Book Review: Step By Step In Esperanto

Step By Step In Esperanto, by Montagu C. Butler

This book, published in 1965 by the Esperanto Publishing Company, means exactly what the title says.  It is a step-by-step guide to the Esperanto language.  The author means, iom post iom (little by little), to guide a student through the rudiments and a fair amount of vocabulary in the language.  While some books are written with hidden agendas, this book lays its motive openly before the reader, albeit towards the end of the book, when the author says:  “You should now pass the Elementary Examination of the B.E.A. or of the R.S.A. with distinction.  In preparation for a higher examination, you should acquire a fluent international style and master the vocabulary.  To this end study diligently the best literature; especially Zamenhof’s speeches and translations, and above all La Malnova Testamento (the Old Testament).  Copy out phrases worth remembering or imitating.  Learn by heart passages of outstanding beauty (270).”  These quotes, one of the longest continual stretches in English of a book that does its well to provide to the reader/student a passport to Esperanto-land, well capture the flavor of mind of the author in seeking to provide help and assistance to someone learning the language in the face of a great deal of contradictory advice and guidance from other speakers.  Like the best guides to language [1], this one has a clear organization, and it is best taken gradually as it becomes increasingly more filled with Esperanto and less with English as the student is expected to become more proficient.

In terms of its contents, this is not a book that is divided into chapters so much as it consists of a straightforward set of lessons organized in stepwise fashion where the steps are numbered.  The book begins with the simple pronunciation of the letters, written mainly for the speaker of the Queen’s English, along with some of the basic vocabulary of the language, soon the author keeps on adding families of vocabulary words that can be learned together about such subjects as the family, numbers, question words, verb endings, roots, affixes, suffixes, and a whole host of other matters.  Aside from these numbered lesson steps (of which there are 1198 in the book as a whole), the author does not only teach by rote memorization but also includes some useful lessons for the student to learn and also some material that helps the reader to get a flavor of the culture of the language, including riddles, stories and dialogue, summary tables, and subtle touches of humor.  At a little less than 300 pages, this book is short enough and interesting enough to be useful even today as a textbook, even if its publishing would strike many contemporary students as being a bit old-fashioned, and even if in the United States at least there is not as much of an institutional focus on Esperanto as appears in other countries.

Although this book is not by any means a new book, and would likely be somewhat difficult to read for many contemporary readers who would be used to more pictures, this remains an excellent book written with a somewhat dry sense of humor and an admirable degree of logical rigor.  For those readers who are able to find a copy of this book at reasonable price at a used book store or online and who are willing to take this book patiently and slowly, there will be a lot gained out of it even now.  This is a book whose patient and gradual approach to language learning stands the test of time, and remains a worthwhile book on its own in expressing the high ideals of a cosmopolitan language culture, urging the reader to connect to a larger community and also to ponder teaching and forming groups so that the language can be nurtured in one’s own locale.  That sort of idealism is something that can be respected and appreciated even half a century after the book’s release.

[1] See, for example:

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