Language of the Month: Esperanto

Esperanto symbol: Jubilea simbolo

Since stay-at-home orders began, we have seen many advertisements saying that we are “all in this together.” I have personally seen this in several different languages, and it made me realize there have actually been a few attempts to bring all together linguistically. This month, we will be exploring Esperanto, probably the most popular attempt at a “universal language.”

Esperanto is the most famous example of a constructed language, or conlang, that has been attempted to be used as an international auxiliary language. A constructed language, which may share roots with a real language either to achieve a specific sound or style, is any language that is made for a specific purpose, such as Klingon from Star Trek, an international auxiliary language is specifically made for real-world use between speakers of other languages.

Being a conlang, in addition to an auxlang, we can actually trace the origins of the language to its original creator, L.L. Zamenhof. In his original Esperanto book Unua Libro, he stated three original goals behind the creation of Esperanto,

a. “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”

b. “To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with people of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.”

c. “To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.”

Effectively, Zamenhof wanted to create a language that could be easily picked up by those who study almost any other language, or even as an easy second language, and then promote speakers as a community who can use the language worldwide. 

This creates many interesting linguistic choices. To promote its universality, Esperanto features 28 letters, only a few with diacritics, and are pronounced as prescribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Grammatically, while many words have their roots in Latin and other Romance languages, the language was specifically constructed so that endless grammar rules would not scare off or confuse new learners; in this regard, Zamenhof was decades ahead of his time, as current theories of language acquisition show that complex grammar is the number one inhibitor to language learners, and some theorists such as Krashen go as far that teaching grammar too heavily actually prohibits language learning completely when a language is learned beyond the formative years. 

Thus, we see a language that does not have verb conjugations for individual subjects, instead the verb ending indicates mood or tense. Nouns and adjectives likewise only indicate plurality, and in fact, all nouns end in -o, all adjectives in -a, and all adverbs -e in their regular state. 

Although intended as an international language, and still spoken among a select group, there were several barriers to Esperanto’s popularity that have still made it mostly a linguistic curiosity as opposed to a world-wide usable language. In the most extreme cases, the language was outright banned or met with extreme suspicion, most infamously in Nazi Germany. It has been perceived as a language of revolutionists and anarchists, and was actually used for such purposes during Francoist Spain.

However, the number one barrier Esperanto has faced since its inception has been the language’s inherent lack of culture or national identity and place-based community. As we all know, languages represent not only objects and things, but the people who use the language too. It represents centuries if not millennia of creation and evolution, and is inherently tied to one’s character. As Esperanto was made with the idea of being usable with speakers of other languages of a lingua franca, it has been difficult to get your average person in on the idea, especially with the prevalence of English as an “international language” since the 1950s. While there do now exist “native” Esperanto speakers, around 1,000, there are still only by estimate anywhere from a low end of 65,000 speakers worldwide to a high end of 2 million. Duolingo, the popular language-learning app, has 400,000 registered learners, so this number will continue to grow in the future.

Even though there have been several challenges, many of the barriers facing Esperanto are exactly why speakers of the language continue to use and promote it. It is still commonly used as an “alien” language or to be a neutral language where specific languages may prove controversial in movies and TV. Although it is a language “without culture”, this cultural neutrality actually promotes its culture among its speakers; there are many online message boards conducted in Esperanto, international conferences, and language meet-up groups that get together to discuss the language. This lack of borders helps create a better mutual understanding among people and beyond a linguistic hobby has helped create a world-wide community. Although you may not find an Esperanto speaker in the street, when you do find one you can understand each other and know that you are both part of an enthusiastic global community.

See our Speaker Series video with James Ryan and Ralph Dumain:

Esperanto: One of the World’s Best Underutilized Ideas and Its Contributions to World Culture

Further Reading:

More Linguistics of Esperanto:

On Why Universal Languages May Not Have Gained Traction:

More on Conlangs with Marc Okrand, inventor of Klingon