Some of us are old enough to remember that, before the end of the last century, there seemed to be momentum from supporters of Esperanto, promoting it as a universal language for our world. Conceptually, this still sounds like a laudable goal.
Deservedly or not, nowadays one seldom (if ever) hears stories about it having impact.
Let’s consider Esperanto’s linguistic context. It may be surprising for some to learn how old this artificial language is.
According to on-line information, it was first presented in 1887 by its creator, Polish physician Ludwig Zamenhoff. ‘Esperanto’ was a pseudonym he used for his first textbook. Approximately 70% of the vocabulary came from Romance languages. Notably, the initial impact of English on its vocabulary was in the range of 10%.
Its grammar has limited rules for nouns and verbs, with a simple connection between written and spoken text; together, these patterns would expect to make it easier to learn than a natural language (although how easy, clearly, depends on which one).
Thousands of written works, original and translated, have been published in Esperanto, which itself means “a hopeful person”.
Yet, after more than 125 years, there are guesstimated to be only about 1,000 ‘native speakers’; about 2 million use it worldwide as a ‘second’ language, the most widely spoken ‘constructed’ one – in over 100 countries, mainly in Europe, east Asia, and South America. Thus, we seldom hear it in public places and gatherings in North America. (Even if we did hear, what’s the likelihood we’d know what it was?)
Complicating its status is the issue of currently three ‘tendencies’ in the Esperanto movement: a conservative group, which advocates sticking to the original version of the language; a progressive group, which is trying to adapt the language to give it wider use, in part by making it more like English; and a group of scientists wanting to stay separate while using the language ‘for pragmatic reasons’.
Another divisive element for this attempted unifier is that Esperanto has been partly fragmenting into smaller competing versions or dialects.
For now at least, major perceived pros and cons of Esperanto include:
- Standardized pronunciation, but some words difficult to pronounce
- Standardized grammar, but difficult for some linguistic cultures due to significant European influence
- Easier for Europeans and English speakers, but can be affected by regional accents
- Not tied to any one or two countries, but few people to speak with
- Can facilitate international understanding, and help learn other languages, but is not an official language anywhere
Illustrating what represents, in fact, a decline in big picture interest is that there are fewer periodicals published in this language and fewer attendees at annual gatherings.
Esperanto can’t even claim to be the only notable constructed language. Others have appeared, particularly ‘Interlingua’ and ‘Lojban’. Then there’s the semi-real version ‘Klingon’, which, as anyone attending a Comicon (or familiar with a certain episode of Frasier) knows, has its adherents.
On the solar side, a message in Esperanto was included in at least one of the Golden Records in Voyager spacecraft sent out to extraterrestrials in 1977. No response yet, at least as far as the public knows.
If we take interactions as shown on TV or in films as any indication, English seems to be popular with alien civilizations, somehow, as well.
At this time, the fact is that English is the nearest we have to a universal language. Despite the many examples of its importance on our planet, ranging from business to sports to politics, etc., this does seem surprising in a glaring respect: English is a truly difficult language for the uninitiated to grasp (and even for some of us born to it!), due to there being seemingly more exceptions to than rules of grammar, and tangential variations of meanings. For instance, how many versions of slips can there be on a slippery slope? Perhaps another challenge is lack of purity due to the endless looping in of expressions from other languages.
While in all corners of the world versions of English are spoken, this definitely does not apply to Esperanto, or its alternatives. Perhaps the lesson is that there have been and continue to be limits to the acceptance of constructed communication. Perhaps no language, constructed or otherwise, can be considered a one-of-a-kind beacon for human unity. For now, happily for those of us immersed in its idioms, English is integral as a functional unifying force of international contact.
Unless something dramatically changes, Esperanto, it’s too bad, we hardly knew you.