Greg Kay decided to raise his son Linken, 10, to speak Esperanto as his native tongue. When Greg was younger, he traveled around South Korea, biking between Esperanto-speaking homes.

Stina Sieg/KJZZ


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Greg Kay decided to raise his son Linken, 10, to speak Esperanto as his native tongue. When Greg was younger, he traveled around South Korea, biking between Esperanto-speaking homes.

Stina Sieg/KJZZ

In his Tucson, Ariz., backyard, 10-year-old Linken Kay throws a ball for his dog, Harley.

The dog speaks only English. But Linken was raised speaking another language.

“Li ŝatas salti en la naĝejo por preni la pilkon,” Linken says.

What’s that, now?

“I said, um, he was going to jump in to get the ball,” Linken explains. “And he likes to jump in and get the ball.”

Linken is a rarity: He’s a native speaker of Esperanto.

More than hundred years ago, a Polish physician and inventor had an ambitious idea: Create a language that anyone could learn easily. The hope was to promote world peace through a universal tongue.

It took several decades, but eventually L.L. Zamenhof designed Esperanto.

Although the language hasn’t become as popular as Zamenhof hoped — or brought world peace — it’s estimated that anywhere between 200,000 and 2 million people speak the language worldwide. Devotees say Esperantists exist all over the globe, with especially large pockets in Europe, as well as China, Japan and Brazil.

In their Tuscon home, Linken and Greg Kay have shelves full of books in Esperanto, including these picture books.

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In their Tuscon home, Linken and Greg Kay have shelves full of books in Esperanto, including these picture books.

Stina Sieg/KJZZ

The popular language-learning platform Duolingo is even about to issue an Esperanto app.

But there are only about 1,000 native speakers, like Linken. Esperanto was his first language — and still the main one he uses with his dad, Greg Kay.

Greg fell for Esperanto when he was his late 20s and going to school in Japan.

“Having lived abroad, I realize that the language barrier is a significant barrier, and can create many misunderstandings,” Greg explains.

He used Esperanto while traveling when he was younger, bicycling between Esperanto-speaking homes in Korea. He used a free hospitality network, called Pasporta Servo, which lists Esperanto speakers willing to open their homes to fellow Esperantists. Pasporta Servo still exists today.

“Thanks to Esperanto, I’ve met many people that I would have just passed by otherwise — many fascinating people,” Greg says.

Esperanto creates a kind of “level playing field,” because it’s a second language for almost everyone who speaks it, says Humphrey Tonkin, an English professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He taught himself Esperanto at age 14, and then used it to travel across Eastern Europe and beyond.

“The result is that you’re kind of lifted out of your own cultural limitations,” Tonkin says. “And you’re really in an authentically international environment.”

That was the hope of Esperanto’s founder, Zamenhof. He wanted to bridge differences between people, especially religious differences, Tonkin says. Zamenhof was Jewish, and many of Esperanto’s earliest adopters were also Jewish. They connected with this new language that emphasized equality, Tonkin says.

So many years later, the language has grown far beyond Europe’s Jewish community, but hasn’t taken off as Zamenhof envisioned. When Zamenhof died in 1917, Tonkin says he was “deeply disillusioned.”

It’s hard to know what it is about Esperanto that has kept it from blossoming, but Tonkin calls it a language of “low prestige,” one that’s still a bit hard to explain to those who’ve never learned it.

“When I say that I speak Esperanto, they say, ‘What do you do that for?’ since I appear to be a perfectly normal person in every other respect,” he says. “Or they say, ‘I heard about that once. That died, didn’t it?’ “

Not only has it not died, but Tonkin thinks it might actually be growing, though he says it’s hard to gauge an accurate number of speakers.

Even if Esperanto’s reach is static, the language has survived against some steep odds. The rise of English could have easily killed it off, Tonkin says. Or it could have faded away during both world wars, when its speakers were persecuted. But Esperanto kept going, and Tokin thinks idealism probably had a good part in it.

At this point, learning it is kind of, “dare I use the word — a utopian thing?” Tonkin says — especially since the world is full of problems.

“That’s all the more reason for hanging on to those things that will make the world a better place,” he says. “We just need to get together better, and maybe Esperanto is one of the ways we can do it.”

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10 تعليقات

  1. Esperanto isn't actually that universal. It's very European, using a Latin alphabet, grammar and syntax from romance languages, etc. Its going to be very easy for a Spanish or English or German speaker to pick up, for example. Probably a bit less easy for someone speaking a language on the idno side of indo European, like a hindi speaker, and then progressively harder as you get further and further away from the languages' core influences. Im bilingual between languages from two totally unrelated language families (Indo European and dravidian) – and Esperanto is a lot closer to the former than the latter. I dont know if its even possible to make a language universal between disparate language families.

  2. > Esperanto creates a kind of "level playing field," because it's a second language for almost everyone who speaks it, says Humphrey Tonkin.

    It doesn't. It is entirely based on European and Western culture. Language have huge influent on thought process, and it seems that thought process needed for Esperanto is a Western-centric.

  3. The value proposition of Esperanto never made sense to me. If the goal were merely to get everybody speaking the same language to achieve world peace, then the efforts of pragmatists would go towards teaching more people English, since that language is the closest to the finish line. Of course that would be contentious in some political philosophies, it doesn't surprise me that some people drawn to the 'universal language for world peace' idea find the promotion of English unacceptable. However it seems to me these people are relinquishing any hope for success in order to remain principled.

  4. When I tried it just for a few days, I was surprised how easy it was to learn. It was much easier to learn than English. On the other hand so many people already know English vocabulary that just having regular spelling and simple grammar could work. Mark Twain already suggested it:

    "A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling: For example, in Year
    1 that useless letter 'c' would be dropped to be replased either by
    'k' or 's', and likewise 'x' would no longer be part of the
    alphabet. The only kase in which 'c' would be retained would be the
    'ch' formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform
    'w' spelling, so that 'which' and 'one' would take the same konsonant,
    wile Year 3 might well abolish 'y' replasing it with 'i' and Iear 4
    might fiks the 'g/j' anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the
    improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with
    useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and
    the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud
    fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez 'c', 'y' and 'x'
    — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais
    'ch', 'sh', and 'th' rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov
    orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt
    xe Ingliy-spiking werld."

  5. Comeback? Has it ever been more than a niche curiosity?

    It's more like translation tools will make a comeback. Already have.

    They've gotten so good, you don't even need to learn a new language to learn something that's only available in English (or other languages).

    Incidentally, this was a major reason I learned English. There was so much more information available back in the early 00's that I just had to do it.

    Romanian Internet was… abysmal. Thankfully, I knew Russian, and their Internet activity was far better. Lots of information and software. But that paled in comparison to the English Internet.

    At the moment, I find the Chinese Internet very active and interesting, even though translation is pretty poor and sadly, the language is very difficult. Plus, I don't have a real incentive to learn it.

    I don't know what part of the culture makes people write and share information, but some countries definitely have less of this activity. Perhaps it's just raw numbers, more people = more content.

    With Google Translate and the like, it has become much easier to access all of it, any kind of information, the best content.

  6. Esperanto is like the "Soylent" of languages. Some folks like the idea of it, some might even use it, but no one _actually_ likes esperanto (OK, except the 1000 "native" speakers the article refers to).

    There's something profoundly unappealing in a hard-to-define subjective sense about engineering a language for humans to communicate with.

    There's plenty of languages in existence that already "just work". What's wrong with English, Spanish and French? One could argue that English has already taken on the role that Esperanto was supposed to have. In the colonial past that might have been French or Spanish. In the distant future an Asian language could become a lingua franca? Or perhaps more radically, effective machine translation could render such efforts unnecessary?

    Yes, there's annoying things about real languages. There's inconsistent grammar in English, "Passe Compose" tense in French, one could list hundreds of pain points for every language. But none of these things actually prevent someone from the practical usage of a language and being conversant in the language. Why do we need to make-up another language with iron-clad consistency? It's just not necessary.

  7. For me, what I love most about Esperanto is its unabashed affirmative optimism. The name itself means “one who hopes.” For me it’s a microcosm of competing epistemologies in society.

    I’ll be a little casual with definitions here, but if we adopt a rationalist / positivist view of the world, Esperanto is a straightforward solution to a problem. Zamenhof despaired at his multi-ethnic neighbors killing each other. He hypothesized that could be remedied if people were able to speak to each other on equal language footing. It’s not a bad hypothesis. It’s easy to hate “those people” but hard to hate the person whose face you’ve looked into and tried to understand.

    We can snipe at Esperanto and apply critical theories of how Esperanto falls short in crucial ways. Those critiques are largely valid! Esperanto is to euro-centric. Esperanto draws too much from romance languages. The need for Esperanto has been supplanted by the global dominance of English. The language was designed by an amateur. Synthetic languages are indulgent in the face the extinction of natural languages.

    But I think a lot of the criticisms miss the fact that, around this simpleton, inadequate language designed by an amateur, has coalesced a community infused with something of the “let’s build” optimism that gave rise to the language in the first place.

    If I look at society spanning from academia to pop culture right now, we have a hegemony of rhetorically sophisticated criticism. I wouldn’t want to lose the moderating effect of that critique and blunder into starry-eyed utopianism, but I do worry that the volume of critique to “we can do it” optimism is out of balance.

    The world needs more Zamenhofs.

  8. "Esperanto Is Not Dead: Can The Universal Language Make A Comeback?"

    I'm not trying to be that guy but, looking at the title for this piece I'm thinking: Esperanto is dead and, it is not a universal language.

    "… Humphrey Tonkin, an English professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He taught himself Esperanto at age 14, and then used it to travel across Eastern Europe and beyond."

    I feel like this needs some clarification.

  9. I learned Esperanto because it was geeky and super easy to learn, and now I use it almost every day. I've made friends all over the world via the language, and can find people wherever I am to hang out and chat with. It's awesome. In fact, 6 weeks ago I moved from the UK to Spain and so far I've spent about 80% of my time using only Esperanto, with a combination of broken English and Spanish the rest of the time. I wrote a post a while back (that did pretty well here on HN) summing up why I love the language: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18688619

    Mi lernis Esperanton pro la nerdeco kaj pro tio, ke ĝi estas tre facile lernebla kaj amuza. 3 jarojn poste kaj mi uzas la lingvon ĉiutage kun amikoj de la tuta mondo. Kie ajn mi troviĝas, preskaŭ ĉiam mi povas trovi amikon (saluton!) kaj vagadi, babili, kaj nur Esperantumi kune. Fakte, antaŭ 6 semajnoj mi transloĝiĝis al hispanio kaj ĝis nun Esperanton mi uzis 80% de la tempo, kaj miksaĵon de la angla kaj mia rompita hispana krom Esperanto la ceteran. Jen artikolo, kiun mi skribis (anglalingve) por klarigi tial, kial mi tre ĝuas la lingvon: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18688619

  10. Learning/speaking Toki Pona has all the fun of Esperanto with none of the costs. Seriously enjoyable.

    And, of course, English is the de facto lingua franca.

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