I’ve been interested in the idea of an international auxiliary language (IAL) for a long time now. It’s the idea of a single language spoken by everyone in the world as a second language. The purpose would be to enable a common language for all people without eliminating people’s native languages.
The idea has been around for a long time; two hundred years at least. The proposed languages have been both extremely varied and extremely plentiful. There has been no shortage of people wanting to come in and create a new language. But the one thing that all these languages have in common is that they were not widely adopted and therefore failed at being an IAL.
While no IAL has been able to achieve its goal there has been a language that has been learned by millions of people. And that language is Esperanto.
Esperanto was created in the late 1800s by L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist. He had three goals for the language:
- Make the language very easy to learn.
- Make the language a means to international communication.
- Make the language a living one spoken by a united human population.
Of his three goals the easiest to achieve was the first. It was his intention to create a language so easy to learn that it would be child’s play. The following is a summary of the language he came up with:
a b c ĉ d e f g ĝ h ĥ i j ĵ k l m n o p r s ŝ t u ŭ v z
The letters are pronounced the same as English with following exceptions:
c = ts in hits
ĉ = ch in choose
ĝ = g in gem
ĥ = ch in the Scottish loch
j = y in yellow
ĵ = s in fusion
ŝ = sh in shoot
The vocabulary of the language is based off of western Indo-European languages. Some examples:
Hello – Saluton
Yes – Jes
No – Ne
Good morning – Bonan matenon
What is your name? – Kio estas via nomo?
Do you speak Esperanto? – Ĉu vi parolas Esperante?
The language is generally subject-verb-object just like English. It differentiates between nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs by using specific letters to end words. Nouns end in -o, adjectives end in -a, verbs end in -s, and adverbs end in -e. However these endings can be changed under certain circumstances. The following charts break it down:
Singular subject: -o
Singular object: -on
Plural subject: -oj
Plural object: -ojn
Singular subject: -a
Singular object: -an
Plural subject: -aj
Plural object: -ajn
So that’s the language. There is obviously a lot more to the language but I don’t want to get too detailed here.
The language has been the most successful of all the constructed languages ever created. Estimates of the number of speakers vary but it can generally be broken down as follows:
1,000 have Esperanto as their native language.
10,000 speak it fluently.
100,000 can use it actively.
One million understand a large amount passively.
Ten million have studied it to some extent at some time.
These numbers came from Finnish linguist Jouko Lindstedt.
It’s likely that the number has grown since that analysis especially due to the increasing number of resources people can use to learn the language.
The obvious critique that people make of the language is that it failed to become an international secondary language. And this is absolutely true. Although the numbers above are impressive for a constructed language they are very small compared to the widely spoken natural languages. And there is no indication that Esperanto will ever become the language it wants to be.
Additionally there is criticism of the language for euro centrism. The people who criticise it for this point out the fact that the language is based off of European languages (vocabulary and phonology in particular). On the flip side there are people who say it is too neutral and therefore lacks culture.
My own critique of the language is specifically about Zamenhof’s first goal. He wanted to make the language ridiculously easy to learn. He definitely succeeded in making a language that was easier to learn than any natural language. But ultimately the language is full of things that make it suboptimal. The proof of this is the fact that there is a large number of constructed languages based off of Esperanto created with the express purpose of making the language easier to learn and speak.
Below are my own personal concerns, many of which are the same concerns others had when they made Esperanto derivatives.
- Phonology: the phonology (sounds) within the language is not universal enough. The number of phonemes should have been narrowed down. The only sounds that should have been used were ones common to the world’s most popular languages. (Perhaps the top 10-20 languages)
- The language should not have accents. This should be obvious; if you want a simple, easy to learn language than don’t add accents to letters.
- Don’t end words with a ‘y’ sound. ‘Y’ may be a common phoneme but it’s usage at the end of words is not common.
Despite these criticisms the language is still an extremely successful one and has the best chance of becoming an IAL.