a world language

By Mario Pei

Dr. Pei, Professor of Romance Philology at Columbia University, is a noted authority on languages. He has written many books in this field, among which the most recent are The Many Hues of English and Language Today. . . . Cover by the Corchia Group, Inc.

In the 17th century, French philosopher René Descartes came forth with a revolutionary idea. He proposed the creation of a language that could be used internationally by all sorts of people, peasants as well as scholars.

But Descartes made the mistake of concentrating on the logical aspects of such a language, the progression of ideas from the general to the specific. This logical structure exists in no living language, not even in the great classical tongues of antiquity, which are replete with illogical exceptions and arbitrary features.

While Descartes offered no sample of his ideal constructed language, several of his contemporaries immediately came to the fore with offerings. Some of their suggestions were quite ingenious, but all embodied the principle of logical progression at the expense of familiarity and ease. For example, Bishop John Wilkins’ Essay of 1668 presents a language in which Z indicates animals in general, Za indicates fish, and successive consonants and vowels further restrict the concept to particular classes of fish.

But alongside these attempts at constructed languages which had no connection with any existing language, there was also a


startlingly modern proposal, one made by the Bohemian scholar Comenius. He suggested the use of existing languages, not on a universal, but on a zonal basis (he actually proposed English and French for use in Western Europe, Russian as a common tongue for Eastern Europe). This type of solution, still widely advocated today, is in the nature of a temporary makeshift, because it does not supply us with one universal language, but merely makes the existing linguistic confusion a little easier to bear.

types of proposals

Since the days of Descartes, Wilkins, and Comenius, at least a thousand proposals of one description or another have been advanced. These include several distinct types:

1) The selection and use of an existing language, ancient or modern, such as Latin, French, or English.

2) The combination of two or more existing languages, either in zonal distribution, as advocated by Comenius and, much later, by Stalin; or existing side by side, like the Greek and Latin of antiquity. (The French Monde Bilingue organization, for instance, advocates that all English speakers learn French, all French speakers learn English, and all speakers of other tongues learn one or the other. This does not solve the problem of communicating when a Czech who has learned French meets a Japanese who has learned English.)

3) The choice of a modified national language, such as Basic English, which works with a reduced vocabulary made to serve all purposes by a process of substitution and paraphrase (bush, for instance, is replaced by small tree; selfish is replaced by without thought of others); or works with the modification applied not to the vocabulary, but to the system of spelling or the grammatical structure (thru, filozofi, would be samples of spelling; goed, dood, oxes, mouses instead of the irregular went, did, oxen, mice would be examples of grammar) .

4) Blends of two or more existing languages, with words and constructions arbitrarily taken from one or another of the constituent languages.

5) Fully constructed languages showing no connection with any known languages (like the American Ro and Suma).


Constructed languages in which existing languages are freely utilized to supply, or at least to suggest, both vocabulary and grammatical structure, but with concern for component elements familiar to the greatest possible number of people with different language backgrounds (Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua).

While many of these projects are impractical and present discouraging features, there are at least as many, of all the types outlined above, that could easily become operational. It is therefore not the lack of suitable schemes that has prevented, up to the time of writing, the adoption of a language for universal use.


When Descartes first outlined his startling proposal, the number of people who in the course of their lives had to have international contacts of one kind or another was a fraction of 1 per cent. The vast majority lived and died in the locality where they were born. Therefore, the need for an international language was academic rather than practical.

As the years and centuries passed, international contacts and international travel grew. Stimulated by the invention of the steam engine, and by the application of oil and electricity to purposes of travel, trade, and transportation, the 19th century saw a boom in international contacts. In our own century, the widespread use of the airplane and the automobile has made national borders almost obsolete.

In the year 1900, a man’s chances of having to travel abroad and find himself in contact with speakers of a tongue that was not his own were perhaps one out of 50. Today, they are roughly one out of five. By the year 2000, barring some unforeseen catastrophes of a worldwide nature, his chances will be one out of two.

All this international movement of persons is by no means exclusively, or even predominantly, of the pleasure-seeking tourist variety, though tourism for pleasure, too, is undergoing vast expansion. The international travelers of the present and future include millions of migrant agricultural and industrial workers, business representatives, scientists and technicians, members of


the armed forces of various nations, diplomats and government workers, students and research scholars, ministers and missionaries of the various faiths.

All these people need foreign languages for their foreign contacts. It is highly unrealistic to expect them forever to place their dependence in the hands of translators and interpreters, guides and hotel clerks, taxi drivers and stationmasters, local policemen and tradesmen, who may or may not have a smattering of one or more languages besides their own.

There are in spoken and written use throughout the world today well over 100 major languages, not to mention thousands of minor languages and dialects. No individual, however linguistically inclined he may be, can master more than a handful of these languages, even for the most practical of purposes. The constant increase in international trade and travel feeds what is becoming a monster language traffic jam. Many of the new nations among the 126 member states of the United Nations are trying to develop their own language as a basic element in their cultural identity and to avoid being overshadowed by the larger nations. Thus, lingual diversity increases.

If a person is not acquainted with both the spoken and the written language of the country where he happens to be, he is both inarticulate and illiterate, no matter how profound his intellectual attainments and professional skills. This means that an international language for worldwide use, at least in those countries which possess some sort of educational system (and these are constantly on the increase), is no longer a luxury or an academic ideal. It is a necessity that becomes more imperative with each day that goes by.

By the end of the 20th century, no matter how much we may have progressed in the matter of transportation and in methods of communication, we shall find ourselves undergoing a slow process of strangulation in international communications. The systems of interpretation and translation, which now are slow, inaccurate, and costly, will prove hopelessly inadequate by the year 2000. Today, the United Nations spends more than $18,000,000 a year, and its specialized agencies spend hundreds of thousands more, for translation and interpretation that barely keep up with the flood of speeches and documents.


popular sentiment

Under the circumstances, it is small wonder that an international language, in principle, receives the sort of popular vote that in the political world would constitute a landslide.

In 1950 the Gallup Institute of Public Opinion conducted a poll in the United States, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, and Finland. Two questions were asked. The first was: “It has been suggested that every school child in every country should be required to learn one other language besides his own, which would be understood in all countries. Do you think this is a good idea or a poor idea?” The response was about 76 per cent “good idea” in all five countries, with 15 per cent opposed and 9 per cent undecided.

The poll, repeated in 1961 in the United States alone, indicated that the majority in favor of the proposition had grown by eight percentage points to 84 per cent, while the opposition and the undecided group had correspondingly dwindled.

A poll conducted in Japan in 1959 by the International Language Institute of Tokyo, a Japanese society interested in promoting a world language for international use, was conducted among some 400 foreign tourists in Japan and Japanese students at the University of Tokyo. Three out of four replied that they favored a world tongue.

the real difficulty

The crux of the problem lies not in the principle, but in its application. Which language shall be adopted for international use? There are in existence some 3,000 natural languages, including the better-known classical ones, such as Latin and Greek; plus at least 1,000 fully constructed languages, or modified national tongues, that have been presented since the days of Descartes. It is perfectly true that among natural languages only a handful (perhaps a dozen or so) have at any time been seriously considered, along with an equal number of constructed languages. Some indication of possible choice is afforded by those same polls which established the desirability of one (any) universal tongue.

Both Gallup polls asked a second question: “Which language (other than your native tongue) would you choose for this second language?”


the choices

In the first U.S. poll, where English was excluded, French got 27 per cent of the votes, Spanish 25 per cent, German 14 per cent, while other languages trailed. In Canada, where the question caused some confusion, since French and English are both official tongues, though both are not native to all Canadians, 55 per cent of those polled voted for French. In Norway, the Netherlands, and Finland, where a vote for English was not excluded, about 60 per cent voted for English.

The runner-up in all three European countries was not French, German, Spanish, or Russian, but Esperanto, a constructed language that meets with much favor in smaller nations whose languages have no international scope or pretensions. In the second Gallup poll of 1961, conducted only in the United States, practically no change appeared in the relative standing of French, Spanish, and German; but all of the 8 per cent increase in yes answers to the first question went to Russian.

The Japanese poll of 1959 indicated that out of 190 foreign tourists, who included Britishers, Americans, and other native speakers of English, 25 favored English and 84 favored “simplified” English, while of the 200 Japanese students polled, 18 favored English and 96 “simplified” English. English, in actual or simplified form, had about 60 per cent of the votes in both groups, paralleling the results of the earlier Gallup poll in non-English-speaking countries. Esperanto got only 3 per cent of the foreign tourist vote, but 21 per cent of the Japanese vote, again indicating its position as a strong runner-up.

Of course there are plenty of other candidates besides English and Esperanto. Among the natural languages, French is perhaps the most logical contender, having been in diplomatic, commercial, and literary use on a truly international scale for centuries. Its speakers, though fewer in numbers than those of many other tongues, are quick to press their traditional advantage as often as the opportunity offers. We have seen Spanish, German, and Russian favored by many Americans polled. Latin, in normal or simplified form, is frequently mentioned. Greek, ancient or modern, Italian, and Chinese have been suggested. One occasionally even hears mention of small languages like Finnish, Hungarian, and Armenian, on the ground that they are fully natural,


yet (to not favor any of the big language groups (Romance, Germanic, Slavic, Chinese).

Among constructed languages, the present-day choice is simpler, since only one of these languages, Esperanto, represents a fairly sizable body of speakers, an international and fully developed organization, and a body of literature. Other present-day constructed languages are used by far fewer speakers or, as is more often the case, are favored by no one save their constructor,; and a few faithful friends and followers.


The big obstacle that appears in the case of natural languages is the opposition of speakers of other tongues. It is all very well to say that lots of non-English speakers study, learn, and speak English, and that almost as many non-French speakers study French. There is a vast difference between studying a foreign tongue so as to be able to use it, and accepting it as an international medium of communications in preference to your own. Since a national language is the vehicle and mouthpiece of a national culture the citizens of each nation hesitate to place themselves at a cultural disadvantage vis-à-vis another group.

This is perhaps the main reason why so many citizens of small nations prefer “neutral” Esperanto, which belongs to no nation or culture in particular and requires a commensurate effort on the part of every learner. (This point of view was perhaps best expressed by Ali Gerad Jama, Minister of Education of Somalia, in these words: “It is humiliating for small nations to be obliged to learn the languages of the large. Only a neutral language like Esperanto can eliminate that cultural dependency.”) Though Russian was the preference of nearly 10 per cent of American voters in the second Gallup poll, would the majority of Americans be content to accept as an international medium a language that they consider, rightly or wrongly, as the vehicle and mouthpiece of Communism? Conversely, would the Russians or Chinese, who are ready enough to study English for purposes of research, information, even propaganda, be willing to see the tongue of the Anglo-American capitalistic world predominate in international relations to the point of being exclusively used?


Would other large groups, like the speakers of Spanish and German, jealous of their cultural status, submit to international English?

It is probably this cultural jealousy that has kept world organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO from declaring any single language official in their proceedings. Instead, they have established five of the world’s most widespread languages — English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese — as official, and even tolerate the occasional use of other languages, such as Arabic, in U.N. Assembly addresses.

other factors

There are two other important factors, seldom mentioned, working against the selection of a natural language. All languages, particularly the larger and more widespread ones, are heavily segmented into divergent dialectal forms, which often approach mutual incomprehensibility. Some languages, like French, accept a national standard to which most of the speakers subscribe, at least in theory. Others, like English and Spanish, do not even possess such a standard. The English-speaking world is subdivided into two main linguistic classifications, British (this includes Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) and American, toward which Canadian English leans. Within each main category appear numerous subspecies (for the United States, these go by the designation of Eastern, Southern, Midwestern, each in turn segmented into subdialects), none of which has been made standard or official, and each of which may be used by its own speakers with little fear of criticism or censure.

This linguistic liberalism may have its merits so long as the language remains the sole property of its own speakers, but the choice of a standard becomes imperative if it is selected for world use, under penalty of sowing the seeds of widespread dialectalization and ultimate incomprehension among world speakers. But such a selection will in turn establish an immediate difference between the natural language used for national purposes and the same language used internationally.

In some cases, the native speakers of the selected language will be practically forced to learn it all over again in its new worldwide form. At the same time, the same rivalry that at present


appears among national languages will become evident among speakers of the various dialects of the same language. Will the British and Australians subscribe to an American Midwestern standard? For that matter, will American speakers of a Southern or Appalachian dialect subscribe to a Midwestern or Bostonese standard?

Side by side with this lack of standardization in matters of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, there is the spread that appears in all natural languages (more in some than in others, to be sure, but to some extent perceptible in all) between spoken sounds and their written representation. The divergence between speech and spelling, and the erratic behavior of both, are particularly evident in the case of the two chief rivals for the international post, English and French. Native speakers of both languages put up with this situation because of historical tradition and unwillingness to relinquish antiquated spellings to which adult speakers are accustomed, and which have become second nature to them. But can a world population be expected to put up with the archaic and irrational spelling system which compels our schoolchildren to waste years of valuable school time learning how to read, write, and spell?

These disadvantages are not in evidence in the case of most constructed languages, which normally have full standardization, set by an academy or other prescriptive body, and, very often, full phonetization, with absolute equivalence of one written symbol for each spoken sound. Disks and tapes, international radio and TV programs, combined with an increasing number of worldwide international conferences would prevent lapsing into national dialects. Add to this the logical regularity of grammar, with few or no exceptions, that prevails in most constructed tongues, and it will be seen that they have much in their favor to offset the more widespread use, larger bodies of speakers, and grass-roots traditional cultural values of their natural rivals.

Hence it is not quite exact to figure that on the basis of first choice indicated by the polls, English is destined to become the international language. The difficulties that beset its international use are not fully envisaged by gauging its potentialities either from polls or from widespread unofficial present-day use. They come to the fore the minute one thinks in terms of imparting the


language on a full worldwide basis at the child, not the adult, not merely for limited level and for all international purpose, understanding and practical exchange.


On the plane of linguistic science pure and simple, it may come as a surprise to many that in theory it makes absolutely no difference which one of the 3,000 or so natural languages or of the 1,000 constructed languages we adopt for international spoken use. All spoken tongues are equally easy to their own speakers, who have been acquiring them since birth. The Chinese preschool-age child speaks Chinese as easily and fluently as the American child speaks English, This delightful equality of spoken languages ceases abruptly the minute the child enters school and is faced with the problem of having to relearn the grammatical structure he uses naturally as a system of rules and exceptions, and with the even more thorny problem of having to learn to read and write what he speaks.

While there is no inherent ease or difficulty in spoken languages to those who acquire them from birth by the natural process, there is a very definite inherent ease or difficulty in writing systems, based upon their link to the language’s spoken sounds. Where there is something approximating sound-for-symbol correspondence, it is easy to learn to read and write. As the system of written symbols diverges from the system of spoken sounds (as in French or English), spelling must be learned the hard way, at the cost of much time and effort. Where there is little or no link between symbols and sounds, as in Chinese, each symbol, representing a thought-concept rather than a sound or cluster of sounds, must be separately memorized.

Secondly, the universal spoken-language ease which characterizes the child disappears at or around the age of ten. Beyond this age, each individual has a subjective problem. To the extent that the language he is trying to acquire is similar in sounds, structure, and vocabulary to his own, he will find it easy. To the extent that it diverges, he will find it hard, because it runs counter to his now thoroughly established language habits. This means that an adult Italian will find it easier to learn Spanish,


which resembles Italian, than he will German, which is quite different. As between a Czech and an American trying to learn Russian, the learning process will be far easier for the Czech, whose language has a structure and vocabulary similar to those of Russian.

Lastly, some languages are fully operational and thoroughly equipped in terms of modern civilization, others are not. English, French, German, Russian, all have a fully developed technical and scientific terminology. Zulu and Sioux do not. It would not be impossible to create the needed modern terminology for Zulu or Sioux, but it would take considerable time and labor. One of the reasons why many speakers of Hindi and Arabic prefer to use English or French for scientific purposes is that the terminology is already there in English and French, while it is still being painfully elaborated in their own native tongues. It is a little bit like saying that all men are equal, but for purposes of operating a computer you would naturally prefer a man with computer training to one who has spent all his life mining coal. This means that despite the theoretical “equality” of all spoken tongues, practical considerations will narrow the range of choice from over 4,000 to comparatively few.

Ideally, the present adult generation should view the international language of the future as something meant primarily for the generations of the future. In practice, it is very difficult for the existing adult generation, which has to make the choice, to divorce itself completely from the subjective aspect of what is easy or difficult, practical or impractical, for itself. Also, the present adult generation will continue to live for many years while the international language is being imparted to the young, becomes operational, and finally goes into high gear.

constructed languages

The history and claims of the major national languages are fairly well known, and need not be repeated here. What is not so well known is the history of constructed languages, which is altogether fascinating.

While few of them have ever gone beyond the blueprint stage, several have had what might be described as a meteoric rise and fall. The early 19th century, for instance, saw Jean-François


Sudré’s Langue Musicale Universelle, or Solresol, which was based on the international names of the musical notes, with all

formed out of combinations of the syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si. Statistically, these combinations yield seven one-syllable words, 49 words of two syllables, 336 of three, 2,268 of four, 9,072 of five, for a total of 11,732 primary words, a respectable vocabulary in any language. Shifts of stress from one syllable to another yielded additional words and separate grammatical forms. The language could be sung, played, or hummed, as well as spoken. It could be written as music. It could be expressed in taps, or even colors. Solresol gained wide acceptance, and was sponsored by such figures as Victor Hugo, Lamartine, von Humboldt, and Napoleon III. But it became, so to speak, extinct in the early years of our century.

Volapük, created by Monsignor Johann Schleyer in 1879, enjoyed considerable vogue for a time, with numerous international congresses at which it was spoken by the delegates. But by 1911 its followers had shrunk to barely one-third the number of those who preferred Dr. Ludwig Zamenhof’s creation, Esperanto.

Interlingua was developed some 30 years ago by a large staff of linguists as the result of the initiative of Mrs. Alice V. Morris, widow of a former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, who financed the project. It employed Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, English, German, and Russian as “pilot” tongues, adapting words that were similar in a majority of these languages. Since Latin and the four modern Romance tongues generally coincided, and were often joined by English and more seldom by German and Russian, the result is that Interlingua is best described as a pan-Romance language. The grammatical structure is also Latin-Romance. It is not generally regarded as a universal spoken language, but as a language to be used mainly in written form at international scientific gatherings.

If a constructed language is to be considered for the international post, Esperanto is deserving of serious consideration. It combines to a superlative degree the four qualities that make constructed languages superior to natural ones: neutrality, standardization, phonetization, and simplicity of grammatical structure and word-formation. Other constructed languages display these same qualities in varying degrees, but none approaches Esperanto


in combining all four. It is, of course, conceivable that with the expenditure of much time and effort something equally good could be worked out, but attempts so far made along this line have not been singularly successful, even where a sizable group of international linguists collaborated for years in constructing such a language, as was the case with Interlingua.


The outstanding advantage of Esperanto among constructed languages lies in the fact that it has been tested and tried, in both spoken and written form, and found to work to a highly satisfactory extent for all sorts of people, not merely language scholars; and that it alone boasts of what may be described as a true speaking population, which has been estimated at anywhere from several hundred thousand to as many as 15,000,000, depending upon standards of proficiency. (As is the case with acquired natural foreign languages, some learners acquire it to perfection, others gain only a smattering for purely practical purposes.) While the proportion of Esperanto speakers varies widely from country to country, there is probably no civilized nation in the world that does not have its Esperantist groups.

Esperanto seems to gain wider acceptance in smaller countries whose languages have no international pretensions, such as Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Yugoslavia; but it is also widely studied in countries speaking one or another of the world’s most important languages, such as Italy, Japan, and Brazil. During the academic year 1965-1966 Esperanto was taught to at least 16,300 students in 427 schools of 37 countries.

Large and numerous Esperantist groups are to be found in the English-speaking nations, particularly in Britain. In the United States, with its vast continental area, interest in an international language is understandably lower. Yet almost every American city has its active and enthusiastic Esperanto groups. The language, which in many countries is taught officially in the public educational system, may be chosen for study in many American elementary and high schools and colleges. In 1968, 50 schools, both elementary and adult, were offering Esperanto classes in such far-flung states as California, Washington, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, and Illinois.


Esperanto’s neutrality, particularly along political lines, is indicated by the fact that it is just as widely studied in Communist countries (USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, mainland China) as it is in the countries of the Western world. Highly successful Esperanto congresses very recently held in such cities as Warsaw, Brussels, Harrogate (England), Tokyo, Budapest, Rotterdam, and Madrid, with the participation of hundreds of delegates from all nations, are perhaps indicative of a receptive attitude on the part of the governments of the countries in which those cities are situated. It would seem that Esperanto is equally acceptable to the East and to the West, and to totalitarian as well as democratic political structures. In 1972 the Esperanto World Congress will be held in Portland, Oregon.

acceptance of esperanto widespread

There are numerous indications of official or semiofficial acceptance of Esperanto within various countries, and even throughout the world.

· Esperanto may be used in international telegrams issuing from any country. There are no fewer than 23 government radio stations, from Spain to mainland China and from Italy to Brazil, which regularly broadcast Esperanto programs.

· In such countries as Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, and Italy, Esperanto is treated on a basis of parity with all foreign languages, to the extent that it is taught as a foreign language in regular school programs, and that public announcements, such as railroad timetables, are inscribed in Esperanto along with English, French, German, and the national language.

· Esperantists in 83 leading countries are united in the Universala Esperanto-Asocio with headquarters in Rotterdam.

· Esperanto has been successfully used as an international tongue in meetings of the international Boy Scout organization.

When an appeal urging support of Esperanto as an international language was made in October, 1966, to the Secretary General of the United Nations, it bore the signatures of over 1,000,000 individuals, including well-known political, literary, and scientific figures, and of nearly 4,000 organizations of all sorts representing 71,000,000 members. It was pointed out on that occasion that the use of five official languages and many unofficial


ones by the U.N. involved expenditures Of $18,000,000 a year, all or most of which could be saved and used for more constructive purposes if an international language were agreed upon and put into operation.

The international business world views Esperanto with favor. Advertising often appears in that language, which is regularly used by Italian Fiat in its international announcements. Business conferences at which Esperanto was the language used have frequently been held, notably in Italy, Japan, Brazil, Poland, and Yugoslavia.

Esperanto has become not only a fully spoken, popular language but also a written, cultural, and scientific tongue. Over 30,000 books and lengthy articles on all subjects are already available in the language. Some are translations from the national languages, others fully original works, in prose and poetry. Also available are over 130 technical vocabularies and dictionaries covering at least 50 branches of science, technology, philosophy, and other specialized subjects.

enthusiastic adherents

One of the outstanding features of the Esperanto movement is the enthusiastic and optimistic outlook of its adepts, as well as their views on the purpose and function of their tongue. They do not envisage it, as do some of the advocates of other constructed languages (notably Interlingua), as a language to appear chiefly in written form for use at scientific congresses, but as a fully operational spoken and written tongue for the masses as well as the intellectuals, something that may prove useful and beneficial to the semiliterate migrant worker as well as to the itinerant scholar. Theirs is an attitude which is democratic in the most liberal and noblest sense of the word. They advocate a common international language for everybody, not just for a chosen few. To this may be added their refreshing spirit of comradeship and helpfulness toward all who believe in “one language for the world.” The little green star in your lapel is your passport to unbounded assistance and hospitality from Esperantists in all lands, whether you are fully proficient in the language or have merely an interest in the solution of one of the world’s most pressing problems.



Esperanto is the creation of Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), a Polish Jew born in Bialystok, who was inspired by the hope that the use of a common language might reduce the antagonisms and tensions caused by the language barrier among people of different stocks and cultural backgrounds forced to live in close proximity. Esperanto means “one who hopes,” and was the pseudonym used by Zamenhof in his first presentation of his created language in 1887.

The language has a simple and harmonious sound-structure combined with absolute sound-for-symbol correspondence in its written form, so that problems of pronunciation and spelling are cut down to a minimum. The five vowels (a, e, i, o, u,) are “pure” vowels (without the off-glide heard, for instance, in English o). The sounds approximate English father, met, machine, go, rule. The plosive consonants (or stops) are p, b, t, d, k, g (the last always as in go, never as in general). The affricates are c (English its); ĉ (English catch); ĝ (English bridge). The fricatives are f, v, s, (always as in sing, never as in rose), z (English zone), ŝ (as in shut), ĵ (as in measure, or French Jean), ĥ (as in Bach, or Scottish loch; this is a sound of very infrequent occurrence), h (as in house). The liquids are l (as in large), r (trilled, as in Spanish raro).

The nasals are m and n (the English ng of sing appears as a positional variant of n before k and g, but is represented by n, as in English anchor). The semivowels, or glides, are j (English yes, boy) and ŭ (English bow; this sound appears as an off-glide, but not as an on-glide, as in English west).

Permissible diphthongs, with an on-glide, are ja, je, jo, ju (English yacht, yet, yore, Yule); with an off-glide, aj, ej, oj, uj (English eye, late, boy, phooey); , (English loud, Spanish Europa). Any two vowels occurring in succession are given full and separate value, and not merged into a diphthong (kiel, for example, is pronounced KEE-el, not KEEL or KYEL). The stress is invariably on the next-to-last syllables in words of two or more syllables. Objection is occasionally raised to the use of suprascript characters (ĉ, ĝ, ŝ, ,ĵ ĥ, ŭ) on the ground that they complicate printing and typing problems, but most languages other


than English do employ such marks. On the other hand, the letters q, w, x, y never appear.

The grammatical system is characterized by full recognition of separate parts of speech, which is predominantly a feature of Indo-European and Semitic languages. The definite article, invariable, as in English, Hebrew, or Hungarian, is la. All nouns, without exception, end in -o, all adjectives in -a (this is at first a bit confusing to speakers of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, who are accustomed to regard the -o ending as masculine, the -a as feminine, but it does not take long for them to get used to the use of these vowels to distinguish parts of speech instead of genders). Both nouns and adjectives form their plural by adding -j (la bona akvo, the good water; la bonaj akvoj, the good waters). The direct object of a verb (but not of a preposition) adds an accusative ending, -n (Mi deziras la bonan akvon, la bonajn akvojn, I want the good water, the good waters).

Without exception, all verb infinitives end in -i (deziri, to want). The present tense ends in ‑as, for all persons and both numbers; these are indicated by the use of the subject pronoun, practically as in English (mi deziras, I want; vi deziras, you want; li deziras, he wants); the past tense ends in ‑is (mi deziris, I wanted); the future tense in ‑os (li deziros, he will want); the imperative ends in ‑u (parolu!, speak!). The negative is formed by putting ne before the verb (mi ne parolis, I did not speak). For the interrogative, prefix ĉu, an untranslatable particle, to the sentence, unless an interrogative word such as “when?,” “where?,” “how?” appears (Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? Do you speak Esperanto?).

All adverbs in Esperanto uniformly end in ‑e (alta, high; alte, highly). The comparative degree of both adjectives and adverbs is formed by prefixing pli, more (pli bona akvo, better water; parolu pli bone, speak better); the superlative by prefixing la plej (la plej alta domo, the highest house; li parolis la plej bone, he spoke best).

Numerals (not declined) are unu (1); du (2); tri (3); kvar (4); kvin (5); ses (6); sep (7); ok (8); naŭ (9); dek (10); cent (100); mil (1,000); add ‑a to form ordinals (la unua domo, the first house), which are declined as adjectives (Mi vidis la unuan domon, I saw the first house).


Personal pronouns are mi (I), vi (you), li (he), ŝi (she), ĝi (it), ni (we), vi (you, plural), ili (they), oni (one, someone). Add -n for use as direct objects of verbs (mi vidis vin, I saw you); add  ‑a to form possessive adjectives (mia patro, my father; Mi vidis miajn gepatrojn, I saw my parents).

The vocabulary of Esperanto is “neutral” to the extent that it does not coincide with that of any national language or language group. It does, however, lean rather heavily in the direction of Latin, Greek, and the Romance and Germanic tongues, with little participation from Slavic, Oriental, or African tongues, save insofar as words from these tongues have already gained a measure of international acceptance. There is, in addition, a curious element of arbitrary choice. Why krajono for pencil, when French is the only Romance language using this root? Why birdo for bird, which is strictly English, with other Germanic languages using the root that appears in “fowl”? But this is a very minor point, and can be easily remedied by the addition of synonyms, with possible semantic differentiation and consequent increase in vocabulary range and effectiveness.

On the plus side of the ledger are features of “hidden internationality” which escape the casual observer. The invariable definite article is, as we have seen, reminiscent of English, Semitic, and Hungarian usage. The formation of noun and adjective plurals (­oj, ‑aj) is reminiscent of Greek.

The system of word formation by the insertion of successive suffixes is not only highly practical for vocabulary expansion, but also characteristic of languages of the Uralic and Altaic families (Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish). The infix ‑in‑, for instance, is used to form feminine nouns from masculines (patro, father; patrino, mother; knabo, boy; knabino, girl; ŝtelisto, thief; ŝtelistino, woman thief; policano, policeman; policanino, policewoman). The suffix ‑ej‑ indicates a place where a given action occurs (lerni, to learn; lernejo, school) ; ‑estr‑ indicates head or leader (ŝipo, ship; ŝipestro, ship captain, skipper); ‑‑ indicates the beginning of an action, or becoming (sana, well; saniĝi, to become well; dormi, to sleep; endormiĝi, to go to sleep, fall asleep). Esperanto also makes use of prefixes, of which perhaps the most characteristic is mal‑, to indicate the opposite of a given quality (varma, warm; malvarma, cold; plena, full; malplena, empty;


amiko, friend; malamiko, enemy; permesi, to allow; malpermesi, to forbid) .

This ingenious, yet thoroughly logical system of expansion by prefixes and suffixes affords not only the possibility of infinite vocabulary expansion and the bringing out of the most delicate shades of meaning for thoroughly literary use, but also that of predictability on the part of the learner as to what form a certain concept will take, and of the learner’s being able to analyze a word he has never seen or heard before and figure out its correct and precise meaning.

This combination of internationality and neutrality, relative ease (at least for a very large number of speakers of national languages), and logical, predictable formation is perhaps what has most contributed to the widespread international acceptance of Esperanto.

a sample

Esperantists have participated actively in the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which makes it fitting to publish Article 2 from that U.N. document with its reference to lingual discrimination.


Artikolo 2. Ĉiuj rajtoj kaj liberecoj difinitaj en tiu ĉi Deklaracio validas same por ĉiuj homoj, sen kia ajn diferencigo, ĉu laŭ raso, haŭtkoloro, sekso, lingvo, religio, politika aŭ alia opinio, nacia aŭ socia deveno, posedaĵoj, naskiĝo aŭ alia stato. Plie, nenia diferencigo estu farata surbaze de la politika, jurisdikcia aŭ internacia pozicio de la lando aŭ teritorio, al kiu apartenas la koncerna persono, senkonsi-


Article 2. All rights and liberties defined in this Declaration are valid alike for all men, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a per-


dere ĉu ĝi estas sendependa, sub kuratoreco, ne-sinreganta aŭ sub kia ajn alia limigo de la suvereneco. 

son belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or tinder any other limitation of sovereignty.


Boulton, M. “Esperanto” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968 ed. (Reprint of article available from Esperanto Information Center [E.I.C.]. New York. 2 p., 10¢.)

Boulton, Marjorie. Zamenhof, Creator of Esperanto. London: Routledge, 1968. 222 p., $5.00.*

Esperanto Newsletter. New York: Esperanto League for North America. Bimonthly. 8 p., $2.00.*

Gode, A. and Blair, E. Interlingua: A Grammar of the International Language. New York, Storm, 1951. 118 p., $3.50.

La Monda Lingvo-Problemo. Articles in the major languages with summaries in Esperanto. The Hague: Mouton. 3 issues yearly, 64 p., $7.00.

Lapenna, Ivo. The Language Problem in International Relations. London: Research and Documentation Center, 1963, 24 p., 50¢.*

Pei, Mario. One Language for the World. New York: Devin-Adair, 1958. 386 p., $9.00. (A condensed paperback edition is in preparation.)

________. What’s in a Word? New York: Hawthorn, 1968. 238 p., $5.95.

Richards, I. A. Basic English and Its Uses. New York: Norton, 1943. 143 p., $2.00.

Tonkin, Humphrey. A Research Bibliography on Esperanto and International Language Problems. 2nd ed. New York: J.E.N., 1969. 14 p., 50¢.*

UNESCO. Scientific and Technical Translating and Other Aspects of the Language Problem. Paris and Geneva: UNESCO, 1957. $4.00.

* Available through Esperanto Information Centers.


where to write

Esperanto Information Center, 156 Fifth Ave., Rm. 821, New York, N. Y. 10010.

West Coast Esperanto Information Center, 410 Darrell Rd., Hillsboro, Cal. 94010. (Specializes in teaching aids.)

Both centers supply general information on Esperanto and on classes, correspondence courses, textbooks, dictionaries, pronunciation tapes and disks, books of poetry, fiction, scientific works, etc. Both are agencies of the Esperanto League for North America (E.L.N.A.), a membership organization which sponsors national and regional conferences and issues a newsletter. It is affililiated to the worldwide Universala Esperanto-‑Asocio.

Interingual Sevices, Dr. Alexander Gode, 80 East 11 St., New York, N. Y. 10003.

J.E.N. (Organization of Esperanto-speaking Young Americans), 21 Tryon Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19146.

Language Research Inc., Christine Gibson, 13 Kirkland St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138. (Basic English.)

Research and Documentation Center on the World Language Problem. 77 Grasmere Ave., Wembly, Middlesex, England. Scholarly documents on all phases of language problems.

Universala Esperanto-Asocio, Nieuwe Binnenweg 176, Rotterdam 2, Netherlands. Issues monthly journal, “Esperanto” ($5.25 per year), a 64-page book catalog (available from E.I.C. for 50¢), and a yearbook with delegate listings in 63 countries. The U.E.A. Chief Delegate in the United States is Donald E. Parrish, 328 W. 46th St., Los Angeles, Cal. 90037


SOURCE: Pei, Mario. Wanted: A World Language. New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1969. Public Affairs Pamphlet No. 434. 21 pp.

See also . . . on this site:

Circular: Letter to Floyd Hardin, October 3, 1958 from Mario Pei

. . . offsite:

One Language for the World by Mario Pei
Parts 1 and 3 .
Complete text available to Questia subscribers.
Table of contents and other snippets at Google Books.

Samples of multiple planned languages by Mario Pei (from One Language for the World)

See also record album One Language for the World (1961) and liner notes.

Mario Pei, “One Language for the World?”, The UNESCO Courier, November 1963, pp. 23, 26-27.

See also “Language is the Key to the Heart of a Nation”: Letter to the editor by Magda Staudinger, p. 33. Emphasizes importance of learning foreign languages, in response to proposal for adoption of Esperanto.

International Language Review (issues listing + selected contents)

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

On other sites:

Mario Pei @ Ĝirafo

Mario Pei - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mario Pei - Vikipedio

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