The Wonderful Horrible History of Esperanto, the Universal Language

Updated on December 14, 2016
L.L. Zamenhof - The Inventor of Esperanto
L.L. Zamenhof - The Inventor of Esperanto

Birth of a Language

Esperanto is a language invented by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof in the late 1800s. It is an artificial or constructed language as opposed to natural human languages whose vocabulary and grammars developed randomly over time through custom and usage, rather than a plan. Unlike natural languages, Esperanto's vocabulary and grammar were planned and created by its inventor and sprang into existence almost fully formed, rather than taking thousands of years to develop, as in the case of natural languages.

Zamenhof had great hopes for his new language; the name itself, Esperanto, is derived from the word "hope" in the language. Zamenhof's goal was to bring humanity together through a medium of a common language that would transcend national rivalries.

Zamenhof's Dream

Zamenhof's plan for Esperanto was born from his experiences as a Jew growing up in what was then the Russian Empire. The society was deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. The Germans, Poles, Jews and Russians in the area where he was born regarded each other as enemies and frequently clashed with each other. In many ways the ethnic conflicts within the Russian Empire paralleled the conflicts and wars throughout the world. Zamenhof concluded that "the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies."

Zamenhof was an eye doctor by profession but had a lifelong passion for learning languages. He spoke German, Russian, Yiddish, Polish, and some Latin, English and Italian. Even while he concentrated on his medical studies and practice, Zamenhof dreamed of finding a way to unite humanity. He vowed to find a way to destroy the evil of sectarian violence and bring mankind together in peace and goodwill.

After many years of work and struggle, Zamenhof published the first Esperanto Grammar, the Unua Libro ("The First Book").

The Pros and Cons of Esperanto

Advantages of Esperanto
Disadvantages of Esperanto
Standardized Pronunciation
Some Esperanto Words Are Difficult to Pronounce
Standardized Regular Grammar
Grammar and Words Based Almost Entirely on European Languages So Esperanto is Hard to Learn for Asians
Fairly Easy to Learn, Especially for Europeans and English Speakers
Regional Accents Based on Native Language of Esperanto Speaker
Is Neutral Because it Does not Belong to Any One Country
Few People You Can Speak With
Can Facilitate International Understanding and Friendship
Not Used As An Official Language Anywhere
Helps You Learn Other Languages

Initial Success

Esperanto was not the first artificial language, but it was and remains the most successful one in terms of usage and for having developed an actual culture with original literature and music being produced using it.

Zamenhof's artificial language was a success almost from the start. Thousands of groups formed throughout Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. Within a few years, there were millions of active users. Conventions and gatherings of Esperantists were well attended, and the language took on a life of its own. People began using it. Books were published in it. It seemed that Zamenhof's dream was going to come true: Esperanto was on its way to becoming, if not a universal language, at least a bridge between peoples and cultures.

In fact, the small principality of Neutral Moresnet, between Belgium and Germany almost became the first country to adopt Esperanto as its official language. Consisting of a multi-ethnic population and lying between rival empires, the little country viewed the language as a way to be neutral and neither within the German or French spheres of influence. It was host to a high concentration of Esperanto speakers and there were talks of making Esperanto the official language.

League of Nations International Conference Regarding the Use of Esperanto, 1922
League of Nations International Conference Regarding the Use of Esperanto, 1922

The Side Effects of War

The optimism for the future of humanity which had given birth to Esperanto was shattered by the two World Wars. The First World War clearly set the movement back - after all, no amount of communicating in the artificial language had been able to prevent the bloodbath.

The state of Neutral Monserat was invaded by the Germans and after the war it was annexed by Belgium and France, ending its independence and its social experiment with Esperanto.

An Esperanto Revival - Sort Of

But nevertheless, Esperanto carried on, rebuilding after the disillusionment of the First World War.

In the 1920s. there was a serious effort to make it the official language of the League of Nations, but this proposal was vetoed by France. Soviet Russia also promoted it for a time, and it is said that Stalin actually studied the language.

The use of Esperanto grew, and many publications and newspapers in the language were established. Some regard the 1920s as a golden age for the language.

Esperanto and the Holocaust

The Esperanto revival that followed World War 1 came to an abrupt end with Hitler's rise to power. In his book, Mein Kampf, Hitler singled out Esperanto as what he claimed was an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

The Nazis regarded its speakers as enemies of the state because they were a movement founded by a Jew and also because they believed in an international confederation of people and races, which was diametrically opposed to what the National Socialists believed in. And so when Hitler came to power, Esperantists were some of the first people who were rounded up and killed.

Some of its speakers betrayed the very ideals of the movement by trying to align themselves with the Nazis and joining in the persecution of the Jews, but they found little favor with the Nazis and they too were rounded up.

The movement was decimated. Fortunately, Zamenhof did not live to see this disaster. He passed away in 1917 at the age of 57. He was spared the horror of seeing his movement dismantled by the Nazis and all of his children put death. His son, a doctor, was removed from his position and shot; his daughter died in the Treblinka extermination camp. His other daughter also was killed during the Holocaust.

Esperanto lived on in secret in the concentration camps, where some prisoners taught other prisoners the language. To hide their activities, they told the guards that they were teaching Italian, since the two languages sound vaguely similar.

In Soviet Russia, as well, Esperanto came to be regarded as a dangerous foreign influence. Despite initially promoting the language, Stalin also began persecuting its speakers, who were killed or sent to the Gulag.

In an ironic twist, Zamenhof's peaceful language was used by the United States army as the fictitious language of a mock opponent during army training maneuvers.

The Green Star Flag of the Esperanto Movement
The Green Star Flag of the Esperanto Movement

Waning Influence

Esperanto continues to have some success. There are about 2 million people worldwide who speak it. And it has gained a certain status not afforded to other artificial languages. For example, a message in Esperanto was included in Voyager's Golden Record, sent out to greet possible extraterrestrials.

But nothing can disguise the fact that at the current time, English, and not Esperanto, has filled the role of a nearly universal language. One can find English speakers in the most remote and diverse parts of the world, whereas Esperantists are few and far between. Each year, there are fewer and fewer magazines and periodicals published in the language and its annual international gatherings have been drawing much fewer people than years past.

Sadly, as well, for a language and movement which aims at unity - Esperanto has fragmented into smaller competing versions or dialects of the language such as Romániço and Ido.

New constructed languages have also sprung up, most notably Interlingua and Lojban. Even Klingon, a semi-serious attempt at a constructed language has gained adherents and competes with Esperanto for a place as an auxiliary language.

Esperanto is drifting towards irrelevancy - an interesting linguistic pass time for idealists who hope for a better world which will never be.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 13 months ago from Philippines

      I never knew that esperanto had such a sad and violent history associated with it. How sad that the founder's family were all killed, as were all those who spoke the language. This is a very interesting article.

    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 15 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Very interesting article. I had just stumbled upon the concept of Esperanto recently and then by chance I saw this article. I had no idea that it was used by the jews particularly in the concentration camps. What a sad history. Hopefully though, the language will continue to flourish and maybe Dr. L.L. Zamenhof's dream of uniting people with the language will come true. Well done!