As some readers know, I used to be quite energetic about Esperanto, an invented international language that I’ve blogged about a few times.
Even though Esperanto never took the world by storm, it’s still in use, and the goal to create a widely accepted bridge between languages and cultures is still a worthy goal.
At the New Yorker recently, Joan Acocella wrote about Esperanto’s founder, Ludwig Zamenhoff, a Jew living in Poland at a time of fierce enmity among people of different ethnicities. Convinced that a shared language could promote peace, Zamenhoff decided to do something about it.
The usefulness of a common, intermediary language was not a new idea, writes Acocella. “Ambitious organizations such as the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church made sure that their members, whatever their mother tongue, learned a second, common language. …
“Esperanto’s creator, Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), a short, sparkly-eyed, chain-smoking ophthalmologist, was a Jew, and, as he wrote to a friend, this made all the difference: ‘My Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I gave myself completely to one crucial idea . . . the dream of the unity of humankind.’
“By this he may have meant that Jews were broader in outlook. In any case, he felt that they needed to be. In the town where Zamenhof grew up — Białystok, now in Poland but at that time part of the Russian Empire — the population, he wrote, ‘consisted of four diverse elements: Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews; each spoke a different language and was hostile to the other elements.’
“He went on, ‘I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all men were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews.’ …
“[At one time a Zionist], Zamenhof became disillusioned with Zionism. … He wanted Judaism purged of all narrowness. Let the Jews keep some of their nice things, their High Holidays and the stories and the poetry in their Bible. But, as for theology and ethics, they should confine themselves to the teachings of Rabbi Hillel (first century B.C.), which, according to Zamenhof, consisted of just three principles: that God exists and rules the world; that He resides within us as our conscience; and that the fundamental dictate of conscience is that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. …
“At his nineteenth-birthday party, in 1878, he surprised his guests by giving each of them a small dictionary and a grammar of a new language he had invented.” It was the beginning of an international movement.
More here. The New Yorker article is a review of Esther Schor’s book Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language.
There’s a lot more to the story of Zamenhoff and the rise of Esperanto, which today is spoken in surprising places all over the world. (When I was first learning it, for example, China was publishing propaganda stories in the language.) To learn more, start with the New Yorker book review — and then maybe the book itself.
Photo: Loyal Books
Ludwig L. Zamenhoff (1859-1917), the eye doctor who invented Esperanto as a language to bridge disparate cultures. The word Esperanto means “one who is hoping.”