Every language must adapt with the times in order for it to remain alive for decades and even centuries. This includes gaining additional speakers of all different ages and expanding its lexicon as more aspects of the arts and sciences are either discovered or invented. The invented language known as Esperanto, which its creator Ludwik Zamenhof had intended to be universally spoken, is keeping up with the times. Zamenhof had created Esperanto having been influenced by many European languages such as Spanish, French, and Yiddish. His purpose was to create a language that anyone could easily understand and be willing to use to communicate on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the language was met with disinterest from the general European population and Esperanto was deemed a failure upon its establishment over 130 years ago.
Starting in the mid-20th century, Esperanto has been met with renewed interest. People are tantalised by a language that, in its attempts to be universal, brings cultures and backgrounds together. Another characteristic of Esperanto that intrigues polyglots around the world is that inventing words is easy, flexible and a lot of fun. By adding prefixes and suffixes to verb roots and by combining words together, the possibilities of newer words and idioms are endless. What will be demonstrated in this piece is how a language expands as its speakers contribute one word at a time to its ever growing lexicon of terms.
Forming words in Esperanto
Zamenhof created Esperanto such that all words are formed and conjugated the same way without any irregularities. For example, the verb paroli which in its infinitive form means “to speak” is conjugated in the present, past and future tenses as parolas (speak), parolis (spoke) and parolos (will speak) respectively. That goes for every single other verb form as well. All verb infinitives end with “i”, adverbs in “e”, nouns in “o”, conditionals in “u” and adjectives in “a”.
Next, there is affixation, which turns words into different parts of speech or phenomena. There are over 30 different prefixes and suffixes in Esperanto, so couple that with the scores of different verb infinitives and nouns and the result is thousands or even millions of words at your disposal. Here are some examples of prefixes and suffixes and of their application to words:
|Affix||Meaning / Function||Example|
|mal-||opposite||mal- + varma (hot) → malvarma (cold)|
|-aĵ:||turn verb/noun into substance||konstrui (to build) + -aĵ → konstruaĵo (building)|
|-ist||turn verb/noun into occupation||ŝteli (to steal) + -ist → ŝtelisto (thief)|
|-estr||turn verb/noun into head occupation||kuiri (to cook) + -estr → kuirestro (head chef)|
Compound words in Esperanto are the same as in English, formed by piecing two complete words together to make a new or different term. Some examples of Esperanto compounds include:
|gard(i) [to keep watch]||+||hundo [dog]||→||gardhundo [watchdog]|
|skrib(i) [to write]||+||papero [paper]||→||skribpapero [writing paper]|
|dank(i) [to thank]||+||letero [letter]||→||dankletero [thank you letter]|
The examples above seem straightforward, but mixing the most unlikely verb root with the most unlikely prefix or suffix is possible. If you get an Esperanto-English dictionary or an Esperanto grammar book, you can have fun coming up with these terms:
["one who makes or deals in antidotes"]
["to scribble something"]
These are just four examples among the millions of possible words that can be pieced together to add to the dictionary. These word adjustments allow Esperanto to keep growing day by day, and year by year. Surprised by how easy it is to coin new words in Esperanto? The next section shows how forming Esperanto words relevant to the 21st century remains as easy and fun as ever.
Esperanto and pop culture
When Esperanto was first established in the late 19th century, terms that millennials take for granted like “Facebook” and “Instagram” did not exist. Rather than let the language seem outdated for future audiences, Esperantists all over the world constantly come up with new words using affixation and compounding of old words.
In her book Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, Esther Schor talks about going to various Esperanto themed conventions and seminars around the world, where she met participants acting as amateur lexicographers. She brings up a few made up terms that she jotted down in order to preserve for the book and pass down to others. They include:
|vizaĝ(o) ["face"]||+||libro ["book"]||→||vizaĝlibro ["Facebook"]|
|ju ["you"] + tub ["tube"]||+||um [no actual meaning] + -i [infinitive ending]||→||jutubumi ["to YouTube endlessly"]|
So let’s look at an example of an Esperanto sentence pertaining to these two words:
Mi vizaĝlibras miajn amikojn ĉiutage. [“I Facebook my friends every day.”]
Li jutubumis por la tuta sejmajno. [“He YouTubed endlessly for the entire week.”]
Influenced by this amateur lexicography, I decided to come up with my own new creations relating to newer vocabulary that has entered our daily lexicon. Here is a verb form based on another portmanteau that has made its way onto various Internet web pages and message boards; “mansplaining”:
|vir(o) ["man"]||+||klarigi ["to explain"]||→||virklarigi ["to mansplain"]|
|Viroj ofte virklarigas politikojn al virinoj|
|"Men often mansplain politics to women."|
On the internet, there are ads that seem interesting, but really send you to another website—“clickbait”:
|Vizaĝlibro estas plena el klaklogaĵoj|
|Facebook is full of clickbait|
We’ve all used this acronym down for “laugh out loud” (LOL). Here is how it can be used as a single verb form:
|laŭt(e) ["loudly"]||+||rid(i) ["to laugh"]||→||laŭtridi ["to LOL"]|
|Ciuj laŭtridas pri la plej stulta aferoj.|
|"Everyone LOLs about the dumbest things."|
Zamenhof would not have thought of expanding Esperanto due to others’ lack of interest in it, but with a renewed outpouring of support, this constructed language is becoming more popular around the world. The proof is that several clubs and committees devoted to Esperanto exist all over the world, in what Esther Schor calls “a global Babel” where people of all different backgrounds come together to speak a common language. As a result, new Esperanto words from foreign roots can be born. By the year 3000 with the number of speakers around the world, think of the words, slang expressions and idioms that can be added to an Esperanto dictionary. Esperanto may finally become the widely spoken language that Zamenhof had envisioned. ĝi povas okazi (It can happen).
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article and its Esperanto examples have been updated for accuracy as of 7 June 2017.