Whatever Happened To... Esperanto?

Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor Shatner could stomp it out.

By Stephen Ornes|Tuesday, August 14, 2007

2007 marks the 120th anniversary of the publication of Unua Libro, the first textbook for aspiring Esperanto speakers. Invented by Polish oculist and polyglot Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (who wrote under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto”), Esperanto is a language constructed in hopes of bringing people together by overcoming linguistic barriers.

Characterized by simple grammar, phonetic pronunciations, and a vocabulary of words primarily from Western European languages, Esperanto was so easy to learn that it quickly attracted a small but loyal group of speakers. Zamenhof helped spread his creation by translating dozens of works. Not everyone was a fan—both Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler ordered the imprisonment or execution of Esperantists. In Mein Kampf, Hitler denounced it as an instrument of world domination by the Jews.

Esperanto remains the most popular constructed language ever devised (Elvish and Klingon notwithstanding). Estimates for the current number of speakers worldwide range from 100,000 to 2 million. Each year, Esperantists gather at more than 100 conferences and congresses around the world. This July, the ELNA (Esperanto League of North America) held their annual congress in Tijuana, Mexico. Phil Dorcas, ELNA president, says that every year some attendees insist on viewing the 1965 cult horror film Incubus, which features continuous Esperanto dialogue—and William Shatner. “The people who’ve seen it 10 times don’t want to see it again,” Dorcas says. “They used fairly accurate Esperanto in the movie, but the pronunciation was horrendous.”

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