04 March 2010

Esperanto, Ludwig Zamenhof and world understanding

Eliezer Levi Samenhof aka Ludwig Zamenhof (1859–1917) was born in the town of Białystok, then in the Russian Empire and now in Poland near the Belarussian border. He trained firstly in general medicine and then specialised in opthalmology.

Zamenhof spoke of his native language as being his father's Russian (although some people have suggested that Belarusian would be more accurate), but he spoke his mother's Yiddish as his main family language. It is interesting that once Ludwig’s own children were born, Polish became the home language of his children. German of course was not difficult for him to pick up, since Yiddish is in any case 70% German. Later he learned French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and English well, and a couple of other European languages less well.

Just to make the question of languages personal, my own grandfather spoke Yiddish as his home language and Russian as his day-to-day school and work language. He too spoke excellent German and Polish by the time he was a young adult, but he had to learn French, Hebrew and English the hard way – via language classes and books. Greek and Latin would have been out of the question for Jewish males in my grandparents' part of Russia (now the Ukraine). But one language my grandfather had over Zamenhof was Italian. Australia was filling up with Italian migrants in the 1950s and 60s, and no professional could afford not to learn Italian.

Anyhow in addition to the Yiddish-speaking Jewish majority, the population of Białystok had lots of Poles, Germans and Belarusians. There were endless struggles between the subgroups of this part of the Russian Empire, which I would put down to religious and political differences, but Zamenhof thought otherwise. He believed that the main reason for hatred lay in mutual misunderstanding, caused by the lack of a common language that everyone could understand, regardless of their different ethnic backgrounds. Was he naïve in thinking that a shared language could play the role of a neutral communication tool between peoples?

After years of working on this new international language, the first book of Esperanto grammar (The Unua Libro) was published in Warsaw in July 1887, in Russian. Zamenhof was a productive thinker and writer; he also spent years translating literature into Esperanto.

The linguists say that as a modern language designed from the ground up, Esperanto is not genealogically related to any specific language. The sound, grammar, vocabulary and semantics are largely based on the western Indo-European languages. The semantics are essentially Slavic, while the vocabulary derives primarily from the Romance languages, with some words coming from German. Pragmatics and other aspects of the language not specified by Zamenhof's original documents were influenced by the native languages of early speakers, as you might expect: Russians, Poles, Germans and French-speakers.

Esperanto's flag is a green rectangle with a smaller white square, and a green star superimposed in the top left corner. See English Cafe.com for the complete flag and its symbolism.

The number of speakers grew rapidly over the next few decades, at first largely in the Russian Empire and Eastern Europe, then in Western Europe and abroad. Journals appeared. Finally in 1905, the first world congress of Esperanto speakers was held in France. Since then world congresses have been held in different countries every year, except during both World Wars.

Providentia blog is excellent on the history of Esperanto in the era of rising Fascism in Central and Eastern Europe. "In his work, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler specifically mentioned Esperanto as a tool of international Jewish Conspiracy and the language that they would use once they dominated the world. It probably didn't help that Esperanto use became popular in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and, as such, became strongly associated with Bolshevik movements".

Almost no-one in the entire universe speaks Esperanto with their children at home, instead of a more usual native language. Probably some 10 million people have studied it at school or university, but only one university in the world gives its lectures and tutorials in Esperanto: Akademio Internacia de la Sciencoj, San Marino.

For Zamenhof and other Esperanto fans, this language was far from being merely a communication tool. Rather I think they saw it as a way of promoting the peaceful coexistence of different people and cultures. But this was the very goal that made nervous national leaders turn against Esperanto. Nazi Germany, for example, prohibited Esperanto and gaoled its followers because a] Zamenhof was Jewish, b] Esperanto was internationalist, not nationalist and c] most followers were pro-peace and anti-war. Joseph Stalin believed that Esperanto was the language of spies; his henchmen killed several thousand Esperanto-speakers in 1937, calling them Enemies of the People.

Zamenhof had not been an avid supporter of a Jewish homeland because he was "profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness". But all this international understanding didn't help the Zamenhof family. Ludwig died from a heart attack in 1917, only 3 years into the War to End All Wars. And as Providentia blog explained, Ludwig's three children were all shot by the Nazis during the next war - two of them had been brilliant doctors and one was a noted educator. Had they escaped to a Jewish homeland by 1939, the family might not have been exterminated.

Advertising for an Esperanto Conference in Bern.


Anonymous said...

You might find this article -- by Claude Piron, who was for over a decade a professional French translator for the UN and WHO (translating English, Spanish, Russian and Chinese) before moving on to a research career in Geneva -- to be worth a read.

Esperanto, a western language?

In short, he argues that while the vocabulary of Esperanto is largely derived from European (or Indo-European) languages, the grammar most definitely is not.

I myself for some time was concerned that Esperanto was "too European" for a proper "International Auxiliary Language", though I liked the idea and had enjoyed the university Esperanto Club. But when I had opportunity to discus the topic in depth with non-European Esperantists, they argued most convincingly to the contrary. They went on to suggest that if they were satisfied, I would perhaps be just making excuses for not treating it more seriously, in the future.

Anonymous said...

Based on your blog-post, I thought that you might also find this article of interest. Though I'm just guessing at the source of some of your info -- I could easily be entirely mistaken -- the bit about "the phonemic inventory and semantics are essentially Slavic..." reminds me of a particularly notorious, pseudo-erudite rant. Once again, here's a very brief treatment by the afore-mentioned Claude Piron.

Why not to learn Esperanto

If I am mistaken, perhaps you'll find the piece of interest, anyways. ;-)

Hels said...

bernard, I almost always cite my sources... I have no idea why I forgot to this time. My only excuse was that I was more interested in Zamenhof's notion of world understanding than I was in Esperanto's linguistic problems.

Great topic, isn't it? :)

Hermes said...

I didn't know its history so that was fascinating. English seems to have become the universal language, which is lucky for us British as we seem very reluctant to learn anything else!

Hels said...

A colleague read the post and offered the following insight:

Him: Why did Zamenhof not just use Swahili instead? it is very easy to learn, and the grammar is entirely regular.
Me: because Zamenhof was Russian. I mean you may as well say why not Yiddish... that was spoken world-wide already.
Him: well yes, but for an English speaker, Swahili is ideal; it is pronounced exactly as it is written, and there are no irregular verbs.

Tonyo said...

You can find a club of Esperanto in Melbbourne: http://www.melburno.org.au/. They have a radio program in Esperanto en 3ZZZ. Greetings to my friend Franciska :-)

On the subject of native speakers, you may find interesting this text: http://www.delbarrio.eu/2008/05/speaking-esperanto-like-native.html.

And, of course, Esperanto "is pronounced exactly as it is written, and there are no irregular verbs", as well.

Saluton el la antipodoj!

Unknown said...

I would push for English to be the international language. I don't think Esperanto will have widespread support. But then again who am I?

Another nice post, dear lady.



Hels said...

Hermes and Kiwi, it would make our own lives so simple, wouldn't it, if English became the universal language. In any case, it is already the (or one of the) primary languages of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan, USA, Malta etc. And the secondary language of many other countries.

But Zamenhof wanted a shared language that could play the role of a neutral communication tool between peoples. No culture, no nation and no history would be privileged. He may have been Utopian, of course, but he was philosophically consistent.

Anonymous said...

Yes, in many ways Swahili would make an excellent lingua franca (if I recall correctly, that was in fact a factor in its spread and development).

A major factor in what makes a language difficult or easy to learn is its regularity and consistency, and Swahili is often mentioned as a notably regular and consistent language.

However, at a political/cultural level many African nations would object (or so I've heard) as Swahili has historical baggage relating to its use in the slave trade, among other things. There were two or three other African lingua francas, and of course each of them would be supported in some quarters, and protested in others, due to historical/cultural conflicts.

English seems to raise objections at both levels:

* As a language of economic opportunity, English has some considerable popularity. But in so far as its use is seen as obligatory, it stirs resentment -- especially outside of relatively elite circles in which learning English well is a relatively accessible opportunity. Politically and culturally, the reaction to obligatory English is not all that much different from how we would respond to obligatory use of, say, German or Arabic. Even here in my proudly bilingual (English/French) native Canada, resentment over official-language requirements and policy is more common than one might expect.

* English is also a very inconsistent and a difficult language to gain more than superficial competence in. Even in Europe, actual testing a few years ago put the number of "competent" English users at about 6%. "Competence", by the way, was in this case defined as knowing English sufficiently well, to understand advertisements well enough to be worth the bother.

It would seem desirable that a lingua franca be (a) relatively easy to learn (which would make Swahili or Spanish or Persian relatively attractive choices) and (b) politically and culturally neutral (which seems to make any sufficiently modern "natural" or national languages problematic).

I am not personally optimistic that Esperanto will gain recognition as a solution to the current language problem anytime soon. Firstly, many forward-thinking people assume that technology will solve our woes quicker and easier (think StarTrek-style "Universal Translator"). Secondly, there is great resistance, even -- or perhaps I should say, especially -- in organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union, to acknowledging that there is a significant "language problem" at all.

buy viagra said...

Ludwig Zamenhof was an amazing and intelligent person who was able to understand that we all live in one world only and we have to respect and tolerate one another. He transfered those ideas to the esperanto language

neil.nachum said...

Your article is relatively thorough. I like when an Australian takes note that two leading Australian diplomats were also leading Esperanto-speakers. Australian Ambassador to the UN Ralph Harry (1975-1978) was a co-founder of the office I've volunteered in for the last 3 years opposite the United Nations to avocate for Esperanto. Kep Enderby led Universal Esperanto Association while he was a Minister of Justice in one of Australia's states some years back. I met both a number of times.

Hels said...

Kep Enderby was a rather brilliant federal minister in the blissful days of a _Federal_ Labour government (early 1970s). Then he went on to be a fine Justice of the Supreme Court of one of the states.

Australia's previous prime minister, another brilliant Labour chap Kevin Rudd, was fluent in Mandarin.

When spouse and I travel around Europe, I speak excellent Hebrew and poor French. He speaks excellent Yiddish and German, and poor Hebrew. Esperanto would have been better :)

Happy new year.

Hels said...


*nod* lots of people pay lip service to tolerance and mutual understanding. Zamenhof actually put it into practice!