A relationship between Esperanto and the Open Source movement

✍️ Written on 2024-04-08 in 2169 words.
Part of languages Esperanto cs community

Update 2024-04-09: Minor rephrasings for better readability.
Update 2024-05-06: I added Richard’s remark which points out the core difference.


Esperanto started in 1887 with the publication of the book “Unua libro”. Today the book “Fundamento de Esperanto” is more important to the language project, but its differences are marginal. Since the beginning of the language, the question of governance was crucial. L. L. Zamenhof wanted to learn from history and unlike Volapük did not follow the idea of a benevolent dictator. Governance? Benevolent dictator? Reminds me of free open source software and governance models. Time for a discussion.

Image “Second international labor conference” was manipulated to add text “Open source ideas from 1905”

Remarks by Clemens Setz

I got triggered comparing the open source movement with Esperanto by reading the book „Die Bienen und das Unsichtbare“. At page 290 in section „Die große Befreiung: Esperanto“ subsection „Herkunft“, it says:

Open Source, das ist das wichtige Prinzip. Sprachenerfinder teilen sich in zwei Kategorien: Päpste und Programmierer. Charles Bliss war 100 Prozent Papst. Am Ende war er sogar ein Papst ohne Kirche, alle praktizierten die von ihm verwaltete Religion falsch, ohne Synode, ohne Dogma. Er allein blieb orthodox und treu, blind und gehorsam, bis zum Ende. Johann Martin Schleyer war ebenfalls eine päpstliche Erscheinung, er gab das Papstamt mit dem Tod an den Nächsten weiter.

Aber es gab auch Programmierer. Damit bezeichne ich jene Sprachenerfinder, die schon früh Testläufe und Beta-Versionen ihrer Sprache anzetteln und ihren source code möglichst rasch für die Öffentlichkeit zugänglich machen und die alle Teilnehmer zur Anreichung und Aneignung auffordern, die also auf jedes geistige Besitztum über ihre Sprache verzichten. Und Dr. Zamenhof war eindeutig ein Programmierer. 1905, beim allerersten Esperanto-Weltkongress, gab er mit mehreren Unterzeichnern eine 5-Punkte-Deklaration ab, die unter anderem die Feststellung enthält: »Esperanto gehört niemandem. Jeder Mensch kann es verwenden, wie er möchte.« Außerdem »Esperanto ist keiner rechtlichen Autorität unterstellt, weder einer staatlichen Behörde noch einer Person.« Man einigt sich auf das Betriebssystem, das sprachliche Fundament. Der Rest war beliebig erweiter- und ergänzbar.

— Original text from the book „Die Bienen und das Unsichtbare“

A rough translation to English:

Open Source, that’s the important principle. Language designers split into two categories: Popes and programmers. Charles Bliss was a pope by 100 percent. In the end, he was even a pope without a church. Everyone practiced his maintained religion wrongfully, without synod, without dogma. He remained orthodox and faithfully, blind and obedient until the end. Johann Martin Schleyer also appeared as pope. He forwarded his pontifical duties to his successor when he died.

But there were also programmers. I call those language designers that way, if they initiated test runs and beta versions in an early stage of their language. They published their source code quickly and asked followers for enrichments and appropriation. In this sense, they abstain from their intellectual property of the language. And Dr. Zamenhof was certainly a programmers. In 1905 at the very first Esperanto world congress, multiple signatories signed a 5-points-declaration which includes the following statement: ‘Esperanto belongs to no one. Anyone can use it for any reason they like.’ Furthermore ‘Esperanto depends on no legal authority, neither a governing body nor an individual.’ So one agrees upon the operating system; the linguistic basis. The rest is arbitrarily extensible.

For context: Charles Bliss invented Blissymbols. Johann Martin Schleyer invented Volapük. L. L. Zamenhof (or Dr. Zamenhof) invented Esperanto.

Contextualization of Esperanto

Constructed languages (abbr. conlang) are not rare at all. People have been inventing them for a long time. It just seems that during the 18th and 19th century, people saw a need to interact with other peoples more. Thus many new conlangs appeared.

Specifically, I opened Wikipedia’s list of constructed languages, extracted all tables, normalized the data (e.g, assigned 1500 for “16th century”), and sorted all 128 conlangs by their appearance:

Utopian (1516), Logopandecteision (1653), Ruski jezik (1666), Unnamed language (1668), Solresol (1827), Communicationssprache (1839), Universalglot (1868), Volapük (1879), Volapük (1880), Esperanto (1887), Esperanto (1887), Mundolinco (1888), Bolak, "Blue Language" (1899), Tutonish (1901), Idiom Neutral (1902), Latino sine Flexione (1903), Ro (1904), Ido (1907), Ido (1907), Adjuvilo (1910), Quenya (1910), Zaum (1913), Sindarin (1915), Eskayan (1920), Timerio (1921), Interlingue (1922), Interlingue (1922), Basic English (1925), Isotype (1925), Novial (1928), Novial (1928), Medefaidrin (1930), Sona (1935), Khuzdul (1935), Esperanto II (1937), Syldavian (1938), Mondial (1940), E-Prime (1940), Tsolyani (1940), Interglossa (1943), Plain English (1948), Blissymbols (1949), Blissymbols (1949), Newspeak (1949), Interlingua (1951), Interlingua (1951), Bordurian (1954), Loglan (1955), Intal (1956), Romanid (1956), Lingua sistemfrater (1957), Special English (1959), Lincos (1960), Neo (1961), Babm (1962), aUI (1962), Teonaht (1962), Spocanian (1962), Nadsat slang (1962), Guosa (1965), Lingua Franca Nova (1965), Unilingua (now Mirad) (1966), Vulcan (1966), Arcaicam Esperantom (1969), Afrihili (1970), International Sign (1970), Kobaïan (1970), Eurolengo (1972), Lapine (1972), Interlac (1973), Pakuni (1974), Glosa (1975), Kotava (1978), Ithkuil (1978), Kotava (1978), Klingon (1979), Damin (1980), Gargish (1981), Láadan (1982), Simplified Technical English (1983), Láadan (ldn) (1984), Uropi (1986), Lojban (1987), Lojban (1987), Poliespo (1990), Runyakitara (1990), Romániço (1991), Palawa kani (1992), D’ni (1993), Attempto Controlled English (1995), Verdurian and others (1995), Europanto (1996), Unish (1996), Baronh (1996), Brithenig (1996), Goa’uld (1997), Lingua Franca Nova (1998), Parallel English (1998), Slovio (1999), Toki Pona (2001), Atlantean (2001), Wenedyk (Venedic) (2002), Globish (2004), Ku (2005), Loxian (2005), Enchanta (2005), Romance Neolatino (2006), Slovianski (2006), Mänti (2006), Hymmnos (2006), Sambahsa-Mundialect (2007), Dritok (2007), Neoslavonic (2009), Budinos (2009), Kēlen (2009), Naʼvi (2009), Moss (2009), Lingwa de planeta (2010), Interslavic (2011), The Dothraki (2011), Barsoomian (2012), Trigedasleng (2014), Belter Creole (2014), Kiliki (2015), Beama (2016), Wenja (2016), Interslavic (2019), Romulan (2019).

In conclusion, Esperanto from 1887 is really just one among many and on the 10th position at this list. It had the opportunity to learn from nine previous conlangs. Did it make progress when it comes to governance?

A quick web search lead to almost nothing about the nine languages. I just found a lonely reddit thread with some notes by the questioner. So let us stick to Clemens' Setz' argument for comparing {Blissymbols, Volapük} with {Esperanto}.

Declaration of Boulogne (1905)

The Declaration on the Essence of Esperantism was ratified in 1905 and establishes the relationship between the Esperanto movement and its founder. It contains the phrases, Clemens Setz' mentioned:

  1. Esperantism is a movement that supports the introduction of an international auxiliary language (IAL). No further meaning can be attached to it. It is politically, religiously, and morally neutral, and it does not seek to replace any existing languages, only to supplement them.

  2. It recognizes that Esperanto is the most realistic IAL that exists, and they work to further it based on this goal.

  3. Esperanto belongs to no one. Anyone can use it for any reason they like.

  4. Fundamento de Esperanto is the single, perpetual obligatory authority over Esperanto, and it cannot be modified. Otherwise, Esperanto depends on no legal authority, neither a governing body nor an individual, including Zamenhof himself. If a linguistic matter is not covered in Fundamento, it is up to the individual on how to handle the matter.

  5. An Esperantist is a fluent Esperanto speaker. Involvement in the Esperanto community is encouraged but not required.

Clearly in point number 4, Zamenhof distanced himself from dictatorship of his language project and handed it over to the community. And point 3 establishes unlimited use of Esperanto for everyone everywhere. Let us compare this with the idea of free open source software (FOSS).

Free software

GNU defines ‘free software’ through four freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).

  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).

  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

We observe that point 3 of Esperanto’s declaration is very similar to freedom 0. In the case of Esperanto, the publication of the book La unua libro (and subsequently but to a lower extent, the Fundamento de Esperanto) was an expensive, tiresome process. The question of redistribution of this work of art is left in the hands of the publisher compared to GNU, where the answer is clearly addressed in freedom 2 and 3.

Open Source

But GNU might have controversial or narrow views on the matter. It advocates the Copyleft clause in software licensing and had a controversial leading figure. So I will not dive into discussions about the GNU manifesto and Bill Gates' Open Letter to Hobbyists.

Instead, one might accept the open source initiative as authority. It defines the following freedoms as ‘Open Source’:

  1. Free Redistribution

  2. Source Code inclusion and distribution

  3. Derived works

  4. Integrity of The Author’s Source Code

  5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups

  6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor

  7. Distribution of License

  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product

  9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software

  10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral

What is interesting here is point number 6, which is explained in more detail as “the license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor”. Point number 4 declares “the license may restrict source-code from being distributed in modified form only if the license allows the distribution of ‘patch files’ with the source code for the purpose of modifying the program at build time”. In this case (unlike Esperanto), a mechanism is implemented which allows the original author to define whether modifications are possible. In the case of Esperanto, the book Fundamento de Esperanto is defined as single authority and everyone is welcome to make changes as long as they do not contradict the Fundamento.

License versus Governance

But licensing itself does not match the usecase Esperanto had. Esperanto wanted to define its governance. Licenses define policies for distribution and modification rights. Instead, we need to look at governance models.

As it turns out, they are vast. The benevolent dictator is popular just like very democratic approaches in the debian project. python had placed its original author in the role of a benevolent dictator for life. PHP was released by its author first, taken over by a company (Zend), introduced a more democratic process (voting inside the PHP Group), and finally was put under governance of the PHP Foundation. rust always (at least since the 1.0 release) had working groups which voted or decided about the adoption of a request for change.

In the end, we cannot exactly clearly match Esperanto ideas from 1905 to modern equivalents, but I think we got an intuition that some ideas are shared. And the main point remains true: Esperanto followed ideas similar to FOSS but many years before.


  • Clemens Setz focused on the author. Here Esperanto - unlike Volapük and Blissymbols - do not to rely on a single authority.

  • GNU (in the 1980s) defines freedoms for its software to make sure they serve the broad community just like Esperanto did in 1905.

  • Esperanto and FOSS disallows restriction of their work for specific usecases.

After publication, Richard remarked that the major difference is the scope of changes. One can easily change FOSS according to your own preferences. But one must no change Esperanto against the rules of La Fundamento. This is the core issue, I also agree upon.