In the next act history repeats itself, but, as usual, with some modification. When the Polish oculist L. L. Zamenhof first brought out his "Lingvo Internacia de la Doktoro Esperanto" in 1887, he was at once met with the objection, that he came to late because the choice of a world-language had already been settled once and for all by the then undisputed success of Volapük, but he was sensible enough to answer that Schleyer's adherents, however superior in number to his own, represented only a very small minority of civilized mankind and were not powerful enough to rule out of court a language which was much better in every way than Volapük. Time has shown that he was right - as time will show that those anti-Esperantists are right who nowadays use the same argument against Esperantists who boast of the number of their adherents.

In the first years the progress of Esperanto was very slow indeed - people were sick of the idea of an artificial language after the fiasco of Volapük - and enthusiastic as Zamenhof's few first followers were, they soon began to criticize details in his creation. He himself was not averse to changes, and in 1894 even put forward a comprehensive scheme of reform, which if it had been accepted would have changed the whole aspect of the language, and done away with some of those features of Esperanto which have always ruffled people more than anything else: the circumflexed letters, the fanciful "correlative" words, the accusative, the aj's and oj's, etc. Unfortunately, these sensible reforms were tied up with things of a much more doubtful character, and the conservative elements in the very small body of Esperantists carried the day, as they did on later occasions, when the number of believers had increased very considerably, and when they did everything to hinder reforms and to hush up Zamenhof's own half-hearted proposals of change (even so late as 1907 he sent to the Delegation a few proposals of that kind). In such matters there will always be some who think that the all-important thing is unity, so that it matters little whether a language be relatively perfect or not, so long as it is the only one in use. Conservative Esperantists looking back on the history of Volapük thought the cause of its downfall lay exclusively in the squabbles of its adherents, while it really lay deeper, in the defects of the language, which invited criticism on so many points. So a great party among Esperantists shut their eyes to the imperfections of Zamenhof's system and gradually worked themselves up into such a state of admiration that their "kara majstro" became the equivalent of the "Datuval" of a former period, the "Fundamento," which embodied the grammar and chief vocabulary of his language, became a thing that must on no account be "touched" (Netushebleco, as they say).

Now it is undeniable that this language of Zamenhof's is a remarkable achievement, which must have struck those who came to it fresh from Schleyer's Volapük as an entirely new and better world. Zamenhof took some things from previous schemes, from Volapük the preposition al, the word dom `house' (as in Latin and Russian, but with a different meaning from that found in West-European languages; the same dom has been taken over into Ido and Occidental), from Steiner's Pasilingua the accusative in -n, from Schipfer the rule that the accusative is used without a preposition for movement towards or to, from Pirro -in as a feminine ending and a good many German words (bald, warm, hund, vund, somer), see also below on the play of vowels in the verbal tenses, but he works all these elements into one harmonious whole. It is true that his inflexional endings and most of his suffixes are just as arbitrary as those of Volapük, but they are better distinguished from the root syllable or syllables; besides they are much fewer and yet enable one to express by simple means a good many shades of thought. A great stride forward is the doing away with verbal endings to indicate person and number. So, on the whole, there is much to admire in the system of 1887, though it is easy to see now that it was far from being perfect.

As for the vocabulary it is often said, by Esperantists and antagonists alike, that Zamenhof's genius showed itself in the way in which he took words with hardly any change from existing languages. This, of course, is the reason why a page of Esperanto looks ever so much more familiar than a page of Volapük. But Zamenhof was not the first to take his words from the best-known languages (see Couturat and Leau, 239-303), and I must here especially mention Pirro, whose book written in 1868 is very little known, but is one to which I constantly recur with the greatest admiration, because it embodies principles which were not recognized till much later. Let me give one little illustration, which will show how much more modern this language looks than Esperanto:

Nos habe el honor, meni senior, informaten evos ke nos habe kreated in dit plats un kommmerkant-haus sub el nom de N. Nos vove enos exklauslit ad exsekutsion de li konmitsion ex fremd, tant per kauf ke per vend de li merkantnes.

Zamenhof, like the authors of all subsequent schemes, took most of his words from the vocabulary common to Romanic languages and English, much of which has also made its way into German, Russian, etc., but he was not really guided by any fixed principles either in his selection or in his phonetic treatment of words. When a word which he wanted to use was refractory in one way or another and might cause ambiguities, he modified it, not quite so violently as Schleyer did, but still without any scruples. Port might represent F porte `door' and F porter `to carry': the first is therefore turned into pordo, with a d, which is found in no existing language. In order to use the French conjunction car, which with k would be in conflict with kar `dear' and with c with car `tsar, czar,' Zamenhof simply puts his circumflex over c: c^ar (char). The word nepre is nothing but the first two syllables of Russian nepremenno - just as if for the same idea he had taken unbe from German unbedingt. The most curious example is edzino `wife,' which is taken from the ending of German kron-prinzessin arbitrarily modified; then, as -in- is the feminine suffix, edzo comes to mean husband, and edzighi to marry. Place-names are changes so that they may receive the substantive-ending -o: Parizo, etc., and the names of countries are reduced to a uniformity, which recalls Volapük: Rusujo Russia, Anglujo, Svisujo, etc.

The vogue of Esperanto dates from about the beginning of the century, more especially from the great success of the first congress (Boulogne 1905). Thousands were fired with enthusiasm. Grammars, textbooks, periodicals, translations of works of many different kinds appeared in all parts of the world, and a most energetic propaganda led to the result - not that the language was adopted everywhere, but that the man in the street identified the notion of "International language" with "Esperanto," a confusion which has been and is highly injurious to the realization of the idea of an interlanguage; for any one seeing Esperanto and realizing that this cannot possibly be the world-language of the future will be tempted to draw the erroneous conclusion that no such language will ever be adopted.

When in an Esperanto book one stumbles on the word ghistiamajn and succeeds in making out that it means 'previous' and is a compound of the following elements, ghis (gh or g with a circumflex, pronounced like English j) up to, tiam then, a adjective ending, j plural, n accusative, then one cannot help asking oneself in the face of so much ingenuity if it is really necessary for an auxiliary language to be made up of such utterly arbitrary elements - a question to which the whole of the subsequent history (and of the second part of this book) gives an emphatic answer in the negative.

Previous section of this chapter

Next section of this chapter

Return to Contents Page

The original conversion of this page to digital form was made by James Chandler, who has given me permission to copy all Novial-related pages from his site. Except for correcting typographical errors and the necessary changes involved in migrating from his site (mainly URLs in links), this page is a direct copy from his site.
Please inform me of dead links and any other problems.
Last modified by B. R. Gilson ( May 31, 2009.
Sign up for your own site

Free web hostingWeb hosting