Is there any hope for Esperanto?

by Peter Wells

In 1887 Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist and amateur linguist, published in Warsaw a small volume entitled Unua Libro. Its aim was to introduce his newly invented language, in which ‘Unua Libro’ means ‘First Book.’ Zamenhof used the pseudonym ‘Doktor Esperanto’ and the language took its name from this word, which means ‘one who hopes.’ The picture shows Zamenhof (front row) at the First International Esperanto Congress in Boulogne in 1905.

From all available accounts, it is difficult to fault ‘Dr Hopeful’ in terms of intellectual attainment or character. Zamenhof was a native of the city of Białystok, now in Poland, then under Russian rule. Of Jewish ancestry, he is reliably reported to have had the following languages in varying degrees: Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, German, French, Belarusian, German, Latin, Greek, Aramaic, English, Lithuanian, Italian and Volapuk (another invented language of the same period). Born in an area bedevilled by conflicts between people of different cultures and languages, and filled with an idealistic desire for peace and harmony, Zamenhof seems to have viewed his efforts as a practical contribution towards fulfilling that aim. Internationalism was in the air. Esperanto belongs to the group of forward-looking international movements that came into prominence at the end of the 19th century, such as the International Telegraphic Union, the Universal Postal Union, the Red Cross and the aforementioned Volapuk.

According to a site dedicated to him, Zamenhof, who apparently died of exhaustion in his 50s, said,

I am a human, and the only ideals for me are are human ideals. I use the word ‘human’ in the widest sense of the word. To me, ideals which are only concerned with one specific group or nation are nothing more than egotistical tribalisms which, consciously or otherwise, bear hatred towards others. Sooner or later, these ‘ideals’ must be done away with. I must, according to my abilities, do my bit in consigning them to the dustbin of history as quickly as possible.

Zamenhof’s concern was not merely academic. As a member of the Jewish community, he was only too well aware of the increasing levels of anti-Semitism in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His comparatively early death, in 1917, saved him from experiencing the full horror of what was to come. All three of his children were killed by the Nazis.

It is difficult also not to feel sympathy and even admiration for the supporters of Esperanto in the generations since its inception. Esperanto depends on enthusiastic volunteers who, like their founder, contribute not only time but money, often in huge quantities, to this project, in the manner of evangelicals with a mission. Sadly, Esperantists have suffered grave persecution in Russia (both Tsarist and Communist), under Hitler, and under a wide range of other regimes at various times, such as Japan in the 1930s, Iran under the mullahs, Franco’s Spain, China during the Cultural Revolution, and, more recently, Tanzania. Esperanto tends to attract people with an international vision, and such people are not popular with tyrants.

According to an article in The Guardian, hostility towards Esperanto continues, fortunately at a non-violent level, even in ‘enlightened’ Western countries. A British volunteer organiser and enthusiast complains:

What I find strange is that, when you mention Esperanto, people never ignore it. They are violently against it. Even in schools. If you say you’re going to teach Russian, people might say, ‘Oh, that’s a waste of time,’ and just forget it. But they will go on at you for ages about why you shouldn’t teach Esperanto.

This is corroborated by a remark on the Duolingo site:

So I have recently become interested in learning Esperanto (for fun because why not) but I soon stubbed (sic) upon a lot of people who really and I mean really don’t like the language. Some even up to the point of out right hatred and ridicule towards anyone who’s even remotely interested the language … Why do people feel so strongly against a made up language which has literally no ill effect on the learner or society as a whole or for there to even be a cause to hate it?

The purpose of this short article is to explore why there are reservations, in liberal Western societies, about Esperanto, and why they might even be justified, in spite of the generally good intentions of its proponents. With due respect to the tragic circumstances of Esperanto’s creation, it may be useful to question the linguistic principles adopted by Zamenhof and his successors. This may lead us to reflect profitably on the nature of language. We begin by looking at the main linguistic features of this ‘constructed’ language: its writing system, pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

Esperanto is written, from left to right, using the English alphabet except for <q>, <w>, <x> and <y>. While five consonant letters (<c>, <g>, <h>, <j> and <s>) have additional forms with a diacritic, a workaround is available by adding <h> or <x> to the letter. For example, <g> is pronounced /ɡ/, and <ĝ>, which is pronounced /dʒ/ as in ‘judge,’ can also be written as <gh> or <gx>. So an unmodified English keyboard can be used for typing Esperanto, and so can the keyboards used in most Western European countries.

The pronunciation of Esperanto was designed to be as straightforward as possible. In words with more than one syllable, stress is almost always on the penultimate one. Each letter of the alphabet is consistently pronounced the same way, and there are only two sounds that do not exist in English: the <r> is trilled, and there is a velar fricative (written as <ĥ>, <hh> or <hx>). This makes the language attractive to English-speakers, and speakers of other similar languages, but, inevitably, there are languages that have less in common with Esperanto phonologically than English. For example, Esperanto’s use of consonant clusters such as /skr/ poses problems for speakers of languages where these do not occur, such as Chinese, Japanese, or the Bantu languages of Africa.

The main sources of the vocabulary of Esperanto are French, English and German. About two-thirds of the vocabulary is Romance, and about one-third Germanic, as the following set of examples of commonly used words will illustrate:
amiko (friend)
filo (son)
fari (do, make)
forgesi (forget)
frato (brother)
havi (have)
instruisto (teacher)
kafo (coffee)
knabo (boy)
kuko (cake)
lakto (milk)
pano (bread)
trinki (drink)
vendi (sell)
vidi (see)
A few words are randomly taken from other European languages, including even one or two from Yiddish, Zamenhof’s mother-tongue, but none from Oriental languages.

Finally, the grammar.  On the continuum between analytic and synthetic Esperanto falls somewhat in the middle, relying, like Latin, German or Old English, on morphology to show the function of a word in a sentence, but characteristically keeping these to a minimum. For the nouns and adjectives there are only two cases: Nominative (Subject), ending in -o, and Accusative (Object), ending in -n. The plural is shown by <j> (hundoj, below, sounds like ‘hundoy’). As in French and German, adjectives ‘agree’ with their nouns. Here is a table to illustrate this, which may remind readers of Latin, Greek or German lessons:

‘the big dog’ Singular Plural
Nominative la granda hundo la grandaj hundoj
Accusative la grandan hundon la grandajn hundojn

This means that, as in Latin, a sentence with the same meaning could be written with a variety of word orders, as below, though the first version is the most common: (all six sentences mean ‘the boy bit the dog’).

La knabo mordis la hundon.
La knabo la hundon mordis.
La hundon la knabo mordis.
La hundon mordis la knabo.
Mordis la hundon la knabo.
Mordis la knabo la hundon.

Verbs are inflected to show tense, but not person or number:

To love ami Examples
Past amis Mi amis vin – I loved you
Present amas Ĉu vi amas min? – Do you love me?
Future amos Ni amos lin – We will love him


From this brief description it will be clear that Esperanto is in every respect a Western European language. The script, the pronunciation, the vocabulary and the grammar are all far more congenial to speakers of English, French and German than to speakers even of other Indo-European languages, let alone those of other more remote language groups. Although the Indo-European group of languages is by far the largest in the world, it still accounts for less than 45% of the world’s population, and to many speakers even of Indo-European languages, such as the Indic branches – Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Persian – Esperanto is quite alien.

This is surprising and disappointing, in view of Zamenhof’s erudition and humanitarian principles, especially as he spoke Semitic languages as well as Western ones. There are hints in the available histories of Esperanto that Zamenhof was aware of this problem. He may have been wary, in view of the anti-Semitism he had encountered, of seeming to wish to impose the language of the Hebrew scriptures upon the world at large, and he may be forgiven for not appreciating the potential importance of China and many other countries that seemed remote and undeveloped in his time. There is no question of his liberal intentions; his decision to source his new language from the best-known and most widely used European languages seems to have been pragmatic – they were the at the time the languages of the educated elite of the world. It would have been a bold linguist, in the Europe of the 19th century, who decided to use a right-to-left script, such as Hebrew or Arabic, for his new language, or to adopt the receiver-oriented style of Chinese grammar, in which nouns are not routinely marked for case or number, nor verbs for person, number or tense.

Be that as it may, the make-up of this so-called international language is not designed to appeal to the nations of the world whose languages are not Western European. To offer them Esperanto as the solution for the modern Babel is a far greater insult than offering them English, in spite of the latter’s baggage of imperialism and colonialism. English can’t help being what it is – a language that has risen on the back of conquest and exploitation. History has happened. But the Esperantists have created from scratch an artificial language that takes absolutely no cognisance of the other language groups of the world – Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, Afro Asiatic, Austronesian, Dravidian, Altaic, Japanese, Austro-Asiatic, Tai-Kadai, etc. In fact, thanks to its history, English has an impressive array of ‘borrowings’ from world languages from the Arctic to the Sahara that puts Esperanto’s claimed internationalism in the shade. To present Esperanto as “The neutral international bridge language for communication,” (as the Esperanto Association of Britain does), can only be taken to imply that all these languages (including Chinese!) are of no significance.  The hatred felt towards Esperantists by tyrants of the past was aroused by their internationalism. Today’s reservations about the language, in contrast, arise partly from the perception that it is not international enough.

There is, however, an even greater problem with Esperanto than its Western European roots and the psychological and practical problems it presents to speakers of non-European languages. It is to do with the nature of language itself.

According to the Universal Esperanto Association, Esperanto is “a planned international language, intended not to replace ethnic languages but to serve as an additional, second language for all.” It is sometimes described as an ‘auxiliary language’ or a ‘constructed language.’ This implies that it is a tool for international communication, rather like Aviation English, which is tightly controlled and used only in very limited circumstances. So far, so good. The theory is that, in order to enable members of different language communities to communicate with each other, people who do not share any other language can switch to Esperanto, a simple artificial pidgin that can be relied upon not to change, and to be the same everywhere – as, allegedly, McDonald’s hamburgers are. To achieve this, following Zamenhof’s instructions at the First Congress, would require a governing body like the French Academy but with stronger teeth – and indeed there is one: the ‘Akademio.’

The Academy of Esperanto is an independent language institution whose task is to preserve and protect the fundamental principles of the Esperanto language and to monitor its development” (Akademio de  Esperanto).

The job of the Akademio is (rather like the Supreme Court of the United States) to keep Esperanto true to its constitution: Zamenhof’s 1905 book Fundamento de Esperanto (‘Foundation of Esperanto’), which grew out of his first book, Unua Libro.

“However,” the Universal Esperanto Association continues, “Zamenhof saw that such a language must develop through collective use, so he limited his initial proposal to a minimalist grammar and a small vocabulary. Esperanto is now a fully fledged language with a worldwide community of speakers and comprehensive language resources.” This is the besetting problem of Esperanto. It could be a mechanical tool, like Aviation English, unchanging across space and time, that its users could rely on for simple conversations with foreigners from any culture. Or it could be a living language, changing and developing imperceptibly but inexorably, as all languages do, due to the millions of small decisions made every day by the members of the language community. What it cannot do is to be both at once.

Some Esperantists, wishing to emphasise the vibrancy and integrity of their language, boast that it has its own literature, and there’s an encyclopaedia to prove it. There are also claims that children are being brought up speaking Esperanto as a second mother tongue. According to a thread here, there were 1,000 of them four years ago. However, there is (unsurprisingly) ample anecdotal evidence that these people, from childhood, like any other language-users, adapt the language according to their needs and preferences, threatening to turn it into a ‘real’ language. And as soon as Esperanto becomes a ‘real’ language, with native speakers and an indigenous literature, it will begin to behave like real languages do, developing complications, idiosyncrasies, exceptions to the rules, irregular verbs, idioms, dialects, sociolects, idiolects and regional accents, and it will lose the simplicity that at the moment is its unique selling point. To have the advantages of a living language – the ability to respond to different cultures, situations and generations – Esperanto must lose its inflexibility and simplicity. To be an easily-learned and reliable tool of international communication, Esperanto must abandon its hopes of being a living language.

The dilemma is aptly expressed in this online conversation between two Esperanto enthusiasts, one (‘A’) of the ‘tool of communication’ faction, and the other (‘B’) inclining towards the ‘living language’ school of thought. Their disagreement was over how Esperanto should respond to new ideas about dealing with gender – for example, inclusive language. ‘B’ has claimed that Esperanto should be, and indeed already has been, modified to address this issue – like any other language. ‘A’ responds:

A. … But Esperanto is not a natural language. The point of Esperanto is to facilitate understanding between people. This can’t happen if we let Esperanto evolve too much … If anyone were just allowed to change Esperanto at will, we’d end up with nonsense. The Akademio de Esperanto exists for a reason.

B. No. That’s wrong. Esperanto is a living language which transmits a living culture, and for that very reason, it changes over time. That’s how living languages (and cultures) work. 

A. But Esperanto is not a natural language. The point of Esperanto is to facilitate understanding between people. This can’t happen if we let Esperanto evolve too much.

Another speaker adds, supporting ‘A’: … You do not own the language. The Akademio owns the language. As users, it is our obligation to speak and write according to their proscriptions[original emphasis]

To summarise, in addition to having poor credentials as an international language, Esperanto suffers from uncertainty as to what a language actually is. It is for these reasons that Esperanto remains, and will rightly remain, the preserve of a very small minority of idealistic enthusiasts. Even the linguistician John Wells, himself an admirer and speaker of Esperanto, admits that,

My best and most realistic estimate, if we take as our criterion the ability to hold simple conversation in the language, would be perhaps half a million speakers worldwide. If we apply the more rigorous test of having a thorough active command of the language, then perhaps we should say no more than 50,000.

In the meantime, the number of speakers of English, as a first or second language, is estimated to be up to a fifth of the world’s population. It is, of course, unfair, as Esperantists point out, that native-speakers of English should enjoy the luxury of having the language of international communication handed to them on a plate, while the rest of the world has to work hard for it. At the same time, it is not all gain for the Anglo-Saxon community. An Esperanto enthusiast remarks in the Guardian article, “English is English. It will get mangled if it becomes a universal language.” Native English speakers may be sad see the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare reduced to a blunt tool, shorn of its cultural allusions and delightful idiosyncrasies, even in the service of the ‘Greater Good.’ International English is arguably better taught by non-natives, such as Germans or Malaysians (without cultural baggage) than by native English speakers. While it is certainly a living language (though an impoverished one), International English is not British, or American, or Indian English, but an independent entity. It is clearly by far the best candidate for the post of international language, in spite of its various disadvantages, and should be supported as such – not that there’s very much individuals can do about it either way!

The implications of this development, however, are another story.