Notes on 'First Book'

The first book which its creator Zamenhof published on Esperanto is prosaically known as the ‘First Book’ – la ‘Unua Libro’.  Funded by his wife’s family Zamenhof had to keep his publication modest.  He planned to publish it in a number of languages, initially in Russian, Polish, French, German and English.  That first version in English had to be withdrawn.  The second translation by Richard Geoghegan is republished here in the History section.  In it Zamenhof explains his rationale for creating the language, his decision to disguise its un-European structure and how his readers did not need to wait for its wider adoption.  They could use the language with foreigners straight away using the vocabulary sheet provided.  All remain pertinent more than a century later.  English has replaced French as the most dominant language giving its native speakers even more privileges than French speakers ever had. 

Geoghegan’s English has perhaps dated more than Zamenhof’s Esperanto examples.  Esperanto writers did not continue to use internal commas or apostrophes for composite words.  However todays teachers still need to remember that identifying roots in individual words can present difficulties for learners.  It is often forgotten that Zamenhof deliberately restricted his initial stock of roots to everyday matters, omitting what he termed widely used foreign and technical words.  Users should form Esperanto equivalents themselves following the models he had established!  In practice early adopters insisted that Zamenhof continue his role in creating new roots for some years.  Nowadays new words appear and compete just as in any other language.  Zamenhof’s advice to choose a root for the primary idea whether that is the name for an entity, attribute or action and form cognate ideas from that root has usually been followed.  

A key aspect of the industrial revolution was the interchangeability and standardisation of parts.  Esperanto is built in a similar fashion.  It has a relatively small set of unchangeable components, termed somewhat confusingly ‘words’ by Zamenhof.  He tells us that prefixes, suffixes and even terminations are “complete and independent words, which always keep their own proper significations”.  They are labelled prefixes and suffixes etc only to reflect the norms of European languages.  The 16 grammatical rules have no irregularities, the ultimate test in standardisation.  The history of Esperanto has shown the struggle which users from different language backgrounds have had with a language so radically different from what most have grown up with.  Some have resisted using prefixes and suffixes to built independent words like ‘ano’, ‘eco’, ‘oblo’ etc.  Some have had difficulty with bare verbal ideas, trying to build complex tenses when simple tenses and adverbs would suffice.  Standardisation in transitivity and intransitivity has not yet been totally resolved.   Besides Yiddish Zamenhof’s first and much loved language was Russian.  Esperanto’s alphabet, its definition of roots and its approach to syntax reflect slavic practice.  Some find this hard to acknowledge in a language designed for global use.  However it is in essence not different from Zamenhof’s decision to use ‘European’ roots for its word stock.  Even today some claim Esperanto’s root stock for everyday matters should reflect better the root stock of other language groups.  Zamenhof did consider such matters and decided that was not practical.

As noted above, English has in many ways surpassed Zamenhof’s dream of an international language.  However it compares badly with Esperanto when considered in terms of interchangeability and standardisation of components.  Its takes years to master.  It has no academy to advise and steer.  It looks unlikely that spelling reform will happen soon.  The current trend towards diversification in different parts of the world seems unlikely to be reversed.  Its dominant position may be challenged by emerging cultures such as Chinese.   

If you examine the list of roots in the ‘First Book’ some words have acquired clearer or even different translation.  This represents a century of usage and in places the appearance of other roots to express kindred ideas.  An ready example would be ‘plaĉi’ kaj ‘ŝati’.  You may note that even though Zamenhof had already changed the time correlative words ‘ĉian’, ‘ian’, ‘kian’, ‘nenian’ and ‘tian’ to ‘ĉiam’, ‘iam’, ‘kiam’, ‘neniam’ and ‘tiam’ to avoid confusion with accusatives derived from the quality correlatives ‘ĉia’, ‘ia’, ‘kia’, ‘nenia’, Geoghegan left the old forms ‘ian’ etc. in brackets after new ones ‘iam’ etc!  It is still debated whether Zamenhof had overlooked this possible confusion or had deliberately left these forms to test how thoroughly adopters had examined the project.  He had invited comments before declaring the final form of the language a year after first publication.  This is one he did receive and accept.

Perhaps surprisingly a second translation of Zamenhof’s ‘First Book’ into English appeared in 1889 in New York.  Translated by Henry Phillips,  a secretary of the American Philosophical Society, it was entitled  “An Attempt Towards an International Language by Dr. Esperanto‘.  Phillips added an English_Esperanto vocabulary to his edition. n It enabled some early pioneers to explore the language in the USA at a very early stage,


(*4) To facilitate the finding of these affixes they are entered in the vocabulary as separate words.    Back

(**5) “international orthography” = “Esperanto spelling”: see footnote (**6) below.—GK    Back

(**6) Note that the name “Esperanto” did not yet apply to what Zamenhof calls the “International Language”; so the “International – English Vocabulary” in this pamphlet is an “Esperanto – English Vocabulary”. Likewise, “international orthography” (**5 above) means “Esperanto spelling”.—GK    Back

(**7) The original pamphlet contained the “International [Esperanto] – English Vocabulary” (herein), but not vice versa; such compilations for many languages were soon to follow. For example, unlike Geoghegen, Henry Phillips, Jr. in his version [see (**1) above] had himself compiled an English – International Vocabulary, besides the other one. —GK    Back

(*8) In correspondence with persons who have learnt the language, as well as in works written for them exclusively, the [apostrophes], separating parts of words, are omitted.    Back

(**9) In his American translation [see (**1) above], Henry Phillips, Jr. added a remarkable footnote here: “The Translator wrote a letter in this language to a young friend who had previously never seen nor heard of it, enclosing the printed vocabulary; he received an answer in the same tongue, with no other aid. This was a crucial test.” (p.13)—GK    Back

(**10) Yes—he omitted giving it a name! (A one-word proper name, that is.) And so his pseudonym soon came to fill that gap.—GK    Back

(**11) In recent years, this fundamental “h” rule has been violated on the Internet by over a dozen different improvisations which ignore both the letter and spirit of Esperanto’s phonetic alphabet. According to the “untouchable” Fundamento de Esperanto, adopted at the first Universala Kongreso in 1905, one must either use the circumflex letters, or an “h”. “No person and no society can have the right to arbitrarily make in our Fundamento even the very smallest change!” [Translated; italics in original; 1963 ed., p. 43-44: actually the first page of the Fundamento itself. (Marmande: Esperantaj Francaj Eldonoj)]—GK    Back

(**12) The internal-sign was dropped in the early days and not included in the Fundamento.—GK    Back

(**13) A mistranslation, because enu’ in the vocabulary herein is “to be weary, annoyed”. The Esperanto word for “longing” is sopir’, but that was not available until Zamenhof’s Universala Vortaro of 1894, an updated Vocabulary, with each Esperanto word in five languages on the same line: part of the Fundamento, op.cit., (**11). From the prior list, perhaps one could have said dezir’.—GK    Bac ZamenhoatGeogheg


Preface by the Translator, At the request of the author I have prepared the following translation of his modest project for An International Language, which, in my opinion, goes further towards the solution of the problem than any of the other so-called ” Universal Languages” as yet offered for public acceptance. I consider it to be the most simple, most natural and most easy of acquirement of all as yet presented; being based upon modern European tongues, its vocabulary is mainly already in the possession of every person of any pretensions to education. Its extreme simplicity of grammar and the ease with which new words can be created musj; especially recommend it to every class of readers. The time seems ripe for a combined effort towards the achievement of so glorious an ideal, and ” we, as beings of intelligent consciousness * * * should employ our faculties to direct the course of events.” * HENKY PHILLIPS, Jr. Philadelphia, September 17, 1888. * Note. Whilst not agreeing with the author in some of his views re- specting grammatical formations, yet I have issued this work to show how easily a project of an International Language could be made effect- ive