University of Kansas (emer.)
Esperantism is one of those many small worlds that have more substance to them than outsiders think but less than most insiders think. The twain rarely meet. Much linguistic attention to Esperanto, including almost all of my own, is in Esperanto and therefore inaccessible to non-Esperantists. For this reason I have responded to James McElvenny’s invitation to say something about the language here. I will simply summarize some of the work I and others have done; the basic information about the language, its origin, history and progress, is readily available elsewhere.
My affiliation with Esperanto has been somewhat unusual. I learned the language from the age of about fourteen, but regarding the movement – the attempt to advance Esperanto as a serious solution to the world’s “language problem” – from the sixties I favored instead an inward-turning approach: acknowledge the futility of getting the language “recognized” and simply nurture the language and its community of speakers. (Apparently I was not alone; in the eighties, a group sharing this view actually factionalized themselves and are today known as Raumists.)
Not being an “Esperanto salesman” (see Language Log for November 21, 2011) I was not disturbed when my later linguistic work, in part following on that of others, revealed aspects of the language well outside its usual portrayal. Throughout the history of the movement, Esperanto was promoted as regular and easy to learn, with intuitive word-formation reducible to early “keys” containing, with basic grammar, lists of morphemes (available in 26 languages by 1933). But the regularity of Esperanto is only in its inflectional morphology; its derivational morphology, as actually developed, is quite capricious, and certain aspectual and pragmatic matters are actually undetermined. As for ease of learning, the excellent practical grammar, Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko [complete handbook of Esperanto grammar] (ELNA, 2005), by the tireless Bertil Wennergren, runs to nearly 700 pages. For a quick comparison, admittedly perhaps unfair, Michael Coulson’s Teach Yourself Sanskrit, widely used as a college textbook, is only 513 pages, and it has reading selections and a lexicon. Read more ›