4. Aspects of the topic relating specifically to Esperanto and its speakers

El La bona lingvo
Iri al: navigado, serĉi

4. Aspects of the topic relating specifically to Esperanto and its speakers

The Esperanto speaking community is spread over many countries, and each of its speakers is necessarily in contact with at least one other language. All Esperantists are bilingual, at the very least, and they often use Esperanto and their other languages in diglossic situations (e.g. they may work and study in their local language(s), while creative writing, reading, literary discussions and holidays may take place in Esperanto).

It is evident that this will leave traces on their language use, and not only with respect to pronunciation, lexicon and grammar. While these influences are smaller than non Esperantists sometimes imagine, they certainly exist, including at the semantic level. And these influences are not always easily discernable by the speakers themselves.

To give an example: the word "idioto" when used by an English Esperantist has more or less the same force, the same meaning, and may be used in the same situations, as the English word "idiot". On the other hand the Italian word "idiota" has quite different qualities: it is more forceful and has to be used with more care than its English equivalent. Only experienced Esperanto speakers with numerous international contacts are likely to be aware of these subtle distinctions.

Another obvious problem is related to the use of different insults in different languages, based on the differing images the speakers may have of particular objects or animals. In Denmark it is possible to insult someone by calling him or her "codfish". This is meaningless in other countries where people do not have a particularly low opinion of codfish. In questions of this type Esperantist are guided by the principle of international comprehensibility. They tend to avoid expressions which common sense tells them are unlikely to be understood at an international level, in other words, expressions with a purely local significance. This rule, which is not explicitly stated but is constantly applied, has its basis in the values of the Esperanto speaking community, and is so widely accepted that many Esperantists may not be consciously aware of it. An English-speaking Esperantist, for instance, will go to some lengths to find an Esperanto equivalent for the term "hot dog", since a literal translation may be not understood in all situations.

Apart from these more general questions, there are several points linked to the individual categories:


Readers will notice the complete absence of insults based on national stereotypes. Again, this has its basis in the values of the Esperanto speaking community, whose members usually take a positive interest in other countries and peoples, and feel obliged to assert the equality of minority groups. There is also the practical fact that when using Esperanto, a speaker or writer is likely to be addressing a genuinely international public, so it is neither socially acceptable nor possible in practice to use the equivalents of such words as "Yank" or "Polack".

Another factor explains the paucity of insults aimed at people who do not fit in with the reigning norms. Esperantists themselves are aware of belonging to a deviant social group and tend to be more tolerant than the average member of society. This is analysed in detail by Forster (1982) with reference to British Esperantists.


It will be noticed that some curses are religious in origin (blasphemy), others are sexual, while a third group relates to bodily functions. Broadly speaking, speakers of Romance languages are mainly responsible for the introduction of the first group into Esperanto, English speakers for the second, and German speakers for the third.

Taboo words

These relate to the main taboos of Western society: sex and bodily functions. Not all words in the list are equally unacceptable. It should be added that in the Esperanto speaking community, as in all societies, members of different generations have varying degrees of tolerance towards taboo topics.


Euphemisms based on similarity of sound do not abound in Esperanto compared with other languages. Perhaps this is because most Esperantists do not have the chance to speak Esperanto frequently enough to develop such euphemisms. Literary euphemisms certainly exist (e.g. "I was with her" instead of "I made love to her" etc.) but these are not listed.


Our list only includes metaphors for taboo words.

Interjections and onomatopoeic expressions

Interjections and onomatopoeia are often regarded as phenomena outside normal language. They could be considered instinctive sounds, used to express emotions on the one hand, and to imitate natural sounds on the other. We believe that while there is no satisfactory explanation of them or description of their functioning in present linguistic theory, they are part of the lexicon of every language, and vary from one language to another. This is stated very clearly by Stankiewicz (1972:253) among others: "The interjections, like other grammatical units, are arbitrary linguistic signs and show diversity from one system to another. Thus the English 'bah!' is a form of contempt, whereas the Russian 'ba' expresses surprise, and the Greek 'ba' ignorance or incredulity; the English 'uh' can express disgust, whereas the Russian 'ux' expresses relief."

There is a similar situation with regard to onomatopoeic expressions. Everyone knows that Italian roosters say "chicchirichì", French roosters say "cocorico", while English ones say "cock a doodle doo".

What happens in Esperanto? Quite simply, in speech Esperantists tend to borrow such expressions from other languages. There is however a body of Esperanto interjections and onomatopoeic expressions taken from the general lexicon of the language: e.g. "ve" to express pain or regret; "fi" to express disapproval; "nu" to express resignation, or to encourage another person to speak. Other interjections are relatively international at a European level, e.g. "brr" to express cold.

As for onomatopoeic expressions, apart from those which are genuinely international (such as "miaow" and "moo"), there is a growing tendency in the spoken language to make use of one syllable isolated lexical morphemes (i.e. without the functional morphemes which usually accompany them): e.g. "paf!" for the sound of a shot, from "pafi" = "to shoot"; "knar!" for the sound of a door opening or closing from "knari" = " to creak".

In the final analysis, Esperanto is not in a very different situation from other "languages in contact". In the spoken Hebrew used in Israel, for instance, borrowings from Arabic are used not only for interjections, but also for insults and curses. The same applies to pidgins.

The instability of this category in Esperanto is, incidentally, a clear indication of the process of creolization, which is still taking place in this language.


As in other languages, slang exists in Esperanto. The only obvious difference, which has already been noted by several Esperantologists, is that while young Esperantists have their own slang, other groups (for instance, criminals) do not, because those groups are not normally sufficiently numerous in any given place for slang to evolve.

One example of young people's slang is "beste bona" = "beastly good", i.e. very good. Another example of successful slang which has entered the normal language, is "krokodili" = "to behave like a crocodile" i.e. to speak in one's own language in the presence of Esperantists from other countries. This is considered a faux pas among Esperanto speakers.

Compound expressions

It is easy for Esperanto speakers to "invent" new words and expressions by combining morphemes. The possibilities for making up insults are unlimited, and are exploited to the full, both by ordinary speakers and by writers. Examples from the works of the English writer Marjorie Boulton are: "animo de eluzita ĉiesulino" = "soul of a worn out prostitute", and "skabia skarabo" = "scabied beetle", which receives its force from alliteration. Another such example heard from a young Esperantist is "kret-kapa kreteno" = "chalk headed cretin".