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  • Esperanto, the language that promises hope but doesn't deliver, celebrates 120th birthday

    This year marks the 120th birthday of Esperanto, the universal language devised in 1887.  But theres no reason to celebrate, so dont buy a gift for the language that promises hope but never delivers.  Esperanto was a good idea.  It just didnt work.

    Esperanto was the brainchild of the Polish oculist Ludovic Zamenhof, who had his eye on securing world peace by linguistic means.  Zamenhof thought that we’d all get along better if we could understand one another, if we all spoke the same language.  But he was wrong.

    Zamenhof wanted his universal language to be easy to learn, with phonetic spelling, only a few simple grammar rules, and no exceptions.  It also had to be culture-free and uncontaminated by political partisanship.  The result was Esperanto, whose very name suggests hope for a better world. 

    Speakers of Esperanto claim it’s relatively easy to learn.  But it’s not culture free, not apolitical, and it hasn’t made anything better.  With a grammar and vocabulary that draw heavily on the romance languages, Esperanto definitely has a European flavor. 

    And rightly or wrongly, Esperanto was always viewed in terms of a political agenda.  Some Esperantists dreamed of founding their own state, with Esperanto the official language.  Russia’s tsars banned the language as a revolutionary threat, and in Japan before World War II, Esperantists were executed as communists.  But Stalin had speakers of Esperanto shot, or, when he was in a good mood, he sent them to Siberia.  Hitler considered Esperanto a tool of Jewish world domination (Zamenhof had been Jewish) and exterminated anyone who used it.  

    Other universal languages have come and gone: Volapük, Idiom Neutral, Ido, Eurolengo, Latino Sine Flexione, Interglossa, Solresol, and Interlingua, to name a few.  But Esperanto is still the most visible.  Today there are about 1.6 million people using Esperanto in 90 countries around the globe.  About as many people speak Romany, the Gypsy language.  But Esperanto never fulfilled its destiny, never became the international auxiliary language that its supporters still dream of. 

    There’s another problem with the premise of Esperanto and the other universal languages: having everybody speak the same language may be useful from an administrative point of view, but it has never been a recipe for peace and understanding.  Look at Ireland and Northern Ireland, or the two Koreas.

    Belgium and Canada are often held up as examples of countries where two languages inside one border cause trouble.  But using just one language doesn’t guarantee understanding or reduce conflict.  In the United States, speaking English didn't stop the Civil War.  Nonetheless, today's supporters of official English argue that we can only appreciate America's laws or its founding documents if we speak English.  But speakers of English routinely disagree about what those laws mean – that’s why we have so many lawyers.  And they interpret the Constitution differently as well, which is why we have the Supreme Court (where the judges all speak English yet come to different conclusions about constitutionality).  

    Of course we’ve had world languages before.  Latin was the language of international communication for well over a thousand years, maintaining its grip on global discourse long after Roman power faded.  Then French took a turn.  Today English is the auxiliary language of choice for people everywhere.  And unless we blow up the planet or stray into the path of a malevolent meteor, some other language will take over when English gets voted off the island.  

    There’s no obvious successor to English waiting in the wings, but the next international language won’t be Esperanto.  Instead, it will be a language that arose naturally, perhaps Mandarin or Hindi, whose speakers already outnumber those using English as a first language.  Even Finnish, with its 5 million speakers, or Irish, with its 300,000, or tiny Hawaiian, with only 8,000 current speakers, stands a better chance than made-to-order Esperanto to be the next world language.  

    Maybe the world would be more peaceful if everyone spoke Hawaiian, with its sounds of soft pacific breezes (but don’t kid yourself: the Trade Winds will actually knock you down), or even Yiddish, a language that the creator of Esperanto knew well (yet he devised Esperanto anyway).  Or maybe it will be Romany.  But if you’re waiting for Esperanto, my advice is, don't hold your breath.

antonielly@gmail.com Jan 21, 2007 5:16 am


 Languages such as Interlingua and Ido are not extinct. They still have small communities of supporters spread around the world, and those communities organize World Conferences for their respective languages. See for instance http://www.interlingua.com/


 Antonielly Garcia Rodrigues

hwol@lodestone.org Feb 13, 2007 10:57 pm

More accurately, Esperanto promises democratic international communication, in which no one is privileged by virtue of birthplace.

And it delivers, especially where ethnic languages fail. Without the aid of a military, an economy or Hollywood, Esperanto has gained millions of speakers worldwide. With Esperanto I communicate on an equal footing with friends from Russia, Japan, Finland, Mexico, Iran, Croatia, Brazil, Vietnam... even Texas. No other language can do that -- not even English.

Incidentally, Esperanto is particularly good at helping students with L3 acquisition.  It's an unanticipated benefit that makes the language especially valuable in an era where multilingualism is under attack.

If you're interested to learn more, here is a helpful resource.

talib84@gmail.com Feb 28, 2007 5:18 am

I feel that perhaps Zamenhof was overestimating the power of a universal second language. I don't believe it will create peace, but it might make it more likely. Even if that's not the case, I do believe that a universal second language is entirely useful simply because geniuses, creative artists, etc. can make their work known to the entire world in a single language.

For instance, if everyone spoke a common second language, be it Esperanto or Latin or even English, a novelist can write his/her book in that language, increase revenue, as well as share with the world his/her gift of literature. There are other great benefits that come with a universal second language, such as being able to travel anywhere on the globe and speak a single language, unless the traveler would WANT to learn the other person's language.

A language like Esperanto should be backed by world leaders because it is very simple to learn. If foreigners from all parts of the world can learn languages like Latin, Arabic, Chinese, or even English (with it's impossible spelling), then even if Esperanto is not world-neutral with its grammar or vocabulary, it is definitely much more simple to learn than those natural languages.


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