Frequently Asked Questions About Esperanto
- The Basics
- History and Culture
- Esperanto in Practice
What is Esperanto?
Esperanto allows international communication on a basis of mutual respect and understanding. The language was created over a century ago, not to replace the other languages, but to be a “bridge” between different language communities. It has since grown into a vibrant, living language with a global community of speakers and a rich literature.
Esperanto is generally much easier to learn than other languages. Its spelling is completely phonetic: each letter can be pronounced only one way, and each sound can be spelled only one way. The grammar has no exceptions and no irregular verbs. The vocabulary is very efficient: learn just 500 word roots and you’ll have a vocabulary of over 5000 words, some expressing concepts that cannot be expressed in other languages.
Esperanto is politically and socially neutral. It does not belong to a specific country, ethnic group, social class, or ideology: it belongs to everyone. Every speaker is on a more or less equal linguistic footing with all other users of the language. The result is a spirit of friendship and fellowship among speakers.
Esperanto is a practical language. It allows people from all over the world to meet at multicultural events and communicate fluently with one another. Among these events are the Universala Kongreso, which brings together thousands of Esperanto speakers from all over the world every year, and the IJK, dedicated to younger speakers. Every day there is an Esperanto event somewhere in the world: check the Eventa Servo! The Internet has been a boon to Esperanto speakers. You can chat with other Esperanto speakers on Telegram, for example, or on Facebook. You can listen to music in Esperanto, for example at YouTube or Muzaiko. You can read books and magazines in Esperanto …
How can I learn Esperanto?
Right now, the best resource for a motivated speaker of English is the book Complete Esperanto by Tim Owen and Judith Meyer. Good online resources include Lernu!, which is available in many languages, as well as the Esperanto course on Duolingo, currently available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. An older textbook (available as a free download) is David Richardson’s Esperanto: Learning and Using the International Language. The annoted reading material in the second part of the book is especially useful, even if you’re mainly using another course.
Also see: Esperanto-USA’s learning page.
How many people speak Esperanto?
No one knows, exactly. With national languages like Hungarian or Thai, speakers are largely confined to a single country, and most residents speak the language natively. By contrast, Esperanto speakers are spread across the globe, and most learned it as a second (or third, etc.) language. So getting a reliable count of their numbers is very difficult to begin with, and varies widely depending on how you define “speaker.”
Several decades ago, The World Almanac and Book of Facts published the number “two million,” a figure that has been repeated many times, but which was based on a private, undocumented study. Modern estimates of the number of Esperanto “speakers” (i.e., those who have learned more than just a few words or phrases) range from 60,000–200,000. And if your definition of speaker includes people who have learned “a little bit of Esperanto,” the number is significantly higher.
Where is Esperanto spoken?
There are speakers of Esperanto all over the world. For example, the Pasporta Servo, a hospitality service offering free lodging to Esperanto-speaking tourists, has hosts in 90 countries. The largest concentrations of Esperanto speakers seem to be in western and central Europe, but significant communities are also found in China, Japan, Brazil, Russia, and the US, among others.
How is Esperanto “neutral”?
All natural and national languages are connected in some way with a specific country, region, culture, or ethnic group. And so the language naturally becomes a medium for the values, goals, and interests of the people who speak it. Esperanto is “neutral” in the sense that it doesn’t have that connection to any specific country, and so it is not so closely linked to national or ethnic values, goals, and interests. Think about the immense social, political, and economic power of languages like English, Spanish, Chinese, and Russian. Or think about the roles of French and Latin in previous centuries. That kind of power is competitive and divisive in nature—for one language to succeed, others need to submit to it. Esperanto seeks to equalize and unify instead.
How is Esperanto “easy to learn”?
For many people, Esperanto is considerably easier to learn than other languages due to its simplicity and regularity. The language is spoken just as it is written, and every word is stressed on the second-to-last syllable. There are no silent letters or other quirks of pronunciation.
The grammar has no irregular verbs or plurals, no grammatical gender (you don’t have to worry if “table” is masculine or feminine), and only one case. By comparison, German has four cases, French has five, Latin has six, and Finnish has 15!
Finally, Esperanto’s system of word-building (known by linguists as agglutination) gives beginners a lot of ways to say things using a smaller number of word roots. Many of those roots come from languages already widely spoken, including English. And speakers of Esperanto tend to be very accepting of new learners and their more limited ways of expressing themselves.
Is Esperanto “artificial”?
Artificial or “constructed” languages are devised through conscious effort and planning. There are many such languages. Some, like Klingon (spoken by those bumpy-headed aliens in Star Trek) were invented to add realism to fictional worlds. Others, like Loglan (also known as Lojban) were designed to be purely logical and precise, thereby enforcing rational thought. There’s even an artificial language called “Solresol” that uses musical notes, so you can sing it! Many hundreds of other constructed languages have been created since the Middle Ages.
When the early form of Esperanto was first created in the 1880s, it too was a “constructed” language. But unlike all the other constructed languages, it outlived its creator, growing well beyond its initial form. Over the decades it gained an enduring, worldwide body of speakers who continually expanded it, using it for all sorts of purposes: making friends, translating literature, raising children, teaching academic courses, and more. In the process, it began to evolve and grow through the same natural processes as other natural languages. Today, some linguists classify Esperanto as a “planned language,” somewhat like modern Hebrew, Nynorsk, Turkish, and Indonesian—languages that were at least partially constructed or designed, but which also grow and change organically.
History and Culture
Where did Esperanto come from?
Esperanto has a more than 130-year history. After it was first published in the Polish city of Białystok, then part of the Russian Empire, the introductory material was quickly translated into other languages, and people in other countries began to learn and use it. Within just a few years, there were Esperanto speakers around the world, and a growing body of correspondence, journals, and literature, both translated and original. The first World Congress of Esperanto was held in 1905. At that meeting, Esperantists by consensus adopted the Fundamento de Esperanto as the unchangeable basis for Esperanto’s grammar and structure.
Here’s a recent article about the history of Esperanto. For a more detailed history, see Esperanto History at Wikipedia, or Esther Schor’s book Bridge of Words.
Does Esperanto have its own culture?
There is in fact a kind of “Esperanto culture,” but it’s not the sort of culture that involves specific styles of clothing, dance, or food.
Esperanto culture is more of a set of common concepts and experiences mediated by the language itself. These include a familiarity with various events, (like annual national and international gatherings of Esperanto speakers), creative works (historically literature, but in modern times also music, YouTube videos, podcasts, etc.), organizations (like UEA, the World Esperanto Association), symbols (like the green star and the akvomelono), and language-related topics.
Is Esperanto “the language of peace”?
The creator of Esperanto lived in a multilingual community where there were constant conflicts, and often physical assaults, among speakers of different languages (who represented different cultures). His hope was that if we all had a common second language, we might start to see “the other people” not as enemies or antagonists, but as siblings in the great human family.
Esperanto certainly isn’t “the” language of peace, nor is pacifism a requirement for speaking the language. Believe it or not, the U.S. Army once even used Esperanto in its war games! But throughout its history, Esperanto has attracted many people who hope for a better, more peaceful world, where understanding and friendship lead to awareness and empathy.
Is Esperanto “the Aggressor Language”?
After World War II, the U.S. Army wanted to make their war games more realistic by creating a simulated foreign enemy called “Aggressor.” This simulated enemy was to be made up of American soldiers, but with foreign-looking uniforms, insignia, and language. The language had to be different from English, not tied to any one country, and relatively easy for American troops to learn. Esperanto was a natural fit.
The Army’s Aggressor program ended in the 1970s, but various materials from the program remain, like this training film on YouTube.
Is Esperanto a “globalist” language?
Esperanto itself has no political, economic, or religious affiliations. It has always been a language for everyone. Some Esperanto speakers are enthusiastic capitalists. Some are Communists. Some are Buddhists. Some are atheists. Some support the idea of a world government. Others are anarchists. Many are apolitical. But almost all Esperanto speakers value the ability to communicate with people of differing beliefs and ideologies.
Have governments suppressed Esperanto?
Esperanto’s utility for international communication has always made it a dangerous language in closed societies and totalitarian regimes. As a tool for connecting people from different parts of the world, it can threaten those who promote xenophobia and try to restrict the flow of information. Historically, people were persecuted for speaking Esperanto in Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union.
Esperanto in Practice
What can I do with Esperanto?
Esperanto’s structure is relatively simple compared to other languages, so you get to spend more of your time learning to communicate rather than memorizing verb conjugations, irregular spellings, and the genders of inanimate objects. Then you can go on to use it to make friends around the world.
The expressiveness of the language makes it especially popular for literature; tens of thousands of translated and original works have been published so far, from cultures both large and small. What other language gives you quick access to radio broadcasts from Beijing, poetry from São Paulo, news from Brussels, short stories from Kaliningrad, and rap from Helsinki?
Esperanto is also great for travelers. Want to see the world on a shoestring budget? Why depend on a tour guide when you can just speak directly to the locals — or even stay with them, for free? That’s what the Pasporta Servo is for: it’s a free service for Esperanto-speaking tourists.
And of course, it’s fun. (Yes, really!) Esperanto can be a beautiful language. Its agglutinative structure (allowing words to be built from unchanging parts, like lego blocks) and flexible grammar are well suited to puns, wordplay, and an elegance of expression that can’t easily be duplicated in other tongues. Just the rich original literature itself is “worth the price of admission.” The 20th century produced a wealth of world-class Esperanto authors; one of the most notable was William Auld, the Scottish poet whose epic La infana raso was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
See also, Why does an American learn Esperanto?
Does the UN use Esperanto?
The United Nations does not use Esperanto for any of its official proceedings. The UN is committed to a multilingual translation model, in spite of the enormous expense and complexity that it entails.
As an non-governmental organization, the UEA (World Esperanto Organization) does have a UN office, as well as consultative status with UNESCO, giving it the highest level of representation an NGO can have at the UN. The UN has also passed two resolutions supporting Esperanto, recommending that the Director-General of UNESCO follow current developments in the use of the language.
Is there news in Esperanto?
There are dozens of international print magazines available, including general interest titles like Kontakto (dedicated to young adults) and Monato (an independent news magazine with correspondents worldwide) as well as publications for specific interests, like Femina (feminism), Beletra Almanako (literature), and Rok-Gazet’ (rock music). Regional magazines include Usona Esperantisto (USA), Esperanto Aktuell (Germany), and La Lanterno Azia (South Korea).
In the era of the Internet, there are also numerous websites for news reports about Esperanto, the Esperanto movement, and news in general. For example, Libera Folio and La Ondo de Esperanto.
Is there nonfiction in Esperanto?
Much of the nonfiction in Esperanto is focused on linguistics and language, social and political issues, and history. There are also biographies and autobiographies. One example is Maskerado by Tivadar Soros, the father of George Soros, which was recently republished in English translation. There’s even a fair amount of technical material in Esperanto, including scientific journals, textbooks, and dictionaries of technical terminology. Fun fact: Wasaburo Ooishi, the Japanese scientist who discovered the jet stream, first published his research in Esperanto.
What companies use Esperanto?
Some organizations and companies have used Esperanto as a way to stand out in the marketplace through unique or provocative branding. Some well-known examples are the watchmaker Movado, the soft drink Mirinda, and the cryptocurrency Monero.
It’s very uncommon for companies to use Esperanto for more than branding. The one exception is during the annual Universala Kongreso, the World Congress of Esperanto, when some enterprising locals do use Esperanto to cater to the large number of Esperantists in one place.
Will Esperanto help me in my career?
Some people have found work using Esperanto, but they are a very small minority. If you’re looking for a language that you can use professionally, Esperanto may not be the wisest choice. But it will give you a better understanding of the world, its cultures, and its peoples, and may help you in your career.
And of course, listing competence in Esperanto on your resume may make it stand out to some potential employers.