Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Why Esperanto's not for me

When I first learned about Esperanto as a teenager, I was excited and intrigued. The concept of a universal language that was easy to learn and that could connect people from all over the world appealed to my sense of idealism and global community. But this was long before the birth of the World Wide Web, and it was difficult to find resources for learning a language that was spoken by so few people. I abandoned the idea fairly quickly and focused my attention on other things instead.

Now that the Internet has made it possible for Esperanto speakers and writers to find each other easily, I'm sure it would take me a very short time to become proficient in the language. The grammar is purposefully simple, of course, and the vocabulary is quite familiar to anyone who has Spanish, German, Latin, and English under her belt. But I've decided that my time and energy are better spent on the many natural languages that exist. Esperanto, for all its lofty goals, no longer appeals to me as a feasible solution for worldwide communication.

My biggest objection to Esperanto is that two of its major ambitions are directly at odds with each other. Esperanto advocates want widespread adoption of the language, while still maintaining the strict rules of grammar which keep it consistent and easy to learn. I believe there is no way that a language, however planned or artificial, can remain static if its usage is extended. We see this with computer languages; even with the publication of standards and the existence of compilers and interpreters which force adherence to the rules of syntax, users are constantly attempting to tweak the languages for efficiency and elegance. Esperanto will suffer the same fate if it is widely adopted.

My other problems with Esperanto are in the language itself. As I've illustrated in previous posts, the characteristics of natural languages that make them difficult to learn are precisely those which give color and life to those languages. The exasperating subjunctive in Spanish, the convoluted word order and page-long sentences in German, the multitude of indefinite articles in Chinese---all of these idiosyncrasies are manifestations of the richness of the history and culture of the speakers of those languages. Esperanto, despite being criticized for being too European, by design has none of these delightful features. Language heavily influences thought, and the flatness of Esperanto is reminiscent of the Newspeak of George Orwell's 1984. Doubleplusungood, indeed.

I could be wrong about all of this. In fact, I'd kind of like to be wrong, because anything that helps to build bridges between people of different races and cultures is a good thing in my book. I just don't think Esperanto is that solution. For now, I'll leave it to others to blaze that trail.


Alison said...

I agree that Esperanto is no solution. I wrote a paper about it as a freshman in college (a year before I actually started studying Linguistics -- goes to show where I was headed anyway). In it, I came to the conclusion that any spoken language which was not actually anyone's native language was bound to fail. While it's a beautiful idea, the only way Esperanto would have a dying chance is if some people started raising their kids to speak it, which sounds a little absurd, but is not too far off from what happened with the revival of Hebrew in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. (That's a fascinating story in itself.)

Language Lover said...

According to, some parents do teach it to children along with the local (natural) language, but still, the number's way too small to have an effect. I'd be interested in reading your paper if you still have it around.

Alexandre Santos said...

"I believe there is no way that a language, however planned or artificial, can remain static if its usage is extended."

That is a problem that confronts any standard, and not even only languages, but manufacture procedures, technical protocols, etc. Increasing usage and new requirements induce a pressure to change the standard, and any change is a danger for the standard. It gives an opportunity for each user group to push it's agenda and fragment the standard.

As for esperanto, there is cause for optimism:

1 - until now fragmentation has not happened, despite the language being spoken in the millions all over the world (but for sure not by la large fraction of humanity) since one century

2 - esperanto is supposed to be a international language, and as such its focus weights strongly on multinational communication rather than local needs. So the motivation is high to maintain coherence among it's user base.

I think the best argument is that rifts have not yet happened, despite the fact that the language has been here for more than one century and being spoken by a large crowd.

Finally, this criticism besets any language, so it cannot be hold specifically against esperanto. And as we see, although there are specificities in english usage, the language has kept a lot of coherence and can be understood from Australia to the UK and the USA. There are strong economic and practical reasons to keep the languages compatible.

In reality, it's clear that language incompatibilities appear when populations are isolated by one another, and not by an increase in the number of users. In Switzerland each valley has its own brand of German, whereas in the English world, the language is actually strickingly uniform, because none of the present users has been isolated for long amounts of time.

I think in moderns times, it's very hard for languages to fractionnate more, since we have become "one village".

"Esperanto, for all its lofty goals, no longer appeals to me as a feasible solution for worldwide communication."

I find this statement surprising, since esperanto is already a feasible solution for worldwide communication. If you mean that its goal is to be the main or only way to communicate internationally, you would be right.

But is it really necessary for esperanto to be the main communication language to start using it? I'm not sure. You can speak with chinese in english, french, spanish and esperanto. I just guess you will get a different fraction of the chinese population with each language.

"Language heavily influences thought, and the flatness of Esperanto is reminiscent of the Newspeak of George Orwell's 1984."

I think you unwittingly let prejudice stand as knowledge. You could make such statement if you had learnt esperanto and come to that conclusion.

As a matter of fact, despite of its grammar regularity, esperanto does have its originality, its way of thinking. The ability to freely assemble radicals to produce new words allows one to express concepts that are sometimes difficult to translate back to other languages.

So for instance to say 'to have a cup of coffee' you could use trinki kafon or kaftrinki. Associating the radicals kaf to umi you get kafumi, which also means to drink coffee, but in an atmosphere of friendship and relaxation. To express that idea in one word in english would be problematic.

There are many examples of ideas association enabled by esperanto but difficult in other languages that give it a special feeling and a way of thinking that make esperanto expression original.

Actually, as a lover of languages, I would advise you to try it, you may find new ways of using the gift of speech.

As for Alison's comment "any spoken language which was not actually anyone's native language was bound to fail", it is very puzzling...

What do you mean for a language to fail?

To be used an effective way to communicating (check)

To allow international communication? (check, this happens everyday, today)

To become the standard in international communication? (uncheck)

Please note that by such standards, basically all languages in human history are failures. There have been several languages which managed to be standard in international communication for a while. Latin was for a time (in roman times, and during Middle Ages and Renaissance), French was THE international language in XVIII century, and now English has replaced it.

Does this means that Latin or French are a failure?

I think that if indeed the only motivation to study esperanto is that it's the standard in international communication, then one should study english instead (at least for now).

If on the other hand one would like to learn a different language which is easy and original, or one would like to communicate with people all over the world, then esperanto is a nice option.

Language Lover said...

Alexandre, thank you for your informative and insightful comments.

Indeed, the success of anything can only be measured relative to a particular goal. My understanding is that Esperanto aims to 1) be easy to learn and 2) break down language barriers around the world, thus improving communication and promoting peace. While it is true that all languages go through evolution, only in Esperanto is this a direct threat to what it seeks to be.

You have a valid criticism in that I, as a non-Esperanto speaker, cannot understand its full range of expression; indeed, I was unaware of this method of assembling radicals. But I still question how a language with a simple grammar and small vocabulary can possibly express as many ideas as a language without those limitations.

As for the feasibility of Esperanto as a solution for worldwide communication, perhaps I should have used the word "proven" instead. Esperanto has been around for over a century and yet, by generous estimates it claims only two million speakers, on par with the minor languages of India and Africa. Nor has it used by the UN or any major multinational company. The usefulness of any language is proportional to the number of people who speak it, and Esperanto just doesn't have those numbers.

Yes, Esperanto has its benefits. Supposedly it's easier to learn, say, Spanish if one is first introduced to the grammar in a simpler language. And no one would argue that Esperanto is an "original" language, but so is Klingon (spoken by a certain race on the TV show Star Trek). But unless Esperanto is widely adopted, its contribution to breaking down language barriers, and its lofty goals of promoting peace and whatnot are far out of reach.

I would like to add one wonderful thing about Esperanto which I omitted in my original blog entry, which is that since it is rarely a person's native language, it's a bit like a "cultural handshake". When two people speak Esperanto, there is not the issue of the native speaker having an advantage over the non-native speaker, as is often the case when one communicates in natural languages.

voyager42 said...

I'm sorry you feel that way about Esperanto. I'm surprised that someone who calls themselves a language lover didn't fall in love with the language immediately. Compared to other languages (I've tried my hand at spanish, german, french, thai, mandarin, swedish and japanese) I found it a pleasure to learn. The grammar and vocabulary is far from stifling, although it could take time to reach that level of fluency. I would encourage you and anyone reading this to investigate (and even learn) Esperanto for themselves before making harsh and potentially damaging statements.

Mi bedauras, ke vi tiel sentas pri Esperanto. Mi surprizighas, ke iu kiu nomas sin lingvo amanto ne tuj enamighis la lingvon. Kompare al aliaj lingvoj (mi provlernis la hispana, germana, franca, taja, china, sveda kaj japana) mi trovis ghin agrabla lerni. La gramatiko kaj vortaro tute ne estas malhelpa, kvankam povus preni iom da tempo atingi tian nivelon de flueco. Mi konsilus al vi kaj chiu kiuj legas tion chi informighi (kaj ech lerni) Esperanton por si mem antau ol eldiri tiajn fiajhojn.

Dave said...

Dear Language Lover,

I came across your blog while doing a search on Esperanto, and just thought I'd chime in a little. In this I'll respond to both your comments and add to comments made by others.

I started learning Esperanto one year ago, and I learned it online, relatively cheaply. I paid for an online tutor through Projekto Nesto (it was cheap), but the course itself was free. . also has courses. I started chatting in an Esperanto chatroom about two weeks after starting this course.

Because of the stripped-down grammar, you can actually use the language much more quickly than others. I can speak 4 languages and get by in 2 others, and I did not think learning this quickly was possible.

It's funny that you consider having a shorter list of radicals and roots is a weakness. How many do you want to learn? Esperanto uses prefixes and suffixes to form words, changing the meanings in all sorts of ways. Bona=good. Malbona means bad. Mal makes the word the opposite of the normal meaning. You can put the prefix in front of any word, instead of learning long lists of opposites (good, bad, pretty, ugly, tall short, etc.) This feature of Esperanto is considered to be ingenious, and if you learn only a few of these radicals, you can form new words on your own.

Once you learn the building blocks, as long as you follow the basic parameters, you can form your own words. If it's not forbidden, it's assumed you can do it. Think of the literary possibilities! Poets and punsters have fun with it. Word order is very flexible. For these reasons, many people consider Esperanto translations of world literature superior because they often keep the word order and cadence of the original, whereas the rules of English or other languages are not flexible enough to allow this.

I would also add that this more than compensates for its "flatness" as you call it. When I learned Japanese, I had to learn different ways to count (they have separate counters for people, animals, birds, flat objects, cylindrical objects, big objects like cars and TVs, etc.) It's true that features like this give a language character, and they also give you that many more mistakes to make! Esperanto has its own character. Krokodili (to crocodile) means to speak your native language at an Esperanto gathering. To kabei means to leave the Esperanto movement, named for K.B. (Kazimierc Bein, an early Esperanto activist who did that). I have spoken about literature in Esperanto, and I've also had locker-room type conversations in it.

BTW Newspeak was most likely based upon "Basic English", not Esperanto.

As for standardizing, modernizing, and agreeing upon the rules, that problem has also effectively been thwarted. A few times people disagreed about Esperanto grammar and split off to start their own constructed languages. The best example of this is Ido. Esperanto is small enough as it is, and most of these split-offs have more or less petered out. The most recent split-offs were usually started by ex-Esperantists who promote their new languages on materials published in Esperanto. If that doesn't make a statement, I don't know what does. Zamenhof also managed to avoid splintering by saying early on that the language should evolve, independently of him, that others could work on it. Schleyer, who created Volapuk, claimed he was divinely inspired and did not take well to suggestions, and his language petered out within 20 years. Esperanto has evolved a bit over the years, and has words for modern technology (esp. computers and internet, since that is how Esperanto is promoted these days). They have an Academy of Esperanto to regulate the language, which publishes the Plena Ilustrita Vortaro (Complete Illustrated Dictionary). Furthermore, Esperanto has survived persecution by both Stalin and Hitler. I mention these things to bolster Alexandre Santos' points.

As for the question of Esperanto's popularity, in the USA that is a problem. I live in a big, international city in the US, and it's hard for me to find other speakers (so far I've met 2), because although there is an Esperanto Society in my area, they seem unenthusiastic. Americans just don't seem to get the point of Esperanto, but I've been told that Esperanto clubs are quite active and popular in Europe, and even in Japan and some other places. Unfortunately, this is the problem when people voluntarily accept a language that is not forced upon them. That is why I hope to attend a convention in the future. In the meantime, I can meet the two people who I know here. I also chat in Esperanto online every day, and blog in it. The Internet has given new life to this language.

To learn more about Esperanto and its history, I'd suggest that you read Don Harlow's online book about it. He's an active Esperantist and Executive Director of the Esperanto League for North America. Here's the address:

Michael Jones said...

The best way to learn, say, German, is to first learn Esperanto, and then use Esperanto as a wedge (metalanguage) into German. Google for "springboard to languages" to read up on this approach.

neil.nachum said...

It should be noted that a quarter of the 100 leading USA Esperanto speakers identify as Unitarian. You should reconsider. Several leading Canadian and Danish Esperanto speakers are Unitarian.

Language Lover said...

Thanks for the comment, Neil. It doesn't surprise me in the least that there are many Unitarians among Esperanto speakers. It strikes me as something that appeals to a highly educated, Eurocentric community.

Greg Nacu said...

Yeah, I have to admit, this article leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

I learned to speak Esperanto in 2008, was fluent within one year, and was using it to travel across the world. Learning to speak Esperanto was in all likelihood one of the best decisions of my life. I now speak Esperanto every day, my oldest child is fluent and my youngest child is getting there in a hurry.

There is nothing flat or stifling about it. The only people who ever say this are people who don't know what they're talking about and usually can't actually speak or think in Esperanto.

I read Esperanto books, listen to podcasts in Esperanto, I have even written poetry and prayers in Esperanto. When your child gives you a kiss on the lips and says, "Pacjo, mi amas vin!", and it melts your heart, you realize that Esperanto is as real and as meaningful as it gets.


Mike Jones said...

Your great great grandchildren will speak the language.