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ETCETERA / Design dinosaurs: 10 Esperanto

ESPERANTO is to languages what Eldorado was to television soap-operas: its central feature is a bland, catch-all universality. Which is a shame. For as a model of linguistic engineering, Dr Ludovic Zamenhof's designer language, published in Warsaw in 1887, was a triumph.

He was an oculist, not a philologist, but Zamenhof knew the stumbling blocks for language-learners: irregular verbs and endless words to remember. So his tongue had no irregularities, and its core vocabulary was based on familiar Latin roots and numbered just 2,000 or so words. These expanded to between 15,000 and 20,000 by the addition of suffixes or prefixes. There were no idioms, no ambiguities, no inconsistencies. This was a Lego language which anyone could assemble. He made spelling phonetic and claimed the 16 rules of grammar could be learnt in half an hour.

Zamenhof used his wife's fortune to publish, under the pseudonym Dr Esperanto (the 'hoping-one'). His language was to be the ending of Babel, the road to international brotherhood, peace, the new Eden.

What happened? Zamenhof's understanding of human motivations was not so neat as his linguistics. Most people learn a new language not by choice, but from sheer necessity: because they crave the business or the culture it opens up. By the late 19th century, English was already the major language of Western trade. There was something else, too. The movement which accompanied the campaign for the adoption of Esperanto had a whiff of cranky idealism. UNESCO recognised the language, but refused to adopt it officially. Today the Esperanto-Asocio de Britujo says world speakers number two million: one million is probably nearer the mark.

As for the world language of the future, today English has about 800 million speakers, Chinese about 1,000 million. English will eventually dominate simply because the politics and technology behind Western popular culture ensures its rapid transmission. For all its idioms and idiosyncrasies, English still has what Esperanto never had: a reason for learning it.-