Since choosing to become an active member of the language blogging community, I have started seing Esperanto mentioned a lot. While I have had some basic understanding of what Esperanto is, I didn't really know any details about it. After seeing it mentioned a few times in response to last week's post about reasons to learn Spanish, I decided to take a little time to discover what Esperanto is about.
What is Esperanto?
Esperanto is a constructed language, or conlang. It was invented by Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof using an amalgam of features from English, Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages. It is intended to be the easiest-to-learn middle ground between the disparate native languages throughout Europe.
Esperanto is not associated with any geographical region, and is not the official language of any country. However, it is the most successful auxilliary language in existence, with estimates as high as 2-million speakers, including perhaps 1000 native speakers!
There are regular meetings arranged all over the world for speakers of Esperanto, and it is used in travel, literature, conventions, correspondence, language instruction, television, radio, and more. In spite of being a "fake" language, it appears that there is a very real world built around Esperanto.
Characteristics of Esperanto
Esperanto uses a modified Latin alphabet with 28 letters. If you take the English alphabet, drop q, w, x and y, and then add ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ, and ŭ, you would have the Esperanto alphabet. The added characters represent sounds which are typically created by digraphs in English, but which typically have their own alphabetic representation in Slavic languages.
Words are formed by combining prefixes, roots, and suffixes, in a manner that feels very familiar to me, and appears to come from the inventor's Slavic roots. According to Wikipedia, This process is regular, so that people can create new words as they speak and be understood.
Any word stem can have one of the following endings: -o, -a, -e, or -i. Words ending in -o are nouns; words ending in -a are adjectives; words ending in -e are adverbs; and words ending in -i are infinitive verbs.
Nouns have no gender. Plural nouns append a -j. There is very basic noun declension into two noun cases: subject and object, where the latter simply adds an -n to the end.
Verbs are not conjugated — they have the same ending regardless of their subject. Those ending are -as for the present tense, -is for the past tense, and -os for the future tense. Two additional endings exist: -u for the jussive (imperative) mood, and -us for the conditional.
As in any language, articles, demonstratives, and prepositions must precede the words they modify, but otherwise, word order is relatively free, as it would be in any noun-declined language.
And word stress falls on the penultimate syllable with as much regulartity as in Spanish, making it a very phonetic language.
It's not hard to see why this language has caught on. Zamenhof seems to have combined all of the desirable features of the major European languages, while excluding all the troublesome features. Dropping noun gender and verb conjugation while keeping a minimalized noun declension is, in my opinion, brilliant.
Moreover, after simply reading these rules, I was instantly able to understand the sample Esperanto texts that I found at Wikipedia. This is evidence not only of how easy the grammatical rules are, but also how familiar the word roots and cognates are. I can almost see how a person could become fluent in Esperanto in a week or less.
In fact, it's worth a try, and I can spare a week.
Ni lernu Esperanton!
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