Esperanto is an international auxiliary language devised in 1887 by Dr. Ludovic Lazar Zamenhof (1859-1917), a Jewish Eye Doctor, under the pseudonym of "Doktoro Esperanto". He originally called the language "La Internacia Lingvo" (The International Language), but it soon became known as Esperanto, which means "the hoping one".
Zamenhof was born in the Polish city of Bialystok which at that time was home to a polyglot, multiethnic mixture of Poles, Russians, Jews, Lithuanians and Germans. He believed that much of the distrust and misunderstanding between the different ethnic groups was a result of language differences, so he resolved to create an international language which could be used as an neutral lingua franca and could help break down the language barriers.
Zamenhof's first work on Esperanto, the "Unua Libro" (First Book) published in 1887, contained 920 roots from which tens of thousands of words could be formed, together with the "Fundamenta Gramatiko" (Grammatical Foundations), which consisted of 16 basic grammatical rules. Zamenhof renounced all rights to Esperanto and encouraged comments and suggestions on the development of the language. The first Universal Esperanto Congress (La Unua Universala Esperanto Kongreso) was held at Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1905.
The majority of Esperanto roots are based on Latin, though some vocabulary is taken from modern Romance languages, and from English, German, Polish and Russian. Roots can be combined with affixes to form new words, for example: lerni = to learn, lernejo = a school, lernanto = a pupil/student, lernejestro = a headmaster. The affixes can also stand alone: ejo = place, estro = leader/head, etc.
Spelling conventions are somewhat similar to Polish, though Zamenhof came up with a number of new letters for Esperanto (Ĉĉ, Ĝĝ, Ĥĥ, Ĵĵ, Ŝŝ, Ŭŭ). These new letters are not used to write any other langauge and only feature in special Esperanto fonts or in Unicode fonts, so are often replaced with ch, gh, jh or cx, gx, jx, or c', g', j', etc. Zamenhof recognised this problem and favoured using the former method when the special letters were not available.
Today Esperanto is the most widely used international auxiliary language and is particularly popular in Eastern Europe and China. There is a flourishing Esperanto literature including books, magazines and poetry. Some of the literary works are originally written in Esperanto while others are translated from other languages. There are also Esperanto songs and a number of radio stations broadcast news bulletins in Esperanto.
There are approximately 1,000 native speakers of Esperanto, 10,000 people can speak Esperanto fluently, 100,000 can use it actively, 1 million understand a lot of Esperanto, and about 10 million have studied it to some extent.