Een wereldtaal, De geschiedenis van het Esperanto

By Marc van Oostendorp

Not so long ago I hacked languages instead of painting applications, and I cannot, in fact, promise that I’ll never hack languages again. And not programming languages, but human languages. I’ve invented quite a few languages for my invented world, the setting of two novels that I’m trying
to sell. I’ve had the languages bug since I first discovered that our school grammar of French wasn’t all that well laid out and could be improved upon. Later I learned about Tolkien, about Roland Tweehuysen (but not Mark Okrand — I never was a trekkie). I joined a club of people interested in designing imaginary countries, worlds and languages.

And then, one day, I found myself studying Sinology in Leyden, and still hacking away on Denden. I was outed (hacking languages was decidedly uncool in those days) and one day a journo from the Leyden University rag, Mare, asked me whether I wanted to tell something about this weirdo hobby, inventing languages. I pliantly complied, something I’d never do nowadays.

I said I invented languages for fun, because it was a creative endeavor, and also because playing with languages helped me understand how languages work, which came in handy, since I wanted to go on and study comparative linguistics of the Sino-Tibetan languages. And then the dreaded Esperanto questions was posed.

“Why invent another invented language if there was already Esperanto?”

I answered I invented languages for aesthetic enjoyment, not to improve the world and bring brotherhood to all mankind. Besides, Esperanto, I said, is boring, staid and ugly. I’d learned it, but not enjoyed it.

I shouldn’t have said that. There was one Esperantist left in Leyden, and he tried to start a polemic. Now I wasn’t, in those pre-Usenet, pre-blogosphere days, as experienced in the noble art of flame-warfare, so I answered back, and when he answered back again, I shrugged and
considered that in order to be an Esperantist you needed to have a really powerful reality-distortion field and ignored him from that moment on.

And I may be very much mistaken, I won’t say I’m not, but in the haze recesses of my memory the name “Marc van Oostendorp” rings a bell. Was he my opponent in Mare? The author of the book under consideration — a birthday present given me by Irina — is about the right age, and he’s an Esperantist. He’s now a researcher with the P.J. Meertens Instituut, learned Esperanto as a child and was the first Dutch professor in Interlinguistics (whatever that may be) and Esperanto at the University of Amsterdam. It may be him, and, if so, he’s done better out of linguistics than me.

Anyway, this book is perhaps written in a style that most closely resembles a high school essay, something a lot of semi-popular science books in Dutch suffer from, but it’s full of diverting anecdote and little bits of knowledge that I didn’t know previously. I’m still not tempted to drop Greek and start boning up on Esperanto, though. Esperanto is still a boring language.

PS: I even went as far as writing a complete linguistic description  application that kind of fused my need for research in Sino-Tibetan languages from Nepal and my fictional linguistics. It’s now maintained by Peter Bouda, and available at Institut für Allgemeine und Typologische Sprachwissenschaft in München. [ETA: link gone. Bummer.]

Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew

By R.K. Harrison

I usually love the language courses from the Teach Yourself series: I must have more than twenty of the little blue, black or yellow books. But Biblical Hebrew is a bad egg. Originally published in 1955, and written in a style that was dated in 1890, H&S had no business reprinting the text photographically in 1991.

  • Author: R.K. Harrison
  • Title: Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew
  • Pages: 217
  • Published: 1991 (1955)
  • Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
  • ISBN: 0-340-54916-5

Shall I be harsh? Yes, I believe I will. This particular book is useless. Disorganized, simplified in the wrong places, with useless little exercises and not nearly enough work on the difficult Hebrew script. For once I agree with the Amazon reviews unreservedly.

I’ve since then acquired Wesselius’ Korte Grammatica van het Bijbels Hebreeuws, a much better introduction, even if that book is marred by a naff audio cd with the author reading chunks of Genesis with a horrible Dutch accent.

Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible — at the Interface of Hermeneutics and Structural Analysis, Volume I: Ex. 15, Deut. 32, and Job 3

By J.P. Fokkelman

It was reading the afterword in De Psalmen that made me order this book through inter-library loan. Of course, like a fool, I started with Volume I, which is not about the psalms; I should have ordered Volume III. Still, I’m very glad I’ve dipped into this book.

  • Author: J.P. Fokkelman
  • Title: Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible — at the Interface of Hermeneutics and Structural Analysis, Volume I: Ex. 15, Deut. 32, and Job 3
  • Pages: 206
  • Published: 1998
  • Publisher: Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Van Gorcum)
  • ISBN: 90-232-3367-0

Only dipped, because it is way out of my league. I’m an innocent linguist, not a biblical scholar. My Hebrew doesn’t reach much further than recognizing the glyph for Aleph. And most of the Hebrew in this volume is given untransliterated, untranslated, unglossed. The very good translations of the three subject poems at the start of each chapter by the Jewish Publication Society of America do help, but not with the discussion itself. Of course, this book was not written for people like me, but rather for the small group of scholars in Fokkelman’s field — a pity, because his enthusiasm is infective, and I think their would be a quite wide audience for this work.

But perhaps, and I have not investigated this, Fokkelman has published more generally accessible books on this topic. Amazon lists twelve books, the most popular of which is Reading Biblical Narrative, An Introductory Guide. Hm. I’ll be ordering this next.

In any case, unable as I am to say anything worthwile about the present volume, I’m going to record my notes anyway…

When I had read the first six or so pages of the introduction, I
had the impression that the author was perhaps a bit too skilled at
what the Dutch call ‘inlegkunde’ — the ability to see meaning,
plot, intent and whatever where there is nothing much really except
accident. In the case of literary works, this danger is ever prevalent
because authors don’t, in my experience, conciously shape their work
to conform to numerical, structural designs. Sentences happen, and
that they show up in a pattern is because the human mind works
unconciously in patterns.

Then, from page seven or eight, when the author started giving
actual examples, I was grabbed. Fokkelman had convinced me by then,
mostly through his incredibly infective enthusiasm. Here is a scholar
who manages even when being engaged in the most strenuous
syllable-counting never to lose sight of the literary quality of the
work he is working on; he keeps his sense of awe throughout. Dash it,
I want to learn Hebrew just to read these poems in the original
language. But they are difficult, as Fokkelman acknowledges, and
Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew only gives the student the
rudiments of biblical prose. So that’s a wash-out, probably.

It’s a book for dipping into, not reading straight from beginning to end; the extended arguments and analyses are beyond me, but even I recognize that they are engaging and cogent.