The 100th anniversary of the death of Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language, was observed on April 14 of this year.
Zamenhof, a Jewish physician, was born in the northeastern Polish city of Bialystok in 1859 and died in Warsaw in 1917. Bialystok belonged to the Russian Empire at the time and, as a polyglot city of Belarusians, Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, and Russians, was the scene of ethnic tensions.
From his youth, Zamenhof occupied himself with poetry and drama. He wrote, among other pieces, a five-act tragedy based, interestingly enough, on the myth of the Tower of Babel — the biblical story recounting the origins of the world’s different languages.
As told in the Book of Genesis, people once spoke the same language. But, because they banded together to build a tower in Babylon that glorified their own achievements, rather than those of their deity, God punished them by creating a myriad of languages so that they could no longer communicate with each other.
Zamenhof was saddened and frustrated by the many quarrels among the different ethnic groups in his native city — caused, he thought, by the lack of one common language. Though a polymath fluent in a large number of languages, for Zamenhof the diversity of languages was a curse, not a blessing.
He hoped to rectify this by inventing a universal tongue. A world without linguistic barriers, he believed, might produce a world without war. Perhaps it was only appropriate that a Polish Jew would try to cut through this Gordian knot and create a universal tongue.
Zamenhof left Bialystok to study medicine in Moscow and Warsaw but continued on his project. In 1887, he published the book Lingvo Internacia (International Language), under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Dr. One Who Hopes).
A year later, he produced two more volumes, Dua Libro de Lingvo Internacia (The Second Book of the International Language) and Aldono al la Dua Libro (Supplement to the Second Book). He also produced Russian–Esperanto and German–Esperanto dictionaries.
From 1889 on, living in Warsaw, he edited the monthly La Esperantisto, which was published in Nuremberg. He also founded the Universala Esperanto-Asocio (World Society of Esperantists).
“Zamenhof created Esperanto as a counterweight to national languages, which, he believed, divided people and were a source of conflict,” said Przemyslaw Wierzbowski, head of the Bialystok Society of Esperanto Enthusiasts.
“Today, we know that it’s economic, ethnic or religious differences that divide people, but Esperanto still has the goal of uniting us, helping us communicate,” he added.
By 1905, there were more than 300 Esperanto associations around the world. That same year, nearly 700 people from about 20 countries attended the first Esperanto world congress in the French city of Boulogne-Sur-Mer.
Zamenhof translated many works into Esperanto, including the Torah, which he finished shortly before his death. Known for his idealism, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 13 times without success.
The outbreak of World War I was a major disappointment to him, and took a toll on his health, leading to his early death at age 57.
His artificial language is exceptionally easy to learn. It has 16 basic rules, no exceptions and only 1,000 root words. It derives most of its words and grammar from European languages. Some 75 percent of the vocabulary comes from Latin and Romance languages and around 20 percent from Germanic tongues.
The remainder is drawn from Slavic languages, while most of its scientific terms come from Greek.
Zamenhof hoped Esperanto would become a lingua franca, a global language, a position held at various times in the past by other tongues — Latin in the Roman world, Aramaic in the Middle East, and, increasingly, English today.
It didn’t happen. Still, this year the 102nd Esperanto congress will take place in Seoul at a time when more than one million people speak the language and Esperanto is even an option on Google Translate.
Though countries around the world have commemorated Zamenhof on stamps, and city streets are named for him, the city officials in Bialystok refused to honor a UNESCO-sponsored “Zamenhof Year” in 2017.
On Dec. 12 of last year, Bialystok’s City Council rejected Mayor Tadeusz Truskolaski’s motion to commemorate Zamenhof’s 100th anniversary. Councillors for the conservative ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) voted against the proposal.
Wierzbowski reported that the councillors opposed to it saw Esperanto as a dead language that has no value for mankind. But Zbigniew Nikiforowicz, from the opposition liberal Civic Platform, claimed that the decision was due to “an unfavorable stance inside PiS towards anything that is not ethnically Polish.”
Nationalists, for whom native languages are emotionally and spiritually sacred, would probably sneer that only a “rootless cosmopolitan” could have invented Esperanto. Zamenhof may have created a universal language, but for Polish nationalists, he was just a Jew.
Still, the city of Białystok has joined UNESCO-sponsored ceremonies marking Zamenhof’s anniversary in 2017. “It is a good opportunity to recall this outstanding figure, the creator of the world’s most popular artificial language,” remarked Mayor Truskolaski.
In any case, a few Esperanto words have been incorporated into Polish. “In Warsaw, the municipal bike system is called Veturilo (vehicle in Esperanto), while the name of the soft drink Mirinda means ‘amazing,’” Wierzbowski said, adding that Esperanto continues to evolve. “Recently, we were discussing what word to use for drone. ‘Drono’ won out in the end.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.