Thursday, 14 December 2017

Felica Esperanto Tago (Happy Esperanto Day)

The Rainbow Pride flag with the international symbol for Esperanto, a green star.
Tomorrow is one of the lesser-known annual worldwide celebration - Esperanto Day, often called Zamenhof Day after the language’s creator. Esperanto is 230 years old this year and, like everything else, has followers in the lgbt community.

Let’s have a look at two gay men who are leading figures in the world of Esperanto. One was President of the World Esperanto Association and the other was the founder of the League of Homosexual Esperantists.

John Christopher (or JC as he is usually known) Wells was born in 1939 in Bootle, Merseyside, an area of England known for it’s distinctive regional accent. He was raised in Lancashire and Derbyshire. Wells’ interest in languages began when he was at primary school. He started to learn French and when he started at prep school, Latin. He left school with “O” levels (school education certificates) in French, Latin and Greek.

It was after leaving school at the age of 16 that Wells became interested in Esperanto. With an obvious talent for learning languages he became fluent quite quickly, and is also a talent which manifested itself in another area of spoken language – phonetics.

At the very heart of every language is the way it sounds. You may recognise German or Chinese even if you don’t understand it. Phonetics gives a scientific approach to how a language is spoken, even within regional pronunciations of the same word. Esperanto uses the phonetics of languages that have common origins to produce a language that sounds relatively familiar to them all. JC Wells learnt a specific form of phonetic writing when he was at Cambridge University which was at one time common among secretarial students, shorthand. It helped him to develop a form of phonetic writing which is the international standard for recording pronunciation. Wells’s fascination for phonetics led to him studying the subject as an undergraduate at University College London (UCL), where he went on to become a lecturer and Head of the Phonetics and Linguistics Department.

JC Wells’ PhD dissertation was on the Jamaican dialect in London, later published in 1973. This was a result of his relationship at the time with a West Indian, and later on with a native of Montserrat, Gabriel, who became his civil partner.

From 1958 Wells attended many international Esperanto conferences around Europe. Several years later he realised that the Esperanto-English dictionaries in print were somewhat outdated. So he compiled a new one which was published in 1969.

In 1971 Wells became a member of the Academy of Esperanto, and between 1989 and 1995 was President of the World Esperanto Association. His work on phonetics has influenced the whole field of philology (the study of languages) and he was responsible for revising the system of symbols used to teach phonetics worldwide – the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s often how the pronunciation of words is given on Wikipedia. Wells continues to write on phonetics in his retirement.

The Ligo de Samseksamaj Geesperantistoj (the League for Homosexual Esperantists or LSG) celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It was founded in 1977 by Peter Dunning (1928-2002). Peter was born in Berlin and his family were among the few lucky ones able to escape Germany in 1937.

Peter became an enthusiastic Esperantist and joined the Esperanto Association of Britain. He was one of many British Esperantists who, as well as J. C. Wells, attended many international conferences.

After recognising that a large number of Esperantists were gay Peter decided there was enough interest to found an lgbt group in 1977, the LSG, which gained recognition from the Esperanto Association of Britain. Peter ran the LSG virtually single-handedly from the beginning from his home in Twickenham, which he also ran as a guest house, and later from his flat in Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey.

By the time he had moved to Richmond the LSG had members in 40 different countries. Local groups met regularly in most of them. In 1990 the LSG asked to be formally incorporated with the World Esperanto Association. This was granted, though not without the inevitable opposition from committee members who were traditionalist Esperantists and from countries where homosexuality was illegal.

Peter Dunning was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s and he lessened his workload as the illness took its toll. He died in October 2002.

The legacy Peter left was of a vibrant international lgbt Esperanto group which attends the World Esperanto Conferences on a regular basis. In 2010 the Chief Executive Officer of the World Esperanto Association, Osmo Buller, declared that the conference could not be held in any country where homosexuality is illegal.

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