Esperanto Doesn't Have A Culture (Don't Say It Does)

In a recent interview with for the Language Learning Gets Personal series on the Smart Language Learner blog, I mentioned that I have no use for constructed languages because they have no native culture. As per usual, anything I say about Esperanto seems to stir up controversy, and this example was certainly no exception.

One example can be found on the blog of my dear friend Agnieszka Gorońska, who makes the argument that because Esperanto has movies and books and songs, it must have a culture. (Ignoring the fact that most of the examples she gives are more of the typical Esperanto theme that I hate: the only way people use Esperanto seems to be for the purpose of discussing Esperanto.)

But for the purpose of whether or not Esperanto has a culture, let's first figure out what it would mean to have a culture:

What is culture?

Adamson Hoebel describes culture as an integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance. That's a pretty good start. And it already calls in to question the existence of an Esperanto culture.

But let's expand the idea. When we think of a culture, many things come to mind:

Certain cuisines can be easily attributed to certain cultures. It's easy to identify pierogi as Polish, döner as Turkish, pilaf as Uzbek, and sushi as Japanese. And what is currywurst if not inextricable from German culture?

Superstitions are also a key part of culture. Russians refuse to leave an empty bottle on a table, it must be removed. Americans "knock on wood" when they want to prevent bad fortune, and Italians touch metal (tocca ferro).

Clothing has very cultural significance. People everywhere recognize lederhosen as Germanic, berets as French, turbans as Sikh, saris as Indian, and kimonos as Japanese. The phrase "traditional Chinese clothing" conjures a specific image in your mind.

Different cultures also have different rules for social interaction. In certain cultures, it is considered rude to let someone see the bottom of your foot. In some cultures, making a circle with your thumb and forefinger means "okay", while in others it is a severe insult.

And almost every culture has its own rules about the significance of certain numbers. They even have different ways of counting money!

So what about Esperanto?

So what are some traditional Esperanto dishes? I know of no inherently Esperanto foods.

And garb? Other than indicating your Esperanto-ness to others by donning a green star, I am aware of no traditionally Esperanto attire.

Is there a customary Esperanto handshake? Is there any well-known Esperanto superstition? Are there any hand gestures that are known to be offensive only to Esperantists? I believe the answer to all of those questions is no.

When I google for "American culture", or "Italian culture", or "Russian culture", I find endless resources. Lists of traits that make a culture. And while some would argue that most of my criteria for culture are geographical, or political, it's not true. One can just as easily find most of these things true of "Jewish culture", or "gypsy culture", or "African-American culture."

However, when searching the web for examples of Esperanto culture, one only finds apologist texts, explaining that Esperanto culture is the antithesis of traditional culture. By that measure, Esperanto is a counterculture.

The only consistent "evidence" of culture anyone can provide is the amount of texts written in Esperanto. The only "cultural" symbol is the green star. The only behavior associated with Esperanto is the distaste for "crocodiling" — which refers to the act of speaking one's native language when amongst Esperantists. But all of these things are utilitarian. They're not tradition, they're done for a purpose, that usually being the purpose of evangelizing Esperanto.

I would argue that culture is not political, but rather is the product of history shared by a community. But unlike typical colocated communities, Esperantoland is dispersed, so there isn't enough interaction or shared experience to create culture. It's only after Esperanto communities start to form stable populations using Esperanto as a primary, or only, language that any culture will begin to form.

I'm not saying it can't happen, but I'm saying it hasn't yet. As far as I am concerned, Esperanto does not have a culture.

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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I don't believe that culture is related to language. It is more related to region or ethnic group. When I learn English ... Should I be learning about the culture of Australia, or Canada? Or from which region/regions of these countries? Or when learning Spanish ... you should learn the culture of which of the many countries whose main language is Spanish? Each of those countries have their own culture, not related to language. Some of the culture is related to religion. Some of the culture of Europe and all countries of America, are related first to the Catholic religion, and later to Christian religions. All the people that speak one language, don't have the same culture. Then there are lots of different cultures inside each country.When you are talking about "American culture", or "Italian culture", or "Russian culture", you aren't talking about languages, but regions of the world. "American" is not a language. (America is a continent running from Argentina and Chile to Alaska). The same, when you are talking about clothes or dishes, you aren't talking about a language, but a region. Clothes and dishes are different by regions, even if the people speak the same language. Esperanto speakers, in general, have the same culture of the region where they live.If your are really interested about Esperanto, or what you can do using Esperanto, please visit this web page:20 Reasons to learn and use Esperanto:

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    The point, though, is that language is a tool. A language, in itself, is a worthless thing to waste your time learning, unless you can use it for some greater purpose. For myself, that purpose is to meet people around the world so I can learn about and experience their cultures. My statement in the original interview was that I have no use for constructed languages such as Esperanto because they are not attached to any culture. My time is better spent elsewhere.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think your point is valid, although of course your reason for considering g it a waste of time won't be shared by all. For many people who don't have the time or aptitude for language Esperanto may well be a gateway into experiencing other cultures. But that goes to your point of it being a waste of time if it doesn't serve a greater purpose.And while I agree it is not a Culture in itself, I think a vibrant sub-culture has grown up around it. It has music and literature and conferences and so on.In the end, each to their own. One is not diminished by not knowing it, one May have very good reasons and be enriched by learning it.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    A wonderful rebuttal! Now I can follow you more clearly.It still seems the biggest difference among us is the definition of "culture" as you use one from the sociology, and I cited more linguistically-based, dictionary definition (to remind everyone the one I quoted: "material and intellectual pursuit of sociaties and their results" or "sociaties as viewed through their material and intellectual property"). Mine is much more inclusive than yours.Then the question arises that I need answered: what about cultures not based on a common territory or not based on a language at all? For what, in your view, stands "culture" in expressions like: queer culture, Deaf culture, picture culture. Is it just a turn of phrase in English (not so in Polish) or some sort of a mental leap, shortcut? What other word would you use to describe such social phenomena? A generation (unlikely)? A subculture? A community? Something else? Why? :)I also would REALLY prefer if you first watched the movies and read the books and THEN state what they are about.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    My time is better spent elsewhere
    Your time. No one is putting a gun to your head and saying you must learn Esperanto (or anything else). It's a choice. If someone chooses to spend their time learning that language, playing video games, doing Crossfit, or whatever it's their choice. Not yours, not mine, not anyone else's. No matter how much of a waste of time that we think those activities are.And, no, Esperanto doesn't interest me.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    No, Esperanto does not have a culture...and that's fine. Even acknowledging that, I've been advancing my Esperanto studies for some time now. This argument about whether or not a language has culture is like the immature argument about whether golf or cheerleading are actual sports (btw, the answer is "no" and "maybe," respectively). As if the only reason for partaking in something is if the rest of the world deems it worthy. If you like golf, play it! It doesn't matter if others consider it a sport or not; that shouldn't hinder the enjoyment you get from it. The same for Esperanto (or any other conlang). If you'd like to learn Esperanto, knock yourself out. Don't let its artificiality make your choice for you, and certainly don't start learning it all of the sudden because someone was able to convince you that the "Esperanto culture" is a legitimate one. It really is okay to just do what you'd like. I can see debating the culture behind a language becoming a pissing match for how worldly people are. I can hear people typing on the forums already: "Oh, what's that? You learned Esperanto? Well, while you were doing that I was studying Karakalpak and brushing up on my Cantonese. I'm much more of a world citizen than you are."
    (Wasn't ranting at the author but rather everyone, really).

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I strongly disagree with you. Culture has many faces and certainly Esperanto is a way of cultural expression. Your article just try to limit the concept of culture.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Foods are only just barely "culture." Superstitions, a little more so. Culture is not merely surface behaviors. Culture comes from values, beliefs, and world-view. Esperanto aficionados may bring a lot of their native language culture with them, but the motivations that make them Esperanto aficionados are in a sense part of a culture that they share. And it's worth noting that an estimated two thousand children have grown up speaking it, i.e., it IS their native language.
    (No, I'm personally not interested in Esperanto, either!)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I find it interesting that I've never heard anybody who's actually participating in Esperanto events say that Esperanto has no culture. Food or dances might be part of culture, but it's surely not the most important part. (That's another thing I find interesting ...the arguments against Eo having a culture seems to go back and forth about whether food and dancing are part of it, and I've heard both used against the language.)

    Yes, Esperanto does have a culture, but it's not as easily defined as most languages connected with countries. The culture of Esperanto is acceptance of (and great interest in) other cultures. Call it a meta-culture if you wish, but it's still a culture. Go to Esperanto events and you'll find people who are intensely interested in other languages and cultures. A side of E-o culture that I find less attractive is that sometimes Esperantists are less tolerant of people with different political views; I'm definitely in the minority, but I keep it quiet. But I would argue that comes from what people import from their other cultures, not something that's part of the E-o culture itself.

    Live Esperanto events - not anything online - are where you find Esperanto culture. This is a challenge for anybody who claims Esperanto has no culture. I would argue that there is one, but you've never been to a place where you can see it in action. Attend a few live Esperanto events and get back to us - I suspect you'll change your tune.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    One could argue that Esperanto has a different kind of culture. See the argumentation on my website.

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