This Week In History: The language of hope is born
Ludwig Zamenhof creates Esperanto out of the belief it will break down barriers, serve as a vehicle to achieve peace, harmony.
The first Esperanto Congress, Boulogne 1905 Photo: UEA Archives
Hostile barriers between peoples, fall, fall, it is time! The whole of humanity must come together as one family – the Esperanto anthem.
On July 26, 1887, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof published the most successful constructed language designed for international communication, Esperanto. Zamenhof created Esperanto out of the conviction that conflict and prejudice are largely products of misunderstanding caused by lack of a common language. He believed that a universal language would break down barriers between different nations, and would serve as a tool to achieve peace and harmony.
Zamenhof was born in 1859 to a Jewish family in the Polish city of Bialystock, then under Russian rule. His parents named him Leyzer, the Yiddish form of the Hebrew name Eliezer. Zamenhof is more widely known by his Russian name Ludwik, however he used both names most of his life, going by the title Dr. L. L. Zamenhof when he became a doctor. He always identified as a Russian Jew, although he lived in Warsaw for many years.
Zamenhof's passion for languages developed at an early age. His mother-tongue was Russian, he was educated in Russian, and as a child he dreamed of writing Russian poetry. Zamenhof’s Jewish identity was intrinsic to his inspiration to create a universal language, and from childhood he reflected on the situation of the Jews, on relations between peoples and on the possibility of an international language.
"I am a Jew, and all my ideals, their birth, maturity and steadfastness, the entire history of my constant inner and external conflicts, all are indissolubly linked to my Jewishness," Zamenhof wrote in 1905 in a letter to fellow Esperantist Alfred Michaux.
"If I had not been a Jew from the ghetto, the idea of uniting humanity either would never have entered my head or it would never have gripped me so tenaciously throughout my entire life. No one can feel more strongly than a ghetto Jew the sadness of dissension among peoples... my Jewishness is the main reason why, from my earliest childhood, I gave myself wholly to one overarching idea and dream, that of bringing together in brotherhood
all of humanity," he wrote.
In his earlier years, Zamenhof was an ardent Zionist. Indeed, he told The Jewish Chronicle in 1907 that during his time as a medical student at the Imperial Moscow University, he initiated the founding of - what he believed to be - the first Jewish political organization in Russia. Over the years, however, Zamenhof's views shifted. According to Aleksandr Korzhenkov's The Life, Works, and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto, Zamenhof came to believe that the Jewish people were making a mistake in merging ethnicity with religion, since this meant that they could neither be absorbed into another ethnic group, nor could they themselves absorb different peoples. Zamenhof instead, adopted an ideology which he called "Hillelism," based on Rabbi Hillel's ethos: “What you do not want done to you, do not do unto others.”
The 27-year-old linguist first published his language in a 42-page booklet entitled International Language: Foreword and Complete Textbook. (for Russian speakers) under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (one who hopes). The name Esperanto was gradually adopted as the name of the language. By the end of the year the booklet was translated into Polish, French and German and became known as Unua Libro (The First Book). With his book, Zamenhof simultaneously launched a campaign to promote learning the language. He announced that if he garnered public promises from 10 million people to learn the language, he would publish their names in a book. This challenge was not fulfilled by any stretch of the imagination, however, slowly and steadily people around the world began learning the language.
In keeping with the ideal of creating a language accessible to all, Zamenhof kept the language as simple and neutral as possible; his aim was not to replace the mother tongue, but rather to introduce a second language that anyone, anywhere could use. He had observed that even people who learned several languages, at times difficult ones, were still in a position where they either struggled to communicate, or could not communicate at all with most foreigners. Therefore if everyone throughout the world could learn the same, relatively simple language, a universal second language could exist. He also decided that the language must not pertain to any one specific culture or political system in order to be universally appealing. Zamenhof considered using the ancient languages of Latin and Greek as a base for his language, but he thought they were too complex. When he learned English as a Gymanasium student, he was surprised by its relatively simple grammar, and subsequently established a grammar for his own language that contained only the essential rules.
"My whole grammar can be learned perfectly in one hour," Zamenhof states in the introduction to his "First Book." He also built the language using a relatively small number of interchangeable root words, prefixes and suffixes. The language is composed of 22 Latin letters and an additional six. When he initially invented the language it comprised only 900 words. "The acquirement of this rich, mellifluous, universally-comprehensible language, is not a matter of years of laborious study, but the mere light amusement of a few days," Zamenhof wrote.
Infamous adversaries to Esperanto include Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, who referred to the language as tool of Jewish world domination in a speech in Munich in 1922. Later in Mein Kampf, Hitler described Esperanto as part of the Jewish conspiracy to enslave the Aryan races of the world. Esperantists were targeted during the Holocaust, and all three of Zamenhof's children perished.
But Esperanto has survived to this day, unlike similar attempts that preceded it. The language is now spoken in some 115 countries by some two million people, although estimations vary wildly. While Zamenhof's grand dream of a second universal language has not been fulfilled to date, the language lives on through speech, literature, media, music, societies and academia and the annual World Congress of Esperanto.
Zamenof too has been canonized, in streets, parks and monuments the world over, and even in Space, in the form of the minor planet 2462 Zamenhof.