Esperanto’s advocates envisioned nothing less than a revolution of human language
In Neukölln, a neighborhood notorious in Berlin for its predominantly immigrant population and organized crime, the wood has been stolen off of the benches of a small square: Esperanto Platz, where old men enjoy their morning, midxday, and afternoon beers. A tagged-over plaque cheerfully tells the story of Neukölln schoolchildren from the 1920s learning the forgotten universal language to correspond with pen-pals from around the world.
Esperanto was invented by the Polish eye-doctor Ludwig Leyzer Zamenhof during the golden age of light-bulbs and liberal democracy, but also pogroms and rising national tensions. In 1887, he published International Language under the pseudonym ‘Doktoro Esperanto,’ or Dr. Hopeful, which lent the language its name. Drawing from Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages, Esperanto was meant to be a mix of the best in all and easy to learn. What was Dr. Esperanto hoping for? A universal understanding that would bring about peace and prosperity on a global scale.
He was not the only one. The project of a universal language is by no means a novel one: the tower of Babel from the Bible tells us as much. But none has been as successful as Esperanto. Zamenhof’s language came at the right historical moment of social entrepreneurship. A network of highly organized Esperantists spread throughout the following decade in most parts of Europe. National associations were created first in Germany, then France, Switzerland and Great Britain.