Esperanto is an artificial language
designed for international communication on a neutral and free basis. Who
designed it? Well, a prototype of Esperanto was launched in the Polish city of
Warsaw, in 1887, by Lejzer Ludvik Zamenhof, a 28-year-old eye doctor. He
insisted on not being called its designer and on hiding behind the pseudonym
Doktoro Esperanto, the doctor who hopes, which people then turned into the name
of the language. Zamenhof was not the first person to launch a constructed
language project (this point is explained a bit later). But he was the first
person to choose, on day two, to hand over a prototype to the community of
users who would flesh it out and develop it as a full language.
How does it work? Quite apart from its
phonetic writing which means there are no strange spellings to learn by heart,
Esperanto words are also designed to be easy to learn and use. This is mainly
achieved by breaking an idea up into little pieces of thought and putting these
bits together. Arbo, a tree. Aro, a group of things. Arbaro, a forest. Skribi,
to write. Aĵo, something concrete, something tangible. Skribaĵo, some writing,
something written. Ilo, a tool. Skribilo, a pen. Skribilaro, stationery, a
bunch of things you need to write with, paper, pens, erasers, etc. Ejo, a
place. Skribejo, a room where we sit and write. Skribilejo, a place where you
keep pens. Isto, a professional. Skribisto, a professional writer. Skribilisto,
someone who professionally makes or sells pens. Skribilaristo, a stationery
producer or seller.
Why does this make the language easy
to learn? Because it cuts your learning time to a fraction of what you need for
other languages. You don’t have to learn separate words for frato, brother, and
fratino, sister, for frateco, brotherhood, or for fratineco, sisterhood. Once
you know lerni, to learn, you also get lernejo, school; lernanto, schoolboy;
lernantino, schoolgirl; lernilaro, textbooks and lab equipment; lernilaristo, a
professional who works to make or sell these things; lernado, constant study;
lernaĵo, lesson; lernigi, to teach; lernigisto, teacher. You can also joke by
using a word like lernisto, which can only mean professional schoolchild, maybe
your way of showing impatience that somebody has been repeating a class, year
after year, and is much older than all the other children in the class!
To see that this works for other
examples, think about vi vidas, you see, and you automatically learn also
vidaĵo, view; vidado, vision; vida, visual; vidanto, viewer; videjo, gallery;
vidinda, worth seeing; vidindaĵoj, tourist sights or attractions; vidindaĵisto,
tourist guide. In no other language can you learn so little and immediately get
so many meaningful words made with the bits you’ve picked up.
What is the point of having an easy to
learn language like this? The point is that this is the least painful and the
least unfair way for people from different countries to find a common language
of world peace and friendship. It is fair that everybody should make some effort
to learn a neutral language. Since the language belongs to no group, there’s
nobody with a native accent who can laugh at foreigners. That makes everyone
equal. And nobody has to make a huge effort to get into the language, which
makes it fair.
That’s about justice. But is it any
use? What can you do with the language? Where does anybody speak it?
Eastern Europe, where Esperanto was
first launched, is still where the largest concentrations of people speak it.
But speakers exist all over the world, from Iceland to India, from Korea to
Colombia. Esperantists, as speakers of the language are called, use it mainly
to get in touch with others across frontiers, especially when they travel.
Finding your counterparts abroad is easy since many Esperantists are listed in
directories, which are increasingly web-based. They also communicate a lot
through the Internet.
Okay, so you can reach people in this
language. What does it get you in real life? When you stay at homes of fellow
Esperantists you’ve located through a mutual hospitality network like Pasporta
Servo ‘passport service’, you not only stay and eat cheaply, you also get good
advice about low budget tourism. The hosts you meet this way put you in touch
with people in your profession in various countries.
This may not look like a practical
gain if you think that since English is the most widely learnt foreign language
you can reach the world through English. At the sheer practical level, though,
a trip through Japan or Spain or Poland is much easier to manage in Esperanto
than in English, which is not spoken by the passers-by, shopkeepers and ticket
counter staff you need to deal with. In those countries, for very little money
and with a good deal of personal warmth, you can get Esperantists to escort you
on the crucial shopping trips or to draw you foolproof maps.
Besides, knowing Esperanto gets you
the friendship of people who like new ideas and fairness. You see, those are
the people who are attracted to a neutral language of international
cooperation. So you meet friends who save energy, who respect tribals, who help
the handicapped, who protect the environment, just as you do.
English can’t get you this. To see
this, think about news magazines. There are no news magazines in English that
give you the viewpoint of Icelanders about Iceland, of Lithuanians about
Lithuania, of the Japanese about Japan, and so on in one place. In Esperanto,
the popular monthly Monato does exactly this, and the result is a
vigorous debate that shows up in the letters to its multinational team of
Why can’t any news magazine in English
be fair to the viewpoints of the various countries of the world? Well, that’s
very simple. The idea of making everybody try to learn English is not a fair
arrangement, is it? Americans and Britishers get a free ride while the rest of
us have to slog to learn what comes naturally to them, and then they get a
chance to laugh at our foreign accents. You need to think about whether you
really want this, or think that this is fair. One way that this is not fair is
the simple fact that, despite all the propaganda about the neutrality of
English, in fact there is not a single news magazine in a language as powerful
as English that allows people from each country to write about their country, whereas
something as small as Esperanto has been able to keep such a magazine going for
You think Esperanto too is ultimately
unfair, because it was launched by Europeans and is full of European words?
That’s a good point. But you need to place it in context. People had been
trying for three centuries to design a perfectly fair language equally remote
from everybody. The best result of those efforts had been the 1879 project
called Volapük. It sounded like this: O Fat opas, kel binol in süls, paisaludomöz
nem ola. Kömomöd monargän ola. Jenomöz vil olik, äs in sül, I su tal.
(Esperanto translation: Ho Patro nia, kiu estas en la ĉielo, sankta estu nomo
via. Venu regno via. Fariĝu volo via, kiel en la ĉielo, tiel sur la tero.)
Pronouns show how regular it was: ob ‘I’, ol ‘you’, om ‘he’, of ‘she’, os ‘it’;
obs ‘we’, ols ‘you all’, oms ‘they men’, ofs ‘they women’. This was the first
international project that hundreds of people learnt and started using. When
Esperanto came along in 1887, why did many Volapükists switch over to it at
once? Why have all later efforts to replace Esperanto as the default invented
language for international use uniformly failed, to the point where nobody
seriously tries any more?
The secret is simple. Esperanto has
its doors open to the internationally used words like telephone, telegraph,
capitalism, industry, hydroelectricity, etc., which most languages, even
Japanese and Indonesian, have on the whole borrowed from Greek and Latin. To
make these imports work properly, it helps that other Esperanto words are a bit
like them. But at the same time, as explained earlier, the language leans over
backwards to make it easy for users to invent words that express what you mean
without learning lots of new words.
The language does this? That’s just a
way of talking. The Esperantist public does it. This public has been working
hard to make the language easier and more democratic, to open its doors as wide
as humanly possible. How is this actually done?
After Zamenhof’s death in 1917, the
public developed one of his initiatives to the point of spreading it all over
the language. From the 1920s onwards those little word-pieces, affixes, became
separate words across the board: ilo, a tool; ejo, a place of work; aro, a set;
ilaro, a toolkit; ilejo, a tool room; ino, a female; ismo, a way of thinking;
inismo, feminism; isto, a professional; ilisto, someone who works with tools;
ilaristo, someone who makes toolkits; istaro, the staff; istarejo, a staff
This playing around with the language
by the public was a giant step forward. The public had taken over the language.
Early Esperantists had timidly stayed with longer forms like organizaĵo for
‘organization’ much like the words in English and French. Now the public shortened
such a word into organizo. The verb organizi ‘to organize’ could add the
noun-piece o and should at once mean ‘organization’. Why bother to add that aĵo
to make it sound concrete? Surely organizo, as a noun, is already concrete
enough? Likewise, from an adjective like valida ‘valid’, the early users would
timidly make the noun valideco, copying English validity or French validité
from Latin validitas. From the 1920s onwards, ordinary users have shown us all
that it is enough to say valido, where the noun affix o already tells us we
have a noun. People no longer need to say validECo. Also, to say a sentence
like ‘that membership card will work until 2004', we now say ‘tiu
membreco-karto validos ĝis 2004', where validos is a future tense verb. We
don’t have to say ‘restos valida’ for ‘will stay valid’; the verb tense ending
If you really think Esperanto needs an
injection of Asian words, maybe it does. Quite a few such words have made it
already. But if you are keen on increasing their numbers, you should put your
effort where your thoughts are. You can learn the language and join the
community to tell it exactly what you propose – to just launch your favourite
words of Asian origin in large numbers. Perhaps you will then pull off what the
general public in the 1920s was able to. You can inject whatever words you like
and perhaps push the rules in a new direction. The community has shown it
listens to people with reasonable ideas. Nobody, after all, owns the language.
It will be yours too.
What about countries and institutions?
Well, no country teaches Esperanto as a compulsory subject, though it is an
optional school subject in many countries and a radio broadcast language in
Poland, China and a couple of other countries. It is a popular school subject
in Hungary. Esperanto rides piggyback on the Hungarian educational system’s
language testing arrangements with the Association of Language Testers of
Europe that runs the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages under whose umbrella their official testing of proficiency in French, German, Hungarian… and Esperanto
takes place. The UN has recognized the desirability of learning it and the
contribution of Esperanto to world peace since the 1954 UNESCO resolution that
led to the recognition of Universal Esperanto Association, based in Rotterdam,
as an apex non-governmental organization. The main purpose of the world
Esperanto movement is to work as a clearing house across ethnic groups working
for fairness, for the survival of high quality in the small languages, to make
sure that literature written in these languages is read and valued outside its
countries of origin. Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić and Mato Lovrak’s wonderful
children’s literature in Croatian or Abel Montagut’s ecologically sensitive science
fiction epic or the great Czech poet Jiří Karen’s (also ecologically oriented)
poetry can only be read in Esperanto, unless you know Croatian, Catalan or
Czech. Since the nomination of the Esperanto poet William Auld for the
literature Nobel prize in 1998 and 1999, followed by several other such
nominations, the world’s literary institutions, such as PEN, have come to
recognize Esperanto literature as one of the serious enterprises. This language
of peace will become popular as war gradually gives way to peace. Good things
always take time, and the number of those who are interested is always small in
the early centuries after a good idea is born. Democracy, after all, was born
around 500 B.C., and has become widespread only very recently. Espero, hope, is
something Esperantists are not very likely to give up just yet.