In one of our previous articles, we stated that languages are living organisms. They get born, they live, grow, and change over time. Eventually, they pass away, making space for others. This happened to Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. It might eventually happen to modern-day languages we speak, such as English, French, and Japanese.
Of course, these languages are not just going to disappear into thin air or be forgotten by their speakers: time will take its toll, and they’ll evolve into something different. Henry XIII had no idea he spoke Middle English, and in the same way, we don’t know what our version of the language will be classified as in a few hundred years.
But, today, we’re not going to talk about language evolution.
We’re going to talk about one that failed to evolve.
Despite its natural origin, language is a human invention. What stops someone from inventing a totally new one from scratch? Nothing, as a matter of fact.
Many artificial languages have been created over time. Perhaps one of the most famous, Esperanto, was created in the 19th century. Intended to serve as an auxiliary means of communication for people all over the world, it was based off of major European languages. This made it easy to learn for anyone familiar with French, English, or Russian. If you’re reading this article, you can probably pick out quite a bit of Esperanto's vocabulary without any study at all. Try, if you want.
However, after over a century, very few people speak Esperanto. The language itself is barely known outside hobbyist and linguistics communities, and I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.
But why did that happen? What went wrong with the idea of a universal language? Let’s find out.
The idea of a universal language came to a Polish ophthalmologist named Dr. Ludwig Zamenhof. Growing up in Poland, which back then was part of the Russian Empire, he witnessed major tensions between people who spoke different languages. Polish, Yiddish, Russian, German — these tongues and more could be heard on Warsaw streets during the late 19th century.
This gave Zamenhof the idea that a lack of understanding between people was perhaps the cause of many of these conflicts, and he decided to do something about it. He himself had already learned German, French, and Latin, in addition to his native Yiddish, Polish, and Russian. Needless to say, then, Zamenhof had a wide base of languages to work with.
On July 14, 1887, the first Esperanto book was published in Russian, and later translated to other languages of the world.
But what is Esperanto anyway?
Esperanto is a constructed language that was designed with an extremely regular grammatical structure, which makes it easy to learn. You can literally learn its grammar in an afternoon — here’s a brief overview (and a course, if you want to explore it in more detail). Furthermore, it lacks grammatical genders, has simple verbal and nominal (noun) inflections, and leverages an agglutinative morphology that allows speakers to generate mutually intelligible words from the simpler vocabulary.
Dr. Zamenhof hoped people would learn his language and that, over time, it would become a common international means of communication — much like English is today. The very word "Esperanto" (esperi [to hope] + -anto [one who...]) actually means "one who hopes."
To be clear, Esperanto was actually the pseudonym that Dr. Zamenhof used to publish the language’s first textbook. Originally, he intended that Esperanto would be called “La Lingua Internacia” (the international language). Instead, it ended up taking on the name of its creator, becoming for its learners a symbol of hope for a better future.
Those hopes, unfortunately, seem destined to remain as hopes even after 135 years.
Why didn’t Esperanto ever get off the ground?
Culture, or the lack thereof
Each language is closely related to the culture of the people who speak it. These people write books, sing songs, and make movies in their language. They communicate with each other on the Internet and teach their children to pass on their culture, along with the associated language, into the future. Cultures are usually represented by the people of a particular ethnic or national group: it is very unlikely that anyone from Spain would consider making a film in Vietnamese. In Vietnam, on the other hand, very few people likely ever thought of writing a book in Spanish. Can you imagine Lady Gaga singing in Turkish or Esperanto instead of Engish?
Let’s not forget about folk culture: fairy tales, proverbs, and legends. It takes hundreds or even thousands of years to form a cultural space like that. Such things are closely tied to the native peoples’ mentality and even lifestyle. For example, in my native country, no one shakes hands over a threshold (i.e., a doorway) as it is thought to bring bad luck. In the same way, Americans refrain from breaking mirrors and think that finding a penny on the street is a good omen. Little things such as these have deep roots in history and have been ingrained into the language.
It takes learners years to master even a fraction of the cultural knowledge a native speaker is aware of as a kindergartener. Esperanto largely lacks such things, however: it has no native culture associated with it.
If you really look, you’ll find that Esperanto has an anthem, a music scene, and even some indie creators, but the audience is very small.
Very few native speakers
There are people who speak Esperanto natively. Those who do were born in language-enthusiast families to parents who felt it was worthwhile to teach their children “a universal language of the future.” Or perhaps they did so for practical reasons: it has been demonstrated that, after first learning Esperanto, it becomes easier (and takes less time) to learn another language (see discussion from page 151). Basically, doing one year of Esperanto and then one year of French leads to better French proficiency than two years of French without Esperanto. From a pedagogical point of view, then, learning Esperanto seems reasonable.
However, only ~2 million people speak it across the world. Of those, only ~2000 speak it natively.
In comparison, English is spoken in the British Isles, North America, Australia, and many other places. German can be heard on the streets of German, Austrian, and Swiss cities. If you learn these languages, you can travel there and enjoy the local culture. Maybe you’ll make new friends or even find love, who knows. Practicing a new language with a native speaker in a native environment is useful, and very interesting.
Additionally, some languages are used as working languages for international organizations, such as the United Nations or the European Union. Esperanto is not used in any organization nor is it spoken natively in any country. Learning a language that no one really knows does not seem like a useful pastime to me (and many others, I wager).
In 1923, some members of the League of Nations attempted to make Esperanto one of the official languages of the organization. This attempt, however, was unsuccessful. The idea was rejected by the French representatives, who believed the world had already had an excellent language for international cooperation — French. They stated that it (French) would lose ground in relation to English, and they did not want this trend to continue. (Well, it seems they were right to be concerned about French’s standing with English.)
Esperanto is based on European languages: Latin, German, English, French, and others. For this reason, its vocabulary is very easy to understand and remember, so long as you speak one of those languages. Almost all of Esperanto's basic words will look familiar to a learner from the get-go.
When it comes to creating new words, however, things are not as rosy as they could have been.
Borrowing is a common way of expanding a language’s vocabulary, and you’ll see borrowings in almost every language; well, in almost every natural language. Things are different in Esperanto, as rather than accepting words from other languages, it instead relies on its internal logic to build them:
- English — website;
- German — Website;
- Russian — сайт (sait).
- Esperanto — retejo (reto [network] + ejo [place]) / paĝaro (paĝo [page] + aro [a group]).
- English — browser;
- German — Webbrowser;
- Russian — веб-браузер (veb-brauzer);
- Esperanto — retumilo (reto [network] + umi [catch-all/ad-hoc] + ilo [tool]) / krozilo (krozi [to cross/travel] + ilo [tool]);
- English — internet;
- German — Internet;
- Russian — интернет (internet);
- Esperanto — interreto (inter [between] + reto [network]).
Each language has loanwords. No matter what purists say, there is nothing wrong with that. Technological breakthroughs from the latter half of the 20th century and globalization brought a ton of words from English into other languages. For example, words such as internet, smartphone, credit card, and many others, are exactly the same in English, German, and Russian, as well as in many other languages. In Esperanto, however, they are different.
Can a language be “international” without international words?
Esperanto community members are internally known as the Esperantists. And not all of them are happy with the language the way it is. In 1907, twenty years after the “original” language was developed, its first modification was created — Ido. Twenty more years and Ido got modified to become Novial. More than that, there is an entire group of constructed languages that are somehow based on Esperanto: the Esperantidos (Esperanto + ido [offspring]).
This raises the question: if those languages were experiments even for their creators, what chances did they have of being implemented globally?
Esperanto is a constructed language that likely won't become more popular as it currently is — at least, not without an unlikely influx of native speakers, media and culture. This language was created by a dreamer who wanted to give the world unity, and I imagine that it will remain as being a dream.
That’s it for now, folks!
Consider yourself an Esperanto hopeful?
- What Made Me Want to Learn Esperanto
- An Introduction to the Esperanto Language and its History
- How the Esperanto Community in Taiwan Celebrates the Zamenhof Day
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