We are big fans of artificial languages here at the Atlas - Soresol anyone? - so in honor of the 150th birthday of L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of the worlds most widely spoken artificial language Esperanto, we have decided to bring you a peek into the Esperanto museum in Vienna, Austria give you a little background on the good Dokotoro Esperanto himself, and the language he spent his life creating and attempting to popularize.
Esperanto, often represented visually by a green star, was invented in the 1870s by an optometrist, one L.L. Zamenhof. Zamenhof was a speaker of Russian, Yiddish, German, Belarusian and Polish, and it seems reasonable that he would have been interested in creating a universal language, if for no other reason than personal satisfaction. In fact, Zamenhof hoped to end many of the ethnic quarrels he saw erupting in his multicultural Polish neighborhood, quarrels he felt came from a lack of mutual understanding. Zamenhof was so optimistic about his new universal language that he named it “Hopeful” or in the language itself “Esperanto.”
In 1887 Zamenhof published Lingvo internacia. Anta?parolo kaj plena lernolibro or “International Language. Foreword And Complete Textbook” under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto or Doctor Hopeful. Zamenhof was indeed hopeful, hopeful that Esperanto might serve as a universal language that would unite the world and encourage peace. Sadly, he would be deeply disappointed.
Never officially adopted by any country (except the short-lived micronation Republic of Rose Island), Esperanto faced many fierce opponents. Hitler declared in Mein Kampf that Esperanto was a language that would be used to unite the worlds Jews an all of Zamenhofs children and many other Esperantists were killed in the holocaust.
The pre-war Japanese government declared that Esperantists were like watermelons, green on the outside, red on the inside and Stalin denounced Esperanto as a language of spies. Naturally, so did Joseph McCarthy. This is not to say that the experiment failed entirely: many people did learn to speak Esperanto, and a few even grew up with it.
There are a thousand or so “native” Esperanto speakers, children who grew up speaking Esperanto as a household language, in the world. One particularly famous one is George Soros, a native speaker of Esperanto. William Shatner famously learned Esperanto for the all-Esperanto horror movie, “Incubus” - Shatner apparently spoke Esperanto with a heavy French-Canadian accent - and Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito was an amateur Esperantist. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been known to give blessings in Esperanto and Esperanto has even been spoken in space by the Hungarian cosmonaut and Esperantist Bertalan Farkas.
The Esperanto museum in Vienna carries on this tradition and contains an impressive array of Esperanto objects, from Esperanto sodas to Esperanto cigarettes to Esperanto toothpaste. It also has a map of those who hold the Passaporto Servo, illustrating a system through which Esperanto speakers can travel the world and stay free of charge with other Esperanto speakers. Perhaps the best object in the museum is the Esperanto sex manual translated from its original Hungarian. If that’s not a proof of language success I don’t know what is.
Despite resistance and oppression from totalitarian regimes, the green star still shines on. Though certainly far from its aim of being an international language, Esperanto is still the golden child of constructed languages. With roughly a hundred thousand active speakers and a million more who can understand large amounts of Esperanto, the language has its own television and radio stations, even its own University.
The World Esperanto Association still holds the World Congress of Esperanto as it has every year with a nearly unbroken run of more than a hundred years. The 2010 congress is being held in North Wales, if you start studying now, you might just be ready. Tolstoy said he learned it in only a few hours.