Despite believing in Esperanto, I’ve hesitated to be an Esperanto activist so far. This is probably because I have other social justice topics I consider more important, such as trans issues and feminism. When large numbers of your trans friends have attempted suicide, and large numbers of your female* friends have been raped, language justice doesn’t seem so urgent.
Perhaps that’s just me. I think I’m happy that there are Esperanto activists in the world. I just don’t feel drawn to spending much of my energy on that personally.
Perhaps it’s also because as with feminism, veganism, and other social justice movements, Esperanto tends to come under fire as soon as it’s brought up (see my article on proteining for more). I regularly stand up for the other movements I identify with, and yet when it comes to Esperanto I feel so… tired. If people are so desperate to deface Esperanto I kind of resign myself to letting them do that.
Nevertheless, in a recent conference I was at, centered around social justice in all its forms, someone asked me to do a talk on Esperanto, and I stepped up to the challenge. I suddenly had to spend some time thinking and coming up with some decently-phrased arguments. While I doubt I will end up spending much more of my energy on Esperanto activism, I don’t regret giving it a go. (And never say never…)
Here’s what I came up with.
Esperanto constitutes a social justice movement.
We can call this “language justice”.
While the language we use to bring about language justice doesn’t have to be Esperanto, Esperanto is the one with the greatest following and which seems more or less best for the job out of those we have available. I can imagine how we could make a better language in terms of social justice, yet I don’t believe it would be worth it to throw away all the progress we have made in propagating Esperanto, even if it were possible to replace it.
Esperanto is not perfect, but I believe that it is a) good enough for now, and b) much better than the alternative of accepting the status quo as far as languages are concerned.
In what way does Esperanto create a more just world?
The most common argument is that Esperanto is a neutral language.
This means that it is not attached to a single country or political entity, and is not complicit in dominating other cultures. On the contrary, the Esperanto culture is one of inclusivity. While most people who learn English will never consider themselves English or Anglosaxon, those who learn Esperanto are immediately welcomed as an equal member of the Esperanto culture.
When English is used as an auxiliary language, those who were brought up in English speaking countries have an advantage. They speak English better in general, have to spend no time or energy in actively learning it after childhood, and don’t experience the anxiety which often accompanies having to speak a second language and risk making mistakes.
The latter point is important. People who speak English as a second language usually experience some level of anxiety when speaking English, especially when speaking it with a native English speaker. This native English speaker is in some way the arbiter of what is good or bad English, and that creates a power imbalance. The native English speaker is naturally more confident in the interaction, and can focus their energies on other things than the language they are speaking. If you think about it, there are many ways in which this can lead to native English speakers subtly dominating or influencing those who speak English as a second language.
Esperanto, on the other hand, doesn’t have this power imbalance. Almost everyone speaks Esperanto as a second language, levelling the playing field. Even those who learnt it from their parents probably learnt an imperfect version of Esperanto; I believe this prevents there being the subtle feeling that this person is the arbiter of what is good or bad Esperanto. Asides from that, it’s just much harder to make mistakes in Esperanto because the language is so much more simple and permissive. Any word you invent in Esperanto according to the basic rules is automatically correct. On the other hand, words like “uneatable” are incorrect in English, even though as far as logic is concerned they make perfect sense.
I think Esperanto fosters a unity and equality of cultures and peoples which is very enjoyable to see. When I go to an Esperanto event, people from all different cultures are given the same value, and their voices are weighted equally. There is a more open conversation going on, ideas from diverse places flowing more freely than in a place where English is used. It’s a subtle thing, perhaps, but it just feels more friendly and less oppressive. As someone who was given the privilege of growing up in an Anglosaxon country, I don’t find that I gain especially in being able to express myself more freely, but it is very pleasurable to see my friends gain that power.
Related to this, Esperanto fights linguistic hegemony.
Languages have historically been connected to countries and empires. When a political entity dominated a place, it also imposed its language. In this way it imposed its culture, its way of thinking, and its identity.
I believe that languages have an inherent beauty and value, as do the cultures, ways of thinking, and identities they are connected to. I believe that killing a language is a terrible thing to do. And let’s be clear, languages do not “naturally” die out.
Still, I do see the value in having an auxiliary language. I lived in Spain for 9 years, and being able to speak Spanish in the Basque Country and Catalonia was incredibly helpful for me. It would seem that Spanish hegemony helped me. And in a way that is true, but I believe that there are solutions to the problem of intercommunication between cultures that do not involve violence as the imposition of Spanish did.
Instead of using Spanish to communicate between different cultures in the Iberian Peninsula, let us use Esperanto. Suddenly, there would be no imbalance of power privileging those living in central and southern Spain. Everyone would spend the same amount of time learning the auxiliary language (and less time would be spent overall), and no-one’s culture would be erased.
In the UK, we have the same issue with Welsh, Gaelic, Cornish, Manx, and Scots. In France, there is Basque, Breton and Occitan. In the USA there are all the different native languages that were repressed through European colonisation. And so on. In all these cases, the use of Esperanto could prevent the privileging of the dominant language, and in turn reduce the violence perpetrated against the minority languages and their respective peoples and cultures. These smaller cultures could be restored to their previous dignity, valued as an equal part of the region they are in.
I have thought about this in relation to the relatively recent emergence of Europe as a political entity. While I am critical of all political entities, I believe in Europe, because it emerged after the Second World War basically as a way of preventing conflict between the cultures, and it has slowly moved towards greater integration and equality within its boundaries (e.g. allowing people from some poorer countries to migrate freely to richer countries, much to the chagrin of tabloid newspapers).
A single language would be a powerful unifying force for Europe. However, seeing as Europe grew in unity not through domination but through a voluntary act made by each participating country, there is no way we could impose a single language on it as conquering powers would. Whatever language from Europe we choose to be the main European language, those who speak every other language will reject it – and rightly so, as they will perceive they are being made subordinate.
If we used Esperanto, we could create a unity in Europe without imposing a cultural hegemony. I believe something like Esperanto is the only way we could solve this problem, if we ever have a mind to.
Finally, Esperanto reduces power imbalances by redistributing how resources are spent.
In this case, I’m talking about the time, energy and money that needs to be spent on learning English as a second language. These resources are often interchangeable; those who struggle most to get adequate money are usually those with the least time and energy to spare.
Naturally, those who speak English as a native language never have to spend time, energy or money on learning English as a second language. Many learn second languages anyway, but they rarely have the same economic incentive to do so. For some in non-English speaking countries, knowing English can be a way out of poverty, and the need to learn English can be a force that keeps them in poverty.
Poverty means having less time, energy and money – things that would allow someone to learn English as a second language. This means that those who would be brought out of poverty by knowing an auxiliary language are instead kept in it, as they don’t have the resources. This is not justice.
Besides this, knowing the auxiliary language of the world gives us access to so much information and culture which enriches our life in ways beyond just the economic. It is a privilege that is currently not afforded to much of the world’s poor.
Esperanto would level the playing field by making native English speakers spend the same resources in learning the auxiliary language.
It would also mean that people spend a lot less energy overall on learning languages. Studies show that Esperanto can be learnt approximately ten times faster than equivalent natural languages. Think about this for a moment. Thousands, billions of hours would be saved worldwide if we switched from English to Esperanto. What’s more, this would have its greatest positive impact on the most impoverished of us. Those who were too poor to learn the auxiliary language would suddenly be able to learn it; and those who spent much of their limited resources on learning would suddenly find themselves with much more resources to spare. More, and poorer, people would be able to benefit from the auxiliary language.
Those are the main reasons why Esperanto is a powerful force for social justice.
Now, I couldn’t finish this article without mentioning some ways in which Esperanto fails in terms of social justice.
One of the main criticisms of Esperanto is that it is a Europe-centric language; that is, it is constructed more or less entirely from European languages, and gives an unfair advantage to those who know those languages.
It’s hard to argue against this. Esperanto does privilege those who speak European languages, especially Romance languages.
My responses to these arguments are not intended to deny this basic fact, but to attenuate it a little. After all, my position is that despite its faults, Esperanto is worth it. I think people often pay too much attention to the problems of Esperanto without paying enough attention to the great benefits it offers. Ultimately I think this is a way of proteining, or dismissing Esperanto out of hand because of an unspoken bias.
So, yes, Esperanto is a European-centric language. However, when it was created Europe was not a political entity, and at the moment, despite being loosely unified politically, it is still very diverse culturally. (As well as this, the E.U. excludes Russia, whose language contributes to the vocabulary of Esperanto). There may be similar elements in different European cultures, but I think you can’t really say that there is an actual European culture per se, and because of this you can’t say that Esperanto creates cultural hegemony in the same way.
The other matter is that Esperanto is much easier than other languages. This means that the difference in ease of learning between those who speak similar languages to Esperanto and those who don’t is much smaller.
As well as this, I’d point out that a different constructed language – Lojban – tried to be as equal as possible by using the six most spoken languages of the time: English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, and Russian. It’s a smart approach, right? Except that four out of the six were Indo-European languages. And just as you can connect elements of different European cultures, you can connect elements of Indo-European cultures. On the other hand, you can’t say that either of those constitute a single culture.
Besides this, each of these six languages – indeed, every natural language in the world – was propagated by conquest. Each of these languages constitutes cultural hegemony. So I believe that there is no way you could construct a language out of natural languages without having some kind of power imbalance, simply because of the nature of the exercise. With this in mind, I believe the most realistic goal is to go for a mixture that does not come from a single cultural entity, and otherwise to use languages which will make our constructed language easier to learn.
Esperanto is easy to learn for speakers of English, Spanish, Russian, French, and Portuguese, all among the top ten most spoken languages in the world. These together constitute about 1.5 billion people. On the other hand the remaining languages in the top ten constitute about 2 billion; but apart from Hindi and Bengali they don’t share many characteristics with each other (source for these stats). So, I think while problematic in some ways, focusing on European languages does give Esperanto the power to reach a lot of people.
Finally, the people who criticise Esperanto for being a European-centric language usually don’t have any alternatives to propose. It seems, then, that they don’t really seem to care about bringing about a neutral world language; it seems that they just want to criticise Esperanto. Effectively, by advocating against Esperanto without proposing an alternative they are advocating for the status quo: English as the world auxiliary language. And I think by now you should understand the serious issues with that.
The other problem people have with Esperanto is sexism.
I hate this aspect of Esperanto myself; not because it is more sexist than other languages, but simply because it is about as sexist as them, and it could have been done differently. In the creator’s defence, though, it was created in 1887, when feminism was not widely talked about or accepted.
The problem with Esperanto is that the masculine gender is assumed, whereas the feminine gender is something that is added onto a word. “Frato” means brother, but “fratino” means sister. To say “brothers and sisters” you can use the awkward construct “gefratoj”; however, much of the time people just use the masculine as a gender-neutral as it’s easier, and it’s intuitive to think that a word without a suffix is neutral. In this way, men are shown to be the “normal” sort of person, and women are shown to be secondary and additional to men.
There is a movement to correct this issue. In Riisma Esperanto, “frato” would mean “brother or sister”, “fratino” would mean sister, and “fratiĉo” would mean brother. I find this system much more intuitive as well as being less humiliating to use as a woman. It still leaves us with the problem that pretty much every word that is usually gendered comes from a root word that is masculine: “Viro” meaning “man”, “Onklo” meaning uncle, and so on. For some reason I shudder when I have to say the word for aunt – “onklino” – it just seems so ugly.
But, one step at a time, I suppose. For now I’m happy that the feminist version of Esperanto is fairly easy to use and pretty widely understood; certainly far more widely than the feminist version of any other language I can think of. Its one problem is that people who don’t know about it often misunderstand you. I call my partner my “koramiko”, for instance, which I consider gender-neutral, but which some would interpret as male. This once induced a person into a gender-panic: “Tabea is a woman, right? Right??“. But, it works, and I’m happy it exists. I believe that if any language has a chance to change and express gender equality, it’s Esperanto.
So, overall, despite its problems, I believe Esperanto can help us bring a greater degree of justice to the world. I think focusing on its problems is a way of dismissing it out of hand, perhaps out of a sense of guilt that you don’t want to spend energy on learning it. Instead, I encourage you to consider all that Esperanto could do for the world, and join its cause. It could change so much.
Thanks for reading.