Esperanto: Our only Hope for Universal Communication?
"They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do."
I used to consider frequently is the lack of universal verbal compatibility among people on this planet. I find it astonishing that, in an age of jet-engines and high-speed internet, most of us are still completely incapable of communicating with the people even one continent over.
What would you do if you were dropped in Shanghai, and had to take a dump? Are you gonna try to act that out for someone on the street?
This is a problem, people.
I read the Ender's Shadow science fiction series in high school, and was impressed by the concept that author, Orson Scott Card presents about a language called Common. In the futuristic planet that Card describes, Common is a universal second language that all humans learn in school. In the same way that many Americans study Spanish, and Canadians study French growing up, all children on Card's futuristic Earth learn Common. By the time they are adults, all humans on the planet are capable of conversing with each other in Common, in addition to learning their native language at home.
I had a Spanish teacher in high school, Senor Cafe', who was a pretty culturally uninhibited thinker. One day I posed him the following question:
"why don’t we come up with a new, grammatically straight-forward, universal language, and use it replace English as the official international language?"
"Funny you should ask," Senor Cafe' replied. "They've tried."
The Greatest Language You've Never Heard
In 1887, L.L. Zamenhof published Unua Libro, a book encapsulating the grammar of his ground-breaking new Language, Esperanto. More than 100 years before Orson Scott Card, Zamenhof engineered Esperanto (meaning "hope") as an International Auxiliary Language to unite all peoples to better understanding through communication. Esperanto is easy to learn. There are no exceptions to the rules of its grammar or spelling. Some linguists estimate that acquisition of Esperanto is up to four times faster than other languages (Esperanto-USA). In the 124 years following its creation, Esperantists, as they are called, have experienced their share of ups and downs. Here are a few of the highlights I found on Wikipedia:
- 1924, the American Radio Relay League adopts Esperanto as its official international auxiliary language
- 1926, Adolph Hitler mentions Esperanto in his manifesto, Mien Kampf, as an example of a language that would be used by an International Jewish Conspiracy once they achieved world domination.
- Deplorably, Zamenhof's family was singled out along with many Esperantists for murder during the Holocaust
- 1954, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural organization recognizes Esperanto as an official "medium for international understanding." (whatever that means, lol)
- 1965, William Shatner learns Esperanto at McGill University, and speaks it in his leading role for the 1965 B-list horror film, Incubus.
Today, the official estimate is that somewhere between 10,000 and 2,000,000 people speak Esperanto fluently (Wikipedia). Unfortunately it is almost never taught in school, so it's unlikely that it will replace English as the international language any time soon.
Why Not Esperanto?
Personally, I think the idea of Esperanto makes a hell of a lot of sense, and I would welcome it being taught in schools around the world. The fact that such an obviously superior idea has never caught on serves as a terrific testament to just how scared of change societies across our world are. Critics, however, have a few decent arguments against it.
The main one is that the vocabulary, pronunciation, and verb conjugations are based predominantly on the Romantic and Germanic languages. In other words, it gives more weight to European culture than Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, and Native American. Not ideal for bringing about cultural appreciation and equality. It is, however, better than our current practice of simply expecting everyone to learn English.
Since Esperanto was created, there have been several other International Auxiliary Languages created in an attempt to correct the criticisms of Esperanto. The most popular two are:
• Ido (a reformed version of Esperanto)
• Occidental (derived from the Latin word for "west," this language attempted to create vocabulary that was even more easily recognizable to those who already spoke Romance Languages)
Another important question is, how could we actualize the adoption of an international language in a way that is not completely forced and arbitrary? If we were to attempt to choose an international language, which would we choose? Is it possible that they are all inadequate, and we should design yet another? Who would vote on this issue? And, most importantly, how often would we go about replacing our international language? No doubt, people will continue to develop more, better languages every decade. Then what? Would everyone on the planet have to learn a new language every ten years?
I was struggling to answer these questions for a while, until I realized something obvious: it may not be a choice we have to make at all. Is it possible that we could all communicate without the mandatory imposition of any artificial language...
Learning from History
Lets consider the English language. Where did it come from? Has it been spoken the same as it is today since the dawn of time in England? Not quite…
Old English is actually a hybrid of Latin, Greek, and Old Norse. Spanish came from Latin, Celtiberian, and Basque.
Effectively, no prominent language in current usage evolved in isolation. Every one is a hybrid of several older languages. As the world has become more globalized, peoples have traveled to new parts of the world, bringing with them their language and culture. This process has lead to an organic, progressive integration of languages since prehistoric times.
What's more, language has always been evolving and changing to become easier to speak and write. Case and point? We don't speak Old English anymore. Modern English is much more efficient for communication.
Enter: Accademia della Crusca
In 1612, the Italian Academy published their monumental work, Vocabolario, attempting to winnow out the impurities of Italian language (Wikipedia). This organization became the authority on Florentine Italian.
Essentially, what they were saying was this:
"Stop! THIS BOOK is Italian. Don't try to change it anymore."
Since then, all other "modern" cultures have followed suit, creating dictionaries to define:
• which words are "official words" of that language,
• what, precisely, those words mean mean,
• and how exactly they are supposed to be spelled
…No matter how counter-intuitive any of that may be.
It occurred to me this past week that our subscription to these "Academics" (root word=academy), may just be the most limiting thing we have ever done for our ability to integrate across cultural lines. In such a globalized world as we have today. It's not hard to imagine that, over time, English could re-integrate with the other Romance Languages, and, eventually, the Oriental ones as well. After all, Latin and Norse were equally incompatible at one point.
Imagine what would happen if we let go of our notions of how "English" or "Mandarin" was supposed to go, and let them organically integrate into a new language! We have examples of English doing this with tribal tongues in countries of Africa and the Caribbean.
We could let go of the notion that "bought" needed to have a silent "g-h" in it. That convention no longer makes sense, yet we continue to use it, at the expense of more efficient communication.
We live, today, in a world filled with hate and misunderstanding. There are Arabs that hate Americans; Americans that hate the Chinese; Chinese that hate the Japanese.... is it any coincidence that the vast majority of individuals from these countries are completely incapable of communicating with each other?
The biggest obstacle to allowing languages to integrate is the widespread belief that our culture would somehow "lose" something if we allowed our language to change. I challenge this belief. I say, the beauty of culture does not lie in the irrational attachment to rigid conventions. It lies in the creative reflection of the way our world is evolving and integrating every day.
Imagine if our language could reflect that.
If my thoughts have resonated with some of you, I offer one final reminder. The “Academies,” who advocated for this lingual rigidity need not be vilified as evil Illuminati. It is the choice of the collective whether or not we support such structures. Without our support, dictionaries are nothing but ornate bundles of paper. The root is the rigidity that we have created through buying into them. Ultimately, this stems from our fear of change. Through this article I have merely offered information, but close by asserting one thing:
Change is beautiful.