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Brief Note on Esperanto

(Se Esperanton vi jam konas, plej bone iru rekte al la Esperantisma Ludejo.)

Since I am interested in Esperanto and have published a bit in and about it, I am including this informational introduction.

For actual research on Esperanto, however, please check more scholarly sources, such as some of those in the section on Web Links listed below. You can also read my article, Esperanto & Esperantism, on the sociolinguistics of the Esperanto movement. A useful and balanced YouTube video is available here.

Page Contents:

  1. What Esperanto Is
  2. Why Esperanto Works
  3. Why One Might Study Esperanto
  4. Esperanto as a Social Movement
  1. Appendices:
  2. Web Links Relating to Esperanto

What Esperanto Is

Esperanto is an "artificial" language first published in 1887 by Ludovik L. Zamenhof (1859-1917) after extensive thought and experimentation. Zamenhof sought to create an easy to learn and politically neutral means of communication for use by people whose native tongues were different. He probably did not expect it to become a universal medium of communication in the English sense of "universal," but he did think that broad availability and use of the language could facilitate life and elevate the human condition.

His efforts were brilliantly successful in that Esperanto is the only deliberately created language to have generated and sustained a body of fluent (or even semi-fluent) speakers. There are of course excellent historical, linguistic, and sociological reasons for this, although they are not as well studied as one might like. Of course Esperanto has not succeeded in achieving sufficient international visibility to be used in all the contexts where it would be useful. At the moment it seems unlikely that it ever will, although accurate prognostication depends on theoretical assumptions that are not very well developed.

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Why Esperanto Works

The principal linguistic secret of Esperanto's success lies in its using a slightly regularlized set of word roots from natural languages (almost all from the Romance family of languages) and manipulating them by means of a simple and essentially independent set of affixes and compounding rules. Thus anyone who has studied a western European language finds something familiar to assist in the learning of Esperanto. But even a native speaker of Korean, Arabic, or Zulu, having mastered the system, can create phrases and sentences with as much authority as a European can. By borrowing roots known to a very large number of potential learners, but insisting upon their treatment within the logic of Esperanto itself, and without reference to the donor languages, Zamenhof went a long way to creating the simplicity and flexibility he aimed for.

A second linguistic feature of Esperanto that was conducive to its success was closely linked to the first. Esperanto makes extensive use of prefixes and suffixes to expand the relatively small vocabulary of basic roots. While nothing prevents the assimilation of additonal roots, the constant availability of ad-hoc compounds of core elements rapidly amplifies a learner's vocabulary.

A third linguistic basis for Esperanto's success may lie in Zamenhof's reluctance to seek logical perfection. He himself observed that many linguistic features he experimented with, although excellent in theory, seemed to result in translations of Shakespeare that did not sound like Shakespeare, or translations of Tolstoy that did not sound like Tolstoy, and his inclination was to follow his ear and his heart rather than his reason in these instances. Attempts to create "more logical" versions of Esperanto (or other new languages) do not seem to have produced products that were easier to learn or use. The more fluent a person becomes in Esperanto, the more compelling this feature seems to be.

Beginning learners sometimes imagine that Esperanto is still a theoretical project and hence easy to change by fiat, or that it seeks logical perfection, or that its European-based core vocabulary is insufficiently democratic. This can lead them to see "obvious" changes to which they argue that the existing body of speakers should somehow be forced to conform (by whom?). But few if any of such changes have actually been rewarded with much interest, and the evolution of the real usage of fluent Esperanto speakers over the period of its use as a spoken language has rarely been in the directions foreseen by would-be reformers. Far more influential, it is my impression, have been the growth of slang and the production of compelling reference books that provide guidance to the semi-fluent as they move toward fluency. (I am the author of one such work, available on this web site. Link)

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Why One Might Study Esperanto

Esperanto is an attractive object of interest for the body of literature that has been created in it and for the cross-cultural contacts that can be made through it. Exactly as Zamenhof predicted, Esperanto speakers generally report more "equal" cross-linguistic contacts than those they have in the native language of one or another of the parties to an interaction. (It is probably because I speak Esperanto that the carrying on about "multiculturalism" on American college campuses usually strikes me as so naively parochial.)

Esperanto is obviously interesting as a linguistic object, although professional linguistics at the moment is much concerned about "native-speaker intuitions" and therefore pays little attention to a language used virtually exclusively by non-native speakers (or, for that matter, to ancient languages). For a person interested in language rather than current linguistic theory, however, Esperanto provides a working model of a great many linguistic processes in a form that is often reasily accessible.

Scattered evidence also suggests that relatively fluent speakers of Esperanto bring insights to the study of other languages that facilitate deeper understanding than would otherwise be likely. Some experiments strongly suggest that prior knowledge of Esperanto produces so much more rapid mastery of a next foreign language that starting with Esperanto may actually be more efficient that starting with the target language directly. Unfortunately, educational research involves too many variables for this to be confidently asserted on the basis of the experiments so far.

For one speaker's perspective on why it is worthwhile to study Esperanto, see Appendix 2 of this web page.

Language School. The best place in North America to study Esperanto is the three-week, intensive Summer Esperanto Workshop (known by its Esperanto acronym NASK —for Nord-Amerika Somera Kursaro—, which includes intermediate and advanced levels as well as beginning courses, and where most students live in a language dorm. If you want to know more, check the NASK web site at http://esperanto.org/nask. (If, on the other hand, you want to read a rather silly Esperanto poem about it, there is one in the Esperantisma Ludejo.)

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Esperanto as a Social Movement

The association of Esperanto speakers with each other creates a community of Esperanto speakers, which, like any community of speakers, is of potential sociological interest quite independently of any linguistic or literary interest Esperanto itself may hold. The community of speakers is usually referred to in Esperanto (rather loosely) as the "Esperanto movement."

At the 81st Universal Congress of Esperanto, held in Prague in the summer of 1996, a resolution was signed by a large number of conferees seeking to describe the "Esperanto movement." It suggests a unity of organization and opinion that is quite unrealistic, but it captures many issues and opinions common to a great many Esperanto speakers. Appended for ethnographic interest, is an English translation of the Prague text.

An article I published in 1987 is called "Esperanto & Esperantism: Symbols and Motivations in a Movement for Linguistic Equality. It is available on this web site. (Link)

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Appendix 2:

We, members of the worldwide movement for the promotion of Esperanto, address this Manifesto to all governments, international organizations and people of good will; declare our unshakable commitment to the objectives set out here; and call on all organizations and individuals to join us in working for these goals.

For more than a century Esperanto, which was launched in 1887 as a project for an auxiliary language for international communication and quickly developed into a rich living language in its own right, has functioned as a means of bringing people together across the barriers of language and culture. The aims that inspire the users of Esperanto are still as important and relevant as ever. Neither the worldwide use of a few national languages, nor advances in communications technology, nor the development of new methods of language teaching is likely to result in a fair and effective language order based on the following principles, which we hold to be essential.

DEMOCRACY. Any system of communication which confers lifelong privileges on some while requiring others to devote years of effort to achieving a lesser degree of competence is fundamentally anti-democratic. While Esperanto, like any language, is not perfect, it far outstrips other languages as a means of egalitarian communication on a world scale. We maintain that language inequality gives rise to communicative inequality at all levels, including the international level. We are a movement for democratic communication.

GLOBAL EDUCATION. All ethnic languages are bound to certain cultures and nations. For example, the child who learns English learns about the culture, geography and political systems of the English-speaking world, primarily the United States and the United Kingdom. The child who learns Esperanto learns about a world without borders, where every country is home. We maintain that education in any language is bound to a certain view of the world. We are a movement for global education.

EFFECTIVE EDUCATION. Only a small percentage of foreign-language students attain fluency in the target language. In Esperanto, fluency is attainable even through home study. Various studies have shown that Esperanto is useful as a preparation for learning other languages. It has also been recommended as a core element in courses in language awareness. We maintain that the difficulties in learning ethnic languages will always be a barrier for many students who would benefit from knowing a second language. We are a movement for effective language learning.

MULTILINGUALISM. The Esperanto community is almost unique as a worldwide community whose members are universally bilingual or multilingual. Every member of the community has made the effort to learn at least one foreign language to a communicative level. In many cases this leads to a love and knowledge of several languages and to broader personal horizons in general. We maintain that the speakers of all languages, large and small, should have a real chance of learning a second language to a high communicative level. We are a movement for providing that opportunity to all.

LANGUAGE RIGHTS. The unequal distribution of power between languages is a recipe for permanent language insecurity, or outright language oppression, for a large part of the world's population. In the Esperanto community the speakers of languages large and small, official and unofficial meet on equal terms through a mutual willingness to compromise. This balance of language rights and responsibilities provides a benchmark for developing and judging other solutions to language inequality and conflict. We maintain that the wide variations in power among languages undermine the guarantees, expressed in many international instruments, of equal treatment regardless of language. We are a movement for language rights.

LANGUAGE DIVERSITY. National governments tend to treat the great diversity of languages in the world as a barrier to communication and development. In the Esperanto community, however, language diversity is experienced as a constant and indispensable source of enrichment. Consequently every language, like every biological species, is inherently valuable and worthy of protection and support. We maintain that communication and development policies which are not based on respect and support for all languages amount to a death sentence for the majority of languages in the world. We are a movement for language diversity.

HUMAN EMANCIPATION. Every language both liberates and imprisons its users, giving them the ability to communicate among themselves but barring them from communication with others. Designed as a universally accessible means of communication, Esperanto is one of the great functional projects for the emancipation of humankind — one which aims to let every individual citizen participate fully in the human community, securely rooted in his or her local cultural and language identity yet not limited by it. We maintain that exclusive reliance on national languages inevitable puts up barriers to the freedoms of expression, communication and association. We are a movement for human emancipation.

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Appendix 2:

The following letter was written by Claude Piron, of Geneva, in response to an article in the California Aggie. (Don't ask me why people in Europe read the California Aggie. That is a whole separate issue.)

The E-mail copy reprinted here is offered with the permission of the author.

TO:California Aggie, INTERNET:aggie@ucdavis.edu
DATE:30/11/1996 11:03
RE:Esperanto course

Dear Editor,

My comments on your article about Esperanto (Nov.20, page 7, columns D-F) might interest your readers. I was for many years a translator at the UN (from Chinese, English, Russian and Spanish into French) and after leaving the UN I worked for WHO all over the world. I have used Esperanto in many countries, including Japan, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, a few places in Africa and Latin America, and almost all European countries. My experience can be summed up as follows:

  1. Although I lived in New York and spent an enormous time learning English, I am never on an equal footing with a native speaker of your language. I will never master English as I master my mother tongue and Esperanto.
  2. I've devoted infinitely less time to Esperanto, but I always feel on an equal footing with an Esperanto speaker, however exotic.
  3. In my travels, I've had more contacts with average representatives of the local populations in Esperanto than in English. (English is OK with airlines, big hotels, travel agencies and business people; Esperanto much better for real contacts with the life of the people).
  4. In an international setting, communicating in Esperanto is less tiring than in English or in another national language. Esperanto is structured in such a way that It requires much less effort from the brain.
  5. Esperanto is easy to pronounce for practically all peoples, even Anglo- Saxons, whereas English is difficult to pronounce for most inhabitants of the planet. English has too many too fine phonetic differentiations, as in but, bat, bet or bet, bit, beat. I remember the laughs when a delegate at the UN pronounced "My Government sinks", before a short pause, instead of "thinks". The inadequacy of English as an international language has catastrophic consequences on aviation. Just ask pilots.
  6. English has many international words with a meaning different from international use. Think of the plight of Danish Minister Helle Degn who meant to say, at the outset of an international meeting, that she had just taken up her functions and said: "I'm at the beginning of my period". It is much easier to be ridiculous in English, if you are not a native speaker, than in Esperanto. So Esperanto is fairer (or is it more fair?) than English, or, for that matter, than any other national language, as a means of intercultural communication.
  7. Of all the foreign languages that can be learned, Esperanto is the most cost effective as to the relationship between effort and ability to communicate. On an average, one month of Esperanto affords a communication level equivalent to one year of another language.

I could list many other reasons to learn Esperanto, including that it's great fun to form freely, yourself, hilarious words that can be immediately understood by people from all over the world, but I have already taken up too much of your time. I have dealt with many aspects of the question in a book, which, unfortunately, exists only in French: Le defi des langues (The Language Challenge), Paris: L'Harmattan, 1994. Maybe students who read French might be interested in it.

Yours sincerely,

Claude Piron

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Web Links &c.

Best Jump Site: Ligiloj
www.esperanto.org An overview in several languages.
The on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia contains an article about Esperanto, of course, as well as an all-Esperanto version called Vikipedio with countless articles in Esperanto about other things.
David Wolf 2003 Questions and Answers About Esperanto: A Guide for Activists (PDF File 129K, 22 pages) is a pamphlet full of FAQs about Esperanto and up-beat answers to them.
esperanto-usa.org Another starting point for information about Esperanto, sponsored by the Esperanto League for North America, an advocacy group officially affiliated with the Universal Espeanto Association. The League can also be reached within the United States by telephoning 1-800-ESPERANTO or sending Email to info@esperanto-usa.org.
A particularly fecund site, full of useful links and interesting persepctives, created by the late Don Harlow. Chapters from his work The Esperanto Book are particularly interesting. (The site has not been updated since Harlow's death, so you may find some parts awkward to navigate.)
A number of excellent English-language articles about Esperanto are published on-line by the Esperantic Studies Foundation. (Link)
Esperanto ĉe la Universitato de Roĉestro Links and other materials from the University of Rochester.
What Esperanto Looks Like
An Esperanto version of Wikipedia
How Esperanto Sounds
A Fable from Anderson, with text, nicely read in Esperanto
Readings from literature in RealAudio format is an excellent experience of the sound of Esperanto, although for some reason most of the works selected are translations, often from English originals. That kind of misses the point.
Radioarkivo is a major archive of selected radio broadcasts
Language Learning
Being Colloquial in Esperanto
A reference book I published for English speakers with a basic knowledge of Esperanto.)/dd>
The most comprehensive web-based instructional site. It includes a free Esperanto course in about 20 languages. You can browse anonymously, but to take a real course, you must register, and in the end they strongly recommend that your work be reviewed by a living teacher (provided free through the same site). (In the U.S., the link defaults to the English version of the site, complete with irrelevant ads running across the top and bottom.)
An Espersanto course for English speakers that has been well received and seems to involve less entanglement with human watchbirds.
edukado.net A wonderful source for teachers of Esperanto. Not everybody will find the navigation of this site obvious, but it includes a real wealth of old and new instructional material, with critical notes offered by teachers of Esperanto.
Academic Sources
The Esperantic Studies Foundation sponsors academic research on Esperanto and the contexts in which it is or might be used. Further information in English may be had from its excellent web page. Current and back copies of its newsletter, Esperantic Studies, are particularly interesting on this site

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