Saturday, 27 December 2014
December the 15th- 155th anniversary of the birth of L.L. Zamenhof, founder of Esperanto
Most people today have heard about Esperanto and when asked, they will soon tell you, that it is the international language, the project that never worked out.
Really? Lets start from the beginning.
Since the “Tower of Babel” people have dreamed about a common language which could be understood by everyone, everywhere. Hundreds of attempts were made to create a universal language, especially at the end of the 19th century. The most known at this time was “Volapük” created by the German catholic priest J.M. Schleyer around 1880.
At the same time Zamenhof worked hard on the basic structure of what later became Esperanto, the most successful constructed language ever.
Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof was born in 1859 as first child in a Lithuanian Jewish family in Białystok (today Poland) which at that time was occupied by the Russian Empire. In the small city, Poles, Russians, Germans, Lithuanians and Jews lived together. As a boy, he noticed that they often quarrelled with each other due to language misunderstandings. Perhaps they wouldn’t do so if they could understand each other, he mused.
His father, a book censor and language teacher, taught him additionally to his various home languages German and French what also increased his general interest in languages. For six years at the Philological Gymnasium he also learned Latin and Greek, studied English and became a keen Polyglot who thought quite seriously about a common language.
At the end of his school time he had created a kind of pre- Esperanto, in which he and his friends already communicated with and sung together. However, before he could dedicate himself further to a universal language, his father wanted him to study medicine in Moscow. He excelled in his study and after he finished, he started to work as a doctor in Warsaw, and soon specialized as an oculist. Life was hard then but still he managed again to work on his idealistic project. With the help of his future father in law he finally published the result of his study, a booklet called “Lingvo Internacia” in a Russian edition. It was published not under his name, but under the pseudonym Doctor Esperanto (the one who hopes), the later official name of that new language. In the booklet were the 16 grammatical rules and the first 900 word roots made out of Germanic, Slavic and Latin languages which have grown to about 20 000 today.
At this time the undergraduate and later distinguished linguist Richard Geoghegan was studying Chinese at the Balliol College in Oxford where he came across this new language. As the first English speaker he learnt in no time Esperanto from a German copy and corresponded in it with Zamenhof himself. He than translated the booklet of Zamenhof into English.
Soon followed editions in other languages. The new idea spread fast and far, the idealistic dream became an international issue.
In 1905 for the first time 700 participants from 22 countries met at the first Universala Kongreso de Esperanto, the World Congress of Esperanto, in Boulogne-sur- Mer in France demonstrating the practical use of the common language without the need of translators. From then the language developed further and a community with its own rich culture developed.
In 1920 the League of Nations, the predecessor of the UN, nearly got Esperanto as their working language. However, France at this time being a powerful nation with French the most dominant world language voted against it. In 1940 the nations of the world were ready to teach Esperanto in schools across the globe, as proposed at the UN. However this time the USA voted against it. Only in 1954 Esperanto was officially recognized by UNESCO.
Already in the twenties the language issue was broadly discussed. By 1928, Rotary was becoming a truly international movement and problems of the use of multiple languages in international communication became evident. Rotary Clubs had decided to agitate for the teaching of a common language in all schools. Esperanto became Rotary Internationals first Fellowship.
1930 the 22th Esperanto Congress took place in Oxford and was warmly welcomed by the city and its prestigious university. Many academics were very interested in this subject like the later famous author of “The Lord of the Rings” professor J.R.R. Tolkien, who signed an appeal “The Educational Value of Esperanto” together with 20 British personalities.
However, history didn't change in favour of a neutral auxiliary language. The new political and economic situation after the second World War favoured English. Today it is the most used language in international relations, business, traffic and science. In spite of it English is still not officially recognized either at the UN nor at the EU as the only common language. The EU spend about 1,1 billion Euro every year on translation and interpretation of its 24 official working languages. This has to do with language democracy and -justice.
People around the world work hard to achieve a good level of English with its many irregularities and odd pronunciation. Which can for many, in spite of the time and money invested, prove too difficult. For most non-native English speakers communication in English always will be a communication on an unequal level.
On the other hand today tens of thousands people use the, relatively easy to learn, living world language Esperanto as a second tongue. Tons of books are published in it, both translations as well as original literature. Esperanto is a subject at schools and universities around the world. In Great Britain it is introduced at some Primary schools because of its propaedeutic value in language learning (Springboard to Languages). Music from Hip Hop to classic is available, film and theatre is a well used medium of its speakers. Its lively culture has happily embraced the Internet. With more than 200 000 Wikipedia articles and its online self teaching presence “Lernu!”, which gets about 150 000 visitors each month, Esperanto can't be any longer dismissed as a quirky pastime of a few individuals.
The World Esperanto Organization stands today for the promotion of Esperanto and at the same time for the right of everybody to use its own language.
The Oxford author, poet and prized Esperanto writer Marjory Boulton, who celebrated her 90th birthday this year, like the initiator of the once artificial language Zamenhof envisioned a world improved by the equalizing influence of a common auxiliary language.
Both anniversaries reminds us to look anew at the noble but still not yet fully realised vision Esperanto.