The History of Writing and Reading – Part 24: Featural Scripts (part 2 of 3)

[Editor’s note: This is the twenty-fifth of an ongoing series that examines the rise of writing – and therefore reading – around the world. We will be looking at the major developments and forces that shaped the written languages we use today. Links to all the previous posts are listed at the end of this one.]

According to Dr. Marc Zender, a visiting professor of anthropology at Tulane University and an expert on the history of writing systems, “Featural scripts were designed to be featural scripts. Beyond that, a featural script can be applied to write any language, just like a natural script can. [These] serve as a useful reminder that language isn’t the same thing at all as writing. When we also remember that Old English was written in runes and that Modern English can be written in Braille, we’re less likely to equate our language with our writing system, and perhaps more willing to entertain options for its improvement or alteration in the future.”[1]

Esperanto is an international auxiliary language invented in 1887 by Polish ophthalmologist Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (1859–1917), under the pseudonym of “Doktoro Esperanto.” His original name for the language was “La Internacia Lingvo” (The International Language), but it soon became known as Esperanto, which translates to “the hoping one.”

Esperanto was actually born of hope – a hope for world peace. Zamenhof was born in Bialystok which at that time was home to a multiethnic mixture of Poles, Russians, Jews, Lithuanians, and Germans. He believed that much of the distrust and misunderstanding between these different groups was a result of language differences stemming from different histories, politics, and power struggles.  In the late 1800s, an artificial language called Volapük was all the rage, spoken by almost a million people across Europe. Zamenhof, though, dismissed it as too difficult to speak (the Esperanto word for “gibberish” is still “volapukaĵo”), and by the late 1880s it was coming apart. Esperanto would be a fresh start, he thought, a new lingua franca that would allow its speakers to sidestep the difficulties of natural languages altogether; as a result, Zamenhof made it as easy to learn as possible. There are no irregular verbs; the vocabulary comes primarily from Latin and the Romance languages, as well as some English, German, Polish, and Russian; and it uses a simple, genderless, almost caseless grammar.[2]

The language in inflected – that is, 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.

Esperanto spelling conventions are somewhat similar to Polish, though Zamenhof came up with some additional letters (Ĉĉ, Ĝĝ, Ĥĥ, Ĵĵ, Ŝŝ, Ŭŭ). These letters are often replaced with ch, gh, jh or cx, gx, jx, or c’, g’, j’, etc. Zamenhof, himself, favored using ch, gh, etc. when the special letters were not available.

The Esperanto alphabet and pronunciation

The sound of Esperanto

Zamenhof’s initial work on Esperanto, the “Unua Libro,” or “First Book,” was published in 1887. It contained 920 roots from which tens of thousands of words could be formed, along with the Fundamental Grammar, or “Fundamenta Gramatiko,” which listed 16 basic grammatical rules. Zamenhof renounced all rights to Esperanto and encouraged comments and suggestions on the development of the language. In 1905, the first Universal Esperanto Congress (La Unua Universala Esperanto Kongreso) was held at Boulogne-sur-Mer. Six hundred eighty-eight people showed up to discuss their new language in their new language, and at least one convention has been held every year since then, with the exception of the cumulative 10 years of the two World Wars. Conventions remain the major feature of the Esperanto speakers’ social calendar. [3]

Today Esperanto is the most widely used international auxiliary language and is particularly popular in Eastern Europe, China, and Brazil. There are approximately 1,000 native speakers, while 10,000 people can speak it fluently, 100,000 can use it actively, and about 10 million have studied it to some extent. Esperanto literature includes books, magazines, and poetry, with some originally written in Esperanto while others were translated into Esperanto from other languages. Some radio stations broadcast Esperanto news bulletins, and there have been at least four full-length feature films in the language, including the 1966 horror flick “Incubus” starring William Shatner. While definitely an active language, it never caught on to the extent that Zamenhof hoped.

What does Esperanto as a written language look like? Here’s one example:

Ĉiuj homoj naskiĝas liberaj kaj egalaj en digno kaj rajtoj. Ili posedas racion kaj konsciencon, kaj devus konduti unu la alian en spirito en frateco.


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Next up: Featural Scripts, Part 2



[1] Zender, Marc. (2013). “Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity.” The Great Courses Lecture DT2241.

[2] Dean, Sam. (May 29, 2015). How an artificial language from 1887 is finding new life online. Retrieved from

[3] Ager, Simon. (2018). “Esperanto.” Retrieved from



To read Part 1 (Sumerians), click here.

To read Part 2 (Egyptian hieroglyphs), click here.

To read Part 3A (Indo-European languages part 1), click here.

To read Part 3B (Indo-European languages part 2), click here.

To read Part 4 (Rosetta Stone), click here.

To read Part 5 (Chinese writing), click here.

To read Part 6 (Japanese writing), click here.

To read Part 7 (Olmecs), click here.

To read Part 8 (Mayans), click here.

To read Part 9 (Aztecs/Nahuatl), click here.

To read Part 10 (Etruscans), click here.

To read Part 11 (Meroïtic), click here.

To read Part 12 (Runes and Futhark), click here.

To read Part 13 (Musical Notation), click here.

To read Part 14 (Printing, Part 1), click here.

To read Part 15 (Printing, Part 2), click here.

To read Part 16 (Printing, Part 3), click here.

To read Part 17 (Origins of English, Part 1), click here.

To read Part 18 (Origins of English, Part 2), click here.

To read Part 19 (Origins of English part 3), click here.

To read Part 20 (Origins of English, Part 4), click here.

To read Part 21 (Printing and the Digital Age), click here.

To read Part 22 (Music’s Later Developments), click here.

To read Part 23 (Featural Scripts, Part 1), click here.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

Leave a Reply