Linguistic Sesquicentenary: L.L. Zamenhof


Ludwig Zamenhof, inventor of the language Esperanto, was born on 15 December 1859, which means that Tuesday is his sesquicentenary.

(Incidentally, “sesquicentenary” deserves to be a Word of the Day one of these Days. OED tells me that it derives from the prefix “semi-” and the suffix “-que”: IOW “half-and,” or “half again as much.” The things I never knew . . . I always assumed that “sesqui-” things, like centennials and pedalians, were vaguely related to seqouias or Sasquatches or other large items. Serves me right for making stuff up instead of checking the dictionary to start with.)

In front of me as I write is a tiny green book that I acquired in 1971, a book that has somehow survived every upheaval in my life since I started high school. It is The ‘Edinburgh’ Esperanto Pocket Dictionary. The introduction, written in 1933, informs me that the dictionary is “suggestive—not exhaustive. It must, therefore, be used with intelligence.” In fact, Esperantists often associate themselves with intelligence, like MENSA members or baseball statheads. Nor is this an outmoded rhetoric. Esperanto’s official American website still prints a paragraph I got in a little flyer (since lost) with my dictionary back in ’71. In the Esperanto analogue to “F U CN RD THS U CN BCM A SCY N GT A GD JB,” Esperanto-USA informs us that:

Inteligenta persono lernas la lingvon Esperanto rapide kaj facile. Esperanto estas la moderna, kultura lingvo por la tuta mondo. Simpla, fleksebla, belsona, ĝi estas la praktika solvo de la problemo de universala interkompreno. Esperanto meritas vian seriozan konsideron. Lernu la internacian lingvon Esperanto.

There’s no indication of how “rapide” or “facile” a “stulta persono” can learn Esperanto. But the implication is that enlightened individuals would naturally want to learn an artificial language that enables them to speak with . . . well, with any other enlightened person who has learned it too.

Quaint as Dr Zamenhof’s invention seems today, it had a lot more urgency in the 19th century. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, came of age in a period when vast multilingual empires spanned Eastern Europe, and contact between different cultures was frequently lethal. Peter Forster, in The Esperanto Movement (The Hague: Mouton, 1982) tells us that

He was impressed by the Bible story of the Tower of Babel, and at the age of ten wrote a five-act tragedy on this theme, with the scene set in Bialystok. (50)

Zamenhof was fluent in Russian, Polish, and German. He studied French, English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and though he was not a native speaker of Yiddish, he certainly could understand that great lingua franca of Jewish Eastern Europe as well. With what Yiddish speakers would call “chutzpah,” he devised Esperanto at the age of 19 from a mix of Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and other Indo-European roots, and set about a life’s work promoting international use of the language.

Esperanto was never supposed to become the mother tongue of the whole world. In fact, Zamenhof and other Esperantists distrusted linguistic imperialism. They simply wanted Esperanto to become everybody’s second language. Cultural diversity would be preserved; but by sharing a medium of communication, the world’s diverse cultures would stop killing one another. Zamenhof wrote, in 1904:

Homaron Vi kreis perfekte kaj bele,
Sed ĝi sin dividis batale;
Popolo popolon atakas kruele,
Frat’ fraton atakas šakale.

Thou didst create humanity in perfect beauty,
But it divided itself in battle;
People attack people cruelly,
Brother attacks brother like a jackal. (Forster 85-86)

As a teenager, I studied my little Esperanto dictionary eagerly. (Linguistic geekdom FTW, as a later generation might remark.) I knew that Esperantists wore green star badges in their lapels to signify their membership in the brotherhood, but I never saw any such badge. And I never acquired any other books in Esperanto, limiting my Esperantist efforts to word-by-word translation of a few English sentences, breaking my brain in an attempt to figure out how the ubiquitous “j” after vowels was supposed to be pronounced. (I still can’t say for sure, though I suppose it makes vowels into diphthongs.)

Somewhere, there must have been better-organized budding Esperantists than I, because the language seems to be alive and well. The Web is crawling with Esperanto materials. Not least is the Esperanto Wikipedia, where you can look up such subjects as Okulo, the eye (Zamenhof’s day job was as an ophthalmologist), and in fact Zamenhof himself.

Zamenhof died in 1917, in the midst of a war that seemed a cruel mockery of his hopes for world peace. 150 years after his birth, his vision of a universal second language has more-or-less come to pass, though not as he dreamt. Today, when two speakers of disparate languages meet, they immediately try to converse not in Esperanto but in English. As often as not, they succeed. We live in a world governed less by the Pax Americana than by the Pax Coca-Cola, perhaps. But having an international language of first resort has made the world a smaller, and arguably a much safer, place than Zamenhof knew.

—Tim Morris

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