Invented Languages Could Dominate the World — So Why Don’t They?

Constructed languages (“conlangs”) like Esperanto have been around for a long time, but human nature keeps them from prospering

Of all the constructed languages (or “conlangs”, as they’re known to, well, nerds) that exist or have existed, Esperanto is definitely the granda fromaĝo (big cheese). Invented in the late 19th century by Polish linguist L. L. Zamenhof, it differs greatly from other well-known invented languages like Tolkien’s Elvish and Na’vi of Avatar fame in that it was designed for one rather extraordinary purpose: to be used. By merging lexical and grammatical components from various Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, Zamenhof aimed to make Esperanto accessible to everyone (well, everyone who speaks a major European language, anyway), with the ultimate goal of establishing it as a lingua franca, smashing language barriers the world over. That didn’t happen.

You could choose from a wide range of ideological and practical reasons to resist the idea of any “universal language.” But linguistic diversity creates significant problems in the everyday lives of migrant workers and refugees, blocking their access to employment and housing, and even making it extremely difficult for them to navigate legal systems in their host countries. Immigrant children often face considerable challenges in education as they may need to dedicate additional time and effort to learning the local language in order to “catch up” with their non-immigrant peers. All these issues and more would be resolved by the existence of a universal language, ideally one constructed to be as easy to learn as possible (as I’ve commented before, the notion of an “easy” language is inherently faulty, but there are certainly some characteristics of a language which pose fewer difficulties for learners than others, for example little to no exceptions within grammatical rules and a consistent writing system — two traits which English does not have, and Esperanto does).

As many as ten million people worldwide have undertaken the task of learning Zamenhof’s creation. But these speakers are mainly hobbyists — they may use it at the annual World Esperanto Congress and other smaller conventions, but you will not find anyone speaking it in the EU parliament, nor flipping through their Esperanto phrasebook while trying to ask for directions in a foreign country. There are, however, a small number of people who speak Esperanto in their private lives. George Soros — yes, the billionaire — was raised by a professional Esperantist and taught the conlang from birth, alongside Hungarian. There is also the author of the blog “Stela ĉiam nur kritikas” (“Stela is always just criticising”), whose parents both worked as Esperanto teachers and, being of different nationalities, decided to make it their daughter’s mother tongue. As Stela explains in a Wikitongues video, she continues to use the conlang on a daily basis, talking with friends and even making podcasts using Esperanto.

Examples like these prove that conlangs have the potential to thrive as living languages, not just pet projects. With enough persistence and enthusiasm, anyone could teach any artificial language to their child — just ask D’Armond Speers, a computational linguist who made the bold decision to speak Klingon (the language of the eponymous species from Star Trek) to his son from birth. As Speers recounted in an interview with comedian Stephen Fry, this “experiment” showed him just how adaptable we are in the early stages of language acquisition. Since Klingon is lacking in some very basic domestic vocabulary, Speers was compelled to innovate the language to relate to his environment — for instance, while testing his son’s vocabulary, he once combined the pre-existing Klingon words for drinking and vessel in order to make bottle. Amazingly, the infant crawled over to his bottle without any hints. The boy’s interest in learning the language waned quickly, however; after the age of three, he only responded to his father in English, and the venture was abandoned soon afterwards. Speers believes it was simply a question of practicality — from his son’s perspective, there was no point in learning a language he couldn’t use in the context of the wider world.

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Hebrew graffiti in Mandatory Palestine, 1931 (Public domain / Wikimedia Commons)

It’s therefore obvious that no community — or individual — can make a language part of their daily routine without a clear purpose. Although not a conlang, Hebrew wasn’t spoken natively by anyone for more than a millennium, surviving only as the liturgical language of Judaism from the fifth to the nineteenth century. Today, however, five million people speak it as their mother tongue. European Jews began migrating to what would later become Israel towards the end of the nineteenth century and, coming from various countries and linguistic communities, needed a lingua franca in order to be able to communicate among each other and with the Arabic- and Ladino-speaking Jewish populations that had already been living there. Hebrew, which was experiencing renewed interest due to the work of the lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was the key to crossing the linguistic divide, as the inhabitants both new and old had some knowledge of Hebrew from their religious upbringing.

To date, this is the only case of a dead language being successfully revived on such a massive scale. Nonetheless, there have been many comparable instances of linguae francae becoming the vernacular, through a process known as creolisation. A creole is what emerges when speakers of a pidgin — a hybrid of two or more languages established to facilitate communication between multiple linguistic groups — pass the pidgin along to their children. Pidgins and creoles have mainly come about as a result of colonialism, but can arise under any number of circumstances. German-American journalist Michael Scott Moore, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2012 and held captive for more than two years, wrote in his memoir that he and his fellow abductees concocted a pidgin from English, Chinese, Spanish and various other languages. While pidgins are typically simple in grammar and vocabulary, creoles can become much more elaborate and sophisticated, and some have even attained official status in the countries where they are spoken, such as Haitian Creole and Tok Pisin (in Papua New Guinea).

What emergent languages need in order to flourish, then, is necessity—necessity of the urgent kind. Humans are characteristically pig-headed in the face of proposed language change for any other reason. Though English spelling reform certainly seems necessary when you take into account the needless difficulties Anglophone children and ESL students encounter while learning to read and write, practically every attempt to simplify our orthography — and there have been several — has been ignored by the general population. A universal language is increasingly necessary in the age of globalisation, and while English, Mandarin, German and others battle it out for the title, it seems only right that a constructed language should prevail. If not Esperanto, then a new invention, designed according to the same model but incorporating the vocabulary and grammatical structures of a wider array of the world’s major languages. It probably won’t, though — not if Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which supposedly will make language as we know it obsolete, hits the market first.

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Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literary Studies in Belgium.

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