A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why are some shortwave radio broadcasts in Esperanto?

April 3, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Shortwave radio stations broadcast programs in dozens of different languages, one of which is the artificial language Esperanto. But where in the world are there large enough groups of people using who use Esperanto to make it worthwhile to broadcast in that language? Where is Esperanto widely taught and in common use?

SDStaff Monty replies:

Kie estas grandaj grupoj paroli Esperanton? La ne longa respondo estas "Tero." (Where are there large groups of people who speak Esperanto? The short answer is, the Earth.)

Not bad, huh? Having studied Esperanto off and on for 20 years, I'm glad for the occasional chance to show off.

Partial though I am to La Internacia Lingvo ("the International Language"), let's not exaggerate its prevalence on shortwave radio. I checked the BBC's website and apparently they don't broadcast (or webcast, for that matter) in the language. There are, however, a few radio stations which broadcast both shortwave and Real Audio programs in Esperanto.

One station which no longer broadcasts in La Internacia Lingvo, is Tie^'ng No'i Vie^.t Nam (I use the currently accepted shorthand for the diacriticals of the Vietnamese language). Why do I mention it here, you ask? Simple.  According to their webpage The Voice of Vietnam, "At 18.00 h on September 7, 1945, a week after the proclamation of the country's independence, the first program of the Voice of Vietnam was officially on the air from Hanoi. The content of this program was the Declaration of Independence, a news bulletin and current affairs stories which were broadcast in Vietnamese and four other languages, English, French, Cantonese and Esperanto."

Why broadcast in Esperanto on shortwave or the Internet?  As an Esperantist, I think the answer is self-evident. What language is better suited to these international media than the International Language?  Politics aside, it made perfect sense for the Vietnamese communists to broadcast in Esperanto. Even at that early date there were Esperantists around the world who could understand the broadcast. It also saved a heck of a lot of cash if you only had to pay for one translation--the Esperantist on the receiving end could translate, if so moved, into the local language.

How many people speak Esperanto? According to the Esperanto FAQ at http://www.esperanto.net/veb/faq.txt, about two million. This number comes from a survey by Professor Culbert of the University of Washington, Seattle and is limited to those "professionally proficient" (possessing the ability to actually communicate, not just grunt greetings) in Esperanto. This survey wasn't just for speakers of Esperanto, but was a world-wide survey of who speaks what languages.

Are there any native speakers of Esperanto? Again, from the FAQ above, the estimate is approximately 1,000 people. That might seem odd, but remember that the Esperanto movement is international in character and was originally started in Europe. It doesn't take too long, or too far, to go from one language area to another and thus not be understood. Some folks met their spouses at Esperanto conventions and thus use the Internacia Lingvo en la domo por paroli con la gefiloj ("the International Language at home for palavering with the offspring"). This is especially true if the only common language the parents have is Esperanto.

Who started this insanity? His name was Lazarus Ludwig Zamenhof, who published his first pamphlet under the pseudonym (can't say as I blame him for that) of Doktor Esperanto, which is Esperanto for Doctor Hopeful.

Doktor E. (or Dr. Z., take your pick) was born in December of 1859 in Byelostok and pursued general medical studies in Warsaw and Moscow, receiving an MD in 1884. He settled in Warsaw with the occupation of oculist (eye doctor). He did have some linguistic experience since his father taught languages and four languages were spoken in his native town. Dr. E. kept up his language studies whilst pursuing his medical degree.

He considered using Yiddish as the universal language, apparently because it was already used by a group of folks with whom he was familiar (he was Jewish) and was already used internationally by said folks. He eventually decided that a neutral created language would be better so he created one and published an Esperanto brochure touting the language. He called it La Internacia Lingvo, but people using the language tagged it with its creator's name, which was certainly catchier. As of 1905, about 120 Esperanto societies existed with at least 200,000 speakers.

If you're stuck in paradise, i.e., northern California, and you want to learn in a classroom setting, you can call San Francisco State University, which offers a curriculum of Esperanto courses at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. For those of y'all stuck in perdition, i.e., the East coast, you can hie yourselves to the University of Hartford in Connecticut for the same courses.

To conclude:

"Esperanto is probably the most successful of the artificial international languages [Take that, you Ido speakers!].  … The Universala Esperanto-Asocio (founded 1908) has members in 83 countries, and there are 50 national Esperanto associations and 22 international professional associations that use Esperanto. There is an annual World Congress, and more than 100 periodicals are published in the language. More than 30,000 books have been published in Esperanto." (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 4, 15th edition, 1974)

And finally this from The People's Almanac (1975):

"La inteligenta persono lernas la interlingvon Esperanto rapide kaj facile. Esperanto estas la moderno, kultura lingvo por la internacia mondo. Simpla, fleksebla, praktiva solvo de la problemo de universala interkompreno, Esperanto meritas vian seriozan konsieron. Lernu la interlingvon Esperanto."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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