15 December 2021
Is Esperanto an artificial language? Yes, but neither more nor less than any other language spoken by humans. All languages are the result of an agreement between the members of a community – dating back to very distant times and evolving slowly and continuously from generation to generation – to communicate with each other by means of the voice.
Woodcut of Dante by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy in Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795
Dante Alighieri, the great Florentine poet and author of the Divine Comedy, was aware of this distant origin of languages, connected to the multiform creativity of our remote ancestors. He recounts all this through the words of Adam, in Paradise, canto XXVI, verses 130-132:
Opera naturale è ch’uom favella;
ma così o così, natura lascia
poi fare a voi secondo che v’abbella.
Among the English translations of the poem, one of the most appreciated is that of Allen Mandelbaum (1926-2011), an American professor of literature. This has the advantage of being accessible online with Dante’s original Italian text alongside. Here is the tercet on the origin of languages, in Mandelbaum’s translation:
That man should speak at all is nature’s act,
but how you speak—in this tongue or in that—
she leaves to you and to your preference.
And what about Esperanto? Well, Esperanto was also ‘invented’, but that occurred much more recently than for any other language: Esperanto was created by Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist), who proposed it in a book published in 1887, as a possible international and ‘neutral’ language. Esperanto is also the result of an agreement among all those who accepted Zamenhof’s proposal and started to communicate in that language. Today Esperanto speakers are scattered all over the world and also transmit the language from generation to generation. There are probably about one million speakers.
Portrait of Zamenhof. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Esperanto literature is particularly rich and has three different translations of the Divine Comedy. The British Library holds all of them. It is recognized that the best Esperanto translation is the most recent one: the complete version in terza rima written by Enrico Dondi (1935-2011), an Italian psychiatrist, and published in 2006. Here you can see the tercet on the origin of languages, in Dondi’s translation:
Por hom’ estas natura la parolo,
sed lasas la natur’, ke l’ manieron
oni elektu laŭ la propra volo.
Cover of La dia komedio. Infero. Translated by Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2006). ZF.9.a.6610
Dondi’s Esperanto is an elegant language that has been gradually refined thanks to a literary tradition that has matured over the course of more than a century. Therefore, in this blog post we will follow a chronological order to illustrate how the language has gradually measured itself with the great Italian poem. And we will do that by considering the very famous opening lines of the Comedy:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Verses that Mandelbaum translates as:
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
We owe the very first translation of the Divine Comedy into Esperanto to Giovanni Peterlongo (1856-1941), an Italian lawyer and civil servant, who lived in Trento. The town was under Austrian administration until 1918 and is now part of Italy. In 1922, Peterlongo was elected mayor of Trento and he spoke in favour of the use of both German and Italian in Alto Adige.
Page from Peterlongo’s translation of the Divine Comedy (Canto VIII) with a reproduction of a drawing by Sandro Botticelli (Milan, 1979). YF.2010.b.1079
Peterlongo’s blank verse translation of the Comedy was completed in 1914, when Esperanto was still a very young language. The work was later revised by him and was published only in 1963, with a reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s drawings. The British Library holds a second edition.
Here you can see the first tercet:
En mezo de l’ vojaĝ’ de nia vivo
en arbareg’ malluma mi troviĝis,
ĉar mi de l’ rekta vojo forvojiĝis.
Kálmán Kalocsay (1891-1976) was a Hungarian doctor, and worked at a major Budapest hospital, but also was an outstanding Esperantist poet, who considerably influenced Esperanto culture, through original poetry and translations of literary works.
Cover of Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795
Kalocsay had learned Esperanto in 1913, the same year in which the Hungarian poet Mihály Babits (1883-1941) had published in Budapest a splendid translation of Inferno into Hungarian, in terza rima. Kalocsay was impressed by Babits’s work and decided to follow his example by translating Dante’s Inferno into Esperanto, in the same original metre. The work was published in Budapest in 1933 and includes 14 woodcuts by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy.
Woodcut 'Alta Helpo' by Dezső Fáy in Kálmán Kalocsay’s translation of Inferno
Here is the freshness of Kálmán Kalocsay’s terza rima in the first tercet of his Esperanto Inferno:
Je l’ vojomez’ de nia vivo tera
mi trovis min en arbareg’ obskura,
ĉar perdiĝinta estis vojo vera.
Thus we arrive at the 21st century, when Dante studies in Esperanto culture find their most important figure in Enrico Dondi, who masterfully translated all of Dante’s poetical works into Esperanto, in the same metre as the originals. The entire Divine Comedy, whose terza rima flows with an unparalleled lightness, appeared in 2006, preceded in 2000 by an edition of Purgatory. The Vita Nuova (New Life) appeared in 2003, and in 2007 the youthful work Il Fiore (The Flower).
Finally, here is the first tercet of Enrico Dondi's Inferno:
En mezo de la voj’ de vivo nia
mi trovis min en arbareg’ obskura,
de l’ rekta voj’ estinte fordevia.
Giuliano Turone, Editor of Dante Poliglotta
References and further reading
Dante Alighieri, La dia komedio, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2006). ZF.9.a.6610
Dante Alighieri, La dia komedio, el la itala tradukis Giovanni Peterlongo (Milan, 1979). YF.2010.b.1079
Dante Alighieri, Infero, tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2000). YF.2010.b.116
Dante Alighieri, La floro, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2007) YF.2008.a.12615
Dante Alighieri, Vivo nova, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2009).YF.2009.a.26102.
Vittorio Russo, Danteskaj itineroj (Naples, 2001). YF.2009.a.37689.
19 May 2020
Esperanto can be described as the language of hope, peace, and solidarity as Professor Renato Corsetti, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto has discussed in his previous posts for the European Studies blog. Hope remains the governing principle, as the name of the language attests (espero in Esperanto).
Driven by hope for enhancing linguistic diversity, dedicated Esperantists have been translating minority language literatures into Esperanto, ranging from local stories to epic poems.
Local stories of the Pyrenees are featured in Christian Lavarenne’s translations from Occitan: Kvar mirindaj rakontoj el la Pireneoj and Mirindaj rakontoj el la Pireneo (Balagué, 1998; YF.2019.a.18502 and YF.2019.a.18517).
Portrait of Federic Mistral from La poemo de Rodano (Laroque Timbaut, 1988) YF.2011.a.10850. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.
The gem of classic Provençal literature, Mirèio by Federic Mistral was translated into Esperanto (Mirejo) by Paul Champion and Eugène Noël in 1909. At the time Mistral was still active and Esperanto was still a new language.
Mistral’s other masterpiece, the pensive Le Poème du Rhône en XII. Chants (Paris 1897; 11498.b.64.), translated into Esperanto as La poemo de Rodano (Laroque Timbaut, 1988; YF.2011.a.10850) by Rajmundo Laval or Valo has a particular resonance for us now as it tells the story of the end of an era.
Cover of Le Poème du Rhône en XII. Chants
Cover of La poemo de Rodano. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.
While the title implies the poem is about the river Rhône, it is actually about the river’s people, the bargemen, the Coundriéulen (Provençal), Condrillots (French). Fitting to a monumental opus, the bargemen are portrayed in the opening stanza as giants who can only be described by the beauty and strength of their natural environment, the river, the sun and the trees:
From Lyons at the blush of early dawn
The bargemen, masters of the Rhône, depart,
A robust band and brave, the Condrillots.
Upright upon their crafts of planks of fir,
The tan of sun and glint from glassy wave
Their visages have bronzed as with gold.
And in that day colossuses they were,
Big, corpulent, and strong as living oaks,
And moving beams about as we would straws.
Translation: K. Katzner
First stanza of the Esperanto translation of Le Poème du Rhône. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.
The beginning, however, foreshadows the end: the strength of these natural giants succumbs to a new era’s unnatural giants, the steamboats of industrialisation. It is a tragic story not only of the lovers on board but also for lovers of the past. Although the bargemen lose their barge, hauling horses and people on board, they keep their dignity. After an epic journey, literally and metaphorically, we can see them on the shore, saying not a word about their loss, but moving forward. A digitised copy of the original Provençal and French text is available via Project Gutenberg.
Mistral was more than a storyteller. His ambition was to revitalise Provençal, the language of southern France, particularly Provence. With his magnificent poetry Mistral connected the rough 19th-century bargemen and the better-known refined Provençal singers, the troubadours of the 12th and 14th centuries, and expressed his hope that the language would thrive, whoever its speakers came to be.
The Troubadours of the 12th-14th centuries were the best-known Provençal singers. Image from J.B.M. Challamel, La France et les Français à travers les siècles (Paris, 1882.) 9226.m.1.
Today the surviving variants of Occitan and Provençal are designated as ‘definitely’ and ‘severely’ endangered languages according to UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
Maps of Occitan (above) and Provençal (below) dialects speaking regions (yellow: definitely endangered; orange: severely endangered) UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2010 © UNESCO
Inter-generational transmission is the most prominent of the nine factors considered in the designation.
Definitely endangered means ‘children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home’.
Severely endangered refers to a language which is ‘spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves’.
Keeping a language alive can take many forms, even in translation. For example, Jomo (Jean-Marc Leclerq), a French Esperantist promotes Occitan in songs.
The British Library’s Esperanto collection contains works translated from over 50 languages, including some in anthologies. The most translated languages, not surprisingly, are the larger ones: English, Russian, French, German and Polish, followed by Chinese, Czech, Hungarian, Italian, Dutch and Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Bulgarian, Portuguese, Croatian, Serbian, Danish, and Romanian. The list is indicative of the languages spoken by the most active Esperantists. However, within the collection a special corpus is dedicated to translations of minority language literatures including Occitan, Provencal, Basque, Walloon, and Welsh.
In addition to books, Esperanto journals, most importantly Literatura Mondo (1922-1949; ZF.9.b.266), La Nica Literatura Revuo (1955-1962; ZF.9.a.7040) and Beletra Almanako (2007- ; ZF.9.a.7847) have also regularly published translations, both poetry and prose, from various languages.
Etnismo, an international organisation with an online newsletter, connects Esperantists who are interested in minority issues including minority languages.
Translators of minority and endangered language literatures into Esperanto often publish dictionaries as well. These are either embedded in the translated book as addendum or constitute stand-alone titles, for example: Basque-Esperanto dictionary (Bilbao, 2015; YF.2016.a.2481), and Catalan-Esperanto dictionary (Barcelona, 2014; YF.2015.a.22072).
So, why is it important to translate endangered language literature into Esperanto? By raising awareness of endangered languages and making their literature accessible to a larger readership through translations, Esperantists promote linguistic diversity. As Professor Renato Corsetti explains: ‘Esperantists think that all languages, large and small, are equally valuable, and Esperanto wants to contribute to the revitalization of all languages.’
Andrea Deri, Cataloguer
With contributions from:
Olga Kerziouk, former Curator, British Library Esperanto Collections
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics, La Sapienza University Rome, Former president of the World Esperanto Association, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto
We would like to thank Professor Corsetti for his generous assistance in acquiring images from La poemo del Rodano from the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, and Candide Simard and Phil Hatfield for their helpful suggestions.
Moseley, Christopher (ed.), Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. (Paris, 2010).
Reinhard Haupenthal, La unuaj libroj de Schleyer (1880) kaj de Zamenhof (1887): pri la lanĉo de du plan-lingvoj (Schliengen, 2000) YF.2008.a.12642
13 April 2018
Today is the opening day of the British and Pan-Celtic Esperanto Conference in Aberystwyth.
Esperanto speakers? You’re probably thinking there can’t be many of them – and moreover that the few who do exist are probably crazy as well. Yes, you’re right that they are far fewer in number than the people who are learning English or, these days, Chinese. But how many are there? The truth is that nobody knows. If the figure of “more than 100,000” is good enough for Encyclopaedia Britannica, far be it from me to contradict it by giving my own estimate.
In any case, we can confidently say that there are a few million Esperanto speakers scattered throughout the world. If there weren’t, the Esperanto Wikipedia would not now be the 32nd largest in terms of the number of articles (as recorded in June 2016). Not to mention the 1.6 million learners who have signed up for the Esperanto courses with the language-learning site Duolingo.
Esperanto speakers are everywhere. The Universal Esperanto Association has members in over 120 countries. Esperanto speakers can also be found in the sort of places where you would never think of looking, such as East Timor and New Caledonia, and there are fascinating stories about the development of Esperanto in various countries, from China to the Czech Republic. The British Library’s Esperanto Collections reflect the history and diversity of the Esperanto movement and its publications.
Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, belonged to those 19th-century visionaries who dreamt of universal brotherhood, peace and understanding. But during the very first World Congress in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France in 1905, a more practical group came to the fore, asserting that Esperanto was just a language, a means of facilitating international communication, and had nothing to do with airy-fairy dreams of a better world.
These are not the only divisions among Esperanto speakers. There are those who are working for it to become the world’s universal second language, and those who are happy for it to remain a niche interest and prefer to concentrate on developing its cultural potential. This second approach has a name: Raŭmismo, the Rauma movement, after the Finnish town where the World Esperanto Youth Congress was held in 1980.
As a world-wide phenomenon the Esperanto community is exposed to many influences. During the last century numerous special-interest groups were founded, contributing to a truly colourful panorama. One of the earliest was the International Union of Catholic Esperantists. But unsurprisingly the Catholics were followed by the Protestants, then by the Orthodox Christians, to say nothing of Buddhists, Ōmoto (a Japanese religion), Muslims, Bahá’í and Mormons. Naturally, in response to all this religious activity the atheists could not fail to put in an appearance – but oddly enough, there is no Jewish association at the moment, although there is no lack of Jews in the movement as a whole. All these diverse groups have found common ground between the Esperanto movement and their own ideals.
Afterwards came the Communist Esperanto speakers, the Socialists, Anarchists and other splinter groups who even fought in the Spanish Civil War, but now are more likely to fight amongst themselves. At the same time professional associations came into being, who used Esperanto as their working language and published specialist periodicals. You may be surprised to learn that there are doctors who discuss surgery in Esperanto.
Then there are the railway workers, the journalists, the ecologists, the feminists and numerous others. Teachers are particularly important in a movement whose aim is to teach a language. Their association is the International League of Esperantist Teachers.
You might well ask yourself what all these diverse groups have in common. In fact, there is something.
The first general trait is being interested in “the other”. Esperanto was born with the aim of facilitating communication between people speaking different languages, and so curiosity about other cultures is part of its DNA.
The second trait is tolerance. No one cares if you support some cranky fringe movement; you will be accepted anyway. The Esperanto-speaking world is open to groups who may be subject to some rather odd looks in the rest of society. Nobody in the UK now finds anything remarkable about being a vegetarian, but that was not the case as recently as the 1960s. The British Esperanto movement contains a higher proportion of vegetarians than society as a whole, as was shown in Peter G. Forster’s study The Esperanto Movement (The Hague, 1982; X.0900/323(32)). Homosexuals were welcome in the Esperanto movement at a time when homosexuality was still a crime in many countries.
In the 130 years since the first book in Esperanto was published, Esperanto speakers have been creating their own culture of novels, poetry, songs and jokes. Hundreds of thousands of books have been published, both translated and original. Many Esperanto authors are known for their writing in their own languages as well as Esperanto, for instance the British writer Marjorie Boulton.
Literary serial Beletra almanako (New York, 2006-). ZF.9.a.7847
Musicians singing in Esperanto can be heard online (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27BP5sXwuTs), and many of the thousands who have started learning with Duolingo create videos for YouTube. You will also find many Esperantists on social media platforms.
Kajto (Ankie van der Meer and Nanne Kalma from Netherlands) singing at the London Esperanto Club (Photo by Olga Kerziouk).
And finally, the last trait that all Esperanto speakers share, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs, is their love for the language itself and for the Esperanto-speaking community. For many couples Esperanto has even become their family language, particularly when they belong to different nationalities. They chat in Esperanto over the dinner table and use it to talk to their children.
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto / Anna Lowenstein, Esperanto author and journalist
Esperanto in the New York Times: 1887-1922, edited by Ulrich Becker. (New York, 2010).YD.2010.a.12499
Roberto Garvía Soto. Esperanto and its rivals: the struggle for an international language. (Philadelphia, 2015) m15/.11262
Esther H. Schor, Bridge of words: Esperanto and the dream of a universal language (New York, 2015). Waiting for shelfmark.
Geoffrey Sutton, Concise encyclopedia of the original literature of Esperanto, 1887-2007 (New York, 2008). YC.2008.a.12495
31 January 2018
J.R.R. Tolkien had a ‘secret vice’, which ceased to be secret from the moment he let the cat out of the bag in an essay of the same title, which has been reprinted many times.
Tolkien’s vice was inventing languages. He was introduced to this pleasure at an early age by his cousins Mary and Marjorie Incledon, who taught him the language Animalic which they had created themselves. He quotes a fragment of it in his 1936 essay ‘The Monsters and the Critics’: “Dog nightingale woodpecker forty = You are an ass”.
When the elder of the two girls lost interest, Tolkien, who was already learning Latin and French at school, collaborated with her younger sister to create a second and more sophisticated language called Nevbosh or ‘New Nonsense’. “I was a member of the Nevbosh-speaking world,” Tolkien proudly recalls. He even quotes part of a poem in the language, which begins with the lines: Dar fys ma vel gom co palt ‘hoc / Pys go iskili far maino woc? (There was an old man who said ‘how / can I possibly carry my cow?’)
During this time Tolkien also learnt Esperanto. Esperanto was still a new language, only five years older than Tolkien himself. (The first book of Esperanto was published in 1887, while Tolkien was born in 1892.) When he was 17 years old he used Esperanto in a manuscript with the title The Book of the Foxrook, consisting of 16 pages in a a secret code using rune-like phonetic symbols and ideograms. The name of the code was Privata Kodo Skaŭta – ‘Private Scout Code’ (The correct word for ‘scout’ in modern Esperanto is skolta.)
A teenager with a passion for learning and creating languages could hardly fail to discover Esperanto, although the criteria which Tolkien followed for his own constructed languages were quite different from those which inspired Esperanto’s creator Zamenhof. The grammar of Esperanto aims to be as simple as possible, in contrast to the complex grammars of Tolkien’s languages. Tolkien was aiming to create word forms which would be aesthetically pleasing, and harmonize with their meanings. In accordance with these principles he invented at least 15 languages in the course of his lifetime. He also gave them different dialects and background histories showing how they had evolved over time, and imagined the peoples who spoke them His grammars were very elaborate, making use of his linguistic knowledge of Finnish, Welsh, Ancient Greek and other languages. It might be difficult to learn to speak his languages fluently – but ease of learning was never his primary object in creating them.
In the first period up to 1930 he worked on Primitive Quendian, from which the entire family of Elvish languages evolved. He followed this up with Common Eldarin, Quenya and Goldorin, which later became Noldorin. To these languages he later added Telerin, Ilkorin, Doriathrin and Avarin.
In the final stage, Noldorin evolved into Sindarin, which along with Quenya is one of his best known languages. Sindarin makes use of the same phonological system as Welsh, which was one of Tolkien’s favourite languages. The grammar is also inspired by Welsh, and the result is notably complex. For example some nouns form the plural with an ending (usually -in), e.g. Drû, pl. Drúin, ‘wild men’. Others do so through vowel change, e.g. golodh and gelydh, ‘lore master, sage.. Still others use some combination of the two, and a few do not change in the plural: Belair, ‘Beleriandic-Elf/Elves’ is singular and plural.
An example of Tolkien’s Quenya script and language (Image by TigerTjäder from Wikimedia Commons)
Compare this with Esperanto, which has only one plural ending for nouns, with no exceptions. Of course, the aim of Esperanto is that it should be easy to learn for speakers of all languages.
In spite of this, Tolkien recognized the poetic qualities of Esperanto, stating in ‘A Secret Vice’: “Also I particularly like Esperanto, not least because it is the creation ultimately of one man, not a philologist, and is therefore something like a ‘human language bereft of the inconveniences due to too many successive cooks[...].”
At the phonological level, too, Tolkien’s languages stand in complete contrast to the simplicity of Esperanto. Sindarin is based on Welsh, but with elements of Old English and Old Icelandic, resulting in a rich abundance of vowels and consonants. Esperanto’s phonological system on the other hand is closer to that of Modern Hebrew, which consists of a simplified version of the phonology of European languages.
Tolkien’s connection with the British Esperanto movement continued in later years. In 1930 the World Esperanto Congress was held in Oxford, and the following year Tolkien was appointed to the Board of Honorary Advisers of the British Esperanto Association’s Education Committee.
Letter from Tolkien to the Secretary of the Committee of the British Esperanto Association, printed in The British Esperantist, 2 May 1932. PP.4939.ka.
In his letter of acceptance, Tolkien wrote that Esperanto was “in the position of an orthodox church facing not only unbelievers but schismatics and heretics.” The letter concludes with the well-known sentence: “My advice to all who have the time or inclination to concern themselves with the international language movement would be: ‘Back Esperanto loyally.’”
In 1933 he was one of the patrons of the British Esperanto Congress in Oxford, and signed a declaration about the educational value of Esperanto in schools.
Two of Tolkien’s most popular works have been translated into Esperanto. The Lord of the Rings was translated by the major Esperanto writer and poet William Auld (1924-2006) as La mastro de l’ ringoj (first published 1995-1997). The Hobbit was first published in Esperanto in 2000 as La hobito: aŭ tien kaj reen, translated by Christopher Gledhill and William Auld.
Tolkien’s writings show that for him one of the most important qualities of invented languages was beauty of form. Sindarin achieves that ideal, possessing both educational and aesthetic value. Remembering his support for Esperanto, Esperanto speakers owe it to him to declare, “Ĝuu Sindarin plene” - Enjoy Sindarin to the full.
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics, La Sapienza University Rome, and former President of the World Esperanto Association.
A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins (London, 2016) YC.2017.a.9899.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, and other essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London, 1983) X.950/22397.
15 December 2017
The new international language Esperanto had not yet reached its 20th birthday when the first anthology of national literature in it was published in 1905. Not surprisingly it was a Polish anthology (Pola antologio). The British Library holds the second edition of it, published in 1909 in Paris by the famous Librarie Hachette.
The choice of items and translations themselves were made by Polish Esperanto pioneer Kazimierz Bein, known amongst Esperantists worldwide under his pseudonym Kabe. This edition consisted from prose works of 14 prominent Polish writers (Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Eliza Orzeszko, Maria Konopnicka and others). Some of his translations from Polish, Russian and German were republished in later years while the translator himself lost interest in Esperanto and left the movement, leaving after himself the verb kabei (meaning “to disappear suddenly after being active”).
Kazimierz Bein (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The compilation, translation and publication of treasures of native culture became a task of honour for Esperantists of all countries. Other anthologies followed after the First World War: Catalan (YF.2005.a.5977) and Bulgarian (012264.aaa.12) in 1925, Belgian (Belga antologio) in 1928, Estonian (YF.2006.b.2354) in 1932, Hungarian (Hungara antologio; on order) in 1933, Swedish in 2 volumes (ZF.9.a.6406) in 1934, Czechoslovak (YF.2017.a.1323) in 1935, Swiss (YF.2006.a.30968) in 1939.
The best Esperanto poets and writers contributed to the translations of many of them. A very good example is the volume of Hungara Antologio, the first edition of which appeared in 1933. It has 473 pages and features 50 Hungarian authors. Famous Esperantists, well-known for their own original works, engaged in the programme of translation: Kálmán Kalocsay), Julio Baghy, Lajos Tárkony and others. Another edition, with some new authors added, was published 50 years later, in 1983 (YF.2008.a.21429), by Vilmos Benczik.
Persecution of Esperantists by Nazi and Stalinist regimes and the Second World War stopped activities and publishing once again. Only in 1950s the publishing restarted: an English anthology (Angla antologio 1000-1800; X22/0305) was published in 1957 (but the second volume Angla antologio II: 1800-1960 appeared 30 years later, in 1987; YC.1990.a.4395). More anthologies followed in the 1980s: Macedonian (YF.2010.a.21783) in 1981, German (YF.2006.a.31533) in 1985, Italian ( YF.2006.a.9512) in 1987, Australian (YF.2008.a.19828) in 1988.
Some anthologies have lovely illustrations, made especially for Esperanto editions, as for example Ĉina Antologio (1919-1949).
In the 1990s more anthologies were published: Romanian (YF.2006.a.31163) in 1990, French (Franca antologio) and Occitan (Okcitana antologio) in 1998. There are now almost 100 anthologies, some of them limited to certain period or genre (as Antologio de portugalaj rakontoj; X25/4091 or Nederlanda antologio. Antologio de Nederlanda poezio post la mezepoko; YF.2008.a.29548) or language (Latina antologio; ZF.9.a.6591) or even region (Podlaĥia Antologio; 2009; YF.2010.a.1053)
When some journalists still wonder about the survival of Esperanto teams of Esperanto translators are working compiling and translating new anthologies or planning new editions of old ones. The British Library holds many of the anthologies which can show to unprejudiced researcher the richness of the so-called “artificial language” in which all treasures of humankind can be rendered by gifted translators.
Title-page and frontispiece from Skota antologio (Glasgow, 1978). X.909/43134
As Burns – and New Year’s Eve – festivities are approaching, I leave you with a famous poem by the Scottish bard translated by Reto Rossetti (from Skota antologio):
La prakonatojn ĉu ni lasu
Velki el memor'?
Ĉu ni ne pensu kare pri
La iamo longe for?
Iamo longe for, karul',
Iamo longe for, karul'!
Ni trinku en konkordo pro
La iamo longe for!
La kruĉojn do ni levu kaj
Salutu el la kor',
Kaj trinku simpatie pro
La iamo longe for!
Montete iam kuris ni
Kaj ĉerpis el la flor'
Sed penan vojon spuris ni
Post iamo longe for.
Geknabe ni en fluo vadis
Ĝis vespera hor'
Sed maroj muĝis inter ni
Post iamo longe for.
Do jen la mano, kamarad'!
Ni premu kun fervor',
Kaj trinku ni profunde pro
La iamo longe for!
You can listen to it performed by a Chinese youth choir here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVCzONYXZL0
Olga Kerziouk, Curator, Esperanto studies
03 August 2017
After some initial doubts by the Tzarist censors, the first decade of the 20th century was a period of good relations between Esperanto speakers and the Russian authorities. There were courses and clubs throughout the country. Every year until 1914 an official government representative took part in national Esperanto congresses with the support of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.
When the Russian Revolution broke out, many Esperantists gave it their enthusiastic support. At the same time, they continued promoting the language. Chief among these was an energetic and ambitious young man, Ernest Drezen, who managed to convince the new regime that Esperanto would be an essential tool to enable the world’s proletariat to communicate during the expected proletarian revolution. The Esperanto movement received support from the Soviet authorities at the highest level, which enabled it to develop in a most satisfactory manner.
It is important not to underestimate the idealism of the early years, which bore fruit in the fields of language and culture among others. Internally there was a policy of encouraging the use of all the languages of the national minorities, while an important foreign policy aim was the creation of a global proletarian culture. Esperanto fitted naturally into this aspiration for greater internationalism.
Early in 1919 the Bolshevik government made a major contribution to the work of the Esperanto movement. The periodical Esperanto Triumfonta (‘Esperanto will triumph’) reported on this the following year (1920, issue 6):
Moscow: According to the official Communist newspaper ‘Izvestija’ of 16th and 17th January 1919, the Communist government has made a large house available to the Moscow Esperantists.... It will be home to the Moscow Esperanto Society and the Organizing Committee of the Russian Esperanto Federation.... There will also be a bookshop and a large library, a reading room and a meeting room for the club. There are two publications: ‘Oficiala Bulteno’ and ‘Juna Mondo’ (Official Bulletin and Young World).
Drezen knew that any Esperanto association would have to conform to the Bolshevik party line. After various attempts, in 1921 he founded the Sovetrespublikara Esperantista Unio (SEU: Soviet Republics’ Esperantist Union), whose constitution followed the organizing principles of the Bolshevik Party.
Cover of: L. Sosnovski, Kvinjaro de Sovetlandoj (Moscow, 1923) Above. Below: Portrait of Leon Trotsky from the same book with title-page as Jarkvino de la Oktobra Revolucio. F13/1021
Numerous young Esperantists joined the new association, among them many talented people: organizers, journalists, writers, poets. SEU quickly became a strong, healthy and active Esperantist collective with a large membership. To continue receiving state support however it had to publicly cease all relations with the World Esperanto Association (UEA), seen as ‘a “neutral” petit-bourgeois organization in solidarity with the League of Nations’ and therefore not permitted to have members or representatives in the Soviet Republic. This was one of the points approved during SEU’s first congress. Instead, SEU chose to work with the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (SAT: World Non-national Association), which was founded as a non-neutral proletarian Esperantist organization during the same period. SEU recommended that all its members should also join SAT.
Cooperation between SEU and SAT was initially active and fruitful, but in 1923 there were the first signs of disagreement about the aims and direction of Esperanto activities, when SAT’s executive did not approve some of the decisions made during SEU’s congress. Even so relations remained good, culminating in SAT’s 6th Congress in Leningrad in 1926.
Soviet stamp for congress of SAT in Leningrad (From Wikimedia Commons)
In the meantime the political climate in the Soviet Union was changing. The idea of a world proletarian revolution had fallen out of favour. Stalin, the new leader, believed it was possible to build a Socialist society in a single country. Anyone who disagreed was labelled ‘an enemy of the people’ and punished in accordance with the new criminal code, which came into force in 1926. One Esperanto speaker, Aleksandr Postnikov, had already been executed by firing squad the previous year. He was an army officer, and one of the most active Esperantists in the early 1900s. He was arrested several times, condemned for spying, and only rehabilitated in 1993.
Many groups came under suspicion. In 1936 it was the turn of the Esperantists. There were mass arrests in Ukraine. Torture was widely used to force confessions from innocent people about ‘counter-revolutionary activity’, and the leaders of the Soviet Esperanto movement were made to sign confessions about their participation in the ‘Trotskyite’ organizations SEU and SAT, as well as spying, and even plotting to liquidate the Soviet leadership. The Ministry of the Interior began to arrest Esperantists across the country, because almost all of them were members of SEU and SAT.
Trials against Esperanto speakers continued until 1938. Hundreds of rank-and-file members of the two associations were given long sentences of exile, while the leaders of the movement, including Ernest Drezen and the major poet and writer Eugene Michalski were shot. Vladimir Varankin, a novelist and professor of history and foreign languages, was accused of spying and plotting to murder Stalin, and was killed.
SEU had never been officially prohibited. Now it ceased to exist, and the national Esperanto movement was extinguished for almost 20 years.
Were Esperanto speakers really so dangerous for the state? Hardly. But their contacts with foreign Esperantists, which allowed them to send and receive ‘undesirable’ information, were deemed dangerous. They receive an ironic mention in the second chapter of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work The Gulag Archipelago: ‘Among those great waves, certain modest little wavelets were also swept away, including [...] the Esperantists (a harmful group which Stalin undertook to smoke out during the years when Hitler was doing the same thing).’
So Esperanto had its triumph during the first idealistic years of the Russian Revolution and its tragedy in the years before the Second World War. But after Stalin’s death it revived, and played a remarkable role during the Cold War, when it was one of the channels for communicating with the West.
Moisej Bronshtejn, Russian writer and journalist.
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association.
The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website.
22 July 2017
Linguists are undecided about Esperanto: is it closer to the Asian or the European languages? Its vocabulary is certainly more European, but its structure is similar to that of some Asian languages. In any case, Esperanto started to be known in Asia at almost the same time that it appeared in Europe.
The first mention of Esperanto in Japan was in the late 1880s in relation to a brief flurry of interest in another artificial language, Volapük. It really arrived in 1906 in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War. A body of learners, advocates, and users emerged which was notably diverse right from the outset. A sample of some of the early participants serves to illustrate this: Futabatei Shimei, the Russophile and novelist, encountered Esperanto in Vladivostok. His textbook, translated from Russian, was one of the most popular of the early ways to learn. Osugi Sakae, one of the most significant Japanese anarchists, was in prison in 1906 when the first Esperanto meetings were being held, but while there he began to study the language and on release was a very active participant, writing the first Japanese to Esperanto translation, setting up an Esperanto night school, and introducing the language to a number of expatriate Chinese students who went on to form the foundation of the Esperanto (and Anarchist) movement in China.
Cover of: Victor Garcia. Three Japanese Anarchists: Kotoku, Osugi and Yamaga (London. 2000). YC.2000.a.4780
In 1907 a Chinese-language magazine was published in Paris with the title Hinshi-gi (New Century), in which anarchist Chinese students called for Esperanto to come into general use in China. The first Esperanto courses in China began in 1906 in Shanghai.
And then there was Ho Chi Minh, a young revolutionary who was travelling the world. In 1915 he was living in Crouch End, London, and he learned Esperanto at around this time. He would go on to make use of it in 1945 when the Vietnamese radio service informed the world of the state’s declaration of independence.
Title page of the collection of poems of Ho Chi Min Tagkajero en prizono (Prison Diary) in Esperanto translation (Hanoi, 1966). YF.2016a.7793.
Esperanto was introduced into Korea by students who had learnt it in Japan. However, it would take too long to describe Esperanto’s fortunes in every country in Asia.
Just after the First World War, one of Esperanto’s early heroes was the Japanese Nitobe Inazo. When the League of Nations was established in 1920, Nitobe became one of the Under-Secretaries General of the League. He became a founding director of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (which later became UNESCO).
In August 1921, Nitobe took part in the 13th World Congress of Esperanto in Prague as the official delegate of the League of Nations. His report to the General Assembly of the League was the first objective report on Esperanto by a high-ranking official representative of an intergovernmental organization. Although the proposal for the League to accept Esperanto as their working language was accepted by ten delegates, mainly from Asian countries, the French delegate used his power of veto to block the issue.
In honour of Nitobe, a regular feature of World Esperanto Congresses over the last twenty years has been the Nitobe Symposium, in which well-known linguists discuss global language problems.
Esperanto also prospered in China during the same period. Among its supporters was the famous writer Lu Xun. The Chinese Esperanto movement soon became linked to other progressive cultural movements, and the language was learned by numerous intellectuals and revolutionaries.
Esperanto speakers accompanied Mao Zedong on the Long March, and after visiting an exhibition about Esperanto, Mao wrote, “If Esperanto is used as a means for presenting ideas which are truly internationalist and truly revolutionary, then Esperanto can and should be studied.” Mao’s comment opened the way for Esperanto in China.
Covers of: Prezidanto Mau Zedong. Pri popola milito (Pekino, 1968) YF.2014.a.16361 and Vortoj de Prezidanto Mau Zedong (Pekino, 1967) YP.2011.a.378
In the meantime Esperanto had found adepts in most other Asian countries. Some phenomena are difficult to explain. Iran is one of the Asian countries where the movement has done well from the early 20th century onwards throughout all political upheavals and revolutions. Both the Shah and the Ayatollahs approved its use, and the national movement celebrated its centenary in 2016. And what about Pakistan? The national Esperanto association formally joined the World Esperanto Association in 1978, and continues to hold conferences and publish textbooks in Urdu. For more detailed information about the movement in other Asian countries the best source is Gvidlibro pri Esperanto-movado en Azio (Guidbook to the Esperanto movement in Asia) by Chieko Doi (Yokohama, 1995; YF.2009.a.6158; Cover below).
There is no country in Asia without its Esperanto speakers, from Mongolia to Myanmar, including Kazakhstan, Indonesia, the Philippines and others. An Asian congress of Esperanto takes place every three years. The 8th Asian Congress took place in the Chinese city of Quanzhou in November 2016 with participants from 20 countries. The 9th Congress will be in the Vietnamese city of Da-Nang in 2019. In addition, the Chinese and Japanese are the most prolific publishers of books in Esperanto. The Chinese Esperanto magazine El Popola Ĉinio (From People’s China; ZF.9.a.6337) is produced by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing which has also published almost 200 books in Esperanto. China Radio International broadcasts regularly in Esperanto and recently has also started producing films for distribution on the Internet.
Considering the strength of the Esperanto movement in Asia, on the day when the 102nd World Esperanto Congress is opening in Seoul we can certainly claim that Esperanto is as much an Asian as a European language.
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association.
Inumaru Fumio, Vice President of the Commission for the Asian Esperanto Movement of the World Esperanto Association.
14 April 2017
L. L.Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, died in Warsaw on 14 April 1917. Warsaw was at this time occupied by German troops as the war in Europe still raged and the Russian empire was already engulfed in the flames by the February Revolution.
“Normally the funeral of Ludovic Zamenhof would have been attended by at least representatives of the Esperanto Movement from most European countries; war made this impossible”, notes Marjorie Boulton in her book Zamenhof, Creator of Esperanto.
Here she describes the funeral procession:
At three o’clock on April 16th the funeral procession set out from 41 Krolewska Street, with those members of the family who were able to come, the Warsaw Esperantists and many of Zamenhof’s poor patients. Foreign Esperantists were represented by Major Neubarth and one other German. As slow procession passed through the Saxon Square and along Wierzbowa Street, Bielanska Street, Nalewki Street, Dzika Street and Gesia Street to Okopowa Street and the Jewish cemetery, the slow black serpent grew longer and longer.
At the funeral Polish poet and Esperantist Leo Belmont spoke warmly about Zamenhof in Polish and the president of the Polish Esperanto Society, poet and translator Antoni Grabowski paid tribute to the great man in Esperanto.
The news about the death of Zamenhof spread worldwide. In the memorial service in London at Harecourt Church on 6 May 1917, Belgian Esperantist Paul Blaise, married to British Esperantist Margaret Jones and living in England as a refugee, read from the yet unpublished translation of Isaiah by Zamenhof himself.
The most famous poem about the death of Zamenhof ‘La Majstro mortis’ (The Master is Dead) was written by the Hungarian Esperantist, professional actor and writer Julio Baghy, then a prisoner of war in Siberia.
The extraordinary life of Zamenhof, his language and his ideas attracted and will attract a lot of attention now and in the future. In 2007 the sixth edition of the biography of Zamenhof (first published in 1920) by prominent Swiss Esperantist Edmond Privat was published by the Universal Esperanto Association, based in Rotterdam. On this day, 100 years after the death of Zamenhof, Esperantists from Albania to Zimbabwe and many non-Esperantists remember his life and achievements. Zamenhof’s testament from his poem ‘La Vojo’ (‘The Way’), written in 1896, is still echoing in their memories:
Straight forward, with courage, not veering nor stopping
Pursue we this Way of our own:
Ne’er faileth the water, by dropping and dropping,
To wear through a mountain of stone:
For Hope, and Persistence, and Patience together
Are watchwords in all kinds of weather;
So, step after step – such is ever the story-
We’ll come to the goal of our glory.
L.L. Zamenhof ‘La Vojo’ translated by D.O.S.Lowell, published in Star in a Night Sky. An Anthology of Esperanto Literature (London, 2012). YKL.2014.a.2549
Above: New edition of Edmond Privat, Vivo de Zamenhof (Rotterdam, 2007; YF.2013.a.18901), Below: new books about the life of Zamenhof (from France, Poland and Lithuania).
Olga Kerziouk, Curator, Esperanto studies
27 January 2017
Lidia Zamenhof (photo above from Wikimedia Commons) was a teacher, writer and translator and the youngest daughter of Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, the creator of the international auxiliary language Esperanto. She was born on 29 January 1904 in Warsaw, then in partitioned Poland, and later became an active promoter of both the Esperanto language and the Bahá’í Faith.
Her story is told in Wendy Heller’s biography Lidia: the Life of Lidia Zamenhof Daughter of Esperanto.
Cover of Lidia: the Life of Lidia Zamenhof, Daughter of Esperanto. (Oxford, 1985) X.950/44270
After completing her university studies in law in 1925, Lidia Zamenhof dedicated herself totally to working for Esperanto and the humanitarian ideals connected with it. In the same year, during the 17th World Esperanto Congress in Geneva in 1925, she became acquainted with the Bahá’í Faith of which she was soon to become an ardent promoter. Bahá’í is a relatively recent religion, founded in 19th-century Persia, which emphasizes the spiritual unity of the entire human race. Its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, taught that all religions come from the same divine source, and that the crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society, and of the nature and purpose of life.
As a professional Esperanto instructor Lidia Zamenhof made many promotional trips and taught over 50 Esperanto courses in various European countries using progressive, immersive teaching methods. In addition, she was a contributor to major Esperanto periodicals such as Literatura Mondo (ZF.9.b.266 ) and others. Her topics ranged from the teaching and promotion of Esperanto and the development of the Esperanto movement to studies on Polish literature and the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith. Her Esperanto translation of Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz was published in 1933. She also translated several volumes of Bahá’í writings, in particular John Ebenezer Esslemont’s Baha’u’llah and the New Era (London, 1923; 04504.g.27. ), considered the foremost introductory textbook to the religion, as Bahá’u’lláh kaj la Nova Epoko.
In 1937 Lidia travelled to the USA for a teaching tour jointly sponsored by the Esperanto Association of North America and the American Assembly of the Bahá’í Faith. She was forced to leave when her visa expired at the end of 1938, and ignoring the pleas of her friends she returned to Poland shortly before the start of the Second World War. Less than a month after the German invasion, the Zamenhof home in Warsaw was bombed; Lidia was arrested together with her brother Adam, his wife Wanda, and her sister Zofia. Adam Zamenhof was shot in January 1940 as one of 50 prisoners killed in retaliation for a Resistance assault on a Nazi officer, while Lidia, Zofia and Wanda were released from prison after five months and sent to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. There Lidia endeavoured to help others receive medicine and food. She was offered the chance to escape by Polish Esperantists as well as by a German Bahá’í soldier, but not wanting to endanger others she refused.
Title-page and frontispiece of the collected works of Lidia Zamenhof Por ke la tagoj de la homaro estu pli lumaj (Antwerp, 2008). YF.2010.a.2370
Her last known letter states: “Do not think of putting yourself in danger; I know that I must die but I feel it is my duty to stay with my people. God grant that out of our sufferings a better world may emerge. I believe in God. I am a Bahá’í and will die a Bahá’í. Everything is in His hands.” However, she died as a Jew, an Esperantist, and a member of the Zamenhof family. Hitler had made his opinion clear in Mein Kampf that Jews intended to use Esperanto to rule the world, and the head of the Gestapo in Warsaw received orders directly from Berlin that the Zamenhof family should be arrested.
The last that is known of Lidia is described by Esther Schor in her book Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language (New York, 2015; awaiting shelfmark).
Toward the end of September 1942, at the age of thirty-eight, she was among the 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto who were packed into cattle cars and sent to Treblinka. (Zofia had gone voluntarily, perhaps thinking she could be of service as a medic.) Eva Toren, then a fourteen-year-old girl who had met and befriended Lidia that spring at a Ghetto seder, would survive to remember Lidia’s final hours in Warsaw. In 1993 Toren recalled the Nazis whipping, shouting, and pushing Jews into the Umschlagplatz, where they stood without water from early morning until evening. In the afternoon, the Germans and their Polish minions arranged the Jews in lines five deep for the selection. Lidia was several rows behind Eva, and they exchanged a pregnant glance. When she was selected for deportation, Lidia “walked regally, upright, with pride, unlike most of the other victims, who were understandably panicked.” On the fifth of September, Lidia Zamenhof boarded the train to Treblinka, where, upon arriving, she was killed in the gas chamber.
Lidia Zamehof (second from the left) at the 22nd World Esperanto Congress in Oxford, 1930 (photo from: http://www.tolkiendil.com/langues/hors_legendaire/langues_primaires/valeur_educative_esperanto)
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto
Hugh C. Adamson and Philip Hainsworth. Historical dictionary of the Bahāʾā Faith. (London , 1998). HLR 297.93
Zofia Banet-Fornalowa. La Familio Zamenhof. (La Chaux-de-Fonds, 2000). YF.2008.a.17135
15 December 2016
Can there be anyone in the world more harmless than an Esperanto enthusiast? Probably not. Speakers of the international language Esperanto are mainly interested in languages, foreign cultures and world peace. However, since the first book of Esperanto was published in 1887 they have lived through recurrent periods of intolerance and repression.
This is the subject of Ulrich Lins’ book La danĝera lingvo (Dangerous Language), whose new revised edition has just been published. This book has also been translated into German (1988), Italian (1990), Russian (1999), Lithuanian (2005) and Korean (2013), besides an earlier draft into Japanese in 1975, and will soon appear in English.
Ulrich Lins, La danĝera lingvo. Studo pri la persekutoj kontraŭ Esperanto. First edition (Gerlingen, 1988; YA.1989.a.13531) on the left; revised edition (Rotterdam, 2016; YF.2016.a.19474) on the right.
The last century was no less bloody and bellicose than earlier ones, but it was also the century of Esperanto, whose speakers represented an idealistic view that all peoples, languages and cultures were of equal value, a view apparently seldom shared by national leaders. From the earliest days of Esperanto, governments were quick to see potential dangers to their authority in the message spread by Esperanto.
As early as February 1895, when the language still had its base in the Russian Empire, the magazine La Esperantisto was blocked by the censor because it included an article by Leo Tolstoy, an enthusiastic supporter of Esperanto.
In Nazi Germany the authorities immediately understood that the internationalism, pacifism and equality which went hand in hand with Esperanto were the exact opposite of everything proclaimed by the Nazi ideal of a superior “Aryan” race destined to rule over other “Untermenschen” (“subhumans”). Added to this, in Mein Kampf (Vol.1, Chap.XI) Hitler expressed his belief that Esperanto would be used by the Jews to achieve world domination. When the Jews were deported from Warsaw, the Gestapo received specific orders from Berlin to search for the descendants of Zamenhof (the creator of Esperanto). All three of his children died in the concentration camps. The only survivors were his daughter-in-law and her teenage son, Zamenhof's grandson, who still lives today in Paris.
In Japan, too, the imperial police force immediately recognized the progressive (and potentially communist) tendencies of the Esperanto movement. In the first decade of the 20th century the police began to take an interest in the relationship between anarchists and Esperantists, and in 1934 the Japanese Proletarian Esperantist Union was shut down.
It is harder to understand the reasoning behind the persecution of Esperanto speakers in the USSR under Stalin. Immediately after the Russian Revolution there was a flowering of languages in the new Soviet Union. New alphabets were created, all minority languages were recognized, and there was support for Esperanto.
However, in Stalin’s time Soviet society underwent a period of closing in on itself and suspecting everything which potentially had links with other countries. Esperantists were people who corresponded with foreigners, or at least were in a position to do so. As Sergej Kuznecov wrote in the afterword to the previous edition of La danĝera lingvo, the treatment of Esperanto speakers can be seen as the measure of the totalitarianism of every regime. In the purges of the 1930s, many outstanding Esperantists perished even though they were sincere communists: Yevgeny Mikhalski, Vladimir Varankin, Ernest Drezen and others too numerous to list here.
Books by Drezen, Varankin and Mihalski from the British Library’s Esperanto collection.
La danĝera lingvo describes in rather less detail the persecutions against Esperanto and its speakers in Spain, Portugal, Italy and other European regimes. Esperantists were even executed in those countries, most notably in Cordoba in Spain, when the Fascist army occupied the town in 1937 and shot all members of the local Esperanto group.
The difficulties in reviving Esperanto organizations after Stalin’s death are described in detail by Lins. The Association of Soviet Esperantists (ASE) was founded in 1979, but remained under strict government control for years. Even in some Western countries it was necessary to wait for the collapse of former regimes; the Portuguese association was only revived in 1972.
In 2017 UNESCO will be commemorating the centenary of the death of Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof. It is fitting that as that year approaches we should also remember the persecutions which have taken place against Esperanto and Esperanto speakers over the past century.
It is surprising now to realise that Zamenhof’s concerns were not primarily linguistic. He was far more interested in bringing an end to wars between different peoples, and in creating conditions for international understanding and peace. He lived through a period of pogroms and major wars in Europe, and it is not by chance that the present period of increasing xenophobia and intolerance in many parts of Europe and the world reminds us of events in Zamenhof’s lifetime. This shows yet again that the road leading towards progress and civilization is neither straight nor easy, but Esperanto remains a tool of vital importance in making Zamenhof's vision of world peace and mutual understanding a reality.
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics, La Sapienza University Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto.
Garvía Soto, Roberto. Esperanto and its rivals : the struggle for an international language. (Philadelphia, ) m15/.11262
Richardson, David. Learning and Using the International Language. (Washington, 2004). YD.2007.a.8182
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