On July 26, 1887, Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof published Dr. Esperanto’s International Language in which he first introduced and described the constructed language Esperanto, now the world’s most widely spoken constructed auxiliary language.
Born to a language teacher and her linguist husband, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof grew up in the Polish town of Białystok, then part of the Russian Empire, where violence between ethnic Poles, Russians, Germans and Jews was commonplace and every week brought fresh news of cruelty between these mutually intolerant communities.
Brought up as an idealist, young Zamenhof believed that the diversity of languages was the most influential basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. And it was there, in the middle of all that hatred and violence, that during his mid-teens, he first got the idea to create a common language that would facilitate understanding between peoples.
He originally wanted to revive some form of simplified Latin or Greek, but after learning it in school he decided it was too complicated to be a common means of international communication. As he grew older, he came to believe that it would be better to create a whole new language for his purpose, and for his 19th birthday, he was finally ready to present his Lingwe Uniwersala to his friends.
But in 1879, Zamenhof’s father, to whom the young linguist had handed over his work for safe-keeping until he had completed his medical studies, burned his work, perhaps not understanding the ideas of his son while anticipating problems from the Tsarist police. Zamenhof did not discover this until he returned from university in 1881, at which point he restarted his project.
By the spring of 1885, after spending the following years developing and perfecting the language, Zamenhof finally completed a 40-page-long booklet in Russian in which he introduced the Esperanto language as we know it today. He later wrote: “I’ve worked for six years perfecting and testing the language, when in the year 1878 it had already seemed completely ready to me.”
Under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto” – “Doktoro” meaning “Doctor” in the new language and “Esperanto” meaning “he who hopes”, Zamenhof spent the next two years trying to raise funds to publish his booklet, until he received the financial help from his future wife’s father. And in 1887, Warsaw publisher Chaim Kelter finally published the book as Dr. Esperanto’s International Language.
While the original name for the language was simply “the international language” (la lingvo internacia), early speakers quickly grew fond of the name Esperanto and began to use it as the name for the language. The denomination quickly gained prominence and has been used as its official name ever since.
The number of speakers grew rapidly over the next few decades, at first primarily in the Russian Empire and Eastern Europe, then in Western Europe, the Americas, China, and Japan. In the early years, speakers of Esperanto kept in contact primarily through correspondence and periodicals, but in 1905 the first world congress of Esperanto speakers was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France.
Since then, an international Esperanto congress has been held every year in a different place of the world, with the only exceptions of the difficult periods of the two World Wars and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Today, Esperanto is the world’s most widely spoken constructed international auxiliary language, and the only such language with a population of native speakers, of which there are perhaps several thousand. Two recent estimates put the number of active speakers at around 100,000. The language has also gained a noticeable presence on the internet in recent years, as it became increasingly accessible on platforms such as Duolingo.
Now, can you guess what famous song that is…?
Miaj problemoj Ĉioj ŝajnis tro proksimaj
Nun ili kvazaŭ ĉeestos ĉi tie
Ho, en hieraŭ mi kredas
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.