1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Esperanto

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ESPERANTO, an artificial international auxiliary language (see Universal Languages), first published in 1887, seven years after the appearance of its predecessor Volapük (q.v.), which it has now completely supplanted. Its author was a Russian physician, Dr L. Zamenhof, born in 1859 at Bielostok, where the spectacle of the feuds of the four races—each speaking different languages—which inhabit it (Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews) at an early date suggested to him the idea of remedying the evil by the introduction of a neutral language, standing apart from the existing national languages. His first idea was to resuscitate some dead language. Then he tried to construct a new language on an a priori basis. At the same time he made what he appears to have considered the great discovery that the bulk of the vocabulary of a language consists not of independent roots, but of compounds and derivatives formed from a comparatively small number of roots.

At first he tried to construct his roots a priori by arbitrary combinations of letters. Then he fell back on the plan of taking his roots ready-made from existing languages, as the inventor of Volapük had done before him. But instead of taking them mainly from one language, he has selected them from the chief European languages, but not impartially. Like all inventors of artificial languages, he is more ready to experiment with foreign languages than with his own; and hence the Slavonic roots in Esperanto are much less numerous than those taken from the other European languages. Here his choice has been to some extent guided by considerations of internationality, although he has not fully grasped the importance of the principle of maximum internationality, so well worked out in the latest rival of Esperanto—Idiom Neutral (see Universal Languages). Thus he adopts a large number of international words—generally unaltered except in spelling—such as teatr, tabak, even when it would be easy to form equivalent terms from the roots already existing in the language. Where there is no one international word, he selects practically at random, keeping, however, a certain balance between the Romance words, taken chiefly from Latin (tamen) and French (trotuar), on the one hand, and the Germanic on the other hand, the latter being taken sometimes from German (nur, “only”), sometimes from English, the words being generally written more or less phonetically (rajt = right). Most of the Germanic words are badly chosen from the international point of view. Thus the German word quoted above would not be intelligible to any one ignorant of German. Indeed, from the international point of view all specially German words ought to be excluded, or else reduced to the common Germanic form; thus trink ought to be made into drink, the t being a specially German modification of the d, preserved not only in English but in all the remaining Germanic languages. This incongruous mixture of languages is not only jarring and repulsive, but adds greatly to the difficulty of mastering the vocabulary for the polyglot as well as the monolingual learner.

The inventor has taken great pains to reduce the number of his roots to a minimum; there are 2642 of them in his dictionary, the Universala Vortaro (from Ger. Wort, “word”), which does not include such international words as poezio, telefono; these the learner is supposed to recognize and form without help. The most eccentric feature of the vocabulary, and the one to which it owes much of its brevity, is the extensive use of the prefix mal- to reverse the meaning of a word, as in malamiko, “enemy,” and even malbona, “bad.”

The phonology of the language is very simple. The vowels are only five in number, a, e, i, o, u, used without any distinction of quantity, as in Russian. There are six diphthongs, expressed by an unnecessarily complicated notation. The consonant-system is simple enough in itself, but is greatly complicated in writing by the excessive and mostly unnecessary use made of diacritical letters not only for simple sounds but also for consonant-groups. c is used for ts, as in Polish.

The grammar is, like that of Volapük, partly borrowed from existing languages, partly a priori and arbitrary. The use of the final vowels belongs to the latter category. The use of -a to indicate adjectives and of -o to indicate nouns as in kara amiko, “dear (male) friend,” is a source of confusion to those familiar with the Romance languages, and has proved a bar to the diffusion of Esperanto among the speakers of these languages. On the other hand, the following paradigm will show how faithfully Esperanto can reproduce the defects of conventional European grammar:—

Singular.   Plural.
Nominative   la bona patro la bonaj patroj
Accusative la bonan patron la bonajn patrojn

It is difficult to see why the accusative should be kept when all the other cases are replaced by prepositions.

The verb is better than the noun. Its inflections are -as present, -is preterite, -os future, -us conditional, -u imperative and subjunctive, -i infinitive, together with the following participles:—

Active.   Passive.
Present  -anta -ata
Preterite    -inta -ita
Future  -onta -ota

The inventor has followed the good example of his native language in using esti, “to be,” as the auxiliary verb both in the passive, where it is combined with passive participles, and in the secondary tenses of the active (perfect, pluperfect, &c.), where it is of course combined with the active participles. The participles can be made into nouns and adverbs by changing the final -a into -o and -e respectively: thus tenonto, “the future holder,” perdinte, “through having lost.”

The table of the forty-five correlative pronouns, adjectives and adverbs is also elaborate and ingenious.

Much ingenuity is displayed in the syntax, as well as some happy simplifications. But, on the other hand, there is much in it that is fanciful, arbitrary and vague, as in the use of the definite article—where the author has unfortunately followed French rather than English usage—and in the moods of the verb.

The following specimens will show the general character of this easy-flowing but somewhat heavy and monotonous language—“bad Italian,” as it is called by its detractors:—

Patro nia, kiu estas en la ĉielo, sankta estu via nomo ; venu regeco via ; estu volo via, kiel en la ĉielo, tiel ankaŭ sur la tero. Panon nian ĉiutagan donu al ni hodiaŭ ; kaj pardonu al ni ŝuldojn niajn, kiel ni ankaŭ pardonas al niaj ŝuldantoj ; kaj ne konduku nin en tenton, sed liberigu nin de la malbono.

Estimata Sinjoro. Per tiu ĉi libreto mi havas la honoron prezenti al vi la lingvon internacian Esperanto. Esperanto tute ne havas la intencon malfortigi la lingvon naturan de ia popolo. Ĝi devas nur servi por la rilatoj internaciaj kaj por tiuj verkoj aŭ produktoj, kiuj interesas egale la tutan mondon.

In summing up the merits and defects of Esperanto we must begin by admitting that it is the most reasonable and practical artificial language that has yet appeared. Its inventor has had the double advantage of being able to profit by the mistakes of his predecessors, and of being himself, by force of circumstances, a better linguist. It must further be admitted that he has made as good a use of these advantages as was perhaps possible without systematic training in scientific philology in its widest sense. This last defect explains why the enthusiasm which his work has excited in the great world of linguistic dilettantes has not been shared by the philologists: in spite of its superiority to Volapük, they see in it the same radical defects. Whether they are rash or not in predicting for it a similar fate, remains to be seen. The Esperantists, warned by the fate of Volapük, have adopted the wise policy of suppressing all internal disunion by submitting to the dictatorship of the inventor, and so presenting a united front to the enemy. One thing is clear: either Esperanto must be taken as it is without change, or else it must crumble to pieces; its failure to work out consistently the principle of the maximum of internationality for its root-words is alone enough to condemn it as hopelessly antiquated even from the narrow point of view which regards “international” as synonymous with “European”—a view which political development in the Far East has made equally obsolete.  (H. Sw.)