Esperanto: The Living, Changing, Conlang Community

Background and excerpts from an Esperantist perspective

Understanding how a language has evolved over time is integral to our understanding of how the language is used. The entire field of historical, or diachronic, linguistics is oriented around the investigation of changes to language over time. These changes occur naturally, all around us, every day — we can see them in slang, the creation of original words for new technologies and ideas, and the metaphorization of terms to mean new things. However, not all languages are born and evolve naturally; constructed languages, or “conlangs” in linguistic jargon, are created with specific purposes in mind. The three main categories of these conlangs are (1) engineered languages, which are used for logical, philosophical, or linguistic inquiries, (2) artistic languages, which are created for fun, fictional writing, and creative endeavors, and (3) international auxiliary languages, which are designed for international communication and experimentation with language education.

The latter category, often called IALs or auxlangs for short, is particularly fascinating in terms of societal potential. While some IALs are created naturally, such as pidgins that are used for trade, others have simply been created by people who love languages and want to discover new ways to communicate. Esperanto was created in 1887 by L. L. Zamenhof, who was born in a tumultuous era of the former Russian Empire in the city now known as Białystok, Poland. There were Yiddish-speaking Jews, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Russians, Belarusians, Germans, and Poles — with just as many languages amongst them. There were conflicts over Russification policies, anti-Polish repressions, high concentrations of persecuted Jewish population due to the Pale of Settlement, and even Anarcho-Communist peasant rebellions that found their roots in Białystok, and all of these conflicts were exacerbated by the fact that people simply could not understand each other. In 1870s Białystok, just a few years before Zamenhof created Esperanto, Polish was banned in public places — a new and free language served as a response to the linguistic and cultural damage done.

Zamenhof began to believe that a shared language could provide better communication and a politically neutral way to interact, so he decided to create a new language, complete with its own vocabulary, grammar, and systems of learning. The International Language, nicknamed la Unua Libro, meaning “the first book” in Esperanto, was published in 1887, and with this, his brand-new constructed language was born. Esperanto translated into English means, “one who hopes”. Zamenhof was hoping for change from his work, and he told his readers so clearly:

“This little work, which has cost much labour and health, I now commend to the kindly attention of the public, hoping that all, to whom the public weal is dear, will aid me to the best of their ability. Circumstances will show each one in what way he can be of use; I will only direct the attention of all friends of the international language, to that most important object, towards which all eyes must be turned, the success of the voting. Let each do what he can, and in a short time we shall have, that which men have been dreaming of so long — ‘a Universal Tongue’.”

— L.L. Zamenhof, Dr. Esperanto’s International Language, Introduction & Complete Grammar, English Edition, translated by R.H. Geoghegan, Balliol College, Oxford 1889 (2006 edit and preface by Gene Keys, Nova Scotia)

Portrait photo of Zamenhof taken during the World Congress in Washington, 1910, Austrian Photo Archive — Portreta foto de L. L. Zamenhof farita dum la UK en Vaŝingtono, 1910, Bildarchiv Austria

Esperanto succeeded where other attempts at constructed languages failed because it was oriented around ease of learning and designed with the overarching goal of building a unified community of speakers. Constructed auxlangs that came before were typified by divisions within their language communities. Volapük, the auxlang that had the most speakers before Esperanto, is an example of this failure to unify. Its creator, Johann Martin Schleyer, and other learners of the language had different ideas about what direction it should take, and there were schisms about who had proprietary ownership of the language. The language eventually faded into obscurity because of infighting and the creation of Esperanto, which was considered an easier and more utilitarian auxlang. Also, Zamenhof was always very clear about not owning the language, and allowing new thinkers to help its growth. Because of its unique ability to bridge gaps between people from all philosophies and national backgrounds, Esperanto fills a niche even within the niche of constructed languages.

Esperanto is heavily based on the Indo-European languages of Europe, the primary elements being Romance languages for vocabulary, Slavic languages for the sound systems and semantics, and minor contributions from Greek to both. Pragmatics of the language, in terms of how the language was used socially and how idioms were constructed, were largely tied into the native languages of Zamenhof and other early Esperanto users: Russian, Polish, German, and French. The grammar and vocabulary were both constructed with uniformly standardized rules, with different endings reflecting distinct grammatical categories, and the language is gendered in a way comparable to Italian, which was a language Zamenhof admired and was fascinated by — Mussolini notably allowed Esperanto under his regime because it sounded Italian, and some tourist publications were subsequently released in Esperanto. There are very few exceptions to Esperanto’s grammar, which makes it relatively easy to learn and extremely easy to add new entries to the lexicon; new words that need to be included in the lexicon can simply be modified based on the existing framework that Zamenhof provided, and are generally tested by community consensus of usage, i.e. if a new word is useful enough, it will be used and normalized by the Esperanto community. Stress and pronunciation are also standardized; there is always penultimate stress.

A quick example of how Esperanto is standardized can be seen with the suffix “-eco”, meaning abstract quality. When you see this ending, it will almost certainly indicate that you are discussing the nature of something — so “boneco”, also coming from the root “bon” meaning good, is “goodness”; the words come together like puzzle pieces. “Amikeco”, coming from “amik” for friend, means friendship. Even the sound at the end of “-eco” has immediate grammatical significance — all undeclined singular nouns end in “-o”, just as plural nouns end in “-j”, adjectives end in “-a”, adverbs in “-e”, and accusative nouns end in “-n”. If you wanted to say “friendships”, you could say “amikecoj”. Think about how you might say “friendships” as the object of a sentence: “I have friendships” becomes “Mi [I] havas [have, present tense] amikecojn”. The fact that words are built from easy to learn, highly regular constructions and endings makes Esperanto a much less practically difficult language to learn than, for example, English, Spanish, or Mandarin, where there are myriad exceptions to rules, lexical items, and pronunciations that have emerged naturally over time. Esperanto skipped the problem of irregulars by making everything fit tidily into Zamenhof’s parameters.

Following the publication of Zamenhof’s book in 1905, French Esperantists who liked the language and Zamenhof’s ideas of international communication during difficult times in Europe helped to found the first ever World Esperanto Congress, which took place in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, in 1905. After that the language began picking up steam throughout the world, and with the exception of WWI, WWII, and COVID-19, the Congress has been repeated annually and in-person all over the globe as a way to discuss the future of the language and introduce Esperantists to one another — this year’s conference was performed online, continuing the tradition digitally. There were two ideas inherent to the Esperantist movement following this first World Esperanto Congress: 1) Zamenhof’s grammar book, Fundamento de Esperanto, would be the only grammatical governance over the language, and 2) Esperanto would always be a solely linguistic movement, with no other meaning ascribed to it. This latter concept became difficult to maintain when Esperanto speakers were persecuted in regimes such as Nazi Germany, Francoist Spain, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, but the language persisted and publications with regional focuses continued to be produced. At this point, Esperanto became more than just a linguistic movement, and started to represent a political entity in and of itself.

World’s first Esperanto Congress in Boulogne-sur-Mer (France), 1905, public domain

Esperanto was meant to be easy to learn, easy to use with people of any nationality, and was designed with the philosophy of overcoming differences between cultures, so it makes sense that it was often used for political activism or communication when a language that held power was undesirable or negatively politicized. Critics of Esperanto often note the Euro-centric nature of the language, and have expressed fear that a universal second language, as proposed by Zamenhof, might serve to reduce linguistic diversity rather than promote it, but regardless of these criticisms, the language has become widely distributed and spoken over its timeline.

Esperanto has not become an official language in any country, staying true to its nationless origin philosophy, but it has been implemented partially in the educational systems of Hungary, Germany, Poland, and China, where it is sometimes taught as a foreign language just like any other language. The largest Esperanto organization, the Universal Esperanto Association, has official ties to UNESCO and the United Nations, and Esperanto is recognized as a medium for international communication by both. The acceptance of Esperanto has transcended these political relationships and frequently extends to the religious world, with many faith groups using Esperanto for global communication as well- Catholic popes have used Esperanto in blessings, Quakers have an Esperanto society, Shiite religious leaders have praised the languages potential for international communication, and Bahá-í faith practitioners can join the Bahá-í Esperanto-League. Holy books such as the Bible, the Qur’an, and even parts of the Book of Mormon have been translated into Esperanto. As both political and spiritual movements affiliate themselves with Esperanto, the auxlang’s influence and recognition worldwide continue to grow.

Because the language can be learned at home through free online resources, estimates of speaker counts vary, but anywhere from tens of thousands to two million people have some usage of the language, and in recent years a new phenomenon has come to light: native Esperanto speakers. There were examples of native Esperanto speakers early in the language’s history, but in the late 90s, it was found that there were hundreds of families worldwide with first language (L1) Esperanto users, and they were studied more extensively than ever before — this changed the landscape of Esperanto, insomuch as it drew attention to the fact that Esperanto could truly be a language that people speak, use, and communicate with just like any native natural language.

The study of native language is necessarily different from the study of language as a whole. Native languages — and what these mother tongues are — affect people’s ability to participate in their broader linguistic communities. Learning in a non-native language is an inherent disadvantage, and students often have to learn a new language while also taking regular classes. This changes whether or not they perform well in school and how they communicate with the people around them. It has been clearly shown that mother tongue education leads to greater success for students regarding academics, staying in school for longer periods of time, and test scores; students simply perform better when they learn in the language that they speak at home. Because so few people speak Esperanto at home, it’s important to look at unique cases of native Esperanto speakers and think about how language education could be changed with an auxlang serving as a first language (or an immediate second language) — considering the implications of a hypothetical universal language is a worthy endeavor, simply because of how drastically it could change the global community in terms of how we think about language education and second language acquisition.

To get a better understanding of Esperanto, the community that emerged around it, and the political nuances of a linguistic community I was previously unfamiliar with, I decided to sit down with a native speaker of the language who also happened to be an Esperanto community organizer, Stela Besenyei-Merger (she/her, ŝi/ri in Esperanto). Stela learned Esperanto as a first language when she was growing up, along with her other mother-tongue of Hungarian. She has been involved in the Esperanto community since a young age, and travels around the European Union teaching languages, organizing events, and promoting both Esperanto and the ideals it encapsulates in her free time. She is an organizer for the Universal Esperanto Association’s youth wing congress, the International Youth Congress, as well as other sporadic Esperantist community events, and therefore very involved with the Esperantist movement. The interview was generally fascinating, but certain parts of our conversation really illuminated what it means to be an auxlang user in an active language community — those excerpts have been pulled and discussed below.

Esperanto and its speakers are, without doubt, part of a unique cultural community. The language has far exceeded simple translations or recreations of other languages’ texts; people now write original books, songs, blogs, news articles, and plan entire events that are conducted in Esperanto — this latter organizational function is part of Stela’s job. She suggested that fundamental to the cultural output of Esperanto is an intrinsic desire to learn about other people’s culture — by learning a language that people can practice and speak anywhere in the world, you automatically open yourself up to new ideas and experiences that those people can offer.

“You don’t just learn Esperanto, you are interested in learning about other people who are not like you, and that can mean anything honestly . . . I would suggest that the openness to other cultures is something that’s inherent in the language.”

Native speakers of Esperanto are a clear indication that something special is happening with their language. Concerns about reduction in linguistic diversity with a language that could potentially be taught globally make sense, since we often see politically powerful languages overtake minoritized languages in places where either financial or social pressures forcibly change the lingua franca in a given location. However, those criticisms often come from the outdated perspective that learning a second language somehow makes you worse at speaking another language, or inhibits your ability to learn your own culture’s language. These anti-multilingual arguments have been used in many historical instances to directly reduce linguistic diversity (such as the limitations placed on Indigenous languages/Chicano Spanish in the United States, or Indigenous languages in French-colonized Africa). The counter posited by Stela to the fear of lost linguistic diversity is simply that learning multiple languages is a good thing, and that Esperanto is just one of many options for a childhood second language that opens specific doors into a linguistic community. The important thing for her was not that people learn Esperanto specifically, even as a native speaker and Esperantist community leader, but rather that people be multilingual in general.

“I would also say if you grow up bilingual, this is totally independent from Esperanto, you understand the importance of speaking other languages. And, so you don’t need to be convinced to actually learn another language because you understand why it’s important.”

Regarding common, specific criticisms of the language, such as the European orientation of the vocabulary and grammar, there is really nothing that can be done about how the language was constructed. Divorced from any clearly defined political ideology is the fact that people from non-European countries still continue choosing to learn Esperanto. Zamenhof was very definitely European, and the majority of languages spoken where he lived were Indo-European, and many of the languages he was well-versed in were European, so the product of his work was a Eurocentric language. This does not change the fact that the language is certainly easier for Indo-European language speakers to learn than, say, for Sino-Tibetan language speakers, but it does help to justify the language for what it is. The logical reply to these concerns, which was put forward by Stela, is simply “Come up with a better one!” This is not to say Esperanto is perfect or free of bias, but rather that it is the current best option for a constructed IAL, which she considers important in and of itself.

“Because when I received this question [about Eurocentrism in Esperanto], or when we just discuss it, I wouldn’t know, I have to ask a Japanese person, or a Chinese person, in theory who are excluded because it’s Indo-European. And they just say, ‘no, no, no, it’s an easy language to learn’ . . . they understand that someone had to create a language. So, you build with what you have.”

Political controversy has surrounded Esperanto since its inception; there have been many movements historically that either used the language to promote political ideologies or simply promoted the language as its own ideology, often referring back to Zamenhof’s original goal of creating a universal second language. When discussing the politics of Esperanto with Stela, she was significantly less concerned with the specific political situations I asked about — for example, Anationalism’s Esperantist roots were new information for her — and far more concerned with the overarching philosophies that come into play for Esperantists, including awareness of the superficiality of borders and national identities when there is a method (such as Esperanto) for bridging societal gaps — and while Stela certainly did not claim to speak for the whole of Esperanto, her experiences with the international Esperanto community absolutely reflect the principles of international and intercultural communication, so she seemed to be a perfect spokesperson regarding these topics. She was acutely aware of what people in other countries were experiencing, and it seemed that the Esperanto community served as a source of news, information, and social sharing in her life.

“Because wherever you are growing up, you are grown up with a so-called national identity, whatever that is, and nowadays I have the luxury that whenever I hear something on the news and think, you know, what does that feel like, living in that country . . . I reach out to Esperanto speakers straight away, and I ask, ‘how does it affect you?’”

It seems that this ability — the ability to truly communicate with people from anywhere in the world, just as easily as if you spoke the same native language — is the primary advantage of Esperanto, and it is an advantage that comes with the inherent questioning of, as Stela asked, “What is it about borders?” This question was a major point in the conversation between Stela and myself, and it seems that Esperantists don’t necessarily regard borders as something significant except when considering logistics for travel and visas, where often there are discrepancies that appear arbitrary and pointless. This nationless, leftist-affiliated thinking aligns with Zamenhof’s original dreams of global language sharing, but also takes into account modern understandings of how communities can be built and how the internet, along with other new technological resources, can be used to expand these ideologies beyond borders both physical and national. I was personally impressed by the degree to which Stela supported native language education, with Esperanto serving as a second language — this was an aspect of the Esperanto philosophy that I had not considered; my linguistics-oriented education had previously conditioned me to think that a “big” language spoken by everyone would automatically reduce linguistic diversity, but it seems that this reduction occurs mainly when there is a presumption of power differential between two different groups. Esperanto, as it currently exists, seems to transcend these power dichotomies.

“I am a huge promoter of teaching your children your native language. I find it very sad when people explain to me why they decide not to teach their native languages, in favor of “big” languages. It literally makes my heart hurt, and I just think, “no, no! Please, don’t lose languages, please!” And these are things that I learned through the Esperanto community. I would have not reflected on these things . . . The other thing I would say is that the Esperanto community is alive and well, and not going anywhere. It’s because people do a lot of voluntary work. They put the effort in because they see that this is worth it, that this is something good to work for. “

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in many countries, and the international community relies more and more on the internet for communication and community, it is likely that Esperanto will continue to grow and change along with the rest of the world; already events such as the 2020 World Esperanto Congress, which are integral parts of the Esperanto community, have been moved to remote formatting. Understanding how and why some of these changes are occurring, what the philosophies behind these changes are, and meeting the people who work to implement these changes are all important when considering the Esperanto community and its members, and based on my conversation with Stela, I believe these are people who truly believe in a linguistic ideal of sharing and listening in a globalized way.

All of the above quotations were pulled from the interview with as much context possible while maintaining a necessary brevity; much thanks again to Stela for a fascinating conversation and insight into a world that many of us, myself included, may not have been exposed to in the past.

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