybe Toki Pona was originally (or still) an artlang, since its creator never wanted it to bo an international auxlang.

      I’m learning A LOT from these coments (both in Spanish and English version), so maybe I will finally change all the post… Hahahaha!

      And, yes, thanks for highlighting it! I didn’t mean that there is a “conlanging market”, I was just being funny, I was trying to make people realize how many languages have already been created and how different and diverse they are. I’m usually the guy who does something and everybody asks “Whatt’s the point of it?”, so, yes, I understand that someone’s will is more than enough for creating a conlang (or comic, or poem, or painting, or whatever!).

      Thanks again for such a valuable comment!!!

      • Don’t worry about your English. I think it’s fine :). I checked the Spanish version as well, but I’m just not comfortable enough in Spanish to reply in it.

        If you want an artlang that isn’t bonded to a fiction work, you don’t have to look any further than my blog! :P For other examples, check for instance the languages of David Peterson, and I mean the ones he created *before* he became famous with Dothraki (they can be found here: http://dedalvs.com/). None was intended to be accompanied with a conculture, much less to be used in a work of fiction. Truly, such artlangs are the majority out there. They just don’t have the publicity Dothraki, Klingon or Na’vi enjoy (nor do most of the creators of those artlangs actually want the publicity :P ).

        If you want to learn more about conlanging, both historically and about the modern conlanging community, there is always the book In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent. It’s currently the best one of its kind out there. You can find more info about it here: http://inthelandofinventedlanguages.com/. And of course, I am obligated to mention the Language Creation Society (http://conlang.org/), if only because I am the President of this organisation ;).

        Finally, yes, I realise you were tongue-in-cheek with your comment about the conlang market. I just didn’t want readers to get the idea that the conlanging community is a competitive market, when it actually contains some of the most helpful and good-natured people I’ve ever met :).

        Cheers!

  4. neilnachum says:

    Nice Overview. I’m the UN representative for the Esperanto community. When we opened up the office decades ago Ralph Harry was the Ambassador of Australia in New York City at the UN, and continued to be a leading Esperantist till his death. http://www.esperanto-un.org

    • cacomanrique says:

      It’s awesome that people from the Esperanto world are posting comments here! I was so afraid about not knowing enough…

  5. I consider myself as an Esperanto-speaker rather than an “Esperantist” but would like to comment.
    I see that President Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language, but which one should it be?
    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish.
    Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese and Hindi out of the equation.
    I think it’s time to move forward and teach common language, in all schools, and in all nations.
    As a native English speaker, my vote is for Esperanto. Your readers may also be interested in http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670
    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

    • cacomanrique says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. The little things I know about Esperanto, I learnt them in lernu.net : D

      But, I couldn’t access to that video, it seems the link isn’t working anymore. Can you post it again, please?

    • cacomanrique says:

      Q ed zongvqlñxa

  6. Bill Chapman says:

    I’m not sure that Ido was “officially chosen”. It was chosen by a small group in Paris in the early years of the last century. Esperanto, on the other hand, was chosen by the ordinary people. I see Esperanto as a remarkable success story. It has survived wars and revolutions and economic crises and continues to attract people to learn and speak it. Esperanto works. I’ve used it in speech and writing in about seventeen countries over recent years. I recommend it to anyone, as a practical way of making friendly local contacts in other countries.

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