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4. Zamenhof, Esperanto's founder
As a child, Zamenhof dreamed of ways to bring mankind together in peace. Establishing an international language was one of them, and he never gave up on that dream. In this section, you'll see how he got his idea for a new international language, and how he turned it into reality.
4.1. A boy with a great dream
In 1859, a Jewish boy named Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof was born. He grew up in the small city of Białystok with its mixed population of Poles, Russians, Jews, Germans, and a number of Lithuanians, each group speaking its own language. Zamenhof was quick to note that these ethnic groups did not always get on well with each other, and that their misunderstandings and quarrels often arose from the lack of a common language. These experiences had a big influence on young Ludoviko (to use the Esperanto form of his name), and when he was still a child, he had a great vision of a common language (alongside the ethnic languages) that all the groups could share. With such a language, places like Białystok would be more peaceful, and people could talk directly to each other to at least try and solve any conflicts before they escalated into serious arguments.
"If I hadn't been a Jew from the ghetto, the idea of unifying mankind would either never have entered my head, or at least not dogged me so persistently throughout my entire life."
From a letter Zamenhof wrote in 1905
4.2. How about one of the classical languages?
Zamenhof was convinced it would never work if the language of one of the ethnic groups was chosen as the common one, because that could provoke jealousy among the other groups, and give a considerable advantage to the group who used that language natively. At high school, Zamenhof started learning Latin and Greek – the classical languages – and he wondered whether one of those could be used as an international common language. But after studying them for a while, he decided they were too hard to learn, even for him with his knowledge of several other languages: Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and French. So how hard would they be for people who didn't have any great interest or experience of learning languages? No, the common international language would have to be easier than the classical languages, but just as politically neutral as them. But did such a language exist?
4.3. An "artificial" language
A language that's neutral but also easy to learn. Is that even possible? Learning a language is never an easy task, and is there anything in the world that can be said to be completely neutral? Probably not, but that doesn't rule out the possibility of a language that's less difficult and biased than the ethnic languages. Zamenhof thought a lot about this, and came to the conclusion that an artificial language was the best solution. By "artificial", he meant that the structure of the language should be designed by one or more people. While he was still in high school, Zamenhof started experimenting with ways of creating a new language, but he often doubted whether he could make a good job of it. Despite all his doubts, he stayed true to his dream of a common international language, and he continued experimenting with his "artificial" language, gradually making some progress.
4.4. Simple grammar, but what about the vocabulary?
When he learned English at the end of high school, Zamenhof was inspired by how easy its grammar was in comparison to Latin and Greek, and he realized it was possible to have a language with a grammar that was clear and straightforward. He started to simplify the grammar of the language he was building, and after some careful work, he was reasonably happy with it – but the vocabulary just kept on growing! How could he solve this new problem? A language has to have words for just about everything. He came up with the answer when he saw two Russian signs. The words on the signs were "Shveytsarskaya" (porter's lodge) and "Konditerskaya" (sweet shop, candy store). Both words ended in "-skaya", and Zamenhof suddenly grasped how important suffixes could be. "I've solved the problem!" he decided, as he stood looking at the two Russian signs. Later, he started to make detailed comparisons of words, looking for connections between them, to decide which prefixes and suffixes would be useful in his language. This work proved crucial: Zamenhof managed to dramatically reduce the number of word roots that people would need to memorize.
4.5. The first draft
At first, Zamenhof tried building words from short groups of letters: a, ab, ac, ad, ... ba, ca, da, ... e, eb, ec, ... be, ce, ... aba, aca, ... But he quickly rejected this idea, because it turned out to be impossible to remember the made-up words. Then he became convinced that the vocabulary should use roots from the Romance and Germanic languages as its basis. That way, his new language would have a natural similarity to European languages. At the end of high school, Zamenhof was able to show his school friends the essentials of a language that he called "Lingwe Uniwersala". Several of his friends were inspired to learn it. In December 1878, they gathered together to celebrate the completion of the first draft of his language. They even sang a hymn in it.
4.6. Testing it and improving it
Zamenhof didn't want to present his language to the public straight away, partly because he was too young to do so, but mainly because he wanted time to test the language carefully and make various improvements. Some of the high school students who had learned "Lingwe Uniwersala" tried to discuss it with adults, but they soon gave up when they found that most people simply laughed at them. Zamenhof decided to continue working on his language project in secret, to avoid such mockery and worse – because Jews at that time were being persecuted for anything and everything. As he tried the language out, making translations of lengthy texts, he noticed certain aspects of the language that needed adjusting (even though they'd seemed fine in theory), and he made constant improvements to the language. He gradually realized he'd be better off avoiding literal translations, and he started thinking directly in the new language instead. At this point, Zamenhof decided that his language had acquired a spirit of its own: it had begun to come alive. That's how the core of modern-day Esperanto was born.
4.7. Lingvo Internacia
While he was practising medicine in Warsaw, Zamenhof started looking for a publisher to print a booklet about his new language. He prepared a manuscript entitled "Lingvo Internacia" (International Language), but instead of putting his real name on the book, he used the pseudonym "Dr Esperanto". The word "Esperanto" means someone who hopes, and so this was an apt description for the eye specialist from Białystok – a doctor with hopes for a better world and for unity and peace between its peoples. But he couldn't publish the booklet at first. He had trouble finding a printer who would produce it – and he needed funding, too.
Zamenhof was lucky in more ways than one because he'd just got engaged to Klara Silbernik, who supported his idea of a neutral language. In the summer of 1887, they received financial help from Klara's father, and they used a large part of the money to publish the so-called "Unua Libro" (First Book). This booklet, which was initially printed in Russian and later translated into other languages, included a preface with some poems in Esperanto, a description of the grammar, and a small dictionary. The booklet gradually circulated among idealists and language enthusiasts, initially in Europe, and then in other parts of the world as well.
The next few years were hectic for the newlywed Zamenhofs, involving small children, work, and Esperanto correspondence by night. They weren't rich, but they managed to live in reasonable comfort, and in 1905 they had enough money to travel to France and take part in the first Esperanto convention, in the city of Boulogne-sur-Mer. There was a wonderful atmosphere among the participants, about 700 in all, from 20 countries. In his opening address, Zamenhof gave an emotional speech about his work and his belief in the unity of mankind. Here's a brief extract:
"We should be fully mindful of the great importance of this day, for today we have come together, within the welcoming walls of Boulogne-sur-Mer, not as French with English, nor as Russians with Poles, but as people with people."
4.8. A naive dreamer?
Some of Zamenhof's dreams and ideas were naive. For instance, he tried to construct a neutral religious framework that would bring together all believers and freethinkers and make peace between them – but that project never got off the ground, even among Esperanto speakers. While it may be true that Esperanto hasn't taken the world by storm either, it does nonetheless have hundreds of thousands of speakers – perhaps even millions – who admire the language and use it in a wide range of situations. No other language project has blossomed into a language that's actually alive and spoken by people all around the world, in everyday use for global communication and in "international families" (with parents from different countries and language backgrounds). When you look at it from that angle, Zamenhof's language is a resounding success, and as Esperanto speakers we have great respect for him and his creativity. His work has brought us pleasure, inspiration, and friendly ties with people from all over the world.