Esther Schor’s lively and tragic new history of Esperanto, Ludwik Leyzer Zamenhof’s universal, pacifist, bridge-building language of humanity, traces why the globalist dream died
It is 1922, and the League of Nations has just pledged to take up the question of a world language. It’s been a long, rewarding day at the Esperanto Congress. Speaker after speaker, in fluent Esperanto, has described the rosy prospects of the new universal tongue. Finally, with dinner time approaching, one of the lecturers turns to another and remarks, “Nu, vus makht a Yid?”—roughly, “How’s it going?” this time not in Esperanto but Yiddish.
This old joke plays on the fact that so many of Esperanto’s early champions were, like its inventor, Ludwik Leyzer Zamenhof, Eastern European Jews. They already had a common language for Jewish purposes, but Yiddish could never become truly universal. A huge majority of Jews knew Yiddish, and they had never made war on one another. So the early Esperantists had a messianic fantasy: If we could all speak the same language we would truly understand one another, and then wars and bloodshed would cease.
It was not for nothing that Zamenhof dubbed himself Doktoro Esperanto, Dr. Hopeful. His fervor has long since passed: Today’s Esperantists resemble ham-radio enthusiasts or birdwatchers, hobbyists rather than utopian dreamers. Few people realize that hundreds of thousands of people still gossip, joke and hold forth in Zamenhof’s ingenious tongue, and if they did, they likely wouldn’t care. It’s probably better to spend your time learning Lithuanian or Tamil, which, unlike Esperanto, stand at the center of a living culture, with native speakers and a literary tradition. But Esperanto is a unique case, because it flourishes, to the extent it does, without the support of a day-to-day home culture. Instead of a mamaloshen, it is a super ego sprache, the voice of high-minded, old-school internationalism. Despite its lack of a people and a territory, Esperanto has acquired many of the spices that a living language needs: slang, popular songs, and even a few poets and novelists. It has the edge over Klingon, at least for now.