Universal language – a utopia?

Poster: World Congress of Esperanto 1906
Poster for the second World Congress of Esperanto in Geneva, 1906, by R. De Coninck
Sammlung für Plansprachen der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek

Universal language – a utopia?

Dreams of the redundancy of translation

The unhappiness of the disunity of mankind can never be felt so strongly as by a Jew out of the Ghetto who is obligated to pray to God in a long‑dead language, and who receives his education and instruction in the language of a people who oppress him, and who has co‑sufferers throughout the world with whom he cannot inter‑communicate.

Ludwik Zamenhof, Erfinder der Plansprache Esperanto

The universal language was an idea that had already occurred to the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the 17th century – as a system of characters with which objects and their relations, laws, etc. can be communicated. Against the backdrop of the varied international interdependences of today, the search for an international language is on once again and is receiving new impulses through the use of universally understandable forms, pictograms and symbols. The first widespread constructed language in practical use was Volapük, which was invented by a German catholic priest in 1880. Its most popular successor was Esperanto, which was published seven years later by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof. The aim of this, the only fully developed constructed language in the world, is to bring people together beyond linguistic and cultural barriers. It is estimated that several hundred thousand people speak Esperanto on a regular basis and that it is the native language of a few thousand. The Chinese government issues news daily in Esperanto as part of its foreign information service.

Constructed languages have so far not been introduced by any state organisation as a lingua franca, although they have been recognised as a suitable form of international communication, such as Esperanto in UNESCO resolutions from 1954 and 1985. In real-life everyday communication, English has long since taken its place as the universally spoken world language. Irrespective of this fact, automatic universal translators such as those appearing in the popular science fiction series Star Trek remain a central dream scenario as a symbol of the triumph of civilisation over the Babylonian confusion of tongues.