It is difficult to know exactly when languages began to appear in the world. Similar to other evolutionary processes, languages have evolved over a long period of time and mutated over the years, new languages appeared, some survived and others did not. Linguists observe these changes by examining the vocabulary and similarities of languages. For example, it is assumed that the English word “flower” evolved from the word “flour” in Middle English, which was influenced by the word “flor” in Old French, which derives from the Latin word “florem”. But natural development is not the only way new languages appear. The linguistic knowledge of the structure of languages enables the creation of new languages from scratch. Indeed, the creators of fantasy worlds have created a range of strange languages. The writer and linguist J. R. R. Tolkien developed several new languages, among them the Elvish language—the language of a fictional race inhibiting Middle-earth in the fantasy world he created. Similarly, the creators of the Star Trek series commissioned the services of linguist Mark Ockrand to develop the Klingon language known in most of the world by name, more than many other real spoken languages. However, artificial constructed languages are not limited only to the realm of fantasy.
In 1887, a Polish ophthalmologist named Ludwik Zamenhof published the fundamentals of the Esperanto language, which he developed with the goal of creating a new worldwide second language. Zamenhof believed that the animosity between human beings stems largely due to a basic lack of understanding resulting from language barriers, and he intended to bridge the gap in order to promote world peace. The name Esperanto means “someone who hopes”. Esperanto has become the most widely spoken constructed language in the world with the number of speakers between 1-2 million. The Esperanto phenomena created a unique culture around the language all over the world that is based on simple linguistic elements. Esperanto enthusiasts meet all over the world in increasing numbers. The Esperanto movement is not associated with any country and even has its own independent flag and anthem. Poets, musicians and even bloggers (mostly of video) have created works in Esperanto.
In Esperanto, all nouns end with the letter “o” – “rapido” (speed), adjectives all end in “a” – rapida (fast), infinitive verbs end in “i” – rapidi (to be fast) and adverbs end with “e” – “rapide” (quickly).
[A side note: Maybe Esperanto makes it easier to rhyme and create poetry….]
In Esperanto, there is no grammatical conjugation or grammar-based verb inflection rules. There are no “exceptions” and the language is completely genderless. Plural is pronounced by adding a “j” at the end of the word pronounced like the letter “y” of the English language. The inflectional suffixes are similar and very easy to remember. Speakers of European languages can learn Esperanto very quickly because most words are derived from European languages, mainly from English, French, Italian, Russian and Greek.
Critics of the language claim that Esperanto is strongly based on European languages and, therefore, is not suitable to become an international language for those whose mother tongue is based on other linguistic foundations.
Unlike Esperanto, there are constructed languages that are not based on a standard language structure. For example, the Lojban language, designed by mathematicians and linguists, to be the language of logic, clear and unambiguous, where each sentence can be understood without context, so it can be analyzed relatively simply by computers. The language was originally developed to test the Sapphire-Wharf hypothesis that claims that there is a direct connection between languages we speak and how we perceive the world. The Lojban language does not have nouns, verbs or adjectives but has other complicated principles for sentence construction. Most of the communication in the language is in text form in online forums and its fans are mainly nerds and the like.
The internet in general makes it possible for bored geeks to come together and join forces doing strange things. So virtual communities are developing and flourishing around constructed languages, a field known as conlangling (short for constructed language) in the virtual world where new languages are constantly being invented by both amateur and professional linguists. Each Conlanger has his/her own reasons for creating an entire language and philosophy behind it.
[A side note: It is interesting that languages evolve naturally, indicating their flexibility, but gradually languages reach a level of rigidness and uncompromising grammar that condemns any flexibility. This is something to think about—how an arbitrary imaginary created world becomes an absolute almost sacred truth that cannot be changed….]
There are over 6,000 languages in the world in use today and some are used only by a limited number of speakers. The idea of producing a uniform language for the whole world to understand is not new and as noted, Esperanto is an example of an ambitious attempt at doing this. Esperanto was created to produce a common language that would enable a united international brotherhood.
However, it obviously failed. Why did it fail?
Zamenhof lived in Bialystok, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. Four main types of population groups existed at the time in Bialystok side by side—Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews. The groups spoke different languages and saw the other groups as their enemies. In small towns the differences between such groups were very significant with the most significant gap being the language. Zamenhof sought to bridge the gap by creating a simple common language. The alphabet of Esperanto consists of Latin letters where each letter has a single sound, with very simple rules. Studies have shown that acquiring the Esperanto language is four times easier than acquiring languages, such as English or German. And research has shown that after learning Esperanto it becomes easier to learn other languages.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a proposal was made to make Esperanto the official language of the League of Nations, but the French exercised their veto and dropped the proposal for the fear of harming the French language. But despite this, with the spread of the language throughout Europe and East Asia, opposition arose from major powers. Nazi Germany boycotted the language because of Zamenhof’s Judaism and because of the international nature of the language that stood against the German nationalism and for fear that it was a plot for Jewish world domination. Spain also boycotted Esperanto after its civil war for fear of anarchy, so did the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, when Stalin exiled, imprisoned in labor camps and even executed Esperanto speakers. The Japanese Empire banned all activities of the Esperanto movement and took harsh actions against it. Despite all these restrictive actions, the language continued to spread and even an attempt was made to institutionalize Esperanto as a scientific communication language. Esperanto attracted linguists and enthusiasts, promoting its global message, but the main purpose for which the language was created was never achieved. The number of speakers did not reach significant numbers and it also lacked sufficient community or support by countries. In addition, the English language, despite its lack of simplicity, began to gain power around the world, defeating French dominance. Thus, Esperanto remains just a noble idea for enthusiastic groups, but did not materialize into a real spoken language. Esperanto was not a mother tongue of any nationality and will always remain a second language, always inferior to other languages. Perhaps the most significant reason for Esperanto’s failure was well expressed by Tolkien who was an Esperanto speaker himself:
“Esperanto is dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because its authors never invented any Esperanto legends.”
Tolkien’s words probably mean that Esperanto will always remain as just a great idea and ideal. For a language to attract speakers and spread, it needs a culture and real existing content that one strives to join. An abstract world will never replace real cultures, tastes, and history that other languages offer.
But, Esperanto is not dead. It currently includes over a million enthusiastic speakers and a global cultural movement in a wide range of countries that is not fading. And maybe there is still hope for the language—Esperanto (“someone who hopes”).