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Esperanto is a constructed international auxiliary language (auxlang) invented in the late 1800s by a Russian citizen, Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof, as a replacement for other "international" languages such as English, French, and Latin, with the intent of
creatdeveloping a language with no attachments to any existing body. The name comes from the pseudonym that Zamenhof used in his original publication covering the language, meaning "one who hopes" (in Esperanto); the original title given by Zamenhof for the language was simply a descriptive name, "Lingvo Internacia" (international language).
The language has something of the status of a grassroots movement. It rose to prominence in the aftermath of Johann Schleyer's Volapük[note 1] (which survives today mostly in a few old books and as a silly Russian slang word for a form of chatroom Cyrillic transliteration, although there is also still a Volapük movement); Esperanto filled the same need as Volapük as a politically neutral auxiliary language, but eliminated much of the grammatical complexity, bizarre word mutation, and confusing pronunciation that had decimated the international auxiliary language community.[note 2] Esperanto is still thought - certainly by its proponents - to be the most successful auxlang ever invented (the "runner-up" being Volapük), but no real statistics exist on the number of speakers it has.
The language itself uses mostly an Indo-European vocabulary. Its grammar is Indo-European with respect to verbs,[note 3] but its system of agglutination more closely resembles the Finno-Ugric languages, without vowel harmony and with a strong bias towards simplification. There is also a verbal causative suffix, -ig-, that has no exact equivalent in the Indo-European languages and was probably influenced by Hebrew.[note 4] The word list draws (somewhat arbitrarily) from most of the languages prominent in international discourse at the time, notably English, German, French, Latin, Russian, Yiddish, and a bit of Polish. Many previous auxlang proposals had focused primarily on a single language for grammar and vocabulary.[note 5]
Conspiracy theories and hands-on persecution
There's a fair amount of criticism surrounding the language and movement. It tends to evoke very strong and emotional reactions, even in people who have never looked at or heard a word of the language.
While Esperanto is fairly inoffensive in itself, it seems to have raised the ire of a number of different groups. Having arisen in the late 19th century, it was subject to the antisemitic zeitgeist, as Zamenhof was ethnically Jewish. In the wake of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and prior to their exposure as a forgery, antisemitic conspiracy theories ran rampant in Europe on both the left and right.[note 6] Anticipating backlash, the early movement took pains to hide Zamenhof's Jewishness, though this eventually proved unsuccessful. Adolf Hitler classed Esperanto as a Jewish language meant to enslave the minds of non-Jews, a story oddly similar to J.R.R. Tolkien's Black Speech. Stalin initially tolerated the language but later persecuted Esperantists, calling it "the language of spies."[note 7] Far too many Esperantists ended up paying with their lives — for what is essentially a hobby. In another nasty twist of fate, all of Dr Zamenhof's children ended up dying in Nazi concentration camps.
However, on the flipside, Esperanto has been used by some far-left groups. The Yugoslav leader Tito is also known to have been a speaker, and in fact encouraged its use. The Ayatollah Khomeini apparently condoned its use as well, until he found out Esperanto is one of the Bahá'í religion's pet projects.[note 8] Bahais are not very popular with the Shia fundamentalist government of Iran. Fascist Italy also liked Esperanto, because it has lots of phonetic similarities with Italian.
Not surprisingly, as a proposed global language, Esperanto has drawn the fire of conspiracy theorists, who, like Hitler, consider it a weapon of any combination of the Zionist Occupation Government, freemasonry, the Illuminati, cultural Marxist academics, and George Soros (who was raised by his father as a native speaker or "denaskulo"). Some Christian fundamentalists have classified it as a Satanic language, despite the fact that a significant number of Esperantists are devout Christians and the Bible is available in the language.[note 9] There are also at least three translations of the Qur'an into Esperanto, plus translations of the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Dhammapada, among many other religious works.[note 10]
There is also a fair amount of controversy over exactly how the language is supposed to be developed; the project forked early on, with a competing language, Ido, created by Esperantists who felt quite strongly that the language's grammar needed to be more precise. Many Esperantists consider Zamenhof's work to be immutable;[note 11] the practical reason given is to preserve intercommunicability and prevent the development of dialects, though it's not uncommon to find a fundamentalist mindset and even a bit of persecution complex among some speakers (not entirely unjustified given the movement's history).
Some, especially authors of constructed languages, hold up Esperanto as an example of how not to design a language. Zamenhof was not a trained linguist and therefore made a number of choices that, even where they exist in natural languages, are often considered unacceptable in a constructed language with pretensions of universalism:
- The primary document of the language, the Fundamento, misleadingly gives the language a 16-rule grammar, then goes on to elaborate upon it with a series of practical examples of the language called the Ekzercaro, which serve by means of example to create a much more complex grammar. Systematic grammars of Esperanto, usually derived from a combination of the 16 rules and the Ekzercaro, are longer than 16 rules and weirdly ambiguous.[note 12] There are also contradictions between the Gramatiko and the Ekzercaro, such as a pronoun that exists only in the Ekzercaro, ci. These contradictions have never been ironed out because the Fundamento itself is considered immutable.
- The two-case noun system can be seen as unnecessary complexity for speakers of languages with no real case marking, or that have lost most of their case marking. It is often explained by analogy to English I/me, he/him, she/her and French je/me, tu/te, etc. Of course, it is less difficult for speakers of languages that still mark direct objects, such as German,[note 13] Turkish, Japanese,[note 14] Hungarian, Finnish, Slavic languages, and Modern Standard Arabic.
- Many common concepts, such as "bad" and "left," have no dedicated root, and are formed using a prefix attached to their antonym. This prefix, derived from a secondary meaning of a French prefix, is mal-, so in order to say "bad" you actually say malbona, which sounds ridiculous to speakers of Romance languages, like saying "badgood" to mean "bad." Incidentally, this was the inspiration for George Orwell's Newspeak.
- The vocabulary and affix systems are gender-asymmetrical, leading to allegations of sexism[note 15] where many female-specific words are simply derived from male-specific words with the addition of the suffix -ino. There are far fewer words that are inherently female than inherently male, even to the point of using patrino, a derivative of the masculine patro, for "mother."[note 16] The standard masculine prefix in Esperanto is vir-, but some people find this insufficient and have created a non-standard, explicit masculine suffix, -iĉo (Paired with rendering all default male roots as gender neutral). Singular inclusive language is not possible in strictly standard Esperanto, though it can sometimes be worked around using plural speech, where the prefix "ge" can be used to describe a gender-neutral group (e.g. "gepatroj", parents); one could arguably use "ge" with singulars to indicate whether any particular gender might fill the role, but this is not standard. More recently there have been some moves to ameliorate some of the gender differentiation in the language.
- There are three separate third-person pronouns: li (he), ŝi (she), ĝi (it). To a speaker of English this might appear normal and even necessary to avoid ambiguity, but many other languages, such as Hungarian, Turkish, and Chinese, have absolutely no gender distinction in their pronouns.[note 17] According to the World Atlas of Language Structures, the majority of world languages have no such distinction. This system came under criticism from feminists in the 1970s, leading to the creation of an all-encompassing pronoun ri that has never been officially adopted. In recent years, as the world has become more aware of non-binary people, the pronoun ri has been getting more attention, and this may be its best chance for eventual officialization.[note 18]
- The phonology may be difficult for monolingual native speakers of many non-Indo-European languages. It is highly influenced by and closest to Belarusian, a rather obscure language for most people. While the vowel system is simple enough, there is a fairly high number of consonants and somewhat difficult consonantal clusters. Highly difficult consonant clusters are possible in the word formation such as dormĉambro (-rmch-), which could alternatively be written or spoken as dormoĉambro without being the least bit incorrect. Still, consonant clusters are common even in basic vocabulary (/stsientso/ for science), and some languages don't even allow those at all (like Hawai'ian and other Austronesian languages) or highly restrict them (Japanese allows "n + any consonant" only). For this reason, Esperanto's non-European speakers find Esperanto more difficult to learn than Europeans do, although they find it much easier to learn than English.
- The Esperanto alphabet has five consonants — ĉ ĝ ĥ ĵ and ŝ — with a circumflex diacritic over them (usually replaced with a "h" or "x" in ASCII text)[note 19]. This is highly nonstandard typographically, borrowing from and conforming to no system used in any natural language's orthography standard.
- Oddly, all Esperanto verbs are inherently either intransitive or transitive. For example, the Esperanto verb bruli means "to burn", but only in the sense "to be on fire". To make the verb transitive, a causative suffix must be added: bruligi, "to set (something) on fire". Inherently transitive verbs such as vidi "to see (something)" must take a suffix -- vidiĝi ("to appear, seem") -- before they can be used without a direct object. Whether a verb is inherently transitive or intransitive, as these examples show, cannot be determined from the citation form.
- Nearly all of the vocabulary is drawn from Indo-European languages, and specifically from European ones.
Responses to criticisms
Those who still wish for Esperanto to be an international language[note 20] often point out that points 2 and 6 apply much more to the current de facto international language, English, than to Esperanto. English has three cases (nominative, oblique, and genitive) that are irregularly applied, one of the most complex syllabic structures of any language, anywhere from fourteen to twenty-four separate vowels and diphthongs, and two very uncommon sounds represented by the digraph th. Point 5 applies equally to English as to Esperanto. Point 7 sounds bad until you compare it to the chaotic etymological orthography of English, which takes much longer to memorize than it takes to configure your keyboard to type Esperanto diacritics. And while Esperanto's grammar takes more than 16 rules to explain, it's nothing compared to that of English, which grammarians still haven't quite figured out yet.
Another common response to such criticism is the theory vs. practice argument: there has never been a single example of a more practically successful constructed universal language. The languages often pointed out as superior to Esperanto are relative lightweights to say the least. There have been an endless series of projects purporting to be better than Esperanto, such as the language Ido, which once had a very large movement. The reforms introduced in Ido included:
- a more detailed grammar;
- only marginal use of an accusative case;
- dedicated roots for common concepts;
- the more international opposite-forming prefix des-;
- gender symmetry, with masculine words formed using the suffix -ulo and feminine words with the suffix -ino;[note 21]
- a genderless third-person pronoun, lu;
- no diacritics whatsoever, only the standard Latin alphabet.
Yet it very quickly lost steam and died out. Its community is very small nowadays, despite the fact that Ido is about as old as the Fundamento de Esperanto, the book that fixed Esperanto's basic grammar, and despite the fact that it once had plenty of momentum.
Interlingua has been around since the 1950s, although the roots of its movement date back to a pre-Esperanto language called Latino Sine Flexione. Hence, Interlingua's movement can be said to have dated back before Esperanto even started, and it has never picked up the sort of momentum that Esperanto or even Ido has picked up.
Culture, or lack thereof
Inside and outside the Esperanto movement, people have referred to it as a cult, or as having cult-like traits. Though Zamenhof is long dead, he was a very charismatic leader, and is still looked up to by many within the movement as a god-like figure. He wrote a great deal of utopian poetry, often even centered around the language itself. Since his death, a considerable number of people have written similarly idyllic poetry about him.
Esperanto has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been adopted by utopian religious movements throughout its history. The earliest such movement was created by Zamenhof himself, who dubbed his personal set of religious beliefs Homaranismo (usually rendered in English as “Humanitism”). Zamenhof was Jewish, and Homaranismo is accordingly based on Judaism, especially the teachings of the Talmudic rabbi Hillel the Elder. There is also a significant Esperantist community within the Bahá'í, and `Abdu'l-Bahá, a central figure in the religion’s development, praised Esperanto in a 1913 speech as a potential tool for peace. However, the Bahá'í faith has stopped short of endorsing any specific language as a global lingua franca. The Japanese religious movement Oomoto has gone considerably farther in encouraging its adherents to use learn and use Esperanto and in elevating Esperanto to the status of a liturgical language, and has even deified Zamenhof himself:
…[T]he spirit of Zamenhof even now continues to act as a missionary of the angelic kingdom; therefore, his spirit was deified in the Senrei-sha shrine.[note 22]
Within the Esperanto movement itself, there are different shades of opinion on the language's status as a future "universal language." The vast majority of Esperantists see it as more of a hobby with a very colorful history, that would be a good universal language if everyone spoke it, but has no chance of ever actually being adopted. In 1980 a manifesto was published by youth in Rauma, Finland saying that Esperanto was probably never going to be an international language, but that Esperantists belonged to a "self-chosen language minority diaspora," and that the benefits of Esperanto included (to paraphrase) serving as a stepping stone to other languages, contact between people of various cultures without discrimination, and a "new type of world culture" shared by Esperantists. Though their goal was to get the movement away from its utopian visions, some people took this to another extreme and started a micronation called the Esperanta Civito, ultimately drawing their own accusations of being a cult.
Regarding the "new type of world culture," a very common critique of Esperanto involves its potential homogenizing effect.[note 23] Were the entire world to adopt Esperanto, the practical result would probably be the death of a large number of minority languages, even if Esperantists had the best of intentions to keep these languages alive. Some of the more politically radical members of the Esperanto movement have promoted an ideology called "anationalism," encouraging homogenization, although this ideology is unpopular even among most radical Esperantists.
An unrelated and probably contradictory criticism is that Esperanto has no culture of its own. Some people see the cult-like aspects of Esperanto as extreme manifestations of Esperanto culture, which also demonstrate that such a thing exists.
J.R.R. Tolkien is probably the foremost philologist to have commented on Esperanto’s cultural merits. Tolkien learned Esperanto to some extent as a teenager, but he would later state that apart from occasionally taking notes in it, he never made much use of, nor gained a strong command of the language. Nevertheless, Tolkien publicly praised Esperanto in the 1930s, and for a while supported efforts to advance the language in England. Tolkien himself was a prolific inventor of languages, but for artistic purposes[note 24], and so the standards by which he judged Esperanto differed from those of more politically-minded Esperantists. Much of Tolkien’s admiration for Esperanto came from the fact that Zamenhof had invented the language singlehandedly, and also from his hope that in time, Esperanto would develop a culture of its own, complete with a rich internal body of mythology. Indeed, Tolkien later invoked an apparent lack of Esperanto mythology when he declared it “dead, far deader than ancient unused languages.”
One of the most common criticisms of Esperanto revolves around its artificiality, and the question of whether an artificial language can be a language at all. Noam Chomsky recently added to this controversy, claiming that Esperanto was not a language but a dictionary and grammar book. Esperantists often counter this by pointing out that humans use lots of artificial things, such as roads, houses, medicine, cooked meals, cellular phones, and computers, to do things that used to be done "naturally." Hating artificial languages for being artificial is, by this argument, exactly as rational as vitalism, fear of GMOs, or anarcho-primitivism.
For fun, here are a few "false friends", i.e. words that look or sound similar to various English ones, but have a completely different meaning.
- adulti - to commit adultery
- atendi - to wait
- bildo - picture
- blanka - white
- demandi - to ask
- dika - thick
- dungo - employment
- farti - to fare, as in "Kiel vi fartas?" ("How are you?")
- fake - by specialization
- flava - yellow
- foresto - absence
- frazo - sentence
- homo - human
- jam - already
- Mi longe penis - I tried for a long time
- novelo - short story
- piĉo (sounds like "peacho") - cunt
- pretendi - to claim
- romano - novel
- ŝati (sounds like "shatee") - to like
- UK - abbreviation for "Universala Kongreso", the Esperanto World Congress
The Green Star
The first edition of the Fundamento was bound in a cover with bright green stars on it, because that was the only cover the printer had lying around that day. As a result, the green star quickly became the emblem for Esperanto, to the point where you can now buy Esperanto stickpins that display a green star.
Of course, this meant that green became the official color for Esperanto and for the Esperanto movement. This causes no end of confusion with environmentalism, whose advocates also use green as their color. The fact that it uses the same color as another worldwide movement has thus far not caused major headaches.
On the whole, Esperantists are mostly sane and well-meaning people, and there's no harm in learning it and becoming part of the community. However, the Auxlang community is known to be rather quick to fight and stir up trouble, and the Esperanto community, being the largest single portion of it, is no exception. It is a relatively easy language for just about anyone to learn,[note 25] though speaking it is not typically as easy as many proponents may claim, especially if the speaker is not familiar with European languages.
- Esperanto.net—Language information in English
- Vikipedio: Wikipedia in Esperanto
- Justin B. Rye's extensive fisking of the Esperanto language and culture
- Rebuttal to Rye's site by Claude Piron
- On a Critic of Esperanto by Claude Piron
- From two words, "vola" (genitive of "vol") and "pük", both taken from English meaning ... "World" and "speech". No, we're serious.
- Yes, it literally killed every tenth new language… it was that horrible. Like listening to Vogon poetry in Ubbi Dubbi.
- In the sense that Esperanto verbs have morphological past, present, and future tenses, imperative/jussive and conditional moods, and more complex tenses formed with participles.
- Hence manĝ-ig-i ("cause someone to eat", or feed); compare Hebrew לִמֵּד ("cause someone to learn", or teach). The closest Indo-European has are certain verbs derived from adjectives, such as Latin "magn-ificare," represented in both Esperanto and Hebrew the same way as the verbal causative: Esperanto "grand-ig-i", Hebrew גִּדֵּל. Even this is not an inherent feature of Indo-European, but derived from the Latin magnum facere.
- Volapük used heavily modified English words with a grammar that most closely resembles conservative Germanic languages (although oddly, verbs inflect for gender as in Arabic or Hebrew), Universalglot used the Spanish/Italian-like Romance languages but not Latin itself, Communicationssprache used French, and Solresol is based on no natural language.
- An example on the left was the collectivist anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
- Possibly because Esperanto was popular among communists and the ever-paranoid Stalin didn't speak it.
- The Baha'i faith does not endorse Esperanto in any way, although a minority of Baha'i's speak Esperanto and advocate for its adoption.
- Unsurprisingly, given that almost any language has a Bible translation — some languages are even almost entirely lost to the historical record — except for their Bible translation; Gothic for one. However, Esperanto is arguably one of only two constructed languages with a fully translated Bible. The other would be Charles Ogden's Basic English, although this is debatably not a constructed language, so Esperanto might be the only one to date. Some others, such as Interlingua and Volapük, have the full New Testament and parts of the Old Testament. There are currently Klingon, Quenya, and Na'vi translation projects, but nothing presentable yet.
- There seems to be a close connection between religious fanaticism, or other forms of idealism, and fanaticism for Esperanto. Zamenhof even went so far as to invent his own religion, called Homaranismo (literally, member-of-humanity-ism).
- In fact, Zamenhof designed certain aspects of his language to be immutable. The extent to which this applies to certain things is a matter of constant, tiresome debate.
- The most complicated of these is the Plena Analiza Gramatiko de Esperanto (Complete Analytic Grammar of Esperanto) originally published by Kalman Kalocsay and Gaston Waringhien in 1935. The most well-known and widely-used grammar today is the Plena Manlibro de Esperanto Gramatiko (Full Handbook of Esperanto Grammar), by Bertilo Wennergren.
- In the masculine singular: Der Apfel ist gut vs. Ich habe den Apfel gegessen.
- The postposition を (o).
- While this is true of many natural languages as well, the issue is whether such a situation is appropriate in a constructed language with an explicitly political, arguably left-wing mission.
- In this regard, Esperanto takes minimalism to an extreme: as stated above, the "proper" word for "bad" is literally "dis-good" (malbona). As such "patrino" is suffering the same fate; however, many feel that such a situation is still unacceptable.
- Although Chinese characters written after European contact have sometimes distinguished male and female, corresponding to no spoken equivalent.
- Obviously, non-binary people have never actually needed to wait for their existence to be declared official, in Esperanto or any other language.
- The letter ŭ has a breve diacritic, not a circumflex diacritic; in ASCII text, it is usually replaced with a plain u, as it is only found in diphthongs. It can also be replaced with a "w" or "ux". Of course, Unicode has existed for a very long time now, so there has been no need to render Esperanto in ASCII for a long time, and you only see it in older websites or, rarely, in chatrooms.
- These people, known as finvenkistoj, are often mocked within the broader community.
- In Esperanto the suffix -ulo forms a word for a person or being: bona good, bonulo good person. Ironically, it is inherently genderless.
- The original text reads: ...[L]a spirito de Zamenhof eĉ nun daŭre agadas kiel misiisto de la anĝela regno; do, lia spirito estis.
- Alexander Gode, author of Interlingua, was a noted proponent of this criticism, and hence never saw his language as a universal one, despite many members of the movement feeling differently.
- Quenya and Sindarin, the two most complete of Tolkien’s languages, were meant to resemble natural languages, and are thus irregular languages, with no significant similarities to Esperanto that can’t be explained as similarities to natural languages that Esperanto is based upon.
- So they say.
- Psychological Reactions to Esperanto
- Árpád Rátkai, Informfalsantoj kontraŭ Lazar Markoviĉ Zamenhof, Beletra Almanako, issue 22 (February 2015).
- Adolf Hitler considered Esperantists to be part of the International Jewish Conspiracy (as he explained in Mein Kampf), and therefore needed to be destroyed. A brief article (in Esperanto) on Nazi-era language politics surrounding Esperanto and a translation.
- An article in Spanish about the Holocaust and its effects on the Esperanto community.
- "Donald J. Harlow, The Esperanto Book, chapter 7". Donh.best.vwh.net. http://donh.best.vwh.net/Esperanto/EBook/chap07.html. Retrieved 2010-12-05.
- See the Wikipedia article on L. L. Zamenhof.
- Lins, Ulrich (2008). "Esperanto as language and idea in China and Japan" (PDF). Language Problems and Language Planning (John Benjamins) 32 (1): 47–60. ISSN 0272–2690. http://benjamins.com/series/lplp/32-1/art/05lin.pdf. Retrieved July 2, 2012.
- La utilización del esperanto durante la Guerra Civil Española, Toño del Barrio and Ulrich Lins. Paper for the International Congress on the Spanish Civil War, (Madrid, 27–29 November 2006).
- Esperanto: The World's Most Popular Constructed Language, Part 1
- The billionaire native Esperanto speaker?
- B. A. Sherwood., Statistical analysis of conversational Esperanto, with discussion of the accusative. Studies in the Linguistic Sciences, 1982.
- "Demandoj kaj Respondoj". Ōmoto. http://www.oomoto.or.jp/Esperanto/esDokt/demres.html. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
- Here's a good video about the differences between Finvenkismo and Raǔmismo