“One who hopes” The Promise of Esperanto

By Wassim Nassif

How do you get a German, a Lithuanian, a Yiddish-speaking Jew, a Pole, and a Russian to resolve their differences when there is no common language among them? Such was the dilemma faced by Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist living in Bialystok, a small rural village in northeastern Poland (then a part of the Russian empire), in the 1870s.

Zamenhof believed that much of the distrust and misunderstanding among his ethnic neighbors was the result of their simple inability to communicate, stemming from the differences in their various languages. This led him to believe that the creation of a neutral lingua franca—in effect, an international language—would, by breaking down the barriers to communication, open up social and economic understanding not only in his small rural community, but possibly on a much wider and more universal scale as well.

Thus Zamenhof embarked on a ten-year odyssey of researching and developing what would eventually become the constructed language Esperanto. The fruits of that labor, the Unua Libro de Esperanto (First Book of Esperanto), was published in 1887.

History of the language

Esperanto was conceived by Zamenhof as a language that would be simple to learn for speakers of any of the world’s languages—surely a daunting challenge. At the beginnings of his efforts, he contemplated a revival of Latin as a potential solution, but soon realized the language would prove too difficult for the task. Upon learning English, however, Zamenhof noted several grammatical structures that seemed advantageous—such as the fact that comprehension was not dependent upon how verbs were conjugated—which suggested concepts that would later be incorporated into his finished language.

Zamenhof still had the problem of a large vocabulary base, and how to develop a method of constructing words in an efficient manner. The solution came to him when, upon strolling down a road, he encountered two signs: “vejcarskaja” (Russian for porter’s lodge—place of the porter) and “konditorskaja” (confectioner’s shop—place of sweets). Reflecting on the structure of these nouns, he realized that the proper use of suffixes could greatly decrease the number of words needed in the vocabulary—a lexicon which in turn was chosen to be recognizable by the greatest number of speakers of the greatest number of languages. As a test of his emerging language, Zamenhof worked on translations and poetry to determine which of his linguistic theories really worked, and which needed to be discarded as being overly cumbersome or ungainly.

While at university in the early 1880s, Zamenhof set aside his ambitious linguistic project until he could complete his medical studies. During that time, he had handed his work over to his father for safekeeping. Unbeknownst to the younger Zamenhof, however, his father, thinking the project was pointless, burned the work. All that remained were four lines of a song Zamenhof had written. Devastated but undaunted, he bravely restarted work to prepare a new language textbook—the effort that resulted, in 1887, in the publication of the Unua Libro.

Learning Esperanto

Esperanto is not genetically related to any of the natural languages. However, its phonology and vocabulary were influenced by Indo-European languages, specifically those used by the ethnic populations of Bialystok. As a second language, therefore, Esperanto is far easier to learn if one is already a speaker of any of those European languages, than if one is a speaker of other natural languages—especially highly irregular, non-phonetic languages such as Chinese, English, or French.

There is also evidence that studying Esperanto before studying any other second language, especially an Indo-European language, speeds and improves learning. Learning subsequent foreign languages is easier than learning one’s first, where the use of a grammatically simple auxiliary language lessens the “first foreign language” learning complications. In one study, a group of students who studied Esperanto for one year, then French for three years, ended up with a better command of French than the control group, who studied French without Esperanto for four years.

Most of Esperanto’s vocabulary is made up of Latin, Greek, English, French, German, and some other Indo-European roots, with a few words from Slavic languages. It has a very logical structure, with similar suffixes for the same parts of speech; for example, -o for nouns, and –a for adjectives. Its phonetic alphabet—consisting of 28 letters, mainly a modified version of the Latin alphabet—ensures that all words are pronounced the way they are written, and vice versa. The alphabet does not include the letters q, w, x, and y, but adds six accented letters: c, g, h, j, and s with circumflex accent and u with breve accent, as well as several created letters that are not found on any national computer keyboard.

Esperanto has a relatively regular grammar, as well. As an agglutinative, or “combined” language, it has no grammatical genders and limited regular verb conjugation. Nouns and adjectives have two cases, nominative and accusative, and two numbers, singular and plural. Nouns and adjectives must agree in case and number. Verbs do not agree with their subjects. The accusative ending can be used to show the destination of a motion, or to replace certain prepositions when preferred. This allows for a more flexible word order, such as that found in Greek, Latin, and Russian.

Despite Esperanto’s somewhat clinical-sounding rules for building words and sentences, these very guidelines lead to a great deal of double meanings, and in fact Eperantists are quite fond of wordplay and humor based on their language.

Esperanto today

Today, Esperanto is the most widely spoken of the constructed languages. While not an official language of any country, it is nonetheless the official working language of several non-profit organizations, mostly Esperanto organizations. In addition, UNESCO has recognized the value of Esperanto in two different resolutions.

A survey of the number of Esperanto speakers worldwide by SIL International—a service organization that works with people who speak the world’s lesser-known languages—found that 1.6 million people speak Esperanto at a level that goes beyond greetings and simple phrases. There are even, the survey found, between 200 to 2,000 native Esperantists—individuals for whom Esperanto is actually akin to a first language!

People often learn Esperanto online through websites like lernu! (http://www.lernu.net/). The word lernu is Esperanto for “learn,” in the imperative mood. Lernu! is a multi-lingual website, whose goal is to inform the community of Internet users about Esperanto and help them learn the language, easily and free of charge. The courses designed to teach Esperanto are arranged to suit varying levels of difficulty. Students who encounter any problems can get help from live tutors.

Despite representing only a tiny fraction of the world’s population, and thus falling far short of Zamenhof ’s goal of a universal language, Esperanto remains a passionate dream for its adherents. Building on the legacy of Zamenhof ’s vision—developed as a result of the unhappy and sometimes violent misunderstandings he witnessed in his home village of Bialystock—these standard-bearers continue to keep the flame alive, for worldwide understanding, equality among nations, and mutual respect among peoples and countries.

“Esperanto,” after all, means “One who hopes.”

For more information
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The Bay Area is the home of Esperanto-Ligo por Norda Ameriko (The Esperanto League for North America, a National Esperanto Association, http://www.esperanto-usa.org/), as well as the San Francisco Esperanto Regional Organization (http://ttt.esperanto.org/us/SFERO/) and the League of East Bay Esperantists, both of which have offices in Oakland.

How to say it in Esperanto
Creative Therapy Associates’ famous “How Are You Feeling Today?” poster/postcard reproduced on Translorial page 19 is also published in Esperanto by AIMS International Books (www.aimsbooks.com). In English, the emotions are, from right to left and top to bottom: Exhausted, Confused, Ecstatic, Guilty, Suspicious, Angry, Hysterical, Frustrated, Sad, Confident, Embarrassed, Happy, Mischievous, Disgusted, Frightened, Enraged, Ashamed, Cautious, Smug, Depressed, Overwhelmed, Hopeful, Lonely, Lovestruck, Jealous, Bored, Surprised, Anxious, Shocked, and Shy.

Other common expressions
Hello: Saluton [rough pronunciation: sa-LOO-ton]
Goodbye: Is revido [jis reh-VEE-do]
I love you: Mi amas vin [mee AH-mahs veen]
Thank you: Dankon [DAHN-kon]

Test yourself
What does it mean: Unu bieron, mi petas. [Oo-noo BEE-airon, mee PEH-tahs]

Answer: “Beer, please!”

Just for fun

According to a February 25, 2004, press release, the Esperanto version of the Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org)—an open-content, polyglot encyclopedia—had 11,000 articles, making it the tenthlargest language in the Wikipedia.

The first film produced in Esperanto was called Angoroj (1964). Incubus, produced a year later, starred William Shatner, himself an Esperantist; it is the only known professionally produced feature film with entirely Esperanto dialogue.

Besides Esperanto, the most famous constructed languages are the Klingon and Vulcan languages of the movie and TV series Star Trek, and the languages of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle-earth mythologies (Sindarin, Quenya, Khuzdul and others).

The minor planet (1421) Esperanto is named in honor of the language. It was discovered on March 18, 1936 by Yrjö Väisälä, a Finnish astronomer.

Though the United Nations does not recognize Esperanto as an official language, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been translated into Esperanto.

Google, the Internet search engine, has the capability of displaying the Google interface, tips, and messages in Esperanto. When using Esperanto as a search keyword, Google will return about 2.6 million hits, some of which are sites written in Esperanto.

Esperanto accounts for more than 99% of all published material on constructed languages.

As depicted in the poem “Utopia” (article page 20 of Translorial), albeit in black and white, the flag of Esperanto is green with a white area (green 2:3, white 1:1) in the top left corner with a green 5 pointed regular star pointing upwards centered in it. The meaning of this symbol stands for the hope (green) of the five continents united (5-pointed star) in common understanding and peace (white color). And because Dr. Zamenhof was a thorough gentleman, he even wrote the anthem to go with it.

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