Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The dream of a common language

Long ago, on a college campus far away, I first heard of Esperanto. To a newly minted English major in the wild and relatively hopeful 1970s, it seemed a grand idea with just a chance of success: a common language consciously constructed, out of goodwill not political force, sampling from many languages, made logical and regular, intended not to replace native tongues but to respect them, to supplement them for ease of cross-cultural conversation.

Alas, it was a grand idea, one that I mostly forgot about, for the reason that it is mostly forgotten.

If you look around today, you'll still read, as I'm sure I did, that Esperanto was "introduced in 1887 by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof after years of development." But I didn't know till I read in Aaron Lansky's fascinating book Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books that Dr. Zamenhof was a Jew--a Russian Jew.

Esperanto has been recently taught at Rice University by Neal Parker, who has a nice history of the man and the language.

In Warsaw as a teenager, Zamenhof applied his prodigious capacity for languages (and the emerging field of linguistics) toward solving the contentious problem of communication across ethnic lines.

In Tsarist Russia, his father had good reason to worry about stray papers lying about in a foreign language. The father, though recognizing his talent, discouraged and dissauded. The son promised to go to Moscow and study medicine (that being one of the few professions open to Jews in Russia), in exchange for his father's promise not to destroy his work. The son kept his promise, but the father did not.

The son became a doctor, but he "found it difficult to cope with the suffering of his patients." He turned to ophthamology.

The father of the woman he married financed the publication of his renewed linguistic work.

Zamenhof decided to publish in Russian partly because books in Russian were viewed with less suspicion by the government censors, and he decided to use a pseudonym lest suspicions of eccentricity cause damage to his professional career. . . . He intended for his language to be called lingva internacia but the pseudonym that he chose, Dr. Esperanto, soon came to designate the language as well as the author.

Esperanto means (in Esperanto) "one who is hoping."

Despite a crisis or two, Esperanto lives on. As one might imagine, it doesn't do so well during times of war. "World War I was very damaging to the movement. After slaughter on such a large scale it was difficult to recreate the spirit of hope and optimism that had flourished before the war."

The French are steadfast supporters of Esperanto.

The 90th annual Congress on Esperanto will take place next year in Vilnius. Czeslaw Milosz, who was once fired from a Vilnius radio station for his leftist politics, might have been amused.

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