Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A Tale of Two Tongues: English and Esperanto

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Stephanie Tam writes in The Believer:


Ever since Orlando Raola was a boy, he harbored a curiosity that stretched across the seas. Growing up in Havana, Cuba, in the 1960s, he perused the encyclopedia sets of his elementary school and pressed his ear to his shortwave radio to listen to programs on Radio Sweden. Always, he wondered what lay beyond the horizon.

“Having been born on an island, and being an islander by nature, I always had this great curiosity: What is beyond the sea?” Orlando told me. “What is the world out there? I understood early that the only way to communicate with humans is through language, and I was interested in many different cultures.”

Of all the cultures out there, he developed a special fascination with those of the European Nordic countries, compelled by exotic visions of snow-capped mountains and blue-eyed Swedes. In 1981 he joined the Swedish Institute, a public agency devoted to promoting interest in Sweden around the world. Eventually, he decided to learn the language, and the institute shipped him a package containing dictionaries, cassette tapes, reading material, and textbooks.

As he sifted through the contents of the box, he felt overwhelmed. His heart sank as he realized the magnitude of time and effort it would require for him to master Swedish. He would study for years and years—and then what? He would be able to speak to a small sliver of the world. True, he found Swedish culture fascinating. But he was also curious about the cultures of Japan, Hungary, and China.

“Do I have time to learn all of these languages?” he asked himself. “No, there won’t be time.” Sitting amid the piles of books and cassettes, he realized something. What he longed for was not just any language, but a universal language: one that would connect him not just to one people, but to the whole of humanity.

“That day,” he recounted with a slight smile, “that’s the day I became an Esperantist.”


The dream of a universal language traces back millennia. One of our oldest stories about the origins of linguistic difference, the tale of Babel, is recounted in Genesis, the first book of the Torah. In it, men seek to build a tower that reaches the heavens: a rebellion of cosmic dimensions. To stop them, God scatters them into many nations and tongues across the earth. At its heart, Babel is an origin story about human miscommunication—language as a symbol for that which divides us. [1]

The history of universal languages tracks what its inventors believed divided humanity throughout the centuries. In the thirteenth century, the Catalan mystic and poet Ramon Llull developed a language that he believed would convert “infidels” to God’s truth. In his book Ars Magna, he designed a system of disks that could be rotated to combine theological concepts and generate 1,680 logical propositions by which the enterprising missionary might transcend linguistic barriers. (His eventual death at the hands of the Saracens suggests that the infidels felt otherwise.)

During the Enlightenment, the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz also attempted to create a logical language that transcended words. He planned to create a universal language out of symbols and equations that could not only perfectly mirror the mechanics of human intelligence but also calculate new knowledge and resolve disputes, which has led some to believe that his philosophy of mind and language anticipated artificial intelligence. “This language will be the greatest instrument of reason,” he wrote in The Art of Discovery in 1685. “….When there are disputes among persons, we can simply say: Let us calculate, without further ado, and see who is right.”

Each effort to create a language intelligible to the whole of humanity was informed by its creator’s understanding of what could allow or impair communication—conversion, heathenism; rationality, irrationality—and a desire to solve the problems that proliferated among our “natural” languages. In other words, language has always evolved as both a bridge and a barrier.


One hundred years before Orlando Raola despaired in front of his box from the Swedish Institute, a young ophthalmologist by the name of Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof looked with anguish at the rampant anti-Semitism ravaging his hometown of Białystok. Born as a Jew in the Russian Empire in 1859, Zamenhof was acutely aware of the forces that threatened to tear apart the fabric of his society—rising nationalism, ethnic divisions, the formation of nation-states—and that would eventually draw Europe into the first of two world wars.

Zamenhof had grown up believing that all people were part of the same human family, but when he looked around his neighborhood he saw only tribes divided by language. “In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies,” he recalled. “….the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.”

In his teens, Zamenhof began work on a language that could serve as a bridge for all cultures. His creation would eventually become known as Esperanto, the world’s most successful “constructed” language. Zamenhof wanted his international language to be easy to learn, so he created a simplified grammar consisting of sixteen rules. There are no gendered nouns—no feminine moon or masculine sun, as is the case in French. Each word ending indicates its part of speech: all adjectives end in a, all nouns in o, all adverbs in e. For instance, Eŭropo (Europe)is the noun; Eŭropa (European)is the adjective. To make a noun plural, one simply adds j to the end of the root; there is also an accusative case, in which words end in n (Eŭropon). That’s about all the rules when it comes to nouns.

Unlike in English, verbs do not change for person or number, and there is only one ending, -as, for verbs in the present indicative: for example, mi estas (I am), vi estas (you are), li/ŝi/ĝi estas (he/she/it is). Verbs do conjugate for present (-as), past (-is), and future (-os) tenses, unlike Chinese and Indonesian, which rely mostly on context. The spelling is phonetic, with each letter corresponding to a single sound—in contrast to many natural languages, which often disappear consonants from words as their pronunciation evolves, like poignant and Worcester in English.

As a universal language, Esperanto was intended to be unaffiliated with any particular nationality or ethnicity. Zamenhof compiled nine hundred root words primarily from Indo-European languages: German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. These could in turn be used to create new words, in a compound structure similar to those of languages like Chinese and Turkish. The word for steamship, for example, is vaporŝipo = vapor (steam) + ŝip (ship) + (noun ending). In this way, vocabulary can be built up from the base of root words with suffixes and affixes: for instance, the verb manĝi (to eat) + the suffix –aĵo (a thing) = manĝaĵo (food). A truly “neutral” language was beyond this well-intentioned polyglot creator (Zamenhof learned nearly a dozen languages over the course of his life), given his European origins and influences; its phonology is essentially Slavic, and its vocabulary derives primarily from Romance languages. But Zamenhof succeeded in creating a language that was simple to pick up. [2] One study among Francophone children found Esperanto an average of ten times faster to learn than English, Italian, or German.

In 1887, Zamenhof published his language manifesto in a Russian-language pamphlet under the pseudonym DoktoroEsperanto(“Doctor Hopeful”). He referred to his creation simply as the “lingvo internacia” (“international language”). Eventually, though, it came to be known by the name—or, in this case, pseudonym—of its inventor: Esperanto.

Behind Esperanto’s humble linguistic LEGO blocks lay a vast vision. “La interna ideo de Esperanto…,” Zamenhof declared in 1912, “estas: sur neŭtrala lingva fundamento forigi la murojn inter la gentoj…” The core idea of the language was a neutral linguistic foundation to facilitate communication between peoples: in other words, it was intended to create world peace through mutual understanding. The idea was not for Esperanto to supplant natural languages, but to work alongside them as an auxiliary language to bridge nations. The global establishment of this “interna ideo” would be the “fina venko”—the final victory—and the undoing of Babel.

As for Doktoro Esperanto himself, he ceded its evolution to the public, inviting others to take the language into their own hands: “From this day the future of the international language is no longer more in my hands than in the hands of any other friend of this sacred idea. We must now work together in equality… Let us work and hope!”

Even before Zamenhof set to work on Esperanto, the foundation was being laid for a different sort of world language. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay delivered a treatise on Indian education that would have lasting repercussions for the spread of the English language in the British Empire. Macaulay had witnessed the struggles of a small number of British administrators to govern a massive local population. As chairman of the East India Company’s Committee of Public Instruction, he emphasized the need for his fellow colonialists to “form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” He supported his argument with glowing praise of the English language and an equally flamboyant savaging of Sanskrit literature:

It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit [sic] language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same…. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the West.

For Macaulay, the English language was a way to inject Englishness into the minds and hearts of colonial subjects. Like Zamenhof, he had a vision for language, but it was not of bridging ethnic divisions; it was of building empire. In 1820, the Prussian philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt had articulated a view of language as the activity that shaped an individual’s and a nation’s Weltansichten: “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of sounds and signs but a diversity of the views of the world.” However, this was no diversity of equals. Humboldt, like most of his European contemporaries, believed . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

See also on this page the section “Language Learning with Esperanto” for more information on the language and resources for learning it.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 April 2021 at 10:35 am

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