This paper begins with a brief historical overview of the Esperanto language by presenting a brief biography of its founder and the historical and geographical context within which the language was created. The paper then gives a brief linguistic description of Esperanto, gathers evidence on who and how many people use Esperanto today, explains some the most basic advantages of the language, discusses criticism of Esperanto, then offers information on some of the largest Esperanto collections around the world.
Keywords Esperanto; Esperanto League for North America; Freinet school movement; Romance languages; Universal Esperanto Association; World Congress of Esperanto; World Esperantist Youth Organization; World Esperanto Association; Zamenhof, Ludwik Lazar
History of Esperanto
120 years ago, Ludwik Lazar Zamenhof (1859 - 1917) introduced to the world what has become the most widely spoken constructed international auxiliary language, Esperanto. Zamenhof was born in Bialystok, a small town in Poland, at a time when all of Poland was under the power of a Russian Tsar and the Russian Empire. Zamenhof was of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and considering the particular place and time he was born, his Jewish heritage of course also meant he quite often faced racial prejudice. The population of Bialystok was mostly made up of Poles, Germans, Jews and Belarusians, and these four main groups by no means co-existed in harmony. Zamenhof's daily life experience in Polish society, with its various languages defining the borders of what were essentially antagonistic social groups, probably caused him to form the opinion at an early age that language barriers were partly to blame for ethnic intolerance (Littlewood, 2007, ¶ 2).
It is also important to consider the effect of time and place on Zamenhof's exposure to languages. From childhood, he learned Russian, Yiddish, Polish and German, so he was fluent in four languages by the time he reached high school. In high school he learned French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and English, and he also became quite familiar with Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian. By the time he was a teenager, Zamenhof had been exposed to the grammatical structures and vocabularies of twelve languages, and in fact he came up with the idea of creating a universal language, and also began working on that language, when he was surprisingly young. As Littlewood writes, "On his 18th birthday he demonstrated the first practical version of a new language which he had invented in the hope of enabling people to communicate and live peaceably with one another - Esperanto" (Littlewood, 2007, ¶ 3).
Unfortunately, Zamenhof's original notes on Esperanto - as well as all other documentation relating to the Esperanto language - were destroyed by Zamenhof's father when Zamenhof went to Moscow to study medicine. Zamenhof's father worked as a government censor for the Russian Tsar and was afraid that if his son published his proposal for a new universal language, such a publication could throw the entire Zamenhof family into serious problems with the government. At the time, there had already been four assassination attempts on the Tsar Alexander II, and there was political tension everywhere in the Russian Empire. As Littlewood writes, "such was the paranoia of the [Russian] political leadership that the Polish language was outlawed for fear its use might incite Polish nationalism." Thus, even benevolent social activism, such as Zamenhof's proposal for the Esperanto language, might have made the Russian Tsarist government perceive Zamenhof as a revolutionary who had committed a subversive act. This is why Zamenhof's father persuaded Zamenhof to leave all his notes to his care - after which he burned the entire Esperanto corpus (Littlewood, 2007, ¶4).
In 1881, after Zamenhof discovered that his father had destroyed all his work, he firmly resolved to recreate the entire Esperanto corpus from his memory (Littlewood, 2007, ¶ 5). He married Klara Zilbernick, and in 1887 Zamenhof's father-in-law, who regarded him as brilliant if eccentric, funded the publication of his first book, which proposed using the language as a bridge between people of various nations, races and ethnic groups, and also laid out the grammar and vocabulary of Esperanto. This first, 40-page book was printed in Russian, and was called Dr Esperanto's International language Introduction and complete textbook for Russians. The pseudonym "Dr Esperanto" translates from Esperanto as "one who hopes" (Littlewood, 2007, ¶ 7). Mr. and Mrs. Zamenhof attended the first world conference of Esperantists in Boulogne, France, in 1905. Afterwards, the Zamenhofs also traveled to several other annual conferences in Europe, and also one in the USA (Littlewood, 2007, ¶ 9); by the early 1900s, there were already hundreds of people in countries all around the world contributing to the development of Esperanto (Littlewood, 2007, ¶ 10).
There are quite a few books that have been written in Esperanto, and many of the world's masterpieces in literature have already been translated into Esperanto. The translations are also ongoing. At present, Esperanto translations include works by Garcia Marquez, Saikaku, Shakespeare, Gibran, Brecht, Tagore, Kawabata, Dante, and Mickiewicz. As of approximately the close of the last century, some 10,000 titles had been published in Esperanto (Lawrence, 1998, ¶ 19), and there are some large library collections around the world.
For example, the Hector Hodler Library is one of the largest Esperanto libraries with around 30,000 books, with periodicals, manuscripts, photos, music, and other collections. This collection is located at the central office of the Universal Esperanto Association in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The London Esperanto headquarters also has a library of several thousand books in and about Esperanto, including both fiction and non-fiction works from many different countries (What in the World?, 1996, ¶ 10).
In the U.S., the University of Oregon Library opened a collection of Esperanto literature in 1979. George Alan Connor, former editor of American Esperanto Magazine, compiled the collection, and the collection is said to be "the largest of its type in an academic library" (Collectors' Items, 1979, ¶ 1). When the University of Oregon Library collection opened, it had around 2,500 books and 475 serial titles featuring local, regional, national and international publications about Esperanto (Collectors' Items, 1979, ¶ 2). More recently, the Budapest Library opened a new collection of more than 40,000 Esperanto documents to the public. The collection was purchased in 2001 by Hungary's Ministry of Cultural Heritage, and it was put together by 91-year-old Karoly Fajszi, who "painstakingly bound and cataloged every volume" (Global Reach, 2002, ¶ 1).
Characteristics of Esperanto
In written form, Esperanto uses a modified Latin alphabet that has twenty-eight letters, and the sound or pronunciation of Esperanto is similar to that of Italian or Croatian. One of Esperanto's most advantageous features is its use of standard word endings to mark its various parts of speech. All nouns end in -o, adjectives in -a, adverbs in -e; this makes using the language much easier since one can learn a root word and then add these regular endings according to whether one is expressing a noun, adjective or adverb. The verb forms are also consistent, so that there are no irregular verbs such as exist in the English language. In Esperanto, the simple past tense ends in -is, the present tense ends in -as, and the future tense ends in -os, and there are no changes of form according to number, person or gender (Fettes, 2000, ¶ 2).
The word stock in Esperanto is mostly based on Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish and French, but part of the word stock also has its roots in Slavic languages as well as Arabic, Chinese, and other languages (Lawrence, 1998, ¶ 12). The word order in sentences is highly interchangeable, which is grammatically similar to Russian or other Slavic languages, so parts of speech have many ways that they could acceptably be rearranged. This makes Esperanto easier to learn for people who speak native languages that possess a very flexible word ordering. In fact, one problem that Slavic speakers have when learning English is the difference in word ordering, because English has a much more rigid word ordering. Slavic speakers have a tendency to use their grammatical habits when speaking English, and this causes strangely constructed sentences that then cause communication problems, but they do not face this difficulty when using Esperanto. Esperanto has a flexible word order which allows users of different language families to feel comfortable using the structures with which they are most familiar while creating intelligible and grammatically correct Esperanto. Esperanto is also, therefore, excellent for translating from different languages such as Chinese, Latin, English or French.
Usage of Esperanto
Since the 1600s, more than 100 languages have been invented with the ambition of becoming a universal second language that will help to bring mankind together (Lawrence, 1998, ¶ 18). Of these many planned languages, Esperanto is “the only language to have achieved relatively wide use;” however, estimates on the number of people using Esperanto varies among sources, so it is quite uncertain as to exactly how widespread Esperanto usage is. Fettes writes that between five and fifteen million people are estimated to have studied Esperanto, although he says that “regular users probably do not exceed one percent of this number" (Fettes, 2000, ¶ 1), meaning he estimates that about 150,000 people throughout the world regularly use Esperanto. The World Almanac & Book of Facts estimates that there are 100,000 or more Esperanto speakers in the world today (American Manual Alphabet, 2005, ¶ 1), while Lawrence (1998) writes that an estimated 300,000 to more than 1...
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