Esperanto: The Phoenix of all Languages

Esperanto, a language developed in the late 1800s by an ophthalmologist in the former Russian Empire, is spoken today by roughly one-million people worldwide.  Hailed by many as the language of world peace and in fact created solely to foster harmony between nations and peoples with different language backgrounds, I find it a perfect fit into this blog–the underlying purpose of which is to connect people through language exploration.  However, Esperanto has no real home, so to speak, as there has yet to be any nation that accepts Esperanto as its official language.  You see, Esperanto has its problems (namely that the use of the Roman alphabet will undoubtedly alienate nations who use otherwise) but the existence and use of a single world language has an undeniable allure.  Unfortunately the ultimate question remains:  Will the birth of Esperanto as a means to world communication lead to the withering and eventual death of our mother tongue forever?

What is Esperanto?  What is the purpose, grammar, challenge, beauty, and future of this unique language?

“Ĝi estas lingvo tre taŭga por internacia komunikado.”
It’s a language that is particularly useful for international communication.

There is no doubt that Esperanto has something good to offer to society.  There is no way that something can last over 120 years and not have some kind of intrinsic value.  In fact there are many good points to this language and most all of them have to do with the relative ease in which people can learn it. For example, the use of the Roman alphabet is already used in several languages and widely used in all parts of the world making it very accessible and, for many, elementary; therefore memorizing the alphabet should present itself as a minor and expeditious task.  What’s more, the pronunciation of each letter of the alphabet is phonemic, consequently the way one letter sounds in one situation is quite the same in every situation with little to no irregularities.  Palatalization (common in Korean and Russian) is also absent.  Perhaps the greatest strength of Esperanto is its grammar: There are no irregular verbs and many other simple rules (Τhe suffix -o indicates a noun, -a an adjective, -as a present-tense verb) govern its construction, making the basic principles of the language quite simple to understand.

Beyond these positive aspects there seems to be one other advantage to Esperanto that no other language can claim: A home.  No country claims Esperanto as their official language and –according to some estimates–only about 1,000 people can claim Esperanto their first language.  What does this mean?  As discussed by UN and World Heath Organization translator and psychologist Claude Piron (whose video I have posted on the right), this means that Esperanto is not held to a single and proper pronunciation.  Simply stated, there is no right or wrong accent when it comes to Esperanto.  As non-native speakers to Spanish, English, Japanese, or Korean, we are constantly worried about pronunciation and accent.  The question, “I am saying that right?” is never far from our minds when we try to communicate with native speakers.  It is a burden and a nuisance that Esperanto overcomes.

I have attended hundreds of international meetings held in English, hundreds with simultaneous interpretation, and hundreds in Esperanto.  The only really lively ones, the ones with equal participation of all, the ones in which people can really be spontaneous and at ease are the Esperanto ones.

Addressing the problem of language acquisition today, Claude Piron goes on to say

In English, non-natives have to try to imitate a foreign model, knowing that they’ll never succeed perfectly.  The miracle of Esperanto is that you can keep your accent and your way of forming your sentences and yet everybody understands everybody and no one ever feels inferior, ridiculous, or simply foreign.

These words alone shed light onto the real-world application and success of Esperanto and should make any skeptic stop for a moment and consider once more the true implications of such a language.

There are those that say that English has become the lingua franca.  However, is is safe to say that no more than 15% of the world’s population is capable of speaking English without resorting to hand gestures to fill in the blanks.  In many cases students will study English for years but never progress past the basic and rudimentary skills required for communication.  Esperanto on the other hand has been praised for its ease of acquisition.  In fact, in one study completed in Germany on French high-school students  found that the time it took pupils to reach standard levels of communication in Esperanto was about one-tenth that of English!  Duly noted be the fact that these students were French and that the results of a native English or Japanese speaker may have varied if the study were to have been conducted elsewhere.

That being said, it is clear that Esperanto has its strong and admiral points.  However, with every 阴(Yin) there is a 阳(Yang) and in Esperanto it is no different.  While it may offer easy-to-learn grammar and a chance for all non-native speakers to let go of their fears of sounding “inferior, ridiculous, or simply foreign”, it is undoubtedly flawed. Most notably, Esperanto is a constructed language and constructed almost entirely from major European languages and utilizes the Latin alphabet.  This instantly alienates and puts at a disadvantage all native Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese (to name a few) speakers who use their own unique and beautiful writing system.  Additionally, although uncertain, there is the chance that the use of a language with such overwhelming Western influence may carry with it Western styles of thought that do not allow for easy translation or understanding between countries primarily in East Asia.

So what is the purpose of a world language?

Meeting of Esperantistas: Huesca, Spain 1920

Meeting of Esperantistas: Huesca, Spain 1920

If Esperanto is to be a world language one day then in must fulfill better than any other language certain goals: easy and complete acquisition by non-native speakers, clear and unbridled communication by people from all backgrounds regardless of their mother tongue, and the freedom of association to any one people or nation.  If such a language existed then it could be taught completely and thoroughly in a matter of a few years to students around the world.  All nations would retain their own language (the Japanese would still speak Japanese, the Thai’s would still speak Thai) but they would also have at their disposal a practical means of communicating with people from any country.  People from any nation could communicate with each other freely and with high mutual understanding; international relationships–in business, science, between friends, or for love–would all blossom.

There is no doubt that the idea is an ideal and, with only one-million speakers of the language in existence today, a far-off goal.  Yet with each passing year the world and its people become an increasingly tight-knit community and the need for an international language increases.  Disturbingly, the birth and growth of such a language like Esperanto may spell disaster for every other language in existence.  The fact of the matter is that if such a language is found and taught in every school around the world then people will begin to wonder why they are learning their first language at all.  “Everyone in the world understands Esperanto just fine so why even waste my time with English/Spanish/Japanese/Korean?”  Understandably, the death of most languages will follow in the wake of the spread of a single world language just as old technology swiftly and quietly replaces old technology.

One image that comes to mind when thinking about Esperanto is that of the phoenix, a bird that must burn and die in flame in order to be born again.  Like the phoenix, it may be that a single, glorious world language can only arise when other languages have begun to burn and shrivel into ash.  If that is the case then the future of Esperanto is, I hope, as an always magnificent but continuously unattainable ideal.  One that inspires linguists and the study of language but never really comes to fruition.  Language is tied to culture I always say, though the ties may be deep and unseen, and such a language as Esperanto becoming a world language–though a beautiful thought–may scorch a vein so deep that we as a people could never recover our lost heritage.

The question then becomes, “Is it petty to desire that we never lose our culture?” If the loss of the simple and immediate culture of our people means global peace then isn’t Esperanto worth pursuing?  In time and within the language of Esperanto will we not create culture once more?  I do not claim to know the answers but they must be far more complex than the questions.  In either case, I look forward to your response to this entry and your take on the birth and growth of a world language, if not Esperanto.  I encourage you also to check out the video I have posted on the right titled “The Language Challenge–Facing Up to Reality”, as you may find that Mr. Piron is much more learned on the subject than I am.

Links regarding the language and its implications:

Esperanto

Esperanto

*Above is the flag which Esperantistas hold high…and yet, may a language really possess its own flag?   Nations and tribes of people wave their colors, yes, but a language?  It is surely the flag of the people of the language and then–that being so– is it the first flag formed in support of language?  All other languages of the world are affiliated with some country are they not?  Just a thought.

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4 thoughts on “Esperanto: The Phoenix of all Languages

  1. ¡Hola! (veo que sabes español, así que te contesto en este idioma, y así lo practicas un poco ;-))
    Yo mismo hablo esperanto, y me alegra encontrar tus reflexiones sobre este idioma. En general, creo que tus apreciaciones son acertadas.

    Sin embargo, quiero matizarte que creo que el carácter europeo del esperanto ha sido algo exagerado, y suele ser mencionado sobre todo por hablantes de lenguas europeas. Mis amigos japoneses son conscientes de que para ellos el esperanto es más difícil que para los europeos, pero saben que cualquier otra alternativa es peor. Tomar palabras al azar del chino, el árabe o el hindi no mejoraría la comprensión del idioma.

    Por otra parte, en la parte final, creo entender que tratas el esperanto como un ideal. Sin embargo, se trata de una realidad, con una comunidad de hablantes mayor de lo que normalmente se supone, extendida por todo el mundo (incluidos grupos muy importantes en Japón). No creo que otro idioma lo vaya a sustituir, porque los idiomas no nacen de repente, sino que se transmiten poco a poco, de hablante a hablante. El esperanto no va a desaparecer, porque muchos consideramos que ya cumple su función: permitir la comunicación sin barreras ni fronteras.

    (if you have problems with my Spanish, I’d try to translate, but it would be hard for me; or I might wait untill you learn Esperanto ;-))

    • ¡Muchisimas gracias Toño! Me pongo felíz cuando veo que alguien de otro pais (o sea que no es de los Estados Unidos) lee mi blog y le da ganas de dejar su comentario. Entiendo perfectamente que estás diciendo y ahora espero que mi Castellano (que todavia le falta mucho) puede expresar mi gratitud sincero.

      Tambien quiero decir que ya he escuchado (pero asi y todo me intereas mucho) que una gran porción de los Esperantistas Asiaticos son Japoneses. ¿Cual es el razón de este fenomeno? ¿Hay algo en el Japonés parecido al Esperanto? ¿Que creen los Chinos del Esperanto? ¿Y los Coreanos?

      Una nota final, he visto tu página web y es muy buena. Tiene de todo sobre el Esperanto y tambien varios recursos y links que yo creeo son super interesantes. Espero que sigas tratando de educar al mundo sobre este idioma facinante.

      Cuidate Toño~!

  2. I think it’s inevitable that one language encompasses the world. Will it be English or Spanish? Those seem the most likely candidates. I think Esperanto would be perfect for “space culture”, since by the time that happens… assuming earth doesn’t explode or something… that “space culture” will be completely different than what is here today. Why not have a universal language that is neutral if languages are going to be lost anyway?

    It might be a little petty since in 200 years no culture is going to be the same as it is now. Quite possibly there will be only one “mish-mosh” culture. Things change, whether we want them to or not. What Roman could have predicted that in our time Latin would have fragmented into the languages we see today. English, Spanish, Italian, French, German…. all have some latin roots as far as i know. Latin was supposed to last forever…. 🙂

    • Keen,

      I think it’s very interesting what you said about “space culture” because I had never even thought about that before. You have opened up my mind to that inevitable truth! Also, I agree with you wholeheartedly about the mish-mosh culture concept (and recently discussed this topic with my very close friend, in fact): seeing blue jeans and coca-cola in South Korea, Hip-hop and French wines in Chile…you cannot help but notice that what it means to be from a particular region or country is slowly losing its importance/meaning.

      As they say, “Historia est vitae magistra”

      ~Dorian

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