At the turn of the year I decided, finally, to start using Duolingo to learn another language. I considered brushing up on Irish, French, or German – chronic rustiness has set in for all three – or delving into Italian, Latin, or Russian. But then I took a notion to try Esperanto, and the idea stuck.
So I’m learning basic Esperanto, to build on the impromptu lesson I got from a stranger on the streets of Galway once. It’s more out of linguistic curiosity than any practical ambition; obscure William Shatner films aside, I seldom encounter the language in social or cultural context. So it was an unlikely but pleasing coincidence to come across Esperanto in a comic book.
Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Fiona Staples, and published by Image Comics, is a sci-fi adventure fantasy whose first two volumes (of eight published to date) I picked up on spec last week. It won’t be to all tastes – there’s graphic sex and violence – but it’s an uncommonly imaginative, funny, and unpredictable work for fans of heady, beautifully drawn graphic novels.
The main storyline follows Alana and Marko, lovers from worlds at war with each other, one a moon of the other. Alana’s home planet, Landfall, uses a language called Language – English, in the comic – while Marko’s home moon, Wreath, uses one called Blue which is actually Esperanto.
Marko speaks Language as well, but few people (or creatures) seem to know Blue except for the moon’s natives. This asymmetry can be bypassed with technology:
[click images to enlarge]
Blue features liberally in Saga but is not translated in footnotes, so non-Esperantists must use context and educated guesswork to infer the meaning, or else patch the text into Google Translate. For the most part the sense can be grasped in situ.
For this reader, it helped that Esperanto draws on Romance languages. My knowledge of French would not have helped me much with the next line, but passive exposure to other languages did, along with the initial Duolingo training:
(‘Where is my boy!’)
When Alana and Marko first meet, their sides are at war: Alana is a guard, Marko a prisoner. Widespread prejudices between the populations extend to their languages:
‘Mi bezonas paroli kun vi’ was easy enough to work out, even without any Esperanto: bezonas ‘need’ is like French besoin; paroli ‘speak’ is like French parler ‘speak’, parole ‘speech’, etc. Kun ‘with’ parallels Spanish con, as in chili con carne ‘…with meat’. Mi is ‘I’ (pronounced ‘me’ in Esperanto); vi is ‘you’, close enough to French vous. And so on.
The same approach helped me work out utterances like these:
(‘Marko is a traitor’; ‘Stop! I’m warning you, don’t touch me!’)
Sometimes the Esperanto is used sparingly, if incorrectly, and the meaning is obvious:
And sometimes it’s more extensive and takes some figuring out:
‘I hate this! … And I hate you, too!’
‘Ouch. I’ll pretend you did not say that, pal.’
‘I can’t do this! I’m not good enough!’
‘Marko, listen very carefully. You have to be brave [kuraĝa ‘courageous’] before you can be good.’
These longer utterances give a flavour of Esperanto case endings, parts of speech, and the like, though it’s poorly translated in parts. Malamas ‘hate’ shows a common morphological pattern in Esperanto: addition of the prefix mal– to invert the meaning. Thus malbona is ‘bad’, malvarme is cold, malalta is ‘low’, malliberejo is ‘prison’.
A StackExchange user suggests that Vaughan chose Esperanto ‘to convey [an] atmosphere of strangeness’, ‘to represent how languages divide and unite people’, and ‘to provide a deeper experience for cryptologically minded readers’. It wouldn’t be the first time the language was used in sci-fi or weird fiction.
My knowledge of Esperanto is too rudimentary to properly assess how well it’s used in Saga, but reactions from better-informed readers seems to be: not so well. Still, after weeks of daily exposure to the language in a learning context, I loved seeing it used unexpectedly and uncompromisingly in a creative work.