Week 1. What the Eye Doctor Saw: A (Very) Brief History of the Beginnings of Esperanto

In the 1870s and 1880s the optimistic ophthalmologist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof of Bialystok, Poland created Esperanto as a way of bridging cultural conflict. One of his main motivations was to reduce the struggle of cross-linguistic communication. He lamented the time and toil spent learning foreign tongues. Even with great effort, it is difficult, he writes, to “converse with other human beings in their own languages.” He rued the effort and money wasted in translation, which provides only a “tithe of foreign literature” to the reader. He declared that, in addition to the difficulty of learning a foreign language well, “there are but few persons who can even boast a complete mastery of their mother tongue.” Zamenhof found words and expressions borrowed from other languages as signs of linguistic poverty and bemoaned that we are “obliged […] to express our thoughts inexactly” using phrases from other tongues.

Zamenhof’s complaints did not lie solely with the problem of perceived inarticulateness. He saw unlike languages as barriers to solidarity. “Difference of speech,” he writes, “is a cause of antipathy, nay even of hatred, between people.” From his viewpoint, the “strange sound” of other languages keeps people aloof and distant and only serves to heighten cultural differences. Zemnhof, therefore, saw the use of an international auxiliary language (auxiliary being a key term—it was not his intention to replace first languages) as a way to global peace. He predicted that science and commerce, too, would receive a boon with the introduction of an international idiom.

Zamenhof’s visionary ideas never quite reached fruition. You probably don’t speak Esperanto. You probably don’t know someone who does. However, it is indeed an international language with a comparatively healthy speaker population. Navajo, the most-spoken Native American language in the U.S., has about 170,000 speakers; Esperanto has up to 2,000,000, with at least 1,000 native speakers. The constructed language so far hasn’t ended any wars, but it offers a sense of community, if not for the entire world, then at least for thousands and thousands of hopeful hobbyists.


Dr. Esperanto’s International Language, Introduction & Complete Grammar

Ethnologue: Esperanto

Ethnologue: Navajo


One thought on “Week 1. What the Eye Doctor Saw: A (Very) Brief History of the Beginnings of Esperanto”

  1. Esperanto hasn’t yet gained the recognition it deserves. However, all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In just over 130 years, it has managed to grow from a drawing-board project in one country to a complete and living natural language with probably a couple of million speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn’t taken the world by storm – yet – but it’s slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the Internet giving it a significant boost in recent decades. In July some 2,000 Esperanto speakers from 80 countries will come together in Lisbon, in what might be seen as the parliament of a dispersed speaker population. I shall be one of them.

    Esperanto may not be perfect, but I’ve used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job, serving as a unique common language on my travels in, for example, Armenia and Bulgaria.

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