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 Considering how much the field of linguistics has developed since the 19th century, projects from that time are outdated and primitive.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?
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”.
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.
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.