Is it possible to invent a language? From Star Trek and Avatar you probably know that the answer is yes. However, constructed languages are not just for the movies. The most successful real-life constructed language – with one to two million speakers around the world today, annual international conferences, and even an office at the United Nations – is Esperanto.
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Origins of Esperanto
Believe it or not, Esperanto was created by just one person: Dr. L. L. Zamenhof, a Russian Jew born in 1859 in the city of Bialystok in contemporary Poland. Multiple ethnic groups lived in Bialystok at that time, and tensions were high. Zamenhof noted that language barriers contributed to the intergroup hostility and thought that the existence of a politically neutral language could make it easier for all parties to discuss their conflicts.
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Therefore, he worked for years to invent one. He simplified grammar and vocabulary from various European languages and in 1887 published his Unua Libro, or first book, a guide to his Lingvo Internacia (international language). He used the pen name Dr. Esperanto – meaning “one who hopes” in his new language – and eventually that name came to be applied to the language itself.
Growth and Flourishing
Zamenhof’s idea was actually not that strange – during the nineteenth century, there was something of a vogue for constructing languages for the purpose of international communication. However, Esperanto became unusually successful. The friendly culture that its speakers built probably helped with that, as did the fact that Zamenhof specially designed it to be easy to learn.
The years 1903-1914 are sometimes known as the international period of Esperanto because of the proliferation of Esperanto associations in various countries (the U.S. got one in 1910). The first annual World Esperanto Congress was held in 1905 and the Universal Esperanto Association was founded in 1908. The language attracted people who dreamt of a future in which diverse nations could peacefully coexist.
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After World War I, there was renewed interest in the idea of Esperanto as a vehicle for international communication and peacekeeping. The League of Nations supported the idea, and although it never adopted the language, Esperanto flourished. The 1926 World Congress attracted 5,000 attendees, and in 1935 membership in the Universal Esperanto Association was as high as 16,000. Esperanto was taught in primary and secondary schools in multiple countries (including the U.S) and was endorsed by organizations from the Red Cross to the YMCA.
As early as 1907, splinter groups of Esperantists began abandoning Esperanto for newer international languages (many of them based on Esperanto itself). However, none of these languages ever achieved Esperanto’s popularity.
Threats came from the outside as well. Many governments were suspicious of Esperanto and its speakers, given their pro-internationalist leanings. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that the whole language was part of a Jewish conspiracy – German prisoner-of-war camps in World War II even banned the use of the language, although some clever Esperantists convinced guards that they were actually speaking the similar-sounding Italian. Stalin believed Esperanto to be “the language of spies” and had Esperantists exiled or even executed. In the U.S., on the other hand, people around Joseph McCarthy accused Esperantists of sympathizing with the Soviet Union.
Esperanto managed to survive the twentieth century, even gaining numerous followers in later decades in some countries in Africa and South America. Still, suppression prevented Esperanto from becoming the universal auxiliary language its early adopters had hoped for.
The contemporary Esperanto community received increased media attention last year with the release of Esther Schor’s history of the movement, and Esperanto’s popularity appears to be growing. Learning the language is easier than ever, thanks to its inclusion in mainstream language apps like Duolingo and the emergence of Esperanto-specific apps like Poŝa Reta Vortaro. The internet also makes it easier to find people to speak it with.
So, why do people these days want to learn this made-up language?
Solid basis for learning more languages
Access to an expanded world of literature (because of Esperanto’s flexible nature, some argue that translation into Esperanto can preserve shades of meaning better than translation between natural languages can)
Sense of community with others who believe in building relationships across national borders
“More and more people are recognizing that Esperanto makes a statement – that to choose one ethnic language over another for international communication is discriminatory and unfair,” says Humphrey Tonkin, who represents the Universal Esperanto Association at the United Nations. “And so they are communicating in Esperanto. It’s easy, it’s equitable, and it opens up a whole new world of communication. The future is bright for Esperanto.”