Universal Soldiers: The Individuals Keeping the Esperanto Language Dream Alive

Anarchist Émile Chapelier teaches Esperanto to the members of his Libertarian commune.
Anarchist Émile Chapelier teaches Esperanto to the members of his Libertarian commune. / Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

For a language meant to serve as a means of universal communication, Esperanto is frequently—and ironically—misunderstood. The most popular constructed language in the world was created in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist by day and passionate polyglot by night. He came up with the Esperanto language by cherry-picking features from other tongues he had studied that could, in theory, be learned and mastered by everyone. But this is where the misunderstanding comes in.

Zamenhof had no desire to replace anything. The erroneous idea that everyone would speak Esperanto instead of their native language is what leads to it easily being dismissed either as a hippie-dippie utopian dream or a scary desire for a monoculture. However, the whole point of Esperanto is that it’s an auxiliary language—a second language for everyone speaking it.

Esperanto innovator L. L. Zamenhof.
Esperanto innovator L. L. Zamenhof. / Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

“I don't doubt that there have been one or two zealots over the years who have said something daft, but it's never been the case that Esperanto is supposed to be the one and only language,” Tim Owen, director of the Esperanto Association of Britain (or rather, Esperanto-Asocio de Britio) and co-author of Teach Yourself: Complete Esperanto, tells Mental Floss. “Person X and Person Y have a chat in Esperanto, then go back to using their own language once the meeting is concluded.”

A universal second language allows for people from different cultures to communicate on an equal footing without one having to learn the other’s language, and in the process removes any unfair advantage the native speaker might have. There are no Esperanto monoglots, and someone raising a child to exclusively speak the language would be misguided at best. Rather, the central idea of Esperanto has a lot in common with positive changes people are trying to bring to the modern world.

“I suspect that most people who invest time and energy in learning Esperanto today are probably sympathetic to the idea of people not being different on the basis of where they're from, the language they speak, or the color of their skin,” Owen says. “However, they're not under the illusion that Esperanto will become the international language which brings about that realization to the world.”

Esperanto posters housed at the Esperanto Museum in Vienna, Austria.
Esperanto posters housed at the Esperanto Museum in Vienna, Austria. / Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

There has been a recent resurgence of interest in Esperanto thanks to the internet, with language-learning app Duolingo even adding an Esperanto course for English speakers in May 2015. That course registered its one millionth learner two and a half years later, and currently has 285,000 active learners. As Owen explains, that doesn’t mean you can expect to find a million active Esperanto speakers, but it's certainly indicative of some degree of interest in the idea of a universal language.

While some people are undoubtedly learning Esperanto to aid international communication, others are learning it simply for learning’s sake. One Duolingo learner is Azriel Johnson, who is dabbling in Esperanto alongside 15 or so other languages. “I have no immediate plans to travel anywhere Esperanto is spoken,” Johnson says. “I am aimless aside from gaining new information and helping to shape the way I think, for better or worse.” Having previously learned Spanish, Johnson is finding Esperanto fairly straightforward, noting the grammar is similar to English.

While it is sometimes seen as something that was popular and then fell out of favor, the truth is that Esperanto never really caught on in the first place. Some of the people whose imaginations were captured by it went on to feature it in fairly notable works—it pops up a lot in science fiction, from Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series to cult sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf. It’s occasionally used where an alien language is needed, as in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (where it stands in for Kryptonian) or Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s comic Saga, where it represents the Blue language of the planet Wreath.

Esperanto is typically used optimistically, as in the opening song to Final Fantasy XI, or to create an otherworldly feel, as in the unnamed setting of Blade: Trinity, which sports bilingual signs. The single most enduring item of Esperanto pop culture, however, is the 1966 horror movie Incubus, in which every phonetically-learned syllable is mangled by a pre-Star Trek Captain Kirk.

“I was aware of Esperanto, but only because of the not-very-good William Shatner film,” filmmaker Christopher R. Mihm says. "But I had no idea how many people spoke the language or even really understood what it was before I started using it for my films.”

Mihm initially wanted to use Esperanto on signage on the sets of Attack Of The Moon Zombies, a retro-futuristic movie set in a 1950s version of a 1970s moon base. A request to an online Esperanto club for help translating a few signs led to an Esperanto subtitle track, an Esperanto audio track, and subsequent collaborations on multiple films. Mihm has seen massive enthusiasm from the global Esperanto community, with the relative dearth of media released in the language leading to a huge uptick in international sales.

This enthusiasm is what drives the online Esperanto community. For instance, the language-sharing app Amikumu was developed and crowdfunded by Esperanto speakers. There are Esperanto versions of beloved children’s books, Esperanto anime fandubs, and Esperanto memes.

"Esperanto isn’t going anywhere," Owen says. "It has its speaker community, the only planned language which can boast that, and an imposing cultural heritage. Whatever the true number of competent active speakers is, it will never reach the critical mass or obtain the governmental endorsement required to complete its original mission of being the commonly agreed-upon language to be used in international conversation. And that's okay—for a lot of us, it already does that job.”

Owen recently lost a colleague, another British Esperanto speaker who worked for many years on Esperanto-related historical projects with a Japanese partner, neither of them speaking the other’s native language. Even on the small scale of one relationship, that’s a perfect example of what L.L. Zamenhof had in mind, all those years ago: a way for people to share what they have in common, rather than let their differences keep them apart.