The Would-Be Universal Language of Esperanto

written by A. L. Hart Havens on July 15, 2022

The quest to identify the world’s easiest language is one that has occupied the minds of countless distinguished linguists, ambitious polyglots, and foreign language novices. And although it is a complex and highly subjective discussion, candidates for the world’s easiest language, particularly from the perspective of monolingual English speakers, include Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

However, entering artificial languages into the conversation will make it readily apparent after only a brief comparison that the aforementioned languages are actually quite far from being the world’s easiest. This is because deliberately planned languages typically require only a small fraction of the hours of study required to attain fluency.

This article showcases one of these incredibly easy languages, and it is one that happens to be the world’s predominant and most widely spoken artificial language. The constructed language of Esperanto boasts a remarkable 135-year history that is riddled with persistent efforts by its ardent supporters to establish the language as an international lingua franca.

The article examines the incredibly straightforward linguistic features of Esperanto and explores the troubled history and persecution of the language’s founders and early advocates in view of their purported involvement in the revolutionary socialist and internationalist movements of the day.

Globalism, George Soros, and Esperanto

In 1887, a Jewish eye doctor living in Białystok in modern-day eastern Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) put the finishing touches on a language that he had been carefully crafting over the past decade. In doing so, L. L. Zamenhof had introduced what remains to this day the world’s most widely spoken and frequently studied constructed language.

Zamenhof explained that he created Esperanto, which translates to English as one who hopes, as a world language that would serve as a vehicle for fostering harmony and brotherhood among nations. He further explained that Esperanto was designed to feature easy-to-remember vocabulary, simple pronunciation, and regular grammar so that it would be possible to master in a relatively short period of time, thus making Esperanto ideally suited to facilitate communication among the different peoples of the earth and to unite humanity in pursuit of world peace.

However, these lofty and seemingly benign objectives were viewed with extreme skepticism by many of the world’s governments, which believed that Esperantists were promoting the language as a subtle means of bringing about an international socialist revolution. The connection between the Esperanto movement and revolutionary socialism was abruptly drawn into the public limelight when the language was openly endorsed by the newborn Soviet government that had seized power in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

Among those who took note of the early USSR’s cozy attitude toward Esperanto was a young Adolf Hitler, who upon taking power in Germany over a decade later enacted policies that severely suppressed the language and the Esperanto community. While Zamenhof had passed away in 1917 well before the rise of national socialism in Germany (and shortly before the rise of communism in Russia), his family was specifically targeted by the German government and all three of his children died in the Holocaust.

Some of the Esperantists who were placed in concentration camps made an effort to secretly teach the language to other prisoners, and when questioned by guards they managed to believably claim to be teaching Italian (the language of Germany’s wartime ally), as spoken Esperanto and Italian sound fairly similar. And although Esperantists also faced severe repression in most Axis-aligned countries like Francoist Spain and Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy interestingly exhibited a certain fondness of Esperanto due to its strong similarities to Italian.

Furthermore, in what Esperantists at the time viewed as a dastardly betrayal, Soviet premiere Joseph Stalin reversed the earlier policies of Lenin and Trotsky that promoted the Esperanto movement and began branding Esperantists as suspicious individuals likely to be foreign spies, cosmopolitans, and Zionists. Starting with the Great Purge in 1936 and throughout the remainder of Stalin’s reign until 1953, Esperantists in the USSR faced persecution that frequently included imprisonment, deportation to Siberian gulags, and execution.

While it is undeniable that many socialists and internationalists of the day were enamored by the Esperanto movement, the question of whether the language itself was and/or is actually intended to further an insidious globalist plot — such as a deliberate erosion of ethnic, national, and religious identities and the fostering of emasculation, blind obedience, and the perceived need for world government — is a matter of debate. In this regard, Esperanto is similar to Free Masonry.

Those who remain skeptical of the movement’s true motives often point to a well-known Esperantist named Theodor Schwartz, founder and editor of the Esperanto-language magazine Literatura Mondo and father of Open Society Foundations chairman George Soros. Schwartz changed the family name in 1936 to Soros, an Esperanto word meaning will soar, and made a point of ensuring that his son George learned the language to fluency.

Esperanto Across the World

The World Esperanto Congress, an annual eight-day convention, has remarkably taken place almost every single year since the inaugural event in 1905. It was canceled only in the years 1916 to 1919 and 1940 to 1946 due to the two world wars, and was held virtually in 2020 and 2021 due to coronavirus restrictions. Of the 15 countries to have hosted the congress at least three times, the United States (which held events in Portland, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.) is the only one that is not located in Europe. The 107th iteration is scheduled to take place in person from August 6 to 13, 2022 in Montreal, Canada and will afford attendees the opportunity to take a standardized Esperanto proficiency exam, among many other things.

The World Esperanto Congress is organized by the world’s largest and most important organization of Esperanto speakers, the Universal Esperanto Association, which has around 5,500 individual members from 120 countries. The UEA is headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands and operates an additional office at the UN Building in New York City. The annual congress typically attracts around 2,000 enthusiasts, although attendance has exceeded 6,000. The Universal Esperanto Association also publishes the monthly Esperanto magazine, which covers any and all topics pertinent to the international Esperanto community.

And while Esperanto has never fulfilled its destiny of becoming the world’s primary universal second language and likely never will, it nonetheless exhibits an ever-expanding following of dedicated supporters and remains the world’s most relevant constructed language by a clear margin. In fact, it is the only artificial language of any significance, far surpassing the Esperanto derivative language Ido (also known as Reformed Esperanto) in number of speakers, internet and literature presence, and overall importance.

Worthy of mention here is the fictional language of Klingon spoken by aliens in the TV series Star Trek, which was developed into an actual real-life constructed language that has attracted a fair number of learners over the years. It is estimated that around 60 Star Trek fanatics have actually learned Klingon to conversational fluency and are able to actively partake in Klingon-language discussions on ordinary topics unrelated to space travel, alien invasions, and interstellar wars. The Star Trek series’ first-ever episode aired in 1966, coincidentally marking the same year in which William Shatner starred in a B-rated horror movie called Incubus, which was filmed entirely in Esperanto.

The number of Esperanto native speakers, i.e., people who learned Esperanto to fluency in early childhood, is estimated at around 1,000 worldwide. This comes in addition to 10,000 fluent speakers who learned it as a second language and another 100,000 active users of varying proficiency levels who are not considered fluent. Some estimates place the total number of Esperanto speakers at two million albeit without clearly specifying any minimum proficiency standards.

The countries of northwestern Europe, particularly Scandinavia and the Benelux countries, boast the highest concentrations of Esperanto speakers worldwide, while Canada, New Zealand, and Japan are home to significant concentrations outside of Europe. At present, Esperanto is not recognized as an official language of any country.

The World’s Easiest Language

Among the numerous language-difficulty rankings in existence, the most prominent is arguably the five-category overview published by the US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which provides high-level training to US diplomats and foreign-affairs officials.

The FSI lists as Category 1 languages (i.e., ones that require the fewest hours of study needed for a monolingual English speaker to reach basic fluency) Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Afrikaans, whereas French, Portuguese, and Romanian are viewed to be the most challenging within Category 1. To provide some context, German is assigned to Category 2, Indonesian to Category 3, Russian to Category 4, and Arabic to Category 5.

As a quick aside, Liberated Services explained in the article entitled Passports of Southeast Asia that the Indonesian language has undergone a deliberate harmonization and simplification process for the purpose of creating a lingua franca across the country’s 17,000 islands. In light of this, standardized Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) can be described as a semi-constructed language featuring a highly regular grammatical structure.

The idea of Indonesian as the world’s easiest natural language was popularized by the late foreign-language guru and conservative radio talk show host Barry Farber, who claims to have mastered Indonesian to conversational fluency on a single transatlantic boat trip in the 1950s. Although many linguists disagree with Farber’s assessment, particularly due to the challenges presented by a highly unfamiliar vocabulary, it should be emphasized that the Indonesian language is by all objective standards unquestionably more difficult than Esperanto.

Various studies have found that while around 2,000 hours of study are generally required to reach basic fluency in German and 1,000 hours are required to reach basic fluency in Italian (arguably the easiest Category 1 language), this same level of proficiency in Esperanto is achievable with as few as 150 hours of study. Let’s explore what makes Esperanto so easy to learn.

First of all, Esperanto uses a Latin alphabet that differs slightly from the 26-letter alphabet which native English speakers are accustomed to. More specifically, the 28-letter Esperanto alphabet omits the letters Q, W, X, and Y but adds Ĉ, Ĝ, Ĥ, Ĵ, Ŝ, and Ŭ. While it takes some practice getting used to the sounds that these added letters represent, Esperanto novices will quickly come to appreciate the language’s regular and consistent pronunciation, meaning that words are spoken exactly as written.

Even more important for the sake of efficient language study is the fact that Esperanto requires very little effort with regard to verb conjugation. This is because Esperanto has only one verb form for each pronoun in a given tense, which is evidenced by the example of the verb to be: Mi estas (I am), Vi estas (You are), Li estas (He is), Ni estas (We are).

Additionally, the part of speech of an Esperanto word is immediately discernible, as all singular nouns end in o and all plural nouns end in oj. For example, pordo (door), cervo (deer), infano (child), and piedo (foot) become pordoj (doors), cervoj (deer), infanoj (children), and piedoj (feet). Additionally, all adjectives end in a — varma (hot), stulta (stupid), bongusta (delicious) — and all adverbs end in e — rapide (quickly), facile (easily), trankvile (calmly).

All verbs in the infinitive form end in i, for example havi (to have), trinki (to drink), and movi (to move). All present-tense verbs end in as, all past-tense verbs end in is, and all future-tense verbs end in os, for example Mi vidas (I see), Mi vidis (I saw), Mi vidos (I will see), Ŝi iras (She goes), Ŝi iris (She went), Ŝi iros (She will go), Li soras (He soars), Li soris (He soared), and, to invoke the aforementioned world-renowned globalist, Li soros (He will soar). All of these grammatical rules are designed to be as simple, consistent, and straightforward as possible and there are no exceptions or irregular forms to memorize.

There are also no noun genders that need to be memorized. This is an issue that students of German often struggle with because German seemingly arbitrarily assigns every noun one of three genders, for example das Gebäude (the building), die Wohnung (the apartment), and der Schrank (the closet).

And as pointed out in the Liberated Services article entitled Poland A, Poland B under the heading The Awful Polish Language, the combination of the Polish language’s five noun genders and seven grammatical cases gives rise to a bewildering 35 different possibilities for expressing the word the. Esperanto instead uses the word la as the sole way of rendering the word the.

Esperanto vocabulary, which was carefully selected with an emphasis on ease of learning and remembering, borrows heavily from the Romance languages French and Italian and to a lesser extent from the Germanic languages English, German, and Yiddish. Very little vocabulary stems from other European language like Greek or Russian and even less from non-European languages like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and Hindi. The euro-centric nature of Esperanto is a frequent point of criticism among today’s woke internationalists who are displeased with the language’s lack of equitable cultural representation.

As Esperanto was designed effectively as a simplified generic Romance language, speakers of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French will have a clear advantage over others when learning the language. Conversely, prior knowledge of Esperanto is deemed to be highly beneficial when studying a Romance language. When all linguistic aspects and attributes are considered, the natural language most similar to Esperanto is Italian.

Even the brief examination of a carefully constructed language like Esperanto as presented above serves to demonstrate the unnecessarily difficult and frustrating features of natural languages, i.e., languages that have evolved over time without the influence of linguists seeking to simplify, regularize, and harmonize them for the sake of convenience in foreign language study.

It should be kept in mind that while Esperanto is indeed relatively easy to learn, beginners planning on becoming fluent will still need to learn the vocabulary and commit themselves to many hours of focused study (albeit only around one-tenth of the hours required to master the easiest of natural languages like Spanish, Italian, and Dutch).

Today, Esperanto is primarily of interest to academic researchers and linguists, language-learning enthusiasts wishing to build a worldly-wise persona, and quirky polyglots seeking to show off their multilingual abilities. And although Esperanto no longer represents the politically contentious issue that it once did, it is of curious note that many of the language’s modern-day advocates also appear to be quite sympathetic to the ideas of globalism and world government.

Finally, while Esperanto is unlikely to supplant English as the world’s predominant international auxiliary language, anyone who nonetheless wishes to dabble in Esperanto should know that several free-of-charge web-based study resources are available, most notably Duolingo (courses in over 40 languages including Esperanto) and lernu! (dedicated solely to Esperanto). Both websites require users to register in order to access the course materials.