Some fifty-odd years ago, I purchased a small pamphlet that promised to teach me the rudiments of “the international language” – Esperanto. The shirt-pocket sized booklet contained a half-dozen pages of grammar and a vocabulary of a few hundred words. The grammar was simple, with no exceptions, the pronunciation was easy, and the vocabulary, based largely on Romance languages, was familiar and easy to pick up.
I was hooked. In the coming years I would increase my knowledge of Esperanto, join a local Esperanto club, teach Esperanto on a local radio station, and produce an Esperanto textbook with accompanying cassette tapes. I met a number of interesting, not to say peculiar, people along the way.
Then life intervened – medical school, residency, family, work – and there was no time left for Esperanto. And, truth to tell, the language itself appeared to be going nowhere. It was no closer to widespread adoption than it had been when I first encountered it nor, indeed, than it had been a hundred years before.
Somewhat less than two years ago, I first began to pay serious attention to bitcoin. After a few months of research, I began to hodl, and continue to do so even through the bear market we are currently experiencing. I am convinced that bitcoin, if unlikely to become the global reserve currency within my lifetime, will nevertheless be a very important part of the world economy within the lifetimes of my four children and eleven grandchildren. It is primarily for them that I continue to buy and hold bitcoin.
And yet, as I listen to the hyperbolic claims of some of my fellow bitcoiners, I can’t help but be reminded of the Esperanto movement and its fate. Is it possible that in a hundred years bitcoin will be, not the universal currency of mankind, but rather an obscure project, remembered only by a tiny but devoted minority?
To answer this question, let us take a look at the many parallels between bitcoin and Esperanto, as well as some of the key differences that might point to a very different outcome for bitcoin.
Bitcoin, as is well known, was far from the first attempt to create a fully digital and neutral form of currency – a “digital gold” – but it was the first to succeed in combining the features of decentralization, anonymity, immutability, and fixed supply that set it apart from all previous attempts.
Efforts to create a universal language date back at least to the Middle Ages, and a wide variety of systems were tried. Most were completely impractical as usable languages, however, and never achieved widespread adoption. Not until Esperanto appeared was a language constructed that was at one and the same time completely regular in its grammar but appealingly naturalistic in its overall impression. It was this combination of features that led to early and enthusiastic adoption of Esperanto all over the world.
Esperanto, like bitcoin, was introduced to the world in the form of a pseudonymous publication. On July 26, 1887, a book was published in Warsaw with the title (in Russian) International Language, by “Dr. Esperanto.” In this book, the author set forth the simple grammar and phonology of his invented language, along with a basic vocabulary and instructions for its use.
This book, called unua libro (“first book”) by Esperantists, could be seen as analogous to Satoshi Nakamoto’s White Paper, which gave birth to bitcoin. The author’s true name was Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof, and his pseudonym means “one who hopes.” Zamenhof, a subject of the Russian Empire, knew that anything that smacked of internationalism was viewed with suspicion by the czarist ruling class. However, Zamenhof’s “international language” quickly found a following both within Russia and in Europe, and soon in the Americas and Asia as well, and Zamenhof soon dropped the pseudonym, and “Esperanto” then became the name of his creation.
Once Esperanto had achieved a measure of success, it did not take long for some of its adherents to take issue with certain features of the language that were felt to detract from its simplicity or its aesthetic appeal. Some prominent Esperantists began to propose reforms of the language, and when such reforms were rejected by the majority, broke away to found movements around their own reformed forms of Esperanto. These could be likened to the various hard forks of bitcoin (e.g. Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin Classic, etc.) that have occurred in the course of bitcoin’s development. The most successful of these Esperanto “forks,” Ido, never achieved the popularity or reach of the original, and now has at most a few hundred dedicated speakers.
Aside from such “forks” or reformed Esperantos, there were also completely new projects that claimed to do what Esperanto aspired to do, only better. For example, Interlingua, basically a modification of Latin, shorn of grammatical complexity, has a still more naturalistic appearance than Esperanto, and for a while enjoyed a certain amount of credibility in the scientific community, before dwindling to obscurity. Projects such as these can be seen as analogous to altcoins – though none were developed out of the crass commercial interest that characterizes what many call “shitcoins.”
If there is such a thing as a “bitcoin culture,” it can be said with even greater certainty that there is an “Esperanto culture.” Not only is there a Universal Esperanto Association, there is an Esperanto flag and an Esperanto hymn. For a time, there was even an attempt at an international currency (the “Stelo,” with a value supposedly fixed at half a Dutch guilder). If bitcoiners, by and large, tend towards libertarian ideas, Esperanto, with its emphasis on universal brotherhood, appeals more to left-leaning individuals (though in neither case is this a hard and fast rule). Idealists of every stripe, religious or secular, are often to be met with in Esperanto circles.
Why has Esperanto Failed?
As a constructed language that is structurally simple, flexible, and easy to learn, Esperanto is an unqualified success. I am a language nerd who has spent decades studying languages ranging from German to Ojibwe, and from Italian to Japanese, and I can testify from my own experience that a few weeks of Esperanto study can yield a facility in the language equivalent to many months, if not years, of study in any natural language I have encountered.
But Zamenhof’s ultimate goal was to create a universal language for international communication that would replace natural languages such as English and French, laden as they are with grammatical complexities, and fraught as they are with the baggage of imperialism and dominance. And in this respect, Esperanto is an abject failure. One hundred and twenty-six years after “Dr. Esperanto” published his International Language, the number of active Esperanto speakers is at best one or two hundred thousand – about the same number as those who speak Navajo or Basque.
Why, then, has Esperanto failed so signally? I believe there are several important factors.
First, the prevailing system for international communication was not broken, or even breaking. Cumbersome as it was and is, it functions. Let’s face it: anyone doing serious diplomacy or making important financial transactions across languages will either invest the time to learn another language or two, or will have professional translators at hand when needed. As for tourists, for those of us who speak one of the major languages (e.g., English, French, Mandarin, etc.) it is generally not hard to find tourist information and guides in our own languages when we travel abroad. And those whose native tongues are not widely spoken (for example, Dutch, Korean, or Wolof) have generally learned enough of the current de facto international language – English – to get by reasonably well. The development of real-time translation apps using artificial intelligence has only made things easier. In short, Esperanto is not enough of an improvement over the current system to make it worth even the minimal time needed to learn it.
Second, Esperanto lacks backing from any major military or economic power. It is a common saying in linguistics that “a language is a dialect with an army.” It could equally well be said that “a language is a dialect with a large trade network.” No language has ever achieved regional or global importance without serving the interests of empire or trade, and generally they have served both. But the current world powers, whether military or economic, are already well served by the prevailing system.
The corollary to this is that Esperanto faces passive or active opposition from those powers whose languages are already dominant. The only time in its history when Esperanto came close to international recognition was in the 1920s, when Esperanto was proposed for adoption by the League of Nations. Only one delegate opposed the proposition – the delegate from France, who essentially vetoed it. Since that time, Esperanto has never again achieved enough popularity to pose a threat to the existing dominant languages – but history suggests that should it do so, it would be resisted forcefully and effectively.
Finally, the culture of Esperantism can be off-putting to those who, out of curiosity, begin to explore the language. Personally, I found the flag, the hymn, the millennial promises of world peace through Esperanto, and all the other cultural baggage to be a bizarre substitute for religion, far removed from the merely practical proposition of a common language for international communication. Indeed, Zamenhof himself proposed a world religion of his own – ‘Homaranismo’ (striving for a united humanity), and Esperanto has had enthusiastic support from the Baha’i World Faith since the 1920s. For those who need no ersatz religion (whether because they reject religion or because they already have a religious commitment), this might be reason enough to pass Esperanto by.
Is bitcoin the Esperanto of Money?
On the face of it, Bitcoin does, in fact, share some of the vulnerabilities that have led to the failure of Esperanto.
Most crucially, bitcoin poses a threat to those powers that benefit most from the prevailing financial system, insofar as it provides a means for ordinary people to bypass that system, and potentially to replace it. At present, those powers seem little inclined to view bitcoin as a serious threat, and for that we must be thankful. The moment those whose careers and fortunes depend on the distorted incentives of the fiat system recognize that bitcoin may destroy their cozy nests, they will respond with all the means they can command, and attempt to crush bitcoin one way or another.
Less crucially, but still a factor, is the bitcoin maximalist culture that confidently predicts not only that bitcoin will replace the fiat system in the near future, but that bitcoin “fixes this” – “this,” apparently being pretty much everything that leads to human misery: poverty, war, inequality, injustice – the whole boiling lot. Apparently, there was some Edenic past before fiat was invented when everyone lived in prosperity and harmony, and justice was perfect. I exaggerate, of course – but not much. Isn’t this just the same sort of substitute religion seen in Esperanto culture? How many potential bitcoiners reject the idea of bitcoin because of the unrealistic claims of the maxis?
However, one huge difference between bitcoin and Esperanto is the fact that the prevailing system is failing, or as Lyn Alden puts it, “broken.” You do not have to be a bitcoiner to see this: more and more ordinary people who have never heard of bitcoin are looking at the staggering increase in the deficit, the billions of dollars conjured up and sent to foreign wars, and the heavy burden of their own increasing grocery, fuel, health care, and education costs, and realizing that the system simply isn’t working any more. Or if it works, it certainly isn’t working for them!
Moreover, bitcoin is already providing millions of people with the means, if not to replace the system, at least to limit its harmful effects on themselves and their families. For those in developed countries, it has already shown its value as part of a long-term savings plan. For those escaping authoritarian governments, it has already been a means of escaping with at least some of their accumulated wealth. For those in countries with high inflation rates, it has already shown its worth as a means of preserving value. The fact that an entire small country, San Salvador, has already used bitcoin to circumvent the system imposed by the IMF is of great significance. Even if the powers that be ultimately crush it, a precedent has been set.
Esperanto and bitcoin both represent an attempt to engineer a more rational replacement for a powerful natural system that had evolved over millennia. Both promise to remedy the frictions and distortions imposed by the natural systems, and the harms caused by them to ordinary people. To the extent that these engineered solutions pose a threat to the natural systems, both have been and will be strenuously opposed by the powers that benefit from the status quo.
Unlike Esperanto, however, bitcoin has established its utility beyond any doubt – a utility that will only increase as the prevailing system deteriorates.
It is still possible, of course, that a hundred years from today bitcoin will be thought of as a merely noble idea that came to nothing. But that will only be the case if bitcoin lacks the resilience to survive the inevitable attacks from the beneficiaries of the fiat system.
I am one hundred percent certain that such attacks will come. For obvious reasons, I cannot be that certain that bitcoin will survive. However, I have enough certainty to continue to buy and hold bitcoin, in the hope that for my children and grandchildren bitcoin will indeed be the future of money.
This is a guest post by Paul Fox. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.