The death of Esperanto, explained by Trispectivism

Esperanto used to be (and for brave few still is) the hope for a better, happier society. Born out of the notion that language can be the bridge of cultures, understanding and peace, this language, similar to her older sister, volapuk, was created in order that everyone will be able to communicate with everyone.

esperanto_black

So, why such a positive initiative experienced such a failure?

For that we will have to understand some facts:

– Esperanto was created in 1887 by Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist from Białystok, and was based on the initiative to create an international auxiliary language open to all.

– Language is a very complex topic that has branches in all aspects of life. Hence, in linguistics there are many sections and subsections with different specialties that investigate this highly diverse topic. To illustrate some it is enough to mention divisions such as: socio-linguistic, phraseology, phonetics, cultural linguistic, experimental linguistics, diachronic linguistic, translation and a long et cetera.

South-park-esperanto

In order for us to understand language we can use the example of a car, a cell, an ant, a star and pretty much everything that exist. For the sake of simplicity let’s pick a car. When someone drives a car there is a set of road conduct set by humans in a natural way, most of which were later explained and described in a more methodological approach as a set of traffic laws. Meaning, today we say a tree and the linguist can write an entire book about the word explaining how it came to life, why, when and what happened to it since. However, in order for that word to be understood by others, the interlocutor in question needs to have the same set of linguistic notions. Thus, the more culturally and physically in pair he will be to the speaker the more understanding they will have.

Trispectivism says that the individual All cannot exists without the universal All and has to constantly interact with it. Similarly, a word cannot exist by itself but needs to have constant interaction within and towards a language. A word will not be understood without a context (if I meet a friend and tell him “apple” and leave, he will look at me wondering if I´m ok).

Esperanto_melonoThrough the course of its existence, Esperanto experienced moments of great success. People from different countries understood each other while talking about simple material topics. The difficulties began when it needed to rise to the next step, meaning in more variety of conversations. When two people started to talk about abstract issues, the material epistemological understanding was no more, leaving each one to understand the abstract word according to their background. This is when the connection between the individual All and the universal All suffers a breaking point and leaves both parties in their respectful notion of mere definition. In most cases, this situation complicates even more when each one thinks she understood what the other person wanted to say according to her experience or personal notions while in reality it has nothing to do to the notion pronounced by the speaker.

When an Indian person says to a Danish one, let´s eat ‘spicy’, the latter might say yes, but if he does not know the Indian culture, he is in for a long night of pouring water on his burning tongue. And what about the word ‘marriage’ between an American and a Saudi, or even worse, when a Muslim says God, the Christian hears a Judeo-Christian God (which explains why they all say that they have the same God even though everything about what their God says differs completely). Hence, when Esperanto aspired to become international and began to cross borders, the understanding between one and his kin diminished alongside with the effectiveness of the intercommunication.

In short, emotions, as we witness in many occasions, are what bring sense to the language, but it is the person (or persons), that creates the story to contemplate upon.

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28 thoughts on “The death of Esperanto, explained by Trispectivism

  1. Esperanto did not succeed for social and political reasons. That is, a lot of people need to have a practical, social or political reason to learn it. The technical aspects come in at third place, if at all. The idea that it was due to different interpretations of the words is very short sighted. Even in English, there are different words that create confusion (try telling an Australian that you are going to root the football team in the grandstand). In addition, people are well equipped to learn the different meanings of words in other cultures. This happens every day.

    The “reasons” expressed here are true for any language. It is not enough to cause an entire language to fail, not even a designed language such as Esperanto.

    1. Certainly Chris, thank you for your clarification. Actually, I can´t agree with you more, the comprehension or appropriation of the word was simply an example. My argument was about the feeling of identity which goes together with what you said (social and political reasons). Meaning the emotional being is intrinsically related to the person and the aspects you mentioned. If a person lacks this relationship, she might have trouble relating to it and struggling to learn it.

  2. I’m not doubting your education in linguistics here, and I’m far from a fervent finvenkisto (those ‘political’ Esperantists who strive to make Esperanto the second language of all), but I’m sorry to say this article is incorrect.

    You are completely right that the further two people are culturally, the more misunderstandings arise, and your linguistic explanation is also true. You will even see this in English. People of different sociolinguistic classes or from different countries frequently run into misunderstandings. But they still are able to communicate miles better than speakers of two completely different languages, and the time it takes for them to go from the bare necessities of communication to complex abstract philosophical and humorous discussions is far less than the time it takes for speakers with no linguistic bridge.

    So why doesn’t everyone speak Esperanto? Well there’s a good book on this topic called ‘La Danĝera Lingvo’. I’ll summarise it like this: politics. Hitler killed Esperantists, so did Stalin. The precursor to the UN nearly unanimously voted to introduce Esperanto to education curriculums globally, until France vetoed it because they wanted French to fit that role instead. Poor timing of world wars interrupted the finvenkista movement in its heyday. There have been other misfortunes as well. I won’t deny I run into misunderstandings with Esperantists from foreign cultures to me, but no Esperantists have ever argued it’s perfect. They just argue it’s good enough that it is a worthwhile pursuit. And they’re right, but it remains to be seen if anyone will ever listen. Probably not, but still, Esperanto and its culture continue to grow, and I wouldn’t call it a ‘failure’. Who knows what the future holds? The metric system makes sense, but it took hundreds of years to truly catch on.

    1. Hello Ret, first of all let me apologize if you felt offended in anyway from the post. I tried to talk about language as an emotional intersection between individual and collective identity but as you well mentioned, there are many aspects and details that can be the subject of a book. I´m more a philologist than a linguist but that post was made after a discussion with a linguist friend about the subject. I understand the political argument though I do think it is not the conclusive factor that stopped the spreading of Esperanto. After all, France also has a clear policy against any language (which, by the way, helped the French homogenization process) but there are many today who speak Spanish, Arabic and of course English (immigration and globalization). I´ll be the first to glow and praise the rise of Esperanto. I think and hope I conveyed the splendor of that ideal and I appreciate all that keep it alive. But I do have to ask, isn´t it because, as you say, some people consider it as a culture, as an identity?

  3. Hi, S.I. Cohen,
    you wrote about Esperanto as a failure. Are you aware how Esperanto is used today?
    – Daily news from China, http://esperanto.china.org.cn/
    – Google Translate, http://translate.google.com/#auto/de/Saluton!
    – Esperanto Wikipedia, 196.000 articles, https://eo.wikipedia.org/
    – several thousand native speakers, http://www.fischer-zim.ch/esperanto/lingvaj-temoj/haarmann–leksikono-eo.htm (in German)
    – number of speakers doubled in Hungary 1990 – 2001 and again 2001 – 2011, https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistiko_de_Esperantujo#Hungario_.281941.2C_1990.2C_2001_kaj_2011.29

    Yes, you are true, Esperanto did not succeed to become the first international language in the past 125 years. But this is not really astonishing, it is a very big task. By the way, English needed 1500 years to get there…

    One of the main problems of Esperanto in public relations is the goal which is much to high, so it’s too difficult to get there quickly. But we have been able to build up a flourishing language community of some hundred thousand members – now we are going to spread the word about that. The main cause why Esperanto does not spread quicker is, that people just don’t know about the language. Or that they have no idea what Esperanto means in practice.

    1. Hi Lu,
      Thank you for the links, I´m sure it will be very helpful for the readers who will want to learn more about Esperanto and the community. I do have to disagree, though, about the numbers. Most of the Esperantists (as Ret calls them) that I had the pleasure to meet only knew fragments of that language. They were very much into the ideal, the system and the vision but not as much practical use (except some forums and chats on the net). I guess that this is some of what I tried to emphasis, the idea of a borderless community with members in all corners of the round globe around the language. The trispectivist view of the need of all three elements (interaction community individual) has to be solidified and consolidated into the identity of the individual expressed by an emotional sense of belonging. This can be seen in many places across the world with the notion of language-independence (Cataluña, the Basques, Persian/Arabs, Kurdistan and countless more). I guess my question is, can a language grow and be sustained without the notion of a territorial or religious identity to the point it will be used on a daily basis?
      To be honest, I´m happily surprised with the comments, it was not my intention to stir some emotions of identity and community, and with these positive comments who knows, maybe we’ll witness a change in our lifetime.

      1. Numbers are always a bit difficult.
        It is the same with languages as with other subjects – most people only know fragments. That’s why by judging about the Esperanto knowledge of your aquaintences you won’t be able to know about how many people speak Esperanto fluently.
        It seems to me that some hundred thousand people used Esperanto at least one time the last twelve months. And that some million people learned some basics of Esperanto.
        I put together all numbers I could get about Esperanto and the Esperanto speaking community on a special page. Maybe you begin with this paragraph, https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistiko_de_Esperantujo#Pozicio_.28komparo_kun_aliaj_lingvoj.29 . Or https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistiko_de_EsperantujOo#Nombra_rilato_Esperanto_-_angla .
        To give you some examples: I found that 5 out of about 750 Nobel prize laureates spoke or speak Esperanto. And that Esperanto is foreign language # 14 in Hungary and #16 in Lithuania (language knowledge).
        These statistics are a bit difficult. E.g. Esperanto is easy to learn, so people often don’t participate in language courses; if so, it’s not for a long time. That’s why the position of Esperanto in language knowledge and usage is better than in language learning.

      2. I agree, numbers and definitions are an illusive and somewhat subjective subject, that is certain.
        Thank you for the links. Actually, if you have a good (preferably free) learning Esperanto site to propose, please share with us. I think it can be a nice addition for myself and others that will be interested to learn (or simply feed their curiosity).

      3. You wrote: “I guess my question is, can a language grow and be sustained without the notion of a territorial or religious identity to the point it will be used on a daily basis?”
        Well, Esperanto is used on a daily basis in some hundred or some thousand families. I am currently staying with an Esperanto couple who speak Esperanto every day for thirteen years now.

        The Esperanto language community has a linguistic identity, but also they share some ideals. Experience tells, this is enough to create a lot of things together: Tatoeba is a large database of example sentences translated into several languages. Esperanto speaking people are enthusiastic about it; they translated about 330.000 sentences into Esperanto making it the second largest sentence collection there. English has now 437.000 sentences, the third one, German, 268.000 sentences. http://www.tatoeba.org/epo/

      4. Unfortunately, your example only demonstrates that Esperanto speaker (or/and simply aficionados) are a part an active community and enjoy languages (which makes total sense having most of them making the choice to learn and making it a priority). I guess we differs on definitions such as what is general, how many do we need to consider many. I have to admit that I was referring to a more broader picture. Don´t forget that you can say the same about Latin speakers, Greek Koiné speakers and multitudes of languages. I know families that speak it at home and I went to conferences where people speak only Ladino, and on none of the above examples (and we didn´t even venture to the hundreds of languages in communities in Asia).
        All that being said, I do agree with the ideal of replacing English as universally language of communication between people from different nations (in my personal life it would have been very helpful). However, I simply find it difficult to have it implemented worldwide.

      5. “Unfortunately, your example only demonstrates that Esperanto speaker (or/and simply aficionados) are a part an active community”
        Yes, q.e.d.
        You wrote an article “The death of Esperanto”. And we show you that Esperanto is not dead at all.

  4. Saluton S.I. Cohen
    “The Death of Esperanto” is a catchy title which doesn’t fail to amuse me since I’ve published two translations in Esperanto with a third one on the way. It reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: “The report of my death was an exaggeration”.
    I’m writing to you today because of the five languages I claim to speak I have the strongest emotional attachment to Esperanto. The late Claude Piron, UN translator and psychotherapist, argued that “Esperanto relies entirely on innate reflexes” and “differs from all other languages in that you can always trust your natural tendency to generalize patterns… The same neuropsychological law…—called by Jean Piaget generalizing assimilation—applies to word formation as well as to grammar.” In simple terms it means that Esperanto is user friendly and this guarantees its success because 14 year olds with an internet connection can teach themselves without prodding.
    Just last weekend I experienced the “emotional intersection between individual and collective identity” when I attended a regional Esperanto convention in Sherbrooke Quebec. Half the participants were anglophones and half francophones. We only spoke Esperanto. Whether Esperanto has its own culture is an ongoing topic of discussion. When meeting foreign speakers of Esperanto we are always surprised by our commonalities.
    In closing I would like to thank you for your article which, together with the responses, respresents a positive contribution to our cause.

    1. Saluton Detlef,
      Thank you for your comment, it is an honor to have a translator of Hermann Hesse to Esperanto on this talk. Not only he’s my favorite author (I wrote an historical novel with his magnificent writings and influence in mind), but one that is very relevant to our topic (though I can´t remember if he ever mentioned Esperanto in his novels; did he?).
      You said it all in your comment and thank you for it and for the inspiring references. As for the title, I have to admit that I didn´t mean to be catchy, it was by mistake. I wrote it because it came up in a conversation in a very amusing, half ironic, tone. In a more serious tone, I will be the last to declare a language “dead” or “alive”, especially while having good friends that teach Latin and Greek Koiné in a colloquial, day to day use, I think it will simplistic and blind way to judge.
      What makes a language to be “successful” is a fascinating subject. I don´t think there is one answer for that, simply, as you well described with the story of your conference, it is an emotional experience. Moreover, simply the fact that we are talking about it now (not mentioning you translating some of the best literary work) makes Esperanto to be an exciting success. In the post, I was reflecting and questioning some conversations I had the pleasure to have about ideals versus reality.
      Thanks to you and the other commentators defending Esperanto I already received feedback from people that now have more interest and curiosity about it. Hence, yes, sometimes saying “death” is a good reminder of the living.

      1. RE: Hesse and Esperanto
        I read somwhere that Hesse at one time was learning Volapük the precursor of Esperanto: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volap%C3%BCk
        He mentions planned languages again in response to a question whether it would be possible to create a world religion. He responds in the negative comparing it to international languages which are created every now and then by some well meaning person and which provide a lot of gratification to the people who speak it, but these languages are generally ignored by the masses, who don’t want to be bothered, and who fear losing their mother tongue. He concludes by saying that you can’t improve the moral fiber of a whole society by a mass movement but you can improve individuals. Interestingly enough Zamenhof also wanted to create a world religion which he called Homaranismo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homaranismo
        The Source for Hesse’s ideas on international religions and auxiliary languages is from the book:
        Hesse, Die Einheit hinter den Gegensätzen, Religionen und Mythen, published by Suhrkamp Frankfurt am Main 1986, pg 182-183

      2. Wonderful, thank you for the valuable information. I´ll try to for the English translation, unfortunately my German is not in that level of reading.

  5. The historical book ‘La Dangxera Lingvo’ [The Dangerous Language] deals with persecution of Esperanto under Hitler and Stalin, but it doesn’t deal with the undermining of Esperanto in the West following WW2.

    In around 1960 the British Council held two confidential conferences with the USIA (United States Information Agency) on the hegemonisation of English throughout the world. In a keynote speech, it was made clear that the objective was to replace ethnic languages with English as the first language, and to relegate the position of ethnic languages to that of, say, Welsh today. (Source: Phillipson: Linguistic Imperialism). Clearly, if that is the objective, then Esperanto will be targeted, too, not only because of the language itself, but also because of the philosophy of a second language for the world, whilst retaining the native languages of the world’s ethnic groups.

    Clearly, they weren’t talking merely of public courses in English run throughout the world by the British Council. Involving the USIA in confidential talks means covert action. The question remains, what form did that undermining take.

    Over the past ten years, foreign language learning in schools in England has been collapsing, undermined by Tony Blair’s ‘National Strategy for Languages in England’, which promised everything, but was a project designed for failure. They want an ‘English-only Europe’ – and that is the title of a further book by Professor Robert Phillipson, who tried to bring this to the attention of the EU. Now the person who steered this bill through the Lords is the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs: Catherine Ashton.

    There has been a spate of revelations over the past few years of police infiltration in various pressure groups, not with the intention of combating crime, but to undermine these groups. The first case was that of Mark Kennedy in the Green movement. It is known that MI5 were doing similar things in political groups. So what has been going on in the Esperanto associations?

    I carried out a one year research project into Esperanto Association of Britain in 2005 to 2006. In a series of 12 reports, I documented consistent behind-the-scenes obstructionism. I didn’t attempt any counter action whilst I was carrying out the research, because, as a trained physicist, I don’t try to change things whilst I am observing them. I submitted only one of those reports, and that was in draft form, and submitted in confidence to the President. It clearly showed that whilst the Management Committee had been claiming that their capital was being “eaten up”, and that because of that they had to limit expenditure for promotion, it was in fact rising dramatically for six years. Immediately I was receiving intimidating messages from people on the Management Committee, and I was targeted at the following AGM by the President from the chair. Since then I have been a persona non grata within the association.

    I made no claims as to the interpretation until the treasurer eventually accepted, in 2011, that my figures were correct. Perhaps I should add that the President had a long term association with the British Council as a professor of phonetics and linguistics, in the promotion of English.

    1. Awe-inspiring Ian, thank you for sharing your incredible story. I came across similar examples of this attitude towards the regional languages in different countries (probably France and Spain with the most explicit regulations). Thank you for the important work you are doing.

  6. As a number of other Esperantists have already chimed in to deny the death of our language, and to clarify some of the reasons that it has not found greater success (though the success it has found is, given its circumstances, nothing short of astounding), I will restrict myself to commenting briefly as a theologian.

    The “Judeo-Christian God” is, in fact, identical with the Muslim God. I say this not merely as an acknowledgement of the fiat claim of each of those religions that this is true, but as a matter of philosophical-theological fact as well. All of those religions embrace, in their mainline theological traditions, the same definitions of the term (you might look at Edward Feser’s blog for a more detailed explanation of those definitions). Much variance is permissible within those definitions without impeding their fundamental unity.

    In the same fashion, even two speakers of English from different regions or backgrounds within the United States mean very different things by the term “God”, or even by the term “spicy” (try comparing an Oregonian and an Alabaman in their conception of either word). Let alone the differences that can arise when we include speakers of English from other Anglo-Saxon countries (such as the UK or Australia). When we then consider that there are huge numbers of native English speakers from India, or that China is imminently about to become the world’s largest English-speaking country, we have arrived at precisely the level of intercultural internationalism to which Esperanto aspires, and yet the resulting differences in understanding have yet to destroy the English language, just as the tremendous differences of understanding about God between even two sects of the same religion, such as Latin American Catholics and US evangelical Protestants, have yet to destroy Christianity.

    In short, for both language and religion, your observation that people often load words with very different meanings even without realizing they are doing so is very true, but it is also so commonplace as to be trivial when analyzing the reasons for the success or failure of any given system. It takes a great deal more than such light and facile misunderstandings to cause true and irreparable breakdowns in communication.

    1. Thank you for the observation, of course any opinion is valid and yours is an interesting one. I will have to disagree with your premise of one god to all. It is a known argument that many religions use to support their own god. I don´t want to get into this kind of argument that will certainly have no result, hence, staying with the language and the conceptual use of words, I do think this is why it is important to use the right term for the right god (meaning, Allah, Yahweh, God). I do agree with you on your second point, that the word can have a different nuance even inside of a country. The idea is, as to my opinion, that the farther you are from your proximity, the more varied the nuance will be (which of course doesn´t mean two points on the globe cannot receive, casually and with the course of history, a similar nuance).
      The fact remains that while inside a congregation one might think that there are hundred of thousands of her kin, the reality might be different. That (again agreeing with you) doesn´t mean of course that one day that congregation will have an millions of followers (take the example of Hebrew, stagnated for about 1,700 years before being the official language of 8 million people).
      I try to avoid “trueisms” but simply endeavor in the search for understanding and for my personal as well as academic experience language and identity share a fascinating link.

  7. Why does my contribution not appear? I wasn’t rude, or off-topic and made an honest effort to participate on a subject about which I have considerable experience.

    1. Unfortunately this is the first message that appeared with your name (username). I will find it hard to believe that any member of the Esperanto community will be rude. Please, feel free to send you comment.

  8. Esperanto is alive and well. I have been representing the community at the UN for the last 5 years. Our office is there for 35 years. http://www.esperanto-un.org I was an English teacher for money but always knew that Esperanto was a better alternative for human communication world-wide. I am not alone: http://www.EnglishTeachersforEsperanto.blogspot.com Great languages come and go. Most people ignore history. Assuming English is here to stay ignores the history of Latin, Greek, French, German and more as dominant languages of science, culture and politics.

  9. I have not read all of the replies here, but this is a problem that any single language will have when talking to a person from a different culture. You are trying to assign this as a specific weakness that Esperanto has, when this is not the case. All languages will share this issue. This is a cross-cultural issue and not a language issue.

  10. Thanks for such an interesting debate!
    It is unfortunate that there is much ignorance about Esperanto. Indeed many ill-informed people describe Esperanto as “failed” – others say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.

    Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however.

    During a short period of 126 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook. Google translate recently added the language to its prestigious list of 64 languages.
    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to Russia and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.
    Esperanto is a living language See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88YPPl6jJEQ
    Their online course http://www.lernu.net has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can’t be bad 🙂

  11. Dear author, I must disagree. I speak Esperanto everyday, I had a relationship with another Esperanto speaker, I am the best-man of a couple of friends who got married because of Esperanto and I know many families that use Esperanto home as their first language. That is not the political goal of Esperanto, certainly, but they are examples of how the Esperanto project became a language and is very alive, even out of the control of its own political content. I hope we can study Esperanto and feel its reality. I am not a linguist, I don´t speak English as my first language, but I am a C1-level Esperanto speaker certificated by the University of Budapest, which guides world-wide examinations for Esperanto. Why would this university hold this kind of fluency test? In my country, Brazil, many universities offer official Esperanto courses. And you can check at Youtube many videos of Esperanto speakers, some of them professional. Try this funny report about an event that takes place every year in North America: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbnxwKbpf2I – NASK, the NA summer courses, who brings to North America people from the whole world. (Sorry for my English mistakes.)

    1. Thank you Fernando, for your contribution to the talk. It is very good to know that there is an active community of Esperanto. However, I fear that by showing numbers the point I tried to make in the post is being lost. There are many communities that exist for different languages, some with strong cultural heritage (i.e. Aymara, Shuara, Ladino, Yiddish), others with cultural academic strong basis (Greek koiné, Latin), association based languages (Interlingua) and even fan based languages (Elvish). Of course there is no comparison between one and the other. but they all have devoted speakers and active community.
      In the post I tried to relate to the theory about the making of a language as a political statement of identity and the difficulties that it presupposes. Without being overly casuistic about Esperanto, I do believe that the same ideals exists in the Esperanto community today. Hence, I guess that what I try to question are issues such as reasons, methodology and the feeling of identity in a language (more than the personal notion of belonging to a different and somewhat “exotic” community). Also, while the numbers and activities of any community does say something, there is still much to look into (and with great interest).

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