“There are around 100,000 people who speak Esperanto fluently”


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Interview with Roberto Garvía, UC3M professor

Profesor del departamento de Ciencias Sociales de la UC3M

Roberto Garvía

Roberto Garvía is a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at UC3M. He has a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Sociology. His research focuses on economic sociology and the sociology of organizations, in addition to matters about languages and society. He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, Yale and the Max Planck Institute. He has been published in scientific journals of international renown, and for two years (2008-2010) was the Prince of Asturias Visiting Professor at Georgetown University, in the United States. He has just published his latest book, which features artificial languages: Esperanto and Its Rivals (Penn University Press, 2015).


Which were the rivals of Esperanto?

In the final decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, there were many proposals for artificial languages, but only three gave rise to social movements: Volapük, Esperanto and Ido.

Why were these artificial languages born?

This was the era of the first globalization, which demanded a lingua franca that facilitated international communication. There were three languages that competed to become that language: English (predominant in trade), French (well-established in international relations) and German (the language of science). As no government was willing to cede this privilege to the speakers of the other languages, some thought that the solution was an artificial language: neutral and more rational or easier to learn. The idea was that, in the same way nations had managed to agree on international standards (for example, for timetables or weights and measures), an international agreement could be reached in choosing an artificial language.

Who promoted them?

The people who promoted these languages were not linguists. Most linguists believed in the Romantic myth (false, but widespread nonetheless) that languages are something like the soul of a people, a unique way each nation has of seeing the world, which led them to think that an artificial language, with neither soul nor a nation behind it, was absurd. That’s why the promoters of the languages were mostly curious people: polyglots, people in linguistics and not afraid of being ridiculed.

Are there statistics about how many people eventually spoke these artificial languages?

In the period between the two world wars, the “neutral” Esperanto movement had around 20,000 members. The non-neutral, or socialist Esperanto had around 10,000. The numbers of Volapük (invented before Esperanto) and Ido (a reformed Esperanto) speakers are much lower. Currently, and according to the most reliable estimates, there are around 100,000 people who speak Esperanto fluently—but at this juncture, Esperanto has been greatly “naturalized,” with its inconsistencies, irregularities, etc.

What thesis does your book defend?

The book studies these artificial languages as technologies of communication and shows the importance of organizational strategies compared to random processes. There is a literature in economic history which tries to explain why one technology triumphs over its competitor. Basically, this theory points out that there is a path-dependent process that makes people choose technology A instead of technology B, when those before them have also chosen the former thinking that it is going to be the winning technology. This process reaches a tipping point where technology A irreversibly displaces technology B. This happened in the battle between BETA and VHS videos… but there are many other examples. What I point out in the book is that these processes are not random when the process begins, but are determined by the organizational strategies of the promoters of the competing technologies. Put simply, there are better and worse strategies which initially tips the balance in favour of A instead of B.

What are the best organizational strategies?

Organizational strategies are the plans carried forward to beat the competitor. There are no fixed criteria to identify what the best strategy is, because it depends on the sector and the potential users. In the battle of artificial languages, of course, it was not a good strategy to continuously reform the language to improve it as much as possible, as did the advocates of Ido. It is difficult to win a standardization battle if the product itself is not standardized. It wasn’t a good idea, either, to replicate the model of the pastor and his flock, which the inventor of Volapük did. Its authoritarianism caused internal schisms which blocked the emergence of a community of speakers.

What were the keys for Esperanto to win?

Esperanto won because the person who started it had political experience and knew the importance of giving voice to and creating a community of speakers. Intuitively, he knew he was involved in a standardization battle whose importance laid not in the relative quality of the product (which it is difficult to measure or compare) but in creating a solid base of users.


Many factors influence these processes, don’t they?

The subject of artificial languages in the period that I have studied is fascinating. It lets you study the emergence of scientific disciplines like anthropology and linguistics; matters of political science, like the use of something with so much symbolic power like language; subjects of innovation and the spread of new technologies; and the viability of transnational social movements.

Is English the new Esperanto?

Esperanto displaced Volapük and Ido, but not English, which won the battle to become a global language. In the era that I study, Esperanto was a quite diverse and colourful movement, although it had a strong pacifist and universalist component. That was a problem, because it put into question the link between language and a nation. If a language capable of existing independently from a nation was developed, many might think that that link was an artifice and that national languages were nothing more than political instruments used in competition between countries. The nationalism of the era wasn’t interested in having the king be seen naked, so it opted to damage and spurn Esperanto to favour national languages. Of course, in the end, the language with the most political and economic power behind it, i.e. English, prevailed.

Can these results be extrapolated to other fields? Are there definite keys able to explain why one technology prevails over another?

I am very cautious about this point. This research is a case study that, by definition, cannot be extrapolated. Case studies serve to develop ideas, concepts and models that afterwards can be used in other studies. What this study suggests is that, in a battle of standardization, the probabilities of winning don’t depend neither on chance nor on the quality of the product. More important are the strategies employed to create a wide base of users as soon as possible.

Do these cases still happen now?

Given the pace of technological innovation, we can find many standardization battles. For example, we have a contest about the batteries for electric cars, or the basic components of quantum computers.


Profesor del departamento de Ciencias Sociales de la UC3M