What is Esperanto?

A language and a philosophy of life

Esperanto is a living and beautiful language. It has been tested in practice for more than 115 years and has developed into a nuanced and multifaceted means of communication. No other language has been spread across the world in such a short time – without conquests, war or colonialism. Today many thousands of people speak Esperanto. There are a hundred or so magazines in Esperanto and 40 000 books, most of which are translations. There is a wealth of radio transmissions, music and plays in Esperanto. Esperanto has shown to be as good as any national language for speech, written language and scientific language. More than 300 scientific publications are produced every year in Esperanto (according to the yearly biography of the Modern Language Association of America).

It is easy to create new words, as Esperanto, as opposed to other languages, is well-planned and logical. Many recent words such as florist, telefax, Internet and servo were found in Esperanto before they became common in other languages.

Esperanto is much easier to learn than other languages because:

  1. The different letters are always pronounced in the same way and every letter in a word is pronounced. Therefore there are no difficulties with spelling and pronunciation, as one knows that the penultimate syllable is always stressed.
  2. The grammar is simple, logical and without exceptions. The grammatical exceptions are often what make it so difficult to learn a new language.
  3. Most of the words in Esperanto are international and are found in languages around the world.
  4. It is easy to make new words with prefixes or suffixes. Thus, if one learns one word, ten or more usually come as part of the package.

Without a Nation

The idea of Esperanto is that it shall be a second language for all people. A language without a nation, a language that does not push out other languages and cultures but respects everybody’s right to their own culture and language. Esperanto has reached its current position entirely thanks to individuals who has been inspired by its fundamental idea; that all people are equal and should be able to communicate as such. That contact between people from different cultures should not be built on the domination of one over the other. That friendship and free communication between people from different parts of the world and of different cultures is a natural part of peace. Esperanto was created to serve these purposes, and these have had a large impact on its history.

When do You Achieve the Most?

Scientists have determined that you achieves at your highest level when you use your native language. But if we have an international language, we can then communicate our achievements on an equal footing, and build bridges between people. If people are allowed to use their own mother tongue and feel security and pleasure in their own culture, it is easier for them to empathize with and tolerate other people’s cultures and languages. It is ominous that so many politicians, scientists and parents degrade their own language to a second rate position. This causes immense problems and counteracts a healthy national and international development.

Owned by you and me

Esperanto is not owned by anyone; it belongs to everyone. It does not have a colonial past or any kind of historical embarrassments. The popularity of Esperanto in smaller countries (but also in larger ones such as Japan) is mainly the result of this neutrality. When you see or hear two Esperanto-speakers talking, you cannot but be struck by the immediate feeling of freedom and understanding that defines the conversation.

Some prejudices about Esperanto:

  1. Esperanto will push the national languages aside. Wrong. It is the large national languages, such as English, that have pushed many small languages to the point of extinction today.
  2. Esperanto has no culture. Wrong. Esperanto has existed for more than 115 years and around the language a culture of tolerance between people has grown, including justice and understanding and protection of both small and large languages as well as their adjoining cultures.
  3. Esperanto is only European. Wrong. Esperanto is based on Indo-European languages in Europe and Asia.
  4. Esperanto has few words. Wrong. Esperanto is a richer language than most. It is easy to acquire a large vocabulary in Esperanto thanks to its logical construction. Tooth – teeth in English are dento – dentoj. Mouse – mice are muso – musoj. Plurals are made by adding the letter j. Compare the words learn and school to the Esperanto words lerni and lernejo. The letters –ej denote the place or locality in which the foundation word takes place. Thus lernejo is a place where you learn. The words for pig and sty in Esperanto are porko and porkejo. Esperanto contains many words and phrases that are missing in other languages; of course it does not have a small vocabulary. Conferences are held in Esperanto without interpreters for thousands of participants around the world and there are 40 000 book titles in Esperanto (both written in it originally or works in translation).
  5. Knowing Esperanto is a useless skill. Wrong. Many Esperanto speakers are good linguists and they often say that Esperanto has been of most use to them on their travels. As an Esperantist you are never an alien in a foreign land. You can easily make friends who speak Esperanto and who have international interests.
  6. Esperanto was a nice thought that never came to fruition. Wrong. Those who have not wanted to change their mindset or renege their privileges have always opposed new things. Once upon a time there was opposition against modern Greek, Nynorsk and Czech from the cultural elites of the day. Esperanto has been opposed from the very beginning by privileged groups and has even been forbidden in certain dictatorships. Yet Esperanto has still spread to all the corners of the earth, not thanks to politicians, but because ordinary people have believed in the idea that if ordinary people from different countries can communicate with each other with ease, we will have a better world.
  7. Esperanto is an artificial language and therefore not a real language. Wrong. The difference between regular languages and Esperanto is that Esperanto was especially constructed according to scientific principles in order to function as an easily acquired means of communication for people with different first languages. It is unsurpassed for this purpose.
  8. Esperantists dream of a world where everyone speaks Esperanto and nothing else. Wrong.
  9. Esperanto is to difficult for me to learn. Right; you know that best yourself. But Esperanto is much easier to learn than any other language.

More than one hundred international meetings and conferences are held in Esperanto every year – without the aid of interpreters or translators. The largest such meeting is the World Congress. It was held 1997 in Adelaide, 1998 in Montpellier, 1999 in Berlin, 2000 in Tel-Aviv, 2001 in Zagreb, 2002 in Fortaleza in Brazil, 2003 in Sweden, 2004 in Beijing and 2005 in Lithuania. In 2000 there was a meting in Amman for Esperanto speakers from the Arabic countries. The fifth All American Congress was held in Mexico City in 2001 and an Esperanto congress for Esperanto speakers from Asia was held in Seoul in 2002.

117 Countries

The Universal Esperanto Association, UEA, is a world wide Esperanto organization with its main office in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. It has members in 117 countries and has advisory status in UNESCO and a UN office for information exchange.

UEA publishes a yearbook and organizes yearly world congresses. Additionally, around the world and throughout the year, they hold courses, seminars, special congresses, festivals and other interesting meetings.

The Youth Association

TEJO is the youths´ world association for Esperanto. Among other things they publish Passporta Servo, a book with thousands of addresses to Esperanto speakers worldwide. Amikeca Reco is a similar book about a friendship network of people who volunteer as guides in their local areas. Through TEJO you can volunteer in international work brigades.

There are many Esperanto associations for different professionals, such as doctors and medical staff, authors, journalists, railways employees, researchers, mathematician, musicians and lawyers. These associations organize conferences; often publish their own magazines and work to expand specialist vocabulary in Esperanto. They also translate specialist literature.

For Cyclists and Bahai

There are many organizations for Esperanto speakers. Thus, there are for instance associations for cyclists, chess players, the blind and bahai.

Claude Piron, a Swiss university lecturer and experienced interpreter in the UN said at a UNESCO symposium in Paris that:

They told me, when I was a kid: Don’t be afraid to ask your way. Use your tongue and you’ll go to the ends of the world. But just a few miles away people spoke another language. To ask them anything was maddeningly useless.

They told me: To discuss with foreigners, learn languages at school. But 90% of the adults can’t properly express themselves in the foreign language which they chose as students.

They told me: With English you can get along anywhere in the world. But in a Spanish village I saw an accident in which a French and a Swedish car were involved. Neither with one another nor with the police could the drivers communicate. In a small town in Thailand I saw an agonized tourist trying to describe his symptoms to a local doctor. He strained himself in vain. I have worked for the United Nations and the World Health Organization on all inhabited continents, and on a few islands, and I found out in the Congo, in Poland, in Japan and in many other places that English is of no use outside of major hotels, big stores, business circles and airports.

They told me: Thanks to translations even the most remote cultures are now accessible to all. But when I compared translations with originals, I saw so many distortions, so many omissions, so little respect for the author’s style that I was forced to approve the Italian saying Traduttore, traditore: ‘to translate is to betray’.

They told me that the West helps the Third World with due respect for the local cultures. But I saw that it has no regard for language dignity, it imposes its languages from the very start, taking for granted that they afford the best means of communication. I saw that the cultural pressures linked to English or French change the mentalities and exert their destructive effects on age-old cultures whose positive values are remorselessly ignored. And I saw the countless problems encountered in the training of local people, because Western technicians don’t know the local tongues and in these languages textbooks do not exist.

They told me: "Education for all will guarantee equality of opportunity for the children of all classes." And I saw rich families in the developing world send their young to Britain and USA in order to master English, while the masses, imprisoned in their own languages, subjected to all sorts of propaganda, only have a bleak future, maintained as they are by language in an inferior position.

They told me: "Esperanto has failed miserably." Yet in a mountain village of Europe, I saw farmers’ children chatting with Japanese visitors after only a six month Esperanto course.

They told me: "Esperanto lacks human value." I learned the language, I read its poetry, I listened to its songs. In that language I received confidences of Brazilians, Chinese, Iranians, Poles and a young fellow from Uzbekistan. And here I am – a former professional translator - owing it to honesty to say that those conversations were the most spontaneous and profound I ever had in a foreign language.

They told me: "Esperanto is worthless, because it has no culture." Yet when I met speakers of Esperanto in Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, most were more cultured than their fellows of the same socio-economic level. And when I attended international debates in that language, the intellectual level really impressed me.

I tried to explain all this around me. I said: "Come! Look! Here’s something extraordinary! A language which solves the communication problem between the peoples of the world! I saw a Hungarian and a Korean discussing politics and philosophy in that language only two years after starting to learn it. This is impossible in any other tongue. And I saw this, and that, and also these…"

But they replied: "Esperanto is not serious. And, anyway, it’s artificial."

I fail to understand. When a man’s or a woman’s heart, their feelings, the finest nuances of their thoughts are expressed directly from mouth to ear in a language born of a luxuriance of intercultural communications, they tell me: "It’s artificial."

But what do I see as I wander through the world? I see travellers longing to share with local people ideas and experiences, or maybe just recipes, and sadly giving up. I see exchanges by gestures leading to grotesque misunderstandings. I see people thirsting for information prevented by language from reading what they want.

I see masses of people, after six or seven years of learning a language, hacking away at it, unable to find the right word, wearing a laughable accent, missing the point they mean to make. I see language inequality and discrimination thriving throughout the world. I see diplomats and specialists speaking into microphones and hearing through earphones a voice other than that of their partner. Is that "natural communication"? From heart or brain to mouth to ear, that is artificial, of course, but from microphone to earphone through an interpretation booth, this is obviously natural! Has the art of solving problems with intelligence and sensitivity ceased to belong to human nature?

They tell me much, but I see different. So I wander, bewildered, in this society which claims for everyone the right to communicate. And I wonder if they’re deceiving me, or if I am just plain crazy.

115 Years

Some people raise the objection that if Esperanto becomes the common world language it will soon deteriorate into different dialects, in which the Chinese will speak their version, the Europeans another, etc.

Changes in pronunciation happen in a first language, not in a second language. Esperanto is not and should not become any one’s first language. Esperanto is to be spoken with foreign people, not one’s countrymen. If they for example in Nigeria begin to pronounce Esperanto in a different way and create new words and expressions, the only result would be that other people would have trouble in understanding them, and the Nigerians, who of course use Esperanto in order to be understood, would correct their pronunciation. It must be added that Esperanto has existed for 115 years and that as of yet, no new dialects have been noted. Those who speak Esperanto in Brazil do so with exactly the same pronunciation as those in Sweden. Esperanto has unambiguous rules for pronunciation and if there will be changes in the actual pronunciation in the future, it will probably occur across the whole world.

Should we Try to make a new “Esperanto”?

You might object that Esperanto has been created in Europe and is built mostly from words from the European languages. If we are to have a common international language, would it not be preferable that we took words from all around the world? This is a legitimate criticism, but Esperanto already exists in most countries. It has been used for 115 years and has won acceptance from people from all over the world. Why then make a new “Esperanto”? Would it be easier to learn if some words were brought in from Chinese, some from Swahili, some from Icelandic, some from Arabic etc? Who would benefit? There are around 6000 languages today, not counting dialects. If one was to create a language with two or three words from all of these, what advantage would this bring? None. On the contrary, such a language would become much more difficult to learn than Esperanto.

If the EU was to make Esperanto its common working language, the UN and the rest of the World would soon follow. That is without a doubt.

Not Ambiguous

National languages such as English are often ambiguous. Take for instance the words Japanese encephalitis vaccine. These can both mean an encephalitis vaccine that is produced in Japan or a vaccine against Japanese encephalitis. In Esperanto there will never be any doubt of which meaning is correct, as one writes either japana encefalit-vakcino or japan-encefalita vakcino.

Professor Christer Kiselman at Uppsala University in Sweden has taught mathematics at a Chinese University in Esperanto: “Students with six years of language studies in English could not make themselves understood and I could not understand them. After eight months of studying Esperanto we could hold conversations.”


The International Science Academy in San Marino holds conferences, lectures and exams in Esperanto. Dissertations are written in Esperanto and the writer’s mother tongue. The former Soviet President Michail Gorbatjov holds an honorary doctorate at the Academy since 1996 and he is interested in working for a democratic solution to the international language problems.

A large economic dictionary published in China has masses of information in eleven languages. Most of the space is devoted to English and Esperanto.

An Englishman who knew Esperanto told me that it was easier to communicate in Esperanto with those Japanese people who knew that language than trying to understand their English.

Can Esperanto give the same elegance of expression as English? The English spoken by a Swede is not as elegant as that spoken by an Englishman. As Esperanto is meant to be everyone’s second language it is comparable to the English spoken by non-native speakers. In that case, it is much easier to reach a more profound level of expression in Esperanto than in English or other foreign languages.

© Hans Malv, 2004