How is language like software? David spells it out in a presentation at this year’s TEDxMadrid yesterday (Saturday). If the title didn’t give it away, he argues that Esperanto is freely available to all, is easy to learn, and levels the playing field between cultures, which makes it a close parallel to free/open source software.
And because the medium is the message, he does the entire presentation in Esperanto.
You can watch the presentation here (bottom video, starting at 1:09:45), and look here to see what audience members were tweeting about it. If you don’t read any Spanish, they say things like “tremendous,” “exciting,” “impressive,” “standing ovation,” and so on.
Very few audience members spoke Esperanto, so the talk had to be supertitled in Spanish. For an English transcript… look no further.
In 1982, when I was 12 years old, my parents gave me my first computer
It was the famous Spectrum [a.k.a. Timex Sinclair], the first computer affordable by middle class families in Europe
The first look was incredible. Imagine: it had 48 kb of RAM, and the screen was 256 pixels wide!!
My dream back then, creating videogames, seemed possible at last, because the Spectrum had an easy programming language
I learned to program on it
It only took me three weeks, and my life changed completely
That little computer and its synthetic language were the opposite of my teachers
It never shouted, never embarassed me, never was unfair or arbitrary
In fact, it never made a mistake
If something didn’t work, the cause was surely something I’d done wrong
Thanks to the Spectrum, I learned how to resist frustration, I learned how to learn. I learned that with good software, I could do anything
That’s why I want to talk to you today about the most widely-used software in the world: language
Language is the software we use to debate and think
It’s the protocol we use to find our peers
It’s the tool we use to build contexts together
That’s why language is very important for me
I’m a member of a worker cooperative
Cooperatives, like any kind of economic democracy, only really work if they are based on a true community of peers
We all understand that what makes us complementary with other people, what makes us feel like peers with our companions isn’t that they use the software that our old school used, or the software our parents know
But rather, ideas, ways of doing things, and ways of thinking
In the same way, physical or linguistic proximity shouldn’t limit who’s part of our community
The cooperatives in our group don’t seek out people from the same country or people from a particular culture or origin
We seek out peers
So, the problem isn’t what language people inherited from their parents
or what language they learned at school
but rather what language we choose for our community
Many criteria appear possible: the commercial value of the language, the number of speakers, the language of the creators of the community…
So, in our group of cooperatives, when we “Indianos” thought about this, the first temptation was to choose a “natural language”
But Spanish, German, English, and other languages had two fundamental problems:
In the first place, native speakers always speak “better” than others, and always seem “more seductive,” “smarter” than the rest
Secondly, since they’re using the same “thinking software” they’ve always used, the same tool doesn’t help them imagine new things. On the contrary, it probably brings them back to their original contexts
So, if we accept a natural language as the basic software of our community, native speakers will think “the same as always,” and the rest, “worse”
Simply put, natural languages are not optimal for a transnational community, and are not a good starting point
Why not use a language that helps us to be at the same level and think “better?”
There are langauges out there that are defined as the “free software of languages” They’re called “planned languages”
They’re also part of the commons, and are developed by hacker communities that improve them and use them
In fact, the oldest and most important of all of them, Esperanto, is organized like a free software community: email lists, foundations, distributed contact networks, local user groups…
The main difference is that they started almost a century before the WWW changed our lives.
Also, the creator, Lazaro Zamenhof, like today’s programmers, worried a lot about its “usability”
You can learn it in three months and reach full bilingualism in less than a year, because it’s perfectly regular and the vocabulary has its origins mainly in European languages
Zamenhof thought of Esperanto as an “international auxiliary language,” everyone’s second language
It’s no secret that he failed in that objective… like those who thought the success of Linux would make Windows and Apple into minority operating systems
What makes a language international is unrelated to the language itself, but rather, has to do with the geopolitical and economic weight of the states that use it as an official language
Unfortunately, in international relations, armies and banks are still more important than grammar
But your world, our world, is not the world of relations between states
Our world is not international, but P2P
The EU uses Windows, but we “Indianos” use Linux, because Linux lets us work better and be freer
We don’t worry about the language of governing councils or the language of the general staffs of the great armies of the world
We should only worry about…
…which tool is most useful and makes our community most free
Linux taught us something
It’s not necessary for a tool to be used universally, or used by the state, or preferred by big businesses for it to be the best for us
On the contrary, what’s universally imposed is oftentimes related to the gigantic and inhuman scales of power
But it doesn’t meet the needs of hacker communities that just want to “learn more,” think “better,” produce more in the P2P mode, and find new peers
So, three months ago, in our cooperative, we started learning Esperanto
It wasn’t hard, because, thanks to its regularity, it takes advantages of the natural learning process
For example, if you know that all nouns end in o, all verbs end in i, and all adjectives end in a, if you learn the word…
“helpo” — help
You also automatically learn the verb…
“helpi” — to help
And the adjective…
“helpa” — helpful
In fact, normally, you’ll learn to make all the the verb tenses in your first week
And by learning 14 elements, with no great effort, you’ll be able to express 45 different ideas. You only need a dozen roots to build millions of words.
Oh, and in in Esperanto, there’s no “right” accent. The right accent is yours.
Once again, the wonders of free software! Don’t you think?
We “Indianos” think that our experience shows that we can ask of languages what we ask of software
For it to work well and be free, but also for it to let us all be at the same level, and especially, for it to let us be and collaborate as peers.
It’s been an honor for me