Esperanto, literally “one who hopes”, was first proposed by Ludwik L Zamenhof in 1887, and was intended to be the second language of the entire world. Built from only 16 basic rules, Esperanto was made deliberately easy to learn.
Word soon spread, and the language became popular among Parisian intellectuals who saw in it a reflection of their own modernist ideals of improving society through rationality. From the beginning, Esperanto was not merely a linguistic experiment but reflected a greater idealism; the official flag was designed to include the colours of hope and peace, and Zamenhof argued that if everyone in the world shared a common language, “education, ideals, convictions, aims, would be the same too, and all nations would be united in a common brotherhood”. His vision spread throughout Europe, and he himself was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 14 times. After WW1, Esperanto was even proposed as the official language of the League of Nations.
But WW2 dealt a crushing blow to the thriving language, with both Hitler and Stalin outlawing it. Since then, it may seem that Zamenhof’s project has been a failure—only about 2 million people currently speak the language. But more people than ever are now trying to learn it, aided by modern technology. Today’s speakers can connect across the globe via the internet, practising the language every day. In fact, Esperanto has a surprising internet presence with around 240,000 Wikipedia articles written in the language, almost as many as Turkish and Korean. When the language-learning app Duolingo was released, Esperanto speakers pushed for the language to be included and convinced the creators that there was sufficient demand; since the release of the first Duolingo Esperanto course in 2014, the language has continued to thrive and gain new advocates.
Applicants for Linguistics or PPL would do well to familiarise themselves with the history and structure of Esperanto, as the most notable example of an artificial language, and to consider what makes a language effective and easy to learn. Students wishing to study History or Politics may wish to think about the links between the Esperanto project and pre-war idealism, and why the dictators of the Second World War felt it necessary to punish its speakers.
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