Esperanto: the universal language celebrates 150 years

Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?

Do you speak Esperanto?

Even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard of the world’s most popular artificial language. Spoken by a dedicated international community, this easy-to-learn language has been pushing for global understanding for a century now.

This month Esperantists, as people who speak Esperanto are called, are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of their founder, Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof.

Zamenhof grew up in a small town in the Russian Empire where the people spoke Belarussian, German, Polish, and Yiddish. He saw all the troubles and misunderstandings this multilingual community had and decided that an international language would be the best way to promote peace. He devised one and published a grammar and dictionary in 1887. The language has no verb declensions, no exceptions to its simple rules, and a uniform way to turn a word from a verb to a noun to an adjective. Called Esperanto (“One who hopes”), it soon grew into a international phenomenon.
Sadly, Esperanto never became a truly universal language. The governments of the world would have had to agree to teach it to their populations, and this would require a degree of cooperation that our fragmented globe is unable to muster. Being a language of international peace and understanding, it’s also received unhealthy attention from various unsavory regimes. Esperantists were killed in the Holocaust and in Stalin’s purges. The fact that Zamenhof was a Jew fed into antisemitic fears of a “one world government”.

But this hasn’t dissuaded Esperantists. They’re an active bunch, with their own version of Wikipedia, their own magazines, their own language academy, even their own flag, sporting the green star, which many Esperantists wear as a lapel pin to identify themselves. For travelers, Esperantists have a network of free accommodation in 92 countries.

It’s unclear just how many people speak Esperanto, but estimates range from 100,000 to two million. I’ve met Esperantists in Bulgaria, Iran, India, and the U.S. Back in the Nineties I and a group of other visionaries scammed some money from the University of Arizona to create our own Esperantogrupo and taught regular classes for three years. Sadly, the group is no more and my knowledge of Esperanto has decayed as I’ve studied German, Arabic, and Spanish.

Perhaps some day I’ll pick it up again. Who knows? As the U.S. slips from superpower status English won’t remain a universal language, and it’s sure not going to be replaced by Chinese (one of the hardest languages in the world to learn) so perhaps Esperanto will get a second chance.