Why Esperanto is different

Norman Berdichevsky

Several recent articles dealing with the problem of international communication across the language barrier repeat the predictions of Esperanto’s “futility” and inevitable "failure" made a hundred and twenty years ago at its outset and repeated through every decade since then in the face of the global expansion of English. In spite of all these forecasts, Esperanto has not only NOT disappeared but continues to grow, albeit much of its progress has been invisible to critics and sceptics.

Several recent articles dealing with the problem of international communication across the language barrier repeat the predictions of Esperanto’s “futility” and inevitable “failure” made a hundred and twenty years ago at its outset and repeated through every decade since then in the face of the global expansion of English.  In spite of all these forecasts, Esperanto has not only NOT disappeared but continues to grow, albeit much of its progress has been invisible to critics and sceptics. 

The basic instinct of critics in the English speaking world is that no matter what Esperanto is doomed.  Arika Okrent reflects the common viewpoint of today’s “realists” in posing (and answering) the question…” Is it crazy to believe that Esperanto has a chance in the Age of English?“ and then answers her own question ….It’s insane! “.(“Exploring Esperantoland”; The American Scholar, Winter, 2006, pp. 93-108)

On the website of New English Review, two regular contributors concluded that …“Of course the whole idea of an artificial language is silly” (Mary Jackson)and….“There are those who, out of a kind of despair, seek a solution to our problems in modifying or simplifying language. Consider how Zamenhof (the founder of Esperanto) allowed himself to believe that if only everyone could communicate using the same language, all kinds of problems would be solved. Hence… Esperanto, or Volapük, or a dozen other idealistic and misguided attempts.” (Hugh Fitzgerald).

No matter how many times it can be documented that Zamenhof never intended an “auxiliary language” to solve ANY of the world’s problems but only help people communicate and reduce the inconvenience of the language barrier, Esperanto is still regarded as the inevitable plaything of eccentrics, “cranks” and “misguided idealists”.  For the entertaining American humorist and writer Bill Bryson”, …“In normal circumstances, an Esperanto speaker has about as much chance of encountering another as a Norwegian has of stumbling on a fellow Norwegian, in say, Mexico.“

Okrent,  Jackson, Fitzgerald and Bryson are all American and British writers who agree that a “solution” to the problem of the language barrier beyond universal acquisition of English is either uncalled for, or can be solved in the future through some further technological development.  All of them make the same initial assumption that there is no need for an international auxiliary language.  They refuse to look at the accumulated experience and evidence of the international community of Esperanto speakers over the past one hundred and twenty years.  The evidence does not interest them for they have pronounced their guilty verdict that Esperanto has “failed.”

The Trivialization of Esperanto

Dr. Ludoviko Zamenhof and/or Esperanto have been honored with postage stamps issued by the former USSR, China, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, Brazil, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Cuba, the former Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Croatia, Surinam,  Malta and most recently (December, 2006) Israel; primarily countries whose languages are not widely spoken elsewhere.  In spite of such universal recognition, Esperanto is not even mentioned in the reference work: “Cultural Literacy – What Every American Needs to Know”Including 5,000 essential names, dates and concepts“.  For its author, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Esperanto does not deserve a mention among the top 5,000 facts worth knowing for the average American (contrasted with the unchallenged importance of“Leda and the Swan”, “Icarus” and “Humpty Dumpty”).

Usually, it is more educated speakers of English who possess the most innate bias against Esperanto, doubting that an “artificial” language of “no substance’ or cultural content could promise any advantage to potential learners.  Nevertheless, there is much evidence that six or seven years of English instruction in many countries have produced very meager results in comparison with the enormous efforts, time and expense invested.  The percentage of the world’s population that speaks English as a first language is no greater today than it was in 1900 (around 10%).  Although there are many speakers of English as a second language today, they still represent a tiny minority of those who have spent many frustrating years of study and are unable to communicate effectively beyond the level of making essential needs known or idle chatter about the weather and asking directions. Esperanto’s marvelous successes and achievements are “invisible” because there is no palpable “homeland” or powerful patron to provide material rewards.

In 1986, the 99th anniversary of the language was celebrated by a massive World Congress in Beijing, China and a year later the centennial celebration was held in Warsaw.  Both events resulted in major feature stories on the cover pages of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report that all objectively and favorably reviewed its achievements and quite rightly wondered why the language has not received more support from international organizations that continue to waste enormous sums of money on multiple and simultaneous translations and interpreting.

Nevertheless, articles continue to appear by scores of journalists or commentators who have met Esperanto for the first time and express amazement that it has not disappeared as has been predicted in every decade since its inception in 1887.  They ignore such milestones as the favorable resolutions passed by the League of Nations and the United Nations encouraging its instruction and use.  It comes as a shock that there are many tens of thousands (very possibly hundreds of thousands) of Esperanto speakers who use it in every sense as a “living language” capable of generating a loyalty and devotion among its community of speakers.  These include those who learned it as children from their parents.  All of them continue to shape and change it and have invested it with the deepest emotions and have even generated their own cosmopolitan literature, culture and slang without a physical homeland.

The Free Market Forces of Foreign Language Appeal and Learning 

People desire to learn another language other than the one they grew up with and absorbed from their parents and immediate environment for a number of reasons all of which provide a utility, personal advantage or “pay-off.”  These are:

1. travel, 2. educational opportunities 3. career advancement, 4. business opportunities, 5. research and intelligence gathering, 6. appreciation of another culture/literature and 7. social conviviality.  Esperanto, other “devised languages”  or  “minor” national languages can only provide a very small pay-off (primarily travel and social conviviality) with regard to the immense advantages provided by the major national languages.  This equation is what makes the enormous investment “worthwhile” to most people who choose to learn English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic, Chinese etc. and what condemns Esperanto to a “non-starter” no matter how great its advantages with respect to ease of learning.

As a native English speaker who earns a part-time income from teaching ESL (English as a Second Language)  courses at a community college in Florida, I can testify to the enormous difficulties in reading, pronunciation, and comprehension even of the most simple sentences due to the inherent difficulties of English grammar, especially the multiple meanings of countless words and the inability to distinguish what functional part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition) a particular word plays.

As a teenager, I invested about six months in the study of Esperanto and corresponded with pen-pals around the world.  After not speaking or reading or corresponding in Esperanto for more than 25 years, I again took up an interest in using the language and can verify that I achieved instant recall of the totally consistent logical structure of the language that enabled me to speak and communicate without hesitation or frequent errors.  I formed many new friendships and close relations in more than a dozen countries including Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Belgium, Portugal, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Italy and Sweden,(where, in spite of my being fluent in Danish, we found it both easier and more “fair and decent” to speak in Esperanto than English).

What is incomprehensible to all the critics who delight in trivializing and mocking Esperanto is that foreigners have never been able to communicate with them on a basis of equality. The relationships of native English speakers with 95% of second language speakers of English who have learned the language as a result of enormous diligence and aptitude is simply that of master to slave.  Such is the attitude expressed in reactions to a recent proposal to make Esperanto a required subject in Ukrainian schools.  Imagine the nerve of the Ukrainians to ask to be placed with an equal footing with native speakers of English!  Only those who have struggled to learn a foreign language and been reduced for years to the level of a stuttering five year old child in speaking with native speakers can appreciate the liberating influence of Esperanto.

Those who have only the most superficial or no knowledge of Esperanto undoubtedly believe that if all Esperanto speakers died today, the language would end and be nothing more than an historical footnote.  My experience across a dozen countries and hundreds of personal contacts convince me that the language would be revived within a few years by new “converts” convinced that no other medium can or could fulfill Esperanto’s unique contribution to international communication.

The Language Barrier

In the days of silent films, the language barrier seemed less obvious and few people in the Anglo-Saxon world of “islands” such as Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the continental size “island” of America hardly needed to confront anyone outside of their own tongue.  Even today, the idea of an “auxiliary language” strikes many as a far fetched and an outmoded ideal when the media continually reassure the public that English has become the “world’s international language.”

Nevertheless, Britain’s membership in the European Union has highlighted the problem of the language barrier to a considerable degree.  Although the U.K. is the center (centre) of the multi-billion dollar industry of teaching English world-wide, there has been some support for Esperanto in the British Parliament in the form of a lobby group.  At the time of the centenary of Esperanto in 1987, it numbered more that 200 members of the Upper and Lower Houses (mostly Labour/Labor).  A proposal for an Esperanto language service by the BBC was squashed in 1967 after a few initial broadcasts – due to unpublicized pressure from the vested interests of the English language teaching, the British Council and textbook industry.

The reality of the language barrier is that even the best translations cannot be considered as “equally authentic.”  As many individuals have discovered who have purchased “electronic dictionaries” or computer programs to “translate”, there is no one-to-one correspondence between languages.  The reality of the language barrier is constantly downplayed by the visual media.  Television news reports consistently manipulate camera angles to eliminate the presence of interpreters so that the TV audience is under the impression that heads of state are actually speaking to each other.

The Reality of The Language Barrier

A recent film that accurately demolishes these conceptions is the award winning Russian production “The Cuckoo” by the producer Aleksander Rogozikin.  It portrays misadventures in war-torn Finland during 1944 when fate throws together a Finnish sniper who deserts and is on the run from his German commander, a Russian captain who is facing a court-martial and a Lapp widow.  For the first time in film history, subtitles enable only the audience to understand what each one of the characters means to say but is unable to communicate to the others.

Many individuals who oppose Esperanto are unaware of the unconscious but powerful emotional tie we all have with our native and “mother tongue” that forms such a large part of our personality.  Playing on this emotional tie, it is easy to convince people for whom no recourse has ever been made to the evidence, that Esperanto is a language that “no one speaks” or “speaks with the same authority and eloquence as national languages”.

The Disbelief in an Esperanto Culture

For them, it represents a kind of Frankenstein-like invention “without a soul.” Mary Jackson, (so eminently sensible about almost all else), in her commentary “Volapük – Esperanto for losers” (New English Review, December 2006), concludes that Esperanto must be “soulless”.  She is also convinced there is no Esperanto literature worth reading.  I know there IS – both original literature in Esperanto and works translated from Esperanto into English and dozens of other languages.  Moreover, a Scottish Esperantist, William Auld, was a recent candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature but he, as well as other great Esperanto writers, such as Sandor Szathmari, Raymond Schwartz, Julio Baghy, Ferenc Szilagyi, Kalman Kalocsay, Jean Forge, Gaston Waringheim and Claude Piron may be just names that evoke a shoulder shrug but their works have been read and appreciated and held in the highest regard by the speakers and readers of a language that indeed has a culture if not a homeland.

I quote briefly from an editorial tribute to Auld in The Scotsman (Sept. 15, 2006)

The Scottish Esperanto poet and translator William Auld always said that Esperantists had yet to explore fully the richness and potential of their language.  Whatever the truth of this claim, few writers in the 119-year history of Esperanto could match Auld for his mastery of poetic and narrative style in a language which, as he told students, should be considered a major work of art.  In fact, he argued, Esperanto was greater than the Mona Lisa or the nine symphonies of Beethoven because, unlike these, the language published by the Polish doctor Ludoviko Zamenhof in 1887 could itself be used to create other works of art.

And, among the post-war generation of Esperanto writers, no-one was more adept at waking the sleeping beauty of the language than William Auld.  For this reason he was nominated in 1999 – and in following years – for the Nobel Prize for Literature. the first Esperanto writer to be so honoured.”

Nevertheless, many of the Esperanto authors mentioned above could have (and should have) been nominated were it not for the fact that there is no Esperanto lobby able to exert influence with the Nobel Prize Committee.  The same of course applies today to writers in “minor languages” like Welsh, Gaelic, Basque and Yiddish.  Unless their works have been skillfully and accurately translated into major European languages, most importantly English and French, they risk being understood only by a tiny audience of less than a million readers.

The Elites and the Cranks

There is indeed a powerful opposition of all those elites who have studied for many years, investing monumental efforts in order to be able to communicate in one of the prestigious major national languages.  This ability elevates them far above their compatriots who only speak “minor tongues” and casts them in a superior role they are reluctant to relinquish.   After all, if “anyone” can master Esperanto in a tenth of the time it took to reach a similar level in one of the “Great International Cultural Languages”, of what lasting value can it be?

Those who are most aggravated by the actual success achieved by Esperanto focus their attention on the easy target of “strawman” cranks or eccentrics, typical “overnight” and shallow converts to Esperanto with absurd hopes to exploit it as a means to achieve some other noteworthy goal – world peace and brotherhood, nudism, vegetarianism, etc. Esperanto and other idealistic ideas have attracted more than their share of such types.

The insistence of various proponents and enthusiasts of the several competing international devised languages that their project was innately superior only generated further divisiveness and a reaction on the part of the broad public to a “plague on all your houses”.  Only Esperanto endured however, grew and matured to become a living language but its very success causes embarrassment to skeptics, opponents and professional linguists who all a priori reject the notion that a devised (and despised) language can achieve any degree of acceptance as an aid to international communication.

Esperanto’s Real Enemies Who took It Seriously

Although buffeted by the catastrophes of two world wars, persecution by both the Nazis and the Soviet regime, and the nasty, dismissive or condescending remarks that we Esperantists lack a soul, Esperanto is today a living reality, supported by an “invisible” but active community of approximately a million speakers, a literary culture embracing more than 30,000 literary works, both original and in translation, hundreds of periodicals, scores of international gatherings, seminars, guided tours, theatrical groups, musical ensembles, several university programs granting higher degrees, recognition as an official language of instruction at the International Academy of Sciences in San Marino (subsidized by the European Union), a dozen or so hours of weekly radio transmissions (primarily from The Vatican and Communist China), more than one hundred specialized dictionaries in the sciences, technology, arts and commerce and countless friendships made possible across linguistic barriers.

It makes as much sense to denigrate Esperanto as to ridicule Welsh, Estonian or Catalan.  Of course, “educated” people would never venture an opinion or mock a national language about which they know nothing for fear of offending a particular nationality and being “politically incorrect” but Esperanto is fair game for cynics and may provoke an off the cuff comparison with “Klingon” (imaginary language of aliens from outer space).     The critics and the cynics are wholly ignorant of Esperanto’s real enemies with real power who took it seriously enough to put tens of thousands of its proponents to death or imprison them for decades.

These range from the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, Italy during the latter period of Mussolini’s rule, the Japanese government of the late 1930s and World War II, Nationalist Spain under Franco from 1939 to about 1950, all the “People’s Democracies” in Eastern Europe from 1948 to 1955 and including the miniature psychopaths like Enhver Hoxha in Albania, the Iranian mullahs and Romania’s Ceasecsu who made learning a foreign language the equivalent of disloyalty. Critics and trivializers of Esperanto would no doubt have a different opinion today if they were able to read the 530 page work “La Danĝera Lingvo – Studo Pri la Persekutoj Kontra Esperanto” (Bleicher Publishers, Antwerp, 1988) by Ulrich Lins.

There was a brief explosion of interest in Esperanto in Iran following the revolution against the Shah when the downfall of a despot seemed briefly to open new doors. The interest was likely due to the difficulties of  many Iranian students studying abroad who have had to invest many years learning one of the major European languages or Arabic in order to make their mark in the world.  The conservative mullahs did not take long however to find out that Esperanto has had long historical associations with the Jews and the Zionist and cosmopolitan background of its founder, Dr. L. L. Zamenhof.  Moreover, an international language has long been favored by the Bahai movement which has its origins in Iran and has always been considered heretical by Muslim theocrats in all Muslim countries.

A Brief History of Devised Languages


The first actual project to aspire to popularize a “neutral” or “unbiased” international language without  any peculiarities of pronunciation and grammar found in existing national languages.   Its inventor, Johannes Schleyer, was a German priest with a classical education.  A world congress was organized in Germany in 1884, followed by a second one in 1887 and another in 1889.  The question of how many of Volapük’s adherents could actually speak the language was made clear at the first two congresses when all the delegates used German as the language of business and the third one failed miserably in its attempt to actually use the spoken tongue proving just how unwieldy and impractical it was.


Although the founder of Esperanto, Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof, a Russian-Polish Jew, began to develop Esperanto before becoming aware of Volapük, he had already rejected complicated elements in Schleyer’s project that were largely responsible for its ultimate failure.  Zamenhof’s native Bialystock in Russian occupied Poland was a town divided between Jews, Germans, Poles, Russians and Lithuanians.  While still a teenager, Zamenhof strove to create a practical and easily learnable language that could be used as everybody’s “second language.”  The first Esperanto textbook (in Russian) was published in July of 1887, made possible in part, by a generous dowry from the young man’s father-in-law.

The “relative“ success of Esperanto was meteoric and can only be ascribed to the fact that Schleyer had prepared the field with “great expectations” that failed to materialize and the appeal of Zamenhof’s brilliant mechanisms to simplify the grammar and vocabulary.

The regularity of vocabulary building was a schematic shortcut.  Words with related meanings share a common “root” indicated by the same consonantal letters as in Hebrew.  For example a Hebrew speaker instantly recognizes the shared root letters S-F-R in SeFeR (book), SoFeR (writer), SiFRiyah (library) and SiFRut (literature).  Zamenhof employed the same scheme for Esperanto*.  The vocabulary was chosen by finding “the lowest common denominator” of the root common in the major Romance and Germanic languages.  The word for house is “domo” in Esperanto.  This is immediately recognizable to speakers of Italian (domo) and those who know Latin (domus) and even speakers of English and French would recognize that the Esperanto word has a similarity to “domicile” or “domestic”.

Zamenhof employed the same logical scheme for Esperanto.  So, sano in Esperanto is the basic word for “health” and thus we have malsano (illness), sana (healthy), malsana (ill), saneco (healthiness), sane (healthily), sanilo (medicine), malsanulo (patient), sanulejo (health resort;) sanejo (health clinic),  malsanulejo (hospital), sanigi (to cure) saniĝi (to become well or recover), etc.  Knowing a single word for health (sano) enables the learner to immediately recognize the above twelve words according to their prefixes or suffixes and endings (-o for all nouns, -a for all adjectives and -e for derived adverbs).

The enthusiasm and dedication Zamenhof inspired were due to his high idealism, innate modesty and unselfish example.  Unlike Schleyer and those who followed him with other desk projects, Zamenhof renounced all rights or the privilege of copyright.  For him, the language was not an end in itself but a tool to reach a more harmonious brotherhood among the world’s peoples.

After a brief period of initial support by the USSR in the 1920s (calling Esperanto “the Latin of the Proletariat“), growing Stalinist paranoia came to regard Zamenhof’s Jewish and “bourgeois” background as proof of its reactionary character (In 1938, the Soviet Criminal Code declared Esperanto to be “a tool of Zionism and cosmopolitanism“).  The code was rigorously enforced in the Baltic Republics after their annexation to the USSR in 1940.

3. The IDO “HERESY” – Active French Opposition to Esperanto in the League of Nations

Criticism of Esperanto became apparent as soon as it began to achieve its unprecedented success.  Critics, mostly professional linguists all had their pet objections to its structure, phonology, and vocabulary, the supersigned letters (six letters with diacritics), the many Germanic and occasional Slavic words and the grammatical “peculiarity“ of a special final ending (the letter n added to nouns) for the direct object.  These objections came primarily from those who had a classical education and were native speakers of French and English – the two most prestigious national languages.

A French mathematician, Louis Couturat, led a campaign to “reform“ and eliminate those differences that were most offensive to French eyes and ears.  French nationalists and linguists were beginning to fear Esperanto’s progress and favorable mention.  After failing to win additional support outside of France, he launched his own language project “Ido”, employing a clever ruse.  He sponsored an international committee in 1907 to judge various competing projects that included Esperanto and other devised languages, none of which had any existence outside of the drawing board.  Manipulating the rules by which to judge the candidates so as to exclude Zamenhof and using a secret “insider”, Couturat employed the politically ultra-conservative Marquis Louis de Beaufront to support Ido.

At least 85% of the Esperantists who had affiliated to the movement remained loyal.  Ido withered away from the repeated attempts by others within the schism to propose “just one more reform” that they were convinced would make the language perfect.  The resulting controversy and accusations of betrayal helped cast all the projects including Esperanto and the very idea of an internationally auxiliary language in a bad light.   Esperanto had been wounded from within and it did not take long to discover that indeed the Ido movement had been hatched as a Francophone conspiracy by Couturat and de Beaufront acting in collusion.

The active opposition of the French Foreign Ministry and French delegates at the League of Nations where it was feared that Esperanto might be introduced as an official language alongside of French and English,  indicate the perceived threat Esperanto posed at a time when it attracted considerable international support from the “minor” states whose “national languages” were either restricted to one nation or else were burdened with a bilingual or multilingual policy.  In 1920 and 1921, resolutions favorable to the teaching of Esperanto and its use in the League were supported by Albania, Belgium, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Chile, China, Finland, Haiti, India, Italy, Colombia, Persia, Romania,South Africa and Venezuela but bitterly opposed by France.  The French delegate, Gabriel Hanotaux, former French Foreign Minister demanded the exclusion of Esperanto from any consideration as an international auxiliary language and extolled the use of French as the “classical language of diplomacy”.  He  prohibited the presence of any French delegate at international meeting in which Esperanto was permitted.

In 1922, the General Secretary of the League sent a circular to all member states asking them to report on the status of Esperanto instruction. In reaction, the French Minister of Education, Léon Bérard (later appointed Ambassador to the Vatican by the Vichy government), forbade the use of any French classroom for the instruction of Esperanto and provided a clandestine subsidy to the Ido movement to further contradict the claims of Esperantists. Conservative circles in France even expressed satisfaction that the United States had opted not to become a member of the League of Nations, a step that would have further increased the prestige of English.

4. OCCIDENTAL – The Reaction of Classicists, Linguists with a Grudge and the Nazis

The reaction to Esperanto’s success evident in the Ido project was to deepen and grow darker with the advent of nationalist extremism in Europe and the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. For Hitler, the explanation was much simpler, as expressed in his autobiography Mein Kampf, published in 1925.…

As long as the Jew has not become the master of the other peoples, he must speak their languages whether he likes it or not, but as soon as they became his slaves, they would all have to learn a universal language (Esperanto, for instance!),

Hitler had struck a raw nerve with other German nationalists and right wing intellectuals in other nations who opposed Esperanto due to its relative success among the working class and the Jewish background and internationalist sentiments of its founder.  Edgar de Wahl, an Estonian linguist, praised Esperanto but objected strongly to what he felt was its “unnatural” non-Western character.  His own proposal termed Occidental set the tone for other similar proposals that rejected the “schematic“ nature of Esperanto, one of the most attractive features for ease of learning the language but aesthetically rejected by all those who demanded a devised language that would appear “natural.”

De Wahl‘s project resembled a rationalized but visibly recognizable Romance language without the schematic elements of Esperanto that “offended” the sensibilities of all those familiar with the Latin heritage and demanded that Occidental should be comprehensible at first sight and without previous instruction to all civilized Europeans and should not shock the public through incomprehensibly strange forms such as “malsanulejo” (hospital).

5. INTERLINGUA and The Renewal of the Neo-Latinism Criticism of Esperanto

It is hard to really determine who needed another international or utopian language.  The IALA (The International Auxiliary Language Association) was founded in 1924 by Mrs. Alice Vanderbilt Morris, the wife of the American ambassador in Belgium and member of the wealthy Vanderbilt family who seems to have used her position to sponsor a pet project of Columbia University in New York which had invited several distinguished European linguists to do research there.

Much preliminary work was done under an Americanized German linguist, Dr. Alexander Gode.  Gode was no idealist but had an interest to produce a definitive Standard Average European vocabulary, based on the common word-stock of the European (i.e. Romance) languages.  The result was Interlingua, published, in 1951,  It can be recognized as an offshoot of the Romance language family with a minimal grammar and simpler than Occidental. Dr. Gode declared that it could be called a “modern Latin” or “an average linguistic European norm.”  For him, the advantage of Interlingua was the degree it could be “instantly recognized” by intellectuals whether European, African or Asian who knew at least one “great cultural language.”  The substantial funds made available through Vanderbilt and Columbia University connections enabled the publication of many scientific abstracts in Interlingua thus making it for a time quite visible.

Looking at a similar text in Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua and Occidental, most observers would conclude that there is hardly a nickel’s worth of difference between them if we only took into account the similarity in appearance of individual words.  What makes Esperanto different and unique is the absolute regularity of its word building mechanisms and identifying endings AND more importantly, the collected experience of a living language community extending over five generations and many tens of thousands of active fluent speakers, writers and readers who have taken a vital participatory role in shaping the language, creating new words and even slang.


Basic English was the brainchild of those who believed that the British Empire could (or should) continue to prosper following World War II and could already (correctly) see that the pre-eminence of English literature and the new superpower commercial, military and political status of the United States had combined to offer the world the most important vehicle for international communication.  The project received the sporadic support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill and even Prime Minister to be of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (Gandhi by contrast expressed support for Esperanto) during the war as well as generous financial aid from the British government in the form of The Foundation to Promote Basic English established by C. K. Ogden.

The BBC and the Voice of America used varieties of Basic English (called “Special English“, slower rate of speech and simple grammatical constructions in broadcasts for several years but the results were not favorable among listeners.  George Orwell took some of the general principles of both Esperanto and Basic English and used them as a model for his imaginary Newspeak in the novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four“.  It is not surprising that devised languages and most notably Esperanto suffered from Orwell’s image of a totalitarian party in a debased and regimented society the goal of which was to prevent the use of any sophisticated language capable of encouraging people to think for themselves.  Orwell’s borrowing of several principles from Esperanto for his 1984 Newspeak did inestimable damage to the idea of using a devised language for any serious purpose.  It maligned Esperanto’s image and gave the impression that it was similar to Newspeak, designed as a tool for reducing the power of expression.

The British government bought the copyright to Basic English after World War II and must have had hopes that it could be adopted in some format for international use but it held out no hope for all those foreign students already dismayed by the inconsistencies of English spelling, pronunciation, syllabification and stress.  Moreover, the teaching of standard British English became such an important industry through the efforts of the British Council that any hope to teach a simplified form was dropped.


One other competitor merits attention – Interglossa created by Prof. Lancelot Hogben of Great Britain, who is best recalled for such works of scientific popularization as Mathematics for the Millions and Science for the Citizen.  His novelty was an even greater effort to appease Classical tradition by devising a tongue whose vocabulary consisted entirely of roots from Greek but whose grammar was syntactically borrowed from Chinese recalling the “universal appeal“ that Schleyer imagined Volapük would exert on the world stage.  This added an element missing since the days of Volapük to appease the sensibilities of the greatest number of speakers on the planet.  His book appeared in 1943 but evoked little reaction in the midst of world war.  After a flurry of renewed interest with the addition of the inevitable “reforms” in the 1970s, it has remained a desk project.  The same may be said today for all of Esperanto’s competitors that, like the Neanderthals, died out and became extinct.

Esperanto and Post World War II Developments

In spite of two catastrophic world wars and active persecution against Esperanto in the totalitarian states from the mid-1930s, the language’s achievements have been remarkable.  The spread and growth of Esperanto in new centers in Asia such as Japan, China and Korea have effectively demolished the argument that because its vocabulary is so heavily influenced by the major European Latin-Romance and Germanic families, that it would never achieve acceptance outside of Europe.   A high point for Esperantists was the gathering of a million signatures on a petition submitted to UNESCO in 1954 and favoring the international language at the organization’s meeting in Montevideo.

The Tower of Babel Stands – Stronger Than Ever

The only devised language to achieve partial and long lasting success, Esperanto, appealed most to the “common man.”  The critics acknowledge that Esperanto has not achieved its full potential due to the hard rock of political reality that without a wealthy and powerful patron, it offers no serious economic or career based inducement to learn.  It is exactly this reasoning that led both the Polish and Swiss State radio services to recently end their Esperanto language daily broadcasts after 40 years.  Budgetary restrictions and the need for the Swiss to offer programming in Arabic for the many “guest workers” and for the Poles to expand services in Ukrainian and Belorussian meant that the only “easy savings” would be in ending a service for a “vague, indefinite and cosmopolitan” audience.

Most governments, if they had been interested in eliminating the language barrier, would have done something serious about it long ago.  The Tower of Babel continues and actually grows higher and higher.  The League of Nations was content with two international languages, the U.N. must provide various services in six and the demands grow for continued expansion of the European Community to offer additional translation and interpretation services in more than two dozen languages!  Most people who wish to travel or communicate in any way with other language speakers will have to painfully learn foreign languages or get themselves interpreters, translators, and guides.

First published in the New English Review in December 2007