Esperanto: Universal Language, or Yet Another 'Jewish Conspiracy'?

When a Jewish ophthalmologist created the artificial language, he dreamed of a common language. A new book by Esther Schor delightfully captures its idiosyncrasies – in plain English.

An undated image of Ludwik Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, sitting at his desk in Warsaw, Poland.
Wikimedia Commons

“Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language,” by Esther Schor, Metropolitan Books, 384 pp., $32

In October 1907, a group of linguists, philologists, mathematicians and scientists gathered in Paris to ask a simple question: Wouldn’t it make sense to have an international language that could be agreed upon by everybody? Such a language would be useful to diplomats, scholars, travelers, entrepreneurs – anyone looking to do business on the world stage. It wouldn’t be a preexisting language, like English or French, but a new one that would be easy to learn and come without political baggage. In other words, the Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language asked, shouldn’t we all be learning Esperanto?

The Paris Delegation wasn’t the first group to ask this question, and Esperanto wasn’t the only possible answer. But as Princeton English professor Esther Schor shows in her new book, the artificial language created by the Warsaw ophthalmologist Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof was and still is the most successful “international auxiliary language” in history.

And while Zamenhof’s dream of uniting all people through a common tongue hasn’t come to fruition, the achievements of Esperanto are still impressive. Today, even Esperantists admit that their language will never be spoken by everyone. But there is someone, everywhere, who speaks Esperanto.

To describe her subject in all of its marvelous complexity, Schor alternates between a history of Esperanto and a travelogue through its contemporary subculture. She writes about Zamenhof’s upbringing in the Russian Empire and attends a summer language course at the University of San Diego. She explores Esperanto’s importance to Chinese nationalists, and meets an Esperanto poet from Tehran. She tells us about the unexpected association of Esperanto and the Baha’i faith, and attends gatherings in Hanoi and Havana. And while her travels sometimes take her narrative a little off-course, her book provides a fascinating look into one of the most idealistic social movements of modern times.

Like other utopian projects of 19th-century Europe, Esperanto began as a solution to the Jewish question, as Schor recounts.

Zamenhof, a product of the Jewish Enlightenment, was born in 1859 to a family that spoke Russian at home, Polish and German for business, Yiddish with relatives and Hebrew for religious purposes. The family moved from Bialystok to Warsaw, where Zamenhof studied at the city’s #2 Men’s Gymnasium before attending medical school in Moscow. When pogroms broke out across the Russian empire in 1881, he returned to Warsaw, only to face another pogrom there. For Zamenhof and millions of others, the violence presented an acute problem. What could be done about anti-Semitism?

The doctor of hope

Zamenhof’s first solution was that of many other idealistic Jews at the time: Zionism. In Moscow, he had been a member of the pre-Zionist Hibbat Zion movement, and he founded a new chapter of the organization in Warsaw. But in the 19th century, well before the Balfour Declaration or mass immigration to Palestine, Zionism appeared unrealistic. And while inventing a language may seem like a poor retort to charges that Zionism was utopian, Zamenhof believed that the source of interethnic conflict was linguistic: In the Russian empire in particular, different groups spoke different languages in close proximity to one another, without having a common language. Such ethnic conflicts could only be resolved through linguistic means, he believed.

In 1887, putting theory into practice, he published a Russian pamphlet outlining the rudiments of his universal language, complete with examples of its use. He signed it “Doktoro Esperanto” – the doctor of hope.

Today, such a project would be unlikely to capture the attention of anyone other than a few cranks. But Europe in the late 19th century – awash in the spirit of technological development, human ingenuity and futuristic projects – was eager for it. Within two years, the Unua Libro, or “first book” as it came to be known, was published in German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Swedish, Latvian, Danish, Bulgarian, Italian, Spanish, French, Czech and twice in English. Before long, there were Esperanto publications and societies in countries across Europe, and in France it became the darling of the intellectual class. The language became so popular that Zamenhof was quickly eclipsed by his creation and by a new cadre of Esperantists eager to take the lead.

Zamenhof had hoped this would happen. He knew that to become a vital, living language, Esperanto had to be governed not by its creator but by its users. Fittingly, Schor populates her history with mini-profiles of the most fascinating Esperantists. She tells us about Eugène Adam, otherwise known as Lanti, a idiosyncratic leftist who broke ranks with his Soviet peers long before it was fashionable to do so; Hungarian poet Kálmán Kalocsay and his patron, Theodor (or Tivadar) Schwartz, the father of George Soros; and William Pickens, an African-American from South Carolina who saw Esperanto as a way for Black Americans to claim their place as citizens of the world.

Trailer for "Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language" Metropolitan Books

Schor also highlights the role Esperanto played in the wars and upheavals of the 20th century. In the Soviet Union, there were tens of thousands of Esperantists who wanted to use the language as a means of promoting international communism – until they were targeted by the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. In Germany, some Esperantists sought to ally themselves with National Socialism. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis didn’t welcome Esperanto’s universalizing tendencies or its Jewish origins. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler described universal language projects like Esperanto as part of the Jewish scheme for world domination. When the Nazis came to power, Esperantists were quickly targeted, including some of Zamenhof’s own descendants.

Wonderfully diverse subculture

Although Esperanto has its roots in Europe, Schor defends it against the common accusation of Eurocentrism, and delves into its international offshoots. In East Asia, it was taken up by opponents of Japanese imperialism, and in Iran it was taught at Tehran University on the eve of the Islamic Revolution. She provides a history of Esperanto in the Middle East, and how it became a victim of the Arab-Israeli conflict despite its anti-nationalistic idealism. These days, Israeli and Arab Esperantists routinely collaborate at international conferences, although there are still difficulties about who can travel where.

7th Esperanto congress, Antwerp August 1911.
Wikimedia Commons

Near the beginning of her account, Schor cautions that there are no real statistics on the number of Esperantists in the world; estimates range from thousands to millions. But Esperanto’s strength is demonstrated anecdotally by Schor’s descriptions of the meetings, congresses and classes she attended, and the many Esperantists she met.

While these parts of her book sometimes go astray – we don’t need every detail of her trip to Hanoi, for example – they are also among the most delightful. Here we encounter Esperanto not as a quaint historical phenomenon but as a wonderfully diverse, tolerant and multicultural subculture. There are Esperanto-language novelists, poets, musicians, educators and, of course, the linguists who make up the Akademio de Esperanto. They are, as Esperantists refer to their community, la granda rondo familia – the great family circle.

Throughout these episodes, Schor repeatedly raises one of the most pressing questions regarding Esperanto: Does it have an ideology? Although Esperanto is primarily a language, it is also a movement with its own governing bodies and organizations. Yet diverse groups have used the language, each for their own ends. “Zamenhof’s ‘international language’ has been used by anarchists, socialists, pacifists, theosophists, Baha’is, feminists, Stalinists and even McCarthyites,” Schor writes. Could Esperanto possibly mean the same thing to all these people? And if so, what is this meaning?

From Schor’s investigations it appears that Esperanto does have a philosophy, though it remains intentionally vague. For Zamenhof, the language was the first step toward a spiritual humanism that he called “Hillelism,” or Hilelismo, and later “Humanitism,” or Homaranismo. Other Esperantists of his era ignored these specific formulations, yet Zamenhof’s idealism won out. Today, Esperantists refer to the “interna ideo,” or “inner idea,” of Esperanto – a term introduced by Zamenhof at the Geneva Congress of 1906. And while not every Esperantist will agree what the interna ideo is, most confirm that it exists. Esperantists even refer to one another as samideanoj – that is, people with the same idea.

If the Esperantist movement has remained faithful to Zamenhof’s lofty spirit, it has also tempered its aspirations. There was a time when Esperantists dreamed of “fina venko,” “the final triumph of Esperanto as a world language.” Today, most Esperantists view that as a joke, but that doesn’t mean Esperanto doesn’t have a serious role to play. In Schor’s book, its contemporary position is best expressed by Humphrey Tonkin, a U.S. academic and former president of the Universal Esperanto Association. For Tonkin, the goal of Esperanto is no longer to unite all humanity under a single tongue, but representing people who fight for multi-lingualism and minority language rights.

“The problem isn’t English,” he tells Schor. “The problem is that language is an institution of power.”

Yet the prospect of a truly universal language still seems like a good idea, despite being far from realization. Even becoming one of the samideanoj and a member of la granda rondo familia sounds like a good time, at least in Schor’s account.

Maybe the answer to the question of whether we should have a common tongue, as posed by the Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language, is in fact yes: We should all be learning Esperanto.

Ezra Glinter is the editor of “Have I Got a Story for You” (W.W. Norton, 2016), an anthology of Yiddish fiction in translation. His writing has appeared in the New Republic, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.