Eliezer Levi Samenhof was a Russian Jew growing up in the city of Bialystok (in modern-day Poland, then a part of the Russian Empire) in the 1870’s. The majority of Bialystok’s citizens were Jews, but the city was also home to large numbers of ethnic Germans, Russians, and Poles who spoke their own languages and lived in their own distinct communities within the city. There was a lot of hostility between these groups and violence was not uncommon, something that Samenhof felt acutely as he was growing up. “I was raised to be an idealist,” he remembered years later. “I was taught about the brotherhood of all people. However, every time in the street and courtyard I was persuaded there are no people… only Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews. All of that tormented my spirit during childhood.”
Samenhof had a knack for languages; in addition to the Yiddish and Russian he spoke at home, he picked up German and Polish in the street. When his family moved to Warsaw in 1873, he studied English, French, Latin, and Greek at the city’s Secondary School of Languages. He also dabbled in Spanish, Italian, and Lithuanian.
People were never going to abandon their own native tongues; that much Samenhof understood. But what if all groups learned to speak a second language—an international language—in addition to their mother tongue? No such language existed, but if there was such a language, a Jew living in Bialystok wouldn’t have to learn Russian, Polish, and German just to speak to his neighbors, and they wouldn’t have to learn Yiddish to speak to him. Learning an international language would enable members of each group to speak with every other group.
Samenhof decided to create one. He figured he’d have to make it as simple as possible—who better to understand that than a student trying to master English, French, Latin, and Greek at the same time without confusing them with the four languages he spoke already? At first he thought a simplified version of Latin or Greek might work, but in time he decided that inventing a new language from scratch would be better.
Samenhof—soon to “Esperantize” the spelling of his name to Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof—finished work on his language in 1885, but it wasn’t until he married into a wealthy family in 1887 that he had the money to publish the book that introduced it to the world. Perhaps because he feared being branded a crank, he published Unua Libra (“First Book”) under the pen name Doktoro Esperanto (“Doctor Hopeful”). That’s how the language came to be known as Esperanto.
If you’ve ever struggled to learn Spanish or French, or had pity on a non-native speaker trying to master the exasperating peculiarities of English, there is much in Esperanto that may appeal to you:
• Zamenhof gave Esperanto a “one letter, one sound” alphabet: Each letter is pronounced one way and one way only. There are no silent letters, so every word is pronounced exactly as it looks.
• Words with two or more syllables are always pronounced with the accent on the second-to-last syllable.
• Forget about studying textbooks filled with grammatical rules— and long lists of exceptions to all the rules you just learned. Esperanto has only 16 rules of grammar; they take up less than two typed pages of text. Once you learn them, you’re done—there are no exceptions to any of the rules. No irregular nouns, no irregular verbs, no irregular pronunciation. No irregular anything.
To cut down on the amount of vocabulary that Esperanto speakers have to memorize, words in Esperanto consist of “roots” that are modified by prefixes and suffixes. Take the word “father,” for example. It begins with the root patr.
• Nouns in Esperanto are formed by adding -o to the root. To form the noun “father,” add -o to patr to get patro.
• To make the noun plural, add -j to get patro/, for “fathers.”
• Adjectives are formed by adding -a to the root, so “fatherly” is spelled pfltra.
• Verbs (in the present tense) are formed by adding the suffix -as to the root. So if you want to say “I father a child,” you add the verb ending -as to the root to get the verb patras.
• The suffix -in denotes female. So the word for mother is patrino: patr + -in + -o (father root + feminine suffix + noun suffix.)
• There’s even a prefix, do-, that denotes a relative by marriage— so the word for “father-in-law” is dopatro. Whenever an Esperanto speaker comes across a word they’ve never seen before, the prefixes and suffixes enable them to decode what it means, which makes learning the language that much easier. By learning the 550 most-used roots, it’s estimated that an Esperanto speaker learns the equivalent of more than 2,000 words of a natural language. In doing so they build a vocabulary large enough to understand more than 80% of the words they will encounter in everyday conversation with other speakers.
In Unua Libra, Zamenhof provided a list of 900 word roots. And then—perhaps because he’d spent so much of his life with his nose buried in Russian, Polish, German, English, French, Latin, and Greek textbooks—Zamenhof proposed that his readers take a lighter approach: Write a letter in Esperanto, send it to a friend (he even provided sample text), and include a short note that instructs them how to translate it. Challenge them to decipher the letter and write back to you in Esperanto. Better yet, write a poem in Esperanto and send it to your girlfriend or boyfriend.
Encouraging people to write letters and poems was a surprisingly effective technique for spreading interest in Esperanto. Zamenhof claimed a person could master the grammar in an hour and learn to speak Esperanto in a few days; people who took him up on the challenge found that he was right. And every time a reader sent a letter off to a friend, a new person was introduced to the language. The letters and poems helped to give Esperanto an appeal similar to crossword puzzles or sudoku: It was a lot more fun than the usual drudgery associated with learning a new language, and Esperanto clubs soon began springing up all over Europe.
This was a kid who spent a lot of time thinking about language. Not just about the languages themselves, but also about the role they played in dividing people. In a part of the world that had seen so much hostility between speakers of different languages, Samenhof wondered what the world would be like if everyone spoke the same language. Maybe, he thought, they’d come to see themselves as one single people, and the violence between communities would end.
By 1905, Esperanto had become a worldwide movement, with speakers on every continent except Antarctica. Speakers had 27 different Esperanto-language magazines to choose from and thousands of books to read, many of them original works Esperanto literature. More of the world’s great works of literature translated into Esperanto every year.
1905 was also the year that the Esperanto movement held its Congress, in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. With the end of the World War I and World War II years, a congress has been held every year since. The single most important piece of business ever conducted by the Esperantists was transacted at that first conference in Boulogne: They voted to establish Zamenhof’s early works, known collectively as Fundamento de Esperanto, as the permanent and immutable basis of the Esperanto language. This “Declaration of Boulogne” remains in force to this day.
When L. L. Zamenhof introduced Esperanto in 1887, he included in Unua Libro a printed pledge form that the reader could tear out, sign, and send in—a commitment to learn Esperanto if 10 million other people made the pledge. Each book contained four copies of the pledge, so that the reader’s family and friends could also sign up.
Esperanto has been around for more than a 120 years now, and in all that time it’s doubtful that 10 million people ever learned to speak it. It never did become a universal language. It didn’t end violence. It didn’t prevent World War I or World War II. It didn’t save the world. It didn’t even save Zamenhof’s own children: All three were killed in the Holocaust, singled out for murder by the Nazis, who viewed Esperanto as a tool of the international Jewish conspiracy. (Zamenhof’s grandson Louis did narrowly escape; as of 2008, Louis, alive and well at age 83, was still attending the annual Esperanto World Conferences.)
Esperanto has never been endorsed as an official language of any country anywhere on Earth. In 1908 the tiny one-square-mile territory of Neutral Moresnet, consisting only of one village and a zinc mine in what is now eastern Belgium, tried to adopt Esperanto as its “national” language. That effort failed too.