Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2580
ESPERANTO INCUBUS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a movie in Esperanto. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The blockbuster movie Avatar introduces a new language called Navi. It was invented by USC linguist Paul Frommer. And it's reminiscent of Mark Okrand's invention of a Klingon language for the first Star Trek movie. Now I've found a strange nexus of science fiction and the ultimate synthetic language, Esperanto. The 1965 movie Incubus, spoken entirely in Esperanto, starred of all people William Shatner.

Shatner asking Where are you from? in the mmovie Incubus
Shatner asking, "Where are you from?" in the movie Incubus, but doing so in Esperanto

Esperanto inventor Ludovic Zamenhof Esperanto was invented by Russian ophthalmologist Ludovic Zamenhof. Zamenhof believed that his international language would foster harmony and internationalism among nations and people. It's built from a synthesis of European languages. And, to this day, a vast number of people have taken up Esperanto as well as the cause behind it.

The whole idea was antithetical to fascism. Hitler denounced Esperanto in Mein Kampf. And many Esperantists died in the Holocaust. Later, the Cold War climate of the early '60s made it especially attractive to many. The first of two Esperanto movies came out the year before Incubus, and it flopped.

But Incubus was another matter. It looks like over-the-top German expressionism -- black-and-white with a macabre plot. A succubus who seduces evil-doers into Hell decides to take on the righteous Shatner. (Yes, that's the same Shatner who so perfectly plays the lecherous Denny Crane in Boston Legal.)

The look of the movie reminds me of early Ingmar Bergman. Sure, the plot is pure grand guignol; but the cinematography is excellent. The cast and director went on to long distinguished careers. Well, most did: a year later the actor who played the Incubus murdered Mickey Rooney's ex-wife, then killed himself. The woman who played Shatner's sister also committed suicide. Then the original print was accidentally burned, and most copies were lost.

So the movie fell into obscurity while some even claimed it must've been cursed. But now, it's been digitally re-mastered, and you can watch it online if you want to brush up on your Esperanto.

For me, the seeming fluency of its American actors speaking the language is amazing. Of course, Esperanto experts express some dismay at their pronunciation. The French-Canadian-born Shatner speaks it with a bit of a French accent. The film, by the way, did a lot better in France than in America. Here's what Shatner sounds like:

[Audio clip from the movie Incubus]

And so we keep trying to make language, while language seems determined to grow organically. Esperanto, Navi, Klingon. Perhaps English itself, with its easy grammar and its ability to absorb vocabulary, will one day become the real Esperanto. But we shall have to wait for our great grand children to see how that all comes out. Meanwhile, I shall sign off in Esperanto ...

Mi estas John Lienhard ek kolegio de hjustono, kie ne interesas kiel inventan menson funkcias. (Or in English, "I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.")

(Theme music)


See the following sites: The Wikipedia article on Esperanto, the full Incubus movie on You-Tube, an excellent review and context of the movie, the Wikipedia article on the movie Incubus, an article on writing the Navi language, and the Klingon Language Institute page.

I am especially grateful to Patrick Hoyt, KUHF Webmaster and Esperantist, for drawing my attention to the Incubus movie and for his counsel. The photo of Zamenhof is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and the Incubus images are my own outakes from the on-line film.

Scene from: Incubus: William Shatner with Allyson Ames playing the succubus
A scene from: Incubus: Allyson Ames plays a succubus who is no match for William Shatner's virtue in this Esperanto underworld.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.