Esperanto: the Saga of a Universal Language

Just last month I published a post about the languages with the biggest number of speakers which then lead me to write another post about which languages were worth learning, since learning even the top five would prove quite difficult due to their lack of similarities. Bill Chapman commented on the latter post that the difficulties of learning the world’s most spoken languages made a good argument for learning Esperanto. Well Bill, you got me thinking. I had heard of Esperanto before but didn’t know too much about it so I decided to read up on this language; what I found turned out to be much more interesting that I expected.

What Is Esperanto?

Esperanto is the most widely spoken artificial auxiliary language in the world. It was created over one hundred years ago with the intention of making it a universal second language that everyone in the world would study along with their own native language, thus preserving everyone’s native tongue and being able to communicate with anyone everyone else in the world. You’ve got to admit that it’s an intriguing idea. Its creator was a Polish/Russian/Jewish man named Ludvic Lazarus Zamenhof.

L.L. Zamenhof: the Creator of Esperanto

Zamenhof was born in what is now Eastern Poland, and which was then part of Russia, to Lithuanian Jewish parents, a Yiddish speaking mother and a Russian speaking father. He grew up speaking both languages, and later Polish when his family moved their home to Poland, as well as German since his father was a German teacher. Zamenhof’s home town was multilingual and many fights would break out between the different linguistic groups. Zamenhof felt that a lot of these fights were due to their unfortunate language barrier.

He started working on the creation of a universal language in high school. Interestingly, he did not go on to study linguistics or any type of language related field in college. He went to medical school in Russia and Poland and then settled in Austria and worked as an ophthalmologist. His language studies were an interesting hobby, as they are for many of us. He published the first Yiddish grammar and studied French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian.

Esperanto Takes Off!

Although he finished Esperanto in 1878 he was too young and lacking in money and influence to publish it. With the help of his future father-in-law, he was able to publish Lingvo internacia. Antaŭparolo kaj plena lernolibro” (International Language. Foreword and Complete Textbook) in 1887. He published it under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Doctor Hopeful).

After its publication Zamenhof went on to write and translate many things into Esperanto, including the Hebrew Bible. He was praised for his valiant effort to promote universal understanding and was even nominated to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910, seven years before his death. One of his daughters taught and promoted Esperanto all over Europe and even in some places in the USA. War torn and scrambling to negotiate peace treaties in dozens of languages, much of post WWI Europe was took a liking to the idea of teaching everybody the same second language.

Esperanto Attacked by the Nazis and the Communists

In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler said that Esperanto was the secret language of the Jews and was being used to facilitate their great Jewish conspiracy. As he rose to power Hitler targeted Esperanto speakers, especially Zamenhof’s family. All three of Zamenhof’s children died in the Holocaust. In Russia, Stalin originally liked Esperanto but suddenly changed his mind, declared that it was the language of spies and ordered a large number of Esperanto speakers to be executed. Since a huge number of Esperanto speakers lived in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe, this was a huge blow to the spread of the language.

Esperanto Today

Esperanto survived the Holocaust and the Cold War and is spoken all over the world. There are about ten million people who know it to one degree or another, about one million of them are highly functional in it and about one thousand of them grew up speaking it along with their regional native language. Many of its speakers are almost religiously devout in speaking and promoting Esperanto. The video below is of one such Esperanto speaker: Claude Piron, a Swiss psychologist who also worked at the UN interpreting Chinese, Russian, English and Spanish into French.

Why Has Esperanto Failed to Become the Main International Language?

Many have criticized Zamenhof’s magnum opus, in fact, two more artificial languages have been constructed in an attempt improve on Esperanto. Both of these languages are about as widely spoken as Klingon and Elvish. One criticism is that Esperanto is not as universal as it claims to be since it was constructed with elements of Romance, Slavic and Germanic languages. This makes it easier for people who speak European languages than it is for those whose native language is Chinese, Arabic or some other unrelated language. Others object to Esperanto’s consonants, many of which are pronounced in uncommon places or are just plain uncommon when compared to many other languages.

There are quite a few other arguments against Esperanto that are even more subjective and less compelling than the two that I have written above but there is at least one very sound reason for why Esperanto has not had more success: lack of support. People learn languages for cultural and practical reasons. Since no culture is linked to Esperanto, which is intentional, no one will ever learn it for cultural reasons. Why read a translation of the Bible, the Koran, The Rig-Veda, Ana Karenina, Othello or Dante’s Inferno in Esperanto when you could just read a translation in your own native language? No government has made Esperanto a mandatory subject of learning so there aren’t many practical reasons to learn it, especially when everyone is already learning English.

The Future of Esperanto

Unless countries like the USA, Great Britain, Japan and China decide to make Esperanto a mandatory subject of study in all public schools, starting at a young age, and then later make it a requirement to graduate from high school it is unlikely that Esperanto will be anything more than the language of few million enthusiasts. Its potential will continue to be unrealized. If, for some reason, it became the international language that Zamenhof dreamed of how long would it take for it to start to split up into partially intelligible dialects or have undesired results like replacing local languages? What would the world sound like in Esperanto? To get an idea I’ve included a clip from an old movie filmed entirely in Esperanto and staring a young William Shatner.