Odd question alert: When you look at the future, what language do you see?
Are you someone who sees the reality that is the sheer number of Mandarin speakers exploding so that it becomes the dominant language? Are you a native English speaker clinging on to the English as lingua franca idea? Or can you imagine another language entirely to become the one we commune in for both business and in our everyday conversations?
For those who dare to dream, think Esperanto.
Esperanto is a constructed language that has the ideology of bringing true equality to the words we use no matter the nationality or background of the speaker – to be a true international communication tool.
Join us as we take a further look at this language and see if it really does have a place in our future.
One who hopes…
…Because that’s what Esperanto actually means according to L. L. Zamenhof, or Doktoro Esperanto, the pseudonym Zamenhof used to publish the book Unua Libro (First Book) in 1887.
In Unua Libro Zamenhof listed three goals when it came to the Esperanto language:
- “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
Zamenhof was born in the Polish city of Bialystok, a city that at the time of Zamenhof’s life had a rich multi-ethnicity of Poles, Russians, Jews, Lithuanians and Germans. Rather than celebrate those differences, however, the people of Bialystok were mistrustful and cautious, and Zamenhof created Esperanto with the hope of breaking down that mistrust and the associated barriers, and creating a universal language that everyone could communicate with free of judgement.
Had Zamenhof’s idealogy been more successful and widespread – and a little later – perhaps he would have been a deserving candidate of the first Nobel Peace Prize (which actually went to Henry Dunant in 1901 for his founding of The Red Cross, but that would be going off tangent – carry on!).
Finding the root
First the very basics according to the Ethnologue: Esperanto is a Polish language (we assume they mean this because it was created in Poland), a non-indigenous language that uses the Latin script for writing.
Depending on your own language experience, both mother tongue and those that you have chosen to learn, you might see Esperanto links with many languages. It is safe to say that what Esperanto doesn’t look like is Zamenhof’s own native language of Polish, although some would argue that Polish speakers of Esperanto do produce the best sound, so perhaps there is something in that.
For some there is a strong resemblance to Latinate languages – taking the word hope itself, you can see how close it is to a number of these:
In truth, it appears that there were a whole wealth of language influences that contributed to Esperanto:
- French, English and German, because these were commonly taught languages in schools at the time of Unua Libro being written,
- Swedish, the comparative use of the (ju … des – as in, the more the merrier),
- Latin, words such as tamen (however), post (after) and kvankam (although),
- The i ending from Russian for verbs (barakti – to flounder, from барахтаться barahtat’sja, and deĵori – to be on duty, from дежурить dezhyrit),
- Polish, words like eĉ (even, from jeszcze) and pilko (a ball, from piłka),
- Lithuanian, tuj (from tuoj).
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So how far has Esperanto actually spread? Is it anything close to what Zamenhof wanted to achieve?
Whilst Esperanto is neither an official nor a second language of any country, there are a lot of Esperanto speakers in both Hungary and China. Hungary, because the language is offered in schools, and China, because there have been sporadic attempts to introduce Esperanto as a more accessible, mainstream language, which has led to China hosting Esperanto ‘gatherings’ with the best attendance.
Esperanto is a working language for Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda, the Esperanto organisation World Esperanto Association has an official ‘consultative’ relationship with both the UN and UNESCO, and Esperanto is the first language of teaching and administration at the International Academy of Sciences San Marino.
Up to two million people speak Esperanto worldwide; this equates to around one to two thousand native speakers who have used Esperanto since birth, and the rest adopting it as an L2 language. The World Esperanto Association has members from some 120 countries, and every year there is a World Esperanto Congress, the 101st of which was held this year in Nitra, Slovakia.
Perhaps Esperanto isn’t exactly widespread, then. But it is definitely out there, and there is interest: in 2012 Google Translate added Esperanto as its 64th language, and there are numerous platforms available for would-be Esperanto learners to use.
The ideology behind Esperanto is beautiful: accessible by all, easy to learn, a true, universal language because it has no particular home and therefore no own can claim ownership of it. However, there is a lot of vitriol spat about Esperanto because of that; language and culture are intrinsically tied, and if you can’t have one without the other then apparently there is no place for a language that doesn’t have a culture it has been built upon.
However, a congress that has seen increasing numbers of attendance over 101 years is nothing to be sniffed at, and neither is the idea that the sort of language utopia that Esperanto could provide, could be the beginnings of true equality for all of us.