10 May 2007

Esperanto in film history

Just when you think history is weird, it gets weirder. This blog just to be clear is normally about ancient historical linguistics and culture but it's fun from time to time to indulge in some curious linguistic factoids from recent history. Afterall, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so this is a strange tale direct from Hollywood.

You may be as shocked as I was to discover what our beloved Canadian actor William Shatner was doing before he landed the role of the courageous Captain Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the original 60s show Star Trek. Would you believe... a film spoken entirely in the artificial language of Esperanto?

Trailer for the 1965 Esperanto classic Incubus

Upon watching this absurd trailer, it's natural to be deeply suspicious. There are many on Youtube afterall who are able to cut and paste video with sophistication. However when its existence is also registered on the IMDb website, a trusted and extensive online database of all movies known to humankind including descriptions and actors, we have to consider checking our skepticism at the door. I have yet to see the film but I'm too curious not to. Whether hokey or brilliant, it's sure to be an entertaining ride and an interesting glimpse at the early works of a respectable actor. As of 1999, the IMDb website claims that it is the only American film in Esperanto made, which would make it quite the exotic collectable indeed.


  1. I found "Incubus" at DVD Pacific too, so I don't think there are any doubt about its existence ... well, there are people who speak esperanto, there are people who make movies, so why should the combination be weird? :-)

    I watched the trailer. They are speaking esperanto, indeed, but not very convincingly. My guess would be the actors simply say their lines, not really knowing the language.

    By the way, another American movie, Chaplin's The Great Dictator, is listed as a movie in esperanto by IMDb - due to the use of signs written in esperanto (... but interestingly enough without the characteristic "hat" accents).

  2. Hi! (Saluton!)
    If you understand Spanish, you may be interested in my article about the relationship between Esperanto and cinema: http://personal.telefonica.terra.es/web/tdb/cine.htm.

    Actually, Shatner's accent is awful, as none of the actors really spoke the language, and this was just used as a way to show mistery.

    Esperanto has a rich culture, with many books and interesting music, but its cinema is very very poor, as the distribution problems make that almost impossible.

    Ĝis baldaŭ (till soon)

  3. Interesting stuff. Thanks!

    You both say that the actors have "bad accents". I can read Spanish without much difficulty because I speak French fluently so I read your article, Toño. You also repeat the same thing about William Shatner's performance in Incubus on your site: "El equipo no conocía realmente el idioma, y la pronunciación es espantosa, por lo que en realidad no es apreciado por los verdaderos hablantes de esperanto."

    It's interesting to me that fellow Esperanto speakers would describe the speech of another Esperanto-speaker, beginner or not, as "espantoso" (="horrifying"), and to distinguish between "real Esperanto speakers" and "non-real Esperanto speakers". What is the definition of "real Esperanto speaker" and at what measurable level of proficiency is one declared a valid Esperanto speaker?

    I find that somewhat ironic because if Esperanto supporters wish it to be a "world language", shouldn't such a world language have greater forgiveness for world accents? <:/

    At any rate, I was unaware of Esperanto film until now though, so it's great to know that there's an entirely new universe for me explore.

    Thanks for the informative comments, amikoj.

  4. I have yet to see it, but I am informed that the Esperanto is so badly mispronounced that a test audience of Esperanto speakers who saw the film before release cracked up with laughter.

    The dire film "Street Fighter" also uses Esperanto for signs, and the intelligent film "Gattaca" uses Esperanto for background.

    I believe there may be a film called "Angoroj" filmed entirely in Esperanto too, but know little about this.

  5. Damon: I have yet to see it, but I am informed that the Esperanto is so badly mispronounced that a test audience of Esperanto speakers who saw the film before release cracked up with laughter.

    Oh dear ;) Well, I suppose there is a limit to how badly you can speak a language before it becomes it's own dialect.

    Damon: and the intelligent film "Gattaca" uses Esperanto for background.

    What the?! Why it's an Esperantist conspiracy! Gattaca is one of my all-time favourite films but I somehow missed that factoid. That addictive orchestral theme music by Michael Nyman must have put me in a trance or something. Obviously I'm going to have to watch it again and pay closer attention.

  6. Now I see...

    DiscHead from the above forum says: "Listen carefully to the lobby announcement at the beginning of the film: 'Bonvenon al Gataka-urbo. La Gataka horo estas dek kvin post la sepa.' For curious linguists, that's in Esperanto. ('Welcome to Gattaca City. Gattaca time is fifteen after seven.')"

    Well I'll be a monkey's uncle.

  7. @Glen Gordon,
    The Esperanto language was meant to be a universal second language, so while it was intended to be politically neutral and not favor people from any particular country or linguistic background, conflictingly it was also meant to have only one standardized accent and dialect. This is one of the reasons why I chose to base the Pont language to a large extent on Esperanto. Pont is meant as a bridge between languages where it's okay to be a beginner and to speak with an accent that's easy for you. Doing so may result in people with linguistic backgrounds too different from your own finding you hard to understand, but this should matter little since you can start out in a dialect with word roots from your own language, which would be best understood by other people who also speak that language anyway, meaning that your accent should not sound so strange or difficult for them. As your proficiency increases, your accent will likely evolve along with it. Since Pont shares much in common with Esperanto, this would allow a person to learn much about Esperanto without having to be able from the start to speak with the right accent.
    Donald Arthur Kronos, Ph.D. - Actor

  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ep6KxLWtZKg

    This retro-horror film comes with an Esperanto track.