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Esperanto Today

Esperanto today: its development and scope since the publciation of the 'First Book' in 1887

The international language Esperanto was intended as a second language for international use, not to replace existing languages, and since the publication of the First Book in 1887 has gained renewed attention from policy-makers in a world increasingly aware of the rights of minorities and the future of linguistic and cultural diversity.   Several political groupings and non-governmental organizations are pressing to place the international language question on the agendas of the United Nations and European Union, for example.  In July 2013 ESF convened the 6th Nitobe Symposium in Reykjavik, Iceland, to discuss the growing and problematic role of English language instruction in higher education in non-English-speaking countries; in 2018 the Nitobe Symposium examined the University-level role of Esperanto and interlinguistics; the 8th Nitobe Symposium will take place in Canada in 2020. Use of Esperanto on the Internet has grown considerably, and a search for “Esperanto” on Google gives almost 170 million hits; thousands of people are learning the language through such websites as lernu.net, and Duolingo. What is ‘Esperanto’ today?

The English Version of Zamenhof’s Unua Libro (1887), published 1889

A Brief History of the Development and scope of Esperanto from 1887 to the Present Day
Purpose and origins

The basis of what was to become the International Language Esperanto was published in Warsaw in 1887 by Dr. Lejzer Ludwik Zamenhof. The idea of a planned international language, intended not to replace ethnic languages but to serve as an additional, second language for all people, was not new. However, Zamenhof contributed the crucial insight that such a language must develop through collective use. Accordingly, he restricted his initial proposal to a minimalist grammar, a vocabulary of some 900 words, some samples of poetry and prose, and a persuasive introductory essay. On this slender basis, through the cooperation of its users, Esperanto developed into a full-fledged language with its own worldwide speech community and full linguistic resources. In many of the linguistic ideas behind his language, Zamenhof anticipated the founder of modern linguistics, the structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure (whose brother René de Saussure was a pioneer and active user of Esperanto).

Characteristics and Development

Esperanto is both spoken and written. Its lexicon derives primarily from Western European languages, while its syntax and morphology show strong Slavic influences. Esperanto morphemes are invariant and almost infinitely recombinable, so the language also has much in common with isolating languages like Chinese, while its internal word structure bears affinity with agglutinative languages such as Turkish, Swahili and Japanese.

At first, the language consisted of about 1000 roots, from which ten or twelve thousand words could be formed. It developed rapidly. Large Esperanto dictionaries (e.g. recently published bilingual dictionaries for speakers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, and German) now contain some 20,000 roots, from which hundreds of thousands of words can be formed. The language continues to evolve through use in international settings. An Esperanto Academy (website) critiques or ratifies current trends.  Over the years, the language has been used for virtually every conceivable purpose, some controversial or problematic: the language has the distinction of having been forbidden, and its users persecuted, by both Stalin and Hitler. The former called it the language of “cosmopolitans” and the latter the language of Jews (Zamenhof, creator of the language, was Jewish). A Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto (Sutton, 2008), has detailed entries for over 300 published creative writers in Esperanto. Through use of the language in the home, there are now as many as 1000 native speakers ofEsperanto.

Users

The Universal Esperanto Association (UEA), with membership drawn from the most active parts of the Esperanto community, has national affiliates in 72 countries and individual members in 121 countries. An additional 16 countries have Esperanto organizations unaffiliated with UEA. Estimates based on internet use put the number of people with knowledge of the language at well over a million people. There are Esperanto speakers in all parts of the world, including notable concentrations in countries as diverse as China, Japan, Brazil, Iran, Lithuania and Cuba.

Over 100 international conferences and meetings are held each year in Esperanto – without translators or interpreters. A list of recent venues for the annual World Congress of Esperanto shows their international character: Yokohama (2007), Rotterdam (2008), Bialystok, Poland (2009), Havana (2010), Copenhagen (2011), Hanoi (2012), Reykjavik (2013), Buenos Aires (2014), Lille, France (2015), Nitra, Slovakia (2016), Seoul (2017), Lisbon (2018), and Lahti, Finland (2019). The congress for 2020 is in Montreal.

Increasing regional use of Esperanto is reflected in continent-wide congresses, such as the African Congress in Banda, Tanzania (Dec. 2016), and in such regional events as the joint Indonesia/Australia/New Zealand congress in Bandung, Indonesia (March 2016).  There are also many meetings for Esperanto speakers at national and local level, which often attract participants from other countries. 

Among Esperanto organizations for special-interest groups are those for Scouts (website in Esperanto), the blind, cyclists, athletes, and vegetarians. The organization for Esperanto youth, TEJO, holds frequent international meetings and publishes its own periodical. Buddhists, Shintoists, Catholics, Quakers, Protestants, Mormons and Baha’i have their own organizations, as do atheists and freethinkers. Numerous social activist groups use the language in their international contacts and other activities. In 2007, a group of Chinese, Japanese and Korean Esperantists published a joint history of their three countries, aimed at finding common ground among the competing views presented in their respective interpretations of national history.

Teaching Esperanto

Communicative ability in Esperanto can be rapidly acquired, so it is an ideal introduction to foreign-language study. Within weeks, students can begin to use Esperanto for correspondence, and within months for school trips abroad. Positive effects of prior learning of Esperanto on the study of both first and second languages are widely documented (see Esperanto as a Starter Language, the report on the Springboard to Languages project in the UK – pdf download). Despite its potential contribution to the language curriculum, however, Esperanto is rarely included in national education or language policies. Most people learn it through self-study, either through textbooks or on the internet – or in some cases through local Esperanto clubs. Textbooks and self-instruction materials for Esperanto exist in over 100 languages: see www.edukado.net.

Research

Many universities include Esperanto in courses on linguistics; a few offer it as a separate subject. Particularly noteworthy is Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland, with a certificate program in interlinguistics. Scholarly articles, journals, and books on and in Esperanto appear regularly. The Modern Language Association of America’s Annual Bibliography contains thousands of scholarly publications on all aspects of Esperanto and more are appearing every year. 

Official recognition

In 1954 the UNESCO General Conference recognized that the achievements of Esperanto correspond with UNESCO’s aims and ideals, and official relations were established between UNESCO and UEA. Collaboration between the two organizations has since taken numerous forms. In 1977 the UNESCO Director General, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, gave the opening address at the 62nd World Esperanto Congress: in 1985 the General Conference called on member states and international organizations to promote the teaching of Esperanto in schools and its use in international affairs. UEA also has consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, the UN’s Department of Public Information, and other international organizations. 

Correspondence and travel

Each year, millions of messages are written in the language and tens of thousands of Esperanto speakers travel abroad to meetings, while many more use Esperanto for private travel. Pasporta Servo, a hosting service run by UEA’s youth section, contains the addresses of around 1000 Esperanto speakers in over 80 countries who provide free overnight accommodation in their own homes to Esperanto-speaking travellers (website in Esperanto).

Professional contacts

Professional organizations for Esperanto speakers include associations for doctors and medical workers, writers, railway workers, scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, and musicians. Such organizations often publish their own journals, have extensive websites, hold conferences, and help to expand the language for professional and specialized use. The International Academy of Sciences, San Marino, which teaches in Esperanto (website in Esperanto), has established its own system of courses and diplomas. There is a steady flow of original and translated publications in such fields as astronomy, computing, botany, economics, entomology, medicine, law and philosophy. The Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems brings linguists and social scientists together around the study of communication across languages and organizes an annual conference on Esperanto studies. Its journal Language Problems and Language Planning includes a section on interlinguistics, the study of the conditions for planned international language.

Literature and Translation

Esperanto’s flourishing literary life has been recognized by PEN International, which includes an Esperanto affiliate. Present-day writers in Esperanto include the novelists Trevor Steele (Australia), Istvan Nemere (Hungary) and Spomenka Stimec (Croatia), poets Baldur Ragnarsson (Iceland), Mao Zifu (China) and Abel Montagut (Catalonia), and essayists and translators Probal Dasgupta (India), Li Shijun (China) and Carlo Minnaja (Italy). Before his recent death, the poet William Auld was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Literary journals in Esperanto include Beletra Almanako (USA) and Literatura Foiro (Switzerland). Monato is a monthly news magazine (website in Esperanto).

Recent literary translations include Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, Fernando Pessoa’s The Keeper of Sheep, Wislawa Szymborska’s Selected Poems, Rubén Gallego’s White on Black, Ariyoshi Sawako’s The Doctor’s Wife, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Goethe’s Faust, Halldor Laxness’s Independent People, Umar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Cao Xueqin’s great family saga Dream of the Red House. Recently translations have appeared from French (Maupassant, Fournier), Chinese (Ba Jin, Luo Guanzhong, Lao She), Japanese (Kawabata), Korean (Elpin), Italian (Montale, Verga, Leopardi), Russian (Chekhov, Pushkin, Brodsky), Dutch (Couperus), Latin (Benedict), Albanian (Kongoli, Lleshanaku, Aliçka), Estonian (Vaarandi, Under), and Hebrew (Amos Oz), along with translations of such English-language authors as Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde (Britain), Ernest Hemingway, and Edgar Allen Poe (USA). In recent years, anthologies of Iranian, Hungarian, Croatian, Brazilian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Maltese, and Polish literature have been published. Asterix, Winnie-the-Pooh and Tin-Tin have been joined by numerous other children’s books, including an anthology of stories from Africa; and the web has given children, among other things, the complete Moomintroll books of Finnish author Tove Jansson and the complete Oz books of American author L. Frank Baum.

Less common are translations out of Esperanto. Maskerado, (Maskerado: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Hungary) a memoir published in Esperanto in 1965 by Tivadar Soros, father of the financier George Soros, detailing the survival of his family during the Nazi occupation of Budapest, appeared in English translation in Britain (2000) and the United States (2001). It has been published also in Russian, French, Chinese, German, Japanese, Czech, Hungarian and Turkish translations. La Danĝera Lingvo (Dangerous Language — Esperanto and the Decline of Stalinism), a study of the persecution of Esperanto speakers under Hitler and Stalin written in Esperanto by the German historian Ulrich Lins, was published in English translation in 2017.

Theatre, Cinema, and Music

Plays by dramatists as diverse as Goldoni, Brecht, Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn have been performed in recent years in Esperanto. Many of the plays of Shakespeare exist in Esperanto translation: Hamlet was the first to be translated and performed, and Shakespeare performances include a production of King Lear in Hanoi, Vietnam. Although Chaplin’s The Great Dictator used Esperanto-language signs, feature-length films with dialogue in Esperanto are less common. A notable exception is William Shatner’s cult film Incubus, whose dialogue is entirely in Esperanto.

Well-established musical genres in Esperanto run the gamut from popular and folk songs through rock music, cabaret, solo and choir pieces, and opera. In addition to these strong grassroots traditions, popular composers and performers in a number of countries have recorded in Esperanto, written scores inspired by the language, or used it in their promotional materials, including Elvis Costello and Michael Jackson. There are several orchestra and chorus pieces that include Esperanto, most notably Lou Harrison’s La Koro-Sutro and Symphony No. 1 (the “Esperanto”), by David Gaines, both of the USA. Numerous examples of music in Esperanto can be found online, including several sites devoted to Esperanto karaoke.

Libraries, books and periodicals

The Esperanto Association of Britain’s library holds around 12,500 books, as well as documents and photos. Other large libraries include the International Esperanto Museum in Vienna (a section of the National Library of Austria), the Hodler Library at the Universal Esperanto Association’s headquarters in Rotterdam which houses around 20,000 books, and the Esperanto collection in Aalen, Germany. The Vienna and Aalen collections can be consulted through the Internet and the international lending system.

More than a hundred magazines and journals are published regularly in Esperanto, including UEA’s monthly journal Esperanto and the youth magazine Kontakto. Electronic journals include Libera Folio, a principal source of information and opinion on the Esperanto movement itself. Among other periodicals are scholarly publications in medicine and science, religious magazines, national Esperanto journals, and numerous special-interest publications.