originally published October 18, 2012
Just about every known language has evolved over centuries, deriving from a culture’s extensive history of moving around and getting their asses conquered. A small handful of languages have emerged over the past 150 years and actually gained some traction among the throats of the world. There are fantasy lovers who can speak Elvin, Trek-heads who are fluent in Klingon, and I’m sure somebody has figured out the frenetic babbling of Andy Kaufman on Taxi.
(I think “Eebeeda” either means “Yes”, “Hello”, or “I’m horny.”)
But what if you don’t have a popular book or TV show through which to spread your new tongue? What if your motivation for creating a language is to bridge cultures together, to foster a global movement of peace and mutual understanding? Well, first of all you’d shooting for the impossible, let’s face it. Also, you’d be duplicating the efforts made by L. L. Zamenhof.
Zamenhof was born in Bialystok, a part of Russia now situated on the Polish side of the border, and he grew up learning Russian, Yiddish and Polish. Over time he also picked up French, Greek, Hebrew, English, and Latin. At some point he found time to become a doctor. Zamenhof was a bit of an over-achiever.
In Bialystok people had a hard time getting along. Zamenhof looked at his neighbors and saw people yelling at each other in Yiddish, Lithuanian, Polish and German. Zamenhof felt that if everyone could speak the same language, they’d tolerate one another and maybe stop throwing ethnic food at each other’s windows.
By the time he was 19, Zamenhof had just about completed the book that would introduce his new language, or his Lingwe uniwersala as he called it. But no one was going to take a kid seriously, so instead he finished med school and went to work.
When he did finally release his book at age 28, he did so under a pseudonym, “Doktoro Esperanto”, which means Doctor Hopeful in Russian. He published his rules of Esperanto grammar in 1887, then proceeded to bring the language to the masses, in part by translating a wide selection of prose and poetry into his new tongue. Causing a trend to sweep through the civilized world is hard enough now (just ask me after my next failed attempt at organizing a Nude Slinky League event), but in those days of minimal mass-communication, it’s that much more impressive that Zamenhof made it happen.
(the Esperanto greeting card industry was an odd way to spread the language)
In 1905 the first World Congress of Esperanto Speakers was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France. 688 people showed up. That’s 688 people who planned their vacation around showing up in this French town and speaking in a language only a tiny minority of the world understood.
Over in a place called Neutral Moresnet, a tiny little independent sub-nation in between present-day Belgium and Germany, they decided in 1908 to try to make Esperanto their official language. They had a national anthem picked out and everything, but increasing pressure from Belgium and Germany to plant their own flags in the region killed the idea.
After World War I wiped Neutral Moresnet into the pages of history, a proposal was put forth to make Esperanto the official language of the newly-formed League of Nations. The vote was ten-to-one in favor of the proposal. That one holdout was France, who felt that their language was quickly losing its reputation as the unofficial international language, and believed Esperanto to be a threat. They used their veto power, and like so many other aspirations dreamed up by the League of Nations, nothing came of it.
(A similar proposal to make the hot pink onesie the official international sleepwear also met with a similar fate)
The League did push for their member states to include Esperanto as part of their educational curricula, which was a huge promotional boost for its speakers. Nobody was willing to yank their own language in favor of the new world-speak yet – or even add it as an official second language – but people were learning it.
Naturally, any grand global effort to promote peace and understanding was going to provoke some suspicion. This suspicion was most notable among the regimes that sought to promote violence and a screw-you-we-rule sentiment, such as Nazi Germany, Francoist Spain and the Stalinized USSR. You want to know how powerful a language can be? Here’s the evidence.
In Imperial Japan, the Esperantists (which appears to be an actual word) were persecuted. Stalin denounced Esperanto as “the language of spies” in 1937, and ordered its speakers exiled or shot. In Germany, where they had a tendency to blow things three time zones away from proportion, Esperantists were rounded up and murdered during the Holocaust. Seriously, Hitler felt this was the language that would be used by the International Jewish Conspiracy once they took over the world. Zamenhof’s own descendants were targeted. People taught each other the language in concentration camps. Esperanto was a secret totem of resistance.
There was one nation that embraced Esperanto – the floating micronation known as the Republic of Rose Island, which was located for a brief period in 1968 on a 400-square-meter platform off the coast of Forli, Italy. Its founder, Giorgio Rosa, declared Esperanto to be the national language. A small triumph, as the platform was destroyed once the Italian government decided that the nation was simply a way for Rosa to avoid paying taxes.
One university, the International Academy of Sciences, San Marino, has made Esperanto their official language of instruction. All nine of their students no doubt welcome the challenge.
Google Translate lists Esperanto among its languages, so you too can learn how to communicate with fellow language pioneers. If you’re the convention-going type, the World Congress of Esperanto has been held every year (apart from World War years) since that 1905 meeting in France. 2011’s in Copenhagen saw 1458 attendees; there might be more this year in Hanoi.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Hello is Saluton. Yes is Jes. No is Ne. Though it would appear that “Kiel vi fartas?” would be a translation of “Who farted?”, it actually means “How are you?” And lastly, “Mi komerci vi aglutinante de virinoj por la resto de via lardo” is the proper way to state, “I will trade you a binder of women for the rest of your bacon.”
You have to admire Esperanto’s staying power. It will never achieve L.L. Zamenhof’s dream of bringing about world peace through the ability to discuss last night’s episode of Dexter in the same language around the world, but it has no doubt helped a few people feel connected who would otherwise never have known one another.
They even have their own flag. How many languages can say that? Suck it, Elvin.