An Esperanto Overview
ESPERANTO — AN OVERVIEW
This material is copyright © 1998 by Donald J. Harlow. Hard copies may be made for
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Table of Contents
What is Esperanto?
Who constructed Esperanto?
Where does the name "Esperanto" come from?
Are there other planned languages?
Do other planned languages improve on Esperanto?
What makes Esperanto superior to other planned languages (or other languages in general)?
How many people speak Esperanto?
Are there native speakers of Esperanto?
Is the number of speakers growing (at least as fast as the population)?
Where is Esperanto most widely used?
Is Esperanto associated with a particular culture?
What governments support Esperanto?
Have any governments opposed Esperanto?
What makes Esperanto easier to learn than other languages?
What can I do with Esperanto when I've learned it?
- What is Esperanto?
- Esperanto is a planned (constructed) language intended for use between people who speak different native languages.
- Who constructed Esperanto?
- Esperanto was developed during the period 1877-1885 by L.L. Zamenhof of
Warsaw, Poland (then Russia). Zamenhof, who grew up in a polyglot society, was convinced that a common language would be necessary to resolve many of the problems that lead to strife and conflict. He rejected the major languages of his day (French, German, English, Russian) because they were difficult to learn and would put their native speakers at an advantage in discussion with respect to those who did not speak them natively; and he rejected the two "dead" languages with which he was familiar, Latin and Greek, because they were even more complicated and unwieldy than the currently extant major languages. He began work on his planned language, which he would eventually call "Lingvo Internacia", as a junior in high school, and eventually published the first textbook of the language (for speakers of Russian) in the 1887, at the time of his marriage and early in his medical career.
- Where does the name "Esperanto" come from?
- This word, which in Esperanto means "a person who is hoping", was adopted by Zamenhof as a pseudonym for his first book. It was gradually adopted in popular parlance as the name of the language itself.
- Are there other planned languages?
- At least a thousand of them. Among the better-known constructed languages in this country are J.R.R. Tolkien's Elvish tongues from The Lord of the Rings and Marc Okrand's tlhIngan Hol (Klingon), used as background material in the more recent Star Trek movies and several of the Star Trek television series. Of the various planned languages developed (invariably on private initiative) over the years for international use, the best known have been (in chronological order) Volapük, Esperanto, Interlingua (Peano), Ido, Occidental/Interlingue, Basic English, Novial and Interlingua (Gode). Recent entries in the field include Glosa and Loglan/Lojban. None has been particularly successful; the only three to garner significant speaking populations have been Volapuk, Esperanto and Ido. The current number of speakers for Esperanto apparently exceeds the total number of speakers over the past century for all the others combined by at least an order of magnitude.
Those interested in other planned languages may with to follow a newsgroup devoted to
them: alt.language.artificial. There are also
two mailing lists, one (Conlang) primarily devoted to languages created for artistic
reasons, the other (Auxlang) primarily devoted to languages developed for the purpose
of serving as an international auxiliary languages. Mailing lists for adherents of
other planned languages also exist, with varying levels of activity. NB: in the more general fora devoted to planned
languages, much of the material posted is polemical in nature and aimed at Esperanto.
- Do other planned languages improve on Esperanto?
- In planned-language parlance, "improve" is generally synonymous with "reduce or purge elements that
are unfamiliar to speakers of Western European languages." This is almost always the case
with planned languages (e.g., Ido) which are derived directly from Esperanto
- There have also been disagreements
over (a) criteria for the creation of new vocabulary (should it be internally generated or
borrowed from other, usual southwest European, languages?) and (b) the relative efforts
which must be expended on the part of language producer (speaker, writer) and consumer
(reader, listener) (e.g. should the language have an object-morpheme to free up word
order and reduce ambiguity at the cost of one extra item of complexity?). In all such
cases, proponents of one system or another may disagree about what constitutes an
- In general, it is probably safe to say that no other planned language has significantly
improved on Esperanto, and there is little genuine evidence that any of them has improved on
it at all.
- What makes Esperanto superior to other planned languages (or other languages in general)?
- Linguistically speaking, Esperanto is neither superior nor inferior to any unplanned language; you can do the same things with it that speakers of English, Chinese, Russian or Quechua can do with their languages. Whether it is superior or inferior to other planned languages is an open question, since none of the others have gathered a great enough number of speakers for a long enough period of time to provide evidence one way or the other.
- Esperanto's advantages are basically two:
- It is a neutral language, being the property of no particular group of people and therefore the equal property of everybody.
- It is relatively easy to learn. It would appear from personal experience and anecdotal evidence that, for an English speaker, Esperanto is perhaps five times as easy to learn as Spanish, ten times as easy as Russian, and "considerably" easier than Chinese, Japanese or Arabic.
- Easy learnability is often claimed by other planned languages, and it is probable that
many of them are considerably easier to learn than any ethnic language. Claims that they
are easier to learn than Esperanto are in no case supported by the evidence, if only because,
again, for most of them there is no evidence, one way or the other.
- How many people speak Esperanto?
- It is difficult to say, since a global census is impossible. The canonical figure is two million people. Various (simplified) models based on what data is available (sales of texts and literary works in the language, representation on the internet, representation in the World Wide Web, etc.) indicate that this figure has at least ballpark accuracy. Other quoted figures range from ten thousand (from incorrigible opponents of Esperanto) to thirty or forty million (from inveterate enthusiasts for the language).
- Are there native speakers of Esperanto?
- Some speakers of Esperanto have become so enthusiastic about the language that they have
chosen to use it at home, even when they share a common native language, and so their children
learn the language as their native tongue. An even more important factor is the number of
international marriages that have developed between people who have met each other through
Esperanto and whose only common language is Esperanto. The result is that today at least
several hundred and perhaps as many as a few thousand individuals throughout the world
speak Esperanto as a native language. There are annual conferences, at least one
international magazine, and one on-line mailing list devoted to such individuals.
- There are, so far as I can tell, no monolingual speakers of Esperanto beyond the
age of three or four years — in other words, beyond the age when socialization outside
the family begins to become important. Furthermore, because their numbers are so small
and because they are generally less dedicated to the idea of Esperanto than
their parents, native speakers of the language have generally had negligible effect
upon its usage and development.
- Is the number of speakers growing (at least as fast as the population)?
- In 1927, when the population of the earth was around two billion, Dr. Johannes Dietterle of the Reich Institut fur Esperanto in Leipzig carried out a survey from which he estimated a speaking population for Esperanto of some 128,000 persons. Today the population of the earth is around six billion, and the number of speakers of Esperanto is on the order of two million. Given this date, you can do the requisite arithmetic to answer the question yourself.
- Where is Esperanto most widely used?
- In Central and Eastern Europe, particularly the former satellite nations of the old Soviet Union (including its Baltic republics), and in East Asia, particularly mainland China. It is also fairly well known in certain areas of South America, notably Brazil, and Southwest Asia. It is less well known in English-speaking North America, Africa, and the Moslem world.
- Is Esperanto associated with a particular culture?
- As with any other language in actual use, speakers of Esperanto have developed a number of
common points, some of them unique to this particular group, which in every sense of the
word comprise a particular culture. These include a very well-developed literature,
both original and translated (from a wide variety of sources), particular customs, a
mythology (largely having to do with the history of the planned language movement), and even
a small home-grown religious movement (homaranismo).
- The argument has been made that a planned language intended for international use should
not have a distinct culture of its own. There is much merit to this argument, but it is
also likely that no language which comes into actual human use can avoid generating
such a culture among those who use it — and that no language which does not come into
actual human use will, a fortiori, ever come into international use. The
development of such a culture, far from not having happened (as many detractors of
Esperanto continue to claim), would seem to be the inevitable result for any
planned language that attains a level of use considerably below that enjoyed by
- What governments support Esperanto?
- Officially, none. Certain governments have, at one time or another, funded the use of Esperanto for promotion of their specific agendas (in the last quarter century these have included, among others, Hungary, Vietnam and mainland China) and have even financed national Esperanto organizations, for similar reasons, but none have either supported Esperanto as an international language or supported the unrestricted teaching or learning of Esperanto within their own countries. Esperanto is purely a private matter, and seems to function best when government interference is minimal.
- Have any governments opposed Esperanto?
- There is a very large and popular book on this topic, Ulrich Lins's La Danĝera Lingvo (The Dangerous Language); the title comes from a comment about Esperanto made by Josef Stalin. As a few examples:
- The Tsarist government of Russia banned the entry of all magazines and books in Esperanto from 1895 to 1905.
- The Soviet Union put heavier and heavier restrictions on the use of Esperanto by private citizens from 1930 on, culminating in 1938 when all registered speakers of Esperanto in the U.S.S.R. were rounded up and either deported to Siberia or shot. Esperanto was effectively banned in the Soviet Union until 1956, discouraged until 1979, and kept under strict governmental control until the late 1980s.
- The government of France in the early 1920s banned the teaching of Esperanto in French schools.
- Most Central European governments before World War II discouraged the learning or use of Esperanto, considering that it was not necessary for the polyglot ruling elites and that it was not desirable as a means of international communication for the economic and political underclass.
- Adolf Hitler specifically referred to Esperanto as a tool of Jewish world domination in a speech in Munich in 1922, and expanded on this idea in Mein Kampf. Esperanto organizations were banned in Germany in the mid-1930s, and Esperanto speakers in the territories occupied during World War II were either discouraged (generally in the occupied West) or exterminated (more common in the occupied East).
- The prewar and wartime Japanese government discouraged, persecuted, and sometimes executed Esperanto speakers on the grounds that "Esperanto speakers are like watermelons -- green [a color associated with Esperanto] on the outside but red [Communist] on the inside." (Interestingly, an identical simile has been used in recent years here in the United States by right-wing politicians attacking the environmental movement.)
- The Communist Chinese government has been ambiguous about its attitude toward Esperanto. Learning Esperanto under official auspices for official purposes has been not only tolerated but encouraged and (in one case of which I am personally aware) even required. Learning Esperanto outside official channels for personal use was, until around 1980, considered beyond the pale, and during the Cultural Revolution could lead to prison or worse.
- Esperanto was barely tolerated in Romania under the Ceaucescu regime, and most Esperanto books and magazines were excluded from the country (they were nonetheless smuggled in on a regular basis by Bulgarian, Hungarian and Jugoslavian Esperanto speakers). Being active in the Esperanto movement was an almost sure route to an interview with the dreaded Securitate and their rubber hoses.
- The Mullahs in Iran were quick to encourage Esperanto after 1979 — it was not, after all, like a real Western language. But in 1981, when it was discovered that the Baha'i religion also had an interest in Esperanto, it became very convenient for Esperanto speakers in Iran to keep their heads down.
- When one Esperanto speaker in Saddam Hossein's Iraq attempted to teach the language to others in the country, he was immediately imprisoned and later deported.
- The incident of a few years ago when two Swedish Esperanto speakers were severely beaten by Tanzanian police for attempting to teach Esperanto to refugees in a Tanzanian camp may not have been a manifestation of official government policy; and in any case it was ineffective -- graduates of the refugee camp at Mandeleo have formed a large part of the nucleus of the new Tanzanian Esperanto Association.
- In Franco's Spain, Esperanto was barely tolerated, partly because of its supposed left-wing orientation and partly because a number of Esperantists had fought on the Republican side during the Civil War. In Portugal under the Salazar dictatorship, the situation was even worse, and Esperanto was effectively banned. (Thanks to Jose Pinto de Sousa who pointed out that this information was missing from this page.)
- What makes Esperanto easier to learn than other languages?
- Esperanto has a number of features that make it relatively easy to learn:
- A regular and phonetic spelling system. Where the Chinese school child must spend years learning the relationship between the spoken and written language, and the American school child must spend an almost equally long period learning to spell, the Esperanto system (one letter = one sound) can be learned in about half an hour. This also includes a regular system of accentuation.
- A regular and exception-free formal grammar. Doubters correctly insist that the grammar of any real language cannot be completely described, as Esperanto speakers sometimes claim for themselves, with a mere sixteen grammatical rules that can be written on the back of a postcard, and they are entirely correct; but what they fail to mention is that, in fact, most of the grammar, and certainly all of the most important grammar, is available in these rules. Learn eleven invariable grammatical endings and how they are used, and (with a vocabulary) you will immediately be able to invent grammatically correct, usable and useful sentences in Esperanto.
- A regular, one-to-one and easily learned system of forming new words from words you already know. This is particularly useful because it allows you to take a fairly small basic vocabulary (the usual figures is about 500 items, including word-roots, particles, and affixes) and carry on long and fairly complex discussions about a wide range of topics, including technical ones. While modern Esperanto has a considerably larger overall vocabulary of unique roots (officially, about 9000 at last count), many of these are simply synonymous with words that can be formed from the most basic roots, and it is always considered acceptable (and usually elegant) to create your own words rather than borrowing somebody else's.
- What can I do with Esperanto when I've learned it?
- You can do anything with Esperanto that you can do with other languages. Examples include:
- International correspondence. Many Esperanto magazines carry correspondence columns. Pen-pals are also available through, among others, the Koresponda Servo Mondskala, p/a François Xavier Gilbert, 33 rue Louvière, FR-55190 VOID-VACON, France. There is an on-line pen-pal service.
- International travel. Esperanto speakers love to travel, and there is an international organization devoted to arranging group tours for such people: Esperantotur. Americans who wish to travel should contact the Esperanto-VojaĝServo. An international hosting network for Esperanto speakers, Pasporta Servo, is administered by the World Esperantist Youth Organization.
- Literature. Literary works are available from many different countries and cultures in Esperanto. Among the best services for Esperanto books are those of the Esperanto League for North America, and the Universala Esperanto-Asocio. A small sample of Esperanto literature is available on-line.
- Periodical literature. Between a hundred and two hundred magazines are regularly published in Esperanto. While some are often difficult to come by in this country, both the Esperanto League for North America and the Universala Esperanto-Asocio serve as subscription agents for a small number from among the best of them.
- Esperanto on-line. There is a strong Esperanto presence on the net, including several Usenet newsgroups (most notably soc.culture.esperanto) and several hundred Esperanto mailing lists, as well as a large number of Web sites and documents.
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