Break, break the walls between people

by on April 21, 2017

Introduction / Antaŭparolo

Given that this is an educational publication, why not start with a quiz question: What is Esperanto? Is it: a car in the video game Grand Theft Auto; a computer virus; an asteroid; a planned language; an island off the coast of the Antarctic; a Spanish ship; or a dance album published in 1985? Answer: all of the above [1]. (It was a trick question by the way!) But primarily, of course, it’s a planned language, but one that has become so famous that it has given its name to all the other items in the list.

The question then arises: What is this Esperanto language after which so many objects have been named? In this exploration of various answers to that question, we will touch on the mind of the Polish ophthalmologist, Ludwig Zamenhof, who created this language and its grammar (both intriguing and accessible), but perhaps more importantly how you, the reader, can access this language and become part of a linguistic legacy that is both inclusive and intriguing as well as connecting and challenging.

Why this article now? / Kial ĉi tiu artikolo nun?

A good question. There are two answers. The first is that 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of its creator, the aforementioned Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof. Ludoviko Lezer Zamenhofo, to give him his Esperanto name (often abbreviated to LLZ by Esperantists), was by all accounts a bookish and studious young man. Growing up in the multilingual, multi-ethnic city of Bialystok in Poland, he was exposed to a wide range of languages in his youth. The young Zamenhoff was a bilingual native speaker of Yiddish and Russian and at an early age he learnt French and German from his multilingual father. He also knew Polish and read Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic and in later life gained some knowledge of English, Volapuk, Italian, and Lithuanian!

However, the complex politics of being a Polish Jew living in what had, until 1795, been part of the Polish–Lithuanian commonwealth and was now a part of the Russian empire gave a clearly political edge to this multilingualism and Zamenhoff came to the view that sharing a language might help prevent the tension, xenophobia, and repression he himself experienced. Thus Zamenhoff’s 1887 Unua Libro (‘First Book’ in English) stated his three goals: ease of learnability for the learner; ease of communication across peoples of any nationality; and overcoming the natural indifference of humankind.

The second answer is also date-related. Unua Libro, which was the first book published in Esperanto, was authorised for publication on 26th June 1887. The year 2017 is thus the 130th birthday of the language as well as the centenary of its creator’s passing. Published first in Russian, Unua Libro was swiftly followed by German, French, and Polish editions in the same year, and the English version appeared in 1888. These publications initiated such a degree of interest that the first Esperanto congress, organised in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, brought together for the first time an Esperanto community in an event that Zamenhof himself inaugurated[2].

History, community, perceptions / historio, komunumo, perceptoj

This community continues to this day, and has met at a Universala Kongreso almost every year since 1905, the only exceptions being during and immediately after the the World Wars. However, the community’s journey has not been without incident, having experienced various internal and external threats.

One major threat to the community was its persecution under various regimes. Having come to Adolf Hitler’s attention before the writing of Mein Kampf, where the language received a single, pejorative mention—possibly because its creator was Jewish—it was subsequently banned in Nazi Germany before the war, and its supporters were censured or even killed. Tragically, all of Zamenhof’s three children died in the Holocaust. A similar situation emerged in Stalin’s post-war Russia where Esperantists were widely persecuted, often because they were accused of belonging to a spy agency. In Franco’s Spain, Esperanto suffered indirect censure as it was used by socialists and Catalonian nationalists. Of course, in all these cases, the state’s wrath did not fall exclusively on Esperantism. It was, however, the United States of America who undertook what was perhaps the most famous irony in Esperanto’s history: the US Army made use of Esperanto, the language of peace, in its military training exercises.

Internally, the Esperanto community has a tendency to exhibit schisms. The most famous of these occurred in 1936 when most of the leaders, members and national associations left the then sole international organisation, the UEA (Universalal Esperanto Asocio), and established a rival, the IEL (Internacia Esperanto Ligo). This dispute endured until 1947, when the IEL was once again absorbed into the UEA.

In the contemporary movement, other ‘tensions’ can be seen including those between the UEA-linked group in Paris, France, and a UEA-independent Paris-based organisation called SAT (Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda). With a name that roughly translates into ‘Without national [borders], global association’, SAT has leftist political leanings and aims and uses Esperanto primarily to promote those. As an organisation with a political alignment, it cannot therefore be part of UEA. This has resulted in the existence of two parallel organisations in Paris.

Aside from these internal disputes, in recent years the movement seems to be experiencing a decline in numbers with a sense that the heyday of Esperanto may have passed. However, this trend is being counteracted, or even superseded, by growing online interest in the language. Aside from pure numbers, there are ongoing controversies within the community regarding how best to spread the language with some members advocating a ‘let them come to us’ approach while others, myself included, take the view that a more engaged and indeed evangelical approach should be taken.

How does Esperanto work? / Kiel funkcias Esperanto?

This section illustrates the structural aspects of Esperanto that give it its acclaimed learnability. Let’s begin with a sample text, adapted from the opening sentences of the Esperanto Wikipedia entry for “Esperanto”:

“Esperanto (origine: ‘Lingvo Internacia’) estas la plej disvastigita internacia planlingvo en la mondo. En 1887 Esperanton parolis nur manpleno da homoj. Nuntempe tio nombro kresgis, tiel, ke en 2012, la lingvo devenis la 64-an tradukeblan per Google Translate kaj en majo 2015, Esperanto iĝis Duoling-a lingvo. La nomo venas de la kaŝnomo ‘D-ro Esperanto’ sub kiu la juda kuracisto Ludoviko Lazaro Zamenhofo en la jaro 1887 publikigis la bazon de la lingvo. La unua versio, la rusa, ricevis la cenzuran permeson disvastiĝi en la 26-a de julio kaj ĉi tiun daton oni konsideras la naskiĝtago de Esperanto. Li celis kaj sukcesis krei facile lerneblan neŭtralan lingvon, taŭgan por uzo en la internacia komunikado.”

Clearly, this is a ‘European’ language in many senses: it is written and punctuated in a Latin script, is read left to right, and contains many clearly ‘European’ words. Let’s use this text to cover some initial basic principles of the language. Firstly, word categories are clearly discernible from word endings as the following tables show:

 SingularPluralSingular accusativePlural accusative
Noun category-o-oj-on-ojn
Adjective category-a-aj-an-ajn

Verbs are also highly regular with, to slightly over-simplify, three tense endings: –as (present), –is (past) and –os (future), giving venis (‘came’), venas (‘come’) venos (‘will come’). The infinitive ending is –i (veni; to come) and the imperative ending is –u, as in venu (‘come’). The active participle endings are –anta, –inta, –onto (present, past, future) and the passive participle (endings are –ata, –ita, –ota. Active participles are participles whose subjects are semantic agents (e.g. ‘The man seeing the cat ’) whereas the subjects of passive participles are not prototypically agents (‘The cat seen by the man’).

English participles, unlike Esperanto ones are not marked for tense. Thus, in Esperanto, structures such as ‘the will-be-about-to-be-seen-cat’ can occur: la vidota cato; and structures such as ‘the man who saw’ can be rendered as la vidinta viro. Such regularity and simplicity immediately enable a reader familiar with European languages to approach the above text with confidence in understanding. Here are some glosses from the sample text above that instantiate these basic principles:

(1c)originally: ‘International Language’
(2a)La unuaversio,la rusa,
(2b)DEF one-ADJversion-NOUNDEF Russia-ADJ
(2c)The first version, the Russian (one), …
(3a1)Li celiskaj sukcesiskrei
(3b1)3SG aim-PASTand succeed-PASTcreate-INF …
(3c1)He aimed and succeeded to create …
(3b2)… easy-ADVlearn-ABLE-ADJ-ACCneutral-ADJ-ACClanguage-N-ACC
(3c2)… [an] easily learnable, neutral language

A look into the word-building aspects of Esperanto yields further insights. Esperanto is essentially an agglutinative language that makes considerable use of affixes to create meaning. One such affix is –ig– which carries a causative meaning. Thus we see:

(4a)disvastigita(line 1)
(4b)‘many directions’‘extensive’‘causative’‘passive participle’
(4c)having been made to extend / become extensive in many directions
(5a)publikigis(line 6)
(5b)‘public’‘causative’‘past tense’
(5c)was made public

A complete list of the various affixes can be found here (in Esperanto) or here (in English). However, the morphological flexibility of these affixes extends their use beyond adding meaning to word roots. They can in fact become word roots in their own right. For example:

Esperanto Gloss
aĉulo-aĉ- = nasty, shitty
-ul- = person
-o = noun ending
An awful person
iĝilo-iĝ- become
-il- = instrument, thing for doing
-o = noun ending
An application form

A last element of Esperanto grammar to be considered here, and one that is entirely unique to it, is the Tablevortoj, meaning ‘table-words’ or ‘correlatives’. These are discussed here and are in the 5 x 9 table beneath the first section.

("Each, every")
(what a)
(such a)
(some kind/sort/type of)
(every kind/sort/type of)
(no kind/sort/type of)
(for some reason)
(for all reasons)
(for no reason)
(how, as)
(thus, as)
(in every way)
(no-how, in no way)
(this/that one's)
(no one's)
(how much)
(that much)
(some, a bit)
(all of it)
(who, which one;
which [horse])
(that one;
that [horse])
some [horse])
each [horse], all [horses])
(no one;
no [horse])

As the table indicates, the five semantico-grammatical functions along the top (interrogative, demonstrative, indefinite, distributive / universal, and negative) each appear in relation to nine other semantic functions (down the side). The forms are entirely regular for a given row or column. Further examination will reveal that these correlatives encode fairly abstract semantico-grammatical information, which does not appear in such regular form in any natural language (certainly not any I am aware of).

To make a comparison with English, the ‘–om’ row translations (for ‘thing’) indicate just how inaccessible English quantity expressions can be. Of course, in the agglutinative and morphologically creative spirit of Esperanto (i.e. the ‘morphological flexibility’ mentioned above), the words themselves become adapted in regular and predictable ways to cover other meanings. Adjectivising ĉiam (‘always’) for example, gives us ĉiama (‘eternal’). Alternatively, neni­– plus the suffix –ulo produces neniulo (‘a nobody’) and the causative suffix –ig– produces neniigi (‘to make something nothing’ or ‘to nullify or void’).

In terms of learnability, the only real learning challenges I have experienced in my journey to competency in Esperanto are the tabelvortoj and the suffixes. This contrasts significantly with any other language I have tried to learn. Take Polish, for example, where the challenges include many sets of case endings (each with functional exceptions), prepositions which take various cases depending on meaning, highly inflected verb forms, and of course an entirely new vocabulary base with a relatively low level of transfer to English.

Accessing Esperanto / aliri Esperanton

So how about Esperanto in the ‘real world’? Where is it spoken and used and how might you get hold of it? Well, to deviate into Esperanto trivia for a moment, there used to be very little. The 1966 Esperanto film Incubus which featured the then barely known Canadian actor William Shatner (later to become Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek fame) was one early appearance of the language in the public domain. Fortunately, however, that’s far from the only source for contemporary Esperanto.

I’ve collated a few resources that may be of interest. Most are internet resources but some are in the offline world. I’ll touched on some of the grammar and language learning resources which are currently offered:

A free version of Ivy Kellerman’s Complete Grammar of Esperanto can be found here. This is a traditional grammar (in English) based on a structural syllabus and containing staged exercises.

More in-depth is Bertilo Wennergren’s Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko (or PMEG[3]), currently the definitive work on the language in my view (Wennergren himself is a member of the Esperanto Academy and was named Esperantist of the year in 2006 for PMEG).

The Duolingo course created by Chuck Smith is a very steady, sensible introduction to the language. An interview with Chuck (in Esperanto but with English subtitles) can be found here.

In terms of vocabulary, Glosbe’s free bilingual, user-created dictionary is good. It isn’t perfect, but it’s accessible and free. For serious students of Esperanto lexis the only real resource is the monolingual

Once one is off the starting blocks, the high learnability of Esperanto renders Wikipedia (or Vikipideo) highly accessible, certainly for learners with a European language background. Vikipideo articles, with content with which readers are already familiar, are a first step to using the language. Esperanto is, at the risk of boasting, currently the 32nd highest ranked language on Vikipideo by number of articles so there’s plenty to choose from.

Once one has enough experience with Vikipideo, there are many original and translated works available in Esperanto. The Bible and a translation of the Qur’an both exist in Esperanto as do a number of Shakespeare plays, and to mention only a few classics, Tolkien’s works, 1984, Three Men in a Boat, and Jane Eyre. Recently, American Esperantist Gan Wesli Starling has been translating the science fiction works of Jack Vance (and others) into Esperanto. These can be found here. In terms of original Esperanto literature, the Originala verkaro (‘original work-collection’) of Zamenhof himself is a rich source of original Esperanto literature as are the poems of Scottish Esperantist William Auld, among many others.

Audio materials are not abundant in Esperanto. However, YouTube offers many lectures, talks, and interviews including coverage of the most recent Universala Kongreso in Nitra, Slovakia. In addition, Poland and China broadcast in Esperanto. The Polish website is a relatively accessible online offering usually updated thrice-weekly, and with summaries in Esperanto. Another superb source of audio material is the YouTube channel of Australian Esperantist Richard Delamore, or ‘Evildea’ as he is known.

In terms of community, the social networking sites Reddit and Ipernity boast relatively developed Esperanto communities. And to find Esperantists nearby, perhaps check out which is an online, Airbnb-style meetup network. Of course, Esperanto exists offline as well. Many countries have a national association that meets periodically, and there may be local associations as well. For the more serious Esperantists, there is the Universala Kongreso, which will take place in Seoul, South Korea in 2017, and in Lisbon, Portugal in 2018. For international events, the EVENTOJ is the best resource available. Finally there are plenty of Esperanto publications such as Monato or Esperanto. (A partial Vikpideo list is available here in English.)

So, far from being ‘a language without a culture’ as has been claimed, Esperanto is a language community with a history, a literature, and a vibrant online and offline presence. There’s a lot to get involved in!

Things we haven’t looked at / Nekonsideritaj aferoj

I hope this article has demonstrated the breadth and depth of the lingvo internacia as well as its almost certain uniqueness in human history: it is the sole constructed language to obtain a visible, expansive and continued presence in human society. Yet this article has scarcely scratched the surface of the Esperanto universe, not to mention the wider world in which it sits, that of constructed languages in general.

On that note, Esperanto cannot claim to be the first constructed language, an honour that could go to Volapuk, a now fringe constructed language with only a few hundred speakers. Volapuk remains of interest to Esperanto however as it is used in the Esperanto equivalent of ‘It’s all Greek to me’. Idioms themselves are another interesting aspect of the language; its doctrine of cross cultural learnability leads some Esperantists to avoid idiom in the language. Others, of course, disagree.

There is also a rich research tradition in Esperanto boasting a number of academic articles and a small number of PhDs. Intriguing questions including the nature of Esperanto as a natural language have been tackled by Dr Ida Stria at Adam Mickiewic University in Poland, and work by Guilherme Fians at the University of Manchester on the cultural anthropology of Esperanto is ongoing. This very recent work builds on previous research on the acquisition of Esperanto as a native language and how the denaskuloj (‘from birth people’) can modify Esperanto. It suggests that processes that are similar to the creolisation of pidgin languages may be at work. However, the non-existence of a monolingual Esperanto speaker muddies the methodology of this research somewhat.

Did Esperanto achieve its aims?

In terms of linguistics and learnability, the answer has to be an unequivocal yes. Acquiring a high level of communicative competence in Esperanto in 6 months to a year is not unknown. However, Esperanto has yet to become widely spoken, accepted, or even understood, and the claim of being a neutral international language may be seen as a little naïve. Moreover, the language is not perfect. It has been criticised as sexist given the existence of a feminine suffix and for being ‘overly complex’. One example of this is the accusative case which Esperanto’s derivative constructed language, Ido, has removed.

More significantly, in my own view, its learnability applies considerably less to L1 speakers of non-European languages. This has not stopped the language from becoming important in China, Korea, Hungary, and other countries with non-Indo-European languages. Indeed, it may be because of its learnability that it has had success outside of Indo-European contexts. In any case, Esperanto’s claim to be an internacia lingvo may be slightly over-ambitious in this sense.

One question that no article can hope to answer concerns the future of this language. In 70 years’ time, the Esperanto community will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of the language, but one is given to wonder whether it will survive until then. It many places, even in the circles of language professionals, it remains a poorly understood and sometimes ridiculed phenomenon.

My hope (as expressed through this article) is that Esperanto can overcome this sometimes-pejorative perception, and instead will not only have survived to 200 years of age, but will have also prospered and continued to provide a source of enjoyment, intrigue, and academic study as well as a means of connecting with other people around the world. Vivu Esperanto!


[1] See for further information on some of these ‘Esperantos’.

[2] An audio of his address to that conference can be found under the first paragraph of the Esperanto article (in Esperanto) here:

[3] The abbreviation ‘PMEG’ is actually a pun in Esperanto. The pronunciation of Esperanto letters uses the syllable final vowel ‘o’, hence [po] for the letter ‘p’ and [go] for the letter ‘g’. ‘PMEG’ is thus pronounced [pomego]. Now, ‘apple’ in Esperanto is ‘pomo’ and the suffix –eg- denotes ‘big’ or ‘large’. So, ‘a large apple’ is pomego. This explains the presence of an apple on the cover of this publication.

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