By Shneur Agronin
By the mid-1800s, four major ethnic groups called the Polish city of Bialystok home: Poles, Russians, Germans, and Jews. These people predominantly identified with distinct cultures, observing their own religious traditions, speaking different languages, and more often than not, keeping to themselves. But, when the hustle and bustle of daily city life inevitably brought these different groups together, their interactions were all but friendly. Quarrels in the streets were laced with racism, and antisemitism, which was chief among them. Only an observant few seemed to notice the most critical factor in perpetuating the fighting; the language barriers that prevented members of each ethnicity from communicating with one another and solving their issues “diplomatically.” Of those few who discerned this catalyst for conflict, only one attempted to actually do something about it. His name was Ludwik Lazar (L.L.) Zamenhof, a Jewish secondary school student who sought to bridge the linguistic gaps separating the people of Bialystok and beyond.
As the firstborn of six siblings, Zamenhof assumed a leadership role in his own family at a young age. He often settled petty disputes between his brothers and sisters, and consoled them after their authoritarian father’s frequent scolding. He was known by friends and family alike for his gentle, mature, and calm demeanor, and performed excellently as a student. It comes as no surprise that such an intelligent and compassionate young man felt so disturbed by the divisions in his hometown that, by his time, ran decades deep. Motivated by a fusion of his passion for linguistics and creating peace, Zamenhof utilized his heartfelt drive to create a potential solution to the problems threatening his world.
By the age of nineteen, Zamenhof had developed a sort of “proto-language” which he named Lingwe Uniwersala (note that, in Polish, the letter w makes the sound of the letter v in English), or Universal Language. During the next decade, when he wasn’t studying medicine, Zamenhof occupied every minute of his free time with refining and streamlining his language, optimizing it for quick and enjoyable study, immediate usability, and even poetry. In 1887, financially aided by his supportive father-in-law, Zamenhof published Unua Libro, or “First Book,” under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto, meaning “Dr. ‘One Who Hopes’.” Unua Libro outlined the grammar and basic philosophy of the new language, then called Lingvo Internacia (“International Language”), and it found relative popularity throughout both Eastern and Western Europe. Early students of the language grew fond of the latter half of its inventor’s pseudonym, Esperanto, and began referring to the language as such.
By 1900, Esperanto garnered several thousand speakers, and ever since 1905, an annual Esperanto convention has been held (except during both World Wars) in a different country with attendance in the thousands. While the World Wars and the Holocaust greatly hindered its progress, people from all over the world, hundreds of thousands from every continent, would come to call Esperanto a second language. In 1959, the United Nations established official relations with the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA), which continues to publicize Esperanto to delegations of countries that often pay exorbitant sums for interpretation services at the UN. Until today, Esperanto maintains a speaker base of around two million people worldwide, including several thousand native speakers who have spoken Esperanto since birth. Through popular courses on Duolingo and Lernu.net, Esperanto continues to grow and connect people from all over the world who would otherwise remain strangers.
As a speaker of Esperanto and a president of Yeshiva University’s Esperanto club (which you should totally join), I often hear variations of “Esperanto failed! What’s the point? How is it even useful to you at all?” Considering Zamenhof’s own lofty goal for Esperanto – the provision of a universal second language for use in international and political settings – I find these questions understandable. But, over my years of learning and speaking Esperanto, the answer to such questions lies in the meaning that this language – and the concept of language as a whole – has come to represent in my own life.
As I wrote in a previous article, the power that we wield as language-capable human beings is extraordinary and divine. With the words at our disposal, we can hate or heal, scorn or soothe, break or build, and loathe or love. To me, Esperanto is the product of a man who decided, strongly against the standards of his time and place, to spread as much positivity as he could through language. While the citizens of Bialystok fought on tirelessly, Zamenhof spent his teenage years attempting to draft a “peace treaty” of sorts, that could help his fellow townsmen – and, eventually, everyone – find peaceful reconciliation through mutually understood dialogue. Zamenhof renounced any financial rights to Esperanto upon the publication of Unua Libro, declaring it a possession of humanity, and stated firmly that he anticipated neither monetary gain nor worldwide fame on account of his invention. Zamenhof’s nobility and strength of character continue to inspire me, and whenever I use Esperanto, I feel part of a group of people who, like Zamenhof, use language for good in a world where it is so often used for the opposite. Zamenhof passed away in 1917 in the middle of World War I, and although forgotten by most, I feel that the memory of a man so dedicated to humanity’s betterment deserves recognition by all.
Eĉ guto malgranda, konstante frapante, traboras la monton granitan – Even a small drop, constantly dripping, will bore through a granite mountain. Whether or not Esperanto is on your bucket list of languages to learn, this quote from Zamenhof (likely inspired by the famous R’ Akiva’s own comparison of water dripping on a rock to Torah’s gradual influence on one’s character), certainly finds relevance in your own life. The words of whatever language you speak, Esperanto or otherwise, can be the key to positively impacting the souls of so many made rock-hard by others who, unlike Zamenhof, chose to use their words destructively.