What is the Esperanto language? | Story

A meeting of the Esperanto Union of Soviet Republics, held in Moscow in 1931
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1800s, the city of Białystok – once Polish, then Prussian, then Russian and now part of Poland again – was a hub of diversity, with large numbers of Poles, Germans, Russians and Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews. Each group spoke a different language and viewed members of other communities with suspicion.

For years, LL Zamenhof, a Jewish man from Białystok who had trained as a doctor in Moscow, dreamed of a way for various groups of people to communicate easily and peacefully.

On July 26, 1887, he published what is now called Book UnuaWhere first bookwhich introduced and described Esperanto, a language that Zamenhof had spent years devising in hopes of promoting peace among the peoples of the world.

LL Zamenhof

LL Zamenhof

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Esperanto vocabulary is mainly drawn from English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Polish, Russian and Yiddish, as these are the languages ​​with which Zamenhof was the most familiar. Grammatically, Esperanto has been mainly influenced by European languages, but it is interesting to note that some of the innovations of Esperanto bear a striking resemblance to features found in some Asian languages, such as Chinese.

Now, 135 years later, Europe is once again torn apart by violence and tension, including the war between Russia and Ukraine, which is at least partially driven by a political debate over language differences. Unfortunately, language-related conflicts are common all over the world.

The promise of peace through a common language has yet to catch on, but there may be as many as two million Esperanto speakers in the world. And the language continues to spread, albeit slowly.

A language for all

Growing up in the multicultural but wary environment of Białystok, Zamenhof dedicated his life to building a language that he hoped could help foster harmony between groups. The goal was not to replace anyone’s native language. On the contrary, Esperanto would serve as a universal second language that would help promote international understanding and, hopefully, peace.

Esperanto is easy to learn. Nouns have no grammatical gender, so you never have to wonder if a table is masculine or feminine. There are no irregular verbs, so you don’t have to memorize complex conjugation tables. Plus, the spelling is completely phonetic, so you’ll never be confused by silent letters or letters that sound different in different contexts.

In Book Unua, Zamenhof described the 16 basic rules of Esperanto and provided a dictionary. This book has been translated into more than a dozen languages; at the beginning of each edition, Zamenhof definitively renounces all personal rights to its creation and declares Esperanto “the property of the society”.

Soon Esperanto spread to Asia, North and South America, the Middle East and Africa. Beginning in 1905, Esperanto speakers from all over the world began to gather once a year to participate in the World Esperanto Congress, where they celebrated and used the language.

Between 1907 and his death in 1917, Zamenhof received 14 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, although he never won the prize.

Continuing Zamenhof’s work, the Universal Esperanto Association, an organization that seeks to foster relations between peoples through the use of Esperanto, has been nominated more than 100 times for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his “contribution to world peace by enabling people from different countries to enter into direct relations without language barriers”. So far, he has never won the award.

Struggles and successes

After World War I, the League of Nations – the predecessor of the United Nations – was founded in the hope of preventing future conflicts. Soon after, the Iranian delegate to the League of Nations proposed that Esperanto be adopted as the language of international relations.

This proposal was vetoed by the French delegate, who feared that the French language would lose its prestigious position in diplomacy. In 1922, the French government went further and banned the teaching of Esperanto in all French universities, allegedly as a tool for spreading communist propaganda.

Ironically, life behind the Iron Curtain wasn’t much easier for Esperanto speakers. In the Soviet Union, the Esperantists were said to be part of an “international spy organization”. Many were persecuted and then perished during dictator Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge.

Lidia Zamenhof (left) was murdered during the Holocaust.

Lidia Zamenhof (left) was murdered during the Holocaust.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

According to the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, Esperanto was proof of a Jewish plot to take over the world. During the Third Reich, the Gestapo received specific orders to search for Zamenhof’s descendants. Her three children died in the Holocaust, as did many Esperanto speakers.

Despite these events, in 1954 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (better known as Unesco) adopted a resolution recognizing – and establishing a relationship with – the Universal Association of ‘Esperanto. The resolution opened the door for the Esperanto movement to be represented at UNESCO language events.

In 1985, Unesco adopted a resolution encouraging countries to add Esperanto to their school curricula. For years, China has offered Esperanto as a foreign language option at several of its universities, one of which houses an Esperanto museum. An interlinguistics program offered at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland is actually taught in Esperanto.

More recently, Unesco declared 2017 the year of the Zamenhof, and since then its flagship journal, the Unesco Courierhad a quarterly edition in Esperanto.

Give peace a chance

Today, Esperanto is spoken by pockets of enthusiasts all over the world, including Antarctica. A wide range of free Esperanto resources are available online, including Duolingo, lernu!, the Complete Illustrated Dictionary of Esperanto, the Complete Handbook of Esperanto Grammar, and Google Translate.

Esperanto also has its own edition of Wikipedia, which currently contains more entries than the Danish, Greek and Welsh editions of Wikipedia.

In Esperanto, the word “Esperanto” means “one who hopes”. Some would say it’s idealistic to believe that Esperanto could unite humanity, especially in the midst of another great war.

But even the most violent wars do not end without peace talks, which often require translators to interpret the languages ​​of the opposing parties. Zamenhof wondered if violence itself wouldn’t be less common if a neutral language could help people bridge their gaps.

Joshua Holzer holds a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, an MA from the University of Southern California, another MA from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and a BA from the University of Denver. He is a five-year veteran of the United States Army.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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