Esperanto has had continuous usage by a community estimated at between 100,000 and 2 million speakers for over a century. By most estimates, there are approximately one thousand native speakers. However, no country has adopted the language officially. Today, Esperanto is employed in world travel, correspondence, cultural exchange, conventions, literature, language instruction, television, and radio broadcasting. Also, there is an Esperanto Wikipedia that contains over 100,000 articles as of June 2008.
There is evidence that learning Esperanto may provide a good foundation for learning languages in general. Some state education systems offer basic instruction and elective courses in Esperanto. Esperanto is also the language of instruction in one university, the Akademio Internacia de la Sciencoj in San Marino.
Esperanto was developed in the late 1870s and early 1880s by Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, a Jewish ophthalmologist from Bialystok, a city now in Poland and previously in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but at the time part of the Russian Empire. According to Zamenhof, he created this language to foster harmony between people from different countries. His feelings and the situation in Bialystok may be gleaned from an extract from his famous letter to Nikolai Borovko:
After some ten years of development, which Zamenhof spent translating literature into Esperanto as well as writing original prose and verse, the first book of Esperanto grammar was published in Warsaw in July 1887. The number of speakers grew rapidly over the next few decades, at first primarily in the Russian empire and Eastern Europe, then in Western Europe, the Americas, China, and Japan. In the early years, speakers of Esperanto kept in contact primarily through correspondence and periodicals, but in 1905 the first world congress of Esperanto speakers was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Since then world congresses have been held in different countries every year, except during the two World Wars. Since the Second World War, they have been attended by an average of over 2,000 and up to 6,000 people.
In Germany, there was additional motivation to persecute Esperanto because Zamenhof was Jewish. In his work, Mein Kampf, Hitler mentioned Esperanto as an example of a language that would be used by an International Jewish Conspiracy once they achieved world domination. Esperantists were executed during the Holocaust, with Zamenhof's family in particular singled out for execution.
In the early years of the Soviet Union, Esperanto was given a measure of government support, and an officially recognized Soviet Esperanto Association came into being. However, in 1937, Stalin reversed this policy. He denounced Esperanto as "the language of spies" and had Esperantists executed. The use of Esperanto remained illegal until 1956.
Esperanto has never been an official language of any recognized country. However, there were plans at the beginning of the 20th century to establish Neutral Moresnet as the world's first Esperanto state. In China, there was talk in some circles after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution about officially replacing Chinese with Esperanto as a means to dramatically bring the country into the twentieth century, though this policy proved untenable. In the summer of 1924, the American Radio Relay League adopted Esperanto as its official international auxiliary language, and hoped that the language would be used by radio amateurs in international communications, but its actual use for radio communications was negligible. In addition, the self-proclaimed artificial island micronation of Rose Island used Esperanto as its official language in 1968. Esperanto is the working language of several non-profit international organizations such as the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda, but most others are specifically Esperanto organizations. The largest of these, the World Esperanto Association, has an official consultative relationship with the United Nations and UNESCO. The U.S. Army has published military phrasebooks in Esperanto, to be used in wargames by mock enemy forces. Esperanto is also the first language of teaching and administration of the International Academy of Sciences San Marino, which is sometimes called an "Esperanto University".
Typologically, Esperanto has prepositions and a pragmatic word order that by default is Subject Verb Object, but it is not compulsory, so the word order is quite free. Also, the Adjectives can be freely placed before or after the Noun, according to the speaker's wish and origin (statistically, the most used word order is Adjective Noun). New words are formed through extensive prefixing and suffixing.
Esperanto is written with a modified version of the Latin alphabet, including six letters with diacritics: ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ and ŭ (that is, c, g, h, j, s circumflex, and u breve). The alphabet does not include the letters q, w, x, or y except in unassimilated foreign names.
The 28-letter alphabet is:
All letters are pronounced approximately as in the IPA, with the exception of c and the accented letters:
(as aŭ, eŭ)
To solve this problem two ASCII-compatible writing conventions are in use. These substitute digraphs for the accented letters. The original "h-convention" (ch, gh, hh, jh, sh, u) is based on English 'ch' and 'sh', while a more recent "x-convention" (cx, gx, hx, jx, sx, ux) is useful for alphabetic word sorting on a computer (cx comes correctly after cu, sx after sv, etc.) as well as for simple conversion back into the standard orthography.
If the system supports Unicode, a more complete and comfortable solution is to use some software that can automatically substitute x- or h-conventions with traditional diacritic letters. One example is Ek! (Esperanta Klavaro) for Microsoft Windows. In the Linux Operating System it is also possible to have a complete localization in Esperanto, like in other national languages.
The sound /r/ is usually rolled, but may be tapped [ɾ]. The /v/ has a normative pronunciation like an English v, but is sometimes somewhere between a v and a w, [ʋ], depending on the language background of the speaker. A semivowel /u̯/ normally occurs only in diphthongs after the vowels /a/ and /e/, not as a consonant */w/. Common, if debated, assimilation includes the pronunciation of /nk/ as [ŋk], as in English sink, and /kz/ as [gz], like the x in English example.
A large number of consonant clusters can occur, up to three in initial position and four in medial position, as in instrui "to teach". Final clusters are uncommon except in foreign names, poetic elision of final o, and a very few basic words such as cent "hundred" and post "after".
There are also two semivowels, , which combine with the vowels to form six falling diphthongs: uj, oj, ej, aj, aŭ, eŭ ().
With only five vowels, a good deal of variation is tolerated. For instance, /e/ commonly ranges from [e] (French é) to [ɛ] (French è). The details often depend on the speaker's native language. A glottal stop may occur between adjacent vowels in some people's speech, especially when the two vowels are the same, as in heroo "hero" ([he.ˈro.o] or [he.ˈro.ʔo]) and praavo "great-grandfather" ([pra.ˈa.vo] or [pra.ˈʔa.vo]).
Esperanto words are derived by stringing together prefixes, roots, and suffixes. This process is regular, so that people can create new words as they speak and be understood. Compound words are formed with a modifier-first, head-final order, the same order as English "birdsong" vs. "songbird".
The different parts of speech are marked by their own suffixes: all common nouns end in -o, all adjectives in -a, all derived adverbs in -e, and all verbs in one of six tense and mood suffixes, such as present tense -as.
Plural nouns end in -oj (pronounced "oy"), whereas direct objects end in -on. Plural direct objects end with the combination -ojn (pronounced to rhyme with "coin"): That is, -o for a noun, plus -j for plural, plus -n for direct object. Adjectives agree with their nouns; their endings are plural -aj (pronounced "eye"), direct-object -an, and plural direct-object -ajn (pronounced to rhyme with "fine").
The suffix -n is used to indicate the goal of movement and a few other things, in addition to the direct object. See Esperanto grammar for details.
The six verb inflections consist of three tenses and three moods. They are present tense -as, future tense -os, past tense -is, infinitive mood -i, conditional mood -us, and jussive mood -u (used for wishes and commands). Verbs are not marked for person or number. For instance: kanti "to sing"; mi kantas "I sing"; mi kantis "I sang"; mi kantos "I will sing"; li kantas "he sings"; vi kantas "you sing".
Word order is comparatively free: Adjectives may precede or follow nouns, and subjects, verbs and objects (marked by the suffix -n) may occur in any order. However, the article la "the" and demonstratives such as tiu "this, that" almost always come before the noun, and a preposition such as ĉe "at" must come before it. Similarly, the negative ne "not" and conjunctions such as kaj "both, and" and ke "that" must precede the phrase or clause they introduce. In copular (A = B) clauses, word order is just as important as it is in English clauses like "people are dogs" vs. "dogs are people".
The core vocabulary of Esperanto was defined by Lingvo internacia, published by Zamenhof in 1887. It comprised 900 roots, which could be expanded into tens of thousands of words with prefixes, suffixes, and compounding. In 1894, Zamenhof published the first Esperanto dictionary, Universala Vortaro, with a larger set of roots. However, the rules of the language allowed speakers to borrow new roots as needed, recommending only that they look for the most international forms, and then derive related meanings from these.
Since then, many words have been borrowed, primarily but not solely from the Western European languages. Not all proposed borrowings catch on, but many do, especially technical and scientific terms. Terms for everyday use, on the other hand, are more likely to be derived from existing roots—for example komputilo (a computer) from komputi (to compute) plus the suffix -ilo (tool)—or to be covered by extending the meanings of existing words (for example muso (a mouse), as in English, now also means a computer input device). There are frequent debates among Esperanto speakers about whether a particular borrowing is justified or whether the need can be met by deriving from or extending the meaning of existing words.
In addition to the root words and the rules for combining them, a learner of Esperanto must memorize some idiomatic compounds that are not entirely straightforward. For example, eldoni, literally "to give out", is used for "to publish" (a calque of words in several European languages with the same derivation), and vortaro, literally "a collection of words", means "a glossary" or "a dictionary". Such forms are modeled after usage in some European languages, and speakers of other languages may find them illogical. Fossilized derivations inherited from Esperanto's source languages may be similarly obscure, such as the opaque connection the root word centralo "power station" has with centro "center". Compounds with -um- are overtly arbitrary, and must be learned individually, as -um- has no defined meaning. It turns dekstren "to the right" into dekstrumen "clockwise", and komuna "common/shared" into komunumo "community", for example.
Nevertheless, there are not nearly as many idiomatic or slang words in Esperanto as in ethnic languages, as these tend to make international communication difficult, working against Esperanto's main goal.
Esperanto instruction is occasionally available at schools, such as a pilot project involving four primary schools under the supervision of the University of Manchester, and by one count at 69 universities. However, outside of China and Hungary, these mostly involve informal arrangements rather than dedicated departments or state sponsorship. Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest had a department of Interlinguistics and Esperanto from 1966 to 2004, after which time instruction moved to vocational colleges; there are state examinations for Esperanto instructors.
Various educators have estimated that Esperanto can be learned in anywhere from one quarter to one twentieth the amount of time required for other languages. Some argue, however, that this is only true for native speakers of Western European languages. Claude Piron, a psychologist formerly at the University of Geneva and Chinese-English-Russian-Spanish translator for the United Nations, argued that Esperanto is far more "brain friendly" than many ethnic languages. "Esperanto relies entirely on innate reflexes [and] differs from all other languages in that you can always trust your natural tendency to generalize patterns. [...] The same neuropsychological law [— called by] Jean Piaget generalizing assimilationapplies to word formation as well as to grammar."
Esperanto speakers are more numerous in Europe and East Asia than in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, and more numerous in urban than in rural areas. Esperanto is particularly prevalent in the northern and eastern countries of Europe; in China, Korea, Japan, and Iran within Asia; in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico in the Americas; and in Togo in Africa.
In the Almanac, his estimates for numbers of language speakers were rounded to the nearest million, thus the number for Esperanto speakers is shown as 2 million. This latter figure appears in Ethnologue. Assuming that this figure is accurate, that means that about 0.03% of the world's population speaks the language. This falls short of Zamenhof's goal of a universal language, but it represents a level of popularity unmatched by any other constructed language.
Marcus Sikosek (now Ziko van Dijk) has challenged this figure of 1.6 million as exaggerated. He estimated that even if Esperanto speakers were evenly distributed, assuming one million Esperanto speakers worldwide would lead one to expect about 180 in the city of Cologne. Van Dijk finds only 30 fluent speakers in that city, and similarly smaller than expected figures in several other places thought to have a larger-than-average concentration of Esperanto speakers. He also notes that there are a total of about 20,000 members of the various Esperanto organizations (other estimates are higher). Though there are undoubtedly many Esperanto speakers who are not members of any Esperanto organization, he thinks it unlikely that there are fifty times more speakers than organization members.
In the absence of Dr. Culbert's detailed sampling data, or any other census data, it is impossible to state the number of speakers with certainty. Few observers, probably, would challenge the following statement from the website of the World Esperanto Association:
Ethnologue reports estimates that there are 200 to 2000 native Esperanto speakers (denaskuloj), who have learned the language from birth from their Esperanto-speaking parents. This usually happens when Esperanto is the chief or only common language in an international family, but sometimes in a family of devoted Esperantists.
The most famous native speaker of Esperanto is businessman George Soros. Also notable is young Holocaust victim Petr Ginz, whose drawing of the planet Earth as viewed from the moon was carried aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 (STS-107).
Esperanto speakers can access an international culture, including a large body of original as well as translated literature. There are over 25,000 Esperanto books, both originals and translations, as well as several regularly distributed Esperanto magazines. Esperanto speakers use the language for free accommodations with Esperantists in 92 countries using the Pasporta Servo or to develop pen pal friendships abroad through the Esperanto Pen Pal Service.
Every year, 1,500-3,000 Esperanto speakers meet for the World Congress of Esperanto (Universala Kongreso de Esperanto). The European Esperanto Union (Eǔropa Esperanto-Unio) regroups the national Esperanto associations of the EU member states and holds congresses every two years. The most recent was in Maribor, Slovenia, in July-August 2007. It attracted 256 delegates from 28 countries, including 2 members of the European Parliament, Ms. Małgorzata Handzlik of Poland and Ms. Ljudmila Novak of Slovenia.
Historically, much Esperanto music has been in various folk traditions, such as Kaj Tiel Plu, for example. In recent decades, more rock and other modern genres have appeared, an example being the Swedish band Persone.
Detractors of Esperanto occasionally criticize it as "having no culture". Proponents, such as Prof. Humphrey Tonkin of the University of Hartford, observe that Esperanto is "culturally neutral by design, as it was intended to be a facilitator between cultures, not to be the carrier of any one national culture." The late Scottish Esperanto author William Auld has written extensively on the subject, arguing that Esperanto is "the expression of a common human culture, unencumbered by national frontiers. Thus it is considered a culture on its own. Others point to Esperanto's potential for strengthening a common European identity, as it combines features of several European languages.
Esperanto has been used in a number of films and novels. Typically, this is done either to add the exotic flavour of a foreign language without representing any particular ethnicity, or to avoid going to the trouble of inventing a new language. The Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator (1940) showed Jewish ghetto shops designated in Esperanto, each with the general Esperanto suffix -ejo (meaning "place for..."), in order to convey the atmosphere of some 'foreign' East European country without referencing any particular East European language.
Two full-length feature films have been produced with dialogue entirely in Esperanto: Angoroj, in 1964, and Incubus, a 1965 B-movie horror film. Canadian actor, William Shatner learned Esperanto to a limited level so that he could star in Incubus.
Other amateur productions have been made, such as a dramatisation of the novel Gerda Malaperis (Gerda Has Disappeared). A number of "mainstream" films in national languages have used Esperanto in some way, such as Gattaca (1997), in which Esperanto can be overheard on the public address system. In the 1994 film Street Fighter, Esperanto is the native language of the fictional country of Shadaloo, and in a barracks scene the soldiers of villain M. Bison sing a rousing Russian Army-style chorus, the "Bison Troopers Marching Song", in the language. Esperanto is also spoken and appears on signs in the film Blade: Trinity.
In the British comedy Red Dwarf, Arnold Rimmer is seen attempting to learn Esperanto in a number of early episodes, including Kryten. In the first season, signs on the titular spacecraft are in both English and Esperanto. Esperanto is used as the universal language in the far future of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld stories.
Zamenhof's intention was to create an easy-to-learn language to foster international understanding. It was to serve as an international auxiliary language, that is, as a universal second language, not to replace ethnic languages. This goal was widely shared among Esperanto speakers in the early decades of the movement. Later, Esperanto speakers began to see the language and the culture that had grown up around it as ends in themselves, even if Esperanto is never adopted by the United Nations or other international organizations.
Those Esperanto speakers who want to see Esperanto adopted officially or on a large scale worldwide are commonly called finvenkistoj, from fina venko, meaning "final victory", or pracelistoj, from pracelo, meaning "original goal". Those who focus on the intrinsic value of the language are commonly called raŭmistoj, from Rauma, Finland, where a declaration on the near-term unlikelihood of the "fina venko" and the value of Esperanto culture was made at the International Youth Congress in 1980. These categories are, however, not mutually exclusive.
The earliest flag, and the one most commonly used today, features a green five-pointed star against a white canton, upon a field of green. It was proposed to Zamenhof by Irishman Richard Geoghegan, author of the first Esperanto textbook for English speakers, in 1887. In 1905, delegates to the first conference of Esperantists at Boulogne-sur-Mer unanimously approved a version that differed from the modern flag only by the superimposition of an "E" over the green star. Other variants include that for Christian Esperantists, with a white Christian cross superimposed upon the green star, and that for Leftists, with the color of the field changed from green to red.
In 1987, a second flag design was chosen in a contest organized by the UEA celebrating the first centennial of the language. It featured a white background with two stylised curved "E"s facing each other. Dubbed the "jubilea simbolo" (jubilee symbol), it attracted criticism from some Esperantists, who dubbed it the "melono" (melon) because of the design's elliptical shape. It is still in use, though to a lesser degree than the traditional symbol, known as the "verda stelo" (green star).
Various volumes of the Bahá'í literatures and other Baha'i books have been translated into Esperanto.
Esperanto was conceived as a language of international communication, more precisely as a universal second language. Since publication, there has been debate over whether it is possible for Esperanto to attain this position, and whether it would be an improvement for international communication if it did. There have been a number of attempts to reform the language, the most well-known of which is the language Ido which resulted in a schism in the community at the time, beginning in 1907.
Since Esperanto is a planned language, there have been many, often passionate, criticisms of minor points which are too numerous to cover here, such as Zamenhof's choice of the word edzo over something like spozo for "husband, spouse", or his choice of the Classic Greek and Old Latin singular and plural endings -o, -oj, -a, -aj over their Medieval contractions -o, -i, -a, -e. (Both these changes were adopted by the Ido reform, though Ido dispensed with adjectival agreement altogether.) See the links below for examples of more general criticism. The more common points include:
Though Esperanto itself has changed little since the publication of the Fundamento de Esperanto (Foundation of Esperanto), a number of reform projects have been proposed over the years, starting with Zamenhof's proposals in 1894 and Ido in 1907. Several later constructed languages, such as Fasile, were based on Esperanto.
In modern times, attempts have been made to eliminate perceived sexism in the language. One example of this is Riism. However, as Esperanto has become a living language, changes are as difficult to implement as in ethnic languages.