The Ultimate Authority in Esperanto
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the 3rd chapter of Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village. You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies. You may not post this material to any site. You are invited to insert links to this site. For any other use, including publication, you must first get permission.
In his first brochure (1887) Zamenhof laid out the structure of Esperanto. He wrote out sixteen basic grammatical rules and created a basic vocabulary of about 900 words. He explained the essential nature of the language and gave examples of how it worked. But he did not create the entire language, and he did not pretend to. That would be a job for a community of users.
In the first years of Esperanto some people, who were scattered all over the world, started to use it. They wrote letters and traveled to other countries so they could communicate in the new language. They wrote articles, essays, stories, poems and even novels, and they translated different kinds of works into the new language.
Zamenhof had adapted his original small vocabulary mostly from the Romance and Germanic languages. Following this example, the early Esperantists introduced new words as needed from these sources. Zamenhof himself was one of these very active early Esperantists. He produced Esperanto versions of the Jewish Bible and works of such authors as Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, Schiller and Hans Christian Andersen.
From the very beginning Zamenhof disclaimed any special authority over Esperanto. He refused to copyright the language, saying that it was the common property of all of those who chose to use it. Early on, many individuals suggested changes which they considered to be improvements in the language. Zamenhof neither rejected nor endorsed these suggestions. Instead he put them to a vote of the Esperanto community. Zamenhof himself abstained from voting, and he did not vote any of the proxies which many people sent to him. The Esperanto community voted down the changes. Zamenhof accepted their decision because they, he felt, composed the highest authority. Zamenhof was the author of Esperanto but the community of users decided what the language was to be.
Zamenhof wrote a book called La Fundamento de Esperanto (The Foundation of Esperanto). This book contained an introduction and a large number of examples in Esperanto. It also gave, in five national languages, Russian, Polish, French, German and English, the sixteen basic rules of the grammar and definitions for a few thousand Esperanto words.
Zamenhof proposed to the first Universal Congress (1905) that it adopt this book as the unchangeable foundation of Esperanto. The Congress voted to accept his proposal.
After that, neither Zamenhof nor anyone else had the right to do away with the basic grammar or vocabulary or usage patterns of the language as they were found in the Fundamento. The author of Esperanto did not want this essential core of the language to be constantly fiddled with. He did not want people to “improve the language to death” as the Idists later did with their language.
The sixteen basic grammatical rules could not be changed. The usages in the examples could not be done away with. The words in the vocabulary could not be erased from the language. The community could introduce new words as needed, including synonyms for existing words, and it could develop new usages, but these would exist side-by-side along with those in the Foundation of Esperanto.