Why Esperanto won’t diverge into dialects

A criticism I’ve heard a few times about Esperanto is that it can’t become a universal language, because it would diverge into separate dialects. The argument goes like this: even if everyone in the world could speak Esperanto, the language wouldn’t succeed because it would inevitably split into several mutually incomprehensible languages and we would be back where we started. Some people seem to believe that all languages inevitably evolve and diverge until they become unrecognisable and the divergence of Latin into the Romance languages is usually the example given.

The funny thing is, these arguments have come from English speakers in Britain, America, Australia and other countries, yet as an Irishman, I can understand them without any problem. If languages naturally and inevitably diverge, why hasn’t English? Despite the fact that English has been spoken in countries thousands of miles apart, all over the world for centuries, it has not evolved into multiple dialects. Written English is so standardised that I can’t tell where someone is from based on how they write, and I doubt you would have known I am Irish, if I hadn’t told you. There are differences in pronunciation, but never so extreme that people can’t understand each other.

So why did Latin diverge but English did not? Why am I so sure Esperanto won’t follow the path of Latin? There are three main factors that lead to language divergence, so let’s look at how they impacted Latin and why they don’t apply to Esperanto.

1) Isolation

2) Literacy

3) Ideology

(Note: Some people call Ido and other Esperantidos dialects of Esperanto, but they are more like breakaway or splinter groups).

Isolation

The most important factor that influences language divergence is isolation and lack of communication. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was a decline in communication among Latin speakers as connections were lost. Trade drastically declined, roads weren’t maintained and political fragmentation meant people had less reason to contact far away regions even if they could. This isolation was even more pronounced outside elite circles as the typical person at the time would be a peasant in a small village, who lived most of their life in the same area and would not have travelled far. Thus, someone in Bordeaux might never meet someone from Portugal or Ravenna and would not need to understand them. This lack of communication meant there was nothing holding the language together, so they drifted apart.

In contrast, there is a very high level of communication and contact among Esperanto speakers. There are numerous online forums where people from all the globe message each other. There are podcasts, books and blogs being created and consumed all over the world, I have an Esperanto blog and its statistics show it is read on all 6 inhabited continents (the readership is much more diverse than this English language blog). The most popular Esperanto youtubers are from Australia, Poland, Austria, Spain and America. There are international events where people from many nationalities meet and speak face to face, such as the World Congress and World Youth Congress. In this situation, people are aware of how others use the language and have every incentive to use it in a way that makes them understood to everyone. The Esperanto community is a highly globalised community without the level of isolation required for the language to diverge.

Romance_20c_en
The Romance languages that split from Latin

Literacy

A crucial factor in the divergence of languages is the level of literacy. Linguists have noted that language evolution happens most rapidly where the literacy rate among speakers is low, while there is much less evolution where the literacy rate is high. In fact, some wonder if literacy fixes a standard version of a language in place and stops it evolving further. For example, we all know that this is how you spell “cat”. If someone began to diverge by writing “gat” they would be quickly corrected and pulled back to the standard form. So even when pronunciation varies, there is still a common and standard written form that be understood by everyone.

Esperanto is a language with probably a universal literacy rate, in fact unlike national languages, its written form was developed before its spoken form. There are also clear rules on how the language is to be used. Like many languages, Esperanto has a language academy which confirms the official use of the language. However, it goes one step further and also has a fundamento (foundation) which is the core of the language and cannot be changed. This was introduced intentionally to ensure the language would not diverge or be torn apart by endless reform proposals like other constructed languages. So, the Esperanto word for cat is kato and it cannot be spelled any other way. There are also official guidelines on how each letter should be pronounced, how words spoken (the stress is always on the second last syllable), how loan words can be written phonetically etc. This means that in Esperanto, there is a “right” way of writing, which is a safeguard against divergence.

Ideology

Although few like to openly admit it, there is a lot of politics mixed in with languages (take the Irish language for example). During the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, language was often one of the main foundations of a national identity and considered a core part of the nation. This meant people would highlight the similarities between various dialects and work to unite them into a common standard. Linguistic unity was linked with national unity. A good example of this is Yugoslavia, where the Communist regime went to great lengths to emphasise there was one common language to unite the country and highlighted the similarities among the dialects. However, after the civil war, the newly independent countries now claimed they spoke separate languages and highlighted the differences to stress their separate national identities. This also happened to a less extreme extent in Czechoslovakia.

States would also encourage one standard form of the language through education and its power. So, where there is a strong centralised nation-state we see convergence of a language but where there is political fragmentation we see language divergence. For example, throughout the Middle Ages, German and Italian had numerous dialects which reflected the political fragmentation of their respective countries. This began to change with the rise of nationalism and the nation-state. As nationalists believed all German speakers should be in one German nation-state, there was pressure to undo the divergence and instead converge the dialects into one language. As people began to identify with a common national identity (often based on a common language), it seemed logical for them to speak the one common national language. As a result, people intentionally spoke more standardised version for ideological reasons. This happened in numerous states, such as France, where great efforts were made to prevent the divergence of the French language and ensure it dominated all other dialects and languages in France.

While Esperanto has no nation-state to promote and there is no such thing as Esperanto nationalism, there is an ideological motive preventing divergence. The whole reason Esperanto was created was to promote international communication through a universal language. Splitting off from this to speak a regional dialect is completely contrary to core principle of the language. If someone wanted to speak a regional language, they wouldn’t have learned Esperanto in the first place. Creating a splinter group would mean cutting yourself off from the existing Esperanto literature and culture, as well as the main organisations and events of the community. There is little to gain from such self-imposed isolation.


I think a lot of people overestimate the level of evolution that occurs in languages. Some believe it is not only an unstoppable and inevitable force, but also a requirement for a language. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been told Esperanto isn’t a real language unless it has evolved, as if there is some sort of required amount of evolution a language must undergo and it is a sign of weakness if it fails to meet it.

But English has changed much less than some people realise, for example if you read a Sherlock Holmes novel (coincidentally the first one was published in 1887, the same year Esperanto was invented) there are no major differences with English of today. You don’t need a glossary to explain anything other than a few archaic terms relating to clothes and items no longer used, but the structure of the language is still the same. The fact English hasn’t evolved into an unrecognisable form since then is not a sign of weakness or that the language is artificial and stagnant. Esperanto has changed since its creation of course, new words have been introduced, new expressions have been coined, old expressions are used in new ways, but none of this has made the language unrecognisable or incomprehensible.

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7 thoughts on “Why Esperanto won’t diverge into dialects”

  1. A question is, of course, if it would be actually a bad thing if Esperanto would ever evolve into dialects. I don’t think so, as long as there will be a certain core that provides some degree of understandibility. Since I am familiar with both Latin and French I am able to read texts in other Romanic languages – to a certain degrees. And I think it’s unlikely that any Esperanto dialect would ever become as distinguished as modern Romanic languages.

  2. Oh, Esperanto will inevitably evolve and very likely diverge into dialects, but it’s not going to happen under our lifetime or our grandchildren’s.

    It is true, that modern means of communication make it impossible to have an imposed isolation, that existed in case of Latin. However this doesn’t mean, that a group of people could not opt for an isolation. Of course not it’s not going to happen by a blink of an eye but gradually.

    If one wants to speculate, any human language will begin diverge, when we have denaskuloj living on other planets. The environment is going to have its impact.

    There is a lot of E-o nationalism, it just takes another form, that you perhaps are used to. There are purists, bitter-einders, who resists all changes and can’t admit, that the world has turned. On the other end of the scale are the extreme-reformists, who try to push E-o into a certain direction.

    I think, that your time perspective is too short, little over 100 years is not in most cases enough, when it comes to changes in a language. For the English language you should make a comparison between ,say, before Geoffrey Chaucer and his reforms and the contemporary language. Same applies to E-o, compare Lingvoj respondoj de Zamenhof to E-o, that will be spoken 400 years from this on, if you can do the time travel.

    La Fundamento has and will continue to function as a drift anchor preventing too fast reforms, but E-o has changed. For instance in practice we use only three tenses, while E-o originally had a five tense/aspect system like in the Slavic languages. This is a change most of the people haven’t even realised that it has happened (me included until I read about it in Lernu).

    In the end it comes down to how fast the community is willing to embrace new ideas.

  3. An interesting post, but I only partially agree with your arguments. Please let me ramble a bit and explain my point of view by taking a few sentences from your article and comment on them.

    1) English “has not evolved into multiple dialects”. There is one word missing to finish your sentence with: YET. Well, it probably has started on the path to differenciation in its local varieties, but it is only just noticeable now. It will take a lot of time.
    English has been spoken all over the world for only over four centuries. That is not a lot in the life of a language! However, can you still read and understand Shakespeare’s works as people would do at that time? What about Chaucer’s? Could you read out the words in his works the way he pronounced them?

    2) “I can understand [speakers of different varieties of English] without any problem.” While listening to all those speakers, you may have noticed that they sometimes used words you could understand only because the context allowed you to understand them, but those words were not in your own vocabulary stock. And you probably use local words or words of Irish origin galore your conversation partners may understand only thanks to the context. You and they probably don’t use the very same words. So does it mean you all speak the same ‘English’?
    We French people share the same language as a large part of Canadian people. But non-French-speaking films are dubbed both in French from France and in Canadian French. Does it mean the language has diverged to the point of giving birth to two mutually incomprehensible dialects on either side of the Atlantic Ocean? Or is it the sign that it is about to?

    3) “Written English”: The written form of a language doesn’t stop its spoken form to evolve, in my opinion. One century ago, Turkish switched from arabic to roman script. How did it influence the evolution of its spoken form?
    Another example: a few languages and dialects in China share the same ideographic script, however their spoken forms are not mutually understandable.
    The written form (when it exists and there are no ‘mistakes’) fixes words as they were pronounced at one time in the evolution of language, but it doesn’t prevent their pronunciation from changing.
    Also, if you really want to use written English to show how English is standardised, how could you justify the existence of American English dictionaries, the translation of some software into British English, etc?
    You are right, by the way: I wouldn’t have known you are Irish by reading your text, but I would have easily guessed you are not American because of the way you wrote ‘standardised’ instead of ‘standardized’!

    4) You are also right to insist on ideology, and I tend to think that the arguments you used in your introduction are highly ideological by themselves. Whereas there may be attempts from some English-speaking countries to acknowledge that their variety of English is different enough from some standard British or American English, there is a large movement to keep English united as a single language, in order to maintain its domination and preeminence as a world language while preventing it from being too bastardised (bastardized?) and corrupted by ‘globish’ at the same time.

    5) Isolation: Indeed, like animal species, languages diverge when they are geographically isolated. That was the case for some Austronesian languages which share a common ancestor language. Linguistic isolation can also increase the divergence rate. One example is Romanian, caught in a vice between slavic languages and Hungarian.
    However, the ultimate reason contributing to the acceleration of the divergence of the Romance languages is not the ‘lack of communication’ or ‘isolation’. It is the collapse of the power of the Roman Empire and its centralised state, causing, as you said, ‘political fragmentation’. That was further increased by geographical boundaries: the Alps and the Pyrenees, the Loire river, etc. What you explained about ideology is also valid for the Roman Empire.
    But Latin had been a language in constant evolution, from its roots in Indo-European to Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin. Only a strong, centralised power, able to impose its language and maintain it on the defeated peoples, kept it from splitting up earlier.
    You also tend to minimise (minimize?) the importance of the invasions: Germanic tribes through France and Spain, then the Arab conquest in Spain. Again, consider how much English has changed because of 1066, Norman-French and all that… Invasions may occur because some peoples use other peoples’ power deficiency as an opportunity to gain power and riches – and impose their language.

    5) What you wrote about literacy is probably true, except for the end of that sentence: “In fact, some wonder if literacy fixes a standard version of a language in place and stops it evolving further.” I explained my point of view in paragraph (3). We could find countless examples, both in English and in French, showing that the spoken form of some words has changed while the written form has remained the same.
    It would also be easy to find examples where the written form has changed whereas the pronunciation has not. Compare the way American English differs from British English: -ize vs -ise, thru vs through, lite vs light or shortened forms ‘C U 2nite’…
    Your example is flawed because writing ‘gat’ instead of ‘cat’ would show a change in pronunciation of the word.

    6) About your example in Esperanto: indeed, ‘kato’ can’t be spelled any other way because it can’t be pronounced any other way.
    But you will find interesting and passionate discussions on the internet about what has happened to ‘ĥ’… (https://esperanto.stackexchange.com/questions/4/what-happened-to-the-letter-%C4%A5-during-the-evolution-of-esperanto-from-zamenhof-to)
    And we never know how the unvoiced+voiced cluster ‘kv’ will evolve in the long run (https://esperanto.stackexchange.com/questions/1960/why-are-there-consonant-clusters-that-are-not-uniformly-voiced).

    “I think a lot of people overestimate the level of evolution that occurs in languages.” I don’t think so. I would even say it is quite the contrary. The English speakers who don’t want to learn Esperanto because they fear it might break into different, mutually inintelligible languages, are not aware that English is slowly and gradually but inevitably splitting into different varieties that may evolve into as many dialects.

    What should be remembered is that:
    – linguists define language as a convention between an emitter (writer, speaker) and a receiver (listener, reader). The terms of that convention may be altered through space and time, for different reasons such as the law of the least effort, etc. So if those people decide by common consent to call ‘a rose by any other name’, it will still ‘smell as sweet’ (thank you, Shakespeare).
    – language is a continuum through space and time. A linguistics professor of mine once explained something true. Based on your own example, a person living in Bordeaux may need to talk to somebody else living twelve kilometres away to the east. Considering that their language is the same, except for one different word on one hundred, they will be able to understand 99% of their conversation. Based on the same consideration, that second person will also understand 99% of a conversation with a third person twelve kilometres away to the east, and so on, up to Ravenna. 1% change in the language every 12 kms doesn’t prevent understanding in local communication, but after 1200 km, the distance between Bordeaux and Ravenna, you get 100% change, so two different languages.
    You could also apply that to change in time: 1% change in a language every 12 years is hardly noticeable on the scale of a human life, but you get a different language after 1200 years! In fact, some linguists quite rightly consider that Latin has never ceased to be spoken in 2000 years: Italian (or French or any Romance language) is still Latin! Just in a different form. Nobody decided one day to swap from one language to the other.

    So I can’t agree more with Juha Metsäkallas. I think the best arguments would not be to claim that English doesn’t change, but Esperanto does change, like any other living language.

    To those people who don’t want to learn Esperanto because of its inevitable split into mutually incomprehensible languages like Latin, perhaps the best reply would be: ‘Do you hope to live more than one thousand years to witness it?’
    And to those people who use the same argument and consider ESL to be a better choice, one could ask: ‘What variety of English do you want to learn? Do you think you will be able to understand all varieties of English if you just learn one? Don’t you fear English will split up into mutually inintelligible dialects too?’

  4. You say so only because all the people you’ve spoke Esperanto to were actually (EFL) English speakers pretending to speak in another language. When everyone speaks English, there will be no dialects.

    But if Esperanto spreads on its own, without a vehicle of English, it will become fragmented very soon, as it is not a real language, and cannot stand on its own. Russians, Brazilians, Chinese, Americans will speak almost-incomprehensible languages which will share the orthography, basic morphology, the fundamental vocabulary, but will be drastically different in syntax and semantics, and even in phonology (you cannot pronounce difficult Esperanto sounds and syllables unless you’ve learned a foreign language, which introduced you to them, and even then they are usually not automatic). So in Brasil, “kato” will be “kjatu”, in Russia, “kata”, and the speakers won’t even realize they pronounce stuff wrong.

    There is not enough Esperantists and they do not share a community, so there is nothing that could impose a standardized literature norm on all its speakers.

    1. What makes you think I only speak Esperanto with English speakers? Or that they are only “pretending” to speak another language? Neither of those points are remotely true.

      And yes, Esperanto is a real language.

      1. Every person who ever visited a middle school is an EFL English speaker, as they were taught that language, many as their first foreign one. When they learn Esperanto later, it takes roots in their English, not their native language. So when you speak in Esperanto with the others, you either speak with English speakers who relexify their English with Esperanto words and grammar, or EFL speakers who relexify their English as a Foreign Language. So you essentially speak the same language, so no dialect difference.

        In your hypothetical future, foreigners may choose not to learn English, and will be speaking Esperanto relexifying their native languages, which you do not speak. Then, Esperanto English, Esperanto Russian, and Esperanto Chinese appear, and those are separate dialects, maybe even not understandable without study, like many creole/metropolis language pairs are.

        In brief: Esperanto can pretend to be a language only because there is a universal school education of a common language, English. Remove it from equation, and you are back in 1900’s, when speaking Esperanto efficiently required you to be of a higher caste like Zamenhof itself, and have learned French, German, Latin, and Greek.

        Esperanto is not a language because it doesn’t have (and never had, so it is not a dead language) any native speakers. Without them, it is just a framework of grammar rules and a bunch of meaningless words. Think about it: words in Esperanto doesn’t have meanings by themselves; they only have meanings because you associate them with English words which _do_ have meanings.

        The only way for Esperanto to become a language is a large group of Esperantists stranding on an inhabited island without a hope of rescue. Their children would hear Esperanto since birth, and make a new language to speak it, an Esperanto creole. It would be a real minority language then, but it won’t be the Esperanto we know today.

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