A Visit to Esperantoland

The natives want you to learn their invented language as a step toward world harmony. Who are these people?

Kim Henriksen is way cooler than you’d expect an accordion-playing Esperantist to be. Tall, lean, and muscular, with creative facial hair and a European cowboy style, he looks younger than his 45 years. In Esperantoland, he is something of a rock star. Through the 1980s, his band Amplifiki played international youth congresses all over Europe, releasing hits like Tute ne gravas (No big deal) and Sola (Alone). The band’s name came from an old Esperanto dictionary word for “amplify,” but a prurient mind might read it as am-pli-fiki (love-more-copulating). He later formed the Danish/Bosnian/Polish group Esperanto Desperado, which came out with party starters like Ska-virino (Ska-woman) and La anaso kaj la simio (The duck and the monkey). I wasn’t prepared to encounter anyone like him when I set out on my first trip to Esperantoland.

“Esperantoland” sounds a lot sillier in English than it does in Esperanto. There is no land of Esperanto, of course, though not for lack of trying on the part of Esperantists. In 1908 the tiny neutral state of Moresnet, the orphan of a border dispute between the Netherlands and Prussia, rose up to declare itself the first free Esperanto state of Amikejo (Friendship Place). More than 3 percent of the 4,000 inhabitants had learned the language (a higher percentage of Esperanto speakers has never been achieved in any other country), and their flag, stamps, coins, and an anthem were ready to go. But in the increasingly tense and nationalistic atmosphere of prewar Europe, there was no place for a friendship place, and Esperanto never got its piece of terra firma. Instead, the proponents of Esperanto have made do with a virtual homeland. Esperantoland is located wherever people are speaking Esperanto. And contrary to my assumptions, they really are speaking Esperanto.

The earthly setting of my first Esperanto experience was the MIT campus, the 2003 venue for the annual congress of the Esperanto League of North America. As I drove from New Jersey through hellish Fourth of July traffic toward Cambridge, the clearest mental picture of an Esperanto congress I could muster was five gray-haired radicals on folding chairs bantering about the Spanish Civil War and their stamp collections. I imagined they would be speaking Esperanto, but not for everything. Surely, as soon as something worth saying came up, they would lapse back into English. Just in case, though, I studied up. I brought my dictionary and grammar book and practiced having the maturity not to giggle when I spoke the textbook Esperanto phrase for “How are you?” or more specifically “How are you faring?” which is rendered as Kiel vi fartas?

More than 80 people turned up at the conference, and I can say that almost all of them spoke only Esperanto the entire weekend. Some were the retired teachers and spry socialist grandpas I was prepared for. Their emotional proselytizing about the noble ideals of “our dear language” clicked right into the Esperanto landscape I’d imagined. But there was no place in that landscape for Kim (known as Kimo in Esperantoland) and his 3:00 P.M. presentation on the importance of rock music in the history of Esperanto culture.

I really wanted to hear what he had to say on the subject, but I had a terrible time understanding him. Three obstacles hindered my full comprehension. One was my incomplete grasp of the language. I had studied Esperanto for only six weeks, by myself, from a book. I thought I was doing pretty well. I understood every word of the opening lecture on the future of the Esperanto movement. I held my own in conversations about topics ranging from the language imperialism of English to Esperanto haiku. In fact, I was doing so well that I started to enjoy meeting my fellow conference-goers so I could chitchat about my meager Esperanto experience. “Oh, I started a month and a half ago, no teacher, just a book,” I would toss off casually. If I really wanted a pat on the head, I’d add, “This is actually the first time I’ve ever heard it spoken.”

I can be a bit of a showoff when it comes to facility with language. I have an aptitude for it that is probably much less impressive than that of the average European, but I’ve figured out how to work it to my full advantage by picking languages with high impact-to-proficiency ratios. Pretty good Hungarian gets you a lot more love in Budapest than perfect French buys you in Paris, and one well-placed word of Ibo to a Nigerian taxi driver can reward you with enough compliments to beat back the insecurities from all other parts of your life for a week. I wasn’t expecting an ego boost from Esperanto. We are all speaking a second language here. Who’s to impress? So when I heard, “Only six weeks? You’re doing wonderfully!” I might have milked it a little. But I grew suspicious after four or five speeches about how we must do everything possible to encourage young people and keep them in the movement. A quick look around told me that at 33, I qualified as a young person. The flattery may not have been inspired by my dazzling language skills.

The second obstacle to my full understanding of the role of rock music in Esperanto culture was Kimo’s impenetrable Danish accent. In one sense Esperanto pronunciation is standardized (each letter stands for one sound, no confusing c or gh), but it allows for a lot of bleed around the edges; my r sound and a French person’s r sound will be different. Usually, this isn’t a problem. I’ve since heard and fully understood British, Belgian, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, and Chinese Esperanto. But Kimo’s consonants were nearly unrecognizable. The Danes have a saying about their peculiar phonology: Danskerne taler med kartoffler i munden. (The Danes speak with potatoes in their mouths.) Even the expert Esperantists were having trouble. One of them generously took me aside and said, “Don’t worry if you can’t understand the Danish guy. I can’t either.”

My final obstacle to Kimo comprehension had to do with the important sense in which he differed from all the other speakers at the congress. They were fluent, but he was rapid-fire fluent. I couldn’t keep up with him. He spoke like a native. But this was not as confounding as the fact that he spoke like a native because he was a native. I discovered this when Kimo’s son, a nine-year-old with purple hair and a skateboard tucked under his arm, wandered into the room to ask his father a question. The woman in front of me asked the man next to her, “Is his son a native speaker too?” “Yes, second-generation,” he answered, “wonderful, no?”

When I cornered Kimo later in the day to find out everything I could about his no-doubt totally weird and fascinating upbringing, he met my falling-overmyself excitement with a shrug. Born in Copenhagen to a Danish father and a Polish mother who met through Esperanto, he appeared not to appreciate how bizarre it was to be a native speaker of an invented language. Esperanto was the medium of his parents’ relationship and of the entire home life of their family. Before you start getting indignant on his behalf, know that growing up he had plenty of contact with the world outside his home and learned to speak Danish as a native too. But he considered Esperanto his true mother tongue. For Kimo, Esperanto was a completely normal fact of life in the same way that Polish would have been if both of his parents had been Polish.

Kimo didn’t choose to learn Esperanto, nor did his son, but everyone else at the conference did. Somewhere along the way they’d decided it worth their time to learn this utopian pipe-dream language, and I wanted to understand why. The stated reason in pamphlets and speeches and passionate letters to the editor is too abstract: “Esperanto is a ‘linguistic handshake,’ a neutral ground where people of different nations can communicate as equals.” Nice idea, but people don’t speak languages for abstract reasons. The Irish feel a strong emotional attachment to the once-persecuted language of their heritage, but despite mandatory school instruction, they don’t speak Irish. So goes the story of hundreds of attempts by political and cultural organizations to convince people to speak a language. And the fact that Esperanto is an invented language makes the notion that anyone would speak it even more unlikely. The quest for a universal language is at least as old as the story of Babel. More than a thousand languages have been painstakingly brought into the world only to die unspoken and alone. None of them at any point had anywhere close to 50,000 speakers, the most conservative estimate for Esperanto (the least conservative is 2 million)—much less any native speakers.

Success is probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of Esperanto. But in the small, passionate world of invented languages, there
has never been a bigger one.

Ludwik Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, was born in 1859 in the city of Bialystok, now part of Poland. I have a historical atlas of Eastern Europe that includes a map of “ethnolinguistic distribution” during this time. On the left side is a smear of Polish orange, speckled with tiny purple dots of German. On the right is a dramatic swath of Russian pink. Snaking down the middle is an irregularly shaped confusion of multicolored stripes. Bialystok sits in the center of it. Zamenhof wrote that his city of birth

marked the way for all my future goals. In Bialystok the population consisted of four different elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews. Each of these elements spoke a separate language and had hostile relations with the other elements. In that city, more than anywhere, a sensitive person might feel the heavy sadness of the diversity of languages and become convinced at every step that it is the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts. I was brought up to be an idealist; I was taught that all men were brothers, while at the same time everything I saw in the street made me feel that men as such did not exist: only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so forth. This always tormented my young soul, though many might laugh at such agony for the world in a child. Because at that time it seemed to me that adults had a sort of almighty power, I kept telling myself that when I was grown up I would certainly destroy this evil.

Zamenhof began in earnest during his teenage years, after his rapidly growing family (he was the eldest of nine) moved to Warsaw, where his father, Marcus, took a position as the official Jewish censor. The job involved vetting all Hebrew publications for any statements that could be construed as insulting to the tsar, an ambiguous task requiring Marcus to gauge the paranoia of a government that was already disinclined toward him and other Jews. He was a strict father, and the pressures of his new responsibilities sometimes made him cruel. Ludwik responded by becoming dutiful and well behaved.

The family spoke Russian at home, but Ludwik was familiar with Hebrew through his father (more as a scholarly language than a religious one). Young Ludwik picked up Polish on the street and Latin, Greek, French, and German at school. His first attempts at inventing his own language didn’t go well. He began by developing a lexicon of one-syllable words, like ba, or ka, but found that he couldn’t remember the meanings he’d assigned to them. He made things easier on his memory by substituting roots from languages he had studied—such as hom for “man,” or am for “love.” However, the universe of things that require a name is large, and as his notebooks filled with his neat and careful script, he again lost his ability to keep track of them. This was a problem he had to solve. A language intended for all mankind wouldn’t work unless all mankind could learn it.
Ludwik’s solution came with an accidental insight: “I noticed the formation of the (Russian) word shveytsarskaya (porter’s lodge) which I had seen many times, and of the word kondityerskaya (confectioner’s shop). This –skaya interested me and showed me that suffixes provide the possibility of making from one word a number of others which don’t have to be learned separately. This idea took complete possession of me. I began comparing words and looking for constant, definite relations among them, and every day I threw large series of words out of my dictionary and substituted for them a single suffix defining a certain relationship.”

At about the same time, he began to study English in school. For a speaker of Russian, with its tortuous systems of verb conjugation and noun agreement, its accusative, genitive, locative, and other sundry cases, English must have appeared a dream of simplicity. He felt the freedom of gliding over ice-smooth paradigms—I had, you had, he had, she had, we had, they had—and purged his nascent language of all unnecessary grammatical markers.

On December 17, 1878, a proto-Esperanto congress convened. Despite his shyness, Ludwik had convinced some of his schoolmates to involve themselves in his project. They gathered in his cramped apartment to celebrate over cake and take part in that most Esperanto of activities—the singing of hymns. On this day they sang a poem by Ludwik that succinctly captures the sentiment that inspired his diligence:

Malamikete de las nacjes
Kadó, kadó, jam temp’ està
La tot’ homoze en familije konunigare so debà

Enmity of nations
Fall, fall, the time has come
May the whole of humanity be united as one.

This poem is an example of early Esperanto. The language was further tweaked and modified when Ludwik was forced to reinvent it from scratch. Before he left for university to study medicine, a colleague of his father’s had remarked that Ludwik seemed awfully wrapped up in this language of his. Fearing that it would distract the young man from his studies, Marcus demanded that he leave it behind. The compliant son handed over his lovingly filled notebooks, and sometime after he set out for Moscow, his father threw them on the fire. Ludwik didn’t discover this until he transferred home to the University of Warsaw. But he had no time to brood. Soon the enmity of nations bubbled up into a wave of violent pogroms that swept through Russia, including a two-day spree of bloodshed in Warsaw. More determined than ever, he started all over again.

In the next five years he finished his education and began his practice as an oculist, general medicine having proved to induce debilitating guilt when he couldn’t do anything to help a patient. He continued revising and refining his language, and he met his future wife, Klara. She embraced him and his language, and they used it to write love letters to each other.

The official birth of Esperanto occurred in 1887, the year that Zamenhof, using Klara’s dowry, self-published a small book entitled Lingvo Internacia. He modestly declined to attach his own name to it, signing it instead Dr. Esperanto, meaning “one who hopes.” He explained inside that an “international language, like every national one, is the property of society, and the author renounces all personal rights in it for ever.” Ludwik and Klara packaged the books and sent them into an unsympathetic world.

Nothing says success like bitter, angry jealousy in the hearts of your competitors. In this case, the names read like the product of the perverted etymological strategies of the modern-day pharmaceutical industry: Interlingua, Ido, Glosa, Globaqo, Novial, Hom-Idyomo. These are just a few of the many languages proclaimed by their advocates to be simpler, more logical, and more beautiful than Esperanto. But Esperanto can afford to be smug. It’s the only one you’ve heard of.

And this drives the other guys nuts. When I first became curious about the topic of constructed languages, I joined a Listserv called Conlang. The next day my inbox held 287 messages. After a few days of this, I decided I wasn’t that interested and unsubscribed. I didn’t know that I’d innocently stepped right into the “flamewar” that ultimately led to the “great split,” after which things calmed down considerably.

The split was between two groups. The first was composed of people interested in quietly developing and discussing the languages they crafted for science-fictional worlds, what-if-a-language-did-this playfulness, or Tolkienesque fun (the true conlangers). The second was composed of those who wanted to talk about an international auxiliary language for the real world (the auxlangers). The auxlang group included a few devoted Esperantists and a larger number of supporters of alternate projects. Most of the war was conducted within the auxlang group, as vitriol hurled at Esperanto for its “totally ridiculous spelling system,” the “backward and confusing affix system,” and “the accusative -n abomination.” Additional fighting took place between the various Esperanto competitors—Ido took on Interlingua, and a new version of Novial took on an old version of Novial. The conlangers got fed up with “this stupid argument about something that is never, NEVER, going to happen anyway. FACE IT!!!” and the auxlangers, no doubt tired of being called “deluded lunatics” in the one place it was supposed to be safe to talk about invented languages, agreed to split off and form their own list. The conlangers went back to tame exchanges about tense-aspect marking and vowel harmony, and the auxlangers took it outside.

Every anti-Esperantist auxlanger is convinced that he (no need to fret about gender-neutral pronouns on this one) represents a superior product. Perhaps one of them does. Perhaps all of them do. It doesn’t matter. At an Esperanto conference, I witnessed a tired-looking man in a gray T-shirt defiantly introduce himself as an Interlingua supporter. “I think it is a better language,” he announced. “It’s clearer, more logical, and more beautiful than Esperanto,” and then, without the slightest trace of irony, “but I have no one to speak it with.”

Esperanto may have never risen to its position of prominence if it hadn’t suffered its own great split early on. In the lore of Esperantoland, it is called The Schism, and if this makes you think of religious wars, you aren’t far off. The Schism served to draw off the people who were interested in the language itself (the prestigious scholars with linguistically sophisticated suggestions for improving and perfecting it) from the people who were interested in the idea behind the language (the idealistic true believers, or, depending on who you ask, the kooks).

Zamenhof was an amateur. He had no training in philology, no university chair. But because he was driven by the serious (if naïve) hope that his language would help society, he devoted his energy to persuading people to use it rather than convincing them to appreciate its design. His book had included a form for the reader to sign, agreeing to learn the language if 10 million others also signed the form. Fewer than a thousand came back, but enough interest had been generated to inspire him to translate the original Russian text into Polish, French, and German. He left the English translation to a well-meaning German volunteer, who produced choice manglings such as, “The reader will doubtless take with mistrust this opuscule in hand, deeming that he has it here to do with some irrealizable utopy.” Before its chances were completely killed in the English-speaking world, an Irish linguist took interest and produced a more readable translation.

Small clubs of enthusiasts formed. Zamenhof came out with another textbook, a dictionary, and a translation of Hamlet, bringing into the
world yet another rendering of the melancholy Dane’s soliloquy on existence: C^u esti au ne esti,— tiel staras nun la demando. The first Esperanto magazine, La Esperantisto, was published in 1889 in Germany. The movement attracted some prominent supporters, including Tolstoy, who wrote an essay for La Esperantisto on “the value of reason in solving religious problems.” When this resulted in a ban of the magazine in Russia, Tolstoy wrote to authorities, promising not to contribute anything else to it. His plea couldn’t prevent the magazine’s downfall, but others were already rising to take its place.

In 1905, 688 people from 20 countries convened in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, for the first international Esperanto congress. They wore the symbol of Esperanto, a green five-pointed star, and so were able to identify each other upon arrival at Paris train stations, where they gathered into conspicuous, animated groups for the trip to the coast. Until then, Esperanto had been primarily a tool of written correspondence. Many of them were speaking it for the first time, excited to see it actually working. A reporter from the New York Herald noted that “all appeared to converse with great facility.”

As a gesture of respect to the host country, the congress opened with a polite singing (in French) of the distinctly un-Esperanto-like call to violence of La Marseillaise. (“To arms, oh citizens!/ Form up in serried ranks!/ March on, march on,/ May their impure blood/ Flow in our fields!”) An energetic, tearful singing of the Esperanto anthem La Espero (“On the foundation of a neutral language/ people understanding each other/ will agree to form/ one great family circle”) followed, and then, after greetings from the mayor and the president of the chamber of commerce, Zamenhof took the stage to wild cheers and applause. He spoke of invisible, powerful spirits in the air, images of a new future, and he ended with a prayer to a “powerful, incarnate mystery” that “peace be restored to the children of mankind.” The audience stood, waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Vivu Zamenhof! Vivu Esperanto!”

Not everyone was pleased. Some of the intellectual French Esperantists, who had reviewed Zamenhof’s speech prior to the congress, had urged him to focus on the practical side of the language, its utility in travel and commerce, its potential in the sharing of scientific knowledge. Sentimental and religious overtones would make their cause look foolish, they argued. They wanted to be taken seriously. They were also becoming restless about language reforms they thought were necessary. Zamenhof, keeping in mind a previous project called Volapük, designed by a German priest and ultimately derailed by constant reforms, was reluctant to impose changes, and his ardent supporters saw the requests for reform as disrespectful heresy.

In his address at the next congress in Geneva, Zamenhof angrily rejected the calls to divorce Esperanto from its ideals, saying, “We want nothing to do with that Esperanto which must serve only commercial ends and practical utility!” The Schism came in 1907, when a delegation of prestigious university professors, including one Nobel Prize-winning chemist, chose to back an anonymously submitted proposal for a revised version of Esperanto called Ido (Offspring). While many of the prominent, well-educated, and practical-minded Esperantists joined the Ido faction, the rest rallied around their betrayed hero. More than 1,300 unashamed idealists from 40 countries showed up at the next year’s congress in Dresden. They wore green stars and waved green flags, attended Esperanto poetry readings and theatrical performances, sang hymns, and by all accounts had a grand time.

The Idists, meanwhile, focused on the much less enjoyable pursuits of being logical and respectable. The official slogan of the first international Ido congress was “We have come here to work, not to amuse ourselves.” But the congress didn’t occur until 1921, by which time most of Ido’s momentum had been sapped by infighting about further reforms. Most of the original supporters had by then left to work on their own language projects, which they deemed superior.

Esperantists today have it rough outside of Esperantoland. No matter how elegant their arguments, how calm and reasoned their defenses of the Internacia Lingvo, they are inevitably met with one of two responses: dismissive humor or sneering disgust. Here is a gentle example of the former, as meted out by the Times Higher Education Supplement:

The hunt for outstandingly obscure journals has upset readers conversant in Esperanto. A number contacted us after the Australian publication Esperanto sub la suda kruco was nominated, informing us that the journal was neither academic nor, in their opinion, obscure. Jacob Schwartz, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained: “I hope you can understand why speakers of Esperanto, who battle against this daily ridicule from misinformed people, would be offended to be considered ‘obscure.’”

We would like to apologise to readers of Esperanto sub la suda kruco, and we await complaints from infuriated subscribers to The Journal of Fish Sausage with anticipation.

There is no possible way you could respond to this that would result in your being taken seriously. Often, the hopeful Esperantist doesn’t realize he’s doomed at this point and tries to make his case. “Well, look now, Esperanto is spoken by people in more than 80 different countries. It has a rich original literature of more than 40,000 works. It is easy to learn . . .” His listeners’ eyes glaze over as they mentally sort him into their nonsensical-people pile.

At least dismissive humor is not mean. Another frequent reaction to the idea of Esperanto is anger, especially from people who care about language. On an ask-a-linguist internet message board, a place where lay people can have their questions about language answered by a panel of professional linguists, one of these professionals responded to an innocent question about whether Esperanto can be a native language, writing: “I will not try to conceal my contempt for the basket cases who teach their unfortunate children Esperanto.” Contempt? As far as I know those children grow up to be slightly eccentric but well-adjusted musicians, not serial killers.

Still, it is not hard to understand why so many people find Esperanto so repellent. Language is not just a handy tool for packing up our thoughts and sending them along to others. It’s an index to a set of experiences both shared and extremely personal. More than any other expression of our culture, it is the way we do things—the way we complain, argue, comfort others. We love our languages for this. They are the repositories of our very identities. Compared to them, Esperanto is an insult. It asks us to turn away from what makes our languages personal and unique and choose one that is generic and universal. It asks us to give up what distinguishes us from the rest of the world for something that makes everyone in the world the same. It’s a threat to beauty—neutral, antiseptic, soulless. A Mao jacket. A concrete apartment block.

Strange, then, that I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere more colorful than Esperantoland. On my second trip there, the Sixth All-Americas Congress in Havana, I was exposed to so much culture that I started to get a headache. We sang “Guantanamera” in Esperanto on 10 separate occasions in 10 different Cuban musical styles. At the Arta Vespero (Evening of the Arts)—a staple of Esperanto congresses where delegates from the host country get to strut their stuff—we watched a three-hour extravaganza of every performable art Cuba has to offer, from traditional dances by little girls in white dresses to rumba rap music. For the finale we made a 100-meter conga line, weaving our way through the Museum of the Revolution. At another staple, the Nacia Vespero (Evening of Nations), attendees from 20 other countries took the stage. A contingent of Mexicans sang folk songs, a Costa Rican played the piano, a Frenchman did a comedy routine about escargots. No, Esperantists don’t want to take away your unique identity. On the contrary. They can’t get enough of it. They just want you to express it in Esperanto so that everyone can appreciate it.

But this doesn’t mean Esperanto has an identity of its own. Isn’t it just a soulless translation machine laid on top of this cultural mutual appreciation society? If it is, then why did I so frequently think to myself, “God, that is sooooo Esperantoland!”? I started to notice ways of speaking that were hard to translate out of Esperanto. For example, to say la c^ielo estas blua (the sky is blue), is a perfectly understandable, functional way to communicate, but to say la c^ielo bluas (the sky “is bluing”)—taking advantage of the feature that lets any word root be made into a verb—now that is Esperanto. People also love to use the word etoso to describe the feeling in the air at events. “At my first congress in Toronto I experienced such a bona etoso” or “I met some Esperantists in Bulgaria, and we spent the evening chatting and playing music. What bela etoso!” The dictionary will tell you that etoso means “ethos” or “atmosphere,” but it will not tell you that it connotes a sort of mystical, positive, Zamenhofian vibe. For the newcomer, dictionary in hand, this word will be interpretable and clear, but for the seasoned Esperantist it will evoke a history of gatherings where the spirit of the Esperanto ideal brought everyone a little closer together.

While there are many words that reflect nuances of the Esperanto experience not captured by their dictionary definitions, there are some words that only make sense within the context of Esperantoland. Krokodili (to crocodile) means to speak in your national language at an event where you should be speaking Esperanto (conjuring up the image of a reptilian beast flapping its big jaws). This behavior is frowned upon, and it is convenient to have it summed up in a word, so that saying “Hey, stop crocodiling!” is enough to discourage it. People may also quietly complain to each other about some verda papo (green pope), a guy who’s always preaching and droning on about the ideals of Esperanto. He is a figure not unlike the Jewish mother—annoying at times, but ya gotta love him. Because he is one of us. He is part of what makes us us. In other words, it’s an Esperanto thing. You wouldn’t understand.

After the Second World War, there was a push to rid the movement of its eccentricities, spearheaded by Ivo Lapenna, a Yugoslavian Esperantist and academic lawyer. He held important positions: professor of international law at Zagreb University, counsel-advocate at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, and professor of Soviet and East European law at the London School of Economics. Peter Forster, in his book The Esperanto Movement, described him as having “the sophistication of the cultured cosmopolitan.” He was “fluent in several languages” and had “distinguished himself as a sportsman and a musician.” You can imagine why such a genteel character might not be happy with the public image of Esperanto. After attending the 1947 Universal Congress in Bern, he published an angry plea for respectability:

In social composition the congress was largely petty-bourgeois with a strong and accented religious-mystical-spiritualistic colour, with a mass of naivities and frivolities which only compromise the cause of the International Language.

. . . Do people still not understand that one of the most serious hindrances to the dissemination of Esperanto among serious people is exactly that strange mysticism which incessantly encircles the movement? In the eyes of the masses we make a laughing-stock of ourselves and the cause of International Language by such frivolities.

War’s end had ushered in a new era of international communication and organization, and Lapenna did not want Esperanto to sabotage once again its chance to enter the world stage in an official capacity. Proposals for Esperanto endorsement after the First World War had received serious consideration at the League of Nations. There was enough opposition (the most vocal from the French delegation, which claimed that French was already the universal language) to prevent the league from taking up the cause of Esperanto, though it did accept a resolution to recommend that it be considered a regular language, rather than a code, in the determination of fees for telegraph messages.

The dislocations of the Second World War convinced Lapenna, among others, that there was a fresh chance for Esperanto, and after a petition bearing the signatures of more than 500,000 people and 450 organizations was submitted to the United Nations, UNESCO began to look into the matter. With great hopes for success, Lapenna presented an eloquent case for Esperanto. Ultimately, the UNESCO delegates adopted a resolution expressing affinity between the goals of Esperanto and the goals of UNESCO. The Esperanto community celebrated this as a victory, but no concrete measures had really been endorsed. UNESCO essentially only agreed that yes, Esperanto is a nice idea.

Lapenna’s attempts to put a respectable face on Esperanto were not appreciated by everyone, and the cranks had an ardent voice in John Leslie, AKA Verdiro (truth-teller), the secretary of the British Esperanto Association. He is described in Forster’s book as “an ‘anarchist, freethinking, patriotic Scot.’ . . . He objected to supporting UNESCO, regarding it as a bulwark of financial capitalism. . . . He also opposed formality in dress and defended deviations. . . . He praised the informal equality among Esperantists of all walks of life and criticized the importance attached to attracting those famous in other spheres.” In direct opposition to Lapenna, Leslie promoted an attitude of crank pride among the green-stocking crowd.

The 1947 congress that Lapenna found so disturbing was also important in the life of a young Hungarian named George Soros. His father, Tivadar, was an active Esperantist, and had changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros, an Esperanto verb meaning “will soar.” Tivadar had escaped from a Siberian prison during the First World War and managed to keep his family away from the Nazis during the Second. When the communists took over in 1947, Tivadar and George escaped to Switzerland to attend the Esperanto Universal Congress in Bern. Afterward, the father returned to Hungary and the son went on to Ipswich, England, for the annual world youth congress. Young George decided he wanted to stay in England but only had a tourist visa. He appealed to his fellow Esperantists for help, and it was Verdiro (Leslie), through a relative in the British parliament, who arranged George Soros’s more permanent visa.

On his way to becoming one the world’s richest men, Soros was for a time actively committed to the Esperanto movement. According to the minutes of the Ipswich conference, he wanted to organize a bicycle trip through Europe, spreading the word. He also extolled the virtues of Esperanto at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where anyone with an opinion and the bravery to mount a soapbox can compete for an audience. But he has long since stopped having anything to do with it. A Belgian woman I spoke to at the Havana congress told me bitterly, “He could do so much to help now, but he is a traitor. He hates Esperanto.”

I asked Humphrey Tonkin, who did the English translation of Tivadar Soros’s memoir of survival during the Second World War, for which George wrote the foreword, why Soros had changed his mind. “He doesn’t hate Esperanto,” Tonkin said. “He hasn’t given up on its ideals, but his position is that it had its chance, and it blew it. Which is a perfectly respectable view.”

Born in Britain and educated at Cambridge and Harvard, Tonkin is an Esperantist but definitely not a kook. He’s a professor of English specializing in Spenser and Shakespeare, a former Guggenheim fellow, and president emeritus at the University of Hartford. “Staying sane while dealing with something that is so low in the popular esteem is problematic,” he told me. “It’s a distressingly marginal community. Sometimes when I’m at Esperanto meetings I say to myself—and this sounds terrible—I say, ‘am I really like that?’ But then, I sit in a faculty meeting, and I think to myself, ‘this is not terribly different from an Esperanto congress,’ because it’s true. The fact is that overall, people are wackier than one imagines. So perhaps Esperanto is not that far out.”

Tonkin knew about the fringe quality of Esperantoland from the moment of his first contact with it. On a trip to Paris when he was barely a teenager, he went to a meeting of the Paris Esperanto Society. When the meeting was over, Tonkin said, he was followed out by “your sort of typical 1950s Paris Marxist, and he bent my ear at enormous length about Marxism. The awful thing about it was that I discovered that Esperanto really works. I understood every word he said.”

He was in it for better or worse. When he was not yet 16 years old, Tonkin traveled, by himself, from England to an Esperanto congress in Denmark, and fell into a world full of interesting things. “Not that I found Esperanto was a comfort exactly, but it provided me with opportunities that I couldn’t find in the rest of my life,” he said. “Everything I know about Latvian culture, for example, I know about as a result of Esperanto.”

In 1959 he went to Poland. “Nobody went to Poland in ’59 except crazy Esperanto people,” he said, “and I traveled all over the place. I was in Iran right before the revolution with Esperantists, and what I heard the Esperantists saying about Iran was nowhere to be found in the newspapers. Here I was in direct contact with a collection of people who were not beholden to the United States or Britain or whatever, and were not going to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. So I was able in a sense to get a particular notion of the truth that other people didn’t have.”

I mentioned a man I had met at the Havana congress, an Icelandic fisherman who couldn’t be more gaunt, or more silent, or farther from home. He first learned about Esperanto from a radio broadcast, studied it from a book, and had been to every Universal Congress since—Berlin, Tel Aviv, Zagreb, Fortaleza, Gothenburg. That July, he was headed for Beijing. “You know,” Tonkin said, “there are a lot of Esperantists out there who just haven’t yet found their way to Esperanto.”

Back where it all started for me, at that MIT conference, I never did gain an understanding of the role of rock music in Esperanto culture. But I did get to hear Kimo play. On a stage set up on the lawn in front of the student center on the main quad, he brought out his accordion while his friend Jean-Marc LeClerc, formerly of the group La Rozmariaj Beboj (The Rosemary’s Babies), tuned his guitar. They began with the mellow strains of Besame Mucho: “Kisu min / Kisu min multe . . .

Two gray-haired women in matching green dresses twirled to the music, their feet bare in the grass. A large-bellied man with a big green star on both his cap and his belt buckle stood with his hands in his pockets, swaying awkwardly. Others joined the ladies, or perched on benches and sang along. Outsiders wandered by. The curious ones stopped to listen or to take a leaflet from a friendly college student in an Esperanto T-shirt. Others sniggered or rolled their eyes as they refused the leaflet and continued on. I sat at a careful distance from the stage, hoping it wasn’t too obvious that that I was part of this group, but feeling guilty for thinking so. While Esperantoland has its share of people you don’t want to meet—insufferable bores, sanctimonious radicals, proselytizers for Christ, communism, or a new kind of vegetarian healing—for the most part, the Esperantists I encountered were genuine, friendly, interested in the world, and respectful of others. Though I may not have fully crossed over myself, I did develop a protective defensiveness about them.

Is it crazy to believe that Esperanto has a chance in the age of English? It’s insane. Ask any businessman in Asia, any hotel operator in Europe. Is it ridiculous to believe that a universal common language will bring peace to the world? Of course it is. We have all the brutal evidence we need: the fact that Serbians and Croatians speak the same language did not prevent the bloodshed in Yugoslavia; the shared language of the Hutus and Tutsis did nothing to stop the massacres in Rwanda. Do Esperantists really believe either of these propositions? Whether they do or they don’t, as far as they are concerned they’re doing their part. It can’t hurt.

The world may not need Esperanto, but it does need people who, like Zamenhof, are moved to act against “the enmity of nations.” Knowing Zamenhof’s fate makes it difficult to dismiss his life’s work with a chuckle. During the bloody peak of the First World War, Zamenhof’s brother Aleksander killed himself upon being ordered into the Russian army because he couldn’t bear to face once again the horrors he had witnessed while serving as an army doctor during the Russo-Japanese War. Not long after that, in the midst of death and destruction on a scale he never could have imagined, Zamenhof died of a broken heart. He was lucky. He would not have to know that his lineage would end in yet another world war with the murder of his children at Treblinka.

Kimo and Jean-Marc began another song whose tune was unfamiliar to me. An original Esperanto song. Normando, a slight man with a hint of gray in his beard came and sat on the grass across from me, his legs folded under him, facing me with his back to the stage. He proved to be a sweet-natured Esperanto ambassador who had been kindly introducing me to people and explaining special phrases and vocabulary to me in a modest, nonpedantic way. He leaned forward, and in French Canadian-accented Esperanto explained that the song we were hearing is called Sola. People closer to the stage began to sing along, and he said it is often played at youth congresses, where it is a sort of anthem. The lyrics tell the story of a young person who feels completely alone, but then goes to an Esperanto congress and feels such friendship and connection to the world that his loneliness leaves him . . . until he is back in his own nation in his own little room. “This song,” he almost whispered, “is so meaningful for Esperantists. Sometimes, when it’s played at the congresses, you see people crying.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Arika Okrent is a linguist living in Philadelphia and the author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars.


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