This is the text of an article I contributed to The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, ed. R.E. Asher, Oxford: Pergamon, 1994 (vol. 3, pages 1143-1145).


Esperanto is a constructed language intended for international use. Originating as an artificial language, it is unique in having enjoyed sufficient success to have acquired its own speech community and even undergone a degree of creolization. Thus the epithet ‘artificial’ is no longer altogether adequate: unlike codes and computer languages, Esperanto generally satisfies the criteria for recognition as a ‘natural language’.

1. Background

Its creator was Ludovic Lazar Zamenhof, a Jewish oculist of Warsaw, who used the pseudonym Esperanto, ‘the one who hopes’. His Lingvo Internacia was first published in 1887, in Russian. By the beginning of the twentieth century Esperanto, as the language itself quickly came to be known, had been taken up in France, Germany, and elsewhere; the London Esperanto Club (still in existence) was founded in 1903. The participants at the first international Esperanto congress, held in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, proclaimed the essential linguistic basis (Fundamento) of the language as inviolable. Support has subsequently spread to most parts of the world, including Japan, China, and Brazil (although the movement remains very weak in most of the Third World). Both Stalin and Hitler saw the internationalist and idealist values of Esperanto as presenting a threat, and launched persecutions of its supporters. In the early 1990s, the number of speakers of Esperanto is unknown, but variously estimated at between five hundred thousand and several million. Universala Esperanto-Asocio, with headquarters in Rotterdam, has members in over 100 countries. The centenary World Esperanto Congress (Warsaw, 1987) — held, like all such events, entirely in Esperanto — attracted over six thousand participants.

It must be emphasized that Esperanto is a real language, spoken and written, successfully used as a means of communication between people who have no other common language. Of course the great majority of its users have Esperanto as a second language, learnt well after the acquisition of the L1, so that levels of competence vary widely. However, there are also speakers, children of parents who use Esperanto as a family language, for whom it is a native language or mother tongue, normally in a bilingual or trilingual relationship with the language of the local community or other parental language(s). There is no other case in linguistic history of something that started as an intellectual scheme, a project on paper, being transformed into a language with native speakers of the second and indeed the third generation.

The traditional aim of the Esperanto movement is the adoption of Esperanto as L2 for all mankind. The chief arguments for this can be summarized by saying that Esperanto is easy to learn and politically neutral.

Ease of learning is a consequence of the complete regularity of the language: grammatical rules have no exceptions, and the agglutinative morphological structure (Sect. 3 below) makes vocabulary acquisition much faster than for other languages. As a result, it is claimed, Esperanto can be learnt three to ten times as fast as ‘national’ or ‘ethnic’ languages (although obviously the rate of progress depends, as always, on many factors, including the learner’s L1).

Esperanto belongs to no particular nation or ethnic group. This, it is claimed, makes it politically a better choice for an international common language than English (seen by many as irredeemably attached to parochial UK or USA values) or other national languages.

Opposition to Esperanto is often more emotional than rational. Serious critics, however, argue first that Esperanto is a language without culture (although supporters of Esperanto would dispute this, pointing to a hundred years’ literary activity, including a substantial body of original poetry); and second, that it is too European (though all alternative solutions to the question of an international language are even more so). In any case, it is claimed, the economic, social, and political pressures in favor of the choice of English for international use are by now overwhelming.

2. Pronunciation and orthography

The phoneme system comprises 23 consonants and 5 vowels. The vowels are /i, e, a, o, u/. The consonants are:

Word stress is always penultimate. Spelling is strictly phonemic. An international standard of ‘good’ pronunciation has by now evolved, and includes the avoidance of marked interference from speakers’ L1s. Intonation follows general, mainly European, models, without parochialisms.

3. Morphology and syntax

Esperanto is agglutinative in that all words (other than function words) consist of a stem plus a grammatical ending (-o for nouns, -a for adjectives, -i for infinitive verbs, etc.: telefon-o ‘a telephone’, telefon-a ‘a telephonic’, telefon-i ‘to telephone’). The plural ending is -j (telefonoj ‘telephones’). There is an accusative case -n, used for the the direct object. Adjectives agree with nouns in number and case: mi vidis grandan hundon ‘I saw a big dog’, du grandaj hundoj atakis min ‘two big dogs attacked me’. There are three verb tenses, -as present, -is past, -os future, plus -us conditional and -u imperative/volitive. The definite article, invariant, is la; there is no indefinite article.

The normal word order is SVO. Determiners and adjectives usually precede nouns, and the language is prepositional. However, the morphological marking of the accusative means that the order of constituents is flexible. The last sentence quoted has emphatic or stylistic variants such as atakis min du hundoj grandaj.

The stem may be a single root (base morpheme) or a combination of roots and/or affixes: for example, parol-ant-o speak-pres.ppl-NOUN ‘speaker’, parol-em-a speak-tending-ADJ ‘talkative’, mar-bord-o sea-edge-NOUN ‘seaside’. Each morpheme (root, affix, ending) is in principle unvarying in form and meaning; the meaning of a compound or affixed form is the sum of the meanings of its constituent elements. A twentieth-century development is the increasing use of affixes as independent stems, for example em-o ‘inclination’.

4. Vocabulary

The lexical material was chosen by Zamenhof to be as international as possible. Some three-fourths of the basic roots are of Romance origin, the remainder mostly Germanic or Slavic; often they are common to several source families (e.g. dom- ‘house’). Classical and international roots are readily incorporated, though adapted to Esperanto phonology and morphology: thus since teatr-o is ‘theater’, ‘theatrical’ must be teatr-a.

With a speech community scattered around the world, but nevertheless commanding great feelings of loyalty from its speakers, Esperanto is comparable in some ways to ‘diaspora’ languages such as Romani, Yiddish, or Armenian. In its lack of official government status it is like creoles and many ethnic minority languages. It remains to be seen whether in the last analysis it is a linguistic curiosity doomed to disappear, or a brilliant idea whose moment has not yet come.

Lanton, P., 1993. Esperanto. In: Tonkin, H.. (ed.), Language, literature, and community. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Author: John Wells. Author's home page.
Placed on the web 2002 10 10.
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