Why is Esperanto the most successful invented language?

There are hundreds, if not thousands of invented languages in the world, in almost every conceivable style. Some were made for fun and some were made with grandiose hopes of changing the world. Yet 99% were never learned by anyone except the creator (and often not even them). Out of this jungle of competing languages, Esperanto towers above all others. Only a handful of invented languages have communities, yet even these are only about the size of a local Esperanto club. Only Esperanto has made the jump to active associations all over the world, congresses with thousands of participants, a vast library of books, songs, magazines, blogs, youtubers etc.

But why Esperanto? What’s so special about it that allowed it to succeed instead of others? It was not the first constructed international language, it did not invent the concept so it cannot claim first mover advantage. It’s by no means a perfect language, in fact there’s a long line of people who have claimed it’s deeply flawed and they can improve on it. Some openly scoff at the idea that a mere eye doctor could know anything about languages, compared to intelligent linguists (like themselves). Considering how much the field of linguistics has developed since the 19th century, projects from that time are outdated and primitive. But why hasn’t this happened? Plenty of linguists have made their own language that (at least according to them) is far superior to Esperanto, but why haven’t they succeeded in replacing it?


Zamenhof was lucky in publishing his language in 1887 and dozens of new languages were invented around this time period. The Industrial Revolution had made enormous changes to almost every section of society, so why not also language? Was a universal language any more fantastical than railways, cinema, radio, telegraph etc? Cornerstones of society that had lasted centuries or millennia were being made obsolete by new inventions. Zamenhof claimed his new language was no more artificial than the “iron horse” (railway) which had replaced the “natural” horse as a means of transportation. Developments in transport and communication had increased contact with other nationalities and made the need for a common language a pressing problem. International co-operation was taking place on an unprecedented scale, which made the need for a common communication tool apparent.

Esperanto had some luck with the timing of it’s birth, as although Volapük was already established, it collapsed shortly afterwards in 1890. The first Esperanto club was actually a Volapük club that defected. The collapse of Volapük meant people were already familiar with the concept of an invented international language, but there was no front-runner to block the way. Volapük also served as an example of how not to run the movement and offered a warning of internal strife and reform disputes could destroy a language.

However, timing only explains part of the picture, after all there were dozens of new languages created in 1880s, why did Esperanto succeed instead of them?

The main Esperanto bookstore has an enormous catalog of books in the language


When Zamenhof published the first book advocating and explaining his new language, he included something very unusual, something that few if any, conlangers considered important. He wrote some poetry. Most other language creators saw their task as extremely serious, a grave mission to create a vital tool. In contrast, Zamenhof translated a German poem, the Our Father and even wrote some poems himself. He understood that the language would only succeed if had a culture, that ordinary people care little for the linguistic elements, but care far more about how it can be used. He included poetry to show the beauty of the language and to prove it was just as expressive as any national language. His priority in the early years were on building a culture, so he dedicated himself to building a list of proverbs and translating the works of Dickens and Shakespeare.

In contrast, the proponents of Ido viewed the language as a serious scientific project that should not be distracted by such frivolous things. In fact, adding culture to the language was considered a mistake that might promote sentimental attachment to the language, instead of viewing it rationally as a scientific tool. They viewed the language like a machine that will need to undergo several design changes, updates and improvements over the years. Building a cultural base would hamper this and make it more difficult for the language to change. Ido would appeal to people based on its technical and linguistic superiority, not any as irrelevant as culture. To give an idea of their attitude, the motto of the 1920 Ido Congress “We have come here to work, not to amuse ourselves”.

The World Congress of Esperanto, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea

Ownership of the Language

One of the remarkable things about Zamenhof is his lack of ego. Although he could be incredibly idealistic about his hopes for Esperanto to change the world, in a way that seems naïve today, he never saw himself at the centre of these hopes. His dream was for Esperanto to be recognised throughout the world, not for him personally. Crucially, he renounced any ownership rights to the language, insisting that the language belonged to the users. This allowed the language to avoid being crushed by the ego of its creator, like what happened to Volapük or Loglan (the predecessor of Lojban).

Zamenhof generally avoided debates over the future of the language and invited users not only to experiment with changes to the language, but declared they would have the final say in such decisions. So, while Zamenhof is important to the language as its creator, much of the development of it was done by other people. People like Beaufront, Hodler, Privat, Baghy, Kalocsay etc were more important in building the movement and in building a culture. Zamenhof even retired from the Esperanto movement in 1912 leaving it to stand on its own two feet without being dependent on him. This was crucial in ensuring that the language lived on after his death in 1917.

It is the community, not Zamenhof which decided the correct use of the language. There is an Academy of Esperanto, but its role is to confirm existing language use by the community, it cannot dictate changes to the language. For example, there is debate in the community over proposed gender reforms, but these will only become official if they enter widespread use. This means people who focus on the theoretical side of the language are pushed towards making practical contributions.


Esperanto is not a perfect language, nor does it try to be one. Instead it is flexible and willing to compromise because even a second-best option that works is better than a perfect idea that is never attained. It’s impossible to create a language that will please everyone. It can be funny to hear critics complain that it doesn’t meet mutually exclusive objectives, for example they complain that it’s too Western European but also complain about the -j plural or the accusative case. It’s worth noting that pretty much all the reform proposals and splinter languages from Esperanto (like Ido) have made it more not less Latin based.

It’s true that Esperanto is only based on European languages, but it’s impossible to fairly and proportionately represent all 7,000 languages of the world. Even by focusing on the main languages would end in result by committee, with some solution that pleased no one. What would a language that combined Chinese, English, Hindi, Russian, Swahili even sound like? The result would be a mish-mash that doesn’t resemble the source languages and people would call it ugly. I heard that Lojban is supposed to be a combination of the main languages of the world, but I also heard that words were formed on a random word generator. Looking at the language, both explanations are plausible.

Esperanto is not the simplest language in the world, Toki Pona with only 120 words is. However, that language is so simple that it’s extremely difficult to have a conversation and impossible to know if the other person even understood you. Esperanto is not the most logical language either, Lojban is. However, Lojban is so complicated that the grammar book alone is over 600 pages long and it’s dubious whether anyone has ever fluently mastered the language. Instead Esperanto compromises on these issues to make a language that is simple and logical, but without going to extremes. It is willing to sacrifice purity in order to be practical. It even allows the users to choose whether they prefer simplicity or logic, for example there are two words for doctor, doktoro which is simple and easy to learn and kuracisto which is logical because it is devised from the verb to cure/heal with the suffix indicating occupation.

Likewise, Interlingua is more Latin based, Volapük is more Germanic, Slovio is more Slavic, but Esperanto is willing to compromise on these issues in order to make a language that appeals to speakers of all these groups. Critics rightly point out that Esperanto is not 100% neutral due to its use of the Latin alphabet, but the only way to be completely neutral would be to create a new alphabet, which would damage its appeal as an easy to learn language. A compromise language that people actually learn and use is far better than a “perfect” language that only exists on paper. A functioning language that falls short of perfection, is better than one person’s idea of perfection that is never used.

The World Youth Congress of Esperanto, 2015 in Wiesbaden, Germany


A crucial, although frequently overlooked of Esperanto that strongly helped its growth is the fundamento (foundation) of the language. In 1905, it was declared that the core of Esperanto is unchangeable. Some criticised this as being too rigid and robbing the language of its flexibility, but it actually strengthened the language. You see, as fun as debates about the technicalities of the language are (for some), they are essentially non-productive. Spending hours talking about how the language could or should be is time that would be better spent actually using the language and building a culture and community. No one wants to learn a language if they fear it will be changed and they’ll have to start again. Debates about reform are endless because beauty and perfection are subjective ideas that no one agrees on, so there will always be someone who thinks they can “improve” the language. Constant arguing and squabbling gives the impression of chaos and disorganisation which discourages new learners.

It has even been argued that the Ido split actually strengthened the language because those who wanted to argue about reform left the language, meaning those who stayed focused instead on building the movement. It is far more productive to spend time reading, writing, speaking the language than it is to argue about hypothetical uses of it. This is why although there are still those who desire to reform Esperanto regarding the accusative or gender, most users are too busy actually using the language to get involved.

In contrast, Ido has no official foundation and is always open to reform, which eventually destroyed the language. They viewed the language like the automobile, something that underwent continuous change and redesign in order to improve it. Unfortunately, there is no shared idea of what the perfect language looks like so perfecting the language was like chasing a rainbow. Few of its early proponents stayed with the language, most either set up their own language or were driven off by the endless debates. The language began to diverge between the original and the reformed version, which were in turn split into more and less reformed versions. A major split in 1926 between reformists and conservatives dealt a death blow to the movement. They even resorted to imposing a ten-year stability period which was renewed several times, in effect replicating the fundamento they so harshly criticised.


So why is Esperanto the most successful language ever invented? There was some luck with timing, the world was looking for a common international language at the end of 19th century. More important than anything Zamenhof did, was what he didn’t do. He stepped back and let the community develop the language instead of playing God and making himself the sole arbiter of right and wrong. He resisted the urge to meddle with the language or strive for the poisoned chalice of perfection. The most crucial ingredient for success was the fact that using the language was always the priority. In the idealistic and theoretical world of conlangs, Esperanto is unusually pragmatic, what other conlang included poetry in its first publication? I learned Esperanto because I liked the idea of a universal language but I stayed because of the community.


15 thoughts on “Why is Esperanto the most successful invented language?”

  1. I can see why people amuse themselves constructing languages as a creative art, but as you point out this is not really the point of Esperanto.

    Having a community/culture behind it? Well there are literally thousands of natural languages, large and small, each associated with a unique community and culture of its own. What on earth is to be gained by adding another one. One moreover with crude and wobbly foundations. A sort of ugly prefab building as against a world of ancient and complex dwellings, each with their own character, history and idiosyncrasies. Each with it’s literary and poetic traditions. Each, generally, anchored to a real life enduring community, for which it often acts as a focal point and source of stability.

    Language in fact forms a sort of permeable barrier. You can enter another culture if you take the time and trouble to learn their language, but the language barrier prevents a casual stranger from simply walking straight into their private sphere.

    There are many languages that you could choose to learn and use. ‘Big’ languages that will allow you to communicate with billions around the world, or small local languages that may link you intimately to you location or your ancestors, and which in many cases need all the backing they can get.

    Esperanto and its ilk are at best a bit of harmless creative playfulness, but at worse nothing more than an intellectual brain-fart for those who think it makes them look clever.

    1. You’re right to some point. It’s wonderful to be able to learn a language and enter its culture. And almost no Esperantist is against that; on the contrary, a lot of them are polyglots.

      You can think what you want of it, but Esperanto as a living language with a living culture does exist. You, as an individual may think that it’s an “ugly prefab building.” But Esperanto deserves the same respect as every other living language and culture, for the only reason that it exists.

      You asked an interesting question, though. Why, in the beginning, create a culture? The Esperanto language and culture are not ends by themselves. They serve a political goal, and the idealistic tone of the Esperantists was and still is one of the major explanations for the (relative) success of Esperanto. Learn Esperanto is not just a way to discover a new fascinating culture. It’s also a way to improve the world, even if just an little bit.

      1. I’m all for improving the world, who could argue with that? 🙂

        I think maybe the way Esperanto, and language learning in general, looks to you, may be different from how it looks to native English-speakers. We already speak the de facto international language (for now!) so why learn another artificial one, rather than a natural language?

        1. Well, you could do it for the sake of justice, not to unjustly benefit from the fact that you do no effort at all to communicate with the rest of the world, while this carries the whole burden. Instead of you doing 0 % effort and the rest of the world 100 %, it would be more just that everyone did, not 50 % of the effort but in fact less, since Esperanto is easier to learn than other languages, so I would say, conservatively, that everyone would do 20 % of the effort. But of course, you who actually do 0 % would have to do your 20 %.

          For the record, I am not a native English speaker but I already spoke the “de facto international language” when I learnt Espernato (in a tenth of the time I had devoted to English, achieving a similar level in both languages).

          1. Thank you for your reply.
            It cuts both ways though. In the world as it is today, non-English speakers know to learn English as the ‘obvious’ foreign language, in Europe at least. But what of the poor native English-speakers? Whichever foreign language they are taught, it will only connect them with a fraction of non-English-speakers. In the UK, French was traditionally taught as the main foreign language, simply because at one time that was the ‘international’ language. But today, who knows? Maybe Spanish or Russian or some other language would be more useful?
            Esperanto would only work if everyone learned it, if it was widely taught in schools everywhere as the default interlingua. So you’re left with a “chicken-and-egg” situation.

            1. Of course, you’ll learn it only if everyone else does. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that, I would no longer have to work.

              About the poor native English speakers, then enjoy the usual and unjust privilege speakers of the language of the dominant countries have ever had. However, you are contradicting yourself when you say “whichever foreign language they are taught, it will only connect them with a fraction of non-English speakers”, having said in a previous post that you speak the defacto international language. If English does this job so much better than Esperanto, then you don’t need to learn other languages to communicate with non natives. Now that I come to think in, it has worked with this conversation. However, this happens only becasuse I made an important effort to learn your language while, up to my knowledge, you have made none to learn mine (I may be mistaken, in which case I invite you to continue this conversation in Spanish).

              Let me tell you a tale that maybe will help you understand what I think as an esperantist.

              Once upon a time, there was a huge fire in a forest. All the animals ran, swam or flew away as fast as they could.

              Already far from the fire, a monkey saw a little bird who did a very ackward thing: it flew towards a lake, plunged into the water and emerged with some water in his beak, then quickly flew bak into the forest and then came back to the lake, and so on once and again.

              The monkey asked the bird: “What are you doing?”

              “Don’t you see? I’m carrying this water to the forest and pouring it on the fire to extinguish it.”

              The monkey couldn’t help replying: “But don’t you understand it’s impossible to extinguish this fire with so little water?”

              “Of course I do!”, replied the bird, “I am just doing my part”.

        2. Because it’s fun and the community is great. Esperantists are a self-selected group drawn from all over the world that shares similar values. That makes it different from any other language-related community.

          Also, learning Experanto doesn’t have the opportunity cost you imagine. Most of us are already multi-lingual (I speak Russian, German, and Indonesian).

          Finally, why judge time spent on usefullness alone? Many other activities are “useless,” like watching TV or gaming or watching sports. I’m learning Experanto with time freed up by dropping Facebook.

          1. Salamat tinggal!
            I don’t mess with Facebook or watch TV or play games, but if they amuse you, that’s just fine by me. I don’t mess with Esperanto either, but if you want to, that’s also fine by me. Just don’t claim that it’s somehow more important than any other hobby, that it’s going to ‘save the world’. As a native English speaker (sorry!) I already know the de facto international language, so I’ve no need of a made-up alternative. If I’m going to take the time and effort to study another language or indeed, languages, then they will be ‘real’ languages, full of interesting oddities and expressions. With a history, a place in the world, and generally some connection to my background, location or other interests.

          2. Good point. If you set up to learn playing the guitar as an adult, nobody tells you: “Why are you learning this if you do not plan to be a professional concertist?”

    2. “Pre-fab” building, that is funny. So you would like to use architecture as the metaphor du jour – a language = a building.
      First we have the ruins of many ancient buildings in the world. Most of them are not inhabited now. They are “sights” for tourists. Then there is, however, the Pantheon in Rome which is still standing – just not very modern. None of the buildings where I live is older than 105 years (the Stranahan House, downtown Fort Lauderdale, now a museum, once a home and a general store). Of course, there are the condos of our city – none of them older than 50 years and who knows how much longer they will be there.
      English is that kind of construction – only it was constructed willy-nilly, haphazardly – here a window, there a door – the parts do not necessarily harmonize. There are many corridors that seem to lead in one direction but are not straight – they wind around. If I go to that part of English that was constructed centuries ago, I am totally lost. And who knows how long English (actually, the English languages, since they are separating from each other in speech and culture) will be recognizable to those who have to live in those buildings.
      Esperanto is like the foundation of the temple of mankind. We who use it are building it together across the world, one block at a time. We place a block and stand back to admire it. Others give their opinion and if all agree, the block remains (“komputilo” from the verb “komputi”) or it disappears (“komputoro” based on the English word “computer”).
      I write in Esperanto – it is one of the ten languages I use. Of the ten, it is the most beautiful, the most gracious, the most charming. The challenge of writing in Esperanto is to make yourself understood to people from other cultures, other geographical regions, other political systems, other religions, other times. It is the art of finding a common denominator but one that is pleasing to the ear and the eye – one that fits into the framework of the language.
      Take a closer look. Try to be without bias when you look. Open your heart and your mind to human culture as a whole and not just that of one people, one nation, one area.

  2. I had never before read such an architectural metaphore about English, but it does hold water in my opinion. Ditto for my mothertongue Spanish.

    I have never understood those people who send emails or Whatsapp messagges instead of using smoke signals or messenger pigeons, who travel by train, automobile or plane instead of by horse or walking, who live in houses instead of caves… and yet reject Esperanto “because it is artificial

  3. I for one hope that Esperanto isn’t soon learned by everybody. Right now it has a big advantage in that only a million or two people speak it, so that when my husband and I go to Europe and visit fellow Esperanto speakers (either through Pasporta Servo or by having met them previously at a gathering, or by being referred by another Esperantist), they’re thrilled to host us for several days, show us their region, let us share in their family life. No other way would I know so many families in Belgium, Germany, France, Denmark,Switzerland, etc., even if I happened to know each of those countries’ languages. The reason many Esperanto speakers learn it is precisely because they want to meet people from many other lands. With our friends we talk for hours about philosophy, religion, politics, education, family life, customs, etc. Many of those friends spent years learning English in school, just as I spent four years on French and five years on Russian, but they (like me) can’t get past very simple sentences in those national languages, whereas we all babble unselfconsciously in Esperanto about any topic. In my mind that’s what makes Esperanto more than a “hobby”; it’s been life-altering for us.

  4. Why?
    Because it is the only auxiliary language conceived by a child.
    Because it has a code of Pig Latin turned inside out.
    Because its structure is totally strange to the school grammar.
    Because Zamenhof has never used in his texts the roots INSTRU and LECION addressing Esperanto, but 263 times
    KOMPREN or memLERN.
    Why nobody except of Rene de Saussure, Vsevolod Cheshikhin, Lucien Tesniere, Amorey Gethin and Gaetano Speranza have ever tried to break the secret of morhosyntax of Esperanto?

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