Esperanto — Frequently Asked Questions

What is Esperanto?

Esperanto is a constructed language, i.e. someone sat down and invented it — L. L. Zamenhof, a Jewish optometrist and polyglot born in an area of Russia which is now Poland. He believed the world could be united through a common, international auxiliary language (IAL), which should be politically- and culturally-neutral before people would willingly adopt it. He decided no good candidate language existed, so set out to invent a new one, ultimately based on his knowledge of Russian, Yiddish (natively spoken); Polish, German, French, Hebrew, Belarusian, English, Volapük (acquired); and Latin, Greek, Aramaic (studied academically).

Zamenhof began work on his international language no later than 1878, and first publicized it in 1887 under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto ("Dr. Hopeful", lit. one who hopes). Having not named it anything other than "the international language", it came to be known itself as "Esperanto". Zamenhof with the earliest adopters of this proposal continued to translate works, publish journals, and refine the language, culminating in the first all-Esperanto meetup in 1905 — the Universal Congress, held that year in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France — where several hundred Esperantists ratified the Fundamento de Esperanto, an authoritative baseline for the language. There has been a Universal Congress in different countries every year since, except none 1916—1919 (because of World War Ⅰ), none 1940—1946 (because of World War Ⅱ), and only virtually in 2020, 2021 (because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

How do I learn Esperanto?

  1. Explore some courses; find one or two that work for you:
  2. Pick a multilingual dictionary to get started:
  3. Find a community to practice with:
  4. Check reference material frequently:
  5. Eventually, once you're comfortable reading Esperanto, start using Esperanto-only resources:

How long does it take to learn Esperanto?

It is generally assumed that Esperanto takes less time to learn than natural languages. The US Foreign Service Institute suggests that native English speakers can acquire familiar natural languages in 600-750 "class hours". That's 24-30 weeks at 25 hours per week, or roughly 3~4 years at 30 minutes per day. Esperanto should therefore take less time than that, but how much less, has not been rigorously measured. Some estimate 200 hours of study.

Different speakers report having taken anywhere from several weeks to several years. It depends on multiple factors:

How do I type Esperanto letters?

When it's impracticable to write Esperanto's unique letters (ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ, ŭ), officially you may write instead ch, gh, hh, jh, sh, u — the "H-system".

The H-system has its flaws,
so another popular method — the X-system — is widely in use: cx, gx, hx, jx, sx, ux. The Akademio recommends using it only when technically necessary, e.g. for digital alphabetization, but in some media it's now more common than the H-system.

There are solutions to write the true Esperanto letters on any platform, but they require setup. Some of these convert H-system or X-system text to the proper letters in real-time, hence the explanation above.

Windows
  1. Tajpi — a background program which takes your input and produces EO letters in real-time.
  2. Custom-made native keyboard layout by CodeWeaver. Once installed, you add it as an additional keyboard through the Language settings. You can switch input methods by pressing Win + spacebar (+ Shift to cycle backwards).
  3. You can make your own native keyboard layout with MKLC. [Advanced]
MacOS
  1. The keyboard layout ABC - Extended can compose Esperanto letters. With it, Option + 6 followed by C, G, H, J, or S will type that letter with a circumflex (^). Option + B followed by U will type a ŭ with a breve.
  2. MacOS clone of Tajpi by Fritiof.
  3. Custom-made native keyboard layout by CodeWeaver.
  4. You can make your own native keyboard layout with Ukelele. [Advanced]
Linux

Most distributions ship an Esperanto keyboard layout by default with xkb. Rejoice!

Android

You'll need to download a third-party keyboard that supports Esperanto. On Android you have two options:

  1. Gboard (Google)
  2. SwiftKey (Microsoft)
iOS

You'll need to download a third-party keyboard that supports Esperanto. Gboard is available on iOS, however, it does not support Esperanto on this platform. Therefore the only viable option is SwiftKey.

What's the -n at the end of some words?

This is known as the accusative. The accusative is a grammatical case, and a grammatical case is just a marker on a word to change its role in a sentence. For example, the English apostrophe-'s is actually a case marker, to show possession. But what does the accusative show?

  1. The direct object of a verb or phrase. (e.g. "I ate the apple" versus "The apple ate me")
  2. Direction/movement towards something. (e.g. "They're going home")
  3. The accusative can stand-in for the preposition je, which means it's also used for:

  4. Measurement. (e.g. "The track is 100 meters long")
  5. Time. (e.g. "I'll go there Monday")

In Esperanto, the underlined words take the ending -n. English doesn't have an accusative case for these things because it conveys them through word order, but Esperanto was designed to allow free word order, and so benefits from the accusative.

The accusative may occur more than once in a sentence; for example, in a sentence like "I'll do it next week", "it" is the direct object of "do" and "next week" is the time at which it will happen, so both may receive the accusative -n. The preposition je can be used instead, so for clarity, speakers may place one term in the accusative (typically the object) and the other after je.

What is the "direct object"?

The direct object of a phrase is the thing being affected by the verb/action. The direct object is underlined in these examples:

English sentences are subject-verb-object, so the object is typically the thing that comes after the verb. However, Not all verbs have a direct object. This is known as transitivity. A verb is transitive if it has a direct object, and intransitive if not. Some example sentences with intransitive verbs and therefore no objects:

  1. "That creature is an alien!"
  2. "That seems like a bad idea."
  3. "We're going to the store later."
  4. "He's sitting on that chair."

Why isn't "alien" an object in example №1? To put it another way, why is to be an intransitive verb? This is because the thing on the "right side" of the verb relates back to the subject of the sentence — "that creature" and "alien" are the same entity. But when the subject is also the object of a transitive verb, that's when we use a reflexive pronoun, like myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, themselves.

What about examples №3 and 4? Why aren't "store" and "chair" objects? As a rule of thumb, it's because they're linked by prepositions — to and on. You can't say "We're going the store later" or "He's sitting that chair".

Bear in mind, there are also such things as indirect objects — usually the recipient of an action. In a sentence like "I gave Kaylin my sandwich", Kaylin is the indirect object while sandwich is the direct object (the thing being given). In Esperanto the indirect object almost always follows the preposition al ("to"): "I gave to Kaylin my sandwich."

How am I supposed to pronounce these words?

Esperanto is phonemic, which means that each letter has exactly one sound to distinguish it from other letters. Furthermore, letters are never silent; for example, the 'p' is not silent in psikologio as it is in the English word psychology. Because of this, it is often said that Esperanto pronunciation has no exceptions.

This does not mean that some variation isn't allowed. For instance, the letter r is pronounced very differently between world languages, as demonstrated below, most of which are generally acceptable for Esperanto, although the "trill" and "tap" are most preferred by speakers (the two listed by Spanish & Russian).

English
Spanish,
Russian
French
Above sounds sourced by Fête and Peter Isotalo from Wikipedia.

Another example: The 'g' in "ng" is never silent, but you may still pronounce the 'n' further back when it suits you, like in the word "finger".

Never forget to place stress on the second-last syllable of each word!

lingvo
fingro
ĉiuj
scii
scienco
ekscita
heroo
pseŭdo
ĥirurgo
laboratorio

How does gender work in Esperanto?

Unlike French, German, and Russian, there is no grammatical gender in Esperanto. For example, instead of -o being a masculine ending and -a being a feminine ending, these are the noun and adjective endings respectively, regardless of gender. However, because of this, names aren't always fully Esperantized; after all, should Maria become "Mario"?

Esperanto was invented in the 19th century, and thus some traditional assumptions about gender were made. There are gendered pronouns (li "he", ŝi "her", ĝi "it"), and speakers typically use li by default for people of unspecified gender if they are accustomed to doing so in their native language. Some speakers argue that ĝi is perfectly usable for referring to people gender-neutrally, while others feel it offensive because of how the pronoun it is traditionally used for objects and animals. Outside of theory, ĝi is seldom used for humans besides babies, unless one elects that pronoun for themselves.

Several new pronouns have been proposed over the decades, with perhaps ri being the most popular. It was first recorded in 1976 as a gender-neutral pronoun. Lately it is also the pronoun of choice for many nonbinary speakers.

Ri is still contested by the Esperanto community because of its lack of official status with the Akademio, ambiguous usage (is it truly gender-neutral or is it nonbinary?), the phonetic similarity to li, the lack of decidedly-better alternatives, and so on. It is, however, widely-recognized by nearly all speakers.

Some roots are inherently masculine. In the beginning, all words for living beings were regarded as masculine, and can be made feminine with the suffix -ino. Traditionally vir-, the root for "man", was prefixed to a word to emphasize masculinity (e.g. "virbovo" means "bull"). The prefix ge- is used with plural words to refer to groups with different genders, e.g. gepatroj for "parents". Nowadays nearly every word is assumed to be gender-neutral unless the root itself is gendered, making these affixes mostly superfluous. We're down to the following roots:

From every masculine root listed here is a feminine counterpart formed with -ino: virino for "woman", patrino for "mother", reĝino for "queen", etc. For each feminine root, there is already a separate gender-neutral root (damo, lordo; lesbanino, gejo).

-iĉo (masculine) and -ipo (nonbinary) are two proposed suffixes for symmetry with -ino which have gained some traction. Esperanto also officially provides ~ĉjo (masculine) and ~njo (feminine) as suffixes to form nicknames and affectionate names with, e.g. paĉjo for "dad", panjo for "mom", Aleĉjo or Alenjo for "Alex" from "Alexander" or "Alexandria", etc. From this follows the proposed ~pjo for nonbinary persons.

Are there swear words in Esperanto?

Esperanto wasn't designed with dedicated swear words, but several have emerged over time, in part thanks to certain authors proliferating these words through famous works like Sekretaj sonetoj and Knedu min, Sinjorino: tabuaj kaj insultaj esprimoj en Esperanto. Swear words are loaned from an even variety of languages, including Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian, but phrases are adapted to fit Esperanto's grammar.

Esperantists generally distinguish between sacrality (undirected expressions of anger, typically calling upon God or religious powers — "Damn!") and obscenity (indecent or taboo words, typically sexual or bodily in nature). The most common respective examples are the use of the word diabla ("devilish") for something damnable, and fek ("feces") as a general expletive (comparable to the German word Scheiße).

Esperanto's core vocabulary does feature a handful of pejoratives — fi for shameful/evil things, for awful/useless things, fuŝ for a botch/screw-up — as well as the interjection ve for discontent (as in "oy vey"). These are often the basis for combined words with more pointed meanings.

Examples

Further reading:

What's this about crocodiles?

To crocodile is to speak another language in an Esperanto setting. The phrase "ne krokodilu" ("do not crocodile") is widely used to signal that a conversation should be Esperanto-only, and to encourage one another not to fall back on other languages.

It is not known where this term originated, but there are a few possible explanations:

Similar meanings have been ascribed to other reptile names, but these are not widely recognized.

Who's in charge of Esperanto?

No-one. It is influenced first and foremost by the speakers. However, there are some authorities that are generally respected by the Esperanto community and used for guidance.

The Fundamento de Esperanto

Considerably the most important document in Esperanto history, this was presented and accepted in 1905 as the foundation of the language, which shall never be changed. It features a 1670-word preamble written in Esperanto, a 16-rule grammar presented in French, English, German, Russian, and Polish, an exercise book in 42 parts, and the Universal Dictionary — 2,636 words translated between Esperanto, and the five aforementioned languages.

The Fundamento grammar is open-ended and not comprehensive, which was intentional as to give Esperantists room to grow and evolve the language. Esperantists have always been free to add words and rules to the language, just not to change those already present in the Fundamento.

Unfortunately, the Fundamento's status is more complicated than that. It is an imperfect book with a number of translation errors, which means it cannot truly be followed "to a T". Several words' meanings have shifted over time — never enough to confuse period works, but enough to argue that colloquial usage takes precedence over the most authoritative document in Esperanto culture. Some speakers also argue that, morally, the Fundamento should be ignored if it ever prohibits the language from changing in an organic way. Other speakers firmly believe the Fundamento to be inviolable.

The Akademio de Esperanto

The Fundamento was produced with a language academy in mind — today the Akademio — to guide and officialize any additions to Esperanto beyond the Fundamento. Anything approved or recognized by the Akademio is considered "official"; however, this doesn't make much difference, as "unofficial" things are typically embraced and sometimes even regarded equally.

In essence, the Akademio is descriptivist, not prescriptivist. They virtually never tell the Esperanto community what they can/can't do; rather they observe what the Esperanto community does, and make the most common words, patterns, behaviors "official".

Third-party resources, organizations

Two of the most important Esperanto resources are PIV and PMEG, which both happen to be written only in Esperanto, giving them some credence as the audience is not beginners but rather adept Esperantists. More importantly, they're filled with real-world examples and citations which reflect observed usage. They aren't infallible, but Esperantists place a high degree of faith in the veracity of these resources, often citing them directly as justification for certain behavior.

There are also organizations such as the UEA, TEJO, E@I, and Libera Folio ("Free Folio"), which are responsible for many of the most influential periodicals, projects, and gatherings among Esperantists; thus they are a fairly consistent source of model Esperanto content.

How many words does Esperanto have?

There are 5,259 official roots and affixes.

Like with any language, there's a much smaller set of words that are needed to be functional, or to "read the newspaper". The Akademio maintains a list of 2,534 elements that they consider most important to teach. This list is divided into nine groups, which one might learn roughly one after another, and you can speak productively before learning every single group:

Baza Radikaro Oficiala
170Group 1
89Group 2
127Group 3
158Group 4
159Group 5
223Group 6
298Group 7
496Group 8
814Group 9
2,534TOTAL

One analysis found that 467 morphemes are enough to yield 95% comprehension in Esperanto, whereas roughly 2,000 words are necessary in most Indo-European languages.

On the other hand, Esperanto is filled with unofficial words, technical terms, loans, and so on. Furthermore, the majority of words are just combinations of existing roots. As an upper estimate, the dictionary PIV's 2005 edition appears to have 16,780 gloss entries and 46,890 total entries. Compare with some other-language dictionaries:

Approx. EntriesLanguageDictionary
750,484TamilSorkuvai
511,282KoreanStandard Korean Language Dictionary
470,000EnglishWebster's Third New International Dictionary and Addenda
378,103ChineseHanyu Da Cidian
343,466PersianDehkhoda Dictionary
135,000FrenchTrésor de la Langue Française informatisé
93,000SpanishDiccionario de la lengua española de la Real Academia Española
39,589LatinOxford Latin Dictionary

What languages did Esperanto's words come from?

According to this StackExchange answer by miĥaŭ, out of 3,983 words:

			perc.  num. lang.
			======================================
			80.69% 3214 French+Italian+Latin       (Romance)
			65.43% 2606 English+German+Yiddish     (Germanic)
			37.79% 1505 Russian+Lithuanian+Polish  (Slavic)
		

Values exceed 100% because a word can be the same across multiple languages. Individual words are loaned from several other languages, for example kaj ("and") from Ancient Greek και.

Is Esperanto a European language?

As shown above, Esperanto words come almost exclusively from European languages, except for modern-day loans (e.g. cunamo from Japanese "tsunami"). This doubtlessly gives speakers of European languages an advantage; an unfortunate strike on Esperanto's aspired neutrality.

Esperanto's grammar, on the other hand, is not especially European. Claude Piron, late Swiss psychologist, translator, author, and famed Esperantist, concisely argued that Esperanto is not an innately Western language, drawing parallels with Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew, and Chinese languages. To summarize his points:

How many people speak Esperanto?

Compare with these rough figures for some other languages:

1,348,000,000English
1,120,000,000Mandarin Chinese
600,000,000Hindi
543,000,000Spanish
274,000,000Standard Arabic
267,000,000French
258,000,000Russian
50,000,000Polish
9,000,000Hebrew
750,000Welsh
660,000Basque
600,000Yiddish
440,000Irish Gaelic
314,000Icelandic
250,000Breton

Where are Esperanto speakers found?

Esperantists are found in more countries than not, according to the Esperantujo Directory, although it's not a good indicator of quantity with only a couple thousand registered users.

Data collected in 2020 from the UEA's website lists the number of paid UEA members by country (the US is "usono"):

			392	germanio
			354	francio
			295	brazilo
			262	japanio
			246	usono
			142	chinio
			140	nederlando
			115	hispanio
			105	italio
			103	belgio
			91	finnlando
			89	koreio
			89	britio
			83	pollando
			80	rusio
			79	svislando
			74	svedio
			70	danio
			63	kanado
			58	chehio
			54	meksiko
			50	kongolando
			50	hungario
			38	israelo
			36	ukrainio
			36	benino
			33	austrio
			31	kubo
			30	hinda_unio
			29	bulgario
			29	australio
			28	burundio
			27	vjetnamio
			27	rumanio
			27	nepalo
			26	norvegio
			25	slovakio
			25	kroatio
			25	argentino
			24	nikaragvo
			24	litovio
			24	irano
			23	pakistano
			22	serbio
			21	senegalio
			20	togolando
			16	kolombio
			15	indonezio
			14	urugvajo
			14	turkio
			14	portugalio
			14	latvio
			13	slovenio
			13	novzelando
			13	luksemburgo
			13	bosnio
			12	estonio
			11	albanio
			10	tanzanio
			10	islando
			10	irlando
			10	dominika_resp
			9	nigherio
			9	mongolio
			9	chilio
			9	armenio
			8	grekio
			7	peruo
			7	madagaskaro
			6	uzbekio
			6	suda_afriko
			5	orienta_timoro
			5	belorusio
			5	algherio
			4	tajlando
			4	nordmakedonio
			4	maroko
			4	kostariko
			4	kazahhio
			4	kameruno
			4	ganao
			3	tunizio
			3	tajvano
			3	kongolo
			3	kartvelio
			3	chado
			3	angolo
			2	venezuelo
			2	ugando
			2	salvadoro
			2	ruando
			2	novkaledonio
			2	nighero
			2	malto
			2	malio
			2	komoroj
			2	kambogho
			2	honkongo
			2	gvatemalo
			2	filipinoj
			2	etiopio
			2	bolivio
			1	vatikano
			1	trinidado
			1	taghikio
			1	sirio
			1	singapuro
			1	paragvajo
			1	palestino
			1	malajzio
			1	kipro
			1	kenjo
			1	honduro
			1	ghibraltaro
			1	gabono
			1	ekvadoro
			1	egiptio
			1	eburbordo
			1	centr_afrika_resp
			1	burkina_faso
			1	brunejo
			1	birmo
			1	belizo
			1	barejno
			1	bangladesho
		

The following countries have had the listed number of paid UEA members since the year 2000 but did not have any paid members in 2020:

			*18	srilanko
			*6	moldavio
			*6	malavio
			*6	jordanio
			*6	azerbajghano
			*5	reunio
			*5	libano
			*4	zimbabvo
			*4	arabaj_emirejoj
			*2	sauda_arabio
			*2	papuo
			*2	kuvajto
			*2	afganio
			*1	zambio
			*1	svazilando
			*1	samoo
			*1	panamo
			*1	mozambiko
			*1	montenegro
			*1	mauritanio
			*1	martiniko
			*1	lihhtenshtejno
			*1	laoso
			*1	kirgizio
			*1	kataro
			*1	haitio
			*1	gvadelupo
			*1	gujano
			*1	bahamoj
		

Is there any LGBT in Esperanto?

Yes — it's known as GLAT.

TerSISO.net is a comprehensive source of Esperanto terminology regarding sexual identity & orientation and adjacent topics.

Has Esperanto ever been officially recognized?

Is there an Esperanto fluency test?

Yes — the UEA-KER exams. These are based on CEFR, the European framework for assessing language proficiency based on six levels. At the moment, Esperanto fluency tests are only offered for levels B1, B2, and C1, while the C2 exam is actively being developed.

From 2008 to 2021, the UEA-KER exams were produced in collaboration with the Hungarian Centre for Foreign Languages, and offered only in-person to a handful of locations in various countries. From 2022, the UEA is taking on full development of the exams and is prepared to launch an online version.

Old sample exam for B1, B2, C1.

What do I use Esperanto for?

  1. Connect with other Esperantists through dedicated platforms like Mia Vivo!
  2. Look for opportunities to meet other Esperantists, online and in-person, per the Eventa Servo!
  3. Travel the world with one language via the Pasporta Servo!
  4. Help train AI voice recognition through Mozilla's Common Voice project!
  5. Music! There are over 1,300 Esperanto songs on Spotify (>80 hours of content), and several live concert videos as well.
  6. Videos! Not only are there numerous YouTube channels dedicated to Esperanto… … there's also an entire website — Tubaro — which brings all Esperanto videos together from all other platforms.
  7. Games!
  8. Radio! (Abridged from esperanto.net):
    • Muzaiko, running 24/7 with music, interviews and reports
    • 3ZZZradio, a weekly Esperanto broadcast out of Australia
    • Varsovia Vento ("Warsaw Wind"), a series of podcasts out of Poland
    • Radio Vatikana, operating thrice per week out of the Vatican
    • Radio Havano Kubo, which broadcasts in Esperanto nearly every week, discussing both Cuba and Esperanto in general
    • UEA.Facila, articles presented in easy Esperanto
    • kern.punkto ("Core point"), a podcast series which dives deep into a complex subject in one-hour episodes
  9. Recurring film festivals with cash prizes!
  10. Periodical magazines!
  11. Read worldwide news sourced from all over the world (abridged from esperanto.net):
  12. Participate in a translation project! There are many to choose from; here's just a few:
  13. Design other languages! Esperanto is the starting point for several reform projects such as Ido and Archaicam Esperantom; some of the other most well-received conlangs were designed by Esperantists, like Toki Pona; and Esperanto is a working language for much of the conlang community.
  14. Explore over a century of original literature, starting with the Baza Legolisto, a list of 32 prosaic and 32 poetic must-reads.
  15. Read and analyze many more works from Esperanto history through Tekstaro, the largest corpus of Esperanto texts on the internet with over ten million words.
  16. Explore Chinese culture through the Chinese-Esperantist website Verda Reto!
  17. Browse a trove of Esperanto songs — the kantaro!
  18. Check out an original 16-episode soap opera, Pasporto al la tuta mondo!

Other Resources