Esther Schor’s entertaining new book, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, combines the life story of Zamenhof with a history of the Esperanto movement and sandwiches both between a lively account of Schor’s own experience as a globe-trotting Esperanto enthusiast. As you might expect, the Esperanto movement has its share of attractive oddballs, and Schor hits her stride when she sketches the friends she has met at Esperanto meetings in Vietnam, Cuba, Poland and elsewhere. She confesses that she occasionally “crocodiles” (the Esperantist term for speaking one’s native language at an Esperanto gathering). But she has worked hard at her Esperanto, attending the crash course held each summer in California along with a slew of international congresses. Esperanto speakers boast that, once you learn Zamenhof’s lingo, you’ll enjoy free room and board throughout the world, courtesy of your fellow Esperantists: no more Airbnb! The real draw, though, seems to be sharing the company of characters who, like the language they speak, are nothing if not original.
Zamenhof, Esperanto’s creator, was an eye doctor from Bialystok. The town was about 70 percent Jewish in Zamenhof’s day, with the rest mostly Poles, Russians, and Germans. As Schor puts it, Zamenhof, who was born in 1859, “grew up convinced that linguistic difference lay at the root of interethnic animosity.” If you could solve Babel, he thought, swords would be beaten into plowshares, and the nations rescued from their strife.
An amateur through and through, Zamenhof was a great improviser in the cause of linguistic simplicity. He made up words by taking a root, usually a Latinate one, and adding -o for a noun, -a for an adjective and -e for an adverb. Esperanto roots themselves remain invariable, which is not the case in Indo-European languages: Esperanto is what linguists call an agglutinative language (think Japanese, Hungarian or Navajo). Most important, Zamenhof had a stroke of genius after publishing his Unua Libro and Dua Libro, Esperanto’s “first and second books,” in 1887-88. He turned over the further development of Esperanto to the community of speakers: Let them argue out new vocabulary and grammar. The fact that speakers could make up the language together as they went along was a tremendous draw. Esperanto, in other words, was a Wiki.