Polly Voo Franzy?

September 20th, 2006

Esperanto as an international language

By Greg Ryan
The language of Esperanto does not garner much respect from… well, pretty much anyone. Most people would probably rank its importance as a language somewhere between Middle English and Klingon. But beneath that goofy-sounding name lies a language that may have a place in this crowded, multilingual world.

Esperanto is a constructed language. This means it has not evolved through use over centuries, but was deliberately crafted - vocabulary, grammar and all - by a single person or group. It was created in 1887 by a Polish eye doctor, in hopes that its use would inspire global peace and understanding. Today, an estimated 2 million people worldwide can speak Esperanto, a number far exceeding that of any other constructed language. Still, it is English that is overwhelmingly considered the international language, with 1.9 billion speakers worldwide.

According to supporters of Esperanto, however, the language offers a number of advantages to English and other “natural” languages. For starters, Esperanto is easier to learn than almost any other language. There are few irregular verbs in Esperanto, and all nouns are derived from a small set of root words. It can take four to 20 times longer to learn a “natural” language than it would take to learn Esperanto.

The language also allows people of different cultures to converse with one another freely, regardless of their native tongue. Because it is neutral, there is no bias favoring the native speaker. Ronald Glossop, a longtime Esperanto proponent and former professor at the University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, says it is this potential for linguistic equality that gives Esperanto a fundamental advantage over English.

“Esperanto places everyone on a level playing field,” Glossop said. “Native speakers of English have an advantage over people using English as a second or third language, yet there are more people who speak English as a second or third language than there are native speakers of English. There’s a psychological advantage to that. I can go anywhere in the world and speak to people in English. Other people don’t have that advantage.”

Of course, English was not always the global lingua franca. Before English ruled, Latin, Spanish and French had their turns as premier international languages, all due to the imperial ambition of their speakers. In each case, the weaker nations and peoples of the world were forced to abandon their native language in favor of the language of their conquerors. Similar situations have occurred on a smaller scale in regions around the world. When language oppression is seen as a tool of imperial power, the value of a neutral international language becomes clear. Language diversity, as it were, is threatened by the cultural subjugation of the powerless by the powerful.

Although not possessing much power themselves, Esperantists have become an unlikely ally of these endangered languages. In 1996, the Prague Manifesto, a document laying out the ideals of the Esperanto movement, declared Esperantists to be defenders of language rights. The Universal Esperanto Association has backed this claim up on numerous occasions, including petitioning the European Union in 2002 to ban job postings that require applicants to be native speakers of a given language.

Some Esperantists have also called for the implementation of Esperanto in the United Nations and the European Union. Besides the obvious case for linguistic fairness, the use of Esperanto would save both bodies a good deal of money. The United Nations spends almost $100 million a year on translation services, which, according to Glossop, also account for a third of the European Union’s budget. And there’s always something lost in translation. When applied on an international scale, the erosion of meaning through the translation process can have significant consequences in terms of the interpretation of a ceasefire agreement or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, neither body has ever formally considered the use of Esperanto.

There do exist a number of legitimate concerns about Esperanto. The language is very similar to European Romanic languages, placing doubt on its claim to be a “global” language and putting people who speak non-European languages at a disadvantage in learning it. Alternatives to Esperanto also exist, such as the constructed languages Ido and Interlingua; Esperanto is simply the most popular of these languages.

Not everyone familiar with Esperanto believes its claim to be a defender of language diversity. (In fact, evidence suggests Orwell based his Newspeak on Esperanto; the structure of the two languages is similar, and he once lived with an aunt who spoke Esperanto.) Christopher Culver, an American student studying in Finland, was an enthusiastic speaker of Esperanto for nearly 10 years. He stopped using the language in 2005 when fellow Esperantists insisted he stop trying to learn other national languages and instead focus only on Esperanto.

“I began to generally realize how weird it was that the Esperanto movement would have me speak with my fellow Americans in Esperanto, even though we share the same native languages, and in spite of all the rhetoric of the United Esperanto Association about protecting the languages of the world,” Culver said.

Don Harlow, an official with the Esperanto League of North America, refutes the idea that Esperantists advocate the dominance of Esperanto to the exclusion of other languages.

“The use of Esperanto would protect language diversity better than other languages,” he said. “With English, the only way a native person can achieve native fluency is to be immersed with active speakers for years. Esperanto only requires a study of a few months. You don’t need to surrender your own language to be fluent.”

Glossop, when asked why he first decided to learn Esperanto, said the idea struck him in 1979, when he was doing research for a book on the causes of war.

“I was brainstorming what would make division more likely, and I thought about the Canada-Quebec situation at that time- the Canadians spoke English, the Quebec French. I realized this was a big problem at the global level. The problem was language. With an uncommon language, there is a tendency for unity to fall apart. So I wanted to be a world citizen. Esperanto was a way to be that world citizen.”

It is doubtful Esperanto will be taken seriously enough to become an international force any time soon. But it is likely that the idealism of Esperantists will remain and, consequently, that the Esperanto movement will live. •

Greg Ryan is a junior journalism major that speaks only in Klingon at Star Trek conventions. Email him at gryan1@ithaca.edu.

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