The Universal Language No One Speaks

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have one language that everyone could speak and understand?

That’s what Polish doctor Ludwig Leyzer Zamenhof thought and created when he invented Esperanto in 1887. If you’ve heard of it, you know Esperanto is a language meant to be universal, and if you haven’t, then you can have an idea of how successful the project came out to be – not at all.

Esperanto is an idealistic project that had the ambition of bringing people together by uniting them in tongue. This was the golden age of rationalism and liberal democracy, but also of rising national tensions. It drew from Slavic, Germanic and Romance languages to please and fit everyone, and was made ridiculously simple as to encourage its spread across borders.

Today, Wikipedia has about 245,000 articles written in it, there are books published in it, and you can find fluent speakers, and defendants of the language (by the name of Esperantists). And, although the language is still being used today, it never succeeded in actually becoming a lingua franca. Why not?

First, because the idea of having a language artificially constructed and imposed is part of a zeitgeist that is no longer valid today. Imposed systems from the top proved not to work, we’ve learned that.

Second, because Esperanto has no actual land and thus it also has no culture: it’s left hanging in the air. As novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who first learned it and then quit it, put it:

[….] Esperanto is dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because [its] authors never invented any Esperanto legends.

the hobbit in esperanto

What did he mean by “legends”? Think of it as “culture.” One might learn French out of love for French food, Italian because “Ciao Bella” will always seduce more than one, or English for the rock songs, etc. But, Esperanto? It doesn’t come with an image, a place, a lifestyle, a concrete inspirational factor. Perhaps, if some famous celebrities learned it, or if it let you experience a place in a special way, it would gain more adepts. But until then, Esperanto is left hoping for more.

Esperanto is nobody’s native language, the translation services for this language are rare. Finding a translator who will take it upon them to study an unused language like Esperanto should be praised because they will never work a day in their lives!

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