Speaking the same language: the case of Esperanto

Understanding others It’s one of the oldest stories we have: how those that speak an unintelligible language are defined as ‘the other’.

Mutual understanding between peoples can only begin when we understand each others’ actual words. Their stories, legends, metaphors, proverbs.

Too much, it seems – including, often, humanity itself – is lost in translation. True, the world is slowly edging towards just a few mega-languages. And many smaller languages have gone, are going, extinct.

Is there anything like a universal language? English is probably the widest understood – though most often as a second language. But there are many millions of people out there who cannot, and will never, understand or make sense of each other.

Idealists used to think we could all learn to literally speak the same language. That was the idea behind Esperanto, the most successful (relatively) of the ‘international auxiliary languages’ – as they are known. The fact that there are a number of them, kinda underscores the futility of the cause.

Esperanto was devised by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, who was born in Poland in 1859, and who grew up dreaming of a world without war. If we all spoke the same language, he reasoned, we would never dream of taking up arms against each other.

He started working on his international language while still at school. ‘Esperanto’ means in its own idiom, ‘one who hopes.’

As a child, Zamenhof was bilingual in Yiddish and Russian. His father was a teacher of German and French, so he took those languages on board too. At school, Ludwing learned Polish, Belarusian, and he also studied Latin, Greek and Aramaic. He later learned some English and Italian.

By the time he was 21, Zamenhof had completed the first part of his project, a work entitled Lingwe Uniwesala in which he laid out the foundations of what has been called proto-Esperanto. He was diverted from his task by going off to study medicine in Moscow and Warsaw.

While working as an ophthalmologist in Vienna, he started promoting his international language more widely. In 1887, he published, in Russian, International language: Introduction and complete textbook, under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Dr Hopeful).

In 1905, he put out the definitive guide to Esperanto, Fundamento de Esperanto, and set about organising congresses to advance the language in Europe. It grew rapidly in the Russian Empire and in Eastern Europe.

There’s been an annual international Esperanto convention somewhere in the world since 1905 – except, tellingly, during the two world wars. The Nazis and the Soviets tried to suppress the language, and punished those trying to learn and speak it. Imperial Japan forbid the use of it. The socialists fighting in the Spanish Civil War used it extensively, but it was forcibly repressed by the fascists.

I suppose it’s obvious that extreme forms of nationalism have no place for an international language of community. Zamenhof was aware of the challenges his language faced. At the Esperanto conference in Cambridge in the UK in 1907, he said "we hope that earlier or later, maybe after many centuries, on a neutral language foundation, understanding one each other, the nations will build ... a big family circle."

Still, there are now around two million speakers of Esperanto in the world, making it the most widely-practised constructed language. Esperantujo is the name for places where it is spoken. It’s devotees have now partially given up on the idea of it becoming an international common language, and instead see it at the voice of a "stateless diasporic linguistic minority" based on freedom of association.

Some people try to learn Esperanto for the fun of it, or as an aid to learning other languages. (Zamenhof has as the first of three goals, "To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner." You can learn Esperanto online (Google Lernu!).

Wikipedia has no less than 263,000 articles in Esperanto. It counts as a language on Google too.

The New Zealand Esperanto Association was founded in 1910. It now has the status of a charitable institution.

But I say, before we take on the learning of an international language, let’s learn the languages of our nearest compadres first, or perhaps that of our forebears. If I was minister of education in this country, I’d try get it done that every school student learns English, te Reo Māori, and one other language. Multi-linguilism has been proved to have many advantages, in other forms of study. We’d become a clever, more empathetic people as a result.

And then after that, we can go give comrade Zamenhof’s language, Esperanto, the ever-hopeful single international language, a go. How about it?