The Challenge of Esperanto

by Tom Thompson

We like to think that language is mankind's great accomplishment, a defining quality that makes us human. Yet the languages we speak were not the result of a blueprint factory effort, or in any way a conscious contribution on our part. Whatever our first language is, we speak it spontaneously, and of course with the markers of its evolution over time.

Not so with invented, artificial languages, Esperanto perhaps being the best known. Millions know it to one degree or another. Fewer are highly functional in it, a language that was born in 19th century Poland from the belief of Ludovic Zamenhoff that language differences were a major contributor to violent struggle between different ethnic groups. The theory was that too many languages prevented mutual understanding, that the world in fact would be more peaceful if a language were chosen that everybody could understand.

At first Zamenhoff thought the solution was to revive Latin or classic Greek, but his own studies of these languages convinced him that they were far too complex. Instead, over a period of years he developed Lingvo Internacia, called later Esperanto. The lexicon had a Romance Language influence, while the syntax and morphology resembled those of Slavic languages. To be fair, Esperanto has evolved since its founding. There's been an effort to guarantee the basic unity of the language without surrendering to linguistic anarchy. But Esperanto was designed to be easy to learn and pronounce – simple grammar, verbs that are never irregular, spellings always phonetic.

These are the practicalities: There are only five vowel sounds, each represented by one letter. The 23 consonants present no real problem, but for English speakers the letters representing them are slightly different (ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ, and ǔ). Esperanto parts of speech are easy to identify instantly because they end in a designated letter. Nouns end in –o, plurals in –oj, adjectives end in –a, verbs are not conjugated and end in –as in the present tense. Word order is simple and the same as in English. In a kind of tagging, prefixes and suffixes can be added to virtually any word, even verbs, to create new meanings. Words are pronounced with the accent on the penultimate syllable.

The vocabulary of Esperanto has a familiar ring to speakers of European languages with roots borrowed from French, German, and Spanish, among other languages. Examples: Bona means “good”; porko means “pig”; filo means “son”; hundo means “dog.”

For over thirty years I've studied Esperanto in an “on-again, off-again” way. Its cerebral charm still holds. I've always liked the sound of Esperanto, especially the balanced melodic influences of several natural languages. Much of the vocabulary is derived from Latin roots common to English. Yes, I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the poetic rhythm and the easy logic of Esperanto are to me a happy mix.

The excessiveness of the dismissive humor or the cynical hostility that often greets the Esperantist is perplexing. The Esperanto movement has always been animated by the humanitarian impulse towards international and inter-ethnic friendship. Esperanto is often associated with the idealism of the world peace movement. Critics say that Esperantists are “naïve simpletons.”

An easier criticism is that Esperanto, like any artificial language, makes communication too neutral, too antiseptic, even soulless. It doesn't help that there's no terra firma for Esperanto; the last effort was in 1908 in the tiny neutral state of Moresnet, the orphan of a border dispute between the Netherlands and Prussia, where an unsuccessful uprising included a call for Esperanto to be the official language of what was to be called the state of Amikejo (Friendship Place). But in the tense, nationalistic atmosphere of pre-war Europe, there was no possibility for success.

Critics of Esperanto say that there's a boring, sanitary neutrality that comes with speaking Esperanto. But Esperanto isn't as drab as a rainy day, or a concrete traffic barrier. Still, the color and life of the natural languages, is, well, missing. I'm thinking of the exasperating subjunctive of Spanish, the convoluted word order of German, the tonal challenges of Chinese, or the way Russian famously stacks up three or four consonants on top of each other every chance it gets.

The resulting ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, according to Arika Orent, in In the Land of Invented Languages, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and suits our minds and the way we think. “Likewise, she says, “the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision.” In other words, language needs its idiosyncrasies in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

My conclusion about Esperanto's lack of widespread adoption is that learning any language, including Esperanto, takes some time and effort, and most people simply aren't interested in the hard work of learning something new without a clear pay-off. Ironically, the cultural neutrality that is part of the Esperanto movement's mantra serves to limit its growth because languages tend to spread along with the cultures that give rise to them.

About the writer

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C..

Aritcles by Tom Thompson


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