By Evi Tsakali,
It was not a long time ago when I was scrolling through my Duolingo profile, trying to decide which language would become my next course, until a language I had never heard of before caught my eye: Esperanto. I immediately wondered where it is spoken, how it sounds like… A quick research surprised me much more than I expected.
The dream of Dr. Zammenhof
Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (known in Esperanto as Ludoviko Lazaro) was an ophthalmologist born on the 15th of December 1859 in Ulica Zielona (‘Green Street’) in the city of Białystok in Poland, at the time part of the Russian Empire. Throughout his childhood, Ludoviko showed a love for languages. He dreamed of becoming a Russian writer, and to that end wrote a five-act tragedy, as well as several verses. Later, in adulthood, he wrote in a letter that he spoke three languages fluently (Russian, Polish and German), and that he also read French fluently, but was not a confident French-speaker. Throughout his life he learned more than ten languages. Young Zamenhof often witnessed ethnically motivated attacks among Bialystok’s numerous ethnic groups. This deeply affected him, and even as a child he believed that the main cause of hostile relations between nationalities was the lack of a shared, culturally-neutral language. His boyhood dream was of a single language for all humanity. This dream strongly possessed him and it never left him.
The idea of a common language was always on Zamenhof’s mind. He decided quite early on that any international language had to be neutral and could not exclusively belong to any one nationality or culture. Due to the tensions which existed between different nationalities, he understood that no one’s native language could be accepted by all as an acceptable bridge between peoples.
The first Esperanto book came out in Warsaw on July 14th, 1887. The name Esperanto was originally the pseudonym under which Zamenhof published the book (Doktor Esperanto), which translates as “he who hopes”.
The book contained the 16 cardinal grammatical rules of Esperanto as well as 917 word roots taken mostly from existing European languages: Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. The idea was to create the easiest possible language which could be learned in a shortest possible time-span.
Leo Tolstoy reportedly learned Esperanto in 3 to 4 hours. The language spread massively in the early 20th century and the first International Esperanto Congress was organized in 1905. Following WWI, Esperanto was often conceived as a quasi-revolutionary instrument for the emancipation of the proletariat, endorsed by the socialists and called by them “the latin of the workers”.
Learning Esperanto: my personal experience
The humanitarian message of Esperanto and Dr Zamenhof’s dream of a world with no language barriers, no dominating culture, where racist and xenophobic phenomena could be eradicated tempted me to take up Esperanto lessons. Speaking French and having knowledge of Spanish, I have to admit that learning Esperanto is very easy for me: there are many phrases that I could already understand just by comparing it to the languages I already know. Esperanto is a perfect blend of English (for example, “havas” means “have”), Latin and Romance languages (for example, “bona” means “good”), Greek (for example, “kaj” pronounced ka-i means “and”) and Slavic and Scandinavian languages (since I do not have knowledge of such languages I cannot -unfortunately- provide you with examples). It is incredible that everyone, regardless of their linguistic background, will find Esperanto even a little relatable.
The grammar (at least up to the point I have learned) is relatively simple: the verbs maintain the same form regardless of the subject or the singular/plural form. For example, mi estas, vi estas, li/ŝi/ĝi estas, ni estas, vi estas, ili estas translates to: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you are, they are. The plural form of nouns and adjectives is constructed with the addition of a “j” at the end of the word, while the last letter of each word determines whether it is a noun (ends in -o), an adjective (ends in -a) or an adverb (ends in -e). There is only one definite article (la) and no indefinite articles.
Is it useful to learn Esperanto?
The idealistic dream of Dr Esperanto may not have been achieved, however the Esperanto language counts to up to 2 million speakers today, scattered across the globe, while the majority of modern states have at least one Esperanto Association and speakers’ (known as “Esperantists”) clubs. Besides, taking up a language that encompasses characteristics of a plethora of languages will help you pursue any language you wish. It is not by chance that Esperanto was officially supported by UNESCO in the Montevideo resolution of December 10th, 1954 and condemned by many authoritarian regimes (primarily by Hitler who targeted Esperantists during the Holocaust). Personally, I am very optimistic about the development of this language in the international arena and I hope that its presence will be strengthened over the years.
- Esperanto explained (video to watch if you are interested to learn more on the topic). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJWVOkdWQAs
- The Montevideo Resolution. http://www.linguistic-rights.org/unesco/Optical-Character-Recognition-OCR-document-UNESCO-114586e-Resolution-of-UNESCO-in-favour-of-Esperanto-Montevideo-1954.pdf