The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Esperanto is a constructed international language. The name derives from the pseudonym (Dr. Esperanto) under which L. L. Zamenhof published the language in 1887. His intention was to create an easy-to-learn, neutral language to supplement rather than replace the use of existing languages. Although it has not been adopted officially by any supranational agency other than the ones solely devoted to the language (such as the Universala Esperanto-Asocio or World Esperanto Association), it has had a small but growing speaker community continuously using it since its publication. Today Esperanto is used for many activities including travel, correspondence, cultural exchange, conventions, literature, and language instruction. It is the most widely used constructed language, and has some native speakers.



Main article: Esperanto history

As a constructed language, Esperanto's history is both short and well-known. Esperanto was developed in the late 1870s and early 1880s by L. L. Zamenhof. After about ten years of development, including translating and original writing in the language, he published the first grammar of the language in July 1887 in Russian, followed by versions in several other languages from 1887 to 1889. The number of speakers grew over the next few decades, at first primarily in the Russian empire and eastern Europe, then in western Europe and the Americas. In the early decades speakers of Esperanto were kept in contact primarily by magazines and correspondence. In 1905 the first world congress of Esperanto speakers was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France; since then world congresses have been held every year except during the two World Wars.

Language evolution

A declaration endorsed by the Esperanto movement at the world congress in 1905 limits changes to Esperanto. That declaration stated, amongst other things, that the basis of the language should remain the Fundamento de Esperanto ("Foundation of Esperanto", a group of early works by Zamenhof), which is to be binding forever: nobody has the right to make changes to it. The declaration also permits new concepts to be expressed as the speaker sees fit, but it recommends doing so in accordance with the original style.

Many Esperantists believe this declaration stabilizing the language is a major reason why the Esperanto speaker community grew beyond the levels attained by other constructed languages and has developed a flourishing culture. Constructed languages are often hindered from developing a speaker community by continual tinkering, with the constant changes making the language impossible to learn and use. This declaration gave Esperanto a stability of structure and grammar similar to that which natural languages possess by virtue of their great body of literature and speakers. Thus one could learn Esperanto without having it move from underfoot.

Zamenhof declared that "Esperanto belongs to the Esperantists" and moved to the background once the language was published, allowing others to share in the early development of the language. The grammar description in the earliest books was somewhat vague, so a consensus on usage developed over time within boundaries set by the initial, unchanging grammar outline (Auld 1988).

Modern Esperanto usage departs to some degree from that originally described in the Fundamento, though the differences are semantic (involving changed meaning of words) rather than grammatical or phonological. The translation given for "I like this one", in the phrases below offers a significant example. According to the Fundamento, Mi ŝatas ĉi tiun would in fact have meant "I esteem this one". The traditional usage would instead have been Ĉi tiu plaĉas al mi (literally, "this one is pleasing to me"), which, although it differs from the English phrasing in "I like this one", more closely reflects the phrasing in several other languages (e.g. French celui-ci me plaît, German das gefällt mir). The more traditional Ĉi tiu plaĉas al mi is still used as well, though it may be a minority usage.

In addition to these changes, Esperantists have formed many words to express concepts which have arisen since the publication of the Fundamento, but where possible these have indeed conformed to the existing style of the language. For example, early translations proposed for the word "computer" included komputero and komputoro, but the modern word in universal use is komputilo (adding the suffix -il-, meaning 'tool', to the root of the verb komputi, 'to compute'). Not all new coinages meet ready acceptance, however. For example, the neologism "ĉipa", meaning "cheap", has appeared as an alternative to the more verbose "malmultekosta", meaning "the opposite of expensive", but remains in minority usage.

Dialects and derived languages

No new languages or dialects have formed through fragmentation of Esperanto as they do in natural languages, presumably mainly due to the regular nature of the language and its intended field of use. People tend to create slang and regional variants in the language(s) they use day to day, rather than those used primarily for intercommunication with different-language speakers; in the case of Esperanto, such variations, if heavily different from the official Fundamento version, would make universal comprehension less likely and negate the intended purpose of the language.

Esperanto has slang words — for example, saluton (hello) is sometimes clipped to sal, and fajfi (to whistle) is often used to mean not to care about something. There are many other slang and swear words. There is not as much slang in Esperanto as in other languages, because slang tends to make international communication more difficult.

Through the years many groups and individuals have proposed new language projects as 'reformed' versions of the Esperanto. Almost all of these projects have remained stillborn, failing to progress past the planning stage, and the only one to have had significant success has been Ido (Esperanto for 'offspring'). Ido was proposed by the Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language in Paris in October 1907. Its main differences were in the fields of alphabet and some grammatical features. Early on there was a relatively large number of people who moved their support behind the Ido project, but the Ido movement itself descended into fragmentation and decline as others proposed further changes. Modern estimates place current speakers of Ido between 250 and 5000. Esperanto is also credited as being the foundation for later competing projects, such as Interlingua and Occidental, but these languages also lag far behind Esperanto in numbers of speakers.

Some small-scale reform projects, affecting only a small part of the language, have gained a few adherents speaking a somewhat idiosyncratic version of the language: for instance, Riismo, which modifies the language to incorporate non-sexist language and gender-neutral pronouns.

Official status

Esperanto is not an official language of any country, although there were plans at the beginning of the 20th century to establish Neutral Moresnet as the world's first Esperanto state, and the shortlived artificial island micronation of Rose Island used Esperanto as its official language in 1968. However, it is the official working language of several non-profit organizations, mostly Esperanto organizations. The largest of these organisations, the World Esperanto Association, is in official relations with the United Nations and UNESCO in a consultative role.

Linguistic properties


As a constructed language, Esperanto is not directly genetically related to any non-constructed language. However, its phonology and vocabulary were influenced by Indo-European languages. The phonology was primarily based on Slavic languages, while the root vocabulary came primarily from the Romance languages, with smaller contributions from Germanic and Slavic languages. Pragmatics and other aspects of grammar not defined by Zamenhof's original documents were influenced by the native languages of the early speakers, primarily Russian, Polish, German and French.

Typologically, Esperanto has default SVO, AN word order, and is prepositional. It is primarily agglutinative.


See Esperanto phonology, Esperanto pronunciation.

Esperanto has 28 segmental phonemes, 23 consonants and 5 vowels. Primary stress is always on the penultimate vowel, unless a final vowel o is elided (which can occur in poetry); secondary stress may but need not occur on alternating vowels preceding the penult. E.g., familio , famili' [ˈfa.mi.ˈli] (family). Tone is not phonemic.


Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p b   t d     k g  
Nasal   m     n        
Tap or Flap       ɾ        
Fricative   f v s z ʃ ʒ   x   h  
Affricate     ʦ   ʧ ʤ      
Lateral approximant       l        
Semivowel   w         j    

The phoneme /r/ is pronounced as either an alveolar flap [ɾ] (more common) or an alveolar trill [r]. The phoneme /v/ is pronounced as a labiodental fricative [v] (most common), a labiodental approximant [ʋ], or a labial-velar approximant [w]. The phoneme sequence /dz/ is pronounced as an affricate [ʣ]. The semivowel /w/ normally occurs only in diphthongs after the vowels /a/ or /e/.

A large number of possible consonant clusters can occur, up to three in initial position, or four in medial position (e.g. instrui, to teach). Final clusters do not occur except in foreign names and poetic elision of final o.


Front Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

There is a good deal of allophony among the vowels; for instance /e/ has allophones [e] and [ɛ]. The exact environment in which particular allophones occur varies from one speaker to another, perhaps influenced by the phonology of their native language (Wells 1989). Vowel length is not phonemic. A glottal stop may occur between adjacent vowels in some idiolects, especially where the two vowels are the same, such as heroo (hero) and praa (ancient).

Six diphthongs occur phonetically: /uj/, /oj/, /ej/, /aj/, /aw/, and /ew/, but they are phonemically sequences of a vowel and a semivowel.


Main article: Esperanto grammar

Esperanto is primarily agglutinative (Wells 1989 calculates an index of agglutinativity of 0.9999, higher than any non-constructed language), with all grammatical function suffixes appearing at the ends of words, and a mix of prefixes and suffixes with lexical meanings. It also makes extensive use of compounding to derive new words from a comparatively small stock of phonologically invariant root words. Morpheme order in compounds is modifier-head. All open-class words are suffixed with one of the word-class suffixes: -o noun, -a adjective, -e adverb, or one of six verb endings. The number and case suffixes follow the noun or adjective marker; all other suffixes come between the root word and the word class suffix.

Verbs distinguish three tenses in the indicative mood, plus three other moods (infinitive, imperative, and conditional) not marked for tense. They are not marked for person or number of subject or object. Nouns are marked for case (nominative and accusative) and number (singular or plural); adjectives are marked for the same categories, and generally agree with nouns they modify.

Word order is comparatively free: adjectives may precede or follow nouns, and subject, verb and object (marked by the accusative ending -n) can typically occur in any order. However, the article la or other deictic particles come at the beginning of a noun phrase, and prepositions come at the beginning of prepositional phrases. Similarly, the negative ne and conjunctions such as kaj (both, and) and ke (that) precede the phrases or clauses they modify. In copular clauses with esti (to be), word order can also be important, as neither noun phrase takes the accusative ending.


See the lists of Esperanto words and Esperanto words from Universala Vortaro at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sibling project.

The initial vocabulary of Esperanto was defined by Lingvo internacia, published by Zamenhof in 1887. It comprised 900 root words. However, the rules of grammar allowed speakers of the language to borrow words as needed, recommending that they look for the most international words which exist in some form in many languages. In 1894, Zamenhof published the first Esperanto dictionary, Universala Vortaro, comprising a larger set of root words, translated into 5 languages.

Since then, many more words have been borrowed into Esperanto from other languages, primarily but not solely the western European languages. Not all words borrowed by one speaker of the language catch on and come into general use, but many do. In recent decades, most of the new borrowings or coinages have been technical or scientific terms; terms in everyday use are more likely to be derived by compounding existing root words (e.g. komputilo), or extending them to cover new meanings (e.g. muso (mouse), now also signifies a computer input device, as in English). There are frequent debates among Esperanto speakers about whether a particular new borrowing is justified or whether the need can be met by compounding or extending the meaning of existing words.

In addition to the root words and the rules for regularly combining them, a learner of Esperanto must also learn some idiomatic compounds; e.g., eldonejo, literally a "giving out place", signfies "publisher" or "publishing house". Some root words also have idiomatic meanings in addition to their literal meanings; for instance, krokodili, from krokodilo, a crocodile, is a verb meaning "to speak one's native language in a situation where one ought to speak Esperanto".

Writing system

Main article: Esperanto orthography

Esperanto is written using a modified version of the Latin alphabet, with six accented letters: ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ (c, g, h, j, and s with circumflex), and ŭ (u with breve). The alphabet does not include the letters q, w, x, or y. (Everson 2001)

Therefore the 28-letter alphabet consists of: a b c ĉ d e f g ĝ h ĥ i j ĵ k l m n o p r s ŝ t u ŭ v z.

The unaccented letters are pronounced as the lower-case equivalents in IPA, with these exceptions:

Letter Phoneme
c /ʦ/
ĉ /ʧ/
ĝ /ʤ/
ĥ /x/
ĵ /ʒ/
ŝ /ʃ/
(as aŭ, eŭ)

Two ASCII-compatible writing conventions have been used over the years: the original "h-convention" and its modern replacement, the "x-convention". These are sets of digraphs that replace the accented letters in environments where it isn't practical to use them, such as manual typewriters and the early 7-bit ASCII Internet. The h-convention was motivated by the familiarity of digraphs such as ch and sh in other languages. The x-convention was devised to replace the h-convention because x is not otherwise a valid character in the Esperanto alphabet, enabling simple automated conversion to and from the standard orthography, and because computer word sorting programs alphabetise these digraphs correctly (cx after cu, sx after sv, etc.).


Here are some examples of Esperanto sentences, with IPA transcriptions.

  • Hello: Saluton  
  • How much?: Kiom?   [ˈ]
  • Do you speak Esperanto?:   Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?   [ˈʧu vi pa.ˈro.las ˈˈran.ton]  
  • I like this one.
    • Mi ŝatas tiun ĉi   [mi ˈʃ ˈti.un ˈʧi]
    • Ĉi tiu plaĉas al mi   [ʧi ˈti.u ˈpla.ʧas al ˈmi]
  • Is it cheap?: Ĉu ĝi estas malmultekosta?   [ˈʧu ʤi ˈes.tas mal.ˈmul.te.ˈkos.ta]
  • Are you an Esperantist?: Ĉu vi estas Esperantisto?   [ˈʧu vi ˈes.tas es.ˈpe.ran.ˈ]
  • Five euros: Kvin eŭroj   [ˈkvin ˈeu̯.roj]
  • Do you accept US dollars?: Ĉu vi akceptas usonajn dolarojn?   [ˈʧu vi ak.ˈʦep.tas u.ˈson.ajn do.ˈla.rojn]
  • Please give me a receipt: Bonvolu doni al mi kvitancon   [bon.ˈ ˈ al mi kvi.ˈtan.ʦon]
  • Thank you: Dankon   [ˈdan.kon]
  • It is a nice day: Estas bela tago   [ˈes.tas ˈ ˈta.go]
  • I love you: Mi amas vin   [mi ˈ vin]
  • Goodbye: Ĝis revido   [ˈʤis re.ˈvid.o]

The Esperanto speaker community

Geography and Demography

Esperanto speakers seem to be more numerous in Europe and east Asia than in the Americas, Africa and Oceania, and more numerous in urban than in rural areas (Sikosek 2003).

An estimate of the number of Esperanto speakers was made by Sidney S. Culbert, a retired psychology professor of the University of Washington (himself a longtime Esperantist who commented regarding the logical structure of Esperanto: "If the world could be structured that efficiently"). Culbert concluded that 1.6 million people speak Esperanto at Foreign Service Level 3, "professionally proficient" (possessing the ability to actually communicate beyond greetings and simple phrases) (Wolff 1996). Culbert's estimate was not made for Esperanto alone, but formed part of his listing of estimates for all languages of over 1 million speakers, published annually in the World Almanac and Book of Facts. Since Culbert never published in detail about his sampling methodology, or intermediate results for particular countries and regions, it is difficult to gauge the accuracy of his results. In the Almanac, his estimates for numbers of language speakers were rounded to the nearest million, thus the number for Esperanto speakers is shown as 2 million. This latter figure appears in Ethnologue. Assuming that this figure is accurate, this means that about 0.03% of the world's population speaks the language. This falls short of Zamenhof's goal of a universal language, but it represents a level of popularity unmatched by any other constructed language. Ethnologue also states that there are 200 to 2000 native Esperanto speakers.

Ziko Marcus Sikosek has challenged this figure of 1.6 million as exaggerated. Sikosek estimated that even if Esperanto speakers were evenly distributed, assuming one million Esperanto speakers worldwide would lead one to expect about 180 in the city of Cologne. Sikosek finds only 30 fluent speakers in that city, and similarly smaller than expected figures in several other places thought to have a larger than average concentration of Esperanto speakers. He also notes that there are a total of about 20,000 members of the various Esperanto organizations; though there are undoubtedly many Esperanto speakers who are not members of any Esperanto organization, he thinks it unlikely that there are 50 times more speakers than organization members (Sikosek 2003). Others think such a ratio between members of the organized Esperanto movement and speakers of the language is not unlikely. In the absence of Dr. Culbert's detailed sampling data, or any other census data, it is impossible to state the number of speakers with certainty.


Main articles: Esperanto culture, Esperanto literature, Esperanto music

Although Esperanto was used for original literature from the very beginning (the first book included an original poem by Zamenhof, along with several translations), it's generally agreed that the first poets and novelists whose works can bear comparison with the better products of national-language traditions emerged during the period between the two World Wars. Translations from various non-constructed languages constituted a majority of the works published in the early years. Over 100 original novels have been published in Esperanto, besides many novellas, short story collections, and poetry collections. Several important literary magazines have appeared over the years, including Fonto and Literatura Foiro which are still being published today.

Besides the literary magazines mentioned above, dozens of other magazines are published; some focused on the Esperanto movement, some on a specialized subject or interest, and some eclectic. Monato, for instance, is a general news magazine, described by the Esperanto League for North America's periodical service as "like a genuinely international Time or Newsweek" [1].

Historically most of the music published in Esperanto has been in various folk traditions; in recent decades much new music in rock and other modern genres has appeared.

In 1964, Jacques-Louis Mahé produced the first full-length feature film in Esperanto, entitled Angoroj. This was followed in 1965 by Incubus, starring William Shatner. Several shorter films have been produced since.

Author Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat science fiction series uses Esperanto as the "universal" language spoken on most worlds, and the main characters often converse in Esperanto. Harrison included information at the end of several of his books on how readers could learn Esperanto for themselves. Harrison is the Honorary President of the Esperanto Association of Ireland

Goals of the Esperanto movement

Zamenhof's intention was to create an easy-to-learn language, to serve as an international auxiliary language, rather than to replace all existing languages in the world. This goal was widely if not universally shared among Esperanto speakers in the early decades of the movement. Later on, some Esperanto speakers began to see the language and the culture that has grown up around it as ends themselves; they see the language and culture as valuable to them personally even if Esperanto is never officially adopted by the United Nations or other international organizations.

Those Esperanto speakers who strongly want to see Esperanto adopted officially or on a larger scale worldwide are commonly called finvenkistoj (from fina venko, meaning "final victory"). Those who focus on the intrinsic value of the language and culture are commonly called raŭmistoj (from Rauma, Finland, where a declaration on the near-term unlikelihood of the "fina venko" and the value of Esperanto culture was made at the International Youth Congress in 1980). These categories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive.

Learning Esperanto

Relatively few schools teach Esperanto officially; probably a majority of Esperanto speakers learn the language through self-directed study or correspondence courses. Several Esperanto paper correspondence courses were early on adapted to email and taught by corps of volunteer instructors. In more recent years, teaching websites like lernu! have become popular.

Several studies suggest that studying Esperanto before studying any other second language (especially an Indo-European language) may speed and improve learning, because learning subsequent foreign languages is easier than learning one's first, while the use of a grammatically simple auxiliary language lessens the "first foreign language" learning hurdle. In one study (Williams 1965), a group of high school students studied Esperanto for one year, then French for three years, and ended up with a better command of French than the control group, who studied French without Esperanto during all four years. However, the study failed to prove that Esperanto was responsible for this advantage specifically, as it is likely that learning any language will benefit the future study of other languages. See Propedeutic value of Esperanto for other relevant studies.

Further reading

See also

  • Wikimedia
    • Vikipedio (Wikipedia)
    • Vikivortaro (Wiktionary)


  • Ludovikologia dokumentaro I Tokyo: Ludovikito, 1991. Facsimile reprints of the Unua Libro in Russian, Polish, French, German, English and Swedish, with the earliest Esperanto dictionaries for those languages.
  • Fundamento de Esperanto. HTML reprint of 1905 Fundamento, from the Academy of Esperanto.
  • Auld, William. La Fenomeno Esperanto ("The Esperanto Phenomenon"). Rotterdam: Universala Esperanto-Asocio, 1988.
  • Everson, Michael. The Alphabets of Europe: Esperanto. Evertype, 2001.
  • Harlow, Don. The Esperanto Book. Self-published on the web (1995-96).
  • Sikosek, Ziko M. Esperanto Sen Mitoj ("Esperanto without Myths"). Second edition. Antwerp: Flandra Esperanto-Ligo, 2003.
  • Wells, John. Lingvistikaj aspektoj de Esperanto ("Linguistic aspects of Esperanto"). Second edition. Rotterdam: Universala Esperanto-Asocio, 1989.
  • Williams, N. (1965) 'A language teaching experiment', Canadian Modern Language Review 22.1: 26-28
  • Wolff, David T. Posting to soc.culture.esperanto of 27 March 1996 quoting Dr. Sidney Culbert on his then unpublished research on the number of Esperanto speakers.

External links

Information on Esperanto


Esperanto courses

Esperanto organizations


Last updated: 10-10-2005 04:53:45
The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy