Esperanto Is Not Dead: Can The Universal Language Make A Comeback? : Goats and Soda A hundred years ago, a Polish physician created a language that anyone could learn easily. The hope was to bring the world closer together. Today Esperanto speakers say it's helpful during travel.

Esperanto Is Not Dead: Can The Universal Language Make A Comeback?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

WILLIAM SHATNER: (As Marc) (Speaking Esperanto).


That is William Shatner in the 1966 horror movie "Incubus." He's speaking Esperanto. You may have never heard of it, but Esperanto was supposed to be a universal language. Over a hundred years ago, some dreamers invented Esperanto in hopes of creating world peace. Unless this is the first time you've turned on NPR, you know that hasn't happened. But there are still some diehard Esperantists out there. Stina Sieg of member station KJZZ in Phoenix paid some a visit.

STINA SIEG: Ten-year-old Linken Kay is throwing a ball for his dog around his backyard pool in Tucson, Ariz.


SIEG: Harley only knows English, but Linken was raised speaking like this.

LINKEN: (Speaking Esperanto).

SIEG: What's that now?

LINKEN: I said that he was going to jump in to get the ball, and he likes to jump in and get the ball.

SIEG: Lincoln is a rarity, even within the Esperanto community. It's estimated that anywhere between 200,000 and 2 million people speak the language worldwide. But there are only about a thousand native speakers, like Linken. Esperanto was his first language and still the main one he uses with his dad, Greg Kay.

GREG KAY: Having lived abroad, I realized that the language barrier is a significant barrier and can create many misunderstandings.

SIEG: Greg used the language while traveling when he was younger. In fact, the free hospitality network he used then still exists. It's called Pasporta Servo and it lists Esperanto speakers willing to open their homes to fellow Esperantists.

KAY: Thanks to Esperanto, I've met many people that I would've just passed by otherwise - many fascinating people.

HUMPHREY TONKIN: (Speaking Esperanto).

SIEG: Humphrey Tonkin is a professor of humanities at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He's also been an Esperanto speaker since he was 14, when he taught himself. He says Esperanto creates a kind of level playing field because it's a second language for almost everyone who speaks it.

TONKIN: The result is that you're kind of lifted out of your own cultural limitations. And you're really in an authentically international environment.

SIEG: And maybe that's what's kept Esperanto alive, even though the rise of English could've killed it off. Tonkin says it also could've faded away during both World Wars when its speakers were persecuted. Instead, he thinks the language is actually growing, though he says it's incredible hard to gauge. He admits that at this point, learning Esperanto is kind of...

TONKIN: ...Dare I use the word - a kind of utopian thing.

SIEG: Especially since the world is full of problems, he says, many of them getting worse.

TONKIN: But that's all the more reason for hanging on to those things that will make the world a better place. We just need to get together better and maybe Esperanto is one of the ways we can do it.

KAY: (Speaking Esperanto).

LINKEN: (Speaking Esperanto).

KAY: (Speaking Esperanto).

SIEG: Back in Tucson, Greg and Linken Kay aren't talking about world peace, but the baby birds living in a nest outside their house. Greg jokes that when Esperanto is made the official language of the U.N., raising his son this way will be validated. More seriously, though, he says he has no regrets about giving Linken the gift of this language.

KAY: Again, a language that perhaps is not going to give you any sort of monetary reward in the future.

SIEG: It's a different kind of reward.

KAY: It's a different kind of reward, exactly. And oftentimes, a much richer reward.

SIEG: And one that Linken might share with his kid someday. For NPR News, (speaking Esperanto) Stina Sieg.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.