Esperanto is an artificial language invented in 1887 by Dr Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, a Polish polyglot who wanted to create a universal second language to promote international peace and understanding. Unlike any other natural language, Esperanto’s vocabulary and grammar were planned by its inventor and when the language started being diffused, all its structures were already fully formed. Many of Zamenhof’s ideas preceded those of the founder of modern linguistics, the structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure. Esperanto is both a spoken and written language. It is an amalgamated language consisting of five vowels and 23 consonants, with a lexicon mainly based on Western Indo-European languages, and a syntax and morphology influenced by Slavic languages. It is characterized by a phonetic spelling and logical grammatical rules.
After its invention in 1887, Esperanto became popular worldwide. In the early 1900s, there were even plans to create an Esperanto state in the former micro state Neutral Moresnet, but the idea was abandoned. In 1908, the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) was created to promote the diffusion of the language. The organization has national affiliate associations in 70 countries and individual members in 120 countries. The UEA is regularly proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. After the 1911 Xinhai revolution in China, some people even came up with the idea of replacing Chinese with Esperanto.
But the diffusion of Espeanto had also to overcome several obstacles. Around the 1930s, Esperanto speakers increased so much that they started to be persecuted by Stalin, who saw them as a threat to society. During World War II, the rise of Esperanto was threatened by the Nazis and the movement was decimated. In his book ‘Mein Kampf’, Hitler labeled Esperanto as an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, and he regarded its speakers as state enemies because their movement was founded by a Jew.
In 1954, the UNESCO General Conference established an official relationship between UNESCO and UEA and recognized the alignment of Esperanto goals with UNESCO’s ideals. UEA also boasts many other official relationships, including the one with the United Nations, UNICEF, the Council of Europe, the Organisation of American States, and the International Standards Organisation (ISO).
In 2012, Google Translate added Esperanto to its list of available languages. Today, Esperanto is spoken by around 1.6 million people in 90 countries, with notable concentrations in China, Japan, Brazil, Iran, Madagascar, Bulgaria, and Cuba. It is also taught at university level in China, Hungary and Bulgaria, and it is promoted by various religions. For instance, the Japanese religion Oomoto – a religion with shinto characteristics founded in 1892 – promotes Esperanto use among its followers, and the more mainstream Baha’i faith – a faith that reflects the principles of the oneness of humanity – also supports the idea of a single international language.
With more than 25,000 books in circulation, literature in Esperanto has also gained popularity. In 1999 the Scottish author Bill Auld was nominated for the Nobel prize for his writings in Esperanto. In 2008, the Esperanto Literature Academy was founded to promote writing in Esperanto. Theatre and cinema in Esperanto are also gaining popularity, with several plays by dramatists being translated and performed in Esperanto, including Goldoni, Ionesco, Shakespeare. In the past few years, Esperanto has found a new life online. After noticing the high demand for Esperanto courses, Duolingo founders decided to add it to the list of languages available on their app. In 2014, the first version of the course was developed. Duolingo turned out to be the most effective recruiting tool Esperanto has ever had, with around 1.1 million users having signed up to an Esperanto course.