A Whirlwind Guide to Esperanto

So after I wrote my last post, I heard from several people that they’d vaguely heard of this Esperanto thing, didn’t know anything about it, could I please tell them a little more? Absolutely! Enjoy!

Note: Some of this may be somewhat factually inaccurate, as I am only a komencanto (beginner) and working off about six months casual learning.

The quest for a universal language

The history of human language is long and fascinating. There are over 6000 spoken languages in the world currently, and there have been many thousands more lost in the sands of time. It’s no surprise that we seek ways to improve our communication, make ourselves more heard, what better way than if we could all speak the same language? And because all of our current languages are so imperfect and flawed, wouldn’t it be great if someone (or a group of people) designed this one perfect language we could all share? They could make it simple, straightforward, easy to learn, easy to use, and the world would be a much better place. Or so the theory goes.

Would it surprise you to know that the very first constructed language (abbreviated as conlang) was the Lingua Ignota, and it was designed way back in the twelfth century? It sure surprised me!

There are a few more known conlangs dating from the 1600s, and the number steadily grows moving forward into the 1800s. By then, the idea of a universal language was dying, but the idea of an auxiliary language for the world was becoming more popular. An auxillary language (or auxlang) would be a second language for everyone to communicate in, instead of replacing their native tongue. It would make international trade and travel easier, and because it wouldn’t be native for anyone, it wouldn’t have any kinds of natural biases associated.

The late 1800s were a great time for conlangs and auxlangs. Volapük, created in 1879, was arguably the most famous of the lot. It got so popular that international conventions were held for the language, and in the language - the first time this had happened. But then in 1887, everything changed.

A Zamenhof was born

L. L. Zamenhof was born in what is now Poland, in 1859. In 1887, after many years’ work, he released his own version of an auxlang for the world. He called it the “Lingvo Internacia”, but he released his founding work of the language under the pen name “Doktoro Esperanto” (Doctor Hopeful). Soon, everyone started calling the language “Esperanto”. And the rest is history.

(It’s not that simple, is it?)

Not really, but it sounds good doesn’t it!

Pri la lingvo (About the language)

Being born in then-Russia, and having exposure to many languages such as Russian, Polish, Hebrew, German, French, Belarusian, and Yiddish; the language of Esperanto is very eastern-European-focused. However, having any passing knowledge of any European language means that you’ll be able to understand at least a few words of Esperanto, and the overall sentence structure will look at least vaguely familiar.

It’s designed to be easy to pick up and get going - it’s almost completely regular. It contains simple grammar rules like the following:

  • All nouns end in -o, eg. ludo (game), lingvo (language), kato (cat), televidilo (television), tablo (table), aŭto (car)
  • All adjectives end in -a, eg. bona (good), mojosa (cool), flua (fluent), perfekta (perfect), rapida (fast), granda (large)
  • All adverbs are created by changing the -a in an adjective to -e, eg. bone (well), flue (fluently), rapide (quickly)
  • All verb conjugation is regular, and done via changing the suffix of the root word. eg. ludi (to play), mi ludas (I play), ŝi ludis (she played), ili ludos (they will play).
  • Plurals are formed by adding a -j suffix (pronounced as a “y”) - you can have ludoj, and each ludo has reguloj (rules) and ludantoj (players).

(Eagle eyes may also pick up that you could be a ludanto that ludas a ludo, ie. be a player that plays a game)

For some full sentences in Esperanto (that may contain small traces of grammatical errors):

  • Bonan matenon! Kiel vi fartas? - Good morning! How are you?
  • Tiu blanka kato manĝas tro da manĝaĵon. - That white cat eats too much food.
  • Programi estas mojosa profesio, mi ĝuas ĝin multe - Programming is a cool profession, I enjoy it a lot :)
  • Mia celo por aprilo estas skribi mil vortojn ĉiutage. - My goal for April is to write a thousand words every day.
  • Mi deziras, ke mi povis paroli Esperanton flue! - I wish I could speak Esperanto fluently!

Does anyone really speak it, though?

More people than you’d think!

The language has enjoyed a small but devoted following mainly in eastern Europe (for obvious reasons) since its release. However, pockets of Esperanto-speaking communities have sprung up all over the world - in Brazil, in Japan, in parts of North America.

It has achieved some of its desired goals of being a worldwide auxiliary language - China publishes its China Radio International news in Esperanto, as well as a regular journal called El Popola Ĉinio (Of Popular China). Every year, the Universala Kongreso de Esperanto (World Esperanto Congress) is held in a different city around the world, a festival for Esperantists to gather, socialize, and celebrate the language and culture they’ve developed.

In May 2015, the Esperanto course was added to Duolingo, the online language learning site - since then, over 349,000 users have started learning it! (I’m one of them!)

The language has been around long enough that self-taught Esperanto speakers have taught the language to their children, making real native Esperanto speakers. It’s estimated that by now there may even be some second- or third-generational native speakers around the world.

And there was even a pitch to make Esperanto the official language of its own country - the proposed country of Neutral Moresnet, located between Belgium and Germany. It never got off the ground, but it would have been a great place for the Esperanto movement to call “home”!

It’s just a language? Does it have a community?

It does! I mentioned the Universala Kongreso de Esperanto before, but that’s just one of many Esperanto events held around the world.

Most countries and major cities have their own Esperanto associations and gatherings. Esperanto USA is not just an association of user groups, it’s one of the largest Esperanto education sites in the world. Locally in Australia, we have the AEA. There are Meetup groups, IRC channels, Slack communities and more.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Pasporta Servo, a service for Esperanto speakers to find other Esperanto speakers to stay with, around the world. A lot of people apparently use it for travel and cheap lodging - I don’t know if I’d be game to try it, but it sounds nifty!

But why are you learning it?

A couple of reasons:

  1. It’s easier than any other language I’ve seen. I spent a dozen years learning Italian through school, several learning Japanese (including at university), and have some exposure to German; I made progress in all of them, but not enough to feel like I was actually achieving anything.
  2. The novelty factor. The common response I get when I tell people I’m learning Esperanto is “huh, I’ve vaguely heard of that, is that a real thing?” Yes it is, and here we are :)
  3. The gamification on Duolingo (curse you…..)
  4. It’s just plain fun!

As now, as I’m running out of things to talk about, I’ll leave you with a set of links where you can learn more about Esperanto if you are so inclined:

A big ol’ pile of Further Information

Some interesting YouTube clips, both in and about Esperanto:

And books about Esperanto, and conlangs in general:

If I come up with more links I’ll add them to the list, but in the meantime, I have more Esperanto to practice :)

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