Most of us have probably heard of Esperanto. But what actually is it? And what are Esperanto and other planned languages actually used for? A hunt for clues.

Definition

Planned languages are languages which have been artificially constructed. So far so good. In contrast to natural languages – German, English, Wolof or whatever – these languages are conceptualised on paper and haven’t developed naturally in the last (couple of million) years. But yet they aren’t so that different from the natural languages. In many cases, one or more natural languages form the basis of a planned language. The easiest aspects are selected from the natural languages – bye bye, grammar! – and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a planned language. Well, ok…of course it’s not as easy as that.

The aim of these artificial languages is to make international communication easier. Planned languages should be easy to learn – for everybody. This means that anybody should be able to learn the new language quickly and then be able to communicate using it, all around the world.

Fun Fact: Artificially created languages in literature, such as Sindarin or Quenya from the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien, are also often described as planned languages.

Today, alongside around 500 real planned languages (according to the Austrian National Library), there are also countless semi-planned languages, which haven’t yet been fully developed or are in the planning stage.

History of planned languages

The first planned language is said to be Solresol, which was developed in 1817 by Frenchman François Sudre. Solresol is based on the notes of an octave, i.e. on music! We can only speculate as to how that might work. The grammar of the language is quite complicated and for this reason has never really caught on – in comparison, English might be an easier alternative after all.

Another planned language with a funny name: Volapük. Here, German, English, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian are mixed together. But Volapük never really took off either, even if it did find a few speakers. The language was too complicated, was still in its infancy and wasn’t widespread enough for it to be used as a means of communication.

The breakthrough for planned languages came at last in 1887 thanks to the ophthalmologist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof. He combined a couple of European languages with a few rules et volià:

Esperanto

Consistent, simple, clear grammatical rules – Esperanto experienced a boom within just a few months. The influences of many different, primarily European languages are clearly recognisable. The fixed stem words can be inflected, extended and specified by means of agglutination of various suffixes. Here are two example sentences:

Ĉiuj homoj estas denaske liberaj kaj egalaj laŭ digno kaj rajtoj. Ili posedas racion kaj konsciencon, kaj devus konduti unu al la alia en spirito de frateco.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1

Easy, right? Well, ok… it requires a little bit of learning too. Simply ask in your friendly, local bookshop for an Esperanto book. Esperanto is one of the most widely spoken planned languages in the world, with several conventions every year and speakers estimated to be in the five to six-digit range. Are you (going to be) one of them?