Review: Esperanto and Its Rivals – The Struggle for an International Language, by Roberto Garvía

In this well-written and fascinating short book, Roberto Garvía focusses almost entirely on Esperanto’s rivals among the other “international auxiliary languages”. There are two of these that matter Volapük and Ido, both long-forgotten except by language enthusiasts. The former was a very successful forerunner of Esperanto which was killed off by the authoritarian and proprietary approach of its inventor. The latter was an attempt by some very clever people to create a “perfect” version of Esperanto without caring very much whether anyone actually spoke it.

Meanwhile, Esperanto and its creator, Ludwig Zamenhof, come off very well in this story. Zamenhof was keen on creating a community of people who understood the language and who could create new content in it. He also had a democratic approach to the language, allowing its speakers to make decisions about its future. By the mid-1920s the language was widely spoken with many prominent individuals among its advocates. But it had some powerful enemies including Hitler (who thought it to be a “Jewish” language), Stalin (who felt threatened by Soviet Esperantists who were connected to the outside world), and the French Republic, which effectively blocked the League of Nations from even considering the language, even though many countries were willing to give it a try.

A wonderful story, but a sad one as well, for as Garvía points out, Esperanto would suit the European Union quite well and in many ways is far better suited to be an international language than its most important rival, English.