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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Language of Hope

The flag of Esperanto.

When I was a child I used to beg my mother to teach me her native Greek.  She had all kinds of excuses why she didn’t, but the main one was that, she assured me, by the time I was an adult everyone would be speaking Esperanto.  She didn’t know Esperanto, but she was enamored with it.  "Esperanto" means "hope".

Decades later, I have yet to meet anyone who knows Esperanto, but looking into it was surprising.  Not only is it the only constructed language with native speakers (learned from one’s parents), but it has a well-organized support group.

Created to foster peace and understanding in the world, Esperanto was created in the late 1870s and early 1880s by Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, an opthalmologist from Bialystok of Russian-Jewish descent.  After spending ten years developing it, he starting writing original prose and verse as well as tranlating literature into Esperanto.  Zamenhof originally named it La Intenacia Linvo - "the International Language".  The first grammar book was published in Warsaw in 1887.

Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof (1859 - 1917)

The number of speakers grew rapidly, keeping in touch through periodicals and correspondence.  Then, in 1905, the first World Congress of Esperanto speakers was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.  Since then there has been a World Congress every year except during WWI and WWII, held in a different country each year.  For a list of which country hosts the Congress for each year, and the number of attendees from past ones, click here.

But it wasn't accepted as a positive move towards global understanding at first.  It was held in suspicion by many totalitarian states, especially Stalin's Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany.  In fact, Hitler mentioned Esperanto in Mein Kampf as an example of a "Jewish National Conspiracy" creating their own language in an attempt at world domination.  Part of this was because Zamenhof was Jewish, and his family was singled out during the Holocaust.  Prior to Stalin, Esperanto had the Soviet government's support and they officially recognized the Soviet Esperanto Association.  Stalin denounced it as the language of spies, and the use of Esperanto was banned in the Soviet Union until 1956.

The Internation Language for Russians
Zamenhof's first textbook of Esperanto, 1887.

Although it hasn't been adopted by any country officially, it was recognized by UNESCO in 1954.  It is also the language of instruction of the Akademio Internacia de la Sciencoj San Marino or Accademia Internazionale delle Scienze San Marino (International Academy of Sciences San Marino) in that republic.  It is claimed that learning Esperanto facilitates the learning of languages in general.

In 1924, the American Radio Relay League adopted Esperanto as its official international auxiliary language in the hope that it would be used by ham radio enthusiasts internationally, but never seemed to take off.  There are several non-profit organizations who have adopted it.

Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in Esperanto.

Esperanto is not related to any ethnic language, although the phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and semantics are based on Indo-European languages, particularly Slavic,  Romance, and Germanic languages.  These may be the influence of the early speakers who were mostly Russian, Polish, French, and German.  It is written with a modified version of the Latin alphabet, with six letters with diacritics.  It does not include the letters q, w, x, or y.  The 28-letter alphabet is:
a b c ĉ d e f g ĝ h ĥ i j ĵ k l m n o p r s ŝ t u ŭ v z

Zamenhof published a book of the core vocabulary in 1887, Lingvo internacia.  In this book 900 roots were listed, which could be expanded into thousands of words using prefixes, suffixes, and compounding.  The first Esperanto dictionary, the Universala Vortaro, was published in 1894 with even more roots.  Since then many words have been borrowed, mostly from Western European languages, especially scientific and technical terms.  There is a preference among speakers, however, to use existing roots or words to express new meanings.  There are not a lot of slang words or idioms, as this would go against Esperanto's role as an international language.

The poem below (in Esperanto and the English translation) is considered the Esperanto anthem.  Poem courtesy of the Project Gutenberg, which has quite a few ebooks.

La Espero
En la mondon venis nova sento,
tra la mondo iras forta voko; 
per flugiloj de facila vento
nun de loko flugu ĝi al loko.
Ne al glavo sang on soifanta
ĝi la homan tiras familion:
  al la mond' eterne militanta
ĝi promesas sanktan harmonion.
Sub la sankta signo de l' espero
kolektiĝas pacaj batalantoj,
kaj rapide kreskas la afero
 per laboro de la esperantoj.
Forte staras muroj de miljaroj
inter la popoloj dividitaj; 
sed dissaltos la obstinaj baroj,
 per la sankta amo disbatitaj.
Sur neŭtrala lingva fundamento,
komprenante unu la alian,
la popoloj faros en konsento 
unu grandan rondon familian.
Nia diligenta kolegaro
en laboro paca ne laciĝos,
 ĝis la bela sonĝo de l' homaro 
por eterna ben' efektiviĝos.
 The Hope
Into the world came a new feeling,
through the world goes a powerful call; 
by means of wings of a gentle wind
now let it fly from place to place.
Not to the sword thirsting for blood
 does it draw the human family:  
to the world eternally fighting 
it promises sacred harmony.
Under the sacred sign of the hope 
the peaceful fighters gather,
and this affair quickly grows 
by the labours of those who hope.
The walls of millennia stand firm 
between the divided peoples;
 but the stubborn barriers will jump apart, 
knocked apart by the sacred love.
On a neutral language basis,
understanding one another, 
the peoples will make in agreement 
one great family circle.
Our diligent set of colleagues 
in peaceful labor will never tire, 
until the beautiful dream of humanity
 for eternal blessing is realized.

Universa la Kongreso de Esperanto, Roterdamo, 2008

Esperanto was created to foster peace through universal understanding and solidarity.  Perhaps this is the ideal time to learn Esperanto.  We need some "hope" in the world today.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. What a surprise. There is a bit of in-group slang. I'm a fluent speaker of Esperanto, and speaking of private libraries . . .

  2. I'll forgo the usual propaganda and recommend two books in English from Mondial Press (http://www.mondialbooks.com/):

    Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto / by Geoffrey Sutton

    Zamenhof: The Life, Works and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto / by Aleksander Korzhenkov

  3. Thank you, Ralph. It is an honor to know an Esperanto speaker. I also thank you for the recommendations. I'm so impressed that you know it!

  4. I'm an Esperanto speaker too - in Wales in the United Kingdom. There are quite a lot of us - several hundred thousand, although it's not possible to be certain.

    I liked the photo from Rotterdam. I can see a friend of mine on it!

  5. How did you learn, Bill? And when and where? I am interested in learning but I guess I'll have to teach myself. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  6. Hello Linda.

    Congratulations on such a comprehensive article !

    Many people do not realise how popular, as a living language, Esperanto is.

    The study course http://www.lernu.net is now receiving 120,000 hits per month.

    This is an excellent modern e-course which I would personally recommend.

  7. Hi, Brian,

    Thanks for the comment! I tried that website but my browser keeps saying it can't find it. (I tried going through a search as well.) I did find some other online sites, though.

    How, when, and where did you learn Esperanto?

  8. Linda,

    I want to second Ralph's recommendation of Sutton's Encyclopedia, especially the Introduction and Outline sections--most of those can be read online for free with Google Books preview.

    When I learned about Esperanto I was fascinated by it's substantial body of original literature and this, rather than the noble but naive idealism, is what prompted me to learn it. Within about 40 hours of study I was able to read an original novel, at first with occasional recourse to a dictionary, then freely. (The novel was Baghy's Viktimoj.) Probably the best return on time investment in my life.

    For study, I found Richardson's Esperanto: Learning and Using the International Language in my library then read the didactic story Gerda Malaperis.


  9. Thanks for the comment, Dave, and for the info. The original literature sounds intriguing. I am heartened to know that Esperanto is not difficult to learn, and that there seems to be so many resources available. My mother would be happy!