In Neukölln, a neighborhood notorious in Berlin for its predominantly immigrant population and organized crime, the wood has been stolen off of the benches of a small square: Esperanto Platz, where old men enjoy their morning, midxday, and afternoon beers. A tagged-over plaque cheerfully tells the story of Neukölln schoolchildren from the 1920s learning the forgotten universal language to correspond with pen-pals from around the world.
Esperanto was invented by the Polish eye-doctor Ludwig Leyzer Zamenhof during the golden age of light-bulbs and liberal democracy, but also pogroms and rising national tensions. In 1887, he published International Language under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto,” or Dr. Hopeful, which lent the language its name. Drawing from Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages, Esperanto was meant to be a mix of the best in all and easy to learn. What was Dr. Esperanto hoping for? A universal understanding that would bring about peace and prosperity on a global scale.
He was not the only one. The project of a universal language is by no means a novel one: the tower of Babel from the Bible tells us as much. But none has been as successful as Esperanto. Zamenhof’s language came at the right historical moment of social entrepreneurship. A network of highly organized Esperantists spread throughout the following decade in most parts of Europe. National associations were created first in Germany, then France, Switzerland and Great Britain. Delegates were dispatched to found regional clubs and to spread the language in more remote areas. These efforts were in turn connected internationally through the umbrella World Esperanto Association.
In The Universal Language, a recent documentary on the rise and fall of Esperanto, Academy-Award nominated director Sam Green frames the project as a modernist tale of ideology, a step-child of socialist internationalism to be shelved with other antiquated utopias from the interwar period.
Ironically, Zamenhof as a Jew turned away from Zionism at a young age. He found his contemporary Theodor Herzl’s vision to be unrealistic, objecting that Hebrew was a dead language, and this made a modern Jewish state impossible. Today, the Jewish state exists and Dr. Hopeful’s own language has been mostly forgotten. What happened?
If Esperanto’s prime time was in the interwar period, the booming fifties essentially killed it. With globalization bringing English to industrialized countries and emerging economies, Esperanto lost much of its purpose. In Green’s documentary, an elderly Dutch man folds up his Esperanto flag, green with a white square and a green star in the upper left-hand corner, stating with some resignation: “the English language has won.”
Though Stalin had initially banned Esperanto as the language of “cosmopolitans,” some pockets of Esperantists remained in the Soviet Block long after the movement had subsided in the West. Esperanto promoted a kind of internationalism that could be an alternative to Anglo-centric globalization, and even a small linguistic step towards World Revolution. With the end of the Cold War, this anti-English internationalism dissolved. Today, even the most critical alter-globalization activists exchange their ideas in English.
So did the Esperanto project fail? Only if you think about it in terms of the goals initially set by Zamenhof: it is by no means universal—estimates of its speaking population range from 500 000 to 2 million. Yet the movement continues to enthusiastically exist, and the UEA boasts 121 member countries today. The association’s website claims: “In a world increasingly aware of minority rights and linguistic and cultural diversity, the international language Esperanto is gaining renewed attention from policy-makers.” The presence of highly enthusiastic proto-couchsurfing polyglots dispersed in the four corners of the globe is undoubtedly unique. The slow living movement has spawned slow travel, slow books, slow food and so on: does Esperanto fit into the category of slow communication by providing an analog “slow” way of thinking about global interconnectedness?
Read more in this column Anna Polonyi: The Iron Curtain’s Comeback