Dream big they say. LL Zamenhof certainly did. From his Warsaw apartment high above the painted old town he dreamt of a world without war, without conflict and without borders.
How could this be achieved? Through the development of a language that would bind all humanity.
That would provide a common outlet for all humanity to express themselves, to state their need and aims, to negotiate, conciliate and conduct their business. Our modern minds are jaded by the thought of panaceas. A rough 20th century of fiercely state-backed ideology is probably the cause. In the calm waters of the second half of the 19th century however – when Europe seemed to find itself settled and borders began to loosen – such flights of imagination seemed to possess streaks of the possible. The smoke clouds of the early 20th century were not visible, although thick columns were very much present sprouting from Africa and East Asia.
Zamenhof was born to Russian and Jewish parents in Bialystok, in what is now Eastern Poland. He began to develop his new tongue whilst still at secondary school, blending his native Yiddish and Russian with his adopted Polish, and generous helpings of German, French, Latin and Hebrew. Recognising the simplistic beauty of English grammar he threw this in too, along with a garnish of Greek and Italian. What separates his project from that of countless best friend clichés and fantasy war gamers is that Zamenhof was desperate for others to learn and adopt it.
He termed it Esperanto, which translates in its own language as ‘One who hopes’.
We cannot know, but it’s reasonable to assume Zamenhof was not foolish enough to think that his new language would solve all the world’s issues, but he no doubt considered it a crucial first step. And rightly so. Before modern mass communication, and before computer aided translation, nuance of meaning lost between translations and interpreted spoken words had a far greater impact.
A poor quality and unprofessional job could lead to unintended insult or misunderstanding, which could sow the seed of real conflict.
Nobody would surely suggest that this was the sole reason for warfare in the past, but Zamenhof hoped that it would at least prevent powers from getting off on the wrong foot.
Many shared this vision, and following the publication of Zamenhof’s book on Esperanto grammar in 1887, the number of speakers grew rapidly all over the world. Periodicals kept them connected, and the first world congress of speakers of this constructed tongue met in Boulogne-sur-mer. Esperanto continued to fair well after the First World War, and was very nearly adopted as the working language for the (ill-fated) League of Nations. Sadly this was vetoed by the French. The coming decades saw a turn for the worse, as Esperanto was actively discriminated against by Nazi and Soviet governments for being both internationalist and the invention of a Jew.
Since then, in the bright light of the post cold war world, Esperanto has failed to re-gain momentum.
Today, speakers number 2 million worldwide, according to the international Esperanto Society, but less than 2000 of these are native (ie. speak it as a first language). English is as close as can be expected the world’s lingua franca. Of course Esperanto has a big advantage in being politically neutral, whereas adoption of English can stick in the craw for many across the world as a surrender to imperialism. Yet this is also its biggest flaw. It has no state to promote it, no economy to conduct business with it.
In an increasingly globalised world (to borrow an overused phrase) it makes sense to conduct business in the language that the biggest players speak, and right now that’s English.
Yet the counter-balance to this new world order is to make special and drive value to that which is inherently local. Whilst those in offices speak in English to their overseas buyers and suppliers, demand has rocketed for goods and services presented to the end user in their own vernacular, a language for business and a language for the private citizen is established.
Yet Esperanto has had its purpose eclipsed and is left without a constituency.
Who knows what will become of his product of Victorian idealism. It may yet revive, but in the medium term at least it remains significantly more of a romantic vision than a genuine reality. Nobody likes to say goodbye to a Utopian dream, but as one attendee at this year’s British Esperanto Conference put it ‘Languages follow the biggest armies, and there’s never been an Esperanto army’.