Is Esperanto a Joke? -  John C Wells

This talk was presented at a symposium entitled The University in the Tower of Babel  held in the University of Santiago de Compostela as part of the University’s 500th anniversary celebrations in 1995.   Ten years later he updated it somewhat for the internet.



I will first give a brief account of what Esperanto is, and what its purpose is. Forgive me if this is something you already know about.

I shall ask, is Esperanto just a joke, something not to be taken seriously?  Or is it, as I shall suggest, something that is perhaps indeed worthy of our serious attention?  I will offer a brief linguistic description, add some observations about Esperanto in the university and in the world, and then give a brief practical demonstration.


1. What it is?  What it is intended for?

Esperanto is a constructed language intended for world-wide use between speakers of different languages.  It is designed to facilitate communication among people of different languages, countries and cultures.  Its supporters claim for it two crucial advantages over other languages.  (Supporters of Esperanto have reservations about calling other languages ‘natural’, as opposed to Esperanto being ‘artificial’, for reasons I shall explain.  Hence they prefer to call other languages national, ethnic, or traditional.)

The first of these claimed advantages is that Esperanto allows communication on an equal footing between people of different native languages. In using Esperanto, neither person is speaking the other one’s language.  Both meet on equal ground.  The second claimed advantage is that Esperanto is considerably easier to learn than national languages, since its design is far simpler and more regular.

The origins of Esperanto can be traced to the situation in the nineteenth century, by which time Latin had lost its position as the universal language of scholarship and wider communication in Europe and the western world.  With the growth of national languages throughout Europe, people had begun to be more aware that there was a language problem: people couldn’t understand one another unless they learnt one another’s languages.  Foreign languages are hard to learn, and even the best linguists can learn only a handful of the thousands of languages in the world. (Even today, if we consider only those languages with a large enough literate population to have a daily newspaper is published in them, we are faced with somewhere between 50 and 100 such major languages. Probably none of us have mastered more than five or six of them; and most people know fewer.)

This awareness of the language problem is one of the intellectual currents that gave rise to Esperanto: its author.  Ludovik Zamenhof (1859-1917) was a Jew living in a part of eastern Europe where populations speaking Russian, Polish, German and Yiddish were in conflict with one another.  As Peter Hans Nelde specialist in sociolinguistics remarked, no contact without conflict.  One of the reasons for the conflicts in eastern Europe at that time, Zamenhof believed, was that people literally didn’t speak the same language.  And they resented having to speak other people’s languages.

The other intellectual current from which Esperanto springs is the philosophical fascination with what are now called universals of language. Leibniz, Descartes and others had struggled with the question of what it is that all human languages have in common, and how one can distill from them some essence which would be universal, some classification of knowledge that would be universally applicable.

Esperanto was launched in 1887.  Zamenhof published it under the pseudonym ‘Dr Esperanto’, meaning ‘one who hopes’.  This name then got transferred to the language itself, which came to be known under that name.  It attracted a steadily increasing body of supporters, first in what was then the Russian empire and then further afield, in the last years of that century.  It reached Britain, for example, in 1903.

The aim of Esperanto is to be a second language for all humankind.  It is perhaps worth emphasizing that it is not intended to replace existing languages: rather, the idea is that Esperanto should be used alongside them, primarily for international contacts, as a means of communication between speakers of different mother tongues.

Most speakers of Esperanto are what we might call voluntary enthusiasts, who have made a conscious decision to learn the language for practical or idealistic reasons.  They have learnt it specifically with a view to international contacts, and hence in their learning and use of the language are strongly motivated to aspire towards international norms.  There is widespread awareness of the likelihood or danger of interference from the mother tongue, and a conscious striving not to create local varieties of the language, but to make one’s Esperanto ‘international’.  (When other users of Esperanto congratulate me on my good pronunciation of Esperanto, they are referring inter alia to the fact that I don’t sound particularly like an Englishman.)

I mentioned that the two main claimed advantages of Esperanto over national languages are ease of learning and political neutrality.  Esperanto is easy because it is regular.  Its grammatical rules have no exceptions.  So for example every noun forms its plural the same way, every verb forms its past tense in the same way.  There are no irregular verbs.  More subtly, it is easy to learn because of the way words are built up out of simpler elements, as we shall see later. And it is easy because its spelling is regular.

Esperanto is politically neutral in that it is no-one’s and everyone’s.  (Perhaps in this respect it is a bit like the internet, which no-one can control because no-one owns it.)  By using Esperanto you escape the power relationship that is inherent if A speaks, or is forced to speak, B’s language on the one hand, or if B speaks A’s language on the other.  It also avoids the imperialist connotations which inevitably still attach to some extent to languages such as English and French, to the languages of the great powers.  But political neutrality is a difficult concept, and one that is interpreted differently at different times and in different places.  Esperanto has regularly been persecuted by totalitarian regimes and its supporters imprisoned or killed: many died under both Hitler and Stalin for the crime of being Esperantists and thus having international contacts unregulated by the state.

The Esperanto movement has always been animated by the humanitarian impulse towards international and interethnic friendship.  Very many of its users are inspired by ideals of world friendship, world peace, equal rights for all.  One of these rights is the right to communication.  Supporters of Esperanto point out that perhaps 10% of the world’s population speak English as a mother tongue, but 90% do not.  Which is fairer, which is more just: that 90% should have to learn a difficult language, English, for international use, or that all 100% should learn an easy language, Esperanto?

So how far have the proponents of Esperanto succeeded in achieving their aims?  Most importantly, they have brought about the existence of a worldwide body of users.  Journalists always want to know how big this body of users is: how many people know Esperanto?  This is a difficult question to answer — just as it is difficult to get reliable estimates of the number of people who know how to ride a bicycle or how to play chess.  Activists tend to quote absurdly exaggerated figures such as 8 million speakers of Esperanto.  There are of course serious questions of definition: what is it to “know” the language? My best and most realistic estimate, if we take as our criterion the ability to hold simple conversation in the language would be perhaps half a million speakers worldwide.  If we apply the more rigorous test of having a thorough active command of the language, then perhaps we should say no more than 50,000.  Even this, though, represents quite an achievement for something that started out as a project on paper.

The number of Esperanto speakers is sufficient to support an impressive array of congresses and other international meetings.  The World Esperanto Congress, held each year in a different country, regularly attracts 2000 or more participants; the 1987 Jubilee Congress in Warsaw attracted just under 6,000.  The 1994 congress in Seoul, South Korea, was notable in that it was the first world Esperanto congress at which Asian participants outnumbered Europeans.  There are also hundreds of other congresses, meetings, seminars and the so on using Esperanto, down to things like international camping holidays.  There are also hundreds of regional and local meetings each year, and a network of local groups and clubs.  The London Esperanto Club, for example, holds regular weekly meetings of three to four hours duration, conducted entirely in Esperanto.  This provides a forum for practising and using the language.

The number of books and periodicals published in Esperanto comes to an annual total comparable to that of, say, Welsh.  The Montagu Butler Library at the British Esperanto Association’s headquarters has over 30,000 registered items in its catalogue.  On average a new book is published each week, a new issue of a periodical each day.  These are of course devoted not just to the language and movement, but include works of fiction and nonfiction of all kinds.  There are also of course many grammars, dictionaries both monolingual and bilingual, textbooks for learning the language and so on.

Esperanto can be heard on the radio in regular broadcasts from Polish Radio, Vatican Radio, and Radio Peking, amongst others.  There are also cassettes, videos, and CDs available.

It is a mixed blessing that Esperanto has almost become a recognized brand name.  The term ‘Esperanto’ is now used metaphorically in various languages, often — regrettably — in a negative sense, as in the days before the launch of the Euro, when the proposed European single currency was disparaged as ‘Esperanto money’.  Well, now we know that the euro works.


2. A joke?

This brings us to the kinds of objection that are regularly raised against Esperanto. First, there is no contesting the claim that its primary aim has not been achieved.  It has not become the second language for all.  It is not the language in which one normally addresses a stranger when away from home. This does of course account for the fact that there is — still — an Esperanto movement.

Less acceptable is the still widespread perception that Esperanto is not a ‘real language’, that is ‘artificial’ and therefore ‘impossible’, or that it is a mere a ‘lifeless code’.  I hope to show that the first claim is wrong: Esperanto is a language, as we ordinarily define the term.  And artificiality is a relative concept: all kinds of language planning could be termed artificial (as of course could such features of modern life as industrialization, aviation and electronics).  All language planning can be seen as in some

Given that Esperanto is not associated with any particular national, social, or ethnic group, where is its speech community? The answer is that it is scattered around the world. Perhaps Esperanto should be regarded as a kind of diaspora language. Its speakers have many of the attributes of a speech community: not only can do speak the same language (concurrently with others), but they also share many common values and a exhibit a strong language loyalty. It is true there are virtually no monoglot speakers of Esperanto — but this is true of many languages.

People also criticize Esperanto from the linguistic point of view.  Objections have often been levelled against details of its grammar (the accusative case, adjectival concord) or its orthography (letters with diacritics).  More sophisticated linguistic objections relate to the lack of any explicit rules for intonation, or to the supposed excessive Europeanness of the vocabulary.  However the fair comparison in these connections must be not between Esperanto and, say, native-speaker English, but between Esperanto and English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

Many rival schemes for a constructed international language have been proposed.  By and large, they have tended to be essentially reforms of Esperanto, and rest on the fallacy that the only reasons Esperanto has not yet won over the world are linguistic ones.  Most have been utterly still-born; none has ever succeeded in winning for itself a speech community comparable to that of Esperanto.

A serious problem faced by proponents of Esperanto as the international language is the low prestige in which it is widely held.  Naturally, its supporters do all they can to raise its prestige.  Perhaps I can do my bit here by boasting of the conversation in Esperanto I had yesterday evening with a Nobel prize winner, Prof. Selten, the game theorist, currently like me visiting Santiago de Compostela.


3. A joke no longer

Esperanto started out as one man’s project.  But in time a remarkable thing happened: by a sociolinguistic development unique in history, it became a language.  Just how or when this happened is not clear. But by the early years of the present century, what started as one man’s paper project had ended as a language used by what is now a substantial speech community.

In our own time, Chomsky has recreated linguists’ interest in the idea of language universals. Chomsky himself was interested in the mathematical delineation of the class of possible grammars of human language, as against other imaginable grammatical systems or codes.  Greenberg and other followers have catalogued the facts about the world’s languages with a view to circumscribing the notion of ‘natural language’.  Inter alia, it is relevant that natural languages can be acquired by human children. Thus for example computer ‘languages’ such as Basic or C++ fail the test; English, Galician, Zulu, Vietnamese, Kwakiutl pass it.  The question we must ask is whether Esperanto qualifies. And clearly it does.

There are families that use Esperanto as their language of everyday communication, and in which the children thereby naturally acquire Esperanto as their first (native) language or more usually as one of their concurrent first languages.  I recently talking with a lady of about 70, who was one of the first denaskaj esperantistoj (native speakers of Esperanto).  I have heard a tape recording of a child of two years age talking animatedly with his father, in Esperanto, about how to operate the lavatory flush.  This child was actually a third-generation Esperanto speaker, since his mother had herself been brought up with Esperanto as a first language.  What we have here is a process perhaps analogous to the creolization of a pidgin.


4. A serious option?

If, then, we agree that Esperanto is worthy of the serious attention of linguists, it will be in order to give a very brief linguistic description.

Esperanto phonology is pretty straightforward.  There is a triangular five-vowel system, plus two semivowels which furnish phonetic diphthongs. Consonants come in voiceless-voiced pairs of plosives, fricatives, affricates, plus two liquids and two nasals. There is fixed penultimate word stress.  The orthography is strictly phonemic and uses the Latin alphabet, including six accented letters. Intonation… apparently exploits universal or widespread features, particularly in its demarcative functions; as in other aspects of the language, speakers learn to avoid national peculiarities, so that English speakers, for example, learn to rely on explicit wording rather than on special intonation.  In practice, Esperanto intonation seems to work rather better than the intonation of EFL.

The internal grammatical structure of words is particularly interesting. Esperanto morphology, both inflectional and derivational, is agglutinative, and thus more like the morphology of Japanese or Swahili than the flectional/fusional morphology typical of European languages.  All content-words are composed of two or more elements (morphemes), of constant form and meaning.  Word class (part of speech) is consistently indicated by a kind of tagging: nouns end in -o, adjectives in -a, verb infinitives in -i, and so on.  The plural suffix is -j.

tabl|o‘a table’ telefon|o‘a telephone’
tabl|o|j‘tables’ telefon|o|j‘telephones’
grand|a‘big, large’
vid|i‘to see’

You change the word class by changing the ending.

telefon|o‘a telephone’
telefon|i‘to telephone’

This means that various words do not take the most obviously ‘international’ form.  Since the word for ‘theatre’ is teatr|o, it follows that the related adjective, ‘theatrical’ is not *teatrikal|a but the regularly formed teatr|a.  This regularity contributes importantly to ease of learning.  Compare the learner of EFL who has learnt the verb to see and wants to know the corresponding adjective.  There is no way he can predict visual: it has to be learnt as a separate vocabulary item.  Likewise with the noun, sight or vision, which in English, as so often, involves a Germanic/Romance doublet with subtly distinguished meanings.  The learner of Esperanto, on the other hand, once he has learnt vidi, can predict with certainty that ‘visual’ is vida and ‘sight, vision’ vido.

Esperanto makes widespread use of suffixes.  Again, these are not only regular but completely productive.

vid|ebl|a‘that can be seen, visible’
vid|ind|a‘worth seeing’, German sehenswürdig

The factitive suffix -ig- makes a transitive verb:

vid|ebl|ig|i‘to render visible’

The suffix -aĵ- forms the name of a concrete object:

vid|ind|aĵo‘something worth seeing,
one of the sights’,
German Sehenswürdigkeit

With the suffix -ej- we form the name of a place where something is done:

akcept|ej|o‘reception (desk, hall)’
atend|ej|o‘waiting room’

Note again that these follow automatically from the corresponding verb (akcept|i, kuir|i ‘to cook’, atend|i), and compare the English equivalents, which have to be learnt separately.

There is also abundant use of compounding.

tabl|o|tuk|o‘a tablecloth’
part|o|pren|i‘to participate’

Some very brief comments on syntax: the basic word order is SVO, but this can be freely varied for stylistic effect, or to delay heavy NPs: the object is differentiated from the subject by the accusative ending -n.  The adjective usually comes before the noun, though again this can be varied for stylistic effect; it agrees in case and number.  Esperanto has prepositions, not postpositions; relative clauses follow the noun to which they refer.  (Thus although the morphology is like that of Japanese, the syntax is not.)

Turning now to the Esperanto lexicon, we can say that the root morphemes are mainly of mixed European origin.  Approximately two-thirds are drawn from Romance languages (Latin, French, Italian), one quarter from Germanic (English, German), and the balance from Slavonic (Russian, Polish).  However the word for ‘and’, kaj, is from Ancient Greek.

Starting from Zamenhof’s basis, the language has gradually developed over the years, in rather the same way as other languages do.  There has been a considerable amount of growth in the basic stock of roots, allowing for the expansion of vocabulary beyond what was already provided for; and there has been a striking trend towards the exploitation of what were previously mere latent possibilities (e.g. the use of suffixes as independent roots, as when the diminutive suffix -et-, is exploited to make an adjective et|a, ‘tiny’). In these developments it is important to emphasize the role of the speech community: lexicographers and writers can propose innovations, but it is the Esperanto public who accept or reject them. Particularly happy coinages can win instant acceptance, as with Tut-Tera Teksaĵo, the ‘World Wide Web’, whose abbreviation TTT prettily shadows WWW. Others are still-born.  Thus as with other languages the speech community acts as the guarantee of Esperanto’s stability and continuity: an individual may have launched it, but no individual can now arbitrarily change it.

The rise of English as the main de facto international language since the second world war has naturally presented a real challenge to the Esperanto movement.  The response has been split.  On the one hand most supporters of Esperanto, the so-called pra|cel|ist|o|j (‘original goal supporters’), emphasize the great difficulty of English and the unfair advantage its use gives to those who happen to be native speakers; they therefore continue to advocate the general adoption of Esperanto in its place.  But there are others (raŭm|ist|o|j, after the Finnish town of Rauma where this view was first formulated) who concede the role of English in practical world affairs, and abandon the aim of having Esperanto displace it in its international role, but argue nevertheless that Esperanto as something valuable in itself, worthy of use and study both as a language and for its literature.


5. The University and the world

I imagine you are expecting me to say a few words about universities that teach Esperanto or interlinguistic studies.  I was delighted a few years ago to be able to visit the Esperanto Department at Dankook University in Seoul, South Korea, one of the best-known; I am particularly sorry to have to say that it has now been closed down.  But there are several others still flourishing.  In Budapest at Eötvös Lorand interesting work has been done by Koutny on the speech synthesis of Esperanto, as well on Esperanto as part of the training of language teachers.  At Aix-en-Provence important lexicographic work is in progress, including revision of the largest Esperanto dictionary, Plena Ilustrita Vortaro.   At Torino, Clermont-Ferrand, and various other universities Esperanto is available as one of the languages that can be studied by undergraduates, usually on an elective basis.  The Chinese Academy of Sciences has an Esperanto section.  I am accordingly very glad to hear that there are now plans for study in or of Esperanto here at Santiago de Compostela, too.

A catalogue compiled by Symoens in Belgium lists hundreds of academic dissertations and monographs in or on Esperanto.  Among on-going research projects I would mention in particular Corsetti’s work at the third Rome university on the use of Esperanto in multilingual families.  Interesting experiments have been carried out on so-called propedeutic Esperanto, i.e. the teaching of Esperanto to first-year language learners, before they embark upon French or English.  What Frank’s research at Paderborn and for the San Marino International Academy of Sciences tends to show is that given an equal number of study hours per week, one year of Esperanto in school produces a communication capacity clearly superior to what the average pupil reaches in other languages after six or seven years of study, so much so that Esperanto no longer feels like a foreign language.

Esperanto speakers have adopted the internet with enthusiasm.  There are lively internet newsgroups and e-mail lists.  Particularly over the last year, like everyone else, they have been energetically setting up web sites in Esperanto.  As a technology, the net itself of course is neutral as to language (at least for languages written with the Latin alphabet), in the same way as the post, telephone, radio, and other media.


6. A practical demonstration — praktika demonstro

I’d like you now to hear a brief demonstration of what Esperanto sounds like.  (For those reading this as a written text, this has to be a demonstration only of what it looks like.)  I would ask the interpreters just to keep silent while I say a few words about intellectual attitudes towards Esperanto — in Esperanto.

Ni vidis, ke ekzistas diversaj opinioj pri Esperanto.  Iuj opinias, ke gi estas ŝerco, ke gi ne meritas la atenton de seriozaj homoj.  Ĝi ne povas esti vera lingvo — tiel ili supozas — Ĉar gi estas artefarita, au ĉar gi estas senviva kodo, au ĉar neniu parolas gin.  Sed aliaj vidas, ke tiuj opinioj estas malgustaj.  Anstataŭ paroli pri ‘artefariteco’ ni diru, ke ĝi estas planita, ja grandskale planita.  Ĝi komenciĝis kiel projekto, sed per sociolingvistike unika evoluo ĝi transformiĝis en vivantan plene funkciantan lingvon.  Ĝi estas parolebla kaj parolata: centmiloj da homoj povas paroli, skribi, legi kaj kompreni ĝin.  Eĉ tiuj, kiuj opinias ke gi neniam atingos sian unuan celon, pro faktoroj sociaj, politikaj, kaj ekonomiaj — eĉ ili devas rekoni la fakton de ĝia ekzisto.  Kaj kiel lingvo, kiel vere rimarkinda lingvo, Esperanto meritas seriozan atenton kaj seriozan studon

Ne estas defendebla la aserto, ke Esperanto estas absurdaĵo; sole defendebla estas la kontraŭa aserto, ke ĝi estas taŭga objekto por serioza studo, ankaŭ je universitata nivelo.

La lingva problemo en internaciaj rilatoj estas ankoraŭ sentata.  La pruvo: ke en ĉi tiu konferenco ni bezonas interpretistojn.  La esperantistoj montris, ke Esperanto funkcias.  Ĝi prezentas radikalan sed efikan solvon al la lingvo-problemo.  Necesas nur la politika, socia, ekonomia decido apliki gin.

So, there we are.  The world still has a language problem: the presence of all the paraphernalia of simultaneous interpretation here in this present congress, and the fact that even so some of us have had to speak in a language in which we cannot speak altogether freely, or listen to a language we cannot always understand with ease, is sufficient evidence of that.  Esperanto offers a possible solution — a radical solution, waiting in the wings for humankind to decide whether to call it onto the world stage.

Whether you think that those who argue for Esperanto are right, or you think that they’re wrong; whether you think that Esperanto has some hope of success or you think it a lost cause — whatever your opinion, I would claim that we do all have a scholarly responsibility towards it: namely to do our best to ensure that Esperanto and its users should be taken seriously as a possible subject of study at university, just as we are prepared to study any other languages and other linguistic phenomena seriously.

Perhaps, too, we ought to ensure that Esperanto too be entitled to a few crumbs from the table of Erasmus, Socrates, Lingua, Linguapax and so on.

We don’t have to accept the situation as it is. Esperanto works.  What is needed is the decision to apply it.

We do not know what the future will bring.  My colleague here, Prof. Ammon, and I were speculating at lunchtime about what may lie ahead in the field of economic power.  Over the next fifty or a hundred years, are we going to see the economic decline of the United States and perhaps the rise of China?  What would such a scenario mean for the world language scene?  Does it mean the likely decline of English and its replacement in international relations by Chinese? Is that the language our grandchildren will be having to learn?

Or can we take the whole language question out of the realm of power relations and solve it in a rational and efficient way?




Piron, C., 1994. Psychological reactions to Esperanto.Esperanto Documents 42a. Rotterdam: Universala Esperanto-Asocio.


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