2. The background: Esperanto and the Esperanto speaking community

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2. The background: Esperanto and the Esperanto speaking community

International planned languages will probably be a new topic for some of Maledicta's readers, who may have had limited opportunities to become informed on the present state of affairs. For this reason we will give a brief outline of Esperanto's history and current situation. For those who are interested, several studies are available in English (e.g. Janton 1993).

The story begins with the search for a new international language to replace Latin at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. While the national languages were strengthening their position and starting to take the place of Latin as languages of culture and learning, many philosophers, including Comenius, Leibniz and Descartes (see Eco 1993) were beginning to discuss the question of how to create a language which would enable all people to communicate in a simple and rational manner.

They thought, wrote, argued and debated for centuries. While this process was taking place, several approaches were tried, not all of them successful. By the end of the 19th century the first steps were being taken towards genuinely workable solutions. One of these was Volapük. But it could not compete with Esperanto, a far more attractive alternative, which appeared some years later. The grammar of Esperanto was original but at the same time extremely regular, while its lexicon came mainly from the Romance and Germanic languages, with a certain amount of material from Slav and other languages.

During the early years of the twentieth century, Esperanto spread fast, thanks to a relatively peaceful period characterized by a total faith in progress and everything modern. People began to write and speak it without difficulty. In this way the first community of Esperanto users came into existence, consisting of people for whom Esperanto was invariably a second language. It immediately became obvious that Esperanto could function as well as any other "natural" language.

In fact many aspects of Esperanto are still open to discussion. Is it an Indo-European language or an agglutinative language? Will it ever really be used on a large scale in international relations? However one thing is certain: it is a language like any other and functions as such. Open minded linguists recognized this at once. Antoine Meillet spoke for all of them when he wrote: "Toute discussion théorique est vaine: l'Esperanto fonctionne". (It is pointless to get involved in theoretical discussions: Esperanto works. Meillet 1918:268).

The First World War brought an end to the vision of eternal progress and improvement of the human race, and also to the spread of Esperanto. It became clear that not only did people not want to talk with foreigners, but quite probably they wanted to kill them. In this situation there could be no place for an international language.

In spite of all this, in spite of Stalin and Hitler, in spite of the Second World War and in spite of the present imperialist stance of the U.S. (who is committed to promoting English as the language of its empire), Esperanto is still alive and functioning.

The Esperanto speaking community exists worldwide, and continues to grow slowly but steadily in the face of the general indifference of the mass media and the public. A number of international Esperanto organizations are regular observers at the meetings of the UN and Unesco. From time to time they even succeed in intervening on the subject of the linguistic rights of minority groups or manage to squeeze a declaration out of Unesco in favour of Esperanto.

And how big is that Esperanto speaking community? Nobody knows exactly.

Every year there are hundreds of Esperanto meetings in various parts of the world. The biggest regular congress, the World Esperanto Congress, attracts between 2000 and 5000 participants. There are hundreds of magazines and dozens of radio stations broadcasting in Esperanto (from the Vatican Radio to Radio Beijing), but no one has ever tried to take a general "census" of Esperantists. The fact that its speakers are scattered throughout the world in countries with different political systems, and the difficulty in deciding what kind of competence qualifies a person to be considered an Esperantist, are two of the main problems.

As a result there are many different estimates. The highest (which Esperantists like to quote) is by the American linguist Mario Pei, who calculated the Esperantist community at between 10 and 15 million in the whole world (Pei 1963 and 1969). The lowest is by the English linguist A. Large, who only included active Esperantists who were members of organizations and paid their subscriptions regularly. He ended up with a total of 50,000 members (Large 1985:95). Perhaps the real situation lies somewhere between those two extremes. We believe that Blanke's estimate of approximately half a million is far closer to the truth, if one only considers actual users of the language (Blanke 1985).

It is now also used by several hundred families, which means that there are some people who speak Esperanto as their mother tongue (or father tongue in many cases). All this leads us to the conclusion that at present the international language Esperanto is in a similar situation to Yiddish in terms of numbers, and in a similar situation to pidgins on their way to becoming creoles, as far as many linguistic aspects are concerned, particularly in the area which interests us for the purposes of this article (compare Versteegh 1983).