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What happened to Esperanto?

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Throughout human history, languages have been passed down from one generation of native speakers to the next. Few people have ever attempted to invent a brand-new language, yet in the late 19th century, a Polish ophthalmologist did exactly that. Ludwik Zamenhof’s intention was to create a language which would act as a universal translation platform, based on his experience of growing up in a city where four languages were spoken by different cultural groups. The division and hostility he witnessed between these self-segregating cultural groups inspired him to develop what he hoped would become a global language of communication.

Unveiled to the world in 1887, Zamenhof’s International Language drew inspiration from various European dialects. It used the five vowels familiar to English speakers, alongside 17 of the 21 Latin script consonants. Six of these consonants also gained accented variants, including ĥ – roughly equivalent to the ‘ch’ sound made by Scots when pronouncing ‘loch’.

Zamenhof attempted to make his new language easier to speak by ensuring each letter made a single sound. He also followed the International Phonetic Alphabet pronunciations which were being developed around the same time. He devised sixteen basic rules for his language’s use, meaning it could be learned in a tenth of the time required to grasp English to a comparable degree.

New name, old problems

On paper, Zamenhof’s language most closely resembles Spanish thanks to the use of words like ‘estas’ and ‘nomo’, though a non-speaker might also detect Italian influences. Two languages which weren’t used to influence it were French and English – the latter seen as a threat to the International Language’s long-term prospects of success.

The opposite sentiment held sway in France, where proposals among the League of Nations for its adoption as the new language of international relations were repeatedly vetoed by the French. The language would go on to be banned in the French education system, and it was also outlawed by Franco and Stalin – despite the latter having previously studied it. Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf the Jews might adopt it as their lingua franca after achieving global domination, and he was so worried by its existence that he ordered Zamenhof’s relatives to be killed.

Yet despite these terrible circumstances, Zamenhof achieved many of his original objectives. He oversaw the appointment of a solitary body to regulate the language, with restrictions on it becoming anything other than a linguistic movement. This pre-emptively avoided problems which the French would encounter with La Francophonie – an organization intended to promote the French language worldwide, but which ended up with member countries who showed no interest in La Francophonie’s aims – or even its values. Meanwhile, the term ‘International Language’ was quickly usurped among students of the language by the word used to describe ‘one who hopes’ – Esperanto. This was seen as reflecting the positive and philanthropic intentions behind this constructed auxiliary language.

Indifference and the internet

The biggest problem Esperanto would face was apathy. The Anglicisation of popular culture after the Second World War made English an obvious choice as a second language among younger people, while the business community found it hard to overlook a language spoken by two of the world’s most prosperous and influential trading nations. The number of Esperanto speakers remained stubbornly low throughout the latter half of the 20th century, despite the publication of tens of thousands of books. Even its adoption by a young George Soros didn’t bolster its fledgling support.

Esperanto might have faded from view entirely were it not for the internet. Suddenly, there was a forum for people around the world to communicate and interact with one another. And the internet has undoubtedly led to a renaissance in the language’s use. It’s since been referenced in computer games (Minecraft, Final Fantasy XI), as well as by film and TV shows (Red Dwarf, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse). The number of Esperanto speakers is currently estimated at around two million across 115 countries; there are dedicated groups on both Facebook and Telegram; and it’s possible to perform Google searches in the language.

Zamenhof’s legacy lives on in plaques, statues and street names around the world. He’s regarded as a deity among some Japanese people, and his birthday in mid-December is celebrated worldwide. There are almost 250,000 Wikipedia pages written in Esperanto, and new platforms like Duolingo provide basic introductions to a language which has undoubtedly become a huge success despite not having any native speakers. As such, it has far outstripped other auxiliary languages including the short-lived Volapük, the Esperanto-plagiarising Ido and the well-intentioned but under-developed Interlingua. Zamenhof believed it might take centuries for the International Language to live up to its billing, and he may still be proved right.

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