Finding Common Ground

Is It Time To Bring Back Esperanto?

/ by Tom Phillips

“Eh, ce n'est pas bon non plus” wasn’t the reply I was hoping for. It was lunchtime on the first day of an Albanology conference in Prishtina in Kosova, and an Albanian professor had sat down at my table. Given that the vast majority of the conference papers were being delivered in Albanian, he assumed that I spoke the language fluently. I didn’t and he didn’t speak English. He did, however, speak French and so did I – or so I thought. After I’d asked him to repeat what he’d just said in French for the third time, he let out a slightly exasperated sigh: “Oh, this is no good either.” The rest of lunch passed in awkward silence.


A week later I was in Sofia, being shown round by two of our closest Bulgarian friends – a mother and daughter. Although the daughter is fluent in English, the mother is less so, having grown up at a time when Russian was the most widely spoken second language in Bulgaria. Mum, though, used to be a tour guide and her encyclopaedic knowledge of the city meant she had stories to tell about everywhere we went. She recounted these in Bulgarian, and her daughter duly translated them into English. After a few hours, we took a breather on the steps of the Bulgarian National Bank. Mum started to say something – possibly about the former Communist Party HQ across the boulevard – but her daughter turned to me in dismay. “I can’t translate anymore,” she said. “I’ve got tongue ache.”


Neither of these incidents had particularly severe repercussions – it turned out the Albanian professor had mistaken me for someone else he wanted to talk to, and I did eventually hear all about the ex-CP HQ in Sofia – but they are presumably amongst the problems that L.L. Zamenhof had in mind when he invented Esperanto – a rationally constructed and easy-to-learn common language which would make it possible for people the world over to communicate without the need of translators and interpreters. According to him, his invention – which he unveiled in his book Unua Libro in 1887 – would both overcome “the misery caused by language division” and see “all nations … united in common brotherhood.”


On the face of it, it makes perfect sense and in the past, complex, multilingual societies have adopted a lingua franca in order to facilitate both commerce and administration – Latin in the Roman Empire and Medieval Europe, Russian in the former Soviet Union and so on (of course French was, as the term suggests, also a lingua franca). It’s often argued, of course, that English now serves a similar purpose, but while it’s true that something like a quarter of the world’s population can speak it, that still leaves three quarters who can’t. And while its native speakers assume that English is easy to learn, reaching functional competence still takes roughly ten times as long as it does with Esperanto. It’s also true that these lingua francae have succeeded because their adoption was in the direct interests of the powers that be at the time.


Esperanto, however, remains a minority language. Estimates of the number of people who speak it range from a few hundred thousand to a couple of million and, although it very nearly became the official language of a polyglot region of Belgium, and was almost adopted by the League of Nations, it’s not been taken up by large international bodies like the UN or the EU – which prefer the somewhat more costly method of employing hundreds of translators, simultaneous interpreters and lawyer-linguists to cope with multiple language differences.


True, there are sizeable clusters of Esperantists in South America, Asia and other parts of the world, but even in Europe – which has the most sizeable, possibly because, linguistically speaking, Esperanto is closely related to European languages – it’s thought that the proportion of Esperanto speakers is less than one percent.


To be fair, Zamenhof himself thought it would take several generations, if not centuries, for his invention to approach the universality he had in mind, and it would certainly be foolish to suggest that Esperanto will never become a truly international language: I imagine there were plenty of Anglo-Saxon speakers who believed that English – even Old English – would never take off, for example. At the same time, however, it remains true that, despite the existence of native Esperanto speakers who’ve learnt the language before they’ve learnt the vernacular of where they happen to live (probably numbering in the few hundreds), Zamenhof’s ideal remains unrealized.


There are certainly plenty of opinions about why this should be so. Some argue that Esperanto isn’t more popular because it isn’t a “real” language – in the sense that it was artificially invented; others that it’s too simple and doesn’t have the resources to express complex ideas or develop in the face of a rapidly changing world, where new technology and behaviors require the continual generation of new vocabulary. Such arguments are relatively easy to counter, and Esperantists have become adept at doing so. Esperanto may have started out as artificial construct, but it draws on previously existing languages (just like “real” languages do). It does evolve (the number of its root words has increased significantly since 1887). It does have a culture of its own (including a literature in which Esperantists express complex ideas). It also behaves exactly like other languages, in the face of circumstantial change, and borrows, adapts and invents new words to offer signifiers for the so-say “new reality.” The fear, in other words, that Esperanto is a sort of Orwellian Newspeak designed to reduce a speaker’s ability to communicate, or even have complex ideas, is entirely irrational.


That said, there do seem to be reasons for Esperanto having remained a minority language. The failure of international bodies to adopt it, or even consider such a move, is certainly a major factor. Global corporations, too, have shown little interest (if Microsoft had chosen Esperanto as its main operational language, there’d be billions of speakers by now) and, although both communist and fascist regimes initially showed glimmers of interest, Stalin and Hitler eventually decided that Esperantists represented yet another international conspiracy threatening their totalitarian regimes, and sent them to concentration camps. Speaking Esperanto, in other words, became positively dangerous in the middle years of the twentieth century. That Esperanto is associated with progressive internationalism and, in some quarters, internationalist anarchism also means that the recent resurgence in populist nationalism in parts of Europe and the USA is in the process of constructing a zeitgeist in which a global language is unlikely to thrive.


At the same time, Zamenhof may have been overstating the case when he referred to “the misery caused by language division,” and suggested that language differences are one of the main barriers to international cooperation. For large numbers of people, not being able to communicate via a common language isn’t a problem they encounter very often and, even if they do, the result is unlikely to be misery. Similarly, it seems unlikely that language differences have actively prevented international cooperation, or been the cause of actual conflict, and you certainly don’t need to be a Marxist to think that economic and political interest have been far more important factors in determining the divisions and fault-lines of the existing world order. The philosophy behind Esperanto, in other words, might well be putting the cart before the horse, and it seems entirely likely that it will only succeed when the problems it was invented to solve have been solved by other means. During the famous 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front, for example, soldiers from all sides found the means to communicate with each other, but that didn’t stop the First World War going on for another four years. Nor did the fact that many of the heads of state from the contending nations were from the same family.


Would the world be significantly different had Zamenhof’s ideal been realized? It’s hard to tell, but I suspect not. No matter all the practical benefits that Esperanto might offer, it’s running up against the fact that the language each of us speaks is deeply embedded in who we are, and that rather than being a cause of “misery,” language divisions remind us all of what makes us the same – the recognition that we are all different, simultaneously “other” to others and “other” to ourselves. What Zamenhof describes as “misery” might well be a form of pleasure.


That’s not to say, of course, that Esperanto is entirely out for the count. It may be that, in a few generations’ time, we’ll all be using it (although, paradoxically, it may also have followed English’s example and diversified into numerous sub-dialects and variants by then). And a universal second language, a global medium for cross-cultural communication, would undoubtedly have all manner of benefits. At the moment, however, it looks very much as if English, Google Translate and the simultaneous interpreters employed by the UN and EU are likely to fulfil the function that Esperanto was designed to realize. The political and economic implications of that may not coincide with Zamenhof’s idealism, but it seems that we are going to be stuck with it for the foreseeable future. More’s the pity, perhaps.

Tom Phillips

is a poet, playwright, lecturer and translator living in Bristol, UK. His poetry has been published in a wide variety of magazines, anthologies, pamphlets and the recent collections “Unknown Translations” (Scalino, 2016) and “Recreation Ground” (Two Rivers Press, 2012). He translates Bulgarian literature and was translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House in August 2016. Other work includes the plays “I Went To Albania” and “Coastal Defences,” teaching creative writing at the University of Reading and editing the poetry magazines Raceme and Balkan Poetry Today.