Walking through the streets, you may notice a bubble-tea shop named “Amas vin.” Most people will pass by the store, thinking, That must mean something foreign! On closer inspection, one will find out “Amas vin,” means “I love you,” in Esperanto.
Esperanto is not a language spoken by a single country or ethnicity. It is a language that promotes diversity and unity. It seeks to challenge “the Babel” of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where linguistic homogeneity is forcibly lost and humans scatter throughout the world, causing chaos. This chaos seems to continue on today. “Esperanto,” meaning “the one who hopes,” is a slimmer of hope aiming to overcome division and disarray.
The world today emphasizes the need to respect diversity. However, is the emphasis of a value the same as the realization of a value? The Argus introduces Esperanto and the ideals it seeks to spread, to the world.
Birth of Esperanto
The world’s favorite constructed language, Esperanto was invented by a Bialystok Jew, Ludoviko Lazaro Zamenhof in 1887. Bialystok - now situated in Poland - was an emerging metropolis of the Russian Empire during the Industrial Revolution. In those times, Russia oppressed the Jews through pogroms and severe restrictions such as the May Laws, which forbade Jews from settling outside of towns and boroughs. This resulted in the over 60 percent Jewish composition of the multilingual Bialystok, which historically presented itself as a destination to domestic migrants and foreign immigrants. The various ethnicities of the city confronted language barriers, and they were harshest on Jews, subjects of anti-Semitism to all city inhabitants. This inspired Dr. Zamenhof to pave a path of interethnic understanding for Bialystokers: Esperanto. He wrote in a letter: “I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on.” Zamenhof put together lingual elements, some man-made and some of Indo-European languages, in order to produce a universal, neutral language. Though the creator, he gave up his rights to the language insisting he just be remembered as an initiator. Today, Esperanto still bridges person to person, prioritizing the human being before anything else.
At first glance, Esperanto may seem European. Such supposition is correct. When initially announced to the world, Esperanto’s 917 words were approximately 60 percent Latin-based, 30 percent Germanic and 10 percent Slavic. The words purposely took form of Indo-European vocabulary because initially, Esperanto’s target learners were people who spoke Indo-European languages. Zamenhof realized the importance of making the language easily approachable by its first users. The plan was to procure enough speakers for the language to bloom into an international one. It was successful, but also became subject of potential criticism.
To beginners learning Esperanto, having a European linguistic background is more beneficial than having perhaps a Korean or Japanese one. All aspects of the language seem to trace its roots to European languages. However, in linguist Claude Piron’s article, “Esperanto, European or Asiatic language?” he explains that Esperanto’s lexicon and syntax is European, but its word building is more similar to Chinese. Linguistically, while Esperanto may seem biased towards some languages, it does not belong to any language community.
Esperanto is intensely agglutinative, meaning root words combine with other root words, suffixes, or prefixes to create new words or change the word’s part of speech. This adds to Esperanto’s simplicity. For example, the usage of the prefix “mal-” in French was borrowed. When the prefix “mal-” is added to a word, it creates an antonym. Moreover, when selecting roots, Zamenhof was careful to make sure the root was a part of many different languages to ensure familiarity. For example, the root “roz” appears in a total of eight different languages; as “rosa” in Latin, “rose” in French and English, “rosa” in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and “Rose” in German. When a root common to a plurality of languages was not found, Germanic or Slavic vocabulary was borrowed. Suffixes came from various languages and were made to be non-exceptional. For instance, the suffix “-ej” comes from Arabic meaning “place.” Attaching the suffix to the root “lern” which means, “to learn,” and adding the regular noun ending “-o” makes the Esperanto word, “lernejo,” meaning “school.” Through derivation, Esperanto minimizes the need to import root words from other languages. This leaves the language well-regulated and easy for learners to understand. Linguist Jacub Marian says, “Learners need to know only about 1,000 root words to be quite proficient in Esperanto and about 5,000 roots to understand every single word, while learners would need at least 10 times that amount for other Indo-European languages.”
The many rules of Esperanto are meant to make the language easy to approach. Sixteen fundamental rules with no exceptions which clarify how parts of speech work become the basis of all its grammar.
The reach and activity of Esperanto
Pasporta Servo and World Esperanto Congress
“I travelled for a month across 11 expensive European countries with only a budget of 1,000,000 won (US$880) and a Eurail pass, staying with other Esperantists,” recollects professor So Jin-su of Kangnam University. An Esperantisto can travel to hundreds of countries not worrying about lodging expenses thanks to a couchsurfing network between Esperantistoj: “Pasporta Servo.” There is a directory with the names and addresses of thousands of Esperantists who are willing to provide their international friends free shelter. It is managed by the World Esperanto Youth Organization. People who list their names want to share their homes and lives with fellow Esperantists from abroad. This system shows the nature of Esperantist interactions. Shin Hyun-gyu, the president of the Korean-Esperanto Junularo adds that, “Even beyond Pasporta Servo, it’s more than common to receive help from Esperantists met during travel.”
Another highlight of Esperanto culture is the annual World Esperanto Congress that has been held since 1905, except during the World Wars. Speakers of the language are provided a platform where they can come together to enjoy their community, share ideals and most importantly, foster the Esperanto culture. The event was hosted in Korea on two occasions, in 1994 and 2017. The 104th Congress is expected to take place this year in Lahti, Finland.
Partnership with UN and UNESCO
Universala Esperanto Asocio (UEA) has been maintaining official relationships with the United Nations (UN) and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The associations share the goal of bringing people together to make the world more united. To cultivate linguistic justice and equality, they promote International Mother Language Day together. Esperanto is not intended to replace all other languages; language is a fundamental and defining part of every culture. Rather, Esperanto is meant to be the secondary language people of any nationality understand - a language of diplomacy. UEA and UNESCO aim to promote educational equality through UNESCO’s Global Citizenship Education curricula. UEA’s interest is an educational peace movement that seeks to spread the learning and teaching of Esperanto. “Consider the parts of Africa that have poor educational attainment rates. When children in those parts are raised to receive at least a primary school education in Esperanto, it is said they will be able to support three including themselves. In this way, we will be able to bring about a self-reliant Africa,” said Lee Young-goo, the president of Korea-Esperanto Asocio.
Native speakers and neutrality of esperanto
“Esperanto does not need native speakers. It was created as a secondary language to help people communicate, but not to replace any natural language. These days there are around 5,000 native Esperanto speakers. These are children of Esperantist parents, who speak to them in Esperanto at home,” comments a representative of Esperantists. Esperanto is the only constructed language in the world with native speakers. These people are called “Denaskuloj.” “Being a native speaker has nothing to do with geography and recognition. Even if I raised my children only speaking my own made-up language on a ship in the middle of the ocean, they would still be native speakers of that language. There are documented cases of children who speak Esperanto as their first language, so, in my mind, there is no doubt that there are native speakers of Esperanto,” explains Marian.
There can be worry of the existence of native speakers threatening the neutrality of the language. This, however, is not seen as an issue to most speakers. “Esperanto can be compared to computer programming languages like C, Java, Python, and Swift. They are also artificial, and many are based on English, but we usually do not see them as belonging to a particular individual,” comments Shin. Marian also adds that “natives can help convince people that Esperanto is a real living language, not just an academic exercise.”
Today, the 130-year-old Esperantisto speakerbase all consider Esperanto to have immense value. However, they can be divided by the reasons they speak the language:
Finvenkistoj:people who promote Esperanto hoping it will one day become the international language
Raumistoj:people who produce and consume content in Esperanto because Esperanto is a unique and valuable form of culture
Civitanoj:people who promote Esperanto as a stateless diasporic linguistic minority
Raumisto Richard “Evildea” Delamore says, “Esperanto is unique in the fact that it is the only cultural community someone can join and never be an outsider.” By the same token, Shin explains, “One problematic aspect that goes against the “neutrality” of Esperanto is its lexicon bias towards certain language groups and this is certainly something to consider. However, I believe the language is ideologically neutral.”
New Esperanto words continuously come into existence. The wide variety of speakers, the constant advancement of mankind and the existence of native speakers all attribute to this phenomenon. When people from a new culture start speaking the language, they bring with them new words. For example, when Korean speakers first started speaking Esperanto, they could not exclude the word “kimchi.” The solution was to conform the vocabulary to Esperanto grammar rules. All Esperanto nouns end in “-o,” so “kimchi” became “kimchio.” Moreover, as technology advances, new devices are invented. There was no word for “computer” or “television” in any language when Esperanto came to be. These new words are added as needed Finally, Denaskuloj can intuitively derive words by applying the morphology of the language. New words, however, are not arbitrarily added to the language. The Akademio de Esperanto is an independent body of language scholars who keep the language in accordance with the basic Esperanto grammar rulebook, Fundamento de Esperanto. They approve the necessary vocabulary additions to the language.
A language of peace, a bridge between the worlds, an easy language to learn ? the ideological root of Esperanto comes from the simple longing of a man who saw that the world was in chaos. Doctoro Esperanto hoped for people to be able to communicate and gave the world a tool so easy to learn. Simply put, it is a language worth learning.
Borrowing the words of Professor So, “Esperanto opened my eyes to the world. The language broadened and deepened my views. Learning Esperanto immediately connects one to a hundred different cultures. Is it not heaven and utopia, that one to two thousand people of so many different backgrounds gather to hold a convention every year, all for the purpose of speaking and laughing in a common tongue? It is the infinite privilege of an Esperantisto to experience this heaven on Earth.”
Special Thanks To: HUFS Professor Lee Young-goo, Linguist Jacub Marian, Esperanto Youtuber Richard “Evildea” Delamore, Kangnam University Professor So Jin-su, President of the Korean-Esperanto Junularo Shin Hyun-gyu, Community Esperantists
By Kwak Hyun-jeong and Park Chang-hwan
Staff Reporters of Theory & Critique Section