Created by L. L. Zamenhof
Date 1878–1881
Setting and usage international auxiliary language
Users None
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

Proto-Esperanto (Esperanto: Pra-Esperanto) is the modern term for any of the stages in the evolution of L. L. Zamenhof's language project, prior to the publication of his Unua Libro in 1887.

The Lingwe uniwersala of 1878

As a child, Zamenhof had the idea to introduce an international auxiliary language for communication between different nationalities. He originally wanted to revive some form of simplified Latin or Greek, but as he grew older he came to believe that it would be better to create a new language for his purpose. During his teenage years he worked on a language project until he thought it ready for public demonstration. On December 17, 1878 (about one year before the first publication of Volapük), Zamenhof celebrated his birthday and the birth of the language with some friends, who liked the project. Zamenhof himself called his language Lingwe Uniwersala ("world language").

W is used for v. Otherwise, all modern Esperanto letters are attested apart from ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ, ŭ. Known verb forms are present , imperative , infinitive -are.[1] Nouns were marked by -e in the singular and -es in the plural; the article was singular la and plural las. It appears that there was no accusative case, and that stress was as in modern Esperanto, except when marked, as in and .

Only four lines of the Lingwe uniwersala stage of the language from 1878 remain, from an early song that Zamenhof composed:

   Malamikete de las nacjes,    Enmity of nations,
   Kadó, kadó, jam temp' está; Fall, Fall, it is time!;
   La tot' homoze in familje All humanity in a family
   Konunigare so debá. Must unite.

In modern Esperanto, this would be,

Malamikeco de la nacioj,
Falu, falu, jam temp' estas;
La tuta homaro en familion
Unuiĝi [= kununuigi sin] devas.

Jam temp' está remains an idiom in modern Esperanto, an allusion to this song.

The Lingvo universala of 1881

While at university, Zamenhof handed his work over to his father, Mordechai, for safe-keeping until he had completed his medical studies. His father, not understanding the ideas of his son and perhaps anticipating problems from the Tsarist police, burned the work. Zamenhof did not discover this until he returned from university in 1881, at which point he restarted his project. A sample from this second phase of the language is this extract of a letter from 1881:

Ma plej kara [ami] miko, kvan ma plekulpa plumo faktidźas tiranno pu to. Mo poté de cen taj brivoj kluri, ke sciigoj de [tuc fuc] fu-ći specco debé[j] blessi tal fradral kordol; mo vel vidé tol jam ...

Modern: Mia plej kara amiko, neniam mia senkulpa plumo fariĝus tirano por ci. Mi povas de cent ciaj leteroj konkludi, kiel sciigoj de tiu-ĉi speco devas vundi cian fratan koron; mi kvazaŭ vidas cin jam ...

(My dearest friend, never (lit. 'when') would my innocent pen become a tyrant for you. From a hundred of your letters I can conclude that announcements of this kind must wound your brotherly heart; I [can] already see you thus...)

By this time the letter v had replaced w for the [v] sound; verbal inflection for person and number had been dropped; the nominal plural was -oj in place of -es (as well as adjectival -a and adverbial -e); and the noun cases were down to the current two (though a genitive -es survives today in the correlatives). The accusative case suffix was -l, but in many cases was only used on pronouns:

Ful-ći rudźo e ful-ći fiaro debá kini la princaŭ (Tiun-ĉi rozon kaj tiun-ĉi najtingalon devadis ricevi la princino) 'The princess needed to receive this rose and this nightingale'.

Beside the stronger Slavic flavor of the orthography (ć, dź, h́, ś, ź for ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ŝ, ĵ) compared to the modern language, the imperfective verb forms (present and imperfect) still had final stress:

present tense , imperfect , preterite -u, future -uj, conditional -as, jussive , and infinitive -i.

The pronouns ended in a nominal o (or adjectival a for possessives: mo "I", ma "my"), but there were other differences as well, including a conflation of 'he' and 'it':

1881 pronounssingularplural
1st personmono
2nd persontovo
3rd masc./neut.ropo
3rd feminineśo
3rd reflexiveso

In addition, there was indefinite o 'one'.

The correlatives were similarly close, though it is not clear if there was a distinction between indefinite and relative forms (modern i- and ki-; these may have corresponded to kv- and k-) and no possessive forms are known:

ti- fo fu fa fi fej fe fan
ki- / i- kvo,

ĉi- ćio ćiu ćii ćian
neni- fio fiu fian

The last row was evidently pronounced as fj-.

Esperanto at this stage had a consonantal ablaut in verbs, with a voiceless consonant for an attempt at something, and a voiced consonant for success. For example, aŭti to listen (for), aŭdi to hear; trofi to look for, trovi to find; prufi to argue (a point), pruvi to prove. Traces of this remain in a few pairs of words such as pesi 'to weigh (an item)' and pezi 'to weigh (have weight)' (cf. their derivatives pesilo 'scales' & pezilo 'a weight').[2]

Transition to the modern Esperanto of 1887

Zamenhof refined his ideas for the language for the next several years. Most of his refinements came through translation of literature and poetry in other languages. The final stress in the verb conjugations was rejected in favour of always stressing the second-last vowel, and the old plural -s on nouns became a marker of finite tenses on verbs, with an imperfect -es remaining until just before publication. The Slavic-style acute diacritics became circumflexes to avoid overt appearances of nationalism, and the new bases of the letters ĵ, ĝ (for former ź, dź) helped preserve the appearance of Romance and Germanic vocabulary.

In 1887 Zamenhof finalized his tinkering with the publication of the Unua Libro ("First Book"), which contained the Esperanto language as we know it today. In a letter to Nikolai Borovko he later wrote,

I've worked for six years perfecting and testing the language, when in the year 1878 it had already seemed completely ready to me.

Additional reading

Gaston Waringhien, in his book Lingvo kaj Vivo (Language and Life), analyzed the evolution of the language through manuscripts from 1881, 1882, and 1885.

See also


  1. Zamenhof appears to have not distinguished acute and grave accents in his orthography (Kiselman 2010:53).
  2. Kiselman (2010:64–65)
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