(This article was originally published in the University Observer. Rather than simply reprint it, I thought I’d publish my original draft before it was edited.)
The world is divided into thousands of different languages separated from each other, each with its own culture and nationality. Everyone who has been on holiday has felt that awkward moment when you try (and usually fail) to breach the language barrier with a local. We have probably all thought how much easier life would be if there was one language that we all could all speak together. But national pride gets in the way, the English won’t learn French and the French won’t learn English, and neither will learn German. What we need is a neutral language, one that doesn’t have a past of colonialism and oppression of native languages. There is a language and it’s called Esperanto.
Esperanto is essentially a combination of the main languages of Europe into a new neutral language that all can speak without surrendering their national pride. Its similarities to European languages makes it relatively easy to learn and it looks similar to a Romance language but with greater use the letters k and j. Unlike other languages it was invented by a single person who created all its words and grammar. As strange as this sounds, it makes it massively easier to learn. As it is not tied to one place or culture it does not carry the historical baggage of other languages whose strength is historically linked to their armies. Esperanto is not designed to replace but rather to complement native languages and aims to be the world’s second language.
Esperanto was created in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof who lived in Bialystok which was then part of the Russian Empire and is now part of Poland. His town was rife with ethnic tension as it comprised a mixture of Russians, Poles, Jews and Germans, all of whom had their own language. Zamenhof believed that the main reason for this division was that each group couldn’t understand each other. Perhaps if they could speak to each other they see the world from each others’ point of view and see how much they had in common. If there was some way to understand each other, then perhaps people wouldn’t resort so easily to violence. At the time there were campaigns to force all subjects of the Empire to speak to Russian, but these were passionately resisted as an attack on minorities’ culture. Zamenhof realised that if a language was to unite people, then it could not be seen as linked with imperialism or as an attack on anyone’s culture. His solution was to create a neutral language that all could speak equally without losing any of their heritage.
The idea soon spread across Europe. People saw the language as a great way to unite the people of the world and it became hugely linked with pacifism, especially after the carnage of the First World War. If only Frenchmen and Germans could speak to each other and tell their viewpoint then perhaps they would be less likely to go to war. There were attempts made to make it the official language of the League of Nations, as it would solve the age old problem of what should be spoken when disparate groups meet (and save on translator costs).
Unfortunately, not everyone liked this spirit of internationalism. Nationalists were suspicious that Esperanto would weaken the national language and Esperantists were often suspected of being spies during the Second World War. Hitler went as far as to make the language illegal during the Nazi era (Zamenhof was Jewish) and persecuted Esperantists. Stalin too dislike the idea of his citizens easily communicating with the outside world and finding out what it was really like, rather than what he told him. The Soviet Union too banned Esperanto and clamped down on speakers.
These were serious blows to the language, but it survived and today is as strong as ever. It received a major and unexpected boost from the internet. Suddenly, communication with the entire world was now possible. It didn’t matter if you are the only Esperanto speaker in your town, you can find fellow enthusiasts from all over the world. You can now find books to teach you the language, forums to discuss and people to speak it with, all for free. The world has gotten a lot smaller and people were exposed to a host of new ideas and cultures. If anything the need for a language we can all understand has only grown larger and there are campaigns to make Esperanto the language of the United Nations or the European Union.
Out of the 6,800 languages known in the world, Esperanto ranks in the top 100, having the 33rd largest Wikipedia site, ahead of Danish with 188,000 articles. Google added Esperanto to its list of languages available to translate. There is a thriving culture behind Esperanto comprising blogs, a newspaper and a radio station. There are over 50,000 books available in Esperanto, 30,000 of which were originally written in Esperanto. Songs are composed in Esperanto and there are a number of good ones on YouTube. It hs its own Reddit subreddit and there are 12,000 members of its facebook group (while 25,000 people like its page). There have been films made in Esperanto, the best known of which is Incubus and stars William Shatner of Star Trek fame. Esperanto even has its own flag and anthem (back in those days every movement had to have a flag and anthem). There is an Esperanto couch surfing service called Pasparto Servo where people around the world freely offer space in their home to anyone who will speak Esperanto. Apart from a great and cheap way to travel, it also allows you to see the city through the eyes of a local and sample local culture first hand. There are even roughly 1,000 native Esperanto speakers whose parents brought them up speaking the language.
We have all had those moments of despair trying to wrap our heads around obscure French verb conjugation or Spanish tenses (to say nothing of the dreaded Modh Connaidh), a process that is best compared to smacking your head of a wall in terms of enjoyment and usefulness. English is one of the worst for random rules that no one can explain (why does tooth turn into teeth?). All of that is removed from Esperanto. Grammar rules are an absolute minimum and Zamenhof once boasted that you can learn the grammar of Esperanto in an hour (this is a bit of an exaggeration, but not much) As Esperanto was invented, it was designed to be as clear as possible and all of the strange rules of other languages are removed. Esperanto is a very logical language, for example, it is very simple to form tenses. Simply ad –as to the end of a verb for the present tense, -is for the past and –os for the future. There, that was easy wasn’t it?
Esperanto is so easy to learn that a study by the Cybernetic Pedagogy at Paderborn (Germany) found that while it takes 2000 hours to learn German, 1500 to learn English, 1000 to learn Italian, it only takes 150 hours to learn Esperanto. For Bart Anderson of California, the ease of speaking Esperanto allows people to maintain motivation to learn it; they are able to use it much quicker than any other language. “I studied German for 3-1/2 years in high school, and again on my own. Even so, I could read Esperanto more easily than German after studying it for only a few months.” The ease in speaking it makes it open for anyone to learn it; you don’t have to spend a huge amount on lessons. “Esperanto is the most democratic language in the world” according to Bill Harris head of USA Esperanto Association.
Esperanto is unique in that there is no hierarchy in the language. For example, no matter how good you get at French, you will never speak it as well as a native; there will always be a degree of inferiority. In comparison, as almost all Esperanto speakers have the language as a second language, a conversation in Esperanto is truly a conversation of equals. The community of Esperanto speakers (often called Esperantists) is different from any other language group as all members choose to speak the language rather than being born into it.
The value of Esperanto was acknowledged by the Grin Report which was created to examine the future of linguistic communication within Europe. It found that making English the primary language of Europe was not feasible as it would give all native English speakers an unfair advantage over the rest of Europe. Native speakers would automatically dominate any conversation or communication and be saved time and effort of learning another language, while an extra burden would be put on everyone else. Neither would a system of multilingualism where people learned English, French or German, be feasible as it would still create some favoured languages which would dominant. There would be large costs in terms of time and translation. The report found that if every country adopted Esperanto as its second language, it would save €25 billion across the EU. People could communicate effectively without fear of diluting their national identity. The report concluded that Esperanto was the best long term strategy.
A common criticism of Esperanto is that it is an “artificial” language. However, this may have been true at one time, nowadays it has a flourishing culture behind it. As all its words derive from European languages, it has a flow and rhythm that would be lacking if the words were simply made up. In a sense all languages are to a degree artificial, composed of approved rules and spellings that are rigidly enforced. No language is truly “natural”, all have standardised spelling and language boards which decide how people should speak.
When asked about the language, speakers highlight the ease of speaking it, the new culture you see and the people you meet as the main advantages. Mattieu from France spoke of how “A few months after beginning to learn it, I was better at reading in Esperanto that in German, which I had studied for 6 years.” He used it to travel around Eastern Europe and “I met a lot of interesting people”. He even met his Russian girlfriend through Esperanto which acted as the mutual language as he couldn’t speak Russian and she couldn’t speak English. “I was invited to Russian homes, tasted real homemade Russian food and could see parts of Russia the average tourist doesn’t see. So one of the best experiences of my life couldn’t have happened without Esperanto.”
Esperanto allowed Andrew Beals (from the University Kansas) to spend an afternoon talking with a professor in Shaghai, an example he cites as one of the ways in which Esperanto brings people together. For Alex Escomu from Madrid, Spain, the most striking thing about Esperanto is “It’s a language you learn cause you want, not because there’s a nation with economical, military etc power behind it”
So is Esperanto a success? There are roughly between 100,000 and 2 million speakers in the world, making it roughly as popular as Irish. So while it has not succeeded in becoming the international second language of the world, most argue that this misses the point. Nowadays Esperanto is best viewed as a way to meet people and experience different cultures. It is a great help to travelling and makes it easier to learn other languages. It allows you to connect to people you would never otherwise have met and visit places you would otherwise have never seen. Even if it brings only a small number of people together, it can still be considered a success.
Useful Esperanto Phrases
How are you? Kiel vi fartas?
My name is . . . Mia nomo estas . . .
Do you speak Esperanto? Ĉu vi parolas Esperaton?
Where are you from? De kie vi estas?
How much is this? Kiom tio kostas?
My hovercraft is full of eels Mia kusenveturilo estas plena da angiloj
The University Observer is the best paper in Ireland
La Universitato Observanto estas la plej bona gazeto en Irlando