Esperanto: What Is It and Who Speaks It

March 17, 2022
By Sarah Angela Almaden
Two friends laughing together

Unsplash: Sidral Mundet

Ever heard of Esperanto? No, Esperanto is not a dialect of Spanish or some kind of Romance language. Actually, Esperanto is a constructed auxiliary language developed sometime in the late 1870s and early 1880s, by a Polish medical doctor named L.L. Zamenhof. Dr. Zamenhof created Esperanto with the goal of becoming an international second language, to promote world peace, unity, and understanding. You go, Dr. Zee!

What language is Esperanto closest to?

Again, Esperanto is not a Romance language, but its vocabulary is inspired by Indo-European languages, particularly by Romance languages, with some from Germanic and Slavic languages. In addition, most of its alphabet is based on Roman Script or Latin Script, excluding the following letters: q, w, x, and y. And because each letter in Esperanto has only one pronunciation, its words are pronounced similarly to how they are written.

History of Esperanto

No, this is not an exaggeration or some kind of fairytale dream, but Esperanto was made by L.L. Zamenhof in the hopes of promoting world peace. Growing up in Bialystok (now one of the largest cities in Poland), Zamenhof witnessed a divide in his community, where a diverse group of neighbors thought of each other as enemies, instead of friends. Zamenhof wasn’t a fan of that mindset, so he thought that one day he would make a universal second language to encourage unity, rather than division in different societies.

A drawing of Webster Lake
L.L. Zamenhof

At the beginning, the name for the language was originally "the international language," but the term Esperanto was so well-liked by its early speakers that the name stayed throughout. Ever since then, we’ve known of this artificial language as Esperanto.

Book fundamento esperanto
Fundamento de Esperanto guidebook

Around 1905, a basic guidebook for the language called Fundamento de Esperanto was released by Zamenhof. The book contained important information about the language’s grammar and vocabulary rules, most of which were reproductions of Zamenhof's first book known as Dr. Esperanto’s International Language, commonly referred to as Unua Libro. In that same year, the first World Esperanto Congress was held. There, the Declaration of Boulogne recognized the guidebook to have the exclusive source over the language.

Book fundamento esperanto
7th Esperanto Congress in Antwerp, Belgium

Zamenhof devoted a lot of work translating literature into Esperanto throughout the years. And the number of Esperanto speakers grew throughout time, from those in the Russian Empire to those in Central Europe. The numbers steadily increased, reaching other parts of the world such as the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

Now, Esperanto Literature Day is celebrated every December 15th, which is the same day as Zamenhof’s birthday.

Esperanto in Pop Culture

Esperanto has been appearing in a number of movies and works of literature. For example, in Charlie Chaplin’s movie called The Great Dictator you can see the store signs in the Jewish ghetto neighborhood written in Esperanto. In the 1994 Street Fighter film, a spoken dialogue in the movie featured Esperanto. In the animated sitcom called The Jetsons, the show mentioned Esperanto as part of the Jetson children’s homework. In Michael Jackson’s promotional video for his album called HIStory, an announcer can be heard proclaiming a statement in Esperanto.

Surely, pop culture has been introducing us to Esperanto in many ways. And just like other languages, Esperanto has done its part in uniting communities and facilitating communication in different societies.

Does anyone speak Esperanto?

Even though the language may not have achieved its goal of becoming a universal second language, Esperanto has definitely fascinated millions of people across the world. In fact, it is estimated that there are about two million Esperantists worldwide (according to Ethnologue).

Interestingly, there are about 50 national Esperanto organizations, and more than 20 international institutions use the language. Every year, about 2000 or so Esperantists attend the World Esperanto Congress, where they speak primarily in Esperanto to meet new friends and discuss world events. Some famous Esperanto speakers include:

  • Muztar Abbasi, a Pakistani scholar who translated the Qur’an and other works into Esperanto
  • William Auld, a poet in Esperanto from Scotland
  • Frederic Pujulà i Vallés, a contributor to Esperanto Literature from Spain
  • Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam's president who was known to speak conversational Esperanto
  • Willem Drees, a Dutch politician and an Esperantist who spoke at the World Esperanto Congress in 1954
  • Lazër Shantoja, the first Albanian Esperantist
  • João Guimarães Rosa, a Brazilian novelist, writer, and diplomat, who was also an Esperantist and a famed polyglot
  • Ikki Kita, a Japanese scholar and political philosopher who urged for the Imperial Japanese linguistic system to adopt Esperanto
  • Leo Tolstoy, a well-known Russian author who claims to have learnt Esperanto in just two hours
  • John C. Wells, a phonetician and Esperantist from the United Kingdom
  • Seok Joo-myung, a Korean scientist who made major contributions to the classification of Korea's butterflies, a noted linguist and Esperantist
  • László Polgár, a Hungarian chess teacher who also taught Esperanto to his children
  • George Soros, born to Esperantist parents, he is a Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist who edited the Esperanto literary magazine called Literatura Mondo
  • Alfred Fried, author of an Esperanto textbook and dictionaries, as well as a co-founder of the German peace movement

Esperanto Phrases

  • Saluton – Hello
  • Jes – Yes
  • Ne – No
  • Bonan matenon – Good morning
  • Bonan vesperon – Good evening
  • Bonan nokton – Good night
  • Dankon – Thank you
  • Ne dankinde – You’re welcome
  • Please – Bonvolu or Mi petas

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