Because of my background in linguistics, people have often told me how great it would be if the whole world spoke one language, if everyone could understand each other without the blockage of language barriers. They say it as if they came up with the idea. I smile and nod, letting them believe they are the egalitarian genius they see themselves as. This idea is nothing new, and it’s been attempted before. Humanity just doesn’t want it. We’re too overpowered by our sense of “us vs. them.”
When people from around the world have tried to speak a unifying language that could end all language barriers, it was attacked time and time again until it was subdued by the language of business.
If Esperanto’s lingua franca status were never blocked, we would have so many fewer problems. Non-English-speaking immigrants might not be looked down upon in the same way. Being able to communicate with them would allow nationalists to see their humanity. If all people learned Esperanto, rather than expecting American immigrants to learn English, they could assimilate into society much quicker. They’d be able to take a driving test, to vote, to go to school. If everyone in the world started learning Esperanto today, language barriers would be a thing of the past in about a year.
Don’t believe me? Try it out for yourself! Esperanto only has 16 Grammar Rules. Learn them this week, start speaking the next, and start making connections with people from around the world.
But why Esperanto? What makes Esperanto so special? Is it the first auxiliary language? No, that would be Volapük. Besides its simplicity, Esperanto is perhaps the most morphologically flexible language. In other words, prefixes and suffixes can be tacked on the ends of words to give them new meaning.
This language fascinates linguists like myself, but it is by no means reserved for them. You don’t have to be a linguist or a polyglot in order to learn Esperanto. In fact, there are many Esperantists that have learned Esperanto to discover cultures. They tried to learn other languages, but they were unsuccessful. For some, Esperanto was a last resort for language-learning before giving up entirely. Esperanto gives speakers the joy and enrichment of language-learning without the intimidation.
Esperanto remains the most widespread auxlang in history. There are estimated to be two million speakers worldwide, however Esperantists often reject this calculation since it is nearly impossible to calculate. If you wanted to calculate the number of French-speakers, you tally up the population of the francophonie and those certified in French. Esperanto doesn’t have a country nor a widely accessible certification. Duolingo alone has over 750,000 Esperanto learners. Whether the estimate is accurate or not, there are millions of Esperantists worldwide.
Speaking someone else’s native language inherently results in an imbalanced power dynamic. Think back to the diffident rush of incompetence that would materialize before giving a presentation in Spanish class. That is the habitual state of an individual living and working outside of their language sphere, the geographical No matter the situation, catering to the mother tongue of others leads to a power struggle. In many countries, not speaking the local language complicates getting a job, a driver’s license, an education, and equal treatment both in public and under the law.
As an ESL teacher, I have seen all that my students must go through in order to do things that you and I take for granted. Many of my students have trouble finding work, shopping, going to the store, etc. I have one student in particular that can’t get his driver’s license, because the test is not offered in Italian in New Jersey. The state can provide an interpreter, but the test-taker must have taken the test before and failed, proving that they need an interpreter in order to succeed. This may sound like a fix, but immigrants are the busiest people I’ve met. All they do is work, and they rarely have a boss that is forgiving enough to let them leave to go to the DMV at least twice: once to fail and once to have a chance at passing. So, they might have to miss work two or more times as well as pay the $10 fee each time. In other words, they’d have to pay $10 and miss a day of work just to fail a test to get the help they need. This is only one of the many ways that immigrants from different language spheres are not given the same opportunities.
Throughout history, the dominating party’s language or dialect tends to gain prestige, causing its imitation. This is known as language shift or borrowing prestige. The Anglo-Saxons’ borrowing of prestige led to the acquisition of French words, like pork, poultry, and beef, which come from porc, poulet, and bœuf, words that would be used when serving French Nobility. Their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, pig, chicken, and cow, were kept on the farm. A similar linguistic transfer took place centuries later when Haitians adopted the word chita (to sit), a deviation of assieds-toi (sit down), into their language. Nowadays, assieds-toi (sit down) can come off as rude, but in the 1800’s, it was belittling. Chita, a portmanteau of the French imperative of s’assoir (to sit), almost definitely entered the language thusly as a result of being uttered in this form more often than any other. In other words, Haitians were told to sit down so much that assieds-toi became their new word for sit.
Time and time again, Esperanto has been beaten down throughout its life, but it continues to thrive. Clearly, Esperanto has not yet become the international lingua franca to eliminate language barriers, but it will surely happen. With the recent waves of attention Esperanto has been receiving, this language will become increasingly well-known, and the advent of ubiquitous technology allows users to learn and practice no matter how close they are to other Esperantists. Even offline, the language is making progress in communities, in the sciences, in the arts, in schools, and in universities. Although it may take years or decades for Esperanto to make this change, once we get there, we will not go back.
In topology, a mathematical knot is a form that cannot be undone or unraveled. Esperanto is the knot. Once we reach simple, effective intercommunication, we will have no reason to go back. We just have to be patient and work towards establishing that knot.