What if there were a language that was easy to learn, that people from all different backgrounds could converse in without any of the baggage that so often accompanies intercultural exchange? This is the question that occurred to L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist who knew linguistic division as a ubiquitous daily struggle. Zamenhof lived in Białystock, then part of the Russian Empire, whose German, Jewish, Russian, and Polish inhabitants lived in separate worlds within the same city.
It is impossible to form a community without a common language, and people are usually loth to kowtow to their neighbours by learning theirs. So Zamenhof resolved to develop a neutral new one. In 1887 he published the Unua Libro, an introduction of the principles of Esperanto.
Esperanto, whose name means “One who hopes,” is characterised first and foremost by simplicity. The entire language is governed by sixteen clear rules, with no exceptions. It includes an innovative vowel suffix system for determining parts of speech: nouns end in -o, adjectives -a, and adverbs -e. Nation is nacio, national nacia, and nationally nacie. To form the plural, one simply adds -j (pronounced like an English y). Verbs end in -s and have perfectly regular conjugation. Spelling is perfectly phonetic, and phonology clear and crisp.
Esperanto is not quite perfect. Its claim to neutrality is belain by the fact that it obviously derives most of its vocabulary from Romance, with smaller contributions from Germanic and Slavic. However, this concession to reality is clearly worth it, since the familiar vocabulary makes it far easier to learn than it would be with entirely new words. Modern critics may be surprised to learn that during Esperanto’s heyday on the world stage, many of its chief proponents were non-Europeans.
Esperanto has no grammatical gender, but the fact that some feminine personal nouns are still marked (e.g. father is patro, mother patrino) irks certain people. Somehow Zamenhof could not think to do entirely without grammatical case, though adding -n to the object of a sentence is easy enough for even Western European-speakers unfamiliar with the accusative.
I can attest that Esperanto is extremely easy to learn. In my first effort, after about fifteen minutes of learning prepositions and basic grammar, I was able to read Esperanto Wikipedia articles with about 80% comprehension. Of course, I benefitted from already speaking a Romance language and having some linguistic training, but I imagine anyone from a European language background could get the swing of it within an hour. It looks something like Spanish from Mars.
A century and a half before me, the people of Białystock were similarly impressed. Esperanto was not the first new language of its ilk, but it was by far the most successful. It spread rapidly in a Europe still obsessed with nationalism, but at the same time more interconnected than ever before. In the early 20th Century, it looked like it really might succeed. World congresses drew Esperantists from around the world. Esperanto was imagined as a solvent for the ethnic divisions of empires like Austria-Hungary, and even became quasi-official in the contested German-Belgian territory of Moresnet.
Esperanto’s big moment came in the heady internationalist days following the First World War. It very nearly became the official language of the League of Nations. Of the eleven deciding members, ten voted in favour. But France had a veto. For three years, representatives prevailed upon Ambassador Gabriel Hanotaux to support a way for the League to fulfill its internationalist mission with a truly global language, to no avail.
France was the first country to ban education in Esperanto. They were not the last. In particular, authoritarians of all stripes saw the language as a threat to their power: both Hitler and Stalin threw Esperantists in their concentration camps. (Among the former’s enemies was George Soros’ father, a Jewish Esperanto novelist). Hitler insisted that Esperanto was a tool of the Zionist World Conspiracy, while Stalin branded the Association of Soviet Esperantists a terrorist organisation. Basques and Catalans got around Francisco Franco’s ban on speaking languages other than Castilian Spanish because Esperanto kind of sounds like Spanish, which gave the dictator fits.
By the end of World War II, Esperanto’s opportunity had fled. The world had another international language, backed by both the legacy and incoming superpowers and the inbound force of global trade and culture. Esperanto is far easier to learn than English, but that is really only one of several considerations that makes a good lingua franca. People do not really learn a language in the classroom, but out on the streets, socialising, engaging in commerce, and enjoying entertainment. It needs a critical social, economic, and cultural mass, which Esperanto never achieved.
This is not to say that Esperanto is moribund, nor even endangered. There may be as many as two million speakers worldwide, including at least a thousand native speakers. It is an international auxiliary language of the United Nations. In 1999, 2004, and 2006, Scottish Esperanto author William Auld was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I once found myself in a weird commune in East Berlin whose official language was Esperanto. Esperantists seek to prove that theirs is a living language by pointing out that it even has some modern slang- when my very limited Esperanto failed me and I tried to address someone at the commune in German, he called me a krokodilo.
I personally am among the minority of language enthusiasts who somewhat agree with Mr. Hanotaux. Esperanto is an excellent artificial language, and the billions of people would probably be materially better off if it had taken off in 1920. But its total triumph would have represented the greatest holocaust of cultural heritage in human history. What makes natural languages so meaningful is how they are spoken and passed on. Virtually every word we say has ties back to the ancient past. Languages encapsulate unique ways of thinking about the world. They are at the core of our lives and identities- they divide people, but are the also the very strongest force to bring them together.
My feelings toward Esperanto are perhaps best expressed in a joke from the sitcom 30 Rock. To explain why one character’s pornographic video game is doomed to fail, his peer explains his theory of representations of people in terms of Star Wars characters. We connect with real people, like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, and are charmed by humanoid robots like C3P0. But in between them on the spectrum, so close to the humans we know and love, faceless, dehumanised Stormtroopers unnerve us. Esperanto is like a Stormtrooper, or the mannequins and dolls that feature in so many horror movies.
Although the same conditions that gave Esperanto its shot early last century are even stronger today, it seems very unlikely that it will have another such opportunity. Language is as important and touchy a topic as ever, but in virtually every situation there is one clear choice for a lingua franca. In terms of critical mass, English is a supermassive black hole. At this point the best Esperanto can hope for is not to be sucked in.