What is Esperanto? And why did it irritate George Orwell?

Polish linguist and pacifist, L.L. Zamenhof invented Esperanto ('hope) which he believed could be an international lingua franca or second language. Because it had no irregular verbs and phonetic spelling esperanto was a 'perfect' language. It also had no associations with a particular nationality or country.

George Orwell's aunt was an early proponent of Esperanto - see comments below. When he went to stay with her in Paris, she insisted on speaking this new language when he was hoping to practise his French. 

The political element of Esperanto particularly disturbed Orwell. The attempt to control and direct language was in his view a central feature of totalitarianism.

Newspeak - the language Orwell created for his dystopian novel, 1984, is clearly a variant on Esperanto.

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  1. The full story about Orwell's encounter is more interesting and complex. There is (and was) in fact more than one ideological school within the Esperanto movement. The mainstream "Zamenhofian" school strictly maintains a policy of neutrality in religious and political affairs, and has only ever sought for Esperanto to be used as a second language for all.

    Orwell had the (mis-)fortune to visit the leading light of a rather different school known as "Sennaciismo", "Non-Nationalism" which advocated the use of Esperanto to further revolutionary socialist objectives. Eugene Lanti was the husband of Orwell's aunt, and espoused a version of Sennaciismo that was controversial even within his own organisation, in that it regarded the ultimate elimination (or at least disappearance) of national languages (along with all other national differences) as desirable. It's hardly surprising that Orwell did not get on with him.

    1. Thanks very much for this interesting information. It mirrors Orwell's later experience with the International Brigades where he inadvertently stumbled into a tiny neo-Trotskyist militia and experienced first hand Stalinist terror tactics against left wing opponents. As you say it's not surprising that the zealous proselytising of his aunt and uncle left him with a jaundiced view of Esperanto

      I would still argue, however, that Orwell was not convinced by the idea of a universal second language. Though an avowed socialist, he was conservative - and occasionally intolerant - in his attitude to language and culture

    2. Eugene Adam, who used the assumed name Lanti, was not the husband of Orwell's aunt, Nellie Limouzin (real name Ellen Kate Limouzin), until well after the short period that he and Orwell (at the time still Eric Blair) were in direct contact in Paris in 1928. Lanti and Nellie were married in 1934, shortly before Lanti set off on the world tour from which he never returned.
      I also think that it is an exaggeration to say that Orwell hated Esperanto, I think he was exasperated by Lanti's insistence on the use of Esperanto which prevented the younger man from discovering what Lanti had learned, thought and knew.

    3. Thank you for this very interesting information. I take your point about 'hate' overstating Orwell's feelings about Esperanto and have modified the post title accordingly.

  2. Orwell was misguided. You can do anything in Esperanto you can do in any other language: preach a moving sermon, make a tub-thumping political speech, write scientific papers, read gossip and news on Libera Folio and in a host of periodicals, and react to other people’s views, sing folk-songs and hymns, perform in or watch a play, scold disobedient children. You can be honest, dishonest, devious, alarmingly frank. Esperanto is “infinitely functional”. Of course, there is messiness, and people make false starts and don’t always complete what they intend to say. What people say can be misunderstood as in any other language, but clarification can easily be sought and given. In other words, Esperanto is no more a brake on thought and ideas than national and ethnic languages are.

    1. This is totally true. I was only aware of Esperanto's influence on Newspeak in his book, but I only recently found out in a conversation that it was used to suppress thought. The subject came up when I explained how 'mal-' is used to create opposites, which apparently in the book is explained as a way of controlling thought.
      This couldn't be farther from the truth; Esperanto allows me to easily express MORE thoughts and ideas than are possible in English (at least without using mangled language). I am free to create words on the fly, and to modify words to suit my needs. I am constantly surprised by the creative words other Esperantists come up with.
      I can understand that being exposed to a crazy fanatikulo would lead one to a negative view of Esperanto, but some basic logical thinking invalidates most of the ideas he linked to his Newspeak.


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