Claude Piron

Evolution Is Proof of Life

Those who are interested in the evolution of Esperanto are fortunate: the Esperanto community has always produced a huge amount of documents, so that there is no difficulty in researching the developments that more than a century of use has brought about in the language. A study of that documentation reveals that two factors, mainly, have modified the language proposed by L.L. Zamenhof: the substratum of the various users, on the one hand, and, on the other, the adjustments spontaneously introduced so that the language might remain understandable for the various members of the highly diversified community that has adopted it for its intercultural relationships. Although those factors were not governed by conscious decisions, they were remarkably effective. They thus constitute an interesting illustration of the unconscious mechanisms that ensure the efficiency of linguistic communication.

1. Semantic evolution

A number of roots have experienced a shift in their semantic field. Here are three examples:

a) In Zamenhof's usage (1) and still in Waringhien's dictionaries (2), (3), the usual way to express the idea 'I like to sing' is mi amas kanti. The verb is the same as in 'I love you' (mi amas vin). Apparently, using the same word, as in Russian and French, to express a simple taste and a love feeling that may be extremely profound shocked a large part of the Esperanto community, which unconsciously reacted by differentiating the two concepts. Today ami covers only the semantic field of 'to love', the concept 'to like' being rendered by ŝati, which originally had a meaning closer to 'to appreciate' (4). This example illustrates both the influence and the pliancy of the substratum. The differentiation was limited at first to a part of the diaspora (5), but that part was the majority, and it eventually conquered even the speakers of Esperanto with French and Russian linguistic backgrounds, who gradually assimilated the distinction although it does not exist in their languages.

b) Often, semantic evolution is due to intercultural frictions. In the first decades of Esperanto use, the word for 'first name', 'given name' was antaŭnomo (antaŭ 'before', nomo 'name'). However, under the influence of Chinese, Korean and Japanese speakers, who, in their respective traditions, place the family name first, that word has gradually been replaced by individua nomo, which has the further advantage of making the parallelism with familia nomo more apparent.

c) At first, the meaning of the morpheme kaz- was restricted to that of a 'declension case'. It was a purely grammatical term. For most other meanings of 'case', the morpheme okaz- was used. (Okazo is an exact semantic equivalent of the Russian sluchaj: like it, it encompasses the three meanings 'event', 'case' and 'opportunity', 'occasion'. Russian sluchit'sja 'to happen', 'to occur' is rendered by okazi). In the twenties, kaz- came to be used in a medical sense, then in a legal one. Today, it is almost the equivalent of French cas, English case (as in in most cases, not with the 'box' sense). In a bilingual circular from the World Association for Cybernetics, Communication Sciences and Systems Analysis (6), we find the word jeskaze 'if you agree' (jes 'yes', kaz- 'case', -e morpheme indicating circumstance or manner, literally 'in case of yes'). It is likely that before 1914 such a word would not have been understood. People would have said en okazo de konsento or se vi konsentas, phrases which are still part of present-day Esperanto.

2. Structural evolution

The example just quoted illustrates one of the tendencies that can be observed in the evolution of Esperanto: the increasing frequency of -e forms in cases in which, formerly, a prepositional formula would have been adopted.

Apart from a few words such as prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions and the like, Esperanto words consist of at least one root marked with an ending that defines their grammatical function in the sentence. If the root parol- is used with the ending -o, it functions like a noun: parolo 'speech'; if with an -a, as an adjective: parola 'oral'; if with an -e, as (more or less) an adverb: parole 'orally'; if with an -i, as a verb in the infinitive: paroli 'to speak'; if with -as, as a verb in the present tense: parolas 'speak(s)', 'is (am, are) speaking'; if with -is, as a verb in the past tense: parolis 'spoke', etc.

An analysis of texts reveals that the -e ending has been more and more in use. It was already common for a number of notions at the beginnings of the language - matene 'in the morning', sabate 'on Saturdays', komence 'at the beginning' - but, curiously enough, it was not used for places except in a few words already used by Zamenhof himself, such as hejme 'at home' or aliloke 'elsewhere'. The use of -e gradually extended to other time phrases. I have been observing the Esperanto press and making notes on the spoken usage of the language for a long time, wondering why, while it was so common to say mi revenos somere 'I'll come back during the summer', nobody ever said or wrote mi venos julie 'I'll come in July'; everybody said en julio. In the documents I have scanned the -e form of a month appeared for the first time in 1983. Since then, I have noticed it in many texts and letters, as well as in conversations. My feeling is that this form is spreading quite rapidly.

It might be objected that there has been no evolution, since such words have been correct since 1887. But the fact is that they were never used. "Correct" language should not be confused with actual language, which can only be known through studying documents and observing in the field.

What happened with -e occurred with other endings, though to a slightly lesser extent as far as -a is concerned. Indeed, with verbal endings it has reached such a proportion that it deserves a special section (see 3 hereunder). The reason might well be that the obligation to mark the function by an ending makes Esperanto words longer than their equivalent in languages with many monosyllabic words, such as those belonging to the Germanic (English, in particular) and the Slavic families. A wider use of the endings enhances concision without causing comprehension problems, at the same time making speech phonetically less monotonous. A beginner in Esperanto will express the idea 'I'll go to the convention by train' saying Mi iros al la kongreso per trajno, when a more mature Esperantist will say Trajne mi alkongresos or Mi iros kongresen trajne. The slogan of the Italian Esperanto Youth Kie paski? Italuje! 'Where spend the Easter vacation? In Italy!' would perhaps not have been immediately clear to Zamenhof. Such a wording was not in use before World War II, except in poetry.

Why was tutmonde 'in the whole world' quite common already in the twenties, whereas vilaĝe 'in the village' seems to be only just now entering usage? This is not easy to understand. The fact that such forms do not exist in most substratum languages is not a valid explanation, since in expressions indicating manner or means the -e form was already more frequent than prepositional phrases before World War II: krajone 'in pencil', buse 'by bus', skribe 'in written form' have no such concise equivalents in the mother tongues of most Esperanto speakers. Why was such a long time necessary for people to extend the one-word expression to the names of months and of many places? There is no ready answer to that question.

3. The verbal use of usually non-verbal morphemes

Using statistically nonverbal morphemes with a verb ending is one of the liveliest traits of present day Esperanto, which was not in use in the first decades of the language. All kinds of morphemes are used verbally, and although it would be difficult to clarify the implicit rules governing their usage, the fact is that they pose no problem to understanding. Here are a few examples taken from my long collection of expressions noted or recorded on the spot (-as indicates that the concept is used as a verb in the present tense, -i marks the infinitive):

Kiel bluas la lago! 'what an impression of lively blue does the lake give out!' (a Slovakian).

Li konstante ĉuas 'he constantly asks questions'(a Brazilian) (ĉu, pronounced /choo/, is a question marker corresponding to French est-ce que, Polish czy, Yiddish tsu).

Bona profesoro ne profesoras 'a good professor does not behave in a professorial manner' (A Japanese, professor of literature).

La UK-a partopreno de la samurba Sandesh Pradhar donis al la anglalingva Indian Express la okazon artikoli pri Esperanto 'The fact that Sandesh Pradhar, who lives in the same city, took part in the Universal (Esperanto) Convention gave to the English language Indian Express the opportunity to publish an article on Esperanto' ("Informado - Ni legis en novembraj revuoj", Esperanto, 88, 1067 (2), February 95, p. 37).

Ili povas pseude aktivi 'They can make a pretense of being active' (a French speaking Swiss).

Unesko denove rezolucias favore al Esperanto 'UNESCO adopts again a resolution favorable to Esperanto' (La Mondo - a magazine published in Beijing - 1986, 8, p.2)

La fervojistoj kongresas 'The railway workers hold a convention' (Heroldo de Esperanto, March 23, 1987, p.5)

4. Obsolescence

A number of roots have practically disappeared from the language. Such is the case, for instance, of gento 'ethnic community', 'family' (in a very broad sense), 'race' (in the narrowest sense), quite frequent in Zamehof's texts and in works of certain authors in the beginning of the twentieth century, like Privat's. This term has been replaced by such words as popolo, etno, nacio or raso, but these have different connotations and their semantic field is not identical.

Another example of obsolescence is the -iĝadi forms as in transformiĝadi 'to experience a gradual transformation' which Zamenhof and the first Esperanto writers very often used. They do not belong any more to spoken Esperanto and are extremely scarce in texts. True, if somebody uses such a form, he is immediately understood, but this usage cannot fail to be noticed as somewhat archaic. The form has not disappeared from the theoretical model of the language, but it as disappeared from a statistical point of view.

5. Increase in the number of semantemes

A very large number of concepts are now expressed by morphemes that did not exist in Zamenhof's time. Here are three examples, taken among thousands: teko 'briefcase', novelo 'short story', bunta 'multicolored', 'variegated', When did these words enter the language? Where? Through whose agency? Answering those questions would require a good deal of research and it may well be that no answer can be found altogether. Contrary to a widespread opinion, Esperanto results from a collective, anonymous, largely unconscious transformation of Zamenhof's project through everyday use, which prevents the researcher from elucidating many points relating to the evolution of the language.

A team of Croatian researchers has submitted to computerized statistical treatment a corpus consisting of tapes recorded in various international settings among speakers of Esperanto: coffee shop conversations, formal meetings, family discussions, etc. This research reveals that a number of morphemes quite common in today's spoken Esperanto did not belong to Zamenhof's vocabulary (meaning, not only the 1887 booklet, but all his writings). This is the case, e.g., of eventual- 'possible', which is the 179th word in the frequency list, with a frequency of 11/10,000, as well as of ofert- 'to offer', 'to propose' and of minimum-, which both have a frequency of 2/10,000.

In some cases, the introduction of a neologism brings about readjustments in the language. When computers appeared, they were first designated by such expressions as elektrona kalkulilo 'electronic calculator' or informtraktilo 'a device to treat information', but the words komputoro and komputero were soon in use besides them. However, the suffix -ilo is so common for that kind of concept that the average Esperanto speaker quite naturally substituted komputilo for those words which were competing between themselves, neither appearing more likely to win. In fact the word komputilo already existed, at least in dictionaries, with the meaning '(gas, water) meter'. Today, the language obviously hesitates about the word to use for rendering the latter. Some say adiciilo, others sumilo or nombrilo, somebody proposed sumadilo (-ad- is a morpheme emphasizing duration or repetition: sumadilo means 'a device that is constantly calculating the sum'). But there is no doubt that komputilo has already definitely replaced both komputoro and komputero. As a consequence, due to the language structure, the verb komputi now suggests the utilization of a computer.

A similar situation arose when radar came into use. Radaro (< rad- 'wheel', -ar- 'an integrated collection of', -o word used as a noun) meant 'wheelwork'. Since radaro with the sense 'radar' clashed with the traditional meaning, an adjustment had to take place. It took the form of the word radoaro, 'wheelwork', in which the noun ending -o was introduced to underscore the separation of the morphemes rad and ar. Some people solve the problem in another way: while speaking, they insert a slight but audible pause after rad, and, in writing, they use a hyphen: rad-aro.

6. Slang and vulgar uses

I recorded the word krokodili with the meaning 'to speak a national language in a setting where you should use Esperanto' (for instance when, in the presence of a foreign Esperantist, people switch from Esperanto to their mother tongue, which he does not understand) in Brazil in 1973 and in Japan in 1977. In both cases, my informants told me that the word had been in use in their respective countries for a very long time. Another informant, met in France, told me he had heard it for the first time at the convention of the World Esperanto Youth in Konstanz, Germany, in 1948. Nobody has been able to elucidate for me the origin of that word or to throw some light on the mental processes that gave birth to it.

Among the words whose place and date of introduction into the language are unknown, a special mention must be made of vulgar words such as pisi 'to urinate', fiki 'to have sex with', kaco (pron.: /katso/) 'penis' and the like, which, as can be readily ascertained, are understood by young Esperanto speakers in Asia and America as well as in Europe, both Western and Eastern.

7. Autonomous use of former prefixes and suffixes

On page 91 of the May 1987 issue of the magazine Esperanto you can read the title Endas racia diskutado 'a rational discussion is necessary'. The word endas is the verbal form of the suffix -end- 'which has to be...', most often used with the adjective ending -a: tajpenda raporto 'a report that has to be typed'. That sentence illustrates the current inclination to use affixes as full-fledged words. Nowadays, it is practically impossible to read Esperanto texts without encountering such words as emas 'has a tendency to', ulo 'an individual', igi 'make, render such or such', eta 'small', etc. With the addition of the ending that defines their function, those are morphemes which, in Zamenhof's time, were real suffixes, i.e. where always bound to another semanteme. The structure of the language, characterized by the absolute invariability of morphemes, as in Chinese, and by an unlimited possibility of combining them, was bound to encourage their use as independent units. This developed essentially from the twenties on, and the trend has been going on more and more. Today, a sentence like la estraro ree kaj ree emas igi tiun etan aĵon tro grava 'again and again the Board tends to exaggerate this small thing', in which most elements were only affixes at the turn of the century (i.e. in the 1900s), is not even perceived by the average Esperanto speaker as essentially composed of a particular type of morpheme (viz. -estr- 'leader', 'chief'; -ar- 'group', re- 'again', -em- 'inclined to', -ig- 'make', -aĵ- 'thing'). Since prepositions can be used as prefixes (aliri 'to approach' < al 'toward', iri 'to go'), this might be the place to record a similar use of prepositions, which developed essentially in the last three decades. In cases in which, before World War II, everybody would say interne 'inside', many people now say ene (< en 'in'), also referring to time: ene de unu semajno 'within one week'.

8. Incorrect forms betraying the underlying action of structural patterns

When recording samples of spontaneous Esperanto speech, I have noted many deviations from the theoretical standard which consisted in applying a conventional Esperanto pattern in cases where this was incorrect according to grammars and dictionaries. Thus, a university professor once said fakultejo 'a university department', whereas the dictionary term is fakultato and there exists no morpheme fakult- from which his term might be formed (-ejo is a morpheme used to derive words of places and institutions). Similarly, the official program of the World Esperanto Convention held in Beijing, China, in 1986, constantly designates the Chinese Theater, where a number of Esperanto events took place, as Ĉina Teatrejo, although the standard word is teatro without the suffix. Another example is medikaĵo, for medikamento; the morpheme medik- does not exist officially.

A somewhat different case (since the form is "correct") is presented by tajpilo (taj is pronounced like ty in type) 'typewriter', which I often heard in different countries. Formerly, 'to type' was rendered as maŝinskribi (< maŝin 'machine', skribi 'to write'), but somebody, some day, said tajpi and that convenient word was rapidly adopted everywhere in the Esperanto diaspora, as often happens when a term is in harmony with the spirit of the language. From tajpi people derived tajpilo, but that word cannot be found in any dictionary. I have never seen it written and I assume that it exists only in spoken Esperanto.

Similarly, spoken Esperanto often uses surbendigilo (< sur 'on', bend- 'tape', -ig- 'to cause to be', ilo 'instrument', 'apparatus', 'device' > surbendigilo 'a device that causes something to be on tape', 'a tape recorder') or sonbenda maŝino, literally 'sound-tape machine', whereas the official term is magnetofono.

9. Form modifications

A number of forms have appeared besides already existing ones, usually to shorten a word which has a longer form than the spirit of the language warranted.

The official word aŭtentika 'authentic' is nowadays less frequent than aŭtenta, and the Zamenhofian komentarii 'to comment' is very often replaced by komenti. The officially correct form spontanea 'spontaneous' and the more modern spontana, registered in dictionaries with the mention "neologism", appear to be equally frequent in current usage.

The tendency to shorten roots ending in a vowel + -ci- (corresponding to Latin words ending in -tio) deserves also to be mentioned under this heading. Whereas the official translation of 'pollution' is polucio, most speakers of Esperanto use poluo, and polui 'to pollute' is definitely more frequent than the dictionary form polucii. A semantic differentiation is occurring in this respect: poluo means 'pollution' of the environment, whereas the older form polucio is still used with the sense 'an involuntary emission of sperm'.

Civilizo often occurs in the sense in which civilizacio should theoretically be preferred. According to dictionaries, civilizo should mean 'the action of civilizing' and civilizacio 'such or such a culture', 'an established civilization', but this distinction is not observed in practice. Recently, I heard twice situo in cases where situacio was theoretically required: en tia situo 'in such a situation' (said by a Frenchman), and la nuna politika situo 'the present political situation' (an Argentine). Neither of the speakers, both fluent, seemed to be aware that situo really means 'the place where somebody or something is situated'. Since in both mother tongues the corresponding word is closer to the official Esperanto form, this is a case in which the general structures of the intercultural language proved stronger than the influence of the speaker's native tongue.

In 1999, for the first time, I noted the words referi in the sense of 'to refer to' and diferi 'to differ', 'to be different'. In official, dictionary Esperanto, the words should have been referenci and diferenci. Both forms, used by three different persons, appeared in e-mails or in messages sent to Internet discussion groups.

10. New compound words

Morphemes dating back to the beginning of the language can be combined into new words with a precise meaning. Such is the case, for example, of petveturi 'to hitchhike', 'to thumb a ride', from pet- 'to ask for' and veturi 'to travel in a vehicle' (equivalent of the German fahren). Other examples are veltabulo 'windsurf board' (< vel- 'sail', tabulo 'board') and promenskii 'Nordic skiing' (promen- 'walk', skii 'to ski').

Those are established words, that spread quickly from one part of the diaspora to the other. But many new compounds are made on the spur of the moment, for instance: ili buŝplenas pri homrajtoj , which I heard in the mouth of a Dutch participant to a meeting in Zagreb, Croatia, 'their mouth is full of speech about human rights', 'they constantly pay lip service to human rights' (buŝ, pronounced as Bush, 'mouth', plen- 'full', pri 'about', hom-rajtoj, 'human rights'; the pronunciation of rajt- 'right' is close to that of its English translation).

11. The suffix -umi

This strange suffix, which contrasts with all others in that it has no precise meaning, is used to form words which, quite often, are very expressive and difficult to translate. Zamenhof introduced it to solve problems for which he found no other solution. For instance, he used it to derive plenumi 'to fulfill (one's obligations)' from plen- 'full', thus distinguishing that verb form plenigi 'to fill up', while conserving the metaphorical link with fullness which helped to remember it.

Quantitatively, that suffix is not very productive, but it is qualitatively. While it does not give birth to many words, those it creates usually have a particular flavor, which makes them especially pleasing to the members of the Esperanto community. To say kafumi (< kaf- 'coffee'), a rather frequent word in sessions and conferences, is something quite different from 'to have a cup of coffee'. It evokes an atmosphere of friendship, of relaxation, of well-being which other phrases lack entirely. If those connotations are absent, you will simply say trinki kafon or kaftrinki. Kafi is also heard, but its atmosphere is less friendly, less warm than kafumi.

Butikumi (< butik- 'shop') does not only mean 'to go shopping', it includes an idea of pleasure, of walking through a shopping district just for the fun of it, that is absent form the concept 'going shopping'.

Mi opinias ke Esperanto estas tiel grava fenomeno ke ne indas nur klubumi 'I think Esperanto is such an important phenomenon that it would not be worth using it just as a club thing, just to meet in clubs', is a sentence found in a message sent to an Internet Esperanto discussion group by a young Finnish lady. But the above translation in not quite exact. Klubumi, from klub-, 'a club', is too vague in concept to lend itself to translation, but it is rich in atmosphere.

And how could one translate the following sentence, found in a letter written by a Parisian user of Esperanto: Mi venas al kongresoj nur por amikumi 'I come to conventions only to enjoy friendly relationships, to meet friends, to experience friendships'? It is difficult to explain why such words do not create any problem of understanding, but this is a verifiable fact. They are felt in the same way all over the world.

12. The prefix mal- in spoken Esperanto

There is in Esperanto a prefix, mal-, which forms antonyms: feliĉa 'happy', malfeliĉa 'unhappy', bona 'good', malbona 'bad'. Like other affixes, it can be used independently, provided it takes on the ending that defines its function: male 'on the contrary', malo 'the opposite', mala 'contrary'. Field study reveals that this prefix is extremely productive in spoken Esperanto. Quite often, it implies a humorous connotation, but it is also found when the speaker obviously does not find the right word. Here are a few examples:

Tio estas tro malpoezia 'That is too prozaic' (an Italian-speaking Swiss).

Kiam okazos la malinaŭguro? 'When will the closing session take place?' (a British citizen).

Oni hodiaŭ malfestas la sovetiigon de Estonio 'Today people mourn the sovietization of Estonia' (an Estonian, in Tallinn, July 20, 1987, when Estonia was still a Soviet Republic).

Mi volus malmensoge klarigi al la lernantoj 'I'd like to explain to the students, honestly (= the opposite of telling lies)' (an Englishman).

Mia malgranda malĉemara landeto Ĉeĥio 'My small landlocked country the Czech Republic' (a Czech, to the Internet discussion group BJA; ĉe 'near', 'close to', mar- 'sea', ĉe-mar-a 'which is near the sea', mal-ĉe-mar-a , literally 'which is the opposite of being near the sea').

Nek tro nek maltro 'Neither too much nor too little' (an American; this is becoming a common phrase nowadays).

The vitality of that prefix in spoken Esperanto is all the more remarkable since writers seem, as a rule, to be prejudiced against it. Many neologisms have been proposed in literature to replace words formed with mal- but most of them are not part of the living, spoken language, and they retain a kind of artificial flavor. Trista 'sad' is one of the few which seem to be really taking root in spoken language, although its traditional synonyms malĝoja, malgaja, senĝoja, sengaja are still very much in use.

13. Grammar

Few changes seem to have appeared in the field of grammar. The basic rules are respected - if not applied - by everybody. For instance, the standard reaction of a speaker of Esperanto realizing that he just missed the -n ending of the object is to correct himself immediately.

Perhaps the chief deviations from Zamenhof's grammatical usage noticeable nowadays are:

1. The use of -i forms (infinitives) after sen 'without' Sen rimarki ĝin 'without noticing it' is at least as frequent as the Zamenhofian participle construction ne rimarkante ĝin, literally 'not noticing it'.

2. The use of an -a form (adjective) after aspekti 'to look like'. Zamenhof always used an -e form (adverb): li aspektas june 'he looks young'. Today both -a and -e forms are accepted alternatives: li aspektas juna doesn't shock the average Esperanto speaker.

3. The use of far as a preposition to introduce the agent of a passive form, especially after an -o ending: la mortigo de Palme far nekonato 'the killing of Palme by an unknown person'. The standard form would be la mortigo de Palme fare de nekonato. This standard form was proposed in the twenties by Grosjean-Maupin, a Swiss Esperanto lexicologist, and it immediately spread. Zamenhof's language had no equivalent; he would have formulated his thought otherwise. For two decades many people would say flanke de, more or less 'on the part of', but since this expression came from the root flank- 'side', it also meant 'beside' and might be ambiguous. It seems that the use of far as a preposition is less and less in fashion, losing ground to the more traditional fare de. It is seldom heard in conversations or lectures. However, it is quite frequent in the magazine Monato, but not in other periodicals.

4. The sporadic appearance of verbs whose first element is a noun which is really the object of the action. This is an extension of an usage that existed since the beginning of the language, but was restricted to a few words: pardonpeti 'to ask for forgiveness', partopreni 'to take part' or (although the grammatical analysis would be different) militservi 'to do one's military service'. There is a subtle distinction between those compact object-verb words and the expression consisting of two words, verb + object. The first ones are more compact, not only in form, but, so to speak, in meaning, although this is difficult to explain; it has to be felt. A novelist who, after having a character say something, expresses 'he said' by li frazfinis literally 'he sentence-ended', 'he ended his sentence' says something somewhat different from what he would convey writing li finis la frazon. Similarly, when a Portuguese participant in the Internet discussion group Denask explains the way his little daughter uses Esperanto saying Ne supozu ke Sara lingvokreas chiam lerte kaj virtuoze 'Don't suppose that Sara always manifests skill and virtuosity in her linguistic creations', the word lingvokreas refers to more than what would be expressed by kreas lingvon 'creates a language'. It refers to a child's spontaneous linguistic creativity, and this is felt by users of Esperanto although it is difficult to determine how and why.

14. Plays on words

Although this is not a linguistic trait, it may be worth mentioning a tendency among users of Esperanto to use phrases chosen for their funny or expressive atmosphere rather than for enhancing the precision of a statement. Those are very often made up of words with similar phonetic structures: li rigardis lin atente atende ‘he looked at him both with attention and expectation’. Or, at the end of a letter in which the writer explained that he replied in haste for he had little time at his disposal: kore, kure via literally ‘cordially and racingly yours’ (kur- means ‘to run’). A somewhat similar phrase in a letter I received was Korege kaj kolege vin salutas ‘heartiest and colleaguely greetings from…’. In the Internet chatting group Denask I noted this phrase, by a Spanish member: Mi pretas kolekti kaj kokteli la respondojn ‘I am ready to gather the answers and to make a cocktail of them’.


The changes that everyday use has introduced into Esperanto and is continuing to produce are varied, but chiefly present two aspects: borrowing (such a tajpi ‘to type’, used parallell to the conventional word maŝinskribi); and development of latent resources, such as the autonomous use of affixes, and the more and more effective tapping of the great potential afforded by the vowel endings. Grammar, including syntax, remains largely untouched. Semantic changes are noticeable, but not to a very large extent. As to phonetic evolution, we hardly are in a position to evaluate it. Recordings appear to reveal that the national accents are less marked nowadays than they used to be three decades ago, and the only recording we have of Zamenhof’s voice displays such a strong Russian accent – he pronounces estas as /yestas/ - that he would be immediately classified today as a beginner (which, after all, he was).

It is interesting that very often authority decisions are not taken seriously. For instance, the neologisms komputero ‘computer’ and dateno ‘data’ were officially agreed upon and recommended by the Computer Section of ISAE, the International Association of Esperanto-Speaking Scientists. But they did not last long. Today most computer specialists – even the above-mentioned section of ISAE – use komputilo and the older form datumo.

Most arbitrary decisions of that kind had the same fate. Although the principal explanatory Esperanto dictionary, Plena Ilustrita Vortaro, enjoys a considerable prestige, a good many forms it recommends have never really been accepted. While it recommends televizio for example, everybody says televido. It appears that the speakers of Esperanto have developed a sense of what can and what cannot be assimilated into the language. They have a subtle feeling of how it should evolve, even if they would be at a loss to define it.

The influence of the substratum was very great in the first decades of the language, but this has changed. It seems that today the principal factor of evolution is the strength of the internal structures that find more and more applications undreamed of at the beginning. A feeling of marveling at the fact that an original form, produced on the spur of the moment and quite distant from the structures of the speaker’s mother tongue, is immediately understood by people from very remote cultures, stimulates their production, which is very often humorous.

But whatever the nature of the changes, the fact that they do occur constantly, as will be readily established by anybody doing field research, is evidence that Esperanto is a living language. That a living, and, indeed, lively language developed on the basis of a small booklet published by a young man at his own cost in a faraway place one century ago is an astonishing fact which deserves more attention on the part of sociolinguists.


1. Examples in Emile Grosjean-Maupin, ed., Plena Vortaro de Esperanto (Paris: Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda, 1953), p. 30.
2. Gaston Waringhien, ed., Plena Ilustrita Vortaro de Esperanto (Paris: Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda, 1970), p. 36.
3. Gaston Waringhien, Grand Dictionnaire espéranto-français (Paris: SAT-Amikaro, 1976), p. 29.
4. L.L. Zamenhof, Fundamento de Esperanto (Paris: Hachette, 1905), p. 160.
5. On this term, see Claude Piron "Who are the speakers of Esperanto?" in Klaus Schubert, ed., Interlinguistics (Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989), pp. 157-159.
6. Paderborner Novembertreffen 1984 / Paderborna novembra renikontigho 1984 (Paderborn: Tutmonda Asocio por Kibernetiko, Informadiko kaj Sistemiko, October 8, 1984), p. 1.