Esperanto and the Search for a Global Language

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Podcast Transcript

In the 1880s, a Polish ophthalmologist set out to create a universal language. A language that could be a second language for everyone around that world that no one country or one people would control. 

It was a good idea, but things didn’t quite pan out as he had hoped, and along the way, there was shockingly violent resistance to this new language. 

Learn more about Esperanto, how it was developed and its status in the world today, on this episode of ?io ?ie ?iutage.

Depending on how you define a language vs a dialect, most linguists claim that there are around 7,000 languages in the world today. 

The vast majority of these languages are spoken by very small numbers of people. So the number of languages by speakers is very top-heavy.

There are currently only about 15 languages that are spoken by more than 100 million people. 

If you get down to the 100th most spoken language, there are around 10 million speakers. 

So even if we were to only look at the top languages, there are still more languages than even the most talented polyglots could ever possibly learn. 

The idea of a universal language isn’t a crazy idea, at least in theory. If there could be one universal tongue that everyone could speak, even if they spoke their native language at home, it would certainly solve many problems in the world. 

However, what language could you use? There is no one language that has anything close to a majority of speakers. 

You could use a dead language like Latin, but that has its own set of problems as well. 

The solution for one Polish ophthalmologist by the name of Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, was to create a language completely from scratch. 

He could create a language that was logical and didn’t have any of the odd exceptions that most languages that grew organically have. 

Zamenhof was a pretty qualified guy to create such a language. He lived in the city of Bia?ystok, which today is part of Poland, but then was part of Russia.

His native languages were Russian, and because he was Jewish, he also grew up speaking Yiddish. 

Given the city he lived in, he also spoke the local languages of Polish and Belarussian. His father taught French and German, which he also taught his son. 

When went to university, he studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

Afterward, he studied English as well as Lithuanian and Italian, and even a language invented over a decade earlier by a German priest called Volapük.

Based on his wide knowledge of languages, he set out to make a brand new language, based roughly on many European languages, and taking the best elements of each. 

So, how does Esperanto work?

Esperanto is broadly based on various Indo-European languages.  Much of the vocabulary comes from Romance languages, with some words being derived from German or Greek. Some of the sounds come from Slavic languages. 

The language has a shockingly small vocabulary of root words. Many new words are then created by adding prefixes or suffixes to those root words. 

A root word can be turned into a verb, adverb,  adjective, or noun, based on the suffix which is used.

For example, the root word vid has to do with sight. In English, we have the words visual or video. 

In Esperanto, if you add an -o, you get the noun vido which means vision. If you add an -a, you get vida, which is the adjective visual. If you add an -e you get vide, which is the adverb, visually. If you add an -i, you get vidi, which is the verb to see. 

If you want to make something plural, you just add a ‘j’ at the end. 

There were a couple of things that were taken from English. 

Unlike other European languages, there is no complicated system of gendered nouns. As with English, there is one definite article. In English, it is “the” and in Esperanto, it is “la”.

In Esperanto, there is no indefinite article like ‘a’ or ‘an’, which is even simpler than in English. If a noun is by itself, it is implied to be indefinite.

Another thing that was taken from English is that there isn’t a complicated system of verb conjugations. 

Word order is like many European languages, including English. It is Subject-Verb-Object. 

The Esperanto alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet with some small modifications. There are no letters q, w, x, or y.  However, there are six letters with diacritical marks that have different sounds than the same letter without the diacritical mark: ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, and ?.

There is a lot more to it, but the point is that because Esperanto was an invented language, it was able to avoid many of the problems that other languages have. There is a very regular system of pronunciation, a regular system of grammar, no gendered nouns, and simplified verbs.

Zamenhof published a book in 1878 called Lingwe uniwersala which outlined a proto-Esperanto. 

He kept working on the language for years as he went to medical school in Moscow and began an ophthalmology practice. 

He finally published a book in 1887 titled Unua Libro, which means the First Book. He published it under the name Doktoro Esperanto. The word Esperanto in Esperanto means “hope”.

The original name for the language was “the international language”, but the name Esperanto stuck and that is what it is called today.

The book was actually ready to publish before 1878, but the Tsarist censors in Russia wouldn’t allow it to be published. It was just the first of what would be problems with governments.

The language first developed an interest in Eastern Europe, but quickly spread over the next decade around the world and several Esperanto magazines were published. 

This led to the first international Esperanto conference which was held in France in 1905. There were 688 Esperanto speakers from 20 countries in attendance. It was here that Zamenhof resigned as the leader of the international Esperanto movement because he didn’t want antisemitism against him to hold the movement back. 

It was soon after this conference in 1908 that the only real official adoption of Esperanto took place. There was a tiny sliver of land called Neutral Moresnet which was between Germany and Belgium. It was only one mile by three miles, but Esperanto was accepted as an official language alongside Dutch, German, and French.

In the 1920s, Iran suggested that Esperanto be adopted as the official language of the League of Nations, but it was vetoed by France who didn’t want to see French lose its primacy.

After this, Esperanto saw a lot of state-sponsored resistance to its adoption. 

The Nazis, and in particular Adolf Hitler, hated Esperanto. In Mein Kampf, he wrote that he saw it as an international language of the Jewish diaspora. Esperantists were sent to concentration camps and everything possible was done to quash the few remaining speakers. 

Likewise, it wasn’t really supported in the Soviet Union either. It was initially tolerated under Lenin, but it was effectively banned for the entire length of Stalin’s rule. The argument against it is that it encouraged international contact with foreigners, and it was called the “language of spies”. 

Portugal’s dictator António Salazar and Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco also both cracked down on Esperanto speakers. 

Despite these attempts at suppressing the language, it did still see some modest growth. The international conference has been held every year outside of the world wars and the number of attendees has usually been between 2000 and 6000.

There was a spike in interest in Esperanto in Iran in 1975, and it was promoted after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Today, Iran still has one of the largest Esperanto communities in the world, although it still isn’t very large in the big scheme of things. 

One of the big debates in the Esperanto community is how many speakers there are. Many Esperantists claim that there are 2,000,000 speakers worldwide, however, other estimates based on Esperanto organizations and activity on Esperanto websites, put the number between 30,000 to 180,000.

That being said, there are many Esperanto resources. Duolingo has Esperanto as one of the languages you can learn online, and there is a full edition of Wikipedia known as Vikipedio, with 316,000 articles. 

Google Translate also offers Esperanto as one of its languages.

Of the estimates I’ve read, the time it takes to become reasonably fluent in Esperanto takes 3 to 12 months, which is much less than other languages. If you are looking for an easy way to get out of a foreign language requirement, Esperanto might just be your ticket.

So, if Esperanto is reasonably easy to learn and very straightforward, why has it never caught on? 

Basically, almost everyone who knows a language does so out of necessity. As a child, you learn to speak the language of your parents. If you live in a border area, you might learn another language to communicate with the people next to you.

Many people learn a second language to engage in international business. 

Most Esperanto speakers often take up the language out of intellectual curiosity. 

Moreover, there is a language that checks many of the boxes that Esperanto does. It is a language that has vocabulary from both Germanic and Romance languages, it has a simple system of verbs, and it doesn’t have gendered nouns or complicated articles.

That language is English. 

English has its problems as there are so many things which make absolutely no sense, in particular the spelling of words, but I addressed that in a separate episode on the history of English. 

If Esperanto is something that interests you, you’ll actually find quite a few resources online. The internet has made it much easier for Esperantists to talk to each other, so there has been a bit of a resurgence in the language. 

But at the end of the day, despite all it has going for it, it is still a very niche language with a very small, if enthusiastic, population of speakers.