Response To The Criticism Of Esperanto

Something I’ve been quite interested in lately is the language of Esperanto, an invented language which aims to promote global communication through a simple, neutral and logical language. However, it is hardly the most popular of hobbies and so I am a bit shy about mentioning it. It can also provoke strong negative reactions and sniggering from some people. As an Esperanto course is currently being developed in Duolingo, a lot more people are coming in contact with Esperanto or hearing about it for the first time. A lot of them are skeptical about Esperanto. So I thought I’d make a post dealing with all the criticism of Esperanto and my response to them.

  1. No One Speaks It

This is by far the most common response I receive from most people. Languages are so strongly identified with nationalism that it seems impossible for one to exist without a country of its own. The fact that Esperanto turns many language conventions on its head is part of the reason I am learning it but is also very difficult for people to wrap their head around.

It’s impossible to know how many speakers of Esperanto there are in the world. We can’t use census data as this would require adding together census data from every country in the world, which just isn’t feasible. There is also the problem that census usually only ask about languages spoken on a daily basis in the home, a category to which most Esperantists wouldn’t fall into. There is also the problem of measuring a person’s level of Esperanto. Is it just fluent speakers who should be measured? Or those who can hold a conversation?

The best estimates are that there are between 100,000 and 2,000,000 Esperanto speakers in the world and the range should show how rough an estimate this is. While this is smaller than a major European language, compared to the 7,000 languages in existence, it’s in the top 100. The main Esperanto website, Lernu, gets about 180,000 visitors every month, which shows there is a strong interest of some sort in Esperanto. But how many speakers does a language need? Even if you learn Spanish which has hundreds of millions of speakers, how many of them are you going to speak with? A few dozen? A hundred at most? So long as a language has a core base of a few thousand speakers, then it has enough speakers for years of friendships.

  1. It’s not a real language. It’s a fake language

Again people find it very difficult to imagine that it’s possible for one person to create a language and many assume that it can’t be a real language. Some people think that it must be a very robotic language as though it was created by smashing random keys on a keyboard or a Frankenstein monster that is but a shadow of a real language. Neither is correct. Esperanto is based on European languages and most if not all its words are based on variants of words in other languages. This means it has a flow and rhythm just like any natural language. It has a fully developed grammar system and vocabulary wide enough to explain almost anything. So it has everything a language should have.

Despite this, some people still feel that a human created language is just wrong and somehow unnatural. This is like saying a car is an artificial horse. In a sense it is true, but humans are always shaping their environment and improving it. Life is a constant process of discarding the old inefficient ways, for newer and better systems. Comparing the irregular and random nature of a natural language with the logical nature of Esperanto is like comparing the windy, twisty and confusing roads of any European city with the smooth, straight and logical system in most American cities. The European jumble may be more natural but it also a right pain in the arse.

  1. It’s too Eurocentric

This is actually a fair point. Esperanto is based on European languages which does somewhat hamper its claim to be a global language. However, European languages are spoken not only in Europe, but also Africa, North America, South America and Oceania, in other words, everywhere except Asia. Not quite then entire global, but pretty comprehensive none the less. Even without being truly global, it is still far broader based than any other language and is the only language that has never been spread by war and conquest (which is why it isn’t larger).

But is it even possible to create a truly global language? I have the feeling that no sooner than one was created, critics would claim it neglected some other area or failed to give adequate weighting to their preferred language. Imagine if you did succeed in combining English, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Hindu as well as African and American languages. The sheer contrast in languages would make the result sound completely bizarre. It would no longer resemble any of its source languages which would defeat one of the main aims of Esperanto, that of being easy to learn. It would also require its own alphabet which would add additional difficulties. So while a language which includes all the language families of the world sounds great in theory, Esperanto is as broad based as one can be while still being feasible.

  1. English is the international language

It is easy to think that everyone is like us and that we are the average. Everyone likes to think that they have moderate political opinions, that most incomes are similar to theirs and that deep down most other people agree with them. So it seems natural to English speakers to most of the world also speaks English. After all, we are surrounded by English speakers every day, watch English TV, read in English and should we meet a foreigner at home or abroad, they will probably speak English. So based on this, most people conclude that there is no need for them to learn another language, it is much easier to let the world come to them rather than the other way around.

In reality, it is surprisingly how few people in the world speak English. It is estimated that perhaps 5% are native speakers with another 10% having it as another language (about as popular as Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Hindu/Urdu depending on how you define them). So while the waiter in your tourist hotel might speak English, once you move away from tourist destinations and into rural areas and among older people English skills become very rare. So while English is somewhat of an international language, it is not enough to simply rely on it alone to get your though the world. In fact there is something very arrogant about the belief that the rest of the world should bear the cost and effort of learning a language as difficult and irregular as English while English speakers should be excused from making the slightest effort. It was to combat this superiority of native English speakers over learners that I learned Esperanto so as to meet other people halfway.

  1. It’s sexist

The issue of gender is a controversial one even within the Esperanto community and there is a faction that pushes for reform. Now Esperanto is much better than most languages where gender divisions are much stronger and everything even a table, the road and books have genders. The controversy instead revolves around the fact that the male word is the default with the female being denoted by adding –ino.

While some people claim this discourages women from learning Esperanto, I highly doubt this. How many women decide not to learn English just because the default word for actor or waiter is male with the female being denoted by adding –ess? How many women abandon their Irish studies upon discovering that the default word for police officer is male (Garda) and the female requires an extra word (Bean Garda)? Even the English word woman is based on the word man, but that hardly makes English a sexist language.

The solution to this problem is relatively straight forward. Where a word needs a male specification simply add –iĉo onto its end, thereby allowing the default to be gender neutral. Times have changed since 1887 and gender divisions are much smaller. To a large extent gender doesn’t matter so when I speak of my instruisto or the local policano it doesn’t matter whether they are male or female. Gender forms will fade away for lack of use, because let’s face it, does it matter whether someone is my amikino or my amikiĉo so long as they are my amiko?

  1. It has no culture

This is another common myth about Esperanto. Few people know that there are many songs and thousands of books in Esperanto. The whole point of Esperanto is that it is the key to unlock the door to the culture of the whole world. In fact Esperanto has an advantage over traditional culture in that its stories are not as repetitive or all about the same thing; instead it draws from varied experiences all over the world. In contrast Irish stories seem to be mostly about suffering, poverty, hunger and the British. Most Irish songs are about unrequited love, drinking or fighting the British or all of the above.

Esperanto culture really comes into its own at the international meetups. There are many inside jokes, references and games that only happen in Esperantujo (I explain it in this post here). It is a thriving community and a world in itself.

  1. It sounds bad

Well this is a matter of personal opinion. Personally, I like the sound of Esperanto, especially the balance between Slavic (which by itself can be too harsh) and Latin (which by itself can be too soft). Other people feel that it is too Romantic based while other criticise it for being not Romantic enough (sometimes you just can’t win). Other people criticise the symbols like ĉ, ĵ, ŝ as they are not in other languages, but every European languages apart from English has symbols over its letters. Plus with computers it is very simple and easy to use them (it took me less than a minute to find them on a list of symbols in Microsoft word and create a shortcut to use them).

Some people have found grammatical quirks or what they see as flaws. They are plenty of rival conlangs like Ido and Interlingua which claim to fix the problems of Esperanto. But this misses the point. Esperanto is not meant to be a perfect language or have the most logical system in the world. It is first and foremost a tool for world communication and a community. Its aim is not to find the most perfect continuous past tense or the best way to pronounce quarter, but to be used to bring people together. This is why Esperanto took off as a language while the perfectionists never made it out of books.

  1. It is a failure

It seems to be an unwritten rule that all articles about Esperanto in newspapers conclude by calling it a failure. This is an incredibly narrow view to take. Sure it is not the second language of everyone in the world, but no language is. It’s a bit odd to describe anything short of world domination as a failure. To me, Esperanto is an amazing success. Think about it, it was created by just one person. This one man was not rich or famous; he did not have an army to spread it with or schools to force it onto people. The sheer fact that anyone at all speaks it today, 127 years later is almost a miracle.

Today there are thousands of Esperanto books and songs and millions have learned it to some degree since it was created. There have been great times, friendships, love, marriages and even children all through Esperanto. It has brought together people from all over the world and has helped create new understandings as well as lots of fun. To me, that is not a failure but a glorious success.

29 thoughts on “Response To The Criticism Of Esperanto”

  1. It’s only a failure in a sense that it did not attain its stated goal of becoming the primary language for all international communications. As a language, it is not a failure as long as people speak it – including my wife. 🙂

  2. Thanks for an honest account. I hope you will allow just a brief note about the number of Esperanto speakers. In its information page about Esperanto Facebook suggests is that 350 000 users of Facebook speak Esperanto. That figure actually indicates the number of people who, in Facebook chose Esperanto as the first language or indicated in their profile that they speak the language. This is actually the first major global statistical indication of a number of Esperanto-speaking people. Of course, many Esperanto speakers do not use Facebook.

    Whatever the number of speakers, there are enough to make learning Esperanto worthwhile.

    1. That’s an interesting point, though I’m not sure how reliable it is. Firstly, its too round a number and secondly I suspect a lot of people list Esperanto when they can’t even speak a word of it. The language section of Facebook doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by many people.

      Once the Duolingo Esperanto course is launched we’ll have a much better picture of the interest in Esperanto. Until then, I think Lernu is probably still the best.

      1. A belated comment:

        I wanted to find other Esperanto speakers in my area, so I did a search on Facebook. I found plenty of speakers who numbered (literally) Esperanto among the more-than-100 languages they spoke. When some high schooler says that he speaks English, Esperanto, and 100 more languages, he probably flunked out of Spanish.

  3. Ĉi tiu estas tre objekta kritika analizo pri la fenomeno Esperanto. Ne gravas scii kiom da personoj parolas ĝin, sed gravas primediti ke ĉi tiu lingvo – lernita tute propravole kaj ne trudita al si – pluvivas kaj estas uzata de transnacia popolo, kaj daŭre montras – eĉ post 157 jarojn – sian efikecon en la interkomunikigo de plurnaciaj personoj. Dankon pro la artikolo, kaj salutojn el Italujo

  4. I agree with most of your points, but I think the ‘it’s sexist point is fair – especially because it’s such a recent language. I am a bit offended by Japanese when I study it sometimes, but it has the excuse of being so old and influenced by Chinese characters and other things. When I studied other languages too it always bothered me. Esperanto had the chance to rise above that.

    If they choose to do your solution and make all words neutral and if needed add male or female endings, that could help.

    But as a woman learning many languages, it is a problem that I feel men often brush aside. But most intelligent people would agree that language plays a role in how you think in other ways, so I don’t get why it’s often so hard to get people to understand why it’s offensive.

    1. In modern Esperanto, it’s very rare that I see people using words like “amiko” for only man-friends. Instead we only use “amikino” or “viramiko” for emphasis or disambiguation. Same deal with professions etc, I would call a lady teacher an “instruisto”, using only “instruistino” for emphasis/disambiguation, for example in: “No, I was taught by the brown-haired (lady) teacher over there” (if there was also a brown haired man teacher). The only place it typically remains is where the concept is really ingrained: in family relations. “Patro” is very much the word for father. And it’s difficult to change that in people’s minds. So “Patrino” remains “mother”.

  5. I’m never too sure what “sexism” in language is supposed to mean. It seems that some folk imagine that if so-called sexism in language were eliminated, then sexism in society would disappear.

    It reminds me of Orwell’s 1984 where the limited vocabulary of NewSpeak would make Thought Crime impossible, since there would be no words for it.

    When Schleyer devised Volapük, he wanted to limit the vocabulary in a similar way.

    I haven’t seen any studies where an attempt has been made to correlate “sexism” in a particular language with sexism in the society which speaks that language.

    In spoken Chinese there is no difference between he, she and it, but traditional Chinese society certainly had very definite views on the role of men and women.

    Slavic languages are very ‘sexist’. In Polish, with a tiny number of exceptions, every occupational word has a specifically male and female form. Just like Garda and Bean Garda, Polish has Policjant and Policjantka, so on for female doctor, male doctor, female shop assistant, male shop assistant, etc, etc, etc. Polish women have a feminine form for their surnames. For a Pole, M. Skłodowska is obviously a woman, and M.Skłodowski a man.

    German also has different forms for names of occupations when performed by women. Just as in Esperanto, it is usually shown by -in. This difference is expressed all the time.

    In German, Angela Merkel was a “Physikerin”, later became a “Politikerin”, then a “Ministerin” and is now “Kanzlerin”.
    Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson were called “Staatspräsidentin”.

    Different languages just have different ways of looking at these things. From the Polish perspective, using the feminine forms is as normal and natural as saying “she” and “her” instead of “he” and “him” when referring to a woman.

    Esperanto was devised in a Slavic country, by a man whose third level education was in a Slavic language. It’s not surprising that it has Slavic influence. Ĉu is a straight take from the Polish Czy, which is used in the same way.

    1. We don’t need these distinctions in a neutral international language. There is no need to call people arbitrarily ‘hes’ and ‘shes’ or invent the gender-biased words for professions.

  6. My father loved Esperanto. I remember he was speaking to a Russian man at the Esperanto Club and through this language they had a very interesting conversation about classical music and Russian composers.

    They tried the same with music Klavarskribo (sometimes shortened to klavar) is a music notation system that was introduced in 1931 by the Dutchman Cornelis Pot. The name means “keyboard writing” in Esperanto. It differs from conventional music notation in a number of ways and is intended to be easily readable. I did not learn this notation preferring conventional music notation which suits me better but it is interesting how people devise different concepts to make communication easier. At the end of the day rewards depend on effort in most cases. Fascinating web site Robert.

  7. Hi, thanks for this interesting article. I would suggest someone to learn it first before that person judges the language. Esperanto has actually given me an unbelievable experience that I have never thought before.

    I have a little correction for you. I also used to think that no one speaks European language besides English in Asia, but I was wrong. I did a little research and found out that Central Asian speak Russian as native or second language, and Portuguese is used in Timor Leste and Macau.

  8. Great response! There is even value in Esperanto as a health benefit. Being bilingual has been shown to considerably delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, and, for a native born English speaker who is monolingual, Esperanto is the easiest language to learn by at least an order of magnitude.

    But even if literally NO one else spoke it, I find personal value in Esperanto just for the vortfarado.

  9. The main problem with Esperanto is that everyone must learn to speak it for it to be effective, and there must be rules for syntax if it is to be written. It would need to be a completely new language to include the Asians (billions of people cannot be ignored). Long ago Lingua Franca was very successful for merchants, and Esperanto is that sort of language. It is for specialized use in special circumstances. It is much easier to combine well known European words and phrases, such as, “Es agua is gut.” English is a very complex language with many idioms. A simpler language would be needed as a second language for everyone on Earth, essentially making all other languages second languages to the new one.

    1. I think Esperanto is easy enough, even for non-Europeans. I am Chinese and I admit that it would be harder for me to learn Esperanto if I didn’t know English and some basic knowledge of other European languages, but I know LOTS of Chinese (some even didn’t go to school, any school) who mastered Esperanto. The biggest problem with another new and simpler invented language is that it would be too hard to spread it, what Esperanto has achieved is already miraculous. So I suppose we should just stick with Esperanto.

      1. I agree the growth and spread of Esperanto over the last 125 years is miraculous.

        What is even more miraculous to me is how many Chinese students have manged to do as well as they have in English in spite of how difficult and illogical English tends to be. English is an extremely difficult language to master even for persons whose L1 happens to be English. English is infinitely more difficult for those to whom English is learned as a second or foreign language. It is particularly difficult for those whose L1 is an Asian language such as Chinese.

        In the interest of full disclosure I used to teach Freshman English at Southern Yangtze Universities Lambton College in Wuxi China.

    1. To begin with, the Chinese speak Chinese and the vast majority of Chinese cannot understand what this webpages says without constantly consulting a dictionary. BTW, the Chinese make up 1/5 of the world population. But I suspect there should be more then 10% of the humankind who speak English, mainly due to the rapidly rising population of India.

  10. OK, the last I heard was that English was the most common second language in the world, but that the most common first language was Mandarin Chinese due to the size of the Chinese population. That is just a factoid.

    What you want to keep in mind is this, spoken Chinese isn’t super hard to learn. The problem with learning Chinese or I would suppose any ideographic/pictographic language is that fact that it can take a REALLY long time to learn to READ it and WRITE it. Unlike a phonetic language where the sounds MOSTLY map to letters which you can at least sort of sound out, the words spoken words in these other languages map to discrete symbols and each word has a different symbol. It is not nearly as simple as learning the phonetic sounds of the alphabet that map to the words. The spelling of the word reinforces the pronunciation. In these languages, if you have gained a spoken vocabulary and you learn the phonetic structure of the alphabet you can easily figure out how say and recognize the word on sight. Not so with pictographic languages. With those each spoke word must be mapped to it’s written counterpart. That makes it possible to have folks within a greater population to speak different languages but read and write the SAME symbol/word set. How confusing is that?

    So the big thing is to become literate in a language such as this. I have read and had it confirmed by a Chinese friend that the goal of the Chinese educational system is to have a student be able to read a newspaper by the time the graduate from school!

    I would maintain that any language having thay much time to become literate is not a good candidate for a global/international language!

    Think about that. While it may take somebody from China a little longer to get up to speed in a language that dissimilar to theirs, I believe Esperanto would be about the easiest fully functional language to take on.

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