For a language intended to serve as a means of universal communication, Esperanto is often – and ironically – misunderstood. The world’s most popular constructed language was created in 1887 by LL Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist by day and passionate polyglot by night. He came up with the Esperanto language by choosing features from other languages he had studied that could theoretically be learned and mastered by anyone. But this is where the misunderstanding comes in.
Zamenhof didn’t feel like it replace something. The misconception that everyone speaks Esperanto instead of their mother tongue leads to it being easily dismissed as a utopian hippie-dippie dream or a creepy desire for a monoculture. The whole point of Esperanto, however, is that it is an auxiliary language ̵
“I don’t doubt there have been a zealot or two over the years who have said something stupid, but it has never been the case that Esperanto is supposed to be the only language,” said Tim Owen, director of the Esperanto Association of Britain (or rather Esperanto-Asocio de Britio) and co-author of Teach Yourself: Complete Esperantosays Mental Floss. “Person X and Person Y talk in Esperanto and use their own language again after the meeting.”
A universal second language enables people from different cultures to communicate equally without one having to learn the other’s language, thereby removing any unfair advantage the native speaker might have. There are no Esperanto monoglots and someone raising a child just to speak the language would be misled at best. Rather, the central idea of Esperanto has a lot to do with positive changes that people are trying to bring to the modern world.
“I suspect that most of the people who invest time and energy in learning Esperanto today are likely to agree with the idea that people are not different depending on where they come from, what language they speak or what color of skin they are “Says Owen. “However, they do not have the illusion that Esperanto will become the international language that will bring this knowledge to the world.”
Thanks to the Internet, interest in Esperanto has recently increased again. The language learning app Duolingo even added an Esperanto course for English speakers in May 2015. That course had its one millionth learners two and a half years later, and it currently has 285,000 active learners. As Owen explains, this doesn’t mean you can count on a million active Esperanto speakers, but it is certainly an indication of some interest in the idea of a universal language.
While some people undoubtedly learn Esperanto to aid international communication, others learn it simply to learn. A Duolingo learner is Azriel Johnson, who studies Esperanto along with around 15 other languages. “I have no immediate plans to go anywhere where Esperanto is spoken,” says Johnson. “I’m aimless, apart from the fact that I get new information and help shape my mindset for better or for worse.” Having previously learned Spanish, Johnson finds Esperanto fairly straightforward and notices that the grammar is similar to English.
While it is sometimes viewed as something that was popular and then fell out of favor, the truth is that Esperanto never really caught up. Some of the people whose imaginations it captured showed it in pretty notable works – it shows up a lot in science fiction, from Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series to the iconic science fiction sitcom Red dwarf. It is used occasionally when a foreign language is needed, as in Superman / Batman: Apocalypse (where it stands for Kryptonian) or Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ comic sagawhere it represents the blue language of the planet wreath.
Esperanto is typically used optimistically, as in the opening song too Final Fantasy XI, or to create an otherworldly feeling, as in the unnamed environment of Blade: Trinitythat carries bilingual characters. The single most enduring piece of Esperanto pop culture, however, is the 1966 horror film Incubus, in which every phonetically learned syllable is mutilated by a preliminary stageStar Trek Captain Kirk.
“I was aware of Esperanto, but only because of the not very good William Shatner film,” says filmmaker Christopher R. Mihm. “But I had no idea how many people spoke the language or really understood what it was before I started using it in my films.”
Mihm initially wanted to use Esperanto for the signage of the sets of Attack of the moon zombies, a retro-futuristic film set in a 1950s version of a moon base from the 1970s. A request to an online Esperanto club for help with the translation of some characters led to an Esperanto subtitle track, an Esperanto audio track and subsequent collaborations on several films. Mihm has experienced massive buzz from the global Esperanto community, with the relative lack of media published in the language leading to a huge surge in international sales.
This enthusiasm drives the online Esperanto community. For example, the language exchange app Amikumu was developed by Esperanto speakers and financed through crowdfunding. There are Esperanto versions of beloved children’s books, Esperanto anime fandubs, and Esperanto memes.
“Esperanto is going nowhere,” says Owen. “It has its speaking community, the only planned language that can boast of it, and an imposing cultural heritage. Regardless of the actual number of competent active speakers, it will never achieve the critical mass or government approval necessary to fulfill its original mission is required and that is the generally agreed language for international conversations. And that’s fine – for many of us it already does this job. “
Owen recently lost a colleague, another British Esperanto speaker who had worked for many years with a Japanese partner on historical projects related to Esperanto. Neither of them speaks the other’s native language. Even on the small scale of a relationship, this is a perfect example of what LL Zamenhof had in mind all those years ago: a way for people to share what they have in common rather than being separated from their differences.