A failed experiment in constructed language?

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Most people have heard of Esperanto, and indeed most people are aware of its status as a constructed language, i.e. a language that has been deliberately designed for human communication, rather than having developed naturally.  What most people probably don’t know is what the intended purpose of the language is.  There is also much debate as to whether Esperanto has in fact achieved what it was supposed to.

Esperanto was created in the late 19th century by Polish ophthalmologist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof.  Zamenhof has stated that he designed the language with 3 primary goals in mind1, so let’s look at them individually:

1.       “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”

Basically, what this goal boils down to is that the language should be easy to learn.  In this goal I think Zamenhof can be said to have succeeded.  Whilst Esperanto is not widely taught, it does have the advantage, as a constructed language, of being what so many other languages are not: logical and consistent.  The language has been formulated based on the “best bits” of other language families, with the vocabulary coming from Romance and Germanic languages and the grammar coming from Slavic languages. As such, it is easier to learn, and it is generally said to be possible to achieve fluency in around 2 years.

Esperanto is often considered a “gateway” language, whereby through learning it people develop the skills necessary to learn other, more difficult languages.

2.       “To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.”

There are thought to be up to 2 million speakers of Esperanto in the world; a paltry number when compared to, for example, English, which has anything up to 700 million speakers.  However, this goal of Zamenhof’s does not actually foresee Esperanto becoming spoken universally, merely for it to be a means of communication for people of different nationalities.  In this it has succeeded.  The World Esperanto Association has members in 120 countries2, and the language has been recognised by UNESCO since 1954.

Yes, perhaps Zamenhof would have been happier if there were more Esperanto speakers in the world, but it has become what he wanted it to be: an international auxiliary language.  Because Esperanto has no “home country”, speakers from different parts of the world are able to discuss controversial and political topics in a more neutral forum.

3.       “To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.”

This is perhaps the sticking point.  The whole point of Esperanto is for it to be easy enough to learn so that people will make the effort to learn it, and indeed to use it.  Now, whilst it is beyond contention that the language is by far the most successful constructed language in existence, it does only have 2 million speakers, and is currently taught very sparsely in schools.  So has it overcome our “natural indifference”?  Our inclination to stick with the tongue we know?  Has humanity learnt it “en masse”?  No, probably not.

That said, there are many organisations and communities around the world who are actively promoting the learning and use of Esperanto, including The World Esperanto Association and the annual World Congress of Esperanto, and the number of speakers continues to grow each year.  There are even now some people who speak Esperanto as a native language, having been taught it from infancy by parents who learnt it as a second language, which is in itself a singular achievement.

So, all things considered, it is true to say that Esperanto hasn’t quite lived up to the idealistic vision of its creator.  But that doesn’t mean it has failed, just that it has succeeded in different ways to what was envisaged.  Don’t count Esperanto out yet.


1L.L.Zamenhof. International Language. Warsaw. 1887

2 Universala Esperanto-Asocio: Kio estas UEA?”. Uea.org. Retrieved 14 January 2015.

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