Thursday, July 3, 2008

Why not Esperanto?

I posted a few days ago to praise English speakers everywhere. A reader asked why my opinion was of Esperanto. For those that don't know, Esperanto was designed as an international language that would be easy to learn, pronounce, read, and write. The idea was to provide a common way to communicate.

Esperanto never took off. I think there are a couple of reasons.

Probably the main problem with Esperanto, to use the business term, is that it has no installed base. Nobody speaks Esperanto, so nobody makes movies, books, or radio shows in Esperanto. Which means that there is little reason to learn Esperanto. It's a circular argument but the logic is inescapable. The only way to really get enough people to learn Esperanto to make a difference is to force them. That's why so many Central Asians speak Russian.

Learning a language is hard, and if you are going to take the time to do it, you'll probably pick the one that lets you talk to the most people, make the most business connections, and see the most movies.

Another problem is that Esperanto can't be easy for everyone to learn. Languages fall into families. For instance, most of Central Asia speaks Turkik languages including Turkish, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazak, and others. These languages are closely related and it is easy for Turkish speakers to learn Kazak. Dutch and German are close, as are Spanish, Italian, and French. Spanish and French and Dutch and English are all closer to each other than they are to Russian. There is actually a fascinating field of study where the migration of people around the world can be traced through the family tree of the languages they speak.

What this means is that Esperanto must either be related to nothing, in which case it is hard for everyone to learn, or related to some existing language in which case if favors the speakers of that language. There is no way to design a language that is equally easy for both Chinese and English speakers to learn because their native languages are so different.

So despite best intentions, Esperanto is a language which is quite hard for some people to learn and which nobody speaks. It never had a chance.


Eriketo said...

Interesting thoughts. Whilst Esperanto's vocabulary is predominantly European-based, the structure is closer to an 'agglutinative' or 'isolating' language, which makes it closer to 'Asiatic' languages (and, incidentally, makes it extremely flexible and relatively easy to learn). The key here is in the word 'relatively'. Esperanto may be harder for some nationalities to learn, I don't know, but it is still relatively easier than, for example, English.

"Nobody speaks Esperanto"??? Interesting. I daily 'Skype' my friends in Japan in Esperanto (they solve my office computer problems for me much more quickly than our company computer geek). I listen to radio programmes from around the world in the language, mostly online - gives you a much better perspective on international news than being limited to English-language only. As a student I travelled widely using the well-known 'Pasporta Servo' ("passport service") system, where Esperanto speakers worldwide provide free accommodation to other speakers. When I want fashion advice, I phone my friends in Paris/Athens or Madrid - Esperanto is our common language for that too!

I could go on, but I won't. There are enough scholarly articles and a strong evidence-base available to Google for those who want to explore more.

Suffice it to say that Esperanto is 'normalized' in my daily life to such an extent that comments of its 'disappearance' don't really bother me any more.

Brian Barker said...

Not too certain who told you Esperanto never "took off".

Communication should be for all and not just for an educational or political elite, which is where a non-national language like Esperanto comes into play.

If you have a moment you might like to check

Remush said...

Quoting Taco: "Esperanto never took off. I think there are a couple of reasons.
The only way to really get enough people to learn Esperanto to make a difference is to force them. "

Assuming there were about 1000 people speaking Esperanto in 1900, and 2 millions in 2000, we may expect 4 billions by 2100, if humans are still present then.
It could be much more if there were a few articles to encourage people to learn the language just out of free will. No need to use force.

uk student said...

Quoting Remush: "Assuming there were about 1000 people speaking Esperanto in 1900, and 2 millions in 2000, we may expect 4 billions by 2100, if humans are still present then."

Considering that world population is predicted to be 8.4 billion by 2100, Esperanto will only be spoken by 0.0062% of them. That can hardly be classed as popular.

I first heard about Esperanto in an article about reasons to learn a foreign language and I agree with you that it isn't viable.

Miń•aelo said...

Oops - uk student, I think there's an error in your math. Remush said 4 billion by 2100, not 4 million. 4 billion out of 8.4 billion is 48% - quite a difference. Even 4 million, as a percentage of the world's current population of 6.5 billion, is 0.062%, not 0.0062%.

Taco van Ieperen said...

When I said that "nobody speaks Esperanto" I really meant in relative terms to English or Spanish. I realize there is fairly active Esperanto community and I'm glad that people are still using the language. However, my impression is that it has become a bit of a hobbyist thing rather than a serious means of communication. If your purpose was to learn a language for no purpose other than to communicate with the widest range of people, you'd probably pick English.

I think it could be dangerous to extrapolate growth rates for language learning into the future. You could make exactly the same argument with Klingon speakers after all.

mankso said...

Taco, I'm glad to see that you have revised your initial comments about Esperanto somewhat. Others have already addressed some other issues.

However ... you are looking at communication from the purely pragmatic point of view. It obviously doesn't bother you that World English is seen by some (many?) as just another attempt at imperialism, this time linguistic, nor that 'one language for the world' (i.e. English) is already destroying many minor languages and cultures, and is a sort of Trojan Horse in some major cultures (eg. India, Phillippines). And look for example at what has happened to the indigenous languages in your own backyard in the last 100, or even 50, years.

Those of us who have chosen to speak Esperanto usually do so for reasons other than the purely practical. You will find seven of these in the Prague Manifesto:
Surely 'universal bilingualism' [YOUR language + Esperanto for everyone] is a much more rational, democratic and fair way to go in 2008 - or do you still prefer to see native English-speaking WASPs (and their language) dominate the other 95% of humanity, while reaping enormous economic benefits from this and being specially privileged in international forums, meetings and education?

Brian Barker said...

I quite agree with the comment about extrapolation. How would this work with Mandarin Chinese?

And historically with Latin!

Interestingly also the Polish Parliament voted unanimously, with 397 votes in favour, and none against, for Esperanto's wider dissemination.

As a native English speaker my vote is for Esperanto as well.

Elizabeth said...

One of the useful things about Esperanto is that once you have learned it - and it really is very easy - learning a range of other languages becomes easier. I tried learning Italian and failed, then I learned Esperanto, went back to Italian and succeeded. Since then I've tried Polish, a harder language to learn. Fortunately there are plenty of Polish words in Esperanto which gives me a headstart. I've also been invited to stay in Warsaw by a Polish Esperantist who doesn't speak any English. Esperanto opens door for international communication in all sorts of different ways.