When Robert Nielsen, a now-27-year-old Irishman, was traveling through Europe five years ago, he ran into language barriers everywhere. “I wanted to avoid the stereotype of the typical English-speaking tourist who refuses to speak any other language,” he tells MEL. “But because I moved to a new country every few days… I was running into difficult and confusing situations everywhere.”
And though Nielsen was frustrated, he admits it “seemed unfair to expect everyone else to learn my language while I knew nothing of theirs.” As he mulled this over, he daydreamed about a language that could be a neutral middle ground, “where everyone could meet each other halfway.”
A few months later, he was watching a trivia show that mentioned a language called Esperanto. Curious, he looked it up and was delighted to find it was the language he’d dreamed of. Esperanto is a “bridge” language whose sole purpose is to be easy to learn, easy to speak and able to connect people from different cultures.
But Esperanto turned out to be so much more than a language. For Nielsen, it became a lifestyle, too.
Now, Nielsen isn’t just fluent in Esperanto. He writes a blog in the language, moderates an Esperanto forum and has taken part in a dozen international weeklong Esperanto events. He’s a committee member of the World Esperanto Youth Organisation, and he’s even held full-time jobs using Esperanto as the main language:
If you think that’s a lot of involvement for something as simple as a new language, you haven’t met an Esperantist.
Along with Nielsen, there are roughly 2 million Esperanto-speaking people throughout the world, and they all view it as more than a language — it’s a movement. The United Esperanto Association (UEA), basically Esperanto HQ, isn’t shy about its mission statement. To wit, here is what the UEA’s website lists as its four goals:
- To promote the use of the international language Esperanto
- To act for the solution of the language problem in international relations and to facilitate international communication
- To encourage all types of spiritual and material relations among people, irrespective of differences of nationality, race, sex, religion, politics or language
- To nurture among its members a strong sense of solidarity, and to develop in them understanding and respect for other peoples.
So what is Esperanto, and will the Esperantists rest until they’ve achieved world domination? I talked to several avowed Esperanto speakers to find out.
A Quick History of Esperanto
Long before the internet ushered the language into millions of homes, guys like Marco Gazzetta discovered Esperanto by word of mouth. In 1994, he spent a few months in his college library studying the language; 25 years later, Gazzetta is something of an expert.
Gazzetta describes Esperanto as “a language created as a bridge for people who don’t speak each other’s native languages” — an “international auxiliary language.”
There is a storied history to the language and its creation, but here’s the short version.
When the creator of Esperanto, the 19th-century ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof, came up with the language in the 1880s, it quickly developed a large following. Like Zamenhof, people loved the idea of giving European people the ability to peacefully communicate in a neutral medium.
Then the world wars happened, and as Gazzetta explains, people soured on the very idea of speaking with people from other cultures. “In particular,” he says, “Hitler and Stalin greatly hated Esperanto and sought its suppression.”
But Esperanto survived both wars, which gave even more momentum to the idea of the language being a movement and developing a culture. Over the last 100 years, Gazzetta says, Esperanto has had a number of poets, novelists, nonfiction writers and musicians:
Who Are the Esperantists?
In the most simple sense, Esperantists simply like to talk — it’s why they’ve learned a language built around the nuts and bolts of communication logic.
“While a lot of [people who learn constructed languages] love the solitary aspect of learning a language nobody speaks, Esperantists are generally much more gregarious and social,” Gazzetta explains. “Esperantists want other people to learn Esperanto so they have someone to talk to.”
With that in mind, it’s easy to see how it has spread so fast — people who learn a language built with the sole purpose of communicating with people from other cultures, will want to speak that language. “In fact, that’s probably the reason Esperanto became the juggernaut of conlangs,” Gazzetta explains. “People care a lot less about perfection and language ideals and a lot more about talking to each other.”
Thus, you have all the international conferences, meetings, and organizations that guys like Nielsen are involved in. Even more, there’s the Passport Service (or Pasporta Servo), a directory of Esperantists that works a bit like Airbnb: You can stay at the home of any other Esperanto speaker in the world, for free.
This is what hooked Gazzetta back in 1994, during the word-of-mouth Esperanto era. It was like Couchsurfing before the internet, he explains. “You paid a membership fee and you received a booklet [with] names, phone numbers and addresses of potential hosts. You would contact them via letter or phone and arrange for a time period they would host you.”
John Cunningham, a 63-year-old Esperantist in Arizona, is still listed on the platform. He sent me a screenshot of what it looks like today:
“Esperanto is having a resurgence of sorts,” Gazzetta tells MEL. “The internet is really good at connecting people with similar interests, especially when those interests are slightly offbeat.”
Three years ago, the language-learning app Duolingo brought even more people to the language. As of last year, the app reports having 1.35 million people enrolled in the course since its launch — which is already nearly double the estimated number of Esperanto speakers worldwide.
With the number of Esperantists multiplying by the day, what do these neutral-language speakers want?
Gazzetta recalls traveling through Europe before the Euro was introduced. “Everybody predicted a rapid demise of this Franken-currency,” he says. “In fact, people called it the ‘Esperanto of money’ and predicted it would die just like Esperanto (ahem).
“I traveled through Europe before the euro and after, and I cannot tell you how much more enjoyable my recent trip was on account of not having to store a dozen currencies in my wallet,” he says. “The same is true for Esperanto. Just being able to go anywhere on the planet, knowing that people will speak a language I know, would make travel so much easier.”
But it’s not just about easier travel, it’s about power, too. “It is only logical to avoid the struggle of power by moving to a third, relatively neutral language,” redditor Bashandy, a 42-year-old Esperantist in Egypt, tells me.
As Gazzetti puts it, “the ‘political’ idea behind Esperanto is the ability to communicate with anyone in the world. This ability would foster a sense of connectedness with the world at large.”
In other words, feeling more connected to people in another country will ultimately lead to, hopefully, world peace.
“I firmly believe that language is one of the principle barriers that divides people,” says the 63-year-old Cunningham. “I also believe that the greatest threat to the existence of mankind is our inclination to wage war, so anything we can do to create a more peaceful world increases the chance of the long-term survival of mankind. … Widespread adoption of Esperanto would go a long way toward promoting understanding, tolerance, friendship and peace.
“I’ve never been naive enough to believe that it will eliminate all war,” he concludes, “but widespread adoption of Esperanto would help a lot in that direction.”
“But honestly,” says Nielsen, the 27-year-old Irishman, “most Esperantists don’t expect it to become the main language of the world. We just use it for fun, to make friends, travel to new places, read books, listen to music, watch videos, etc.”
The Esperanto Plan for World Domination
I asked Esperantists what they would do if they were made World Czar of Language, tasked with making Esperanto the language of choice. What would the first steps be?
Start With the Children: According to Gazzetta, there have been studies showing that learning Esperanto makes it easier to learn other foreign languages, “to the point where it is better to first learn Esperanto and then the desired foreign language than just the latter by itself,” he says. “So I would probably introduce it before children have to learn foreign languages.”
Nielsen agrees: Inundate the kids first. “I suppose the place to start is with schools,” he says. “It’s an ideal introduction to languages for children, as it teaches the basics in a clear manner without getting bogged down in arbitrary and confusing irregularities.”
“Someone once compared it to the recorder,” he adds. “We teach it to children not because it’s the best instrument, but [because] it’s the best introduction to playing an instrument. Once students realise it’s far easier to get an A in Esperanto than any other language, there’d be plenty of demand.”
Seize the Means of Production: “Maybe I could use some of that Czar power to prod international businesses to use it,” says Nielsen.
Gazzetta takes it one step further. “I would mandate that all products sold internationally would have to have at least labeling in Esperanto. If you speak a ‘small’ language like Dutch, Thai or Uyghur, you rarely get any information from international products. Having a fallback that is easy to learn would make things easier to understand.”
In turn, this would create jobs for Esperanto speakers. “The need to find Esperanto speakers to translate the manuals and labels would generate demand for Esperanto skills, which would give an economic incentive to learning Esperanto.”
“And perhaps it could become the language of tourism,” Nielsen adds. “Tourists only need or want a few basic phrases; they don’t have time to learn the entire language.”
Overall, Nielsen says, the key to a language spreading is ensuring people have a use and need for it, “so it would be ideal for international bodies like the U.N. and E.U. to adopt.”
Infiltrate the United Nations: This, apparently, has already happened. “In fact, [the] U.N. already recommended that its member countries encourage the learning of Esperanto, Emilio Cid, Director of Information for the UEA, explains. “But it also advised the U.S. not to invade Iraq and many other things that governments do not want to follow.”
If this did happen, Cid theorizes, there wouldn’t be enough teachers, which is a concern in Brazil, where “a law is being passed in Congress that provides for the optional teaching of Esperanto in high school.”
Nevertheless, the U.N.’s futility in the face of powerful nations will ultimately fail the Esperantist cause. No matter — we have the internet.
“Teaching is not a problem anymore because there are several online courses where the students can learn alone and for free,” Cid explains. “For an English speaker, learning Esperanto is about 10 times easier than learning Spanish. It is very fast and easy, and so it is totally possible to learn Esperanto by internet.”
It’s Already Happening: Cid assures me Esperantists don’t want Esperanto to become the world’s singular language. “The proposal of Esperanto is that each people continue to speak their own language and preserve it,” he says, “and use Esperanto as a second or third language in international communications.”
But that’s exactly what they would say. After all, Esperanto is already sneaking its way into the public sphere.
“Because finding available names on the Internet has become a real chore, you’ll find that some projects have picked names in Esperanto because they are meaningful but still available,” Gazzetta tells me.
Beyond domain names, there’s a cryptocurrency called Monero, which is Esperanto for “coin.” You’ve probably seen ads for Movado watches — “movado” means “movement” in Esperanto. Gazzetta also says Esperanto is increasingly available as an interface language for software products.
“Did you know WordPress comes in an Esperanto version?” he continues. “You can play Minecraft in Esperanto. Esperanto is an interface language in Linux…”
And as more international people come together thanks to Esperanto, a new generation of native Esperanto speakers is forming. Esperanto couples are creating Esperanto native speakers, uniting parents of different nationalities, Gazzetta says.
Finfine, Esperanto estas mirinda lingvo, kiun ĉiuj devus lerni, kaj ni ne ripozos ĝis ĉiu lasta persono sur ĉi tiu planedo klinu la genuon.
Sure, you could translate that, forget it and move on with your life. But when Esperantists take over the world, don’t you want to be prepared?