Native Speakers

In 1966, a year before he landed the role of Captain Kirk in Star Trek, William Shatner played the lead in a film called Incubus. Directed by Leslie Stevens, the creator of the daring sci-fi TV series, The Outer Limits, and with an other-worldly Morton Feldmanesque soundtrack edited by John Caper (who also scored many of the Outer Limits episodes), the film is an eerie and disturbingly noir tale populated with demons and succubi and punctuated by violence, sexual and otherwise. Shatner plays a good young soldier who becomes entangled with a libertine succubus bored with her task of coaxing corrupt vain mortals to hell and wants the challenge that only a “pure soul” can present. The trailer says it all: “Incubus, the rediscovered creepy cult classic, packed with gorgeous blondes, satanic sacrifices, resurrection of the dead and … William Shatner!”


The film’s cult status is only partly due to the curse it is said befell the movie and those who had a part in its making. Several months before the film opened, one of the actors, the incubus in fact, murdered his girlfriend and then took his own life. The actress who played Shatner’s sister, who was blinded, raped and murdered in the movie, committed suicide several days before opening night. The daughter of another actress was kidnapped and murdered. Steven’s production company went bust. Given the grim pale surrounding the film, no distributor in the States would touch it and it was shown instead in France, where a lab accidentally destroyed the negative and (what was mistakenly believed at the time to be) all the prints. Cinematographer Conrad Hall went on to work as director of photography for such films as In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the vastly under-appreciated Day of the Locust and American Beauty. But shortly before he was to receive an Oscar—his only one—for his cinematography in Road to Perdition, he died. Shatner got that part in Star Trek, which gives you pause to think if nothing else, though even he did not come out unscathed: his third wife drowned.

What really sets the film apart, however, is the fact that it was shot entirely in the constructed language of Esperanto. This is actually quite remarkable when you think of it. An artificial language, which has no native culture, somehow acquires a cultural artifact—a film, in fact. Esperanto appears in cameo roles in other movies: the signage in Blade: Trinity or the announcements in Gattaca. But a whole movie in Esperanto? There have been only four. This was one of them.

Esperantists find the accents in the film laughable, which I first thought was an odd thing to say about a language with no native speakers. But I’ve since learned that there are, indeed, native speakers of Esperanto: children of enthusiasts, often from different cultures, who met at gatherings of Esperanto speakers, married and spoke Esperanto at home to their newborns. Billionare currency speculator and philanthropist George Soros, whose father was a noted Esperantist writer, is one of them, as is singer Kim Henriksen, whose Polish mother and Danish father spoke only Esperanto at home.

Whether taken out of convenience or idealism, the decision to raise a child to speak a language in which he has no one to play with, is disconcerting. There may be comic books in the language but the kids next door won’t be speaking it. Esperantist parents take their children to meetings and Esperantist gatherings to meet other kids who speak the language, and there’s even international youth conferences (the webpage is in Esperanto, but not difficult to decipher if you know a Romance language or two). but that’s hardly the same. Of course both Soros and Henriksen quickly acquired the language of their native country—Hungary and Denmark, respectively—as they began playing with cousins and neighborhood children.

I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for these children of Esperanto, coming from a first language of flawless grammatical order to discover a world of linguistic irregularity. A world where feminine nouns could conceal their gender in a masquerade of masculine endings, of past tenses that eschewed the normal affixes of historicity in favor of internal mutation, of signifying umlauts and bizarre subjunctives—and often in the commonest of objects and actions. What was it like, I wonder, for these children to discover the crookedness of the language about them?

Perhaps they didn’t even notice the difference. They acquired the language of their schoolmates as easily and unselfconsciously as they did the language of their parents, without method or study. To them, and perhaps to many of us who are neither linguists nor teachers of English, the peculiarities of our language seem as natural as the bends and crevasse splays that shape the flow of a river. This is why we cannot know how our language sounds to other. However much we want to concentrate on the surface of sound, as in this short clip of a couple speaking what appears to be American but is in fact a nonsensical concatenation of American-sounding syllables, we construct sense, even when none is there. When I listen to German or Greek, I can hear the aural texture, the music of the language (if I’m not engaged in the conversation itself). When I listen to English, I hear home.


Certainly these native speakers of a language without natives were too young to appreciate the irony of it all, unable to realize that imperfection and irregularity lie at the very heart of the real world, and that the perfect order and justice that prevail in the tales we are told as children are at best a well-intentioned but illusionary construct.

I was already well into school when I first began to surmise that I, too, spoke a different language of sorts. But this was a language of desire and if there were other speakers of this language, I didn’t know how to find them. At least back then. I knew, though, I was not entirely alone. Like the Esperanto signs in the shop windows in The Great Dictator, gay characters made an odd appearance in a film now and then. And there were a handful of gay-themed movies I saw as a teenager. There weren’t many when I was growing up, and none was celebratory in the way later films such as Beautiful Thing, Shelter and Get Real were. But the characters were there on the screen, and there were enough moments of beauty and sexuality and tenderness to counterbalance a tragic ending. It was enough that they were visible.


5 responses to ‘Native Speakers

  1. It was late in the evening and I was very tired, waiting for the last bus at the bus stop, when I heard somebody conversing in a completely unintelligible kind of English. After much concentration it turned out to be German with a heavy English accent. Apparently my tired brain identified the accent and tried to parse the input as though it were English!

    It is my impression that speaking a foreign language with the correct accent reduces native language interference. Again apparently the brain identifies the accent and chooses to use the grammar and the lexicon of the foreign tongue instead of the native one.


    • A very interesting idea! I wonder if this explains why speakers of a foreign language feel that they speak the language much better when abroad in the country in which it is spoken than they do in their native country (even when they realize how much they still need to learn). They usually ascribe this to the extra linguistic input they receive abroad or the “authentic setting” in which they find themselves speaking the language. But what if it’s the immersion in the /sounds/ of the language and the absence of aural “interference” from their own language that loosens their tongue?


      • I guess that all aspects of “total immersion” play an important role.

        In Greece I had grasped immediately the meaning of the German words “einsteigen” and “aussteigen”, because of their direct correspondence to everyday life actions of persons living in Greece: getting on and off the bus or the train. On the other hand, the word “umsteigen” remained a riddle: why should there exist a special word for the tiresome procedure of getting off the first bus at a certain bus stop, walk for anything between two minutes and half an hour to another bus stop, and wait there for anything between two minutes and three quarters of an hour for the next bus? When I visited Germany I finally realized why: because there “umsteigen” is well organized and passengers are not left at the mercy of the Almighty!


      • Indeed! So many words and expressions make sense and reveal their full meaning only when you hear or see them in their native context. Umsteigen wasn’t one of those for me; I had acquired the English equivalent in the New York subway as a teenager (admittedly the English, ‘change’, breaks the nice consistency of root in the German triad). But Hinterhof was. As was (is?) this whole An-, Um- und Abmeldung thing Germans have about reporting and “unreporting” their whereabouts and (vehicular) wherewithal to the authorities. 🙂


      • Morphologically Greek is every bit as good as German: επι-, μετεπι-, απο-βιβάζομαι. However I’d rather have the humble “change”, provided it means what it does in New York, than the noble “μετεπιβιβάζομαι” coupled with its current meaning in Athens! 🙂


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