SOME 6,000 people from around the world are expected to gather in Warsaw, at the end of the month for the World Congress of Esperanto. While the congress is an annual event for Esperanto enthusiasts, this year is special: It's the 100th anniversary of the international language created by Ludwik Zamenhof. Dr. Zamenhof, a Russian, was not the first to attempt a world language, but his is the only one that has survived and grown. Although difficult to pinpoint, the number of Esperanto-speakers worldwide is estimated in the hundreds of thousands. A more precise indicator of the language's scope is the number of members in the Universal Esperanto Association, which in 1986 reached a record 40,589 people representing 104 countries.
Esperantists come from all walks of life, as evidenced by the numerous Esperanto clubs for teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and musicians, just to name a few. Many people are drawn to Esperanto either out of an affinity or aversion to foreign languages. Those who have had difficulty learning languages tend to find Esperanto relatively simple, while others who have already enjoyed learning and communicating in a second language appreciate the practicality of one that can be spoken anywhere in the world.
Humphrey Tonkin, president of Potsdam College of the State University of New York and the current UEA president, says one of the benefits of association membership is the opportunity to correspond with and visit Esperantists in other countries. ``Having that kind of personal contact enables you to get to know countries and cultures on a more intimate basis than as a tourist,'' Professor Tonkin explains.
Although Esperanto is regarded by some as a Western European fad, UEA membership data indicate that the language is more popular in Poland and Japan than in England or France. As Rochelle Grossman, president of the Esperanto Society of New York, explains, ``For the smaller or more isolated countries of Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, Esperanto serves as a bridge to the West.'' Esperanto has also caught on quickly in Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking country in the midst of a Spanish-speaking continent, while growth in the United States and Canada has been slow. ``In countries where the same language is spoken for 3,000 miles, the need for Esperanto is not as critical,'' Ms. Grossman says.
Canadian residents R"udiger and Sindona Eichholz of Ontario have been teachers and publishers of Esperanto since shortly after World War II. R"udiger had struggled with languages in school, but found Esperanto easy to learn. He has published a number of books in and about Esperanto, and is currently developing scientific terminology for the language. Sindona, whose name means ``dedicated'' in Esperanto, is a former interpreter who became attracted to the language because of its underlying principles of neutrality, brotherhood, and global communication. With her exceptional linguistic abilities, she picked up Esperanto quickly.
The ``building block'' structure of the language makes it easy to acquire and expand vocabulary. From a base of 15,000 roots taken from many languages, some 150,000 words can be formed. Sixteen basic grammar rules are without exceptions, and each of the 28 letters of the alphabet has only one sound.
If it is so easy, why hasn't Esperanto enjoyed greater success? According to Edward Finegan, professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California, the lack of native speakers has been one impediment to Esperanto's growth. Another is the fact that several ``natural'' languages such as English, French, and Spanish are already widely spoken. ``More people speak English as a second language than any other language in the world,'' Professor Finegan notes, ``and English is the accepted language in international business, science, and commerce.''
Brian McCullough, who staffs the office of the Esperanto League of North America, notes that Greek, Latin, and French have previously served as the international language during periods when their respective countries dominated world affairs. ``Zamenhof's intent with Esperanto,'' explains Mr. McCullough, ``was to provide an international standard that would not be affected by periodic shifts in economic and political power.''
A century after Esperanto's debut many people remain unaware of its existence. Yet over 100 magazines, journals, and newspapers are published in Esperanto, and several radio stations broadcast regularly in the language. Since 1957, the UEA has averaged more than 1,000 new members per year. And while international arenas such as the Common Market and the United Nations still use the cumbersome process of translation to deal with language barriers, scores of international Esperanto conferences are held each year without the need for interpreters.
This summer, Esperantists will convene to celebrate that progress and continue their efforts to preserve and nurture Ludwik Zamenhof's legacy.
The basics of Zamenhof's language
1.In the Esperanto tongue, ``la'' (the) is the only definite article. Indefinite articles (a, an) are not used.
2.All nouns end in ``o.'' To make a singular noun plural, simply add the letter ``j'' (pronounced like the ``y'' in ``toy''):
la amiko - the friend
la amikoj - the friends
la birdo - the bird
la birdoj - the birds
3.Verb endings do not change according to person, only according to tense:
mi havas - I have
vi havas - you have
li havas - he has
mi havis - I had
vi havis - you had
li havis - he had
mi havos - I will have
vi havos - you will have
li havos - he will have
4.When a noun is used as a direct object, an ``n'' is added at the end:
Mi havas amikon. (I have a friend.)
Vi havas amikojn. (You have friends.)
5.All adjectives end in ``a'':
La plumo estas blua. (The pen is blue.)
La nova instruisto forgesis la paperojn. (The new teacher forgot the papers.)