Psychological Reactions to Esperanto
The following paper
by Claude Piron first appeared in the French-language series Documents
sur l'espéranto in the mid-1980s. The present translation
by William Auld was published in the English-language
series in 1995.
1. Differing Reactions
2. Defence Mechanisms
3. Underlying Anxiety
4. Conclusion: The Function of Psychological
1. Differing reactions
To a psychologist investigating reactions to the word "Esperanto" two facts
are immediately apparent: a high percentage of those invited to give their
opinion have a great deal to say about it; and they regard as self-evident, and
in many cases cite without prompting, various statements which are contrary to
verifiable reality, for example: "no one has ever written a novel straight into
Esperanto", "Esperanto is a language no one speaks", "there are no children who
have it as the mother tongue", etc. Such convictions are well illustrated by a
reader's letter in Time magazine from Peter Wells of Singapore:
Esperanto has no cultural history, no indigenous literature and no
monolinguals or even first-language speakers. (Wells, 1987).
In addition, many of those questioned display every sign of emotional
involvement. Some react enthusiastically, fervently. But the majority are
patronising towards Esperanto, as though it were obviously childish. The person
concerned makes it clear that Esperanto is not to be taken seriously, and his
tone is disdainful, ironic or humourously condescending towards the "simple
souls" who take it up.
If, in order to get a control reaction for comparison, the researcher asks
the subject to give his or her opinion about Bulgarian or Indonesian in the same
way, he gets quite a different response. The subject takes about a minute to
recount in a perfectly neutral tone of voice everything he has to say about
them, usually that he knows nothing.
The contrast is astonishing. It is seen to be all the more remarkable when
his knowledge is tested by precise questions about literature, geographical
distribution, subtlety of expression, etc. At once it becomes apparent that the
subject's impressions about Esperanto are almost wholly erroneous, much more so
than the tiny scraps of knowledge he can drag up concerning the control
languages. Why is he aware of his incompetence in the one case and not in the
Presumably languages such as Bulgarian and Indonesian are seen as belonging
to the realm of facts, while Esperanto is felt to be a proposal. Facts are bowed
down to. Faced with a proposal, it is felt necessary to give a yes or a no and
then defend that point of view. But why is Esperanto not seen as belonging to
the realm of facts? And why does the reaction, so frequently, become so
emotional? This involvement of the emotional range is not restricted to
individual conversations, as witness the following quotation taken from an
article on the teaching of Latin, an article otherwise expressed in a neutral
and informative tone:
Gloire donc au latin, et à bas l'espéranto, mixture aux relents
d'artifice et aux espérances déçues! (G.P., 1985).
(Long live Latin, then, and down with Esperanto, that hotchpotch stinking of
artificiality and hopes betrayed!)
That sentence, unrelated to the remainder of the text, seems like an
emotional eruption unexpectedly boiling up out of who knows what kind of depths.
Why should this be?
2. Defence mechanisms
Analysed, the kind of statements about Esperanto or the wider field of
international communication which can easily be obtained by inviting people to
speak freely on the subject, or are put forward at official meetings devoted to
this question, are found to be characterised by the action of the so-called
"defence mechanisms". This is the name given to tactics unconsciously organised
to avoid facing up to a reality felt to be threatening (Freud, Anna, 1937). Here
are some examples:
Esperanto is treated as non-existent in situations where
it would be logical to take it into account. For example the volume Le
Langage in the encyclopedic series La Pléiade (Martinet, 1968) which,
in 1525 pages dealing with everything from slang and pidgin to translation and
aphasia, contains no mention, not even a single paragraph, of the amazing
phenomenon that a language known to only one person a hundred years ago is in
use today in over a hundred countries. Similarly, the experience built up of
Esperanto as a conference language is considerable; in 1986 there wasn't a
single day during which there wasn't, somewhere in the world, a congress, a
meeting or an international conference, at which Esperanto was the working
language (a list appeared in Heroldo de Esperanto of 20th March 1986).
When the UN, for example, is making a detailed analysis of the problems
encountered in linguistic communication, it would be reasonable to consider this
experience, if only to reject it, after examination, on explicit grounds. But
this is not what happens. (King et al, 1977; Allen et al, 1980; Piron,
Even a linguist considering precisely the kind of communication daily
realised through Esperanto approaches the question as if that experience had
While economists are exercised in creating a Eurodollar, why should we not
try for a Eurolanguage too? (Lord, 1974, p. 40).
An industrialist's first reaction when confronted by a production problem is
to consider all the solutions applied elsewhere, in order to find out, before
looking for a new way out, whether there isn't a system somewhere that would
suit him. This way of going about things, so natural in daily life, is
practically never adopted where international communication is concerned. We are
in fact faced here with a denial of reality, in the psychological sense.
The fact of attributing to someone else psychic
elements to be found in ourselves is known as projection. A good example is
provided by the sentence:
Efforts to devise universal languages which could be adopted without
prejudice and learned without trouble - languages like Esperanto - represent a
noble intent combined with an essential ignorance of what language is and how it
works. (Laird, 1957, p. 236).
Esperanto satisfies all the criteria linguistically accepted for defining a
language (Martinet, 1967, p. 20). When an author, without checking and without
basing his opinion on factual arguments, starts from the principle that this is
untrue, is he not the very ignoramus he facilely sees others as? [On "how it
works", see the article "L'esperanto, una lingua che funziona" by the Italian
linguist Alessandro Bausani (1981)].
Traits making it out to be some kind of monstrous mutation are frequently
attributed to Esperanto. This is how an American language teacher describes such
a language (the text is a translation of a translation, as the original is not
A language, like love and the soul, is something that is human and alive,
however difficult it is to define: it is a natural product of the spirit of an
entire race, not of a single individual Artificial languages are repulsive and
grotesque, like people with a metal arm or leg, or with a pacemaker attached to
their heart. Dr Zamenhof, like Dr Frankenstein, created a monster out of living
bits and pieces, and, as Mary Shelley tried to tell us, nothing good can come
out of that. (Arbaiza, 1975, p. 183).
Or, without justification, Esperanto is said to be
orienté vers la suppression graduelle des traditions (Accontini,
1984, p. 5).
(orientated towards a gradual suppression of traditions).
Such judgements are activated by unconscious fears and imaginings which are
projected on to the language: instead of being studied as a linguistic,
literary, social or psychological reality, it is treated like some kind of dream
figure motivated by malicious intentions, with no perception of how delirious,
in the psychiatric meaning of the word, such an attitude is.
Irrational viewpoints are justified by means of
abundant convincing arguments. In other words, as in the classic paranoid speech
pattern, the intellectual arguments are strictly logical. Only the lack of a
basis in reality betrays its essential fantasy.
For example, to Esperanto is attributed an Indo-European inflected analytical
character, which is explained by the fact that Zamenhof, so they say, only knew
Indo-European languages. But none of these assertions was checked. In actual
- An important place among Esperanto's traits is occupied by its multicultural
substratum, in which the Asiatic and Hungarian contributions have
played no small part (literary activity in the Esperanto language
between the two world wars developed to a great extent in a Hungarian
ambience, the so-called Budapest School; Hungarian is not Indo-European).
- Zamenhof knew a non-Indo-European language well: Hebrew, and his creation
bears its stamp; for example, the semantic field of the morpheme
_ig has an exact equivalent, among the languages he knew,
only in the Hebrew hif'il (Piron, 1984, p. 26).
- Esperanto acts agglutinatively, not inflectionally. Statements in it can as
easily be synthetic as analytic - it is just as acceptable to
say mi biciklos urben as mi iros al la urbo per biciklo;
textual research shows that synthetic forms are very frequent
- and if it is true that phonetically and lexically it is Indo-European,
it assuredly is not so structurally: no Indo-European language
consists, as it does, of strictly unalterable morphemes.
Isolation is the name given to the act of separating
something from its context and making unrelated judgements about it. When
someone says, of languages:
Il arrive aussi qu'il en naisse, mais jamais du néant: l'espéranto est un
échec (Malherbe, 1983, p. 368).
(It happens, too, that languages are born, but never out of nothing:
Esperanto is a fiasco,
he is isolating the international language from its context, historical as
well as linguistic. In fact, Esperanto's place is in a long chain of experiments
and meditations extending over several centuries. In Zamenhof's work its genesis
was gradual, in many respects similar to linguistic evolution, just as the
genesis of an embryo evokes that of the species; its gradual development is
worth studying (Waringhien, 1959, pp. 19-49). On the other hand, the morphemes
of which it consists have their roots in other languages; they are not elements
"created out of nothing".
Esperanto was no more born out of nothing than was the Creole of Haiti. A
language appears in response to a need. Among the slaves of various races in the
Caribbean whose languages were reciprocally incomprehensible, there was a need
to communicate with each other; out of this need was born a colourful language
based largely on that of their white owners but structurally quite different. In
the same way, between 1880 and 1910 a part of the world's population was longing
to make contacts abroad and thirsted after a widening of cultural horizons, but
found language learning impossible in their circumstances. These people seized
on Zamenhof's project, and by using it transformed it into a fully living
language. Neither Creole nor Esperanto was born from nothing; they were born of
the same socio-psychological force: the desire to converse.
Now let us look at the following text:
Allez prendre un oiseau, un cygne de notre lac par exemple, déplumez-le
complètement, arrachez-lui les yeux, substituez à son bec plat celui du vautour
ou de l'aigle, greffez sur les moignons de ses pattes les échasses d'une
cigogne, mettez dans ses orbites la prunelle du hibou (...); ensuite, inscrivez
sur vos bannières, répandez et criez ces mots: "Ceci est l'oiseau universel", et
vous vous ferez une petite idée de la sensation de glacement qu'a produit sur
nous cette terri-fiante boucherie, cette vivisection nauséabonde, qu'on n'a
cessé de nous prôner sous le nom d'espéranto ou langue universelle.
(Cingria, pp. 1-2).
[Take a bird, perhaps one of our lake swans, pluck it completely, gouge out
its eyes, replace its flat beak with a vulture's or an eagle's, graft on to its
leg-stumps the feet of a stork, stuff an owl's eyeballs into the sockets (...);
now indite your banners, propagate and shout the following words: "Behold the
universal bird", and you will get a slight idea of the icy feeling created in us
by that terrible butchery, that most sickening vivisection, increasingly offered
to us under the name of Esperanto or universal language.]
Setting aside the picturesque (and ornithological) aspect of that quotation,
and the words which reveal the extent of emotional reaction ("terrible
butchery", "most sickening vivisection"), only two criticisms remain:
a) Esperanto results from human intervention in something living;
b) it is a heterogeneous language.
The above author's conclusion is rational only on three conditions:
- that language is a living being, like an animal;
- that human intervention in something living is invariably deleterious;
- that a heterogeneous language is unsuitable for communication.
Mesmerised by his nightmarish vision, the author isolates his vision from
such considerations. He fails to see that likening a language to a living entity
is no more than a metaphor that mustn't be taken too far. The bird he mentions
would have suffered, terribly, but when Dutch spelling was reformed in the
forties the language didn't cry out or need an anaesthetic.
Secondly, man often intervenes in living things with excellent results.
Famine would be much more dramatic in India if new types of grain had not been
successfully produced thanks to man's wholly conscious intervention in nature.
And neither dogs nor roses nor bread would exist if man had not intentionally
applied his talents to living things.
Thirdly, if heterogeneity were damning, English could not function
satisfactorily. Linguistic analysis shows it to be more heterogeneous than
When we come to a language like English, we find ourselves dealing with
several languages rolled into one. (Lord, 1974, p. 73).
Esperanto is more homogeneous because its laws governing the elements
absorbed from other sources are stricter. What defines the heterogeneity of
something assembled is not the diversity of origin of the ingredients, but some
lack of harmony together with the lack of an assimilating nucleus (as everyone
knows who has tried to prepare mayonnaise).
3. Underlying anxiety
The function of the defence mechanisms is to protect the ego from anxiety.
Their appearance whenever Esperanto is mentioned means that deep in the psyche
the language is felt to be threatening.
a) Avoiding change in the status quo.
In some respects psychological
resistance to Esperanto can be compared with the opposition encountered by the
ideas of Christopher Columbus and Galileo: a stable, well-ordered world found
itself overturned by the new theories, which deprived humanity of its
millennially firm foundation. In the same way, Esperanto is seen as troublesome
in a world where every people has its own language, and where this tool is
passed on en masse from one's ancestors and no individual is entitled to violate
it. It demonstrates that a language is not necessarily the gift of past
centuries, but may result from simple convention. Taking as its criterion of
correctness not conformity with authority, but effectiveness of communication,
it changes the way of interrelating: where previously there was a vertical axis,
it replaces it with a horizontal axis. Thus it attacks many profound matters on
which light is not accustomed to be thrown. For example, what happens to the
language hierarchy because of it? Irish Gaelic, Dutch, French and English are
not seen as equal in people's minds or in many official texts. If people of
different languages used Esperanto to communicate with one another, this
hierarchy would lose its basis.
b) Language as a cared value and a sign of identity.
A language is
not just an external social phenomenon. It is woven into our personality. "I
absorbed Catalan with my mother's milk", said one person questioned in the
course of the research on which this analysis is based.
Our concepts carry an emotional charge which linguistics ignores but which is
vital to our conduct. The sentimental nucleus of the concept "language" is sited
in the relationship with the mother, which is presumably why many ethnic tongues
speak of the family language as the "mother" tongue. Between the baby who can
only express its unhappiness by crying, and often gets an unsuitable or
unhelpful response, and the three-year-old infant who uses words to explain what
has happened, an enormous change has taken place, which to the infant seems
We were too young when we learned to talk to be aware that it was just an
everyday learning process that was taking place. It seemed to us a kind of
magical gift, a divine toy. Previously we couldn't explain anything, and here,
we know not why, we find ourselves in possession of a talisman that fulfils all
kinds of miracles and enriches to an unprecedented extent the thing without
which life would be impossible: personal relationships.
The need to feel understood is one of a child's basic requirements. Well,
without language what would remain? Parental attitudes, followed by the lengthy
influence of the school, which presents the language as something unassailable
and the key to all literary treasures, only strengthens the sentimental nucleus.
To assert in this context that a language "made up" by someone seen as a
contemporary - Esperanto is generally confused with Zamenhof's project - can
function as well as one's native tongue is an insult to the latter, is to take
away the status as a magical talisman that it always retains in the depths of
the psyche even if at a conscious level we look on it more rationally. It is an
intolerable sacrilege. It's presumably to avoid such desecration that some
Esperanto speakers, by a quite understandable psychological transference, say
that Zamenhof's work is by itself inexplicable and is to be attributed to
inspiration from on high, superhuman.
In fact, when the psychological reactions evoked by the word "Esperanto" are
examined, one can only be amazed at the number of people unable to tolerate the
idea that this language could be, in some respects, better than their native
tongue. This reaction comes from a tendency to equate a language with the
person: my language is my people, my language is me; if my language is inferior
my people is inferior, and I am inferior. By declaring Esperanto a priori
worthless, and pronouncing this judgement as self-evident, one is saved. This
artifice is profoundly human and perfectly understandable, but not acceptable
from a scientific point of view.
c) Various fears.
When reactions to Esperanto are examined by means
of clinical discourse, all kinds of underlying fears are revealed, which cannot
be discussed in detail. I shall simply limit myself to seven:
I. Fear of risk. Since no official body, no prestigious institution,
has acknowleged Esperanto's value, to come out in favour of it is to adopt a
stance that is distanced from the one which appears to be official. It's less
risky to regurgitate what everyone else says, which seems to be in line with the
attitude of those in authority and the intellectual elite.
II. Fear of direct contacts. There is something reassuring about
communicating by means of translation or a language too imperfectly understood
to enable a direct exchange of ideas in detail and with subtlety. Meeting, in
conditions of perfectly untrammelled communication, with attitudes radically
different from our own, can be a shocking and dangerously confusing experience.
This fear is justified, because Esperanto exists in our midst at a level closer
to spontaneous expression than other languages. A young Japanese who went round
the world meeting at every stage local Esperanto speakers tells us how shocked
he was by these straight dialogues with people who, just because they were being
themselves and were able to say so, altered the ethnic perspective of the
world-view (Deguti, 1973).
III. Fear of infantile regression. "Simple" is confused with
"over-simple" or "childish", which gives rise to the notion that Esperanto
cannot be used to express really adult thoughts at the highest level of
abstraction. Thus the factor of "simplicity" is isolated from its complement -
which totally modifies the situation - i.e. unlimited possibilities of
combination. For example, the ending _a, which signifies an adjective in
Esperanto, is much simpler than the many French suffixes fulfilling the same
role, but it frequently makes exact expression possible, whereas many French
nouns do not have an adjectival form, e.g. insécurité (English
insecure, Esperanto nesekura), fait (English
factual, Esperanto fakta), Etats-Unis (Spanish
estadounidense, Esperanto usona, which Esperanto differentiates
from amerika kaj nordamerika), or pays (besides
nacia, "of the nation", Esperanto has landa, "of the country"),
and so on.
IV. Fear of transparency. It is imagined that Esperanto would endow
thought with an intolerable clarity:
L'élément affectif si important dans le langage trouve difficilement sa
place dans cette langue où tout est explicite, cette langue "plus précise que la
pensée". (Burney, 1966, p. 94).
(It is difficult to see a place for the affective aspect, so important in
language, in that clear language in which everything is explicit, that language
"more exact than thought".)
It is in fact just as possible to be inexact in Esperanto as in any other
language, even if it is often easier to speak clearly in Zamenhof's tongue.
V. Fear of inferiority in connection with facility. A more
complicated solution to a problem is felt to be worth more than a simple one.
Choosing the difficult one satisfies some kind of wish to dominate which
provides a reassuring and comforting feeling of one's own importance.
VI. Fear of heterogeneity. This is a special form of the condition
known classically as "fragmentation anxiety". Because it is easy for man to
identify with a language, Esperanto encourages projection on to it of emotions
connected with the whole of the personality. Now, this is felt at the
unconscious level to be a fragile structure made up of separate
self-contradictory elements continually in danger of falling apart. As a symbol
of something insufficiently strong, being constructed of too disparate elements,
Esperanto is frightening.
VII. Fear of lowering standards and destruction. Esperanto is
perceived as a road-roller whose passing squashes everything to death,
flattening out all cultural differences. In this way, psychic elements belonging
either to what Freud called the death-wish or to the unconscious affective
nucleus called "automaton" by Charles Baudouin are projected on to Zamenhof's
language. (Baudouin, 1950, pp. 225-229).
4.Conclusion: the function of psychological resistance
The reason for the emotional reactions noted at the start of this study is
now becoming clearer: the person concerned is afraid. He is terrified of the
idea that the sacred treasure that shines with a fairy beauty in the depths of
his psyche, which nothing is allowed to surpass: the mother tongue, symbol of
his identity, might be torn away or damaged. Like a bird in a room, which,
panic-stricken, doesn't stop beating itself against the windowpane and doesn't
see the open door nearby, he lacks the serenity necessary for a quiet look at
what, after all, Esperanto is, that appears to defile the very concept of a
language. He is caught up in a vicious circle: to stop being frightened he would
have to look at the reality straight on, but to do that he must first stop being
This kind of reaction, illogical but typical in human psychology, doesn't
happen without the intervention of political and social factors blown up and
spread by the mass media, but which cannot be analysed here (I have dealt with
them elsewhere, vd. Piron, 1986, pp. 22-28 and 34-36). They suggest a subliminal
influence comparable with those of advertising and political propaganda, based
on involuntary misinformation that has been reproducing itself automatically for
a century now. There is no other way of explaining why it is that children and
adolescents almost never show the a priori negative reaction easily found in
adults, although all the psychological elements triggering defence mechanisms in
the latter are present in the former as well.
Manipulated by his unconscious fears, twentieth-century man doesn't see that
before passing judgement on Esperanto it is necessary to take cognisance of a
number of facts. This may be regrettable. But from a historic point of view it
can be seen that these reactions have had a positive effect. The instant general
acceptance of the language embryo put together by Zamenhof would have subjected
it to stresses from which it would not have emerged alive. At that stage it was
too delicate, too incomplete. It needed quite a long lifetime in a limited but
multicultural environment for the necessary adjustments to be brought about, for
semantic areas to be defined, for weaknesses to be corrected naturally, through
On the other hand, linguistic relationships are always relationships of the
strong towards the weak. The idea of replacing these by egalitarian
relationships affording the same status to the smallest and weakest language as
to those of the economic and cultural giants has been too shocking for humanity
to be able to adjust unscathedly and quickly to it. Transformations in the
general thought patterns require gradual assimilation.
From a century of challenges, of political and intellectual attacks,
Esperanto has emerged remarkably strong, flexible, refined. It is characterised
by a firmly stamped personality, as vigorous as French was in Rabelais' day.
This fact is still denied by most people, but always a priori. When a
writer bases himself on the examination of documents or observation of Esperanto
in practical use, he acknowledges its enormous vitality. While the social and
psychological resistance to Esperanto has been very strong for a long time,
nowadays it seems to be more and more breathless and relinquishing its
triumphant superiority. Is this not simply because it has ceased to fulfil a
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