(Written in reply to the editorial “Simple Language? Auxiliary Language?” in Verda Lumo, September 2003.)

Dear s-ro Boschen,

Thank you for your article about how to refer to Esperanto (“Simple language? Auxiliary language?”, volume 17.19, p. 7). You make an important point that the very first words we say about Esperanto have a great influence on how people will think about it.

I agree that “auxiliary language” is not an ideal description for Esperanto. As you say, it implies something less than a complete language, something that might never be official. (I also think that “auxiliary” is such an unusual word for most people’s everyday vocabulary that all by itself, it is distracting.) “Universal second language” is both easier to understand and more accurate. Still, it leaves the questions of why isn’t English the universal language, and why we need a second language.

Some years ago I ran across the marketing book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (Al Ries and Jack Trout, paperback © 1981). It described the great marketing advantage held by the #1 vendor in any field. For example, if someone wants to buy a word processing program today, they would have to strongly consider Microsoft Word. If nothing else, they have to think that maybe it’s the best seller because it’s the best program. Besides, it’s a safe choice; if it doesn’t work, you can’t be blamed for buying what everyone else bought. So the #2 vendor, in order to compete, has to position its product as something different. Hertz is #1 in car rentals? Avis “tries harder.” IBM is #1 in computers? Other companies won’t sell computers; they’ll sell “business solutions.”

Clearly, if we talk about international languages, the best-seller is English. 99% of the people we talk to understand (or even overestimate) the power of English in the modern world. It almost doesn’t matter how good Esperanto is, it’s overwhelmed by the market domination of English. So how do we reposition Esperanto so that it does not compete directly against English?

When I read this, my first reaction was to say that English doesn’t work very well as an international language, but Esperanto does, because it’s easier to learn and less political. The simplest phrasing of this idea is “Esperanto: the international language that works.” This immediately admits the undeniable fact that English is an international language, yet at the same time it positions Esperanto as a superior alternative. I’ve found it to be pretty effective. If people ask why Esperanto works, you can then start explaining the reasons. Or, if they nod their head in agreement, the slogan has already made our point.

I suggest Esperantists try this out. It works well for me and perhaps it will for you too.

Of course, this will not persuade some people. But they are usually the ones who have already decided, for some reason, that Esperanto cannot possibly work. Nothing we say will persuade these people. Send them somewhere else, relax, go on to the next person. We don’t have to persuade every single person we meet. If we can persuade one person in ten that Esperanto is a good idea, and one out of a hundred to start learning, we will be enormously successful.

Thanks --

David Wolff

I later found this example in Ries and Trout, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.

Who was the first person to fly across the Atlantic solo? Everyone knows. Charles Lindberg.

Who was the second person to fly across the Atlantic solo? Bert Hinkler.

Who was the third? You probably know this name too. Amelia Earhart. But she’s not famous for that; she’s famous for being the first woman to do it. Earhart is in a new category, and as the first person in that category, everyone knows her name.

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