In a recent interview with for the Language Learning Gets Personal series on the Smart Language Learner blog, I mentioned that I have no use for constructed languages because they have no native culture. As per usual, anything I say about Esperanto seems to stir up controversy, and this example was certainly no exception.
One example can be found on the blog of my dear friend Agnieszka Gorońska, who makes the argument that because Esperanto has movies and books and songs, it must have a culture. (Ignoring the fact that most of the examples she gives are more of the typical Esperanto theme that I hate: the only way people use Esperanto seems to be for the purpose of discussing Esperanto.)
But for the purpose of whether or not Esperanto has a culture, let's first figure out what it would mean to have a culture:
What is culture?
Adamson Hoebel describes culture as an integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance. That's a pretty good start. And it already calls in to question the existence of an Esperanto culture.
But let's expand the idea. When we think of a culture, many things come to mind:
Certain cuisines can be easily attributed to certain cultures. It's easy to identify pierogi as Polish, döner as Turkish, pilaf as Uzbek, and sushi as Japanese. And what is currywurst if not inextricable from German culture?
Superstitions are also a key part of culture. Russians refuse to leave an empty bottle on a table, it must be removed. Americans "knock on wood" when they want to prevent bad fortune, and Italians touch metal (tocca ferro).
Clothing has very cultural significance. People everywhere recognize lederhosen as Germanic, berets as French, turbans as Sikh, saris as Indian, and kimonos as Japanese. The phrase "traditional Chinese clothing" conjures a specific image in your mind.
Different cultures also have different rules for social interaction. In certain cultures, it is considered rude to let someone see the bottom of your foot. In some cultures, making a circle with your thumb and forefinger means "okay", while in others it is a severe insult.
And almost every culture has its own rules about the significance of certain numbers. They even have different ways of counting money!
So what about Esperanto?
So what are some traditional Esperanto dishes? I know of no inherently Esperanto foods.
And garb? Other than indicating your Esperanto-ness to others by donning a green star, I am aware of no traditionally Esperanto attire.
Is there a customary Esperanto handshake? Is there any well-known Esperanto superstition? Are there any hand gestures that are known to be offensive only to Esperantists? I believe the answer to all of those questions is no.
When I google for "American culture", or "Italian culture", or "Russian culture", I find endless resources. Lists of traits that make a culture. And while some would argue that most of my criteria for culture are geographical, or political, it's not true. One can just as easily find most of these things true of "Jewish culture", or "gypsy culture", or "African-American culture."
However, when searching the web for examples of Esperanto culture, one only finds apologist texts, explaining that Esperanto culture is the antithesis of traditional culture. By that measure, Esperanto is a counterculture.
The only consistent "evidence" of culture anyone can provide is the amount of texts written in Esperanto. The only "cultural" symbol is the green star. The only behavior associated with Esperanto is the distaste for "crocodiling" — which refers to the act of speaking one's native language when amongst Esperantists. But all of these things are utilitarian. They're not tradition, they're done for a purpose, that usually being the purpose of evangelizing Esperanto.
I would argue that culture is not political, but rather is the product of history shared by a community. But unlike typical colocated communities, Esperantoland is dispersed, so there isn't enough interaction or shared experience to create culture. It's only after Esperanto communities start to form stable populations using Esperanto as a primary, or only, language that any culture will begin to form.
I'm not saying it can't happen, but I'm saying it hasn't yet. As far as I am concerned, Esperanto does not have a culture.
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