1989 oktobro 24
David Wolff
((address deleted))

Estimata Samideano Wolff,

Vian leteron mi ricevis kiam mi atingis la hejmon post longa vojaĝo. Nun, pli ol du monatojn post vi sendis ĝin, mi respondas -- eble multe tro ma1frue por helpi vin pri viaj respondoj al redaktoraj demandoj. Supoze, vi respondus al demandoj en la angla lingvo, do mi provizas informon en tiu lingvo.

((Dear Fellowthinker Wolff,

I received your letter when I reached home after a long trip. Now, more than two months after you sent it, I am responding -- possibly much too late to help you with your replies to editor’s questions. Presumably you would respond to questions in the English language, so I am providing information in that language.))

The material in the World Almanac table is obtained from a wide variety of sources -- linguistic censuses, governmental reports, correspondence with field linguists, demographic projections, and many others. Esperanto is one of several languages for which almost no adequate bases for estimates are generally available. I therefore started to make my own surveys, using procedures which I shall outline briefly.

Since an actual count of the number of speakers of Esperanto is entirely impracticable, I used techniques similar to those employed in polling.

The first of these sampling surveys, made in France in 1958-59, is fairly typical of dozens of others made subsequently. I first took a random sample consisting of fourteen of the ninety-eight Departments into which France was then divided for administrative purposes. Two of these (Oran and Constantine) were in Algeria. Since repeated efforts to gain permission from the French government to go to Algeria were unsuccessful because of the undeclared war then in progress, I was forced to select (randomly) two Departments from the Hexagon ((note 1)) in substitution. I mention this minor matter only to emphasize that almost without exception some deviation from strict sampling procedure is unavoidable.

I then visited each of these Departments and interviewed several active Esperantists, for example, the delegates of the Universal Esperanto Association, members of Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda listed in their yearbook, and members of other Esperanto organizations whose addresses had been given to me. Each interviewed person was asked to estimate how many speakers of Esperanto were in the Department. I then attempted to make an actual count by following every lead provided by the persons interviewed and by old editions of yearbooks (hoping to pick up speakers who had been long inactive). In two randomly selected Departments I made an extremely thorough search, staying about one month in each of them. In each Department I was able to locate about twice as many speakers as had been known to the persons interviewed.

Having asked each interviewed person to estimate how many speakers in all there were in the Department, I was able to compare the median and the mean of their estimates with the count and found that the medians were in excellent agreement with the counts but that the means were much too high, usually because of one or two unreasonably optimistic estimates. A similar outcome resulted from a detailed study in one Canton in Switzerland out of eleven surveyed more superficially. A plan to carry out a similar exhaustive count in two Lander of the Federal Republic of Germany involving much larger populations was abandoned when it was realized that the procedure could not be accomplished by two persons in the three months available. A comic-opera round-the-clock surveillance by the secret police in the German Democratic Republic deterred me from contacting even one Esperantist for fear of compromising him or her. Surveys in Austria, Italy, and other European countries, however, supported the earlier findings.

In more recent years, visiting countries on all continents except Australia, I have used the generalizations based on the surveys based on European countries to arrive at estimates of the number of speakers in political and (rarely) geographical entities of various sizes. Cruder sampling procedures in the late nineteen-fifties had already led me to estimate that the number of speakers reached the one million ((sic)) about 1956. Not until 1988 did the estimate reach a point where I felt justified in rounding it up to two million rather than down to one million.

These somewhat random examples may give you an idea of how I come with my estimates. There are, of course, many sources of substantial error in these procedures. For example, the fact that these surveys were made at very different times complicates their interpretation, since trends between observations in the same areas at different times were generalized to areas where only one observation was made. It is quite possible that the present number of speakers is no more than one million, but, since error may operate in either direction, could be already higher than two million.

The tendency to overestimate the number of speakers of one’s own language is not uncommon. Speakers of French, English, and, alas, Esperanto are among the most shameless offenders in this respect. The delightful “Story of English” by McCrum et al. proposes a preposterous “...more than a billion speakers of English, at least a quarter of the world’s population.” (page 23). In the year the book was published (1986) “at least a quarter of the world’s population” would be well over one billion two hundred million, extending the merely preposterous to the completely silly. The authors are taken in not only by the drum-beaters for English, but by the unblushing propagandists of “...Esperanto...currently used by between seven and twelve million people.” (page 38)

The French cannot compete with this kind of unrestrained nonsense, but they do their level best. In 1984 the French Culture Commission of Brussels attempted to place on buses and streetcars ads reading (in French, of course) “264 Million French-Speakers in the World Speak the Language of the Capital of Europe”. Refusal to accept the ad may have been simply raw censorship, as the Commission maintained, or it may have been embarrassment because of the grossness of the exaggeration of the claim.

And background information about me? As a student I did quite a bit of work in linguistics but received my Ph. D. in psychology. While teaching and doing research in the Psychology Department at the University of Washington I maintained an interest in linguistics and was a co-founder of the Linguistics Department there. Although offered a position in the new department, I remained in psychology because of my interest in the relations of cognitive processes and language, a topic not usually a part of linguistic research. Demographic linguistics was a hobby of mine when a graduate student.

For many years I was a research engineer at the Boeing Company, working on problems in visual, auditory, and tactual perception. I am now retired from both positions and therefore, oddly enough, never seem to have any free time.

If you base a press release on any of this material, it is not necessary for me to review it, but I should appreciate seeing a copy.

Mi intencas peti unu el miaj Esperantaj amikoj kiuj multe uzas komputilojn ke li au ŝi serĉu ĉe Use-Net iun ajn informon kiu tie troviĝas.

Mi esperas renkonti vin iam, kaj diskuti tiun ĉi kaj aliajn temojn de komuna intereso.

((I intend to ask one of my Esperanto friends who uses computers a lot to search Usenet for any information which may be found there.

I hope to meet you some time, and discuss this and other topics of common interest.))


((Sidney S. Culbert))
((address removed))

Note 1: “The Hexagon” is a common term for European France, which is roughly hexagonal.

[Back to articles page]