Esperanto: The Universal Language

Words by Lauren Rosenberg
Art by Sally Gething

I know it might seem a little narcissistic but here is an article all about us. Well, not actually us but our namesake, Esperanto. Esperanto is a widely used international auxiliary language with a powerful history. 

It was created in 1887 by Dr Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a Polish and Jewish oculist. The language was originally called “La Internacia Lingvo” (The International Language), but Dr Zamenhof changed the name to Esperanto after his pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto. Esperanto literally means the “one who hopes”. 

Dr Zamenhof was born in the Polish city of Bialystok, which at the time was filled with a mixture of Russians, Poles, Lithuanians and Germans. The trilingual nature of his border-city was causing many misunderstandings and conflicts, Zamenhof believed the clashes were due to language barriers. He sought out to create a language that mankind could learn and use on mass. Here, Esperanto was born. 

In his own words, Zamenhof wanted “the language to be a means of international communication”. And thus Esperanto is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get language. There are 16 basic grammar rules, with no exceptions to any of the rules! According to the Australian Esperanto Association, “Esperanto is the easiest of all living languages” because nothing is irregular.   

For 1887, this was a powerful innovation. It was a time when few people travelled or spoke with people in other countries and a wave of anti-Semitism defined Europe. Meaning religion and ethnicity deeply divided the masses. Esperanto was an antidote to these isolated existences. It was an attempt at world harmony. 

Languages are amazing but they can also create obstacles to human connection. I mean, there are currently over 6,500 languages in the world, each with their own rules and vocabulary. Esperanto generated equality and was one of the first truly universal languages. Unlike more languages, Esperanto does not belong to a specific country or ethnic group, it is totally socially and politically neutral. It belongs to the whole of humanity. Every person who uses Esperanto is on an equal linguistic footing with all other users of the language. The result is a sense of solidarity between speakers. It was not intended to replace anyone’s native tongue but simply serves as a neutral language of communication. 

While Zamenhof may not have achieved world peace (it was a big ask), his humane and pure ideology continues to inspire thousands. 

Today, Esperanto is thriving, with an estimated number of more than 100,000 Esperanto speakers worldwide, with approximately 1,000 of them considered native speakers of the language. The La Universala Esperanto-Asocio (Universal Esperanto Association), founded in 1908, has members in over 100 countries, and national Esperanto associations in over 70 countries. There are more than 30,000 books published in Esperanto. Esperanto is most spoken in China, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Japan, the USA, the UK, Belgium and Brazil. 

Despite not making that list, there is a flourishing community of Esperantists in Australia, and we are one of the countries with a national Esperanto association. The Australian Esperanto Association was established in October 1911, and in 1976, Australia hosted the first Pacific Congress of Esperanto in Melbourne. In 1988, the 4th Pacific Congress was held in Brisbane, where 204 Esperanto enthusiasts and speakers attended. In 1997, Adelaide held the 82nd World Congress of Esperanto, with 1,000 Esperantists from 54 countries attending the event.

Some may say that Esperanto has failed because it is not yet a universal language. Zamenhof was well aware of this, knowing that it may take years, decades or centuries. But in many ways, his dream has become a reality, as people all over the world speak his language. Now more than ever, we need something to bring us together and Esperanto could still be that binding force. 

Before he died, Dr Zamenhof wrote a poem in Esperanto. In 1981, it was adopted as the anthem of Esperanto. Here is the fifth paragraph:

Sur neŭtrala lingva fundamento,             On a neutral language basis,
komprenante unu la alian,                        understanding one another,
la popoloj faros en konsento,                    the people will make in agreement,
unu grandan rondon familian.                 one great family circle.

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