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What Is Esperanto, And Who Speaks It?

Esperanto is the most famous constructed language, and its popularity seems to be growing.
What Is Esperanto, And Who Speaks It?

Earth is home to quite a few languages. The most recent estimates say that there are around 7,000 languages in use today. So why would someone choose to make a new one? Many people have invented languages to enrich a fictional world, which is probably the most popular reason to do so in a time of award-winning entertainment like Game of Thrones and Arrival. But, once in a while, people create a language with a more wholesome goal: to bring the world together.

This goal of global unity was the motivator behind Esperanto, a language created over a century ago in Poland. While we clearly don’t all speak Esperanto today, the language has gained more popularity than any other constructed language, and it continues to attract new speakers. Sometimes speaking Esperanto is written off as a hobby for quirky language people, but it has played pivotal historical roles in the world. It’s especially worth learning about Esperanto now, because it’s in the midst of a resurgence.

Why Was Esperanto Invented?

Photo of Dr. L.L. Zamenhof.

Esperanto was created in the late 1800s by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, a Polish medical doctor. He alone built the basis for the language and helped usher it into the real world until the end of his life.

Though Zamenhof’s profession was being a physician, he was no amateur at languages. Zamenhof said Russian was his mother tongue — the area of Poland he lived in was then part of the Russian Federation — but he generally spoke Polish day-to-day. Evidence also shows that he learned Yiddish from his mother and that he studied German, English, Spanish, Lithuanian, Italian and French. In addition, Zamenhof learned the classical languages Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic in school. Esperanto was not even the first constructed language he’d dealt with. First, he learned a bit of Volapük, which was invented in Germany almost a decade before Esperanto. Having command of so many languages had a tremendous impact on his creation of Esperanto, which would be Zamenhof’s 14th language.

Zamenhof had good reason for wanting to add yet another language to his repertoire. During his life, Zamenhof became fascinated by the idea of creating a tolerant world, free from the horrors of war. Being Jewish in Poland at the time of Russia’s pogroms and as anti-Semitism was reaching new heights, Zamenhof dreamed of a day when people could come together. To make this world a reality, he decided the best thing he could do is make an international auxiliary language. The idea behind an IAL is that it is designed so that it’s not anyone’s mother tongue, but people can quickly learn it as a second language to facilitate easy conversation with people from anywhere in the world. Esperanto is not meant to replace other languages, only to supplement them.

You may ask why you wouldn’t just use an existing language as an IAL. Everyone could just learn English in addition to their first language, for example, and then everyone could communicate. This is a good question, especially considering English basically already is an IAL, often being used as the lingua franca by international organizations. The problem with using English in this capacity is that it gives a huge advantage to people and places that already speak English. Esperanto tries to bypass political and cultural problems by being a neutral language.

How Was Esperanto Constructed?

After years of work on his new language, Zamenhof published Unua Libro in Warsaw on July 26, 1887. He published it under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto, which means “Doctor Hopeful,” and the latter half was adopted as the name of the language. This book, which literally translates as “First Book,” laid the groundwork for Esperanto with 920 word roots that, when combined with the 16 simple grammatical rules of the language, could form tens of thousands of words.

The roots of Esperanto were largely based on Latin, with influences from Russian, Polish, English and German. This was done on purpose so that those who already speak a language descended from Latin will have a much easier time learning this new language. Many Esperantists claim that because of the simple grammar, familiar Latin vocabulary and phonetic spelling, you can learn it much faster than any other language.

Zamenhof relinquished control of Esperanto soon after the basics were published. By allowing feedback from others and encouraging the language to evolve, he kept the language from becoming strangled by restrictions. Zamenhof was involved in the use of Esperanto for the rest of his life, and he ensured that it would be able to survive after he had died.

Yet Esperanto is not without flaws. If you watch the video at the start of this section, you’ll hear that Esperanto sounds vaguely Spanish, vaguely Italian and all-around vaguely European. This is no coincidence, and the European impact on Esperanto can be a weakness, depending on where you live in the world. Because of the strong European influences, people who speak Asian languages are at a distinct disadvantage in learning and speaking Esperanto. Esperanto’s simple rules might make it easier to learn than other languages for an Asian speaker, but it still loses some of its “neutrality” due to this Western bias.

How Has Esperanto Been Used Throughout History?

Photo of the first World Esperanto Congress in 1905.

Shortly after Unua Libro was published, Esperanto caught on rather quickly around Europe and North America. Societies started forming and books were being published. Most excitingly, Neutral Moresnet, a small principality between Belgium and Germany, declared it the official language. The principality even changed its name to Amikejo, which is Esperanto for “friendship.” For at least a few decades, it seemed like Esperanto was on its way to fulfilling Zamenhof’s dreams.

Then World War I happened. Esperanto was abandoned by many because the supposedly utopian language failed to stop Europe from devolving into war. Amikejo was annexed by Belgium, thus dissolving the only state ever to adopt Esperanto as its official language. At the height of the war in 1917, Zamenhof passed away. After the war, there was an attempt to revive the language, and it was even considered by the League of Nations as an official mode of communication, but the language faced another setback with the onset of World War II.

Esperanto faced formidable opponents during World War II in both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Hitler had written in Mein Kampf that Esperanto was a language being used by Jews as a method of world domination, and so it was stamped out wherever Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia reined. Stalin, despite having studied and promoted the language at one time, sent its speakers to Gulags. Worse, Zamenhof’s three children were killed during the Holocaust because of their Jewish heritage. And yet the language managed to live on, being taught in concentration camps and spoken by the disenfranchised.

After World War II ended, Esperanto was almost completely gone. It was only able to survive the 20th century thanks to small groups of Esperanto enthusiasts. The language had an outsider status and was not often taken seriously, but the important thing was that it was kept from dying out.

How Much Is Esperanto Spoken Today?

It’s hard to know exactly how many people speak Esperanto, but according to some estimates, there are at least 2 million speakers in the world today. And even though Esperanto was made to be an auxiliary language, there is a cohort of about 1,000 people who speak Esperanto as their first language, a few of whom were interviewed in the video above. The most famous native speaker is Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whose father was a devotee of the language. Esperanto is clearly far from dead, and is in fact currently going through a renaissance.

Esperanto doesn’t have an official status in any country, but that’s only one marker of a language’s success. There are books, music and other kinds of entertainment. The biggest event for Esperanto is the Universala Kongreso, which was founded by Zamenhof and has been held in a different city almost every year since 1905. It started as a way to discuss and adjust the language, but today is a celebration of the people who speak it.

Why do people speak Esperanto? Some see it as a challenge, others subscribe to Zamenhof’s idea of world peace, but perhaps the most commonly cited reason for learning Esperanto is the community. In addition to the yearly gathering, Esperanto speakers reach out to their community in countless ways, both online and in real life. The internet, of course, has been a massive boon to the language, connecting speakers from all over the world to create a community. On the website Pasporta Servo, you can find Esperantists around the world who let fellow speakers stay with them cheaply, or even for free, while on vacation. There’s a radio station, an active subreddit, local groups and much more.

Esperanto speakers are devotees of Zamenhof’s dream to create a language that allows people from anywhere in the world to connect with one another. Yes, it’s true that only a small fraction of the world population speaks Esperanto, but among those who do, Zamenhof has achieved his dream of seeing people united by a common language. The language with the name that means “hopeful” still inspires hope among millions of people today.

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