This article is somewhat philosophical and is intended as a kind of preface to the miscellaneous comments and articles I found in this node.

Esperanto is a remarkable language invented in 1887 by Dr Ludowic Zamenhof, of Poland. At a time when Poland was carved up among Russia, Germany, and Austria, people of many nationalities lived in the country. In addition to Poles, there were large numbers of Russians and Germans, as well as a large Jewish community, to which Zamenhof belonged. The different communities had little enough love for each other.

Most people today consider Zamenhof to have been a dreamy utopian who believed that if everybody in the world spoke the same language, all wars would cease and the world would become a Garden of Eden. Such a cynical view of Zamenhof does not do him justice: he was an educated man who was well aware that language differences play only a small part in the problems faced by the world. But he reasoned that solving communication problems would be a good - even necessary - first step to solving much larger problems later on.

What Zamenhof did was to take words - which he called roots - which are common to as many European languages as possible, make regular forms for the roots, and fit them all within a regular grammatical framework. For example, he made FRATO the word for "brother"; most European languages have a similar word, and even English has such recognizably related words as fraternal and fraternity. Zamenhof decided that all nouns should end in -O, all adjectives in -A, all adverbs in -E, and all infinitives in -I. The plural form is made by adding -J; and -N is added to the noun when it is the object of the sentence. Adjectives have to agree with nouns in case in number - i.e., if a noun has -N or -J added, any adjectives that precede it must also have -N or -J added.

One of the most brilliant of Zamenhof's ideas was to make a small vocabulary, which could be expanded almost indefinitely with prefixes and suffixes. The prefixes and suffixes would be defined exactly and could be used in all situations as required (which is quite unlike the case with English : in English we can, for example, add PRE- to words like arrange to make pre-arrange, but we never say pre-warn - it has to be fore-warn. Esperanto prefixes and suffixes, by contrast, must be absolutely regular). For example, Esperanto has no word for "mother"; we just add the female suffix -IN- to the word for "parent". The same suffix can be added to any word to denote the female sex. By using a large number of prefixes and suffixes, a small basic vocabulary (of around 2000 words) can be expanded almost without limit. I learned Esperanto about 20 years ago, and I have never regretted it.

© David Cannon.