What is Esperanto?

Dr. L.L. Zamenhof in the year 1887

In 19th century Imperial Russia, in a town called Białystok (now in Poland), lived Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859-1917). As a child, he observed deep tensions running through the town and its many peoples, including Poles, Russians, Germans, and Yiddish-speaking Jews, living largely segregated lives, which he saw as exacerbated by their separate languages fostering misunderstanding and suspicion. Zamenhof’s idea was for a common tool for communication, in the hope that if an auxiliary second language could be introduced, it would bring understanding, compassion, and greater empathy between different peoples, not just in his home town, but also internationally.

Zamenhof began by testing ideas with the help of his schoolmates. His first thought was to resurrect a classical international language like Latin, but realised quickly that the complexity of such languages placed an unreasonable burden on the learner. Zamenhof decided that a new language was needed, and that if it were to succeed, it needed to be simple and quickly learnt, and its acquisition should be as if “mere play”. Initially, he attempted to construct it from arbitrary sounds, but found that his friends struggled to remember the resulting words. However, Zamenhof was an accomplished polyglot, and realised that many of the languages he knew often had common features in their vocabulary, which he could leverage to aid memorisation. Spending evening after evening with dictionaries of the most widely spoken and studied languages of the day, he carefully compiled lists their commonalities, to be used as the basis of the new language. Zamenhof wanted his new language to be easy to learn rapidly, so he aimed to reduce the volume of memorisation, building words for more complex concepts from a stock of basic roots and affixes. Learners can not only aquire Esperanto very quickly, but they can create their own words with only a basic vocabulary and a firm knowledge of the affixes.

With grammar and initial vocabulary ready for the public, compiled an introduction to language in the form of a book with the title “Unua Libro” (first book), writing under the pseudonym, “Doktoro Esperanto”. In 1887, two years following its completion, the newly-wed Zamenhof found a publisher in Warsaw with financial support from his father-in-law.

Zamenhof’s pen name, “Esperanto”, meaning “one who hopes”, later came to refer concisely to the language itself. Interest in the project grew rapidly; by 1905, it had expanded into a thriving movement with the first annual Esperanto World Congress being held in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Today, Esperanto has a wide international community, estimated to include upto two million speakers, sustained by enthusiasts just like us at the Nottingham Esperanto Club, and enjoys a vast wealth of published literature and web resources. Indeed, Esperanto work have even been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature on multiple occasions.

The Green Flag is Esperanto’s most widely recognised symbol.
Green represents hope, white represents peace, and the five pointed star represents the inhabited landmasses.

How does Esperanto work?

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are marked by grammatical endings, meaning it’s always clear what role a word plays in a sentence. There are no grammatical irregularities, and the acquisition of new vocabulary is expedited by Esperanto’s simple, yet ingenious system of affixes. Take the word for “health”, sano. From this we can form the words, malsana – sick, malsanulo – ill person, malsanulejo – hospital (ej as ay in day) , resaniĝi – to get better (ĝ as English’s j in jump or g in girrafe), and many more. Similarly, this helps a new speaker to learn quick how to express themself on the fly. For example, if someone wants to talk about their favourite constellation, knowing that “star” is “stelo” they can combine it with “aro”, meaning “group”, to make the word “stelaro”. Akin to a kind of linguistic Lego, Esperanto’s highly expressive system of root combination is a pathway to boundless creativity.

This method of producing complex words from simple roots means one can attain fluency with around 3000 roots, compared to the 20 000 estimated to be necessary for English. Esperanto is considerably more flexible with its word order than English. For example, “Mi lernas Esperanton”, “Mi Esperanton lernas”, “Esperanton lernas mi”, “Esperanton mi lernas”, “Lernas Esperanton mi” and “Lernas mi Esperanton” all have identical semantic meaning – “I am learning Esperanto”, although it should be added that Esperanto normally uses subject-verb-object as its default word order, with the aforementioned variations typically used for emphasis, to improve clarity in otherwise ambiguous phrases, or as a stylistic device in poetry.

A brief overview of Esperanto

Parts of speech endings:
o – noun
a – adjective
e – adverb,
E.g. hundo – dog, ligna – wooden, rapide – quickly.

This makes it straight forward to apply a single root in multiple roles. E.g. rapida – fast, rapide – quickly, rapido – speed.

Verb endings:
i – infinitive
is – past
as – present
os – future
us – conditional
u – volitive & imperative
E.g. iri – to go, iris – went, iras – am/is/are going, iros – will go, irus – would go, iru – go!

Plurals are formed by adding j (produced like y in English).
E.g. rapidaj hundoj – fast dogs, (aj as aye, oj as oi in oil)

Direct objects are marked by n.
E.g. la hundo vidas kuniklojn – the dog sees rabbits

Indirect objects are marked by prepositions.
E.g. al – to, el – out of, de – of/from/by, kun – with, ĉe – at (ĉ as ch in cheese)

There is a definite article, la, but no indefinite article. Pronouns (also ending with i) , gain the adjective ending to become possessive.
E.g. li – he, lia – his, ŝi – she, ŝia – her (ŝ as sh in sheep)

Every letter is pronounced consistently, adhering to a one letter, one sound rule – if one knows how a word is said, one knows how it is spelt, and vice-versa. Example affixes: mal– opposite, –eg– augmentative (bigger, more intense), –et– diminutive (smaller, less intense), –ar– set of, –an– member of, –il– tool for, –ej– a place for.