Esperanto has been deemed an 'artificial language', although the correct term is 'planned language'. Esperanto was initiated by a man named Lazar Zamenhof, who lived in Bialystok, Poland. At the time, many ethnic groups resided in Bialystok, the primary groups being Russians, Germans, Poles, and Jews. They didn't get along very well as each group spoke their own language and could not easily understand the other. Zahmenof believed that if they could all speak one neutral language, then the groups would live happily together.
Zahmenof decided to devise a language that the whole world could easily speak. He began work on his language when he was only 15. He had a special gift for languages, and he studied Russian, Latin, Greek, German, French and, later on, English. For about a decade he continually tested his ideas, and when he finally felt that the basis of the language was ready, he began to send out his proposal for his 'international language'.
In 1887, Zahmenof, who was now approaching 30, published a small brochure under the pseudonym Dr Esperanto. He explained why this language was needed and provided his grammar rules which totalled 16, and a vocabulary of about 900 words. The brochure made its way to many different countries. The language, which was then called 'Dr Esperanto's International Language', was shortened to Esperanto, which, in Esperanto, means 'a person who hopes'.
The History of Esperanto
Many people wonder why Esperanto has not come to be a well-known language. It can be argued that there are many psychological reasons explaining the general dismissal of Esperanto, but there are several historical reasons for this as well.
Esperanto has suffered a somewhat troubled past. The first problems occurred when a number of the earliest speakers of the language wanted to drastically change it. However, a vote was held by the Esperanto Congress and their proposal was rejected. In response, they broke off from the main language and created their own variant called Ido; which, in Esperanto, means offspring. The Idists faced a problem, however: they kept changing the language so much that, after a time, they realised they could never master the language because it never stopped changing1. As a result, the number of people who could speak Ido has dwindled over time, and now there are practically no speakers of Ido today.
In the 1920s, it appeared that Zahmenof's dream was about to be realised. The Iranian delegation put forward to the League of Nations that Esperanto should be used for international relations. Unfortunately, the French representative didn't like the idea, and he viciously attacked the language. French, he felt, was already the international language, or, at least, the international language of diplomacy.
In Nazi Germany, the Esperantists faced persecution from Hitler, who had mocked Esperanto in Mein Kampf, claiming that Esperanto was 'the language of spies'. He later had large numbers of Esperantists killed.
Common Misconceptions about Esperanto
If Esperanto ever comes into widespread use, it will be the only language spoken.
Not true. Esperanto was intended to be learned as a second language, not a language to replace everybody's mother tongue2.
Nobody speaks Esperanto today.
Every year, the Universala Kongreso or Universal Congress convenes to discuss matters related to Esperanto. In fact, in 1987 in Warsaw, Poland, nearly 6,000 Esperantists came out to celebrate the language's 100th anniversary. Although the number of Esperanto speakers in the world is not known, it has been estimated that it's somewhere between 1 million and 5 million.
No well-known person has ever endorsed Esperanto.
JRR Tolkien3 is one of many well-known people who have taken a serious look at the language, and even strongly endorsed its use. In addition, William Shatner of Star Trek fame played a leading role in the movie Incubus, spoken completely in Esperanto.
Any language designed for international use must be difficult.
In fact, it is perhaps the easiest language to learn in the world.
There's no literature in Esperanto.
There are numerous translations of well-known books available in Esperanto, and several types of Esperanto magazines, such as Monato and Literatura Foiro. Many works by Shakespeare have been translated into Esperanto and are easily found on the Internet. In addition, there are many original works written by Esperantists worldwide.
Because Esperanto was devised by one man, it's not a real language.
This is two misconceptions in one. First of all, how does one define a 'real' language? Languages are created to fulfil a purpose. National languages evolved so that people would have a common medium in which to speak to each other, and the same is true for Esperanto. Secondly, Zahmenof did not create the entire language himself. True, he laid the basic groundwork for the language, established the grammatical rules, and put forth some basic vocabulary. However, he left it up to the community of users to decide what new words to add and what changes had to be made.
Esperanto has not faded away, but it has not achieved the success it deserves. If everybody studied Esperanto for a period of about a year to a year and a half, the world would be a better place. Wherever people went, they wouldn't have to worry about speaking the national language of the country they visited, they could simply begin to speak in the international language that everybody has in common, and would be understood immediately. It would be a world where everybody could understand everybody else, the starting point from which all our differences could be resolved. The ability to talk to one another is the very basis of the better world envisioned by such notables as the Dalai Lama, Gene Roddenberry, and our very own Douglas Adams.