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Esperanto Is the World's Universal Language

Sometimes it seems like we could solve a lot of problems in the world if only we could all communicate better. Maybe if there was some kind of international language, like "love," or "music," or, oh yeah, the actual international language: Esperanto.

Mi Ne Scias, Kion Ĉi Tio Diras

The story of Esperanto starts way back in 1887, in a part of Poland where residents spoke not one, not two, not three, but four different languages. Dr. Ludwik Lejzer ("L.L." to his friends) Zamenhof felt his neighbors would get along much better if they all shared a common language, but he worried that defaulting to an already existing language would make those who weren't native speakers second-class citizens. Thus, he set out to create a single language that would be easy to read, easy to speak, and most importantly, easy to learn.

That means that, unlike certain languages, Esperanto has no more than 16, count 'em, 16 rules, and none of those rules have any exceptions. Furthermore, it's entirely phonetic, meaning that every letter is always pronounced the same way, no matter what other letters surround it. Dr. Zamenhoff based his language on several languages in the Indo-European family, including English, German, French, and Spanish, and he named Esperanto after the word for "hope" to signify the role he thought it would play in bringing the world together. Well, we'll keep hoping for you, doc.

Ready for a lesson? Click the links for the pronunciation: "Hello" is "Saluton," "Goodbye" is "Ĝis la revido," and "Uno bieron, mi petas" is the all-important phrase "One beer, please." Some of those accents above the letters might look tricky, but the characters are really just sounds in and of themselves. The important thing to remember is that everything is always pronounced the same way, which is what makes Esperanto so easy to learn. According to some estimates, it only takes about 150 hours of study, compared to 1,500 for English or 1,000 for Italian.

By the way, that header up there? That's Esperanto for "I don't know what this means."

Esperanto in the Real World

We're going to go out on a limb and guess that you probably don't know anybody who speaks Esperanto, though. Sadly, Dr. Zamenhoff's vision of a language that crosses borders never came to fruition. That may be because language is more than a way to communicate — it's a way to experience another country, try new food, and learn about a new culture, all of which Esperanto has none. Still, among invented languages (you didn't think it was the only one, did you?) it's definitely the most successful. It's established itself in a few prominent ways that you might find surprising.

In 1966 (a few months before the original "Star Trek" debuted), William Shatner starred in "La Inkubo," a science fiction movie written entirely in Esperanto. He wasn't the only high-profile artist to work with the language, either. Leo Tolstoy spoke it fluently, and was even named honorary president of the Esperanto Vegetarian Association. Today, practitioners of the Baha'i faith are strongly encouraged to learn it, and here's another good reason to pick it up: no fewer than eight Nobel laureates are Esperantists. Guess a dream of world peace just goes hand-in-hand with doing great things.

Looking to add another language to your repertoire? Get started on the international language with David Richardson's "Esperanto." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Hear linguist Arika Okrent discuss Esperanto, Klingon, and other constructed languages on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the podcast using the player below, or find the episode everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunesStitcher, and Gretta.

Esperanto, The Universal Language

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 27, 2017