Myths About Esperanto And Esperantists

In online language learning communities, if you decide to learn a new language, you’re bound to get support and praise. However, there is one exception to this. If you declare you want to learn German, Russian or Uzbek etc you will receive encouragement and if someone doesn’t like those languages, they’ll keep their opinion to themselves. However, this rule doesn’t apply to Esperanto. If someone doesn’t like Esperanto, they’ll definitely let you know, in fact they’ll even tell you that Esperantists are such rude people that they brought the hostility on themselves.

I’ve never seen a Reddit comment section about Esperanto that didn’t involve Esperantists having to defend themselves and justify their actions. I’ve never had to justify any other hobby of mine, no one demands to know what the practical use of learning chess is or declares that because you can’t stop someone on the street to play cards, it’s useless. I have no interest in football, but if I met someone who did, I would never give them a long list of all its flaws and explain why it’s a waste of time.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with disliking Esperanto and you’re not under any obligation to like it (I respond to other criticism here). If you look at it and it doesn’t suit you, that’s fine. But I don’t want people to make judgements based on misconceptions and myths. It’s unbelievable how often people claim Esperanto isn’t worth learning because there’s no native speakers or it has absolutely no use. I’ve seen some very odd claims like someone who claimed all objects in Esperanto have a gender (he eventually realised he was thinking of a completely different language) or that it’s not possible to have a conversation in Esperanto because it has only 900 words or Esperanto is like Klingon (people usually mean it’s a joke language or something fake and ugly when they say this, some people even think there are more speakers of Klingon) or some sort of Jewish Communist scheme.

So, why do I bother talking about it at all? For me, Esperanto is like summer camp. The first day you don’t know anyone, you’re nervous and having second thoughts. But gradually bit by bit, you start to settle in and make friends. By the end of the week, you’ve become best friends and made great memories. Isn’t it understandable if you’d want to tell everyone so they could also enjoy it? So, imagine my disappointment when people respond by saying it’s a waste of time and only for sad losers.

Myth #1: You can only use Esperanto to talk about Esperanto

I don’t know where this myth came from, but certainly wasn’t anyone who spoke Esperanto. I have personally used Esperanto for two separate jobs, a common language with my flatmates, to make friends, play sport, debate politics, read a book, flirt, play cards, get drunk, sing along at a concert, argue with my boss, write a blog and learn more about the world around me. I even know several people who have met at an Esperanto event, fallen in love, gotten married and had children. I’m pretty sure they talk about things other than Esperanto in their marriage.

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Trust me, people do more than talk about Esperanto at Esperanto events

Just this week alone I have seen articles and videos about the Fukushima disaster, scientific illiteracy, a soccer match, German students learning Chinese, erotic fiction, electrification in Africa, space exploration to Mars, book reviews, the epic of Gilgamesh, a student strike in Benin as well as music and jokes. That’s just content that was created this week. Nor are Esperanto events 1984-style gatherings where we bow before a statue of Zamenhof while ominous figures in cloaks chant praise. Reading the program from the last event I went to, I see dance classes, a poetry workshop, discussions about minority languages, talks on polyamory, planets outside our solar system, a visit to Chernobyl and LGBT rights. The only program about Esperanto was a lesson for beginners and you could maybe count the poetry workshop because it discussed expressing yourself in Esperanto.

Myth #2: Esperantists believe Esperanto is perfect and never criticise it

Anytime I hear this criticism, I know straight away that the person has no experience of the Esperanto community, because believe me, there’s plenty of criticism (just ask someone what they think of the food at an Esperanto event). One of the most popular blogs is literally called Stela ĉiam nur kritikas (Stela always only criticises) which focuses mainly on criticism of Esperanto events and the movement. The main online Esperanto news site Libera Folio is famous for criticising and holding to account the main Esperanto organisation UEA, especially in regard to financial problems (of which there are many). There are many critics of the main Esperanto organisations UEA and TEJO, they certainly don’t receive blind adoration.

In fact, if someone doesn’t want to talk about the flaws of Esperanto it’s probably because they’re tired of the debate, not because they are brainwashed into thinking it’s perfect. There are endless debates and reform proposals but most people just aren’t that interested. I once had a discussion with someone who demanded I admit that Esperanto’s morphological phonemical lexicon (I don’t remember what exactly he said, but it might as well have been gibberish) was flawed and when I didn’t, he thought I was brainwashed into thinking Esperanto was perfect. He couldn’t believe that I just didn’t care about linguistic technicalities. Most people treat Esperanto like a car, they don’t care about the technicalities of the engine, they just want to know if it works.

If we were to recreate Esperanto again from scratch, most Esperantists would have suggestions for improvements, like in relation to land names and gender. However, most people realise that there’s no such thing as a perfect language and what you think is an improvement, someone else would view as a mistake.

Myth #3: Evangelical Esperantists

There is a myth that Esperantists are trying to achieve world domination and therefore will shove the language down the throats of everyone. Apparently, there are groups of “Green Popes” who are constantly propagandising for the language. I’ve rarely come across them, but I have seen plenty of people with an irrational hatred of the language who show up in every discussion about the language. If there are any over-enthusiastic proponents, they are usually outnumbered about five to one by the equally enthusiastic critics.

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The Esperantists I know just want to chill out

I think theses people would be very surprised if they went to any of the Esperanto Youth events. There’s no flag waving or anthem singing, no speeches about the movement or propaganda techniques, people hardly even mention Zamenhof. It’s just young people from many different countries getting to know each other and having fun. When I hear about evangelical Esperantists trying to convert the world, it doesn’t fit at all with the Esperantists I know.

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I think of this when I think of Esperanto, not of cults or evangelicals

Myth #4: Esperanto has no culture

This is a very popular myth, but not true at all. There are thousands of books, songs, videos in Esperanto and wandering through the libroservo shows the staggering quantity of material produced in the language. I’m currently reading a book originally written in Esperanto, by the father of George Soros, about how he survived the Nazi occupation as a Jew in Hungary. To give you just an idea of the richness of the culture, I’ve personally read books originally written in Esperanto such as a diary kept during the Yugoslav civil war, a biography of Gandhi, the beautiful poetry of Julio Baghy, non-fiction about why Russians support Putin, how the people of Crimea feel about the Russian occupation and the persecution of Esperantists (mainly by Stalin and Hitler). Those are just the ones I’ve read, there’s more on my shelf I haven’t got to yet. The Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto is a mammoth book with 740 pages (and that’s the concise version). There is also the 750-page Historio de la Esperanta Literaturo which also covers original literature, so it’s not as if there’s a shortage of material. I haven’t read either book but I have read Star in a Night Sky, which is a really interesting bilingual sampling of a wide range of stories, novels, poems, plays, non-fiction in Esperanto.

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There are many symbols and markers of culture such as various traditions, the flag, the anthem, insider references and words that don’t translate well. Words like kabei, krokodili, la bambo, gufujo, la fina benko only have meaning in an Esperanto context. Of course, culture isn’t just the physical objects, although those are easier to show to outsiders. There is a special feeling I have when using Esperanto that I don’t feel with any other language. There is a special etoso or atmosphere at Esperanto events that you don’t find anywhere else. Post-renkontiĝa sindromo (the sadness after an event) is a real feeling even if it’s hard to express.

Myth #5: Esperanto is only easy if you speak a Western European language

While it is certainly true that most of the vocabulary comes from Western European languages, some people misunderstand this point to think that it is only easy for Western Europeans to learn. Even if you leave aside the fact that Western European languages are dominant on 5 out of 6 continents in the world, there is surprisingly little correlation between the popularity of Esperanto and the native language of the country. The largest Esperanto movements in Europe are in France, Germany and Poland, despite the fact that these countries have languages from three separate language families. In fact, I would estimate that Hungary has proportionality the largest Esperanto movement in the world and their language isn’t even Indo-European!

China and Japan have some of the largest national associations in the world and Esperanto is more active in East Asia than in Spanish-speaking South America. Last year’s World Congress in South Korea was double the size of the 2014 Congress in Argentina. Interestingly, the only countries that offer official support to Esperanto are non-Indo-European language speaking countries – Hungary (which allows Esperanto as a subject for final year exams) and China (which subsidises an Esperanto newspaper and radio).

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Group photo of the 2017 World Congress of Esperanto in South Korea. I don’t think these participants would agree that Esperanto is only for Western Europeans

While vocabulary is an important part of a language, it isn’t the only part. After all, English is considered a Germanic language even though most of its vocabulary comes from Latin languages. It has been argued that in terms of grammar, Esperanto is very similar to Asian languages. It is designed to be flexible and accommodate a wide range of writing styles through its free word order for example. Esperanto has several features which make it easy to learn regardless of your native language. No matter where you’re from the phonetic nature of Esperanto where every letter has only one sound and each sound has only one letter is easy. Even if you know nothing of Latin languages, you will find Esperanto verbs simple and easy because they are completely regular without any exceptions.

Minor myths

While I’m on the subject of myths and misconceptions, there are two small points I want to correct. They’re not very important, but seeing as I’m correcting myths, I might as well include them.

Zamenhof was Polish – Every single article I’ve read that describes the history of Esperanto, describes its creator as being Polish. This is probably because he was born in modern day Poland, but what people don’t realise is that at the time, Jews and Poles were seen as two separate ethnicities. Although Zamenhof could speak Polish, Russian was the language his family used at home. So, while he disliked the concept of nationalities in general, he said that if it must be described, he should be called a “Russian Jew.” Source

George Soros is native Esperanto speaker – This is a common internet myth but there is no original source for the claim. His father Tivadar was an active Esperantist who wrote two books in Esperanto and helped run an Esperanto literature review, so George was certainly exposed to it from a young age. He did learn it and even used an Esperanto congress abroad as the chance to escape from Communist Hungary. However, there is no evidence that he spoke it natively or that he has used it in decades. Likewise, although his surname does mean “will soar” in Esperanto, there’s no proof this is why it was chosen.

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32 thoughts on “Myths About Esperanto And Esperantists”

    1. Laŭ mi li vere celas “fina benko”. Kaj dum “fina venko” estas komprenebla per la traduko en aliaj lingvoj, ĉe “fina benko” oni ne divenas facile, ke ĝi estas ŝerca ŝanĝeto el “fina venko”; oni ŝajnigas iom misaŭdi kaj ridindigas la koncepton de fina venko, kiu ja, nu, estas iom ekster la proksima estonteco 😐

        1. Robb is a gay, a very unhappy gay. He lives in Miami where the cost of living is too high, but he keeps his eurocentric arrogance. He has to live in some overpriced city for it’s gay status. Right wing Christians may bother me, but I see Gays like Robbs as being just as bad, control freaks on the opposite end of the spectrum. Get a life. We don’t all think you are going to hell and don’t care about your smelly butt reality. Keep your butt to yourself and maybe normal people who arent right wing christians might actually feel sorry for your whiney complaining.

  1. Thank you for your interesting article I liked very much. Claude Piron asked himself, why people speak against Esperanto in “Psikologiaj reagoj al Esperanto”.

    I am collecting errors and myths about Esperanto on https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto#Eraroj_kaj_mitoj_pri_Esperanto
    and in the Facebook group “Stop talking down Esperanto!” https://www.facebook.com/groups/250353055389540 . Some more errors of linguists are to be found on http://www.linguistlist.org and I am sure there are lots and lots more to be found.

    Maybe part of the problem is what Esperanto proponents say to the outside world or to linguists especially. Some (older) Esperanto people simply are missionaries – even if these people are not to be found very often in youth gatherings. Maybe linguists just heard too often how wonderful the general introduction of Esperanto would be, so that they didn’t even have a look at the reality of the Esperanto speaking community…

  2. I think what is meant by the “Esperanto has no culture” criticism is “Esperanto has no traditional culture”. As a constructed language, it doesn’t have traditional points of reference like languages that emerge alongside the construction of a nation state, or other forms of communities that have routine forms of living. The “culture” of Esperanto emerges in whatever it is that incentivizes people to learn and use Esperanto. So ultimately its culture is some weird mix of weekend meetups and political dissidence/regime persecution (as evidenced by the literature you listed). Not arguing that it’s a waste of time to learn, just trying to clarify what I believe is the actual criticism of the language.

    1. Maybe there are some people who by saying “Esperanto has no culture” want to say “no traditional culture”. But: How would you call pieces of culture some decades old that are often referenced to in Esperanto life? The Esperanto flag, poems of Raymond Schwartz, songs of Kajto, Amplifiki, Kim etc. These things became traditional.

      There are other persons who certainly don’t have any idea of the living Esperanto culture. Barbara Cassin, a French philosopher and philologist, seems to think in 2017 that Esperanto has “neither authors nor works”, https://c onversations.e-flux.com/t/the-power-of-bilingualism-interview-with-barbara-cassin-french-philosopher-and-philologist/6252

      Heinz Wismann, also a philosopher and philologist, didn’t hear about Esperanto word plays. He asserted in an interview (2016) that it’s “impossible to create word plays in Esperanto” (“il est impossible de faire des jeux de mots en Espéranto”), http://eurocite.eu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Interview-Heinz-Wismann.pdf

      The German journalist Wolf Schneider wrote in an article about Esperanto (1994) that articial languages don’t offer child songs, verses, curses, jokes nor idioms. (“Kunstsprachen bieten keine Kinderlieder und keine Verse an, keine Flüche, keine Witze, keine Redensarten.”) The article was published in a monthly magazine of the famous Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Whole version on http://dardel.info/Textes/Esperanto.html , first lines on https://www.nzz.ch/archiv/archivtrouvaillen/sprachlos-ld.1338400 .

      Here is one more quote, from linguistlist.org (1993), so probably a linguist wrote this:
      > Children learning Esperanto from parents who insist on limiting
      > their interaction (at least in front of the children), to one which
      > passes through a restricted, artificial language with consequently
      > no attached culture, are in a bizarre situation. Their environment is
      > linguistically restricted and culturally a vaccuum.
      https://linguistlist.org/issues/4/4-900.html

      I am quite sure there are many many linguists who just didn’t understand a lot about the living Esperanto community and the culture they created. And, it’s a pity, these linguists misinform their students, misinform journalists, misinform the public :-(((

      1. Esperanto has a lot of books and music. The music is a bit too wishy washy 1960s female folker singer type stuff with a few heavy metal or rap groups and at least one retarded reggae white german kid. The books were a bit more interesting. I used to read them before I quit the language due to political differences with modern Europeans and apparently retarded children. I used to order books from here and enjoyed the translations from Romanian to Esperanto, etc, but in real life, though I could read, or online, I only ever met 1 or 2 people of the thousands who seemed like adults. Nearly every Esperantist appears like an overgrown child. You can barely talk to any of them and the mostly fixate on leftwing political causes that are vaguely superficial, like transexual bathroom rights. Lots of books though:

        http://retbutiko.esperanto-usa.org/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=20_260&sort=1a&page=8

        1. Trolling, much?? I mean, using the word “retarded”, the term “transexual [sic] bathroom rights” and the assertion “Nearly every Esperantist appears like an overgrown child” in the one short comment!

          1. They really pull trolling out of you. For them every American has to be the same and we are all guilty of Trump, hurting transgenders, etc…”everything is in out power to fix but we don’t” [sic]. I’ve hear it all before. I heard it when Bush was president and I lived in a squat in Germany. Now I hear it about Trump, and though I get older, Europeans continually want to pressure me like a child. When you reach the age of 40, you can’t talk to Europeans anymore, because they wont treat you like an adult. They really only want to talk down to children, so Esperanto loses it’s value.

      2. I think the issue here is that we have two different conceptions of what is “traditional”, or at least we’re using the term to mean two different things (though they might have some area of overlap). A “tradition” is, broadly-defined, an event, process, or construct that continues to occur over long periods of time. Additionally, in the sense I am using the word, a tradition is bounded to something specified and non-universal. So, in this sense, an invented language which was conceived of with the intended purpose of international communication and is only decades old is not “traditional”. It is relatively inorganic, unbounded, and short-lived when compared to, say, German, English, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Latin, Greek, etc.

        I won’t argue against your point that linguists and philologists are condescending towards or ignorant about Esperanto – the case seems pretty clear about that. But their attitude is not the one I’m trying to express here. I don’t want to give the impression that I think Esperanto is necessarily a negative thing or that it is a waste of time to learn. I think it is an interesting language and that it certainly has a kind of subculture to it. I’m just trying to clarify what I think people mean when they say “Esperanto doesn’t have a culture”. When compared to other languages, it doesn’t have nearly as much history or literature, nor does it have its own blood and soil.

  3. Dankon! I learned Esperanto 55 years ago as a child in school. I loved learning about so many different countries and exchanging picture postcards with other children around the world. My first international travel was to attend a TEJO conference in Sarajevo, well before the civil war. My facility is now rusty from all life’s responsibilities superseding time to enjoy gatherings with other samideanoj. Your post brought back so many good reasons to learn, speak, read, enjoy a language such as Esperanto. Denove, dankon!

    1. 55 years ago might have been a better time period to learn it. I learned it 8 years ago thinking it would be kind of a wild language that would bring a spirit of freedom to internationalism, but instead I was harassed by people 10 years younger than me for not doing enough to help homosexuals, even though I don’t particularly have anything against them, my wild view point, that some things are beyond my control in life, didnt sit well. Apparently there is a new kind of liberalism where everything must be controlled until you are boxed in and feel like there is no wildness in life.

        1. He’s left a dozen comments on my blog, all on Esperanto posts and none of them make the slightest sense. He’s either a troll or very dumb, possibly both. I considered removing the comments, but they’re so nonsensical that all you can do is laugh.

  4. You clearly have a very healthy attitude towards Esperanto, and are deriving great pleasure from your hobby. I absolutely agree with you that these myths about Esperanto are untrue.

    But we need to be honest. There are elements of truth in myths 1, 2 and 3.

    More precisely, although Esperanto can, and is used for a lot more, there is a tendency among Esperanto speakers to talk about the language itself. (This is not exclusive to Esperanto, it occurs in most conlang communities. And it is not necessarily a bad thing. When people get together they talk about their common interests, and one thing that Esperanto speakers is their interest in the language.)

    Also, although this is certainly not true of all, or even most, Esperanto speakers, there is a significant number of evangelical esperantists and those who think Esperanto is perfect and must not be criticised or altered. You don’t need to spend long in any Esperanto gathering on or offline to start encountering some of these.

    1. I disagree in part with the comments by agneaubelanyek. Myth 1 is “You can only use Esperanto to talk about Esperanto”. This blog’s author, Robert Nielsen, doesn’t claim that Esperantists never talk about Esperanto. He offers a balanced perspective on this. It would be absurd for Esperanto enthusiasts to _never_ speak about the language. But even if we expand the criticism beyond what is stated in Myth 1, it is striking that the proportion of time spent talking about the language itself is as small as it is. People in my chess club talk with each other mostly about chess. Woodworkers talk about woodworking and my hiking club talks mostly about hiking and outdoor activities. Esperantists talk mostly about other things. They do spend a small proportion of their time arguing about the flaws in Esperanto and its institutions. Which leads me to…

      There is no truth to the assertion that “there is a significant number of evangelical Esperantists and those who think Esperanto is perfect and must not be criticised”. In my more than forty years in the movement, I have never met even one person who fits this description. There certainly are some evangelists. Some of them are incautious about their audience, and inaccurate in some of their statements. Their tactics may do more harm than good. They may bristle at some criticisms, which they consider to be wrong. They may apologize and/or justify some of Esperanto’s weak points. But I haven’t yet met one person, who says that Esperanto is perfect. And if one of these mythical creatures were to wish to avoid any criticism of Esperanto, they would be unable to ever spend any significant time with other Esperanto speakers, who are, as we know, always ready to whine about something.

    2. Vere Nekoninda already gave a good answer; I agree in some regard. I would like to add some points, because I think that also agneaubelanyek made some wise remarks:

      Probably it’s right, as agneaubelanyek wrote, that there is “a significant number of evangelical esperantists”. I suppose it’s about 5 to 20 % of those speaking Esperanto. They nearly don’t act in Esperanto meetings -why should they?! They act when they meet other people not yet speaking Esperanto. One attitude I hate is the quick transition from “Do you know what Esperanto is?” to “Do you want to learn Esperanto?”, five or ten minutes later. I am so sorry, as I can.

      When you are a linguist or a politician, probably 100 % of the Esperanto speaking people who contact you are evangelicals. This is a real pity.

      I think, Esperanto associations and their leaders should do what they can to avoid this, by preaching _not_ to ask other people to learn Esperanto or to support the general introduction. I suggest _not_ to speak about the fina venko of Esperanto and about this glorious goal of of a general introduction of Esperanto.
      It’s just too complicated for the outside world to understand there are two quite distinct things: The Esperanto speaking language community (komunumo, Esperantujo) and the movement for the general introduction of Esperanto as a common second language (movado). They usually just don’t get it.

      Instead what is needed is to inform about the living Esperanto community, with books and songs and daily news from China and Wikipedia etc.

      It seems to me, that the number of people who think “Esperanto is perfect” is near to 0 %.

      The number of those who think that Esperanto “must not be criticised” is about 90 %, mostly because these 90 % have already heard all possible criticisms about Esperanto – it’s enough to hear each of them five times, more is not needed.

      Also the percentage may be similar to the percentage of people who think that English must not be critised, because this doesn’t make any sense: It would not be possible to convince the community of English speakers to change the language they use and it won’t be possible to do the same with the community of Esperanto speakers. To express criticism of Esperanto is an outcome of the false idea that Esperanto still were a language project, a proposition. This is not the case. Esperanto is a living language with a community of probably some hundred thousand regular speakers. It is very difficult to change the language of all of them, even more so, as most new proposals are changes to the (almost holy) Fundamento of 1905.

      If someone wants to propose changes in Esperanto, he or she is free to be the founder of a new language project. There have been some hundreds of new language projects after Esperanto became a language. None of them got more than about 1 % of the number of Esperanto speakers. So good luck.

      The number of those who think “Esperanto must not be altered” is near to 98 %. It’s probably similar to the number of people who think “English must not be altered”.

  5. One thing that strikes me knowing Spanish, is that if anyone wanted to, you could break down Spanish into pidginized version, and people could learn it in a week. Ive actually been creating a kind of creole of native american languages by myself. https://indeo.weebly.com/

  6. Europeans dont like my indeo language because they strill see themselves as the seed of America. Everything has to be under european influence. They in Germany and England want to be the master race and teach us thier master race Esperanto language. Northern Europeans are actually racists pretending to be liberals. Their idea of diversity is making other races turn white, and that is their liberalism, to unite all the world under one European language.

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