Chapter Five: The Constructed Languages 

Over the centuries at least 200 attempts have been made to construct a language which consciously reflected this universalising tendency: endeavours which have successively marked the expansion of linguistic theory and political understanding. The movement reached its zenith before the First World War, but has since declined due to certain inherent limitations. Nevertheless, it has greatly advanced the cause by empirically demonstrating the theoretical possibility of consistent grammar, regular orthography and cultural neutrality within a single language - though the combination has not yet been fully realised in practice.

The languages which have been devised for this purpose may be divided into two types: "a priori" and "a posteriori". The former attempted to classify ideas and were unrelated to actual languages. These were pioneered by Wilkins in his "Universal Character" (1668), and by Leibnitz with his projected "characteristica universalis". A later example was "Ro": which had some success a century ago. However it is now generally accepted that any practical solution must be "a posteriori" i.e. drawing on existing tongues. Proponents of the latter prefer the adjective "constructed", since they argue that these languages are made from "organic" elements such as common word-roots.

The first truly successful "a posteriori" language was Volapük ("World Speech"), published by Schleyer, a polyglot German priest. Although 40% based on English, it was complicated by an array of grammatical rules, and an expanded range of vowels. A few years later, in 1887, Dr Ludwik Zamenhof, alias "Dr Esperanto", introduced a language which used fewer vowels and had a much simpler grammar than Volapük. (On the other hand it employed a greater number of consonants identified by diacritics.)

Zamenhof was born and brought up in Poland near the Russian border: a place of diverse ethnic groups divided by language. At home he spoke Russian and studied Latin, Greek, German and French. Hebrew was spoken at the synagogue. Somewhat later he encountered English at school. This may be significant because his "attempt towards an international language" contained several grammatical structures which English manages without: e.g. distinct transitive and intransitive verb forms, a reflexive, plural adjectives and an accusative case inflection (a transitive/intransitive distinction does exist in English - e.g. kill/die - but is exceptional; "-self" and "own" can be reflexive but are more usually emphatic).

Despite these, and other especial difficulties for certain nationalities, Esperanto entirely supplanted Volapük and went on to a far greater influence. In particular the humanitarian ("homaranismo") movement which Zamenhof explicitly associated with the language exactly caught the spirit of the times. Realising that a consciously internationalist language required an ethic to sustain its ideal, Zamenhof created a humanitarian morality, or set of principles, subsequently put it into practice in various ways, including through a culture of hospitable exchange. Although such schemes have probably benefited international relations, an unintended side-effect may have been to reinforce the cult of Zamenhof as linguistic genius - which has hindered a rational approach to the reform of Esperanto.

It wasn't long before Zamenhof began to receive extensive correspondence about his language. Amid the general praise he was also offered a number of suggestions as to how the language might be improved. Zamenhof wasn't opposed to revision in principle - indeed, he had deliberately waived copyright on his first edition - and a number of reform projects, including a complete rewrite of the language in 1894, duly followed. However, it seems that most respondents to these initiatives were content with the existing version of Esperanto - which Zamenhof himself clearly preferred, if only for temporary strategic reasons.

In spite of this endorsement of his original scheme, a few prominent supporters continued to be dissatisfied: so at the first Esperanto conference, at Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1905, certain items were voted upon, and the status quo was once again approved by a majority, if not unanimously. One of these items was an agreement that nobody, including Zamenhof himself, henceforth had the right to alter the basic grammar ("fundamento") of Esperanto until after it had been officially adopted as the international auxiliary language.

Since the near realisation of the latter was expected by many in those idealistic times, before the world was sundered by national, racial, class and religious conflict, Zamenhof had raised a hope ("Esperanto" = "one who hopes") which allowed the movement to progress rapidly for two or three decades. By the late 1920s Esperanto was a household name, 44 radio stations were putting out broadcasts in the language, and it was being taught in the commercial schools of London and Paris. It also had the support of the League of Nations.

The perception that the influence of Esperanto has declined since those days is not confined to the English-speaking world - where Esperanto never really took hold for obvious reasons. Esperanto was very much a product of its time: it displays a 19th Century belief in an objective "mechanistic" approach which runs counter to modern convictions about the organic process of language development. This is epitomised by the exclusive "auxiliary" role Zamenhof ascribed to his language. Although such a status may have made Esperanto more politically acceptable heretofore, it now prevents it from developing organically as a primary language.

Moreover, a letter from a member of "...the "Akademio de Esperanto" the organisation which indeed is responsible for the language itself" explains why the particular linguistic difficulties for some language groups remain unrevised: " one, repeat no one, now can possibly propose changes in Esperanto which would have the slightest effect on the use of the language all over the world." "We are constantly receiving proposals from old and new Esperantists for "improvements" to the language, any of which would have as much chance of success as trying to improve the English language - of which there have been many projects, all of which have been, and will always be, ineffective."

Thus the Esperanto Academy, while claiming responsibility for the language, declares itself unable to exert any influence - as though it could not use its authority to initiate steps towards fundamental revision. Orwell, who grimly satirised Esperanto as "Newspeak" in "1984", would have identified this as "doublethink". It is perhaps fitting that Esperanto has latterly found its greatest support in totalitarian states - last refuge of the personality cult. 

By mortgaging the future of Esperanto in this way, though with the best of intentions, Zamenhof created a double-bind which prevented the fundamental revisions that might have brought the popular success that would have ensured official endorsement - and subsequent adoption as the world auxiliary language. Another unfortunate effect was to provoke the formation of rivals, the first of which was the openly-derivative Ido ("Birthling"), published in 1907.

Other new constructed languages sought to build on Latin or Greek rather than the European tongues used by Esperanto. For example, Interlingua was based on Latin, and Interglossa on both Latin and Greek. It is noteworthy that some such artificial languages have an even simpler grammar than English - with no verb inflections and very few tenses.

That Esperanto remains pre-eminent among constructed languages, in spite of the many imitators that have set themselves up as rivals, is a tribute to Zamenhof's genius. There is no doubt that the best features of Esperanto, including the concepts of cultural neutrality, rationalised orthography, regularised grammar and global organisation, will live on; though not necessarily under that banner.

The aims of the Esperanto movement were recently endorsed by 183 British MPs in the "Esperanto Parliamentary Group". However, very few of the listed MPs actually speak much Esperanto, and neither do their constituents. Many have made an attempt but have found it too difficult (considering the relatively insignificant size of the world speech-community after a century). It is rather the idea of Esperanto which accounts for its appeal to these MPs: the notion of a "politically correct" international auxiliary language with a simplified and easy-to-learn grammar and orthography. Such is the importance of these populist political aspects that no international language which fails to heed them is likely to succeed.

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