Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The History of Esperanto

03/08/10 • Esperanto is an invented language, the brainchild of Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. Zamenhof, born in 1859, was not the first (or the last) to attempt to construct a language to address the perceived failure of words in our society, but unlike many other languages Esperanto gained a foothold to become a living language—with original literature, native speakers (children taught Esperanto at birth), and a dedicated following.

Zamenhof made several attempts at forming a universal language. He first developed a lexicon of one syllable words but found he would forget the meanings he assigned them. He knew a universal language needed to be as easy as possible to learn in order to gain widespread use. Eventually, he developed the system known as Esperanto, which relies on phonetic spelling and a system of root words familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of Romance or Germanic languages.

In 1887 Zamenhof gathered together the resources to publish a pamphlet he titled Lingvo internacia. Antaŭparolo kaj plena lernolibro (International Language. Foreword And Complete Textbook). It was published under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Doctor Hopeful), from which is where the name of the language is derived. His goal was to unify the world. He believed that if people could overcome language barriers they could live in harmony. When asked how he came to his beliefs, he explained: “I was educated to be an idealist. I was taught that all men are brothers; and yet on the street and in the marketplace everything caused me to feel ‘people’ did not exist, that they were only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, etc.” He felt that a language that was neutral and didn’t belong to a particular culture would put people on equal footing and promote understanding among nationalities.

Unlike the inventors of other constructed languages such as Universalglot or Volopük, Zamenhof didn’t seek control of development and wanted his language to adapt through usage. He rejected motions for official overhaul and allowed changes to happen organically as Esperanto spread. The idealistic philosophy behind Esperanto helped his language attract a large following. The World Esperanto Congress first occurred in 1905 and has been happening annually since, with brief hiatuses during WWI and WWII. Estimates of the number of Esperanto speakers today range from 50,000 to two million and are spread worldwide, with chapters of the Universal Esperanto Association (UAE) in over 100 countries. Speakers of Esperanto have developed a culture of openness and tolerance, wherein they celebrate every native background through their shared universal language. The UAE has a list of Esperanto speakers through the world who have offered their homes to house travelling Esperanto speakers. The World Esperanto Congress is a colorful and lively affair, with performances, music, and seminars of all varieties—all in the uniting voice of Esperanto.

Fun Facts

Zamenhof has an asteroid named after him.

His birthday, December 15th, is celebrated as Esperanto Day. Last year, Google honored his birthday with a Google doodle. Google also has a portal for internet searching in Esperanto.

Political activist and Hungarian businessman George Soros is one of the rare native speaker of Esperanto, who was taught the language from birth, though he is no longer active in furthering the cause of Esperanto.

(Photo: Polish doctor L.L. Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto, poses in an undated picture. Photograph courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.)

1 comment:

  1. I hope you'll allow me to make the simple point that Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing - and sung in it - in about fifteen countries over recent years.

    Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past few years I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan and Douala in Cameroon in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on.