Esperanto – a Universal International Language

The International Language for Russians—the first textbook of Esperanto.

The International Language for Russians—the first textbook of Esperanto.

On November 24, 1887, the first German translation of Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof’s ‘Unua Libro’, the first book to describe the artificial universal language esperanto was published. Esperanto is a constructed international auxiliary language. It is the most widely spoken constructed language in the world.

Esperanto was created in the late 1870s and early 1880s by L. L. Zamenhof, who was a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist from Białystok, then part of the Russian Empire. According to Zamenhof, he created the language to foster harmony between people from different countries. After some ten years of development, which Zamenhof spent translating literature into Esperanto as well as writing original prose and verse, the first book of Esperanto grammar was published in Warsaw on the 26th of July 1887. The number of speakers grew rapidly over the next few decades, at first primarily in the Russian Empire and Central Europe, then in other parts of Europe, the Americas, China, and Japan. In the early years, speakers of Esperanto kept in contact primarily through correspondence and periodicals, but in 1905 the first world congress of Esperanto speakers was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Since then world congresses have been held in different countries every year, except during the two World Wars. Since the Second World War, they have been attended by an average of more than 2,000 people and up to 6,000 people.

In the early years, the autonomous territory of Neutral Moresnet, between what is today Belgium and Germany, had a sizable proportion of Esperanto-speakers among its small and multiethnic population and there was a proposal to make Esperanto its official language. However, neither Belgium nor Prussia had ever surrendered its original claim to it. Further, Germany in particular was taking a more aggressive stance towards the territory and was accused of sabotage and of obstructing the administrative process in order to force the issue. After World War I, there was a proposal for the League of Nations to accept Esperanto as their working language, following a report by Nitobe Inazō, an official delegate of League of Nations during the 13th World Congress of Esperanto in Prague. Ten delegates accepted the proposal with only one voice against, the French delegate, Gabriel Hanotaux. It is believed that Hanotaux did not like how the French language was losing its position as the international language and saw Esperanto mostly as a threat, effectively wielding his veto power to block the decision. However, two years later, the League recommended that its member states include Esperanto in their educational curricula. For this reason, many people see the 1920s as the heyday of the Esperanto movement.

During the 20th century, Esperanto attracted the suspicion of many totalitarian states. The situation was especially pronounced in Nazi Germany, Francoist Spain up until the 1950s, and in the Soviet Union from 1937 to 1956.

It is believed that the use of Esperanto during the last decades was increasing. The Hungarian census calculated 942 Esperanto speakers in 1941, 2,083 in 1990, 4,575 in 2001 and 8,397 in 2011. There are now Esperanto associations in some twenty African countries; nearly all of them were founded after 1960. In June 2015 there are more than 200.000 articles in Esperanto.

References and Further Reading:


One comment

  • I see Esperanto as a remarkable success story, by far the most successful auxiliary language. It has survived wars and revolutions and economic crises and continues to attract people to learn and speak it. About 190,000 people have signed up to the Duolingo Esperanto course in the last six months. Esperanto works. I’ve used it in about seventeen countries over recent years. I recommend it to anyone, as a way of making friendly local contacts in other countries. Esperanto is well-established as a good introduction to learning other languages.

    Not many people know that Esperanto has native speakers too. See: It was never planned that way, but it happened, and I have met about a dozen native speakers over the years.

    By the way, about 20-0,000 people have signed on for the new (beta) Duolingo Esperanto course in its first couple of months.


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