Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Esperanto — More than a Million! Really?

Entschuldigen, wie viele?
It’s a difficult question to figure out just how many Esperanto speakers there are. The usual ways of figuring out estimates of speakers just don’t work. It’s not like there’s a discrete population of Esperanto natives; Esperanto speakers instead are spread out across the world, something the the Deutsche Correspondent already knew in 1907. Since it’s entirely possible for an Esperanto speaker to be fairly active without ending up on any sort of list or tabulation (many Esperanto speakers see little reason to join groups), any estimates are going to be somewhat vague. Current estimates put the number of Esperanto speakers between 100,000 and 2 million, part of which depends on what level of competence you’re looking for.

The Internet has been good to Esperantists, while at the same time probably not being all that good for Esperanto organizations. What’s the sense of learning a language if you’re never going to use it? (Although I’m sure there’s someone out there who decided that his or her only use of Esperanto would be for keeping a journal.) The Internet has provided many ways for Esperanto speakers to contact each other, a role where the organizations used to predominate. Of course, many organizations have the problem of figuring out their roles in the Age of Internet. It seems at times that Esperanto-USA and the UEA are happy to have the roles of planning conventions and selling books, losing sight of the larger ideal of promoting Esperanto.

In 1907, Esperanto was coming up on the twentieth anniversary of the Unua Libro, but according to the Deutsche Correspondent, it had spent all but the five or six years in total obscurity. Their article of March 11, 1907 is particularly interesting for offering an estimate of the number of Esperanto speakers at that time, one that was almost certainly wildly inaccurate.

Daß man mit einem Achselzucken an der Weltsprachen-Idee nicht mehr vorüber kann, beweist die Ausbreitung des Esperanto. Wenn man bedenkt, daß das Esperanto erst seit 5 bis 6 Jahren aus der Verborgenheit herausgetreten ist, daß es gegen Vorurtheil und Reaktion zu kämpfen hatte, daß es, wenigstens bis heute, nur ein, wenn auch schönes, Ideal war, und wenn man dann die Erfolge dieser 5 bis 6 Jahren dagegen hält, so muß man wirklich staunen. Die Esperantisten zählen heute cirka 1 ½ Millionen über die Ganze Erde vertheilte Anhänger, die Sprache ist in 28 Nationalsprachen übersetzt, es erscheinen 36 Zeitschriften und Zeitungen in Esperanto, sast jeder Tag bringt ein neues Lehrbuch, eine Broschüre, eine größeres literarisches Werk.

The spread of Esperanto proves that you can’t shrug your shoulders at the idea of a world language. If you consider that Esperanto only emerged from obscurity 5 of 6 years ago, and had to fight against prejudice and opposition of this one beautiful idea, you have to be amazed at the success of these last years. There are approximately 1 ½ million Esperantists distributed across the earth, the language is translated into 28 national languages, 36 magazines and newspapers are published in Esperanto, and almost every day brings a new textbook, brochure, and a larger body of literature. [Translation mine with the help of Google Translate.]
One-and-a-half million? Where did they get that idea? It seems to run counter to the actual documentation that the Esperantists were producing. The Tutmonda Jarlibro for 1906 (which would have been the last before the article in the Deutsche Correspondent) has a list of Esperantists that ends with the number 13,103. In order for the Deutsche Correspondent’s estimate to hold true, each Esperantist who had sent in his or her address (from 1877 onward) would have been one in roughly 11,500 who had learned the language. It seems a little unreasonable. For that matter, the estimated world population in 1907 was 1.7 billion, meaning that Esperanto speakers were just below 0.09% of the world’s population. (And with population growth, an estimate of 2 million, drops that percentage to below 0.03%)

It’s not quite clear what the source of the number was. Then again, in 1903, the Saint Paul Globe estimated that there were 80,000 Esperantists in the world (a good deal more believable than 1.5 million), but even then, that would have meant that the Adresaro de Esperantistoj represented only one Esperantist out of ten. While I’m perfectly willing to believe that today (it’s noted that only about 20,000 people belong to various Esperanto groups, a number that is just a little larger than the number of people in the largest Esperanto group on Facebook), it seems a little less credible for an era when getting your name into one of these directories was about your only hope for finding someone else who had caught the Esperanto bug.

For the two numbers to be correct, also would mean that there was phenomenal growth in the number of Esperanto speakers in just four years. Just where did more-than-a-million Esperanto speakers come from? Why does nothing in the Esperanto movement show signs of this? Instead, the 1904 Jarlibro adds 1,560 Esperantists, another 1,938 in 1905, and just 1,901 in 1907.

The question of the number of Esperantists in the world has always been a difficult one, and that difficulty is liable to persist, unless the day comes when Zamenhof’s dream is realized and Esperanto is used as the means of communication between people of different languages.
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