Ranto Appendix – C

TIMELINE

A potted history of the constructed international auxiliary language movement.

1800s:
In the nineteenth century, inventing a whole new language was a task that required a combination of genius and fanaticism even to produce something mediocre, but plenty of people tried: broadly comparable schemes earlier than Zamenhof's included Communications­sprache (1839), Lengua Universal (1852), Pantos‐dîmou‐glossa (1858), Universalglot (1868), Volapük (1879), Weltsprache (1883), Néo‐Latine (1885), Pasilingua (1885), Langue Universelle (1886), and Spelin (1886).
1859:
L. L. Zamenhof born in Białystok; raised speaking fluent Russian (and/or Belorussian), Yiddish (and/or German), and later mainly Polish.
1861:
Emancipation of the Russian serfs by Tsar Alexander II.
1870s:
Concept of the phoneme developed by Polish linguists; unfortunately none of them ever happen to pop into Dr Zamenhof's place for an eye test.
1880s:
World population reaching 1.5 billion.  By this stage there is already an established global auxiliary language movement holding international conventions – it may be a noble cause, but Zamenhof didn't create it, and may even be the main reason for its failure.
1887:
Zamenhof publishes Unua Libro = “First Book” (in Russian, then French, German, and Polish) which opens with the claim “My whole grammar can be learned perfectly in one hour” and includes a pledge that people could take: “I, the undersigned, promise to learn the international language, proposed by Dr. Esperanto, if it shall be shown that ten million similar promises have been publicly given.”  In other words, Zamenhof's idea of a plausible first step was to get one human being in every 150 on board.
1888:
A translation “for Englishmen” is issued which is so bad that it is rapidly suppressed; a replacement is published the following year.
1890s:
The auxiliary language movement abandons Volapük in favour of Esperanto as an obviously superior design.  However, it also becomes obvious that any number of things could be done to improve on Esperanto – even Zamenhof himself agrees with this sentiment and offers a list of possible reforms.  Others claim that allowing changes would fragment the movement (and that this would be bad).
1900s:
Zamenhof increasingly loses interest in Esperantism, instead publishing his ideas for a new neutral global religion.
1905:
The first World Esperanto Congress votes through the Declaration of Boulogne: “The only single, perpetually obligatory foundation of the language Esperanto for all Esperantists is the work, ‘Fundamento de Esperanto’, to which no one has the right to make changes”.
1907:
Ido schism; reformists defect to set up their own even less successful movement.
1911:
The Encyclopædia Britannica entry for Esperanto (written by famous linguist Henry Sweet) describes its design as “jarring and repulsive”, as well as “hopelessly antiquated even from the narrow point of view which regards ‘international’ as synonymous with ‘European’”.
1915:
Responding to criticisms of the broken root‐classes system, Esperantist René de Saussure (younger brother of famous linguist Ferdinand de Saussure) devises a workaround.  His ideas for follow‐up reforms lead to his expulsion from the movement.
1917:
Death of Zamenhof.  Meanwhile in the alternate timeline where the movement splintered into a thousand rival schemes, the result is decades of chaos – after which (for all we know) one design emerges as the clear winner, and goes on by the end of the millennium to become the successful global lingua franca that Esperanto isn't.
1920s:
Esperanto propaganda already claims millions of speakers.  If these figures were all reliable it would imply that the movement has been mostly losing ground for the past century; but odds are it just means that modern Esperantists are less enthusiastic exaggerators.
1930s:
Hitler and (later) Stalin ban Esperanto as an international conspiracy and persecute its speakers.  Mao on the other hand ends up supporting it.
1949:
Famous polyglot and Esperantist Mario Pei claims it has at least six to eight million speakers (“although some estimates would place it at considerably higher figures”).  You'd think this would mean at least as many names on that pledge by now, but it's never mentioned, quite possibly because it's an embarrassingly short list of dead people.
1950s:
By this time, advances in linguistics mean that devising a language requires only a combination of expertise and hard work to produce something passable, so Esperanto has an increasing number of technically superior rivals, none of which have any real hope of growing in its shadow.
1954:
First public demonstration of a very primitive machine translation system.
1957:
Publication of Cresswell and Hartley's “Teach Yourself Esperanto”.
1959:
The world's population reaches three billion, which is twice what it was in 1887; Esperanto would only need to continue to appeal to a consistent proportion of the public to give the impression of a spectacular rate of growth.  Instead estimates continue to be similar random numbers in the low millions.
1960s:
With Stalin dead, Esperanto becomes (relatively) popular with inter­nationalists in communist Eastern Europe, where it has the advantage of not being the language of the USA.
1967:
The “ita–ata schism”, a language‐design controversy caused by uncertainty about the correct handling of Esperanto passive participles, is resolved by means of political manoeuvring.
1973:
A famous estimate by French Esperantist Pierre Janton claims “two to seven million” speakers.
1980s:
Significant advances in machine translation, though it's notoriously low‐quality and not available to the general public.
1981:
The population of the world has now tripled since 1887; lots more people are going to join the movement real soon now due to USENET newsgroups (say the Esperantists on newsgroups).
1990:
A famous estimate by Esperantist Sidney Culbert gives the total number of speakers as two million – but that's rounding up from 1.6 million, itself almost certainly a gross overestimate.  Counts by non‐Esperantists tend to be a digit or so shorter.
1999:
The population of the world has quadrupled since 1887; a membership surge is imminent due to the World Wide Web (say the Esperantists' web pages).
2000s:
Extracting semantics from arbitrary text strings becomes big business; machine translation rapidly goes from “laughably useless” to just “amusingly unreliable”.
2010s:
By now more or less any language enthusiast with access to Internet resources is in a position to design and disseminate a constructed international auxiliary language scheme as good as Zamenhof's without getting out of bed.
2014:
Much publicised appearance of a website reviving that old pledge with new celebrity endorsements.  Yes, that's an archive.org link.
2017:
The population of the world has quintupled since 1887; ten million signatures would mean just one human being in every 750.
2020s:
Even if the UN turned into a World State and declared Esperanto a compulsory subject in all primary schools, it would still be decades before you could reasonably expect it to start being reliably useful for communicating with random foreigners.  By which time, you'd probably be better off leaving the language problem to your translator app.