As readers of this blog may know, I’m a big fan of Esperanto and how it simplifies language to make it more logical and easier to learn. However, some people thought this could be taken a step further and Esperanto itself could be reformed and improved. This reformed language is called Ido (which means offspring in Esperanto) and aimed to replace Esperanto as the main international language. This became known as “The Schism” and like all splits it was incredibly divisive and bitter, leading to a lot of vitriol being thrown around.
(Please accept my apologies for the terrible pun (Ido = I do) in the title, I couldn’t stop myself.)
The very creation of the language itself was incredibly contentious and prevented any easy agreement being reached. You see, at the turn of the century the search for an international language was seen as very important and garnered a lot of attention. The Industrial Revolution had greatly increased contact among previously isolated people who quickly realised they had no way of communicating. Considering the revolutionary change being wrought to society by new inventions, it seemed likely that language too would be modernised. To this end a language committee (known as the Delegation for the Adaptation of an International Auxiliary Language) was created in 1901 to select a new international language.
Now Idists generally play up the importance of this committee (or delegation as it is also called) as if it was the most prestigious language body in the world. In reality, like most committees, it was a self-appointed group of whoever showed up to meetings. It was nominated by a mixture of groups, some big, most small and contained a mixture of people, some of whom were linguists, most were not. These groups selected the committee before any decision was made and almost all votes were for the slate of 12 people proposed by the organisers. Worst still, of the 12 elected to the committee, only 3 actually attended the meeting, the rest were either absent or sent substitutes. In short the committee was hardly scientific or democratic, but rather an ad-hoc group patched together.
The committee would hear various proposed languages and choose whichever it felt was best and it was widely expected that Esperanto would be chosen. As the creator of the language could not represent himself, the main advocator of Esperanto in France, a man calling himself Marquis Louis de Beaufront (though this was a fake title and his real name was Louis Chevreux) made the case for Esperanto. However, in violation of the rules, de Beaufront and the main committee member Louis Couturat, created their own language and got the committee to endorse it in 1907 (it is unknown to this day which of the two created the language).
Esperantists were rightly outraged at the betrayal of de Beaufront for doing a solo run instead of promoting Esperanto as he was tasked. They also disliked the hidden manner in which Couturat promoted his own pet project instead of acting as a neutral judge. Perhaps the two Louis’ thought that they could avoid a divisive debate by making a deal behind closed doors, if so, their plan backfired. Most Esperantists rejected this as a secretive plot to force changes unto their language by a committee with no authority. Although the committee claimed they only wanted to reform Esperanto, these reforms were rejected and they became a new language, Ido.
The main complaint that the committee had was that they viewed Esperanto as ugly and their reforms aimed to make it more beautiful. However, beauty is subjective, so the French creators’ idea of making a language more beautiful was to make it more like French. Ido is essentially Esperanto with all the Slavic elements removed and instead of being a combination of the main language groups of Europe, its mostly a combination of the Latin languages. There are no diacritics like ĉ, ĵ and ŝ, the accusative case is optional and there is no gender suffix. Essentially they wanted to make the language more “natural” (in a Western European sense), but to do this they had to sacrifice some of the logic and simplicity of Esperanto. By removing the diacritics, the Esperanto rule that every letter can only be pronounced one way is removed. The Ido table of correlatives may be more Latin based than Esperanto, but its less logical and if anything looks uglier (kiu in Ido is replaced with qua, iu with ulu and ĉiu with omnu).
The schism became quite bitter, with both sides claiming their language was the best, the most logical and most likely to become the international language. “With language closely bordering on anti-Semitic, Couturat again and again insinuated that Esperanto was a money-making proposition” and claimed Zamenhof refused reforms because he was bound by a contract giving a monopoly of everything printed in Esperanto to one publishing firm (Source). Insults were hurled in every direction and bitter conflict ranged from about 1907-10. Roughly 20% of the leadership of the Esperanto movement defected to Ido, but only 3-4% of the ordinary membership. Ido was therefore generals without an army, a lot of big names, but not much of a movement behind them.
The main reason the Esperanto movement rejected Ido is because of the danger of reform. Why bother learn a language if it’s only going to be changed and you have to start again. All previous writings become outdated and may not be understood. Worst of all, people spend more time arguing over how to improve the language than actually use it. This was one of the main reasons why Volapuk failed; the constant infighting and criticism drove most people away. Once you start reforming a language, it’s very hard to stop and many keep going in search of perfection. This happened to Ido as many of its founders drifted away into other language projects, Otto Jespersen created Novial and Wilhelm Ostwald created Weltdeutsch (simplified German). Dozens of splinter languages were created which claimed to improve on Ido. Ironically, the leaders of Ido had to declare a period of stability when no reform was allowed (the very thing that caused them to split from Esperanto) as the number of reforms was overwhelmingly them.
To avoid this, the Esperanto movement declared certain parts of the language fundamental and unchangeable. This meant that people didn’t spend their time arguing over which grammar rules they liked best, but instead actually used the language. This meant that energies were focused on making Esperanto a living language with an actual culture, instead of wasting time in futile arguments and reform efforts. After about 1910 or soon it became an unwritten rule of the Esperanto movement to simply ignore Ido (such that I hesitated over writing this blog post thinking it might be better to let sleeping dogs lie).
When Zamenhof created Esperanto, his first action was to begin translating works of literature and creating proverbs so that the new language would have a culture. The focus was always on building a community and using the language. When Ido was created its main focus was on bashing Esperanto and claiming its own superiority, but far less effort went into actually using the language and making a community. Esperanto may not be perfect, but the perfect language will never exist and looking for one is a futile journey. Everyone’s idea of the best or most beautiful language is different (personally I like the Slavic elements of Esperanto) and its impossible to find a solution that pleases everyone.
In 1914, Ido suffered a double calamity when its main activist Louis Couturat was killed in a car crash and the First World War broke out. Few people had time for a hobby like Ido and Esperanto during the war and both saw a massive drop in activity. However, while Esperanto had established deep enough roots to recover after the war, Ido had not. Attempts were made to restart it in the 20s but the damage had been done. The movement limps on to this day, but for all practical purposes the language is dead. Its congresses are attended by 15-25 people on the rare occasions when they’re held. There are hardly any speakers left and most of them can speak Esperanto. Not even the internet could revive it and the few Ido websites date from the 90s. The forums are inactive and even they contained little Ido, with most comments being in English.
Every so often a question from a beginner pops up about Ido and partly to answer them, I wrote this post (the other part is that I love history). The Esperanto-Ido debate is over and Ido lost. It makes little sense to have more than one universal language and far more can be achieved by uniting around one language (even if it’s not perfect) than by squabbling incessantly. Successes like the Duolingo course would not have happened had Esperanto been divided in two. The creators of Ido made a fundamental mistake, people don’t learn a language because it’s perfect or has the best grammar, they learn it because there is a community or culture behind it. An imperfect language that is used and enjoyed by people will spread while a language that aims for linguistic perfection will never leave the drawing board.