Why did peaceful Esperanto fail? / Kial malsukcesis paca Esperanto?

[English version below]

Hierau estis la ,internacia tago de paco’, sed estas unu de la tordajxoj kruelaj de la pasinta, ke la inventisto de la plej sukcesa ,helplingvo’ (dezajnita por esti la dua lingvo en cxiuj landoj tutmonde, por tiel helpi komunikado internacia, kaj eble finigas malkomprenojn por tiel antauenigi la pacon) mortis dum la unua milito tutmonda.

Kutime kun Esperanto, oni emas auskulti nur tiujn, kiuj gxin vehemente antauenigas kiel la rimedon perfektan por aliri al la paco tutmonda, au tiujn, kiuj gxin atakas kiel lingvon neuzeblan kaj tute malgxustan.

Kial gxi malsukcesis?

Ja, gxi nur ,malsukcesis’ gxian pracelon (por igxi cxies dua lingvo). La ideo estis ke, se cxiuj parolus Esperanton kune kun la lingvo denaska, la komunikado internacia igxus facila. Oni ecx povus sendi leteron kun sxlotilo simpla por kompreni Esperanton (tiuj sxlotiloj mem haveblis 19 grandajn lingvojn, sed ampleksis nur unu au du pagxojn), kaj la ricevanto povis kompreni gxin (kaj eble respondi, cxar Esperanto sxajne estis tiel facile lernigxi). Principe tio ne estas ridinda ideo. Do kio malgxustas kun la lingvo, ke tio ne okazis? 

Unue, debateblas cxu iu lingvo konstruita povas plenigi tian rolon. Lingvistiko ne estas matematiko; do lingvoj devas esti naturaj (evoluigata tra tempo) por gajni akcepto largxa. Iu lingvo konstruita donos al oni la senton, ke gxi estas nur ia kodo (ne gravas, kiel gxi estas farata). Fakte, ju pli perfekte iu konstruita lingvo estos farata, des pli kiel nura kodo gxi sxajnos. 

Due, Esperanto ne estas perfekta, kion ecx Zamenhof konfesis. Li relative estis juna viro kun la eliro de liaj regoloj kaj vortaro je 1887, kaj li tiam faras bona laboro, kiam aliro al la scio lingva (ecx ankau socia) havis multajn pli da limoj ol gxi hodiau havus. Iuj liaj decidoj estis tamen ridindaj pro lia celo deklarita.

Do, kion oni dirus pri la aliaj eblaj celoj? Esperanto nun estas uzita en iuj lernejoj elementaj en Anglujo, kiel unua ,ekstera lingvo’. Miaopinie gxi estas perfekta por tio, gxuste cxar gxi ne estas perfekta (kun tiel komplikajxoj kiel akuzativo kaj subjunktivo, kiu Angle apenau ekzistas). 

Esperanto ankau povas uzigxi studojn pri evidento de la sxangxo lingva. Krom ciuj lingvoj naturaj, la reformo Esperanta cxiam havas kontauulojn inter gxiaj parolantoj, kaj tio cxi ankau interese montras, ke Esperanto vere ne estas nur artefarita lingvo!

Do la pracelo vere ne okazos, parte pro la neperfektoj en la lingvo. Sed tiuj neperfektoj cxi signifas, ke estonteca rolo Esperanta eksistas en studo lingva. Almenau lau mi, gxi ja estas nenia malsukceso!

Yesterday was the “International Day of Peace”, but it is one of history’s cruel twists that the founder of the most successful “auxiliary language” (designed to be everyone’s second language and thus aid international communication, potentially ending misunderstandings and thus promoting peace) died during World War One.

As usual, with Esperanto, exposure generally goes to those who either promote it vehemently as the perfect driver of world peace, or who decry it as completely flawed and useless. Of course, as ever, the truth is somewhere between those two, but you rarely get prizes for pointing that out!

Why did it fail?

Well, it only “failed” in terms of its pracelo (“original goal”) of becoming everyone’s second language. The idea was that if everyone spoke Esperanto alongside their own native language, international communication would become easy – you could even send a letter with a simple key to understanding Esperanto (such keys were themselves made available in 19 major languages, but took up only a page or so), and the recipient could understand (and perhaps even reply, such was the supposed ease with which Esperanto could be learned). This is in principle not a ludicrous idea. So what was wrong with the language that it did not happen?

Firstly, it is debatable whether any invented language could fulfil such a role. Language just is not mathematics; thus languages need to be natural (i.e. developed through time) to gain widespread acceptance. Any invented language will create the feeling that it is really just a code, no matter how well it is done. Indeed, the more perfectly such a language is designed (without irregularities and such like), the more code-like it will seem.

Secondly, Esperanto is not perfect, something Zamenhof himself admitted. He was still a relatively young man upon publication of its rules and vocabulary in 1887, and he had done a very good job in an age where access to linguistic (and even social) knowledge was much more restricted than it is now. Nevertheless some decisions he made were simply ludicrous, given his stated goal. The phonology is particularly flawed, for a number of reasons, including:

  • there are simply too many consonant sounds, particularly affricates (typically represented in English by <ch> or <sh>);
  • a significant number of sounds are extremely rare (for example, French and Italian lack either <h> or <hx>);
  • there are lots of difficult consonantal clusters (sometimes even for simple words – scii “to know” is almost impossible to pronounce clearly and in a natural language would inevitably over time become simply ci);
  • the presence of diphthongs (vowels sounded together such as English”boy“) is an unnecessary complication, unknown in major languages such as Spanish and Arabic;
  • the principle of “one sound, one letter” is broken right from the outset (in Esperanto, /ts/ can be written <ts> or <c>); and
  • there are accented letters (represented by necessity here by a following <x> because there is no means of marking the required circumflexes correctly even on a modern tablet), and to make matters worse they often bear no relation to the unaccounted one (so <j> has nothing to do with <jx>).

This is a huge frustration, because such complications are just unnecessary and they so obviously spoil an otherwise good effort!

So what about other celoj (goals)?

Esperanto has now been used in some primary schools in England as a first “foreign language”.  Arguably, it is perfect for that precisely because it is imperfect. As noted above, it requires some sounds which are rare or even absent in English (as do other languages), and it even has some quirky complications, such as:

  • an accusative – objects of the sentence or (usually) words towards which there is motion are marked with an additional -n; and
  • a subjunctive – the verb in subordinate clauses expressing desire or command is placed in the subjunctive, marked -u.

Thus, “I am at home” is mi estas hejme; but “I go home” is mi iras hejmen; and “I wish that you would go home” is mi volas ke vi iras hejmen but “I want you to go home” is mi volas ke vi iru hejmen. That is all a bit tricky – even a bit real!

Esperanto can also be used in academic studies for evidence of how languages change. For example, for “I am tired” is fundamentally mi estas laca, but now simply mi lacas is allowable. As noted above, inevitably some words would change too due to awkward pronunciations (even esti “to be” is generally now pronounced sti). There is also lively debate about vocabulary, notably around gender reform (as with many languages, but particularly relevant in a supposedly global language of peace) and the overuse of the mal– prefix to make opposites (so dekstra “right” becomes maldekstra “left”, but many writers now prefer liva for “left”, at least informally). As with any language, deliberate reform draws resistance from language users, and this is in itself an interesting issue – and a marker of how Esperanto is not so artificial after all!

So the pracelo will never realistically be met, partly because of the language’s imperfections. But it is these very imperfections which mean there is still a role for Esperanto in language study. Maybe it is not such a malsukceso after all!


24 thoughts on “Why did peaceful Esperanto fail? / Kial malsukcesis paca Esperanto?

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    Dankon pro la uzo de Esperanto!

    I see Esperanto as a remarkable success story, by far the most successful auxiliary language. It has survived wars and revolutions and economic crises and continues to attract people to learn and speak it. Over 500,000 people have signed up to the Duolingo Esperanto course in the last year.

    Esperanto works. I’ve used it in about seventeen countries over recent years. I recommend it to anyone, as a way of making friendly local contacts in other countries. Esperanto is useful as well as serving as a good introduction to learning other languages.

    Esperanto may not be perfect, but I’ve used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job, serving as a unique common language on my travels in, for example, Armenia and Bulgaria.

    • Dankon pro aligxi la diskuto!

      Mi faris la kurso antau tro multaj jaroj! Sed ja jes, mi unufoje uzis la lingvon en Moldovo al kunveno kun parolantoj de Orienteuropo.

      Do mi konsentas, se oni juste konsideras, kio estas sukceso, gxi estas sendube Esperanto!

  2. Renato Corsetti says:

    Kara Ian James Parsley, jes eble Esperanto ne estas perfekta, sed kion diri pri la angla? Mi mem lernis ĝin dum la lasta 60 jaroj. Nun mi eĉ loĝas en Londono. Sed mia kapablo paroli aŭ verki en la angla estas tre, vere tre limigitaj, kompare kun mia kapablo paroli kaj verki en Esperanto. Tiun kapablon en Esperanto mi akiris post malmultaj jaroj.
    La vera problemo ne estas lingva sed politika. Kiam la potenco de Usono malpliiĝos, la emo lerni la anglan malpliiĝos kaj oni emos lerni aliajn lingvojn. Esperanton lernas la justuloj, kiuj laŭ la hebrea tradicio estas 36 en ĉiu generacio. Bonŝance ŝajne la hebrea tradicio multe subtaksis ilin, ĉar milionoj parolas Esperanton. Amike, Renato

    • Dankon por skribi! Estas honoro havi vin kun ni!

      Kial vi akceptas, la afero estas ke la Angla havas sepono de popolo tutmonda, kaj do pro preskau cxiuj estas lerninda. Do ne gravas, ke gxi havas mankoj lingvaj.

      Mi pri tio skribos plu!

      • Francisco Garcia says:

        Nur 5 procento da personoj povas lerni la anglan, sed cxiu persono povas lerni Esperanton. En Hispanio estas 6 milionoj da senlaboruloj. Ili ne povas eliri ekster Hispanio cxar ili ne povas lerni la anglan. Mi mem venis en Anglujon antaux 4 jaroj kaj fakte se mia filino ne estus veninta kun mi kaj mia edzino mi ne estus povinta logxi en Anglujo. Cxi tio ne estas teorio, gxi estas realo. Dume, multaj personoj memmortigas en Hispanio kaj grava kauxzo de tio estas la erarega lingva monda politiko. Esperanto estas la solvo, la angla malsukcesegis.

      • Mi ne komprenas tiun punkton. Jam 15% da popolo tutmonda povas paroli iomete angla. Se ili havas lernecojn, ili povas iri al aliaj landoj por logxi kaj labori, kay lerni anglan, kiom ili estas tie. Multaj faras gxin. La lingvo ne estas la afero, kay la ideo, ke estas homoj, ke simple ne povas lerni aliajn lingvojn kiel anglan, simple estas malvera.

      • Francisco Garcia says:

        Do, ni parolas pri malsamaj aferoj. Se lerni lingvon estas “paroli iomete”, kiel vi skribis, evidente cxiu povas fari tion. Sed “parolante iomete” la anglan, por ekzemplo, oni ne povas logxi en Londono. Mi parolas laux mia sperto. Do, cxiu homo povas lerni iomete la anglan, sed nur 5 procento povas lerni bone gxin. Kaj mi aldonas ke kiam oni logxas en lando ne konante bone la lingvon oni estas kvazaux analfabeto. Cxiu malsxatas onin. Esperanto estas la solvo. Kredi ke cxiu povas lerni la anglan estas tiel erara kiel diri ke cxiu povas esti ingxeniero aux filozofo. Cxiu persono havas kapablojn, sed nur eta nombro da personoj havas la kapablon lerni bone duan lingvon. Sed cxiu povas lerni kelkajn frazojn kio utilas por preskaux nenio. Francisko Garcia, Licenciato pri Filozofio kaj instruisto de hispana lingvo kaj Esperanto.

  3. Francisco Garcia says:

    La realo estas ke nur eta nombro da personoj povas lerni bone la anglan. Tamen, cxiu persono povas lerni bone Esperanton.

    • Mi ne certas, se tio veras. Sed mi pri tio plu skribos ci tie vendredojn!

      • Francisco Garcia says:

        Se tio ne estas certa, diru al mi, kial politikistoj por ekzemplo en Hispanio, ne konas la anglan kaj ili bezonas tradukistojn dum internaciaj kunvenoj? Cxu tio ne estas certa pruvo ke ili ne povas lerni la anglan? Kaj se ili ne povas kial ili petas al la popolo fari tion kion ili mem ne povas fari?

      • Plimultaj personoj preferas uzi sian lingvon denaskan. Tio kutime inklusivas tiujn, kiuj konas Esperanton!

        Ni revenos al tiuj punkto cxi! 🙂

        Mi skribas pri lingvoj cxiujn vendredojn.

  4. Francisco Garcia says:

    Alia komento akzeptita / Other comment accepted

  5. irvdel says:

    I’d agree that Esperanto can in some places be a little quirky, but what can everyone agree to optimize for? It’s always a balance and different people will prioritize different goals – e.g. drop the accusative to help learners versus keep the accusative for its poetic advantage. BTW, affricates and the accented letters generally are of lower frequency https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literofteco and ĥ is effectively no longer used I’d say. A shame that iOS 10 seems to lack an Esperanto keyboard despite http://www.evertype.com/standards/iso10646/pdf/cwa13873.pdf – but at least Google has already added support to Android.

    The success of Esperanto as an international language is slow burn and we’d need another 100 years before thinking it a failure. The numbers learning at Duolingo https://www.duolingo.com/courses/all is impressive for such a new language, and it’s interesting to note that it has been spoken by a number of MEP’s, and a current EU commissioner speaks it https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vytenis_Andriukaitis – and certainly the Grin report http://lingvo.org/grin/raporto_grin_eo.pdf merits more attention from Europe post-Brexit.

    • Many thanks for those great links.

      To be clear, I don’t think Esperanto is a failure; my argument is that it is not. I think the pracelo is a failure, but it was always bound to be.

      • Francisco Garcia says:

        Esperanto ne malsukcesis cxar neniam la socio donis al gxi unu eblon por sukcesi. Tamen, la socio donis al la angla cxiujn eblojn (deviga studado en cxiu lernejo) kaj gxi malsukcesis cxar post pli da 50 jaroj nur eta nombro da personoj konas bone la anglan, kaj en internaciaj kunvenoj amaso da tradukistoj estas necesaj.

  6. iafantom says:

    The decline in Esperanto, at least in the UK, has nothing to do with the linguistics, and everything to do with the politics. In the words of the lingusit Andre Martinet, “Esperanto, it works”.

    As usual, Esperantists are here presenting arguments with no facts behind them as to why the so-callled ‘pracelo’ was not achieved. I carried out extensive research into the cause of the decline of the Esperanto movement in the UK and was pilloried for what I found. I was subjected to a barrage of personal attacks from within the movement, which made it impossible for me to carry on promoting it. The group responsible was like Militant Tendency within the Labour Party in the 1980s, or the Progress group within the Labour Party during the 1990s and still active to this day in undermining their duly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn.

    The Esperantists try to shut me up, thinking it’s undermining Esperanto to tell the truth about this, just as Labour members were shut up over the Blairite takeover. I think the objective was to gradually reduce the membership of the associations, just as George Galloway, who was thrown out of the Labour Party, thinks that Tony Blair was contriving to reduce the membership of the Labour Party.

    The leader of the Ambush in the AGM of Esperanto Association of Britain was a supposed friend and colleague of mine for over 40 years. He was a linguist, a professor and worked with the British Council in the promotion of English abroad. If the British Esperantists were only to come to terms with this, then we could have our movement back, and the promotion of Esperanto for its ‘pracelo’ as you call it, could be back on track. Jeremy Corbyn is a great inspiration.

    • This is a really interesting addition to the debate – many thanks for sharing it.

      Clearly, I differ on the “pracelo”, although I will draft a few more blog posts on Fridays over the next few weeks to expand my thinking on that. Essentially, I do not think it is even remotely attainable for the simple reason that English already fills the role and is vastly more useful (and, more controversially, I also believe that exposure to English in fact ultimately even makes it easier to learn – but I look forward to your comments to the contrary on that!)

      There seems to me to be a serious issue about the capacity for respectful debate within the movement, but I really do not wish to pursue that line as I am simply unqualified to comment on it. Nevertheless, it is very important to highlight, as you have, that politics (small ‘p’ and big ‘P’) matters here.

  7. EdRobertson says:

    I think the problem with this question is that it is based on a false premise. Esperanto isn’t a proposal; Esperanto has been up and running for 130 years and those rules are no longer up for discussion. However, Esperanto does evolve, very gradually, just like any other living language. For me, Esperanto is the language I use when talking to my friends that I know in various countries of the world. Although I do speak languages other than English and Esperanto, and some of them quite fluently too, that still leaves a big gap in my repertoire which is filled by Esperanto, and it allows me access to the soul of a country that just wouldn’t be possible in interactions where one or both people are speaking an imperfectly learned conventional language. That’s why I use Esperanto. For me, it’s not a movement, nor even a hobby – it’s part of my lifestyle.

    • Many thanks for joining the discussion. That’s a terrific way to look at it.

      That said, actually the rules can be up for discussion – just not as radically as some people suggest. German recently changed its spelling conventions markedly. Dutch changed its grammatical rules (in the standard language) very profoundly shortly after World War II, notably abolishing cases (a frequent proposal for Esperanto!)

      I have already drafted a further blog on that subject, which I will put up over one of the coming Fridays. Bonvole dauru legi kaj rimarki!

      • EdRobertson says:

        As regards reforms in German (I am less familiar with Dutch) I must say that the 1996 German orthographical reform was a bit of a shambles. Happily it was restricted mostly to when to use capital letters and a few spelling changes. Some people, like me, voted with their feet, for example, on the new rule of no longer being allowed to use a capital letter on Du and Ihr, and eventually the “authorities” decided that it was actually ok, and we could keep doing that after all if we wanted to. When I gave my mother (a native German) a leaflet with the spelling reforms, she refused it, and said, “Oh no, I’m not going to change now”.

        And similarly, in Esperanto, although fashions change as the years go by, old ways of saying things are always still valid and still understood.

  8. Francisco Garcia says:

    Kelkajn tagojn mi renkontis knabinon kies frato lernis paroli al ĉirkaŭ 5 jaroj, ĉar “en nia domo 3 lingvoj estas parolitaj”. Hodiaŭ knabinon 8 anyos jam ploris antaux Miaj ĉar “en mia hejmo du lingvoj estas parolataj,” do ĝi iras malantauxen. La penado vi devas fari al infano cerbo disvolvi estas enorma kiam unu lingvo. Kiam du preskaŭ kruela pensi pri ĝi. Kiel kutime, la problemoj ke plenkreskuloj ne volas solvi, ili pagos la plej malfortaj, aŭ infanoj. Mi scias, ke ekzistas personoj kun eksterordinara kapablo lerni lingvojn. Sed tio estas escepto. Esperanto estas la solvo al tiu problemo. Sed ne gravas, aliaj suferas nia nekompetenteco. Ni restos indiferenta kaj suferas la plej malfortaj. Sorry auxtomata traduko.

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