What is Esperanto?

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez
January 25, 2021

If you’ve asked yourself “What is Esperanto?” before, then you are not alone. If you’re a linguistics or #LanguageLearning fanatic like I am, eventually you run across Esperanto in your studies. Esperanto is the name for a language created by Polish ophthalmologist and linguist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof. Zamenhof took a fascinating concept and made it into reality. Join me and the other language nerds as we take a closer look at Esperanto and its potential applications. 

What the heck is Esperanto?

Esperanto is a constructed language, meaning it did not exist before Zamenhof published his creation under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto” in five different languages. It was invented as an auxiliary international language. That means it was meant to be a linguistic bridge, allowing people to communicate even if they don’t share a common first language. 

Zamenhof’s dream was to foster world peace and international understanding with his neutral universal second language. The word esperanto comes from Latin meaning “one who hopes”.  Ironically, Esperanto was created in 1887, not long before the World Wars would change the landscape of the globe forever.

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Esperanto as a linguistic concept

Linguistic nerds love the concept of Esperanto. They (we!) geek-out over the whole idea. Learning a new language, we have been told so often that grammar rules just are and don’t have an explanation. With Esperanto, somebody actually made these conjugation choices on purpose. Sociologists also find Esperanto fascinating. Imagine a world without language barriers or misunderstandings. What would that mean for our ability to communicate across cultures?

Even economists drool over Esperanto. With over 24 languages, translation for official European Union business costs over EUR 330 million per year. That’s considering most documents are already funnelled into English, French, and German as the EU’s recognised working languages. Esperanto seems like a solution for so many global problems. 

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Esperanto in reality

The concept of Esperanto is more fascinating than its actual use. The possibilities of Esperanto are limitless, but the real-world applications simply haven’t happened.

In reality only 1,000 people in the world speak Esperanto as a native language. All of them were raised bilingual, by linguistic enthusiast parents no doubt! Another 60,000+ Esperanto speakers picked it up later in life out of pure interest. In total, that’s only triple the size of the town of Staines outside of London. Not very impressive on the global scale.

Though Esperanto was created with global politics in mind, there is no record of Esperanto being used to conduct official business. In actuality, the language of Esperanto is relegated to a conceptual discussion in most uni students’ first-year Communications Studies lecture.

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Has Esperanto failed?

If Esperanto is so useful, why hasn’t it been widely adopted? The planet’s hesitation at embracing a universal, neutral language can be explained a few ways. First, people don’t have time. Whether busy or uninterested, most people don’t take the time to learn a new language. Those of us who are bilingual, trilingual, and multilingual use language skills to meet the needs of our world. Everybody else does fine without it.

Second, they way things already are is an obstacle to what could be. In academia we call this “path dependence”. It means that institutions for language learning around the world already exist. They teach languages that have been used in foreign interactions for centuries. To move away from the path of teaching English, Spanish, Arabic, etc. towards Esperanto presents a huge cost. No business or government is willing to take that on. From an economist’s point of view, the sunk cost is too high. 

Third, there are geopolitical factors at play. A handful of languages dominate the global landscape. From business to entertainment, the world speaks the language of colonisers and hegemons. The modern world learns English and Spanish because people in the past were forced to speak these languages.  Language is a gateway to our past. We can’t ignore the imperial and colonial histories of the British, Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and even Russians when we look at the geographic map of languages on earth. 

Esperanto is a fantastic linguistic achievement. The reality is less than sparkling, but the concept and execution are groundbreaking. Did you know about Esperanto before today? What is most fascinating to you?

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