Esperanto Anniversary

Exactly 130 years ago in Poland, an eye specialist called Dr L. L. Zamenhof, published a slim book detailing the structure and vocabulary of a wholly new language which he did not give a name. The pen name Zamenhof chose was Doktoro Esperanto—and people who started learning the new language simply called it by the “surname” of its author, Esperanto.

Esperanto LogoLong history in the Stoke area

There is a long history of Esperanto in Stoke-on-Trent and in Staffordshire. The earliest people in the area to take up the study of the new language were Walter Meigh and his sister Florence who lived at Ash Hall. Both belonged to the wealthy Meigh potting family. They embraced Esperanto in 1904. Later people from more modest backgrounds took up the language, and an Esperanto Society was set up in Stoke-on-Trent before the First World War. That link between Staffordshire and Esperanto has never been broken. Marjorie Boulton from Burslem became one of the world’s leading Esperanto authors. Residential courses in Esperanto were held in the Wedgwood Memorial College for over 50 years and are still held in the county. The national Esperanto organisation has its headquarters in the village of Barlaston.

The goal of Esperanto

The main goal of the new language was to simplify international communication by providing a common language that is relatively easy to master. It took off slowly, firstly in the Russian Empire, then gaining support throughout the world. There are now Esperanto speakers in about 120 countries. I am one of them. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Toulouse, Copenhagen, Berlin, Douala (look it up!), Havana and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, retirement age and pensions.

A portrait of Marjorie Boulton
A portrait of Marjorie Boulton

Is Esperanto inferior to natural languages?

Some people think that, as it is a constructed language, Esperanto must be somehow “worse” than languages like English or French or German. This is not the case. Esperanto is a fully developed language. Although it started as a theoretical construct, it has had an active community of users ever since its creation, and the language naturally absorbed new words and new ways to express things as people were using it, just like a natural language would.

How many Esperanto speakers are there?

The precise number of Esperanto speakers is hard to gauge. It has been estimated that there are a few hundred thousand proficient speakers of Esperanto in the world and up to two million people who are familiar with the language to some extent. In my experience there are enough speakers to make learning the language worthwhile.

Where is Esperanto used?

A crowd of young Esperanto speakers
A crowd of young Esperanto speakers

People use Esperanto every day in various ways: when travelling, at international conferences, on the Internet, for work, or in family life. Normally Esperanto is used between people who don’t have the same mother tongue. When used in this way, Esperanto acts as a “bridge language” between people from different language backgrounds. That’s Esperanto’s strength – it works well as a bridge across national borders.

Some Esperanto speakers use the language to actively promote a better, more peaceful world. There are those who use it to read news about events in various countries, written by the very people who live in those countries. And others enjoy books that were originally written in a minority language, which have been translated into Esperanto but not into the reader’s mother tongue.

Dr Zamenhof died exactly a century ago in 1917, unaware that Esperanto would be suppressed by both Stalin and Hitler. But he would surely be proud of the way his invented language lived on after him, growing to be the most successful constructed language designed for international communication.
Where can I start learning Esperanto?

Duolingo is probably the best free method of learning Esperanto. In fact about 750,000 people have learned this way in the last two years. You certainly won’t regret the time you spend on Esperanto, a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

Bill Chapman