Friday, October 3, 2014

A Dictionary for Esperanto

I'm envious.
I want a number
Esperanto was, in a way, born with a dictionary, which is not too surprising for a planned language.[1] Also not surprising is that the dictionary is a fairly modest one of about a thousand words. Zamenhof knew this was inadequate and set forth procedures by which new words could be added to the language. The initial word list, the Universala Vortaro, takes the form of a root, followed by the word in French, English, German, Russian, and Polish.[2]

This was handy if you wanted to look up an Esperanto word and figure out its equivalent in one of the other languages (typically, your own), but wasn’t so good if you wanted to look up a word in your own language and find out what it was in Esperanto. In 1908, Joseph Rhodes answered that need.

And on October 3, 1908, the New York Sun wrote about it.
Esperanto has reached the point where it calls for lexicons, and Mr. Joseph Rhodes in an “English Esperanto Dictionary” (Fleming H. Revell Company) of over 500 doubled columned pages provides Esperanto equivalents for English words. With pardonable pride he shows at the end three pages of Esperanto roots that he has coined himself.
This precedes the first defining dictionary by more than two years. The Vortaro de Esperanto of Kazimierz Bein (“Kabe”) wouldn’t appear until 1911, and holds the honor of being the first defining dictionary of Esperanto. Here’s how Kabe defined acero (maple):
Acero (Bot.) Arbo el la samnoma familio; ĝia ligno estas uzata en multaj metioj.
This is a little unsatisfying, since it works out to:
Maple Tree of the family of the same name; its wood is used in many trades.
In defense of Esperanto dictionaries, although I’ve seen a few mediocre definitions in Plena Ilustrita Vortaro,[3] their definition of acero is a good definition. But before there was a PIV, there was this one, Rhodes dictionary of 1908. On the title page, Mr. Rhodes notes some interesting things. First, his dictionary is:
Based upon the “Fundamento,” the Esperanto Literature, and the National-Esperanto Dictionaries Bearing Dr. Zamenhof’s “aprobo.”
These dictionaries are probably what are listed in early publication lists as “malgranda vortaro de la lingo Esperanto,” a set of dictionaries that translated Esperanto into Russian, Polish, French, and English, all prepared by Dr. Zamenhof. He also prepared a Granda vortaro germana-esperanta. In these early lists, the name of the language is on a few occasions given as “Lingvo Internacia,” as in Weltsprachliche Zeit-und Streifragen. Volapük und Ligvo Internacia, by one L. Einstein.[4]

Then there’s his number: Esperantisto 5260. In the early days of the Esperanto movement, they gave out numbers. You could send in to be a registered Esperantist and your name went into a book (which you could buy). These ran for at least twenty-five volumes, with the last name in that volume being #11,199.[5] I’ve only seen a few volumes, with the latest of those the twenty-third volume, in which the last name is #7699. The individual who closed out that volume was Etienne Parizot, curé de la Madeleine, Montpezat de Quercy, Tarn-et-Garonne, Francujo. Mr. Rhodes was in volume 21.

The review noted that the Mr. Rhodes ends with three pages of his own coinages. This is clearly a temptation, if not a necessity, for any complier of an Esperanto translating dictionary. The Comprehensive English Esperanto Dictionary, by Peter Benson (1995) contains several pages of neologisms, which he notes were coined when no Esperanto word existed for the English word, or a lengthy paraphrase would be needed.

In Mr. Rhodes case, despite that he was on the Lingvo Komitato (language committee), the predecessor of the Akademio de Esperanto, a quick scan of his word list shows that many of his coinages weren’t accepted. They are not in PIV. Some were, but generally it’s a case where the choice was obvious. So mefito “skunk,” but not *kanoao for "canoe" (PIV gives kanuo). Still, even if the Esperanto world didn’t accept all of his coinages, it was a start. The language was growing.

  1. Whereas the natural languages have to wait for theirs.  ↩
  2. A sample entry:
    acer’ érable | maple | Ahorn | кленъ | klon.  ↩
  3. The comprehensive Esperanto dictionary, last updated in 2005, available on the web at  ↩
  4. That was book #20. The 15th book is also by L. Einstein with the title La Lingvo Internacia als beste Lösung des internationalen Weltsprache-Problems. Vorwort, Grammatik und Styl nebst Stammwörter-Verzeichniss nach den Entwurf des pseudonymen Dr. Esperanto. That's Leopold Einstein, by the way. Probably not related to Albert.  ↩
  5. Maybe there was a twenty-sixth volume, since stopping one shy of 11,200 seems an incredible coincidence.  ↩

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