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