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.
- 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 with 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.