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.

10 Responses

  1. Since no culture is linked to Esperanto, which is intentional, no one will ever learn it for cultural reasons.

    For whatever it’s worth, I learn Esperanto for cultural reasons.

    A good deal of the national literature I’ve read in Esperanto translation just isn’t the same in English. English is a highly idiomatic language, and when translating into English, meanings are either significantly changed or the word choices are unavoidably awkward and stilted. Perhaps that’s why, despite the massive amount of literature published annually in languages other than English, only a paltry 3% of books published in the U.S. are works in translation.

    Then of course there are the works that just haven’t been translated into one’s native language, and probably never will be. What if your native language is one of the 6,000 or so minority languages spoken on planet Earth? Can you find the Kalevala translated into Twi? I can’t.🙂

    There’s also the considerable indigenous Esperanto literature, which is by now arguably rich enough to be considered a rival to many of the world’s national literatures. I’ve never seen a satisfactory English translation of William Auld’s epic La Infana Raso, for example, for which he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. WIthout Esperanto I’d never be able to read Baghy, or Kalocsay, or Dresen, or Boulton, or Ragnarsson or so many wonderful others…

    It may sound strange, but I’d say the culture and the beautiful literature are some of the primary reasons for learning Esperanto!🙂

  2. The cultural value of Esperanto is recognised by the United Nations, through a special UNESCO declaration.

    I would like to add, however that Esperanto als has political support.

    You might like to visit.
    http://esperantolobby.org/

  3. Hoss and Brian:

    Take it easy there guys! I mean no offense. I’m happy that you two enjoy being Esperantists. Perhaps I should clarify a bit. When I said that Esperanto doesn’t have a culture to it I might have been making too broad of a generalization. It seems to have a thriving sub-culture, otherwise you guys wouldn’t come to my blog and correct me. It has its own sub-culture like rock and roll, athletics or even like religious sub-cultures that vary from country to country. It doesn’t seem to have its own culture like Oriental culture, Western culture or Middle Eastern culture. Do you really have your own traditions, styles and customs that greatly distinguish you from the non-Esperantists who share the communities you live in? I’d be willing to bet that Americans who speak Esperanto are still very American and that Japanese people who speak Esperanto are still very Japanese. I think that’s the way Zamenhof wanted it to be. I think that he wanted Esperanto to be about communication and mutual understanding without giving up one’s own culture and linguistic identity. I think that it’s a great idea, which is why I wrote this post.

    I would also like to point out that I wrote that Esperanto has not realized its full potential because of a lack of political support; not an absence of political support. Esperanto obviously has some really big fans out there and they are doing what they can to promote Zamenhof’s dream. Nevertheless, even you two have to admit that it wouldn’t hurt if Germany, Korea and Saudi Arabia all decided to teach Esperanto in their schools starting at age 5.

    In any case, thanks for reading the blog and for adding your two cents as actual Esperantists. I think that we all benefit from getting our information straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Good luck with your lobbying.

  4. Hey, Ryan. No offense taken, and I hope no offense was given. I wasn’t lobbying, but rather just speaking up!🙂

    The question of what constitutes a culture is thorny, I’ll admit. I think you can differentiate the Esperanto culture from a “subculture” like “rock music lovers” in that culture is borne by language, and over the past 120 years or so Esperanto has developed a unique culture as a result of having a large community speaking a common language for such a long time.

    People use Esperanto every day for everything from childrearing to religious worship to technical manuals to erotica (though not at the same time, hopefully.😉 As a result, a distinct culture has emerged. Esperantists don’t really share much in the way of foods or fashion in the sense you’re thinking of, but neither do members of, say, Deaf culture.

    As an example of why language matters when we’re talking about culture, consider the Deaf community. Over the past few centuries in the United States a widely-recognized “Deaf culture” has emerged, which is unique and quite distinct, and is borne by American Sign Language. It wouldn’t be accurate to characterize it as a “subculture”, I don’t think. By contrast, while the blind undoubtedly have shared traditions, we don’t recognize a “blind culture” in this sense.

    For a reasonably good English-language intro, there’s a WikiPedia entry on this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto_culture

  5. Hoss: Nope, no offense taken. I had a feeling that I might be stepping on some toes with this post but…I call it like I see it and I can’t fault anyone else for doing the same. Thanks again for your input.

  6. No problem. Thanks for the detailed post. I hope it didn’t seem like I was bashing; you did a very nice job. I just wanted to add to the discussion, since the idea of Esperanto having cultural appeal is understandably counterintuitive!

    On another note: in case you or your readers want to learn more, there’s a wonderful, multilingual, and free(!) learning site at lernu.net. And a good place to hear modern Esperanto spoken is the Esperanto language service of Radio Poland, which broadcasts every day from Warsaw.

  7. 10 million people isn’t very many, is it? Is it increasing, or was the peak in the past?

  8. PS- if the film was filmed in Esperanto, why doesn’t the sound match the movement of their lips?

  9. Alex: No, ten million isn’t that many is it? That doesn’t keep people from Hoss and Brian from learning it or from enjoying the international access that it gives them.

    Sorry about the video clip not being in sync with the audio part. That has to do with the quality of the video on youtube. You can easily look it up yourself. The film was shot entirely in Esperanto.

  10. I think a “trasmitting” language should be useful, but I can’t appreciate Esperanto for its European chauvinism and its male chauvinism, even mother is said “patrino” (for an Italian speaker, it sounds rather as a diminutive of “padre” – “father” – awful); moreover any universal language (artificial or natural), when it is spoken by numerous people, prepares itself to progressively differentiate in local dialects. These dialects, during the time, will become other languages. It is the history of evolution and inevitable gradual transformation of any language.

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