"...languages don't live because they meet a list of specifications. They live because they are used and loved and worked with and treasured; they live because they are associated with a culture."
-- Suzette Haden Elgin, creator of Láadan
All the man really wanted was to use the strength of his life and mind to enrich peace, love and understanding on Earth. Growing up on the borders of the Russian Empire, he saw people of different races, ethnicities and languages constantly fighting and quarreling with each other. And, not having Douglas Adams around to convince him otherwise, Zamenhof believed that people would go a long way toward understanding and caring for each other if they just spoke a common language. So he made one up. His textbook on the tongue he referred to as "Lingvo internacia" was published pseudonymously under the name Doktoro Esperanto (Dr. Hopeful) -- and the name "Esperanto" stuck as the name for the newly-created language.
Sadly, the language itself has consistently, spectacularly failed to stick. While it is considered to be the most successful of the constructed auxiliary languages, only the tiniest sliver of humanity -- an estimated .03% of the world's population -- speaks the language Zamenhof created over a century ago. (Estimates about how many Esperanto speakers there really are fluctuate wildly, depending on who is doing the estimating and what constitutes "language fluency" in each individual estimate; various parties have thrown around numbers between 10,000 and 2 million, the latter of which seems more "hopeful" than accurate.) Although Esperanto was specifically designed to be easy to learn and read, especially for native speakers of European languages, not a single country on Earth has adopted it as a secondary language for official use.
Now here's another constructed language to consider. Like Esperanto, this language was purpose-built by a linguist, but that's where the similarities end. It has an extremely small official lexicon of around 3000 words. It was designed to be difficult to learn, difficult to pronounce, with deliberately byzantine grammar and syntax. The overall sound of the spoken word is harsh, guttural and off-putting -- like someone trying to gargle a hairball, if not an entire cat. Less than 50 people on earth can speak the language fluently. Yet public knowledge of and interest in this puzzling language far outstrips public interest in Zamenhof's elegantly-constructed work. It is tlhIngan Hol, aka Klingon, the language of the warrior aliens in the Star Trek series.
What is it about these two languages that inspires such public interest, or lack thereof? Why do people mostly yawn at Esperanto and, well, "geek out" over Klingon? I suspect there are a couple of factors in play.
For one thing, people don't cherish what is easily come by. You'll know this instinctively if you're a parent and have ever accidentally backed over a bicycle in the driveway -- you know, the one you finally bought for your kid after months of enduring her endless begging. Since she paid nothing for the bike, she had no impetus to take care of it once the novelty wore off. Human nature is such that when we obtain things easily, we tend to mentally denigrate them as worthless or unimportant. Esperanto, as it's designed to be easy to learn, suffers from this setback. The flip side of this way of thinking is that the more challenging something is to obtain, the more it is valued -- regardless of its actual worth. You can see some of this mentality among Klingon speakers; they're proud of their ability to hold forth in an impractical, esoteric (and I might add ugly) language, precisely because it's hard to do.
But there's another reason, one that I believe is even more compelling, why Esperanto doesn't get the enthusiastic following that Klingon does. For all that Esperanto makes theoretical sense, for all its ease of learning and regularity of grammar and syntax, it has the same problem experienced by nearly all auxiliary languages: it was created in a void.
Why do people want to learn French? It's not because they're enamored of the guttural R pronunciation, the use of the word "on," the multiple silent letters, or the way certain plural nouns end in -x. It's because French, like every other natural, living human language, is attached to a deeply accreted culture. French is the language of love, of writing, of cooking, of fine art and architecture, of travel and opera. It has a history that stretches back thousands of years. It is the language not only of the people of France, but of multiple other countries in Europe, Africa, North America and Polynesia, all of whom have made their unique contributions to the culture. When you learn French, you are not merely learning another way to express yourself -- you are entering a new world and a new way of thinking, not only about another culture, but about your own.
Can you find me a native Esperanto recipe? Any Esperanto-style music, costumes or traditional dances? Has an Esperanto-language film ever been nominated for an Oscar? Is there an Esperanto religious belief? This is what I mean when I say Esperanto was created in a void. It is well represented in the literary field -- there are a number of books, poems and periodicals originally written and published in Esperanto -- but in the century since it was introduced, it has not accreted a defining culture or many traditions (other than a tendency to celebrate Zamenhof's birthday, language geekery and a general desire for world peace). In other words, the language has very little romance to it -- not much to draw in the curious other than the basic lure of novelty, which quickly wears off.
Klingon, on the other hand, has oodles of romance. It may not be beautiful, but there is a kind of visceral strength and rhythm to its barked, guttural phrases. The Klingons have their own fierce culture -- their own history, taboos, manners, martial arts, religious beliefs, messianic forbear (Kahless), food and wine, even their own opera. In the nearly 30 years since the language was first created, Klingon has a distinctive, recognizable culture -- because it was designed to have one right from the outset. And that's what draws people in. Although Klingon is a constructed language like Esperanto, learning Klingon is closer kin to learning French, in that you are receiving not only a means of expression but access to a different culture along with it.
And maybe that's where Zamenhof really went wrong. If he'd wanted to fuel public interest in Esperanto, maybe he should have first put it into the mouths of high elves, marvelous aliens or barbarian warriors who would use it with literary gusto. In other words, instead of creating a language to unify the world, he might have tried creating a unified world around his language.
Estas nur ion por pripensi.