The History of Esperanto: A Modern Lingua Franca?

Perhaps one of the world’s greatest ideas, Esperanto was a language constructed to foster ease of communication across the entire world.

Jan 5, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
esperanto history

 

In the late 19th century, a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist named L.L. Zamenhof struck upon the idea of creating a new language to foster cooperation between nations.

 

Zamenhof created Esperanto. Its grammar was simple. It was easy to learn. And it attracted a lot of attention. The idea was that it would become an international language of trade and diplomacy, fulfilling the functions of second-language communication without any resentment or negative attitudes resulting from being forced to communicate in a language with cultural and historical implications. It was for everybody.

 

So what happened to it?

 

The Early History of Esperanto

l l zamenhof
L.L Zamenhof, via Smithsonian Magazine

 

Just before Esperanto was invented in 1887, its creator, L.L. Zamenhof, had been banned from speaking Polish, along with the rest of his fellow Poles, due to Russification. The areas now constituting Poland were subject to harsh reprisals for displaying any form of national identity.

 

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Zamenhof grew up in Białystok, a diverse place with Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews. According to a letter he wrote in 1895, these groups viewed each other as enemies, driven by cultural and linguistic differences.

 

Zamenhof was brought up as an idealist and viewed the division among the people as a sad indictment of the times. As a child, he decided that he would endeavor to destroy this evil when he grew up. He created Esperanto, designed to be used as a universal second language. As a second language, it was not intended to replace anyone’s mother tongue but to create a commonality between all people who could use it on equal footing.

 

In the late 1870s, Zamenhof began work on his constructed language (conlang). It took him around a decade to complete, and after he finished creating it, he immediately set to work translating literature and creating original prose in the new language. His books were disseminated throughout Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire, finding their way to the United States and the Far East, where they started popular movements.

 

vintage poster 1906
Poster for the Esperanto Congress of 1906, via Galerie 123

 

Zamenhof was particular about distancing himself from his creation. He made notes in all his books that he renounced any ownership of the language and that it was the property of all humankind.

 

In Western Europe, the language gained a solid following, and in 1905, the first Esperanto Congress was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Since then, the congress has been held annually, suspended only during the two world wars and the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Esperanto in the Early 20th Century

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Cover of A World Language: Why Not Esperanto?, 1916, via the British Library

 

The language gained significant popularity in Neutral Moresnet, a tiny piece of land sandwiched between Belgium and Germany. Both countries laid claim to the land, but Neutral Moresnet was administered by the Netherlands as a neutral territory. Although having only a small population of a few thousand residents, the move to make Esperanto the official language of Neutral Moresnet gained traction.

 

The idea, however, would never be implemented. The First World War broke out, Belgium was invaded by Germany, and the territory was annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia. After the war, the territory was awarded to Belgium and ceased to exist as a semi-independent nation.

 

L.L. Zamenhof died in 1917; from 1907 to his death, he was nominated for 14 Nobel Peace Prizes. Sadly, he didn’t win any. His legacy, however, would outlast him.

 

Similarly, since then, the Universal Esperanto Association, which exists to this day, has throughout history been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize over 100 times and hasn’t ever won.

 

The Heyday of Esperanto & Reactions

soviet union 1926 esperanto
Stamps issued in the Soviet Union celebrating the 6th International Esperanto Congress in 1926, via Hip Stamp

 

During the 1920s, Esperanto became widely known throughout the world of politics, and a powerful Esparantist movement was almost successful in adopting the language as an official language of the League of Nations. The proposal, put forward by the Iranian delegation, was vetoed by the French delegate, who echoed the sentiment of many French language fanatics in France who saw Esperanto as a threat.

 

Nevertheless, the League of Nations recommended that its member states institute the teaching of Esperanto in schools. France responded in 1922 by banning the teaching of Esperanto in its education system, with those in power claiming it was a tool for communist ideas.

 

During this time, the Esperanto movement was popular among socialists, communists, and anarchists as it was seen as a way to foster equality and respect among individuals – an ideal at the core of each ideology. It also saw vast growth in Yugoslavia and Korea.

 

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Flag representing the Esperanto language, via Best Buy Flags

 

As right-wing movements rose in Europe, Esperanto was, naturally, a threat to national identity. The Esperanto movement was suppressed in Francoist Spain, Portugal, and Nazi Germany. In Fascist Italy, however, the attitude was surprisingly one of acceptance, and the country even promoted tourism in Esperanto. After the Second World War, despite Spain still being Francoist, the threat from Esperanto and its associated movements dissipated, and the language became tolerated.

 

Originally championed by Stalin, who studied Esperanto extensively, his attitude towards the language changed in the late 1930s, and it became labeled as a vector for “spies, Zionists and cosmopolitans.” Things became increasingly worse for Esperantists in the Soviet Union, and they faced imprisonment or even execution. Many Esperanto speakers were sent to the gulags.

 

In Nazi Germany, Hitler targeted Esperanto as being “Bolshevist” and dangerous as a language that Jewish people could use to gain world domination. Esperanto was banned in Nazi Germany in 1935, and Esperantists perished in the Holocaust along with all the other victims. In concentration camps, however, Esperantists continued to teach Esperanto to their fellow prisoners. When interrogated by the guards, they claimed they were teaching Italian. As Esperanto draws heavily from Italian, and Italy was a Fascist ally of Nazi Germany, this act of defiance slipped under the Nazi radar.

 

After the Second World War

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The Wikipedia logo in Esperanto, via Wikipedia

 

In 1954, UNESCO attempted to bring more prominence to the language by designating it as an international auxiliary language, but it failed to get the relevant support from the United Nations and has yet to be adopted as an official language of the organization.

 

Although interest in the language continued throughout the following decades, it remained confined to a relatively small audience. In 1985, UNESCO passed a resolution for which the organization actively promoted the teaching of Esperanto in school curricula around the world. The call was answered by China, which has, for many years, offered Esperanto courses in many of its universities and even has an Esperanto museum.

 

With the advent of the internet and advanced communication methods, interest in the language has increased in recent years, although it has a long way to go to reach its peak in popularity, which was the 1920s. One of the biggest and most promising developments is the interest in Esperanto garnered through Duolingo, one of the most prominent language sites on the internet.

 

esperanto parade slovakia
The 101st Esperanto Congress held in Slovakia, via Jozef Baláž / zamenhof.info

 

Despite the relatively small (in comparison with other major languages) number of speakers and slow progress in adopting Esperanto around the world, there has been no reduction of efforts by UNESCO in promoting the idea. The organization declared 2017 to be the year of Zamenhof, the centenary of his passing, and since then, the UNESCO Courier, which is published in many languages, has also been published in Esperanto.

 

What is the Appeal of Esperanto?

esperanto text book
Cover of Esperanto: The Universal Language: The Student’s Complete Text Book by J. C. O’Connor, via Amazon

 

L.L. Zamenhof intended his language to be a vessel for peaceful relations across the world. This idea is shared by Esperanto’s enthusiasts who echo Zamenhof’s sentiments. The language itself is constructed to be as simple and as useful as possible, eliminating the struggle that many people experience while having to learn a second language.

 

There are 1.5 billion English speakers worldwide, with two-thirds of them using English as a second language. And while English may not have the complex system of cases like the Finnish language’s 15, for example, plenty of grammatical rules and exceptions make English complicated. Along with inconsistency in spelling, English remains a very daunting language to learn. Its adoption as a lingua franca is largely the result of an imperialist history and not out of any sense of utilitarian pragmatism.

 

Switching to Esperanto instead of English could make far more sense, but the situation is difficult as the dynamic is one of English being long established, with deep roots and infrastructures in the industry of second-language adoption.

 

As it stands at present, compared with 1.5 billion English speakers, Esperanto has 2 million. English has 750 times the number of speakers.

 

Oddly enough, Esperanto has around 1000 native speakers.

 

Despite the fact that Esperanto exists today as a far cry from what Zamenhof hoped it would become, the language is certainly in no danger of being abandoned. Initiatives exist to promote it, and it has a following of 2 million speakers.

 

Who knows what the future will hold?

 

After all, “Esperanto” in Esperanto means “one who hopes.”

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.