“Esperanto” and its Originator


By Isidore Harris

FOR the past fifteen years rumors have been heard of a new language that had come into some use as a medium of international communication. In some quarters it was asserted that the universal tongue had been originated in the interests of peace, so that the nations of the world might be drawn closer together, for it is a recognized fact that there is no such abiding cause of prejudice among nations as their inability to make themselves understood by one another. But others asserted that it had no necessary connection with the cause for which those are striving who would make an end of all war. It had simply been devised as a social convenience, and to ­facilitate commerce between people of different nationalities. As a matter of fact, both views were correct, the new language being employed by some in furtherance of the peace ideal, and by others for more practical objects. The name given to this international medium of communication was Esperanto.


Jews have led so many movements for the benefit of mankind, and their services to international communication have been so considerable, that it is not surprising to find the founder of the new universal language to be a Jew. Seventeen years ago it was introduced to the world by Dr. Ludwig Zamenhof, a Jewish physician now living in Warsaw. Dr. Zamenhof was born in Bialystok, on the 3rd (15th) of December, 1859. His father and grandfather were teachers of French and German, so that it may be assumed he inherited from them a certain aptitude for linguistics; Bialystok is situated in the government of Grodno, in Russia, on the borders of Poland, and not very far from the Russian frontier. It is thus one of the most cosmopolitan towns in eastern Europe. Its small population of

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64,000 contains, according to the official statistics, a Jewish element of 42,000, or nearly 66 per cent. At least four different languages are spoken by the different nationalities who compose it—Russian, Polish, German and Yiddish. To this diversity of tongues Ludwig Zamenhof attributes the many bickerings and animosities that poisoned the daily life of the place. So he determined, when he was no more than a mere youth, to discover some universal medium of communication which would help forward a better state of things.

The idea of creating an international tongue was not new, but Ludwig Zamenhof knew little or nothing of previous attempts in this direction. His ignorance was perhaps fortunate, for a knowledge of the facts might have discouraged him. Bacon, Pascal and Descartes had dreamed dreams of such a language, to which Leibnitz attempted to give form in his Pasigraphy or lingua rationalis, which formed part of his plan of a scientia generalis. That was in 1663. The idea was subsequently taken up by Locke, de Brasses, Condillac, Voltaire, Burnouff, Jacob Grimm, Max Müller and other scholars of eminence. Ultimately it took practical shape in Volapük, the universal language invented in Germany by Pastor Schleyer. Volapük served such an obvious need that for a time it had a certain vogue, but its difficulties proved so considerable that it failed to make headway, and about a quarter of a century ago it died a natural death. What with its arbitrarily‑chosen roots, which had no visible relation to those already in use among European peoples, and its exceedingly complicated grammar, it was unmanageable. Its very name of Volapuk was an indication of its uncouthness and want of suitability.

Meanwhile Ludwig Zamenhof was busily occupied in perfecting his scheme. He had already taken up the study of languages with enthusiasm at the Bialystok gymnasium, which he attended up to the age of fourteen. Then, in 1873, his parents removed to Warsaw. He became a student at the university, and there he devoted himself to enlarging his knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, German and English. The idea of Esperanto did not dawn on him at once. It grew out of several fruitless attempts which, one after another, had to be discarded. At one time he entertained the mathematical idea of construction; then the claim of the dead languages appealed to him, and pre‑eminent among them that of Hebrew. From an idealist's point of view nothing could have been more desirable, but practical considerations soon showed the impossibility of the notion. Then for three years—from the age of 24 to 27—he worked at Yiddish, of which he even compiled a grammar (it has never been published) in the hope that, being a modern tongue, in use among millions of his coreligionists it might be possible to universalize it. That idea also had to be discarded. Finally he came to the conclusion that no language could ever become a universal medium of communication which identified itself with any particular nationality or country. It must be neutral. At length, in 1878, he succeeded in building up such

142                       "ESPERANTO" AND ITS ORIGINATOR

a neutral language on the basis of the Romance‑Teutonic roots of modem Europe. But for some five or six years he kept his idea to himself, fearing that, as a Jew, he would bring upon himself "scoffing and persecution" by a premature publication of his bold scheme. It was not until 1887 that, after several unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher, he gave to the world his first brochure, entitled, "An International Language." Even this he published anonymously. signing himself "Doktoro Esperanto," or as we should say, "Dr. Hopeful." That was how the language came to be known as "Esperanto." That his undertaking was attended with some personal risk we may infer from a private letter on the subject which has since been published, and in which he says: "Before I did so I was much perplexed. I felt that I stood before the Rubicon. Once having published, retreat would be impossible, and I knew what kind of fate attends a doctor who is dependent upon the public, if that public comes to regard him as a visionary, or a man who busies himself with side issues. I felt that it was staking my whole future peace of mind, my livelihood, and that of my family, but I could not abandon the idea which had entered into my mind and blood, and—I crossed the Rubicon."

To the writer of this article Dr. Zamenhof has confided in a recent letter that he owes it to his Judaism that he has been able to brave all the difficulties and ridicule that beset him in his early endeavors to give the world an international language. "As a Jew, and particularly as a Ghetto Jew, I have been most exposed to the terrible curse of national animosities. Had I not been a Jew the idea of a future cosmopolitanism would not have exercised such a fascination over me, and never should I have labored so strenuously and disinterestedly for the realization of my ideal. But I was always a devoted son of my unfortunate Jewish people, and whenever my task seemed hopeless I had only to think of my coreligionists, speechless, and therefore without hope of culture, scattered over the world and hence unable to understand one another, who must needs take their culture from strange and hostile sources—and the thought of all that filled me with renewed energy."

By a universal language must be understood, not a language to displace those already in use, but an auxiliary language to be employed for purposes of international converse. To the end of time every nation will continue to speak and write its own tongue, but there is clearly, as Max Muller has pointed out, need of a secondary language which can be adopted by all nations alike, and the use of which would, in a large measure, do away with the necessity of learning foreign tongues. It is for the want of such a language that, up till now, French has been much used for purposes of diplomacy. Latin, which was the literary and diplomatic medium of communication up to the end of the seventeenth century, has since fallen into disuse. It is obviously far too difficult a language, even if it could be adapted to modem requirements, to come into general use

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at the present day. No international language can hope to "catch" which does not fulfill the following six conditions:

1. It must be easy to learn to speak and write, and its pronunciation must present no difficulties to any people.

2. Its vocabulary must have an international basis, being composed of roots familiar to the majority of civilized peoples.

3. Its grammar must be exceedingly easy and logical, and admit of no exception.

4. Its elements must be capable of being easily built up into compounds, so that the language is capable of indefinite extension and adaptation to new needs without any augmentation of its original number of root words.

5. It must be euphonious and malleable, and present no difficulties of syntax. At the same time it must be perfectly clear and free from ambiguity.

6. It must lend itself to the clearest and fullest description of every possible subject.

Dr. Zamenhof's new language satisfies all these requirements in a remarkable degree. Based as it is on the Romance‑Teutonic roots of modern Europe, a considerable proportion of its vocabulary is already familiar to the majority of educated persons of all nationalities. And the grammar has been devised upon such simple principles that it can be learned in half an hour. There is not a single exception, because there is nothing arbitrary about the language. Like the word-building, it is perfectly logical and symmetrical. And the same simplicity and regularity is secured in the orthography and pronunciation by the adoption of the phonetic system.

The Esperanto dictionary contains only 900 distinct root words. With the aid of about 30 prefixes and suffixes, the Esperantist can build up as big a vocabulary as he needs. "O" is the noun termination, "a" is the adjective, and "e" the adverb; "as" is the present tense of the verb, "is" the past tense, "os" the future tense, "and "i" the infinitive. Take the root "am" which signifies "love," and you have, at once, "amo," signifying "love"; "ama," "loving"; "ame," "lovingly"; "ami," "to love"; "amas,'' "loves"; "amis," "loved," and "amos," "will love." "Anta" represents the participle active, "inta" is the past and "onta" the future participle active; while the passive participles are similarly "ata," "ita," and "ota." Hence such words as "amanta," "aminta," "amonta," "amata," "amita," "amota"—for the six participles of the verb "to love!' There is nothing in all this that could not be learned in five minutes and remembered forever afterward.

While the masculine termination of the noun is "o," the feminine is formed by adding "in" ("patro," "father"; "patrino," "mother"), the plural by adding "j" ("patroj," "fathers") and the objective by adding "n" to the noun and the adjective with which it is in agreement,‑-this to obviate any possible ambiguity of meaning, our English want of inflection in this matter being often a drawback to lucid expression. The prefix "mal" represents the opposite of the


word to which it is attached. Thus, "varma," warm; "malvarma," cold; "amiko," a friend; "malamiko," an enemy.

The simplicity and absolute regularity of the orthography and orthoepy have already been referred to. There are the five Continental main vowel sounds which you find in the well-known phrase, "Pa, may we go, too?" and the tonic accent always falls on the penultimate syllable. No Esperantist ever needs to be in doubt, as an Englishman so often is, how the letter "g," for instance, is to be pronounced. If it is not to be pronounced as in "good" but as in "gem", it is written with a circumflex over it. The sound of "k" is always so represented. "C" is pronounced "ts," and with a circumflex over it as "ch." There is thus an utter absence of ambiguity, and as there is no difference in the spoken accent all over Europe, Esperantists of different nationalities can never have the least difficulty in understanding one another. The ease with which people acquire the language is such that they have been known to speak and correspond in it the same day that they commenced to learn it. Count Leo Tolstoy read it fluently two hours after he had commenced to learn it; and an enterprising journalist in Odessa, hearing of a visit which a party of Esperantists was paying to that city, bought a dictionary and the same evening he was conversing with them in the new language.

Possessing such advantages of perfect ease and simplicity, it is not surprising that Esperanto should make its way. Its success has been astonishingly rapid. In 1888, the year after the publication of Dr. Zamenhof's first pamphlet, the Volapük Society, at Nuremburg ceased to exist, but the majority of its members went to form the first Esperanto Club in the world. That club stood alone for three years until, in 1891, another arose in the city of Upsala, in Sweden. St. Petersburg followed suit, with branches at Odessa, and even at so far‑distant a place as Khabaroosk, on the Amur. France and Denmark joined the movement in 1897, and Brussels and Stockholm in the next year. The first Esperantist group in Paris originated in 1900, and the next year additional groups were forming in Bulgaria, at Brünn, in Austria, at Vladivostock, and in Montreal. That was the first official appearance of Esperanto on American soil. Since then societies for its study have been formed in all parts of the world. Even Japan has five of them. The United States of America possesses several, and so have South America and Mexico. At the commencement of this year, there were more than 120 Esperantist societies in various parts of the world, and by the time it draws to a close the number will be greatly increased. The language is spoken and read by at least 200,000. At the St. Louis Exposition, this year, it was accorded official recognition by the French sectional committee.

There is a large literature in Esperanto. At least twenty Esperantist journals are in circulation, including a Braille monthly magazine for the blind. The Roman Catholics and the Socialists also have their organs in

"ESPERANTO" AND ITS ORIGINATOR                   145

the new language, and the wonder is that no attempt has yet been made to establish an international magazine for Jewish Esperantists. The editor of the English Esperantist, in an interview with the writer of this article agreed that an Esperantist journal might become a powerful link among Jews all over the world, but he point­ed out that, as it would chiefly depend for its success upon a Russian circu­lation, care would have to be taken that nothing appeared in it to which the official censor could take objection. One of the most useful Esperantist publications is an International Scientific Review published monthly in Paris, by Hachette, enabling scien­tists who know Esperanto to keep in touch with the progress of science in all parts of the world. There are also Esperanto text books, original works, and translations from all languages. Dr. Zamenhof himself has rendered "Hamlet" into Esperanto.

Quite independently of the furtherance of the peace movement, the advantages of knowing Esperanto are numerous. The access which it gives to foreign literature has just been touched upon. It has distinct commercial advantages, creating an international market among all who speak the language. There are firms that receive so many orders in Esperanto that they find it desirable to engage the services of clerks who are familiar with the tongue. A British consular report from Boulogne, printed some time ago in the "Times" of London, stated that it was being largely used for business purposes. It is in the direction of commerce that the great future of the language lies. The business man of the twentieth century would be very unwise to leave Esperanto behind.

Already there are schools which teach Esperanto together with or in preference to French and German. As a logical training for the mind nothing could be better. As soon as business men find out that the thing touches their pockets, they will learn it soon enough. And a movement of this kind progresses geometrically, because every additional learner increases its usefulness. Its social advantages are obvious. Wherever an Esperantist goes he cannot only enter into conversation with other Esperantists, but he is sure of a welcome from them. And no Esperantist needs to be afraid to converse with another in the new language, inasmuch as all are students, and no one is born with it. There can be none of that shyness natural to foreigners who attempt to speak the language of another country.

Dr. Zamenhof may well be proud of his achievement, and to Jews all over the world it must be gratifying to reflect that this movement emanated from a Jew and was entirely Jewish in its origin. Indeed Dr. Zamenhof's success is altogether unique. What other man in the world, now or ever before, has been able to point to the fact of having created a language which within the first twenty years of its existence already has a following of 200,000 students, which is daily spreading itself over the world, and which bids fair to become in the not very distant future an almost universal medium of communication? And it was the work of his student

146                      "ESPERANTO" AND ITS ORIGINATOR

days. To‑day he is only forty‑five! But though it is humanity at large which is benefiting by his discovery, Dr. Zamenhof's chief thought is forever given to his poor Russian coreligionists. In his recent letter to me already referred to he writes as follows:

"Every time that I see a poor Jew who has no knowledge of a civilized language, and who, after three or four weeks, has learned Esperanto so thoroughly that he can correspond with the whole world in it, speak his thoughts freely, and thus, thanks to this language, feel himself a man among men—that gives me more pleasure than all the praises of hundreds of learned people. A poor Jewish shopkeeper, quite uncultured, whose beautiful Esperantist poems are read with pleasure by Esperantists of all countries and nationalities, affords me more satisfaction than the various scientific publications of which the language already boasts so many."

SOURCE: Harris, Isidore. ‘"Esperanto and Its Originator: How a Jew Came to Create a "Universal Language"’, New Era Illustrated Magazine, vol. 6, no. 2, January 1905, pp. 140-146. [with photo]

Esperanto and Jewish Ideals,”
Interview for the Jewish Chronicle with Dr. Zamenhof

Paroladoj okaze de la 6a Universala Kongreso de Esperanto, Washington, 1910
de L. L. Zamenhof

Esperanto, Vaŝingtono, & la Mondo / Esperanto, Washington, & the World — 1910
Centjara Jubileo / Centennial — 2010

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo al Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

Esperanto & Laborista Movado / Esperanto & the Labor Movement

Alireteje / On other sites:

"Esperanto and Its Originator: How a Jew Came to Create a "Universal Language"

Zamenhof, Lazarus Ludwig, by Joseph Jacobs & Isidore Harris,
Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906

Pri Zamenhof kaj Esperanto en 'Jewish Encyclopedia',
Heroldo Komunikas, n-ro 174, 2003. 01. 08

"Intervjuo kun d-ro Zamenhof" de R. I. Harris (1907), elangligis N. Z. Maimon,
Nica Literatura Revuo 6/3 (n-ro 33) p. 82-89.

Intervjuo kun d-ro Zamenhof (fino) de R. I. HARRIS, elangligis N. Z. MAIMON,
La nica literatura revuo 6/4 (n-ro 34), Marto-Aprilo 1961, p. 121-127

"The Founder" of Esperanto,
Otago Witness [New Zealand], 1906, p. 39

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