Universala lingvo? A universal language?

When we last left our intrepid linguist, she had presented you all with a puzzle: Merkredon, vi legos pri konstru lingvoj.

The language is Esperanto, and it means “On Wednesday, you will read about constructed languages.” Congratulations to M.Howalt who correctly identified the language and was able to sort out at least part of the sentence! If anyone else wants to devise some clever Esperanto party tricks, or just mess with people (something Yours Truly would definitely approve of), you can find a translation website here.

I remember first learning about Esperanto as a teenager and thinking how cool it would be if everyone really did learn it. I loved the idea of a tool that would make communication possible with anyone and everyone. As with many other things, however, this was a romanticized idea, though it would take me years to understand why.

Ludovic Zamenhof (Image courtesy of University of Houston)

Esperanto was developed in the late 19th century by a Polish ophthalmologist named Ludovic Zamenhof. He first proposed the idea of a constructed, universal language in 1879 and nine years later, he published Esperanto. According to the unlikely source of the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, “Zamenhof witnessed firsthand, in his homeland, the often violent struggles between different ethnic groups and concluded that the diversity of languages was the main cause of division in the human family.” Zamenhof believed that a constructed language would have many advantages over an existing human languages in improving communication and avoiding further bloodshed in international relations.

  • Esperanto is grammatically regular and simple. The rules were few, its verbs and spelling were always regular, and its pronunciation was easy to master.
  • By using a constructed language, no one would have the upper hand in international interactions. Esperanto would automatically be everyone’s second language, and no one would have the unfair advantage of being a native speaker of the language of negotiation.
  • Esperanto would carry none of the cultural baggage with which previous lingua francas had been burdened. There would be no associations with the language being that of an oppressive government, a foreign imperial power, or a religious majority. It would be politically and culturally neutral.

These are all lovely ideas, and for many years, hope remained that Esperanto would fulfill all these promises, despite opposition from Josef Stalin, who called it a revolutionary plot, and Adolf Hitler, who thought it was a tool for Jewish domination. The first Esperanto magazine was published in 1889, and many works of literature and scholarship have been both translated into and written originally in Esperanto. The first World Congress of Esperanto took place in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France in 1905, and have continued to convene each summer since then (this year’s will be in Copenhagen, Denmark). There was a peak of interest in the 1970s, but after that, despite having the greatest success of any constructed language, interest has waned and continues to do so.

Why won’t Esperanto catch on? What are the problems with Zamenhof’s vision? First of all, linguistic diversity is most likely not “the main cause of division in the human family”. We are, for example, perfectly willing to fight and kill people who speak the same language. Also, language differences alone have rarely been the cause of widespread violence. There have been tensions over language divisions, to be sure, but mostly these tensions have been due to one language being suppressed by that of a dominating force or group. Sometimes language can be the trigger for an underlying political, ethnic, or geographical conflict that had been simmering for a long time. However, if the simple existence of language diversity were the cause of conflict, the world would have been a wasteland by now.

A more practical reason why Esperanto, or probably any other constructed language, would not be likely to catch on is that they are too limited. The simplified grammar limits what can be expressed, especially when it comes to words that need to be created for modern advances in technology, science, and business. Words are constantly being added to the English lexicon as we struggle to keep up with the progress of a modern world. Can Esperanto provide for so many neologisms at the same rate as a natural human language can? It seems unlikely.

Additionally, communication is limited to only those who actually speak Esperanto well enough to converse. The numbers vary – some estimates put the number of proficient speakers at 100,000 and some as high as 3 million. Unless there were a massive effort to promote, teach, speak, and write in Esperanto, there will still be only, in essence, a handful of people who could actually use it for any sort of interaction.

This raises an additional question of community, which might be the nail in the linguistic coffin for Esperanto as a universal language. Language doesn’t live in a vacuum; it thrives on a community of speakers who transmit that language to younger generations. What if two people meet at a convention and can only speak to each other in Esperanto? They fall in love, get married, and have children – all the while conversing in Esperanto, making their children native speakers. Will the children speak it the same way as their parents, or will it change? Will it become more complex, more irregular, and more expressive? In other words, will it become just like every other human language that has already organically come into existence, making the whole point of a constructed language moot?

Humans are wired for language, and this implies linguistic complexity and messiness. When exposed to “impoverished” linguistic input, children will accommodate for this by injecting more complexity, by developing more grammatical rules from that impoverished input. This has been seen time and time again when pidgen languages become full creoles, but also more recently, and in more dramatic form, in Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Deaf students in Managua, Nicaragua (Image courtesy of Science Daily)

Deaf children in Nicaragua were isolated from each other until the 1980s when the government decided to open a school in Managua. Older students who attended the school could communicate with rudimentary gestures and some basic rules, but their range of expression was severely limited. This is generally what’s called ‘home signing’ – the fundamentals of communication that are developed in the absence of any linguistic input because of isolation and the inability to hear spoken input from the family.

Younger students who were exposed to this system of home signs remarkably began to produce linguistic output that was radically different from the input. It had more rules, variability, expression, and clarity. “With no coexisting signed languages and limited access to Spanish as a result of low literacy and the inability to hear, the only possible source of this highly complex linguistic structure is the human brains of those very young first language learners.” (National Science Foundation) In other words – the children created a new language from the scraps of home signing.

Wouldn’t this happen with Esperanto? Isn’t the simplified grammar a form of impoverished input? And wouldn’t the parents, by definition, be non-native speakers, which means they may be speaking broken Esperanto? There are some people – estimated to be about 1,000 – who have grown up speaking Esperanto, one of the more notable example being George Soros who, incidentally, operates in English. There are already linguists studying whether or not native speakers of Esperanto ‘naturalize’ the grammar and of course, there is already disagreement. Bergen (2001) thinks native speakers are changing the grammar, while Lindstedt (2006) does not (though one wonders about his bias – his test subjects were his own children).

It’s possibly too soon to be sure, especially with such a small pool of potential subjects who don’t interact as a close community, but given the tendency over the past 50,000 years to move towards complex, irregular, and unpredictable, yet infinitely functional language, I don’t hold out hope for global Esperanto.

Now Klingon, on the other hand…

33 thoughts on “Universala lingvo? A universal language?

  1. Very interesting post. Are you writing that book yet? You certainly should be! Zamenhof’s belief that Esperanto would avoid international miscommunication is wonderful in theory, but the remaining aspects of any group’s culture are sure to cause some miscommunication. My husband is the cheif adminstrator at his workplace. His employees are from six continents. Though all of his workers speak English fluently, from time to time he has to diffuse problems among them that stem from cultural differences. His most recent situation was that of a recently married man whose religion now prohibited him from touching other women, even in the form of a handshake. This caused some hurt feelings from female clients and coworkers who were ignored when they extended their hand to him at the beginning or end of a meeting.
    I also agree with you that it would be impossible for Esperanto to remain in it’s natural form, as all language tends to become bastardized over time. Global Klingon sounds much more plausible, and it would make my husband so very happy. :)

    • Good point about the cultural issues that could cause miscommunication. Sometimes a person can say the exact right words, but at the wrong time or with the wrong tone…there are still many many ways we can screw it all up! ;) Not to mention that the idea of Esperanto being culturally-neutral was defeated by the fact that it is still, in essence, a European language. From Wikipedia (because I can’t find where I originally saw the stats for the linguistic composition of Esperanto:)
      “The phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and semantics are based on the western Indo-European languages. The phonemic inventory is essentially Slavic, as is much of the semantics, while the vocabulary derives primarily from the Romance languages, with a lesser contribution from the Germanic languages. Pragmatics and other aspects of the language not specified by Zamenhof’s original documents were influenced by the native languages of early speakers, primarily Russian, Polish, German, and French.”

      (PS – *whispering* We’ll be talking about Klingon on Friday!)

  2. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for saying that you are far too pessimistic here. Esperanto has caught on. Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

    I’ve met about a dozen native speakers of Esperanto over the years, mostly the children of parents (e.g. one Japanes, one German) for whom Esperanto is the normal common language. Their language is not raduically differrent from the one whichg started life nearly 125 years ago.

    You can do anything in Esperanto you can do in any other language: preach a moving sermon, make a tub-thumping political speech, write scientific papers, read gossip and news on Libera Folio and in a host of periodicals, and react to other people’s views, sing folk-songs and hymns, perform in or watch a play, scold disobedient children. You can be honest, dishonest, devious, alarmingly frank. Esperanto is “infinitely functional”. Of course, there is messiness, and people make false starts and don’t al;ways complete what they intend to say. What people say can be misunderstood as in any other language, but clarification can easily be sought and given.

    • Thank you for your comment. It’s interesting to hear from someone who has more direct experience with speaking the language and it’s enlightening to hear of the ways the language is being used.

      I hope you in turn will forgive me for maintaining the stance that Esperanto has not, in fact, “caught on”. I do not dispute that a solid community of dedicated users has developed and made Esperanto the most successful of the constructed languages. It has not, however, become a global lingua franca for more than a small percentage of people, and it is nowhere near its intended goal as “world peace through country-neutral international language, preserve local languages and put everyone on an equal footing (language-wise).” https://n-1.cc/pg/groups/44414/esperanto/ There are, by conservative measures, about 100,000 fluent speakers of Esperanto, and up to – by more generous measures – 5 million people who at least have a passing understanding of the language. Yes, 5 million is more than the population of some European countries, but it’s also a relatively small number, and far from being a global linguistic force.

  3. The simplified grammar limits what can be expressed, especially when it comes to words that need to be created for modern advances in technology, science, and business.

    Not at all. The grammar of many languages is more streamlined than that of English, but that doesn’t make them any less expressive. Esperanto is no different. If anything, as a language that was born of literary translation, Esperanto is uniquely sensitive to the many nuances of expression describing the human condition. Just look at all the poetry that has been written (and translated into) Esperanto. For many poets (Nobel-nominated William Auld, for example), Esperanto is their language of choice. As a translator who works with both languages, I have to say that I find the flexible morphology of Esperanto often gives me more freedom of expression than does English. While English expressions can almost always be translated into fluent Esperanto, accurately capturing the subtleties of Esperanto expressions in English can be quite difficult.

    Words are constantly being added to the English lexicon as we struggle to keep up with the progress of a modern world. Can Esperanto provide for so many neologisms at the same rate as a natural human language can?

    Of course it can—and it does. After all, Esperanto is a natural human language. Just like English, Esperanto evolves naturally, adopting new expressions all the time. The growth of the lexicon is explosive. Just compare the lexicon of Zamenhof’s Unua Libro (~900 roots) with a modern version of the Plena Ilustrita Vortaro (>40,000 roots). And that doesn’t include all the fakvortaroj (specialist dictionaries) for things like electronics, linguistics, sports, astronomy, masonry, and so on.

    • Thank you for your comment and the information about the growth of the Esperanto lexicon. It’s impressive, but I wouldn’t call it ‘explosive’, not when compared to the half a million words added to the English language in the past 50 years.

      The claim that Esperanto is a ‘natural’ language is also a contentious one and depends greatly on where you place the semantic boundaries on the word ‘natural’. Esperanto is not a natural language in its inception – it was deliberately constructed rather than arising organically from a community over generations. Whether or not it has evolved into a natural language is what is still under debate. One of the definitions is whether or not it has native speakers. Taking the 1,000 or so people who grew up with Esperanto as one of their first languages, it can certainly be said that it should be included. Evolving naturally, however, would involve much more than simply ‘adopting new expressions.’ The structure itself would be altered over time and generations.

      As I said in the post, I believe it’s too soon to tell. There are too few people who grew up with Esperanto as one of the languages they spoke from birth, and I haven’t found any evidence of any children at all who speak Esperanto exclusively in a community of other mono-lingual Esperanto speakers. This is where the real changes would occur, if at all: when Esperanto – with its finite, rigid grammatical structure and reported lack of exceptions to these rules – is the only linguistic input that children are exposed to.

      I’m sorry I can’t come to a conclusion with just the evidence of a handful of anecdotes, but I’m simply not convinced that it is a ‘living’, naturally evolving language just yet. And even if it were, I still doubt its ability to ever live up to its original, very lofty goals.

  4. It’s impressive, but I wouldn’t call it ‘explosive’, not when compared to the half a million words added to the English language in the past 50 years.

    Whatever adjective you use, growth of over 4000% is pretty rapid (if not “explosive,” then perhaps “rocketing”? :) especially since many of these roots see common use. What’s more, we’re talking about just roots, each of which is used to form many derived words.

    The impressive size of an English dictionary can be misleading, since it necessarily has separate entries, or “headwords”, for related terms that share no surface similarity. In Esperanto, many related terms are derived from a single root and thus fall under a single entry. Compare for example “meal” (manĝo), “eat” (manĝi), “utensil” (manĝilo), “snack” (manĝeti), “trough” (manĝujo) and so on. When you count the derived terms, the 40K+ roots in PIV are multiplied many times over.

    Also, while it sounds impressive to talk about the thousands and thousands of terms that have been added to English in the last 50 years, these are mostly words you won’t find anywhere but a laboratory. We can play the same game with other languages, including Esperanto: add in the many thousands of terms found in the specialist dictionaries, and you get more words than any single person could learn in a lifetime.

    The claim that Esperanto is a ‘natural’ language is also a contentious one and depends greatly on where you place the semantic boundaries on the word ‘natural’

    Yes, we can certainly massage the definition of “natural” to exclude languages that have involved conscious planning (e.g. Nynorsk, modern Hebrew) or ones that have planned elements and are spoken primarily as auxiliary languages by non-native speakers (e.g., Bahasa Indonesia), and so on. Esperanto, as a planned language used mostly by non-native speakers, can certainly be excluded in this way. But if “natural” means a language that evolves on its own, by the same rules that apply to every human language, then Esperanto is indeed natural.

    Esperanto is not a natural language in its inception – it was deliberately constructed rather than arising organically from a community over generations.

    There are a number of natural languages that did not arise “organically from a community over generations.” Take modern Turkish, for example. It was completely overhauled under Ataturk, undergoing dramatic and deliberate changes to its orthography, morphology, lexicon, and even its grammar. Most modern Turkish speakers can’t read what their ancestors wrote, nor can they easily understand many recordings made in Ataturk’s day.

    Esperanto was originally a constructed language, yes, but that was a long time ago, and much has changed since then. Not because anyone has consciously engineered those changes—they couldn’t if they wanted to, and many have tried—but because people have been using the language in all walks of life from everything from child-rearing to circuit design to religious worship to erotica. (But not at the same time… er, at least, I hope not.)

    This is where the real changes would occur, if at all: when Esperanto – with its finite, rigid grammatical structure and reported lack of exceptions to these rules

    If you look at a modern treatment of Esperanto grammar, you’ll find it far more complex than the original 16 rules—which were really just a sketch and couldn’t constitute a living language. For example, the Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko (Wennergren, 2006) is over 600 pages long. Almost none of that was part of the initial “rigid” specification; it emerged organically as the language was put to use. (And incidentally, all human grammars are finite. ;)

    A final word: Claude Piron was a psychologist, linguist, and U.N. translator who, aside from speaking Chinese, French, Russian, English, and Spanish, was also known for his writings in Esperanto. While we can split hairs about what qualities make a language “living” or “natural,” perhaps it makes more sense to give Piron’s answer to someone who once said they’d heard that Esperanto lacks “soul, feeling and nuance.” Piron replied:

    When a child bewails his distress in Esperanto,
    and receives consolation in Esperanto at your side,
    when you toil with a group of friends
    and share in Esperanto your joys and troubles,
    when, as a teenager, you whisper about sex in Esperanto,
    and later use it to express your love,
    when a refugee recounts for you in Esperanto
    the torments that caused him to flee,
    when you see an audience moved to tears
    at hearing an Esperanto poem
    and witness quarrels in the language,
    when in discussion of politics or religion
    you express in Esperanto your fears and indignation,
    and when, with the help of Esperanto,
    you sing of your gratitude and delight
    at the wonder of human solidarity,
    never, never more will you think of Esperanto
    as a language without soul, feeling and nuance.
    I know.
    I’ve experienced all of this.

    This was from the Japanese magazine Oomoto (No 437, 1995. 22-24), which is published in Esperanto. I’ve translated it into English.

    • “There are a number of natural languages that did not arise “organically from a community over generations.” Take modern Turkish, for example. It was completely overhauled under Ataturk, undergoing dramatic and deliberate changes to its orthography, morphology, lexicon, and even its grammar. Most modern Turkish speakers can’t read what their ancestors wrote, nor can they easily understand many recordings made in Ataturk’s day.”

      Turkish is not a constructed language in any sense. Ataturk instituted reforms, yes, but the major changes were in the alphabet (which in and of itself does not change the language) and the ‘purification’ of the lexicon. He wanted to eliminate Arabic influence, and thus many Turkic origin words were introduced. In current speech, there are still many synonyms, however, that exist side by side – one Turkic and one Arabic.

      I’m getting contradictory information: you say that the grammar of Esperanto has changed and yet another commenter who speaks Esperanto says it’s not radically different from what it was 125 years ago. Has it evolved or no? And if it has become a living language, with full grammatical complexity and not just 16 grammatical rules with no exceptions, then doesn’t that defeat the purpose of creating a simplified linguistic system that could be easily learned? What then makes it any more suitable as a lingua franca than any other language that already exists?

      And yes – all languages have a finite number of grammatical rules. I already understood that, thank you. They are not, however, finite in the number of utterances that can be generated by those finite rules. They are only constrained by lifespan.

      I am not attacking Esperanto or its speakers, and I thank you for the time you took to comment. But I am not convinced that it is tenable as a global lingua franca. We are simply going to have to agree to disagree.

      • Turkish is not a constructed language in any sense.

        I never claimed that modern Turkish is a constructed language, but merely that—like Esperanto—much of it did not “arise organically,” as you put it. Turkish, like a number of other living, “natural” languages, underwent a good deal of deliberate, “inorganic” planning.

        you say that the grammar of Esperanto has changed and yet another commenter who speaks Esperanto says it’s not radically different from what it was 125 years ago. Has it evolved or no?

        I can’t speak for others, but yes, it has evolved. Whether the evolution is “radical” or not is hard to say. Not as “explosive” as the lexical growth, certainly. :-) Looking at texts from the 1890s, they certainly aren’t difficult to read… but here and there things stand out—looking quaint, or musty, or odd. I’d say the same thing about English texts from that period. Whether the English has changed more than the Esperanto, I can’t say.

        if it has become a living language, with full grammatical complexity and not just 16 grammatical rules with no exceptions, then doesn’t that defeat the purpose of creating a simplified linguistic system that could be easily learned?

        No, I don’t think so. Not unless one takes the naive view that a living human language—with all its necessary flexibility and nuance—can be completely encapsulated in 16 rules. That’s impossible. Esperanto is far more streamlined and regular than the vast majority of other languages, but it isn’t trivially simple. It can’t be.

        What then makes it any more suitable as a lingua franca than any other language that already exists?

        Well, it’s certainly much easier to acquire and use than most other languages. As someone who was forced as a youngster to wrestle with the seemingly endless irregularity of French and its silly noun classes. I nearly wept with joy upon discovering Esperanto. Instead of wasting hours and hours memorizing things like verb conjugations and the “gender” of inanimate objects, I could actually spend my time how to express ideas! It was so liberating to be able to hold meaningful conversations with people from other countries after only a few months of study…

        It’s also uniquely useful as a language of translation. Esperanto was born of literary translation, in fact, which played a huge role in shaping the language in its early years. It gives me a window on world literature—I get to read classics from a wealth of cultures in translations that are often more faithful than anything I can find in English.

        It’s also great for travel. With the hospitality network Pasporta Servo, for example, my friends have traveled around the world for virtually nothing, learning about foreign cities not from tour guides, but from the people who live there.

        Then of course there’s the neutrality. People make a big deal of Zamenhof’s supposed goal of world peace through language. He was a dreamer, to be sure, but he wasn’t naive enough to think that a common language is enough to end wars. The idea, rather, was to provide a way for people to meet on “common ground.” I live in the northeastern USA, for example, and have friends from nearby Quebec. My French is terrible, and it makes me sound like an idiot (or at least, more of an idiot than usual!) The Quebecers speak halting English that often makes them sound (to me) like they’re trying to impersonate Inspector Clouseau. Whichever language we choose, one of us has to flail about in an idiom that is effortless for the other person by virtue of birth. Either they have to cater to me, or I have to cater to them. Someone is always “second class.” That’s unfortunate, and fundamentally unfair.

        So instead, we use Esperanto. We can both express ourselves freely, as equals. And it’s the same with friends from Vietnam, Russia, Finland, China, Mali, Poland… and even an exotic place called “Texas.” :-) After a while, you forget that the other person is a “foreigner”—you’re no longer Russians and Chinese, Canadians and Vietnamese, but simply people. This is what Zamenhof was trying to do.

        And yes – all languages have a finite number of grammatical rules. I already understood that, thank you. They are not, however, finite in the number of utterances that can be generated by those finite rules.

        Right, but you claimed Esperanto has a “finite grammar.” It doesn’t. And just like every other human language, the number of utterances that can be generated by its grammar are infinite.

        But I am not convinced that it is tenable as a global lingua franca. We are simply going to have to agree to disagree.

        Sorry, but I’m not trying to convince you of anything, nor do I claim that Esperanto is necessarily tenable as a global lingua franca. I’m merely saying that it is a living language like many others, used daily for virtually everything imaginable, and that for over a century it has been functioning quite well as a bridge between the world’s peoples and cultures. :-)

      • My goal in writing the post was to explore the question of whether or not Esperanto – or any other constructed language for that matter – would be viable as a global lingua franca, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not. Either the structure is too rigid and limited for nuanced communication, or the expansion into a ‘living’ language ultimately limits its neutrality. I never claimed it had no place in the world, just perhaps that the original idea was too romanticized and far-fetched.

        I agree with some of your points and disagree with others, but forgive me, I am not interested in hashing it out here in the comments. I thank you sincerely for your contributions; they have been illuminating and informative.

      • Right, but you claimed Esperanto has a “finite grammar.” It doesn’t.

        Sorry, that should read: “It does, just like every other language.”

      • Thanks for the link. I took a quick glance at the article and it’s certainly a thorough and detailed description of the linguistic evolution. I’ll have to go through it more carefully when I’m not about to go to bed!

        I did come across Claude Piron’s work in my research for this entry. I’m still on the lookout for a good source of a more neutral point of view on Esperanto (so much that is readily available is so skewed one way or another that it’s difficult to get a clear picture), but Piron is a valuable resource and more helpful than a lot of what I’ve read. I may pick up Arika Okrent’s book at some point after the semester is over to see how objectively she writes about the subject.

        Thank you for commenting!

  5. Great post! It was a really fascinating read. – Because although I identified Esperanto (and thank you for the mention! :)), I by no means speak it or know very much about it.
    The idea of Esperanto is so interesting! I can definitely see the reasons behind it, and I have been tempted to learn it for a while, but I’ve never gotten around to it. Too many other languages out there that I had to learn.
    Is there any literature (novels) or films in Esperanto – I mean as their original language? Or is it only used for practical purposes? Esperanto not being tied to a specific culture or country is interesting, but I think it may make it harder to use it for artistic purposes – everybody will have to translate into it.
    (That annual conference is going to take place very close to me this year …)

    • For me, the ‘tip off’ for Esperanto is that it looks like a Slavic language at first glance, but then reads like a Romance language because of the many Latinate roots. I’ve been tempted over the years, but like you, I found myself much more drawn to the other languages I was interested in.

      There is original work written in Esperanto. Here’s a link from the British Library with some information on its collections in Esperanto (some translations, some orginal): http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelplang/esperanto/esperantocollections/esperantocols.html

      The concept is interesting, and as I’ve said, it has certainly been more successful than other attempts to do the same thing – create a linguisticially simplified (and thus easier to learn and use), culturally neutral language for international communication. I believe its goal of world peace was noble but far-fetched (some say cynical, I say pragmatic, but a language alone will not create world peace!). Linguistically, of course, it is tied to Europe. I don’t know if it was intended only for practical purposes – for diplomacy, commerce – but it has certainly sprung a bit of a subculture of its own.

      • I actually thought about Slavic languages at first, but then the words looked Latinesque to me too.
        Thank you for the link! If I could read Esperanto, I’d see how literature works in a non-culturally bound language. Maybe if I learn it at some point. For now I’ll just look at the titles. :)

    • M: Aside from various artistic films that use Esperanto, there’s a great free documentary online about Esperanto, made by volunteers collaborating from around the world. It’s a nice example of how useful the language is; for example, without Esperanto, the makers of the film (who are from China, Brazil, Poland, Canada, Japan, etc.) wouldn’t have been able to communicate in the first place. :)

      http://www.youtube.com/user/Esperantoestas

  6. Actually, if you mean to say ” “On Wednesday, you will read about constructed languages”, “your sentence should read “Merkredon, vi legos pri artefaritaj lingvoj”.

    What Zamenhof actually said, in his speech to the second World Congress in Geneva in 1906 (see “Originala Verkaro”, p. 370), was that in his home town of Bialystok where he grew up, people were attacked for having another language as well as another religion. He questioned whether the lies and calumnies by people stirring up communal strife could bear the terrible fruit that they did, without barriers to communication and understanding. He believed that the mass of such crimes could be done away with by means of communication and mutual understanding based on a neutral foundation. Esperanto aimed to provide this, but it should be noted that to Zamenhof, his philosophy of a humanity underlying different ethnic and religious communities or the “internal idea” (also known the “brotherhood of Man”) was integral to his being an Esperantist. It may be that for Esperanto to better succeed, this “humanitarianism” of Zamenhof will need a revival.

    • Warning: this is a long one! :)

      That is an interesting point, to be sure. Having grown up with turmoil and violence and seeing it connected to minority languages, it is certainly understandable where Zamanhof would have conceived of a linguistic solution to the problem.

      The idea that humanism – the “Brotherhood of Man” – is really what would drive a movement behind Esperanto is what ultimately makes me question whether or not the language itself is ancillary to the purpose. Does the language itself create a humanistic feeling, or does an inclination towards humanism attract a person to the language, which satisfies that person’s desire? (I’ve read many explanations that Esperanto filled a gap or a need or desire…implying that the need was already there.) If there is no such inclination already residing in a person, I have doubts that the language alone would create it.

      To be truly effective as a neutral, auxiliary language that people will actually use, the language needs to remain artificial and linguistically simplistic – I mean, that was the main point of creating a simple structure with no exceptions, correct? So it can be learned more easily. The questions that are raised (for me) are: Can enough people get emotionally invested in such artificiality – without a preexisting lean towards humanism – to bother with even a simple language to learn? And if not, then how could it become widespread enough to be practically useful, regardless of humanistic feelings?

      Let’s say that Esperanto is a living language, as many have claimed. This may make people more emotionally invested in the language itself (and not just the concept, though that may be part of it). The language is becoming more flexible, perhaps changing and evolving…becoming part of a cohesive group. Does this not endanger its cultural neutrality? I don’t mean neutrality in the sense that it doesn’t belong to any one existing culture ; I mean, the culture of Esperanto itself. Isn’t there already a culture of Esperanto? Can it ever maintain neutrality?

      To answer these questions I believe, one needs to go beyond the scope of just linguistics, and investigate both psychology and sociology. My investigations have so far led me to conclude that the goals of Esperanto – either original or modern variations – are not achievable on a widespread, global level. It risks its goal of linguistic simplicity by the possibility of become so widespread that regional variation becomes an issue (look at what’s already happened to English), or a community of native speakers may inject enough complexity (a la Nicaraguan Sign Language) that it becomes much more difficult to learn, thus losing it efficacy. It also risks its cultural neutrality. Perhaps with much more research I may come to a different conclusion, but for now, it’s difficult to find the kind of evidence because there are too few objective parties putting out useful data or arguments.

      Please understand that I really am trying to look at different angles and sources for information, but the majority of the material I’ve found has come from clearly interested parties, and so I feel obliged to take it with a grain of salt :) That’s just my training. I’m not one to proclaim my conclusion and never revisit it, but as it stands at the moment, I haven’t seen enough to convince me that Esperanto can achieve its intended goals. (For the record, I consulted many Esperanto websites, but quoted its goals from here: https://n-1.cc/pg/groups/44414/esperanto/)

      As for the translation, you’ll have to take that that up with the programmers of traduku.net :)

      Edited to add: I may have my doubts, but I do appreciate the information and perspective that you shared, and that you took the time to comment! Just wanted to make that clear!

      • I think we can agree that the “humanism” of Zamenhof could exist as a separate entity from Esperanto. A parallel example might be the “Moral Rearmament Movement”, whose original inspiration was Christian (as Zamenhof’s was Jewish). By the same token Esperanto could operate separate from Zamenhof’s “internal idea”. The early movement in fact made the separation official, defining an Esperantist as anyone using the language, for any reason. However I think it may take a revitalisation of the “internal idea” to revitalise the language, and that may be as much a gift from heaven as the MRM and its various offshoots.

        Taking up your point about evolution dialects, Esperanto has the “Fundamento” and an Academy as a continuing body which has given it stability and prevented it fracturing into dialects. Thus the language is not defined by its “denaskuloj” or “native speakers”, desirable though these are for the development of a culture.

        Zamenhof himself spoke of a point in his project at which he began to think in Esperanto and felt that his language had become alive: “I began to avoid word-for-word translations .. and strove to think directly in the Neutral Language. Later I noticed, that the language had acquired its own spirit and life, its own well-defined style of expression, now independent from any influence. Its speech now flowed by itself, flexibly, gracefully and altogether freely, like one’s own mother tongue.”

      • Very interesting points, and definitely a lot of things to think about, thank you!

        The one clarification I’ll make is the idea of the importance of the native speaker. Most linguists place native speaker judgement as the highest authority, and without true native speakers, a linguist working within those parameters would not have much to go on in regards to Esperanto. So the role of the native speaker within the community is not the same as the role of the native speaker in linguistic research.

        On a personal note, I am cynical about the ability of a central governing body for a language to truly control it. People will do what they want to do and say what they want to say, no matter what an Academy (or English teacher! ;) say is ‘proper’. Perhaps it would be different for Esperanto if it remains solely a second language, it’s true. But if it were to gain a ‘critical mass’ of native speakers, I think it would take on a life of its own.

        It’s quite a nut to crack, isn’t it? :) There are dozens of factors to consider, which is perhaps why I am attracted to the subject!

      • (I know this wasn’t a response to me, but am I correct in thinking that you suggest it’s more current to use the term ‘planned language’ rather than ‘artificial language’? Just testing what I can guess without looking anything up! :) )

  7. In my experience Esperanto has a learning-curve more suitable for an international languange. That is, it permits you to reach a decent level of expression in very short period compared to other languages. This “magic” is due to the structure of Esperanto.
    But by Esperanto it’s been translated the “Divina Commedia” of Dante Alighieri. Do you ever read a translation of it? It’s a very complex writing. Well, Esperanto permitted the translation of it, and the translation is quite good.

    So, does the “rigid” structure of Esperanto limit its expressiveness? Not more of how the rigidness of computer structure limit the possibilities of it’s use. The computer era was born after Esperanto (in the 40’s of 1900), but in the 80’s (and maybe 90’s with the advent of Win95) more people comprehended the value of it. And, are we using computers as in the 80’s? Were predictable the modern uses of it or the richness that would spring out of it? I don’t think so.
    Yes, computers evolved, but the original structure of it, that devised by Alan Turing, remained the same. That original structure says what you can and you can’t do with computers, but until now the richness of expressiveness of the Turing work it’s outstanding.
    Well, Esperanto is similar. It’s structure (the 16 rules) are the same today (hence, it is “rigid”), but what about the richness, that it showed in more of a century of life? Translations, original works and the communications between people in the Internet-era are demonstrations of it.
    It’s structure it’s “rigid” to give its users the possibility to create whatever words and sentences to express their thoughts. But, aren’t the computers doing the same?
    About new words, which appear every day, every language is at the same level. How could be worse in Esperanto? The computer-era brought a bulk of new terms, but Esperanto didn’t suffer: take a look at Ubuntu 11.10, that is almost totally translated in Esperanto (it’s comparable to other languages as Italian, French, …).

    Internet is quite a big place. How many times do we said: “I really didn’t know about it!”? Well, to see the richness and complexity of the human interactions by Esperanto it’s not so simple. Many of them use social networks (Facebook, Ipernity, …) and it’s not always possible to see that material (think particularly to Facebook), many use Skype (how could you measure that?), many meet each other directly, and so on.

    You could have been using Esperanto for quite a while, but you normally haven’t found all of the things about it.

    Give it a try! Where “it” it’s not “Esperanto”, it’s “communication by Esperanto”. So, the “try” is not a linguistic one, but a cultural one. Learn Esperanto is far more simple of get a profound grasp of the Esperanto people.

    • Quite frankly, the claims of the richness and variety of Esperanto simply strengthen the idea that a language with so few rules will eventually become more complex due to the communicative demands placed on it by its speakers. And as it becomes more complex, it behaves more and more like an existing natural human language, which sort of defeats the purpose of its origin. In addition, the invitation to understand the culture, to “get a profound grasp of the Esperanto people”, shows that there is indeed a culture that has arisen based on the language. This also defeats the purpose of creating a language that would be culture-neutral so it could be used to resolve or avoid conflict. It has now become a culturally-charged language.

      Please understand that I never claimed that there was no place for Esperanto, but simply that the original purpose of promoting world peace through an artificial language seems extremely unlikely, and perhaps even impossible.

      • Every language needs to be taught and to be controlled, otherwise it will change non-uniformly. This would be complex task and part of it it’s done by the schools, that prescribe the “right” language to the pupils. How many times acculturated people do not like the “people-language” so distant from the taught one?

        But why the people (and manly the young ones) change the language? My experience taught me two things about it: ignorance and intuitiveness.
        When you don’t know your language’s rules, how could you speak rightly?

        Who don’t know his own language’s rules? Ignorants and children.
        Ignorants, whatever the reason they are so, are so similar to children, because when they do not know a rule they extend the already known rules (dance>danced, hence teach>teached or buy>buyed); when they don’t know an irregularity they simply don’t use it.
        But, remark, they are helped and betrayed by intuition, as the ignorants so the children.
        We, the acculturated ones, laugh at their ignorance, but they simply do what nature gave us: intuition, namely the mental skill to extend to something what we learned about something else.

        Esperanto is more simple compared to other languages, ’cause it pays off our intuition.

        About the “culture”.
        I didn’t write that Esperanto has a culture. As you yourself wrote, I said: “get a profound grasp of the Esperanto people”.
        Does this phrase imply the concept of unique culture?
        I could say: “get a profound grasp of this particular forest” and it would not imply that the forest is made of a unique specie of tree.

        I meant to “get a profound grasp of the Esperanto people”, because Esperanto-people isn’t so simple to comprehend. The reason is quite simple: they are a mix of cultures. Not even the U.S. are so cosmopolitan, because the foreigners become used to U.S.-culture.
        In Esperanto international meetings, every person maintain his culture and his life in his land. So, how these persons so different interact? This is a simple and interesting question, that is very difficult to answer because it depends by the particular international group.
        Hence, the Esperanto-world is very complex due to the richness and diversity of culture of his speakers.

        If you want to speak about a “Esperanto-culture”, the better would be say instead: “World-culture”.

  8. Pingback: “Hello”, “goodbye”, “cheers”, “I love you”, “the deities bless you” and “I’ll rip your heart out” « Howalt: A Writer's Blog
  9. Here is my Facebook challenge. I challenge you to meet more people than I have chatted with in Esperanto. You can use, lets say 3 languages: English, French and German combined. I have traveled and met 20,000 Esperanto speakers during my lifetime. Only about one thousand of them are my friends at Facebook another thousand or so people with whom I chat with I’ve never met. Let be real. Let’s limit ourselves to 2 hours a day. Esperanto has defeated English for making friends. English defeats Esperanto for planning and creating war. You can have your Inernational English. http://www.EnglishTeachersforEsperanto.blogspot.com

    • I’m sorry, “let’s be real“? Well, you can knock yourself out, but I have no intention whatsoever of spending 2 hours a day on Facebook trying to make friends in any language. It would prove nothing and it would be a colossal waste of my time.

      • I agree: Let’s get real. I’ve just come across this correspondence, seeking out Atatürk’s view on Esperanto! Let me clear up three misconceptions.

        1. Esperanto was launched on the path of natural development, but the *syntax* of the language has not changed. Vocabulary and usage change, but not the fundamental rules, which are stable because they are simple. Adjectives still end in ‘a’; nouns still end in ‘o’ etc.

        2. Zamenhof had no pretensions of world peace being brought about merely by having a common language. However, he noticed that ethnic conflicts are invariably linked to language and religion, and proposed a common *second* language to provide a communication bridge as a start. The point is that conflicts are usually initiated by identity politics, setting off one group against another, and that is still true today.

        3. Esperanto did not catch on; it became relatively popular, and in its early days it looked as if it might catch on. Statements like that simply discredit the Esperanto movement. Although some genuine Esperantists make this claim, I have evidence that a minority of Esperanto speakers have been active in purposefully discrediting the Esperanto movement, probably in support of the Anglo-American Establishment’s objective of making English the global language. I’ve been active in the Esperanto movement since 1962, am quasi-native in it, and the rest of my immediate family were brought up bilingually with it. I am very familiar with the movement. Ten years ago I was ambushed by the leadership of Esperanto Association of Britain at their AGM, after I had carried out research into the decline of the membership. It had been roughly around 1000 for ten years, and then declined linearly from 1992 onwards. They went on an austerity drive, saying there was no money for promotion, and they sold their shop in London in 1999 because their capital was being “eaten up”. In 2005 I discovered that the capital was in fact rising dramatically over that period, and that they had been carefully concealing that fact from the members. The President who led the ambush in 2006 was a professor of linguistics, who had been working for years with the British Council in support of the spread of English abroad. I also discovered that the objective of the push for English was English language hegemony – not as a second language but as the first language of the world. “Empires of the future are empires of the mind” – Winston Churchill. The Esperanto movement has suffered such an insurrection in every generation since it was launched in 1887.

  10. I agree: Let’s get real. I’ve just come across this correspondence, seeking out Atatürk’s view on Esperanto! Let me clear up three misconceptions.

    1. Esperanto was launched on the path of natural development, but the *syntax* of the language has not changed. Vocabulary and usage change, but not the fundamental rules, which are stable because they are simple. Adjectives still end in ‘a’; nouns still end in ‘o’ etc.

    2. Zamenhof had no pretensions of world peace being brought about merely by having a common language. However, he noticed that ethnic conflicts are invariably linked to language and religion, and proposed a common *second* language to provide a communication bridge as a start. The point is that conflicts are usually initiated by identity politics, setting off one group against another, and that is still true today.

    3. Esperanto did not catch on; it became relatively popular, and in its early days it looked as if it might catch on. Statements like that simply discredit the Esperanto movement. Although some genuine Esperantists make this claim, I have evidence that a minority of Esperanto speakers have been active in purposefully discrediting the Esperanto movement, probably in support of the Anglo-American Establishment’s objective of making English the global language. I’ve been active in the Esperanto movement since 1962, am quasi-native in it, and the rest of my immediate family were brought up bilingually with it. I am very familiar with the movement. Ten years ago I was ambushed by the leadership of Esperanto Association of Britain at their AGM, after I had carried out research into the decline of the membership. It had been roughly around 1000 for ten years, and then declined linearly from 1992 onwards. They went on an austerity drive, saying there was no money for promotion, and they sold their shop in London in 1999 because their capital was being “eaten up”. In 2005 I discovered that the capital was in fact rising dramatically over that period, and that they had been carefully concealing that fact from the members. The President who led the ambush in 2006 was a professor of linguistics, who had been working for years with the British Council in support of the spread of English abroad. I also discovered that the objective of the push for English was English language hegemony – not as a second language but as the first language of the world. “Empires of the future are empires of the mind” – Winston Churchill. The Esperanto movement has suffered such an insurrection in every generation since it was launched in 1887.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s