Recently I’ve been learning Esperanto. Esperanto is a man-made, consciously planned language that has no geographical region associated with it, nor a collected populace, and because of this it can rightly be seen as an unusual choice to learn as far as languages go. The usual reasons for learning a language generally don’t apply with Esperanto.
Esperanto is not in any sense necessary for travel and the number of Esperanto speakers is also comparatively few, ranging up to around 2 million depending on whose figures you believe.1 It’s also the case that most speakers probably don’t have anyone to speak with outside of the Internet, occasional Esperanto conferences and written correspondence, and there are relatively few Esperanto learning courses in local communities. To the conventional language learner weighing the pros and cons of several languages before making a decision, Esperanto must seem a positively weird choice.
I think though that the types of people that Esperanto appeals to are also the kinds of people that must therefore have different selection criteria to what I’ve given above, or else they too would be learning a language with a seemingly greater practical utility. It’s been an observation of mine and others that there seems to be disproportionately many computer programmers, free-thinkers and people with left-leaning politics who learn Esperanto, and though I’ve also seen some of this disputed, I think there’s some truth in it. If it is true, then I can at least partially understand why it might be so, being that I would personally describe myself as having these three characteristics myself. The question of why such a trend might exist is probably directly related to the reasons people become interested in the language in the first place.
Computer programmers are generally thought of as the sort who are logical thinkers. Though I would argue that a great deal of programming relies on creativity (especially in the case of the exceptionally talented), one’s ability to fluently use the syntactic elements of a programming language, and their ability to exercise the finely-tuned logical reasoning necessary to express their thoughts programmatically, are certain to be correlated with their potential as a programmer. A person who can conceptualise an algorithm before committing it to a program, or who has a ready ability to learn and apply the rules governing the use of a new programming language, is bound to find programming easier than one who does not, and also I think more likely to enjoy it.
Esperanto is one of the most precise, rule-bound languages in existence. It lends itself very well to scientific writing for this reason because of its ability to be written unambiguously, unlike English and other natural languages where ambiguities often inexorably creep in. This logical nature is something that I recognise as having immediately appealed to me when I first read about Esperanto, and I suspect it was similarly appealing to other programmer-Esperantists, for whom computer programming, I expect, was appealing in-part for this same reason.
Next I mentioned free-thinkers. I don’t know if self-described free-thinkers are more likely to learn Esperanto or not, but I’d suggest that the reasons why a person is likely to become a free-thinker would also affect their disposition towards a great many other things, including their choice of languages if it causes them to more readily consider invented ones. This effect could perhaps be more readily seen with science rather than Esperanto – many people who describe themselves as free-thinkers are also keenly interested in science. I won’t offer any argument for which direction this relationship flows – though I could offer a guess – instead, I’d just say that such a person is more likely to appreciate rationality and reasoning itself, which are embodied more perhaps in Esperanto (whose grammatical structure is fully regular) than by any natural language.
I think that an inclination for reasoning is central to one’s likelihood to challenge their established beliefs (and accordingly to increase their likelihood of becoming a free-thinker), and also central to their likelihood to appreciate reasoning in other intellectual pursuits such as science and, in this case, Esperanto. I think it is actually a relatively plain observation that, simply speaking, people who have ‘analytical’ minds are more likely to enjoy analytical pursuits. I would offer one step further, however, on the subject of free-thinking Esperantists: it seems likely to me that a desire for rationally coherent beliefs (and therefore to have an inclination towards challenging biases and existing beliefs) offers a greater level of immunity towards the risk of dismissing Esperanto based purely on inherited opinion – but I’d add that I’d expect such an effect to be relatively minor.
The last factor I mentioned was left-leaning political opinions. This apparent statistical characteristic of Esperanto speakers is something I haven’t seen disputed, and related to this point, I also think that Esperantists have disproportionately many LGBT members, vegetarians, and various other progressive groups. Part of the reason for why this is is probably attributable to the humanitarian aims of Esperanto – to create a world of greater social cohesion through collectively sharing a neutral, equal second language. This goal is somewhat utopian, and it therefore seems no great surprise that it’d be found to appeal more to people with progressive opinions regarding politics and world affairs.
I don’t think that’s is the whole story, however; I think politically progressive persons are also simply more likely to want to use Esperanto for the kinds of things that it’s good at (i.e., travelling and meeting people from other cultures) – but the biggest factor I believe in this case is the minor factor I mentioned previously: those individuals who are progressive, by definition, do not simply accept the status quo. A progressive is a person who holds novel opinions, whether for good reason or bad, and so the fact that Esperanto isn’t spoken by huge numbers of people may not deter them as much as it might usually do so for others.
I think then that to a degree it’s inevitable that Esperanto will continue to attract the kinds of people it traditionally has done, regardless of how small its community. But also, this in the reverse is the reason why I would not particularly proselytise the practical virtues of Esperanto – any proselytisation of this sort is unlikely to be particularly efficacious, except only to those few for whom Esperanto would already be naturally appealing. To those people, a simple discussion of Esperanto’s character would suffice, yet this idea contradicts the many posts on the Internet giving rather involved reasons why the reader should learn it. I doubt these will prove to decisively sway anyone – it’s the nature of the language and the reader themselves that will determine if Esperanto is compelling, regardless of whether a rational argument is given concerning its benefits. People don’t learn a language on the basis of rational argumentation, they learn it on the basis of whether they like it or not.
According to Donald J. Harlow (1998), “It is difficult to say, since a global census is impossible. The canonical figure is two million people. Various (simplified) models based on what data is available (sales of texts and literary works in the language, representation on the internet, representation in the World Wide Web, etc.) indicate that this figure has at least ballpark accuracy. Other quoted figures range from ten thousand (from incorrigible opponents of Esperanto) to thirty or forty million (from inveterate enthusiasts for the language).” ↩