Claude Piron
Psychological Reactions to EsperantoPsychological 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

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:

(a) Denial. 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, 1980).

Even a linguist considering precisely the kind of communication daily realised

through Esperanto approaches the question as if that experience had never


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.

(b) Projection. 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


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

to hand):

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 Ú 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.

(c) Rationalisation. 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.

(d) Isolation. Isolation is the name given to the act of separating something

from its context and making unrelated judgements about it. When someone says, of


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 Ú 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 function?


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