A talk by Harry Harrison

Recorded by Paul Tomlinson at Conspiracy '87,
45th World Science Fiction Convention,
Metropole Exhibition Centre, Brighton, England.
Thursday 27th August 1987.

Hall Four of the Metropole Hotel was the smallest venue for panel discussions at the Convention, and the most squalid, (save for the bowels of the hotel which had been set aside for fan rooms). Unfortunately, the programmes put on in Hall 4 proved to be some of the most popular, with all available floorspace sat and stood upon.

Harry's second appearance at the Con (his first, immediately prior, was with Brian Aldiss on How to Write a Best Seller) in Hall 4 was for a one-man-show in the Third Programme, called The Stainless Steel Rat Speaks Esperanto, a title doubtless given to attract Stainless Steel Rat fans to what was intended to be a fairly straight talk on Esperanto.

The room was packed. People were turned away, so I was told later, with mutterings about 'fire regulations' and the doors being locked. But everyone who turned up, attracted by the title, stayed anyway, so there was no need to lock them in!

Harry appeared relaxed throughout, alone in front of the audience. He spoke without notes and frequently side-tracked into humorous anecdotes, but always pursuing a logical thread - telling his audience exactly what he'd intended to tell them and keeping them entertained along the way.

What follows is a fairly literal transcription from my tape recording of the talk - I've taken some liberties, rearranging a couple of sections to provide a more linear flow, and I've had to cut some lines which were indecipherable on the tape, or which wouldn't translate into written form.

Brian Aldiss stayed over from the Drunkworld panel and introduced this second one as "a comparatively sober talk on Esperanto" and went on to say:

BRIAN ALDISS: "...I'd just like to read this by way of introduction:


So a little later on he's instilling fear into the men, and he says this:

Need I tell you?... The Stainless Steel Rat is back again. Who else could have written that but Harry?


Harry thanked Brian Aldiss as he left for his reading of "those deathless lines" and then turned to the audience:

Harry proudly displays his t-shirt to the audience, it has The Stainless Steel Rat written across it.

HARRY HARRISON: That was from The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted... and it's the cleanest part of the book! (AUDIENCE LAUGHTER) It goes rapidly down hill from there. I'll confide in you, there's a scene in that book which is absolutely true, it happened to me when I was drafted... and I cleaned it up! (LAUGHTER)

He looks conspiratorially around the audience.

HH: You're all over eighteen, I can tell you what happens when you get drafted....

No I won't. That's another story altogether, we're being serious here.


The RAT speaks Esperanto like a native.


HH: A few years ago I put the address of a number of the Esperanto societies in the back of one of the RAT books - American, German, English... and a lot of letters came in, and a number, of them said 'There ain't really no such thing as Esperanto, is there?'... which tells you one thing about science fiction readers: how suspicious they are!

There is a language called Esperanto. I can prove it, here is a textbook in Esperanto: Esperanto for Beginners by Montague C. Butler... English, I think. And that costs thirty pence, and I have a few here I'll give away for nothing. Over two pounds' worth. My generosity is overwhelming!

Years ago in the army I was given a brochure very much like this:

Learn Esperanto in 17 Easy Lessons. I was in the army and I was teaching gunnery, the most boring job in the world - shooting a gun! So I started studying it, and after a while got very involved... travelling Europe with it. It really is a very easy second language.

The Esperanto movement is international, it breeds international co-operation... it was virtually wiped out during the war - the Nazis were against it, the Stalinists were against. it, and the Americans were totally indifferent! After the war the build-up began, so that now we have national organisations and international ones in just Esperanto, then you have local groups, inter-nation groups - capitalist Esperantists, socialist Esperantists, vegetarian Esperantists... (He feigns indignation at the audience laughter at this last)... I kid you not! The world knows no bounds.

I have a great interest in languages, as well as in science fiction, and the two of them finally met in The Stainless Steel Rat books. I use them (languages) when I do a novel. On another planet... the easiest thing is to use a foreign language... I go to my dictionary, I have thousands of dictionaries, and on one planet they'll all be speaking Turkish...

An aside here. Do you know what the Turkish word is for science fiction?... I got a Turkish fan magazine, in English, and it said 'Science fiction is very hard to pronounce' so they translated it into Turkish, and the Turkish word for science fiction is ----- (It sounds like 'Umpurguu' on the tape, if you want to know what it really is, you'll have to ask Harry! -Paul). Which is better than the German! In most places it's been taken over linguistically, the name, even the French call it science fiction. The Germans held out the longest. They're a very analytical people... a lot of science fiction novels were translated into German in the fifties and sixties and were called 'Raumreisen' which anyone who speaks German will know is 'space travel'; and 'technische-romans' and 'Utopisch-romans' and 'technischer kriminalroman' when they came to The Stainless Steel Rat... finally the Germans gave up too and now it's science fiction! And the only ones who have done a much better job are the Italians... everything sounds better in Italian, you know, you can sing 21, 22, 23 in Italian and it sounds like an opera (He does so to prove his point!)... In Italian it's 'Fantascienza'... it kind of makes you wish Hugo Gernsback had spoken Italian... it wouldn't have been what he wanted, 'scientifiction'.

There have been 600 artificial languages invented, or more. There have been things like Latino Sine Flexione... 'latin without cases', you know. And one called, believe it or not, Volapuk and that one did very well, they corresponded for a year or two in this language. and then they had a meeting in, I think, Vienna... and they talked French! (Laughter). The language was incomprehensible. And there was a thing called 'Basic English' which some of you may remember, which died an early death.

Esperanto is a simple second language, and it works...

Last year, my wife and I went to China for the first ever annual congress of the Universal Esperanto Society held outside the West. It was the biggest international cultural affair ever held in China and there were over 4,000 Esperantists there from 42 countries... The Forbidden City had little green flags and signs over the doors in Esperanto.

If you go to the World Congress in Europe and people don't speak Esperanto, you can speak to them in French or German, but here we were up in the Orient with a lot of Koreans and a lot of Japanese... to the Japanese learning Esperanto is easier than learning English, because the word order isn't important.

One anecdote, which is not very important, but... you can eavesdrop in Esperanto! I came down to breakfast, and I'm really very bad at breakfast, don't talk to anybody, and they had some eggs fried with waffles... like eggs on a piece of prairie dung... and a huge dish with noodles... noodle soup for breakfast? And I got some food and I sat at a table with these strange people, and I said 'Bonan tagon', 'Bonan tagon' - good day, good day... and sat there noshing away, and I could hear these two people next to me talking Esperanto, both Oriental. One guy said: 'I'm Korean, you know, my first time in China... I'm a bachelor of...' something or other... mind you, he didn't say it in English, I hope you're getting the point, I'm translating! I could do it in Esperanto, but you wouldn't understand it... but by the time this talk is over, you'll be speaking it!

The Chinese guy said 'I'm an English teacher and I learned Esperanto because the Esperantists came here... And I teach in a small village 4,000 miles from Beijing, never seen the ocean in my life... never seen Beijing...' and he went on, and he said: 'never met westerners before, you know, and I hate western breakfasts!' And I looked up for the first time and there he was eating with a chopstick, and he'd speared a piece of dry toast and was eating it (Demonstrates eating round the edge of bread!)... It may have some cultural significance, I don't know!

As to science fiction... After I started writing, after I started writing it into the paperbacks, having a lot of fun, the growth of interest in Esperanto rose dramatically in England and America and Germany. In America two out of three letters for information came from Rat fans, asking do they exist, that was the first question...

Then one day. I'm sitting at the computer, typing in English, and the 'phone rings and a voice says: 'Bonan tagon, sinjoro Harrison'... somebody from the Esperanto Association, I get that (can't comprehend so quickly...), it was the President of the World Association, and we were chatting and I was trying to think... and any of you who speak one or two languages know that thinking in one and writing in another, a gear has to be thrown... and I said you know, why are you calling me at 10 o'clock in the morning on a work day? And he said 'Would you like to become a patron of Esperanto?' And I said, Yeah, sounds good, what's involved? He said you get a free paper and free membership for life... and I thought, sounds pretty good, What do you have to do to be an honorary patron of Esperanto, and he said, and I quote: "You've got to speak Esperanto and be world famous!" (LAUGHTER)... That's me, ladies and gentlemen! (Applause).

In the Esperanto Yearbook they list, for propaganda purposes, the Honorary Patrons - about ten or fifteen of them. There's Sir Ralph Harry, the Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, there's two members of the Supreme Soviet in China, there's the President of the Ipsaw University, there's the unofficial head of the Senate in Sweden, who's the only person in Sweden who can fire the president and the king! (Laughter)... Can Maggie Thatcher do that? (Laughter). In the yearbook among all these presidents of universities and ambassadors and chairman of the communist party of Russia, there's my name, and it says 'World famous science fiction writer'...For what it's worth!

It's a simple language that we all should speak. The idea is that you should learn a simple second language... that we can all learn and do away with the linguistic barriers. The Chinese did it, the Chinese can do anything. There are a lot of Esperantists there and they teach it...

When I was in China I learned a frightening figure; because English is the language of tourism, there are now more Chinese learning English than there are Americans who speak it!

("There aren't any Americans who speak it!" Someone calls)

HH: (Mimics) He said it in a Birmingham accent too! 'Two nations divided by a common language', we know!... Until you get to India. To hear Indians speak English... there are third generation speakers who were born there who have only heard English spoken by second generation speakers who were born there, can you believe that?... It gets very tricky... But it's a very difficult language to learn.

Esperanto is basically a very easy language to learn. It's easy to learn initially, and you can go on for as long as you want. If you speak one European language, and I assume everyone here does... roughly! You know 50% of the roots; if you speak two European languages you know 95% of the roots. Which means you're all home free. If you're Danish, you know all the roots...

If you think back, the Danes invaded England because it needed invading pretty badly... and they made great impact on the English language. The English word for bread is 'bread', as most of you know, and it comes from the Danish word 'brud'; the English word 'stool' comes from the Danish 'stol'; the 'groaning board' (table) comes from the Danish 'bord'; 'window' from --?--...which means that when the Danish invaded, the English had no windows, no tables no chairs, no bread... they civilised the country! Always thank the Danish for these things!... They speak a lovely language, at least I think so. Are there any Dutch here?... Good. Ask them, they say Danish isn't a language, it's a throat disease!

But languages can be dividing.

Esperanto was invented by Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, from Bielovstok, which is in three countries... He came from either Poland, Russia or Germany, depending on who invaded that year! Because central Europe has always been pretty busy. He was a student of language - he was an Oculist by trade - well, we all have to do something to stay alive, and he had good eyes! - and of all the 600 languages that have been worked out, he created one which worked - and it really does work. There are people getting married in Esperanto. I know a couple in California - she was Polish, he was French and they got married in Esperanto, their only common language. The interesting thing is their children were born and their native language was Esperanto, So the old joke 'I speak Esperanto like a native' is no longer true, They were born Esperanto.

(At this point Harry drew attention to a pile of sheets on the desk, pointing out that they contained, on one side, all the rules of Esperanto, "the other side's propaganda", he said, "there's no sitting in the class room learning the different forms of verbs...")

HH: For example, all present tense verbs end in the letters -an. So you can now conjugate any verb in the present tense, just modify by adding -an. Past, present, future... which takes care of all your conjugating for ever... just like learning French (sarcastically!).

Anybody here studied German? Inflected nouns? Mmmm!... That way lies madness! Esperanto, every noun ends in an 'o'. That's engraved in rock, you know - Moses said "'o' ends a noun'. Knowing that you can start right away learning nouns. Tablo. Glaso. Fingro. Naso. Dento. Oculo...

("Mr. Harrison, that's why it's so hard: it's so obvious!" Someone points out.)

HH: The good thing with Esperanto is that you can recreate your own words if you don't know the right one. You construct it and everyone will understand you.

Also, the male chauvinist pigs, I must mention in passing. In Bielovstok in 1887, chauvinism was pretty big, you know, a European thing. So in constructing the vocabulary they knocked another half of the words off by making all creatures - male or female - male! So I'm 'viro' - at least I hope so - and she's 'virino'. They add things like 'in'. So you get 'hundo' is a dog, and a bitch would be 'hundino'; Bovo is a bull, bovino is a cow...

But they did do everything to get it down into a simple second language that we all could learn easily. But like all intelligent ideas, no one wants intelligent ideas... they want things like 'Rambo' and to vote for Ronald Reagan and/or Margaret Thatcher... It'll never catch on until the world gets intelligent. The world isn't a very intelligent place. Intelligent ideas... like the metric system!... Brian Aldiss went to the bar, but if he hadn't he'd confirm that I speak the truth... A few years ago Britain got metricised... Hah! Hah! Hah! It was the biggest con-job in history. Brian at that time had a nice house in Oxford-shire and he went down to the ironmonger and he said 'I'd like to get thirty feet of garden hose.' So the ironmonger said: 'Can't do that, we've gone metric, you know... metres.' So Brian said he'd have ten metres, which was about the same. And he (the ironmonger) said: 'Would you like half-inch or three-quarter-inch?'!...

Esperanto is the metric system of languages.

(QUESTION: Does Esperanto end up varying from country to country?... Do the Germans and the Japanese end up using different vocabulary?)

HH: No. We have an academy (which you might guess we call akademio) which keeps it clean... much better that the frogs... er, French... with their le weekend and le tennis... in the sense that what the academy does is sorts things out... right now in Esperanto we talk about komputilo and komputero for computer... and both words are going around, and they'll wait a year or two until one looks better, then pull the other one out. Which is a sensible way of adding words to the language. Like atom bombo - you can figure that one out!

Also, when you meet a group of Esperantists you cannot tell where they're from -- unless they're this tall and look Oriental, then you can guess they come from China or wherever. Accents do not carry over... with one exception.

It's kind of fun to sit forty people at a table, from forty different countries, and try to guess where they're from. The Italians may roll their 'r's a bit, but you're allowed to roll you 'r's in Esperanto.

If you can read it, you can write it, and if you can write it you can spell it. and if you can spell it, you can pronounce it - there's one sound for each letter, no exceptions.

I can truthfully say that apart from obviously physically different people, the only group you can detect are the Swedes.

(From Harry's examples, 'Ni parolas Esperanto' sounds the same from a Dane, an Italian or a German, but the sing-song Swedish accent comes through!)

(QUESTION: Do the Japanese have problems with the 'l' and 'r' sounds?)

HH: I've never noticed it particularly - they're so happy to have a language which doesn't have a fixed word order that they'll put up with anything!

Esperanto has something we English speakers hate - and that's the accusative. We do it subconsciously - we don't say 'I see he,' we say 'I see him'. That's the accusative. In school they never mention that to you. The accusative shows which way the action is going. All European languages have the accusative. Esperanto has it, and I hate it, but there it is. You learn it after a while, you just add the letter -n on. 'Ni vidas hundon'... subject, object, verb... of course you have to learn a bit of grammar.

All nouns end in 'o'. All adjectives end in 'a'... I taught this class of ex-GI's after the war and said: "All nouns end in 'o'" - and this one said: "Harry, what's a noun?!" You got drafted at eighteen, you went off to Germany and got pieces shot off, you got laid, you got drunk and you don't know what a noun is?

And unhappily people don't know what nouns are. But in Esperanto you can pick it up very easily. A noun is a 'thing'. Glaso. Tablo. 'O'. And it actually helps one learn languages.

I've had a lot of conversations with Latin scholars - you should learn Latin, it's so difficult it'll help you learn English!... It sounds like bad Italian to me!

But they did an experiment. There's a group in Britain called the Esperanto Teachers' Association, and they have people in secondary schools who teach Esperanto. and they teach other languages too. And the experiment is a very simple one. They took - not a random sample, but with good controls, two comparable groups; one group had two years of French, year one and two, and the other had one year of Esperanto and one year of French. And the point is that the ones who had Esperanto scored 80% higher than the ones who had had two years of French.

The problem with learning French in schools is you spend two years memorising verb forms and never learn to say "voulez-vous couches avec moi!"... "Du bier, sil vous plait," and other important things.

You can actually begin reading it the first day, and within a couple of weeks you can start writing it. And you can write postcards around the world to various people. And they write back to you! And then you go to international conventions... and meet girls!... And girls meet chaps!... And it's an international agency for loving!... I'll sell anything, anywhere!

(QUESTION: Has the language developed so that there is more than one word with the same meaning?)

HH: You can make your own words up if you have to. But really it's a language to communicate with, and that's very important. I don't want ninety different words for a glass, like English where you can have glass, beaker, jar... you can go on forever. Glass is glaso. If you want to say 'glasa ajxo', 'glass thing', you can if you have to... You can get around it.

If you go back to basic English, for every referent there is a word. For every word there is a solid referent. In English we only use one word for 'know', I know him; I know all about it. In Esperanto we have two words for that: 'koni', for I know someone, and 'scii', I know something in my mind. This is because it was made to accommodate all languages, all ideas. It's just to note the difference between knowing someone and being aware of something. But if you want to be poetic about it, you can make your own constructions...

(QUESTION: Is there a large amount of literature in Esperanto?)

HH: Zamenhof himself translated the Old Testament and some Shakespeare. It didn't start as a literary language. But it's a very literary language if you care about it. There are literary magazines. There's someone in Scotland called William Auld who's a very good poet; and there are translations of various national literature - Hungarian, Lithuanian, and Japanese novels in Esperanto, things you'd never even think of. Older classics - they're a pleasure to read if you want to read literary novels. You don't have to do it if you don't want to.

(QUESTION: Hew can you have literature if you've only get one word per meaning?)

I simply say, have you ever heard of Niels E. Nielsen a Danish science fiction writer... have you ever heard of a playwright called Ibsen who wrote in a dialect of Danish called Norwegian?

Danish only has 30,000 words; everyone over there knows all the words twice! Literature is independent of the number of root sources - a writer rises above all that. Look at Shakespeare. He took simple words and created combinations of them with greater content. And there is more than one word, like I say - if you have to, you can invent a new word, if only it's done correctly, then people will understand it... Yes you can write poetry in it, yes you can write novels in it.

Also, which may put Esperanto en the sup, there are some Dutch guys working with a government grant planning to use Esperanto as a bridge language - right now If you do machine translation for computers you have to work out the rules to do Russian to English, and English to Russian; German to English; German to Russian... Italian to German... but this way you do it just once, everything goes from the source language to Esperanto and comes out as any other language.

This was proved about a year age where they took parallel texts, a paragraph or so of French, German, English, Italian, and put them from English to German and then to French, from French to Italian and then into English... and it works 99% of the time, because Esperanto has certain fixed rules, it has an organised body of intelligence behind it. It always has. If you're going to have artificial intelligence, you should have an intelligent language with it.

(QUESTION: Has Harry ever written anything in Esperanto?)

HH: I wrote a story in Esperanto - the first one ever written - called 'Ni Venos, Doctoro Zamenhof, Ni venos!', 'We are coming Dr. Esperanto'... that was Dr. Zamenhof. And the manager from FORBIDDEN PLANET called me up and said we have to have a new story for our book 'Tales from the Forbidden Planet', original stories from everyone who's ever signed at the Forbidden Planet. I said, 'Great! I haven't written a story in five years! I've been writing novels.' He said: 'You must have written something! I said: 'No, nothing.' I'd only written this story in Esperanto, about 3,000 words of pure propaganda - a parallel world about languages... he said: 'Let's see it!' I said, 'It's only propaganda.' He said: 'It's a pretty good story, we'll print it!'

So that's the only story I've written in Esperanto that's been translated into English. Must be a record of some kind.

(QUESTION: If Esperanto was taken up widely, and people were born to speak nothing else, wouldn't it become regionalised, with dialects becoming incomprehensible to on another and leading to a need for a new universal language?)

HH: It would if that was the idea behind it. It's a second language, you hold onto your own native language. It's been a hundred years this year and none of this (regionalisation) has happened. What are there, 6,000 languages in the world today? - and you have one international language... if a number of linguistic groups speak Esperanto, it automatically eliminates any national influence.

If you like to travel, if you're internationally minded and like meeting people; if you care about literature and world peace - all the good things in life that Jerry Pournelle doesn't like! (You don't have to worry about Jerry, anything I say about him I've said to his face!)... And if you go to any country in the world you can look people up under the heading 'Esperanto'.

(QUESTION: Hasn't Esperanto been criticised for being too Western based, or European based?)

HH: True, but the Japanese and Chinese learn it like crazy...

(QUESTION: Is Harry aware of the alternative 'universal languages'?)

HH: I've seen them all. And an English linguist said, writing about twenty-five years ago, 'I have read the grammar and I've read the vocabulary, and I think that if I ever study artificial languages, the only one worth studying is Esperanto; because it has all the faults of a natural language, it has vocabulary that is illogically based, But you remember it' - there's one artificial language which goes ku, ka, ki, ke, kum, which you have to memorise, there's none of that here. 'If I was anyone interested in an international language, I'd study Esperanto.' That was a linguist in England called Tolkien. So all you Tolkien fans have to go out now! 'Bilbo parolas Esperanto!'

I'm glad you all came. I know I've made some Jokes about it, but I'm really quite sincere about it.

Thank you very much.

* Read from The Stainless Steel Rat GETS DRAFTED (BANTAM, 1987 p.73+)