A Modern Tongue / from the archive / issue 1

Esperanto: a language for all

In the mills of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Lancashire, workers adapted to the constant noise by devising a system of communication using sign language and lip-reading, ensuring they could be understood above the (literally) deafening roar of the machines. Across Europe, at the same time – towards the end of the nineteenth century, another new language was being devised, envisaged as an auxiliary language to supplement rather than replace existing tongues. It too had pragmatic, functional motivation, but lofty, modern ideals: it looked to the future, hoping to rise above inter-border and cross-cultural differences and allow people of different nations to be able to hear and speak to one another. This new language would be open, egalitarian and truly democratic, able to be picked up with the minimum of effort and study, and therefore accessible to all regardless of their education or finances. As a new, constructed language, with no cultural heritage or national or political attachments, it would be neutral and so foster peace, tolerance and friendship. A true tool of freedom, emancipating its speakers so they could speak with anyone anywhere in the world. Its name? Esperanto, coming from "espero" or “hope”.

Esperanto has been promoted as a second language throughout the twentieth century, recognised by UNESCO as a medium for international understanding in 1954. Estimates of speakers vary between the hundreds of thousands and around two million today, with about 2,500 in Britain alone, and up to 2,000 native speakers across the world. Esperanto, which draws from Romanic and Germanic vocabulary and Slavic phonology and semantics, was constructed to have simple grammar with no exceptions to rules – as the Universal Esperanto-Asocio's Prague Manifesto, devised in 1996 puts it, a “fair and effective word order” – thus making it easy to remember.

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It was the brainchild of one man, Ludovic Zamenhof, who took it upon himself to learn a number of languages, including Russian, Polish, Yiddish, German, Hebrew, French, English, Greek, Latin and, from a grounding in these languages, form the basis of a new language with similarities to all. Co-operative youth magazine Our Circle (published from the early to the mid-twentieth century and held in the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester), was so inspired by his vision of using a common language to work towards international brotherhood that it dramatised his tale in a two-part serial with a central character named – not million miles from Ludovic – Louis. It sets the scene, a town on the border of Poland and Prussia, explaining:

“The people living in Bjelostok were not all of one nation and they spoke at least four different languages regularly every day...Beside all the people who usually lived in the town, there were many who came to buy and sell, and these also must either speak many languages or they would not be understood...Louis believed that the differences of speech, and the quarrels which arose from these, was the only reason why the people of one nation distrusted or were unfriendly to those of another nation."

Our Circle was so enthused by the practical possibilities of Esperanto, and so confident it would become widespread in the future, that it published stories in Esperanto and set exercises with awards for the best translations. Prizewinners sent in their pictures for publication and are pictured stiffly posed with ringleted hair wearing their best dress. Esperanto proved popular, with the magazine facilitating a pen pals service for those who wished to correspond in Esperanto. Some learners were so swept away by the language they even sent in their own stories for translation.

Reflecting the enthusiasm felt for Esperanto across the world International Youth Esperanto Congresses, as well as full-blown World Esperanto Congresses, were held throughout the twentieth century (with a brief gap for the second world war) and still take place today. When Our Circle predicted Esperanto will soon be “taught in all schools instead of some useless things taught now”, it wasn't far off the truth. Whatever criticisms levelled against it, Esperanto has proved to be a useful tool for teaching other languages, and its supporters argue that, far from being a useless distraction from the teaching of more widely spoken languages, it puts students in the mindset for further linguistic study. So much so that it has been brought into the twenty first century by a pilot project called Springboard, overseen by the University of Manchester, that looks at the teaching of Esperanto in primary schools as a stepping stone for learning other languages. Esperanto – coming soon to a school near you?

© Natalie Bradbury

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 1 'BOLD'.