State-of-the-Art: Esperanto History

by Asya Pereltsvaig

While Esperanto—its structure, history, and place in the typology of languages—is of great interest to linguists, Esperanto Studies is a broader field including the study of the historical, social, political, ideological, and even economic context in which Esperanto was created and became popular around the world. Esperanto is one of several “neutral planned” languages (i.e. consciously designed languages that are not based on a sole ethnic or national language), and unquestionably the most successful of such languages in achieving its goals of becoming a means of interlingual communication, acquiring a community of first and second language speakers, and making an impact on the global political and ideological landscape. Thus, examining the Esperanto movement in the global geolinguistic and politico-ideological context is an important area of Esperantic Studies.

Yet, as noted in Forster (1982: 1), “the Esperanto movement is little known to the outside world”, chiefly because most of the literature about it is written in Esperanto and addressed to Esperantists rather than a more general audience, thus remaining obscure to scholars outside the movement (see also Blanke 2015). Nonetheless, the history of the Esperanto movement sheds new light on a wide range of issues of interest to historians, sociologists, political scientists, and scholars in the field of peace and conflict resolution. Accessible sources on Esperanto as a social phenomenon and as a political and ideological movement include Forster (1982), Large (1985), Comrie (1996), Stocker (1996), and Smith (2011), inter alia. Furthermore, a number of ongoing research projects promise to produce several much-awaited books on the history of the Esperanto movement. Among them is the forthcoming book by Esther Schor (Princeton University), Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language on the origins of Esperanto and the early years of the movement, and the work of Brigid O’Keeffe (Brooklyn College) on Esperanto and internationalism in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union. (Esther Schor’s book is discussed in her interview with Sam Green, the creator of The Universal Language, a fascinating documentary film about the history of the Esperanto movement; Brigid O’Keeffe summarizes her ongoing work in an article in Also eagerly awaited are a new edition and the English translation of Ulrich Lins’ well-known account of the persecution of Esperantists under Hitler and Stalin, The Dangerous Language (Lins 1988). The new edition in Esperanto will be published by UEA and the English translation by Humphrey Tonkin will be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Before considering the history of the Esperanto movement, it would be helpful at this point to consider the peculiar position that Esperanto occupies in the typology of constructed (or “artificial”, or “invented”) languages. (The history of Esperanto in the context of other constructed languages is discussed in detail in Large 1985 and the issue of the applicability of natural/artificial distinction to Esperanto is considered in Dasgupta 1997.) Gledhill (2014: 320) outlines the following two distinctions among constructed languages. The first distinction is between “philosophical” and “planned” languages: the former are “attempt[s] to devise a rational system of meaning using language-neutral symbols (icons, mathematical signs, musical notes, etc.)”, while the latter are “rationalized version[s] of an existing natural language, or a hybrid form of several languages”. Philosophical languages include John Wilkins’ 1668 Real Character, François Sudre’s 1827 Solresol, and James C. Brown’s 1955 Loglan. Esperanto belongs to the second category, “planned languages”, which can be further subdivided into “national” and “neutral” languages: the former group includes Modern Hebrew and Nynorsk, or “New Norwegian” (more on Nynorsk in “State-of-the-Art: Global Language Studies”), while the latter group consists of Johan M. Schleyer’s 1879 Volapük, Alexander Gode et al.’s 1951 Interlingua, and of course Esperanto itself, invented in 1887 (see Footnote 1). A number of organizations, including the American Philosophical Society, the International Association of Academies, the International Peace Bureau, the Comintern, and the League of Nations, all participated in the debate about the possibility of an artificial international language. The emergence of several planned neutral languages in the late 1800s and early 1900s is unsurprising. This was, after all, the time for developing standardized versions of previously non-standard ethnic vernaculars (e.g. Serbian and later Croatian standards, several of the languages of the USSR), as well as for experimenting with new ideological models, which included various forms of socialism, creation of a “new man”, and other more or less utopian projects (more on the connections between Esperanto and Socialism and other ideologies below; also Large 1985).

As discussed in Mazower (2013: 113-114), Esperanto played in important role in the internationalist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. In his review of Mazower’s book, Daniel Immerwahr (2013: 90) writes:

“the nineteenth and twentieth centuries… were the age of internationalism… Internationalism was not a side dish served alongside the many great causes of the age: peace, the abolition of slavery, capitalism, communism, nationalism, the rise of science. It was, as Mazower shows, a chief ingredient in them all.” (p. 90)

However, more people thought that Esperanto was a great idea than were prepared to invest time and effort into learning it: as Immerwahr (2013: 92) puts it, “few people bothered to learn Esperanto, but socialists, capitalists, reformers, professionals, romantics, feminists, and countless others knew its central message by heart”. By the late 20th century, internationalism has fallen out of fashion, as discussed in detail in Mazower’s book. “Our science fiction”, Immerwahr (2013: 94) writes, “more frequently predicts apocalypse than it does confederation, and the invented language du jour is no longer Esperanto but Klingon”. The relationship between the Esperanto movement and the emergent nationalist movements in post-World War I Europe in 1923-1947 is discussed in detail in Forster (1982: 212-229). The connection between Esperanto as an international language and the rise of nationalism is also explored in Roberto Garvía’s recent book, Esperanto and Its Rivals: The Struggle for an International Language.

An interesting, yet rarely discussed, consequence of the internationalist philosophy associated with the Esperanto movement is that it “was ideologically opposed to the most basic assumptions of decolonization movements, which sought to liberate the nation from imperialism by transferring power to indigenous hands in order to found a sovereign nation-state modeled after the West” (Konishi 2013a: 93, see also Konishi 2013b: 281); it should be noted, however, that some Esperantists were not necessarily so opposed to those assumptions. As such, the decolonization movement led to a strengthening of the nation-state model whereby the Earth is divided into sovereign states built around their respective nations. Instead of being “second-class citizens” of (mostly European) colonial nations, former colonies became—at least in theory—equal players in the geopolitical world. The Esperanto movement, however, offered an alternative to the “very territorial utopia of Western modernity founded on the modern nation-state” (ibid) which emphasized a non-territorial model of “transnational, nonstate associations of ‘the people’ around the world” (ibid). Such non-nation-based, non-territorial alternative appears ever more appealing in the world that has witnessed an abject failure of the nation-state model. As discussed in detail in Mikesell (1983), Walby (2003), Lewis (2010-2014), the nation-state model has been more of a myth than a reality throughout much of the world: most states, including many former colonies, failed to consolidate a nation; many states fail to exercise sovereign control over their entire territory; and a large number of geopolitical anomalies, such as disputed territories and borders, constituent countries (e.g. Greenland is a constituent country of Denmark) and crown dependencies, and supranational players (e.g. the European Union) mean that the nation-state model is a gross idealization of reality.

Besides being part and parcel of the internationalist idea, the Esperanto movement was an ideological child of its era in another important respect: its quasi-religious nature. According to Garvía (2013: 47): “the longing for an international language”, particularly as it was conceived of by Zamenhof, shared with other social and political movements of the early twentieth century, such as Socialism, Nationalism, or Positivism, “the basic characteristics of a secular religion: a message of meaning, a set of moral principles, and a message of salvation”. The uneasy relationship between the Socialist and the Esperanto movements, both quasi-religions in this view, is discussed in Forster (1982: 188-211).

Garvía (2013) also draws parallels between Zamenhof’s philosophy of Homaranismo (roughly translatable as “Humanitarianism”) and Reform Judaism, which was developed since the mid-19th century by Abraham Geiger and Hermann Cohen. Like Reform Judaism, Zamenhof’s Homaranismo advocated compatibility with, and participation in, the surrounding culture. Zamenhof hoped that assimilation to the surrounding culture, which would mean losing the strange dress code and purity requirements, would lead to Jews no longer being victims of anti-Semitism. (How sadly was he proven wrong by both Nazi and Soviet policies and practices!) Another connection of Homaranismo with Judaism is that it was based largely on the religious teachings of Hillel the Elder, particularly his Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.” Zamenhof himself viewed Homaranismo as “a new corporate-religious order”, and his daughter Lidia embraced its philosophy and taught it alongside Esperanto and her adopted religion, the Bahá’í faith (see Heller 1985).

The Bahá’í faith, which emerged in the mid-19th century, shares with Homaranismo (and the Esperanto movement in general) one of its core principles: the unity of humanity. Thus, the Bahá’í religion advocates the use of Esperanto as an international auxiliary language and the teaching of it in all the schools of the world. Moreover, it is seen as “one of the prerequisites of Bahá’u’lláh for the unification of mankind, the establishment of lasting peace and the advancement of human culture”. In the 1920s and 1930s, several important figures in the Bahá’í movement, such as Martha Root, Lidia Zamenhof, and Hermann Grossmann (the latter was the founder of the Bahá’í Esperanto magazine La Nova Tago), were active in the Esperanto movement. In the decades after World War II, the connections between the Bahá’í religion and the Esperanto movement were further buttressed by Adelbert Mühlschlegel and Roan Orloff-Stone, and in the 1970s the Bahá’í Esperanto League (BEL) was founded. Still today, many Bahá’ís learn Esperanto and actively support the Esperanto movement. Historically, however, the connections between the Bahá’í faith and the Esperanto movement benefited both: while today the Bahá’í faith helps spread Esperanto, in post-World War I Japan the pre-existing Esperanto networks facilitated the spread of the Bahá’í faith; according to Konishi (2013b: 282), “not only did the Baha’i faith use Esperanto as the language of religious practice in Japan, but also it relied on Esperantists, often nonbelievers, to spread the faith”, so that ultimately “Baha’i became a faith of Esperantism in Japan”. For a more detailed discussion of the links between the Bahá’í faith and the Esperanto movement in Japan, see Konishi (2013b: 281-284). (Other religious groups that embrace Esperanto include Brazilian Spiritism, Ōmoto-kyō religion in Japan and Wŏn Buddhism in Korea; cf. Pardue 2001: 11.)

Although the era of internationalism is waning, “the Esperanto metaphor” remains an important tool in understanding—and dealing with—issues of language policy and politics in a democratic state, as discussed by Archibugi (2005). He uses the Esperanto movement as an example of the cosmopolitan approach to those issues, contrasted with the multiculturalist approach based on using the local vernaculars. He maintains that “it is the responsibility of individuals and governments to remove the language barriers that obstruct communication” (p. 545), and his preferred method is “cosmopolitan citizenship”, to which “the universal language is the key” (ibid). Furthermore, Archibugi argues that

“…whole countries in the civilised world implement compulsory education programmes to enable students to learn properly not only their own mother tongue but also English. This is not necessarily to the detriment of the vernacular language, whose cultural value may be better understood (as an expression of the variety of humankind) precisely by individuals who speak more than one language. Polyglots are capable of appreciating the value of linguistic diversity much better than the illiterates” (p. 552).

The latter statement is odd, however, as monolinguals are not necessarily illiterates, and in fact many illiterates are actually polyglots. Nor is it entirely clear to what extent successful programs for learning “not only their own mother tongue but also English” allow individuals and/or societies to appreciate the cultural value of their national/vernacular languages. In fact, countries where the national language is emphasized as a cultural icon, such as France and Russia, seem to be at the bottom of the ranking by “percentage of population able to hold a conversation in English” (for some figures, see Jakub Marian’s map). More generally, whether compulsory bilingual education programs actually lead to true or functional bilingualism remains an open question. The compulsory bilingual education program whose efficiency has been analyzed most closely is the French-immersion program in Canada; it appears that this program fails to engender true bilingualism or even reasonable fluency in the second language (see Hammerly 1989 and references cited therein). Thus, it is not clear whether government-run Esperanto programs, which Archibugi appears to advocate, would succeed in “remov[ing] the language barriers that obstruct communication”. Exposure to authentic language use, rather than compulsory bilingual education programs, appear to be more effective in increasing foreign language proficiency. Particularly, it has been noted that some of the variation in the Europeans’ proficiency in English as L2 correlates well with how countries deal with imported television programs and films: in Northern Europe, where most people can converse in English, English-language television shows and films tend to be subtitled, whereas in Southern Europe and Russia, they are dubbed. Which is the cause and which is the effect remains an open question, however. (The role of English, vis-à-vis Esperanto, as a global language is discussed further in “State-of-the-Art: Global Language Studies”.)

The role of Esperanto in fostering a cosmopolitan world view, particularly in the 1920s Japan, is also discussed by Rapley (2013). According to him, Esperanto clubs that were founded at that time in the Aomori prefecture were “an attempt to counter a perception of underdevelopment through the cultivation of local arts and culture together with a simultaneous engagement with global and transnational ideas such as Esperanto” (p. 179). This approach, which Rapley calls a “rooted cosmopolitanism”, “enabled the residents of Aomori to imagine an alternative to the process of modern nation building in which their local identity was seen as a remnant of an undesirable past”. (The history of the Esperanto movement in Japan is discussed in more detail below.)

Although the Esperanto movement was fed by the internationalist ideology, the history of Esperanto cannot be properly understood without examining the Jewish roots of the language and of its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof (for a bibliography that considers Zamenhof’s Jewish background in considerable detail, see Maimon 1978). It is probably no accident that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Ludwik Zamenhof, the “creators” of the two most notable planned languages—a national one, Modern Hebrew, and a neutral one, Esperanto, respectively—come from the same cultural background of the multiethnic and multilingual late-19th-century Eastern Europe. Ben-Yehuda and Zamenhof were born only one year and less than 300 miles apart and grew up in the world where Slavic languages—Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Polish—were spoken alongside Lithuanian, Yiddish, Romani, Karaim, and other tongues. Both Ben-Yehuda and Zamenhof experienced first-hand the inadequacies of the linguistic and ethnic policies enacted by the Russian Empire. Since the 1830s, the Tsarist regime sought to unify the state under the slogan of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”, where “nationality” meant recognition of the state-founding role on the Russian ethnicity with certain rights awarded to all other peoples inhabiting Russia, except the Jews. But the exceptionality of the Jews in the Russian national policy has even deeper roots that go back to the 1760s, when Catherine the Great invited settlers of all ethnicities, except the Jews, to move to the sparsely populated southern Russian steppes; settlers from German lands, the so-called Volga Germans, were particularly numerous. By the late 1800s, these ethno-linguistic policies of the Russian Empire resulted in a series of anti-Jewish pogroms, the first one of which engulfed the Pale of Settlement in 1881-1884, in the wake of the murder of Tsar Alexander II. Both Ben-Yehuda and Zamenhof could not escape witnessing this wave of pogroms, which affected them deeply. In several of his letters, Zamenhof (as cited in Lindstedt 2009: 1) wrote that “the hostility that the various ethnic groups of Białystok felt towards each other and especially towards the Jews was the main reason why he [Zamenhof] at an early age came to the idea of a common second language for all”.

Zamenhof’s Jewish identity may have played yet another role in pushing him to work on the language question. As noted in Berdichevsky (2014: 39-40), historically

“Jews enjoyed a reputation for linguistic accomplishments. During the Middle Ages, translations by Jews of scientific, medical, and philosophical texts had helped bring about a revival of scholarly activity and secular interests. Jewish merchants in Europe and the Middle East were often, by necessity, fluent in two or more languages.”

Global diaspora forced Jews to forge links across national, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries. It is therefore unsurprising that arguably the most successful international language comes from the Jewish milieu.

Yet, the Jewish roots of the Esperanto movement’s success are much deeper: in pre-World War II Europe, many Esperantists were Jewish (Berdichevsky 2014), especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Whether the Jewish ties of the Esperanto movement precipitated its demise in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s is an issue explored in Lins (1988) but worthy of future research (more on this below). Furthermore, the Jewish identity of many Esperantists in Germany, coupled with the success of the Esperanto movement among the working classes, caused considerable problems for the German Esperanto movement. In order to escape Nazi anti-Semitic persecution, German Esperantists created a new “National German Esperanto organizations”, which went against the internationalist grain of the Esperanto movement. Although this topic is discussed in Lins (1988: 91-145), Berdichevsky (2014: 38) and Pabst (2005), more research can be done to document the history of the Esperanto movement in interwar Germany and its persecution in the Third Reich. (The early history of the Esperanto movement in Nuremberg is discussed in Sikosek 2005.)

Another intriguing idea, explored in Berdichevsky (2014: 34-42)—but open for future research as well—is that Zamenhof’s work on creating Esperanto was inspired and informed not merely by the general Jewish environment of Eastern Europe but more specifically by the rationalist “Litvak” (Lithuanian Jewish) mindset, as opposed to the more spiritually-oriented Hassidism. For instance, he suggests that the highly regular word-formation in Esperanto is due to the “Zamenhof’s “Litvak”-rationalist frame of mind” (p. 34). The agglutinative nature of Esperanto inflectional morphology, uncharacteristic of the European languages that Zamenhof was exposed to, nor of Hebrew, may have roots in the rationalist thinking as well. These connections, however, are highly controversial. (See also “State-of-the-Art: Esperanto Linguistics”.)

Whether or not specific linguistic aspects of Esperanto might have been derived from the rationalism of the Litvak movement, it is clear that the Litvak movement played an important role in the emergence of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement, “in which respect for secular learning was esteemed equally with Jewish tradition” (Berdichevsky 2014: 38). The Haskalah ideal of “a man abroad, a Jew at home” and its goals of “equal rights for Jews based on common loyalty and citizenship, without surrendering respect for heritage and traditions” (Berdichevsky 2014: 40) obviously informed the ideology behind the Esperanto movement.

Moreover, the Esperanto movement has been inspired from its inception by the revival of Hebrew (see Berdichevsky 2014: 34-42 and also “State-of-the-Art: Esperanto Linguistics”) and the Zionist movement, with which the Hebrew revival movement was tightly linked. Both movements represented a hopeful attitude of the era, as reflected in the parallelism between Zamenhof’s pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto” (“Dr. Hopeful”) and the title of Zionist (now Israeli) anthem, composed only a few years earlier, Ha-Tikva (“The hope”). Yet the solutions to the problem of language-driven conflict proposed by Ben-Yehuda and Zamenhof were radically different. Ben-Yehuda became an important figure in the emergent Zionist movement, which sought to create a national state for the Jews in Palestine, their historical homeland. Ben-Yehuda ultimately moved to Palestine and continued his revivalist work there. For the Zionist movement, Modern Hebrew was to be “revived” on the basis of the historical language of the Jews, Biblical Hebrew, which continued to be the Jewish lingua franca during the 2,000-year long Diaspora. Hebrew was also viewed by early Zionists, including Ben-Yehuda, as the linchpin of the unification of Jews from different corners of the globe, and of tying the Jews to the Land of Israel. Zamenhof, on the contrary, was among those who viewed “competition between the major national (and also at the time, imperial) languages … [as] a barrier to peaceful co-existence and scientific communication” (Gledhill 2014: 320). His outlook was more internationalist; in the Jewish circles, such views were sometimes seen as assimilationist, and were associated, for example, with the socialist Jewish Bund movement. (The interplay between Hebrew and Esperanto as potentially universal languages, or at least universal Jewish languages, and other parallels between the two languages and their attendant movements, especially in Palestine, are discussed in Halperin 2012.)

The creation of Esperanto as a hybrid form of several existing languages is also unsurprising in the context of the late-19th-century Eastern Europe: by then, this region had long been an area of extensive language contact, where several mixed contact languages had emerged, and virtually all national languages exhibit influences of neighboring tongues. The southern part of Eastern Europe—the Balkans—saw an emergence of a prototypical example of a sprachbund, that is a linguistic area where unrelated languages share areal features through intense, long-term contact. It is in that region that Bulgarian and Macedonian (Slavic languages) converged with Romanian (a Romance language), producing, for example, a case marking system that can be viewed as impoverished from the Slavic perspective or as a retention of a case system, uncharacteristic from the pan-Romance perspective. In the same area, we find Cappadocian Greek, an Indo-European language in which Turkish influences run deep: some of its sounds have been borrowed from Turkish along with vowel harmony; it has developed agglutinative inflectional morphology and lost (some) grammatical gender distinctions; and its basic word order is Subject-Object-Verb, characteristic of Turkic languages but not Greek (Janse 1998, 1999, 2001, 2009 a, b, 2011). In roughly the same area, Romani, the language of the Gypsies, has picked up elements of Greek, Armenian, and Iranian languages. Slightly further north, Hungarian, an Ugric language, incorporated numerous elements of both Slavic and Romance origin. At the northern end of Eastern Europe, Russian has picked up elements of Finnic languages, whose speakers have been largely acculturated to Russian (Grenoble 2010, McAnallen 2011, Pereltsvaig 2012), and in the late 1700s a Russian-Norwegian pidgin called Russenorsk emerged in the course of the Pomor trade (see also “State-of-the-Art: Esperanto Linguistics”). In what can arguably be called the core of Eastern Europe—Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries—language contact led to sharing areal features among Baltic, Slavic, and Finnic languages. It is also here that Yiddish, a language with clear Germanic roots, adopted numerous words, as well as elements of phonology, morphology, and even syntax from co-territorial Slavic languages (cf. Weinreich 1958, Santorini 1989, Pereltsvaig 2015).

The issue of Esperanto as an Eastern European contact language is explored in Lindstedt (2009), who considers Esperanto from the perspective of contact linguistics and shows “that early Esperanto can be fruitfully discussed as a contact language which … exhibits substratal traces of its Jewish and Slavonic background” (p. 1). Lindstedt (2009) also examines some curious parallels between Esperanto and Yiddish, particularly in their sound systems and vocabularies. (For further discussion of Esperanto in light of contact linguistics, see “State-of-the-Art: Esperanto Linguistics”.)

Yet Esperanto differs from other contact languages of Eastern Europe in one significant aspect: unlike planned or unplanned national languages, Esperanto has no specific ethnic “target community”. As pointed out by Gledhill (2014: 323), “there is … hardly any ‘instrumental’ or utilitarian reason to learn [Esperanto]: there is no community of native speakers to look to, or mass-media to follow; neither is there any legal code, territory, state authority or state-backed education system to defend or promote the language”. (This statement is not entirely accurate as there is some Esperanto media presence, as pointed out to me by Esther Schor.) According to Gledhill, “the main motivation for learning Esperanto is ‘integrational’, that is to say one actively seeks out to learn the language for cultural, ideological or psychological reasons, rather than financial, geographic, professional or other often coercive reasons”. A number of sociological and psychological studies (see Forster 1982, Edwards 1994, Stocker 1996, Fiedler 2006, Yaguello 2006, Okrent 2009, Puškar 2015) revealed the following profile of a typical Esperanto speaker: “anti-conformist, well-educated, speaks several languages, often declares contrarian or left-leaning values such as ‘internationalism’, ‘humanitarianism’, ‘green politics’, and has sympathy for issues such as minority and regional language rights” (Gledhill 2014: 323). Yet, other studies (cf. Blanke 1985: 288; Jordan 1987: 111-114) have shown that “Esperanto speakers differ greatly among themselves in political ideology” (Pool and Grofman 1989: 147).

The development of a community of Esperantists, who share certain experiences that outsiders do not share, inevitably led to the emergence of culture-dependent humor in Esperanto, that is “in-jokes” which rely on allusions to people, places, and events that are familiar within the Esperanto community. Crucially, culture-dependent humor is to be distinguished from language-dependent humor, such as puns, jokes dependent on the sounds of a particular language, expressions that make new or unusual use of morphological or syntactic rules, jokes that oddly combine different styles or registers, etc. Both types of humor, particular as they apply to Esperanto humor, are discussed in Jordan (1988).

Sociologists are also interested in pegging the Esperanto movement into an organizational category such as “voluntary association”, “sect”, “cult”, or “social movement”: as Forster (1982: 4) writes, “organized support for Esperanto contains features of all such types, though none of them fits the bill exactly”. As noted above, the Esperanto movement has certain elements of quasi-religious nature, and as Forster (1982: 4) observes, “the evangelical, conversionist fervor of many members suggests something more than a mere club”. Moreover, the “practice of converting individuals to the cause is typical of religious organizations” (Forster 1982: 9). Yet, this quasi-religious nature of the Esperanto movement “has not proved popular and Esperanto organisations have emphasized their religious neutrality” (Forster 1982: 4). Similarly, leaders of the Esperanto movement have repeatedly avoided any suggestions of sectarianism. The Esperantists themselves refer to their organization as “the Esperanto movement” (the term employed here as well); other comparable non-religious social movements include vegetarianism, pacifism, and, more recently, the locavore movement. (For scholarly discussions of the latter, see Blue 2009, DeLind 2011, Rudy 2012, inter alia.) As discussed in Forster (1982: 5-6), the definitional criterion of a social movement is its success in becoming a part of the conventional social order, and the Esperanto movement, he claims, has passed this test. According to this criterion, there need not be anything ideologically radical about a social movement, but a certain element of social subversion is necessarily present in virtue of the movement in question changing the social order by becoming part of it.

Given Esperanto’s geographical roots in the former Russian Empire and ideological roots in internationalist ideas (as discussed above), it is not surprising that the Esperanto movement flourished in late imperial Russia and especially in the early Soviet Union. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet Esperanto activists formed the Union of Soviet Esperantists, Sovetlanda Esperantista Unuiĝo (later renamed Sovetrespublikara Esperantista Unio, Union of Esperantists of Soviet Republics), which published a monthly magazine called Mezhdunarodnyj jazyk (= International Language). (The history of the Union of Esperantists of Soviet Republics is documented in Krasnikov & Blanke 2008.) In the summer of 1926, the Union hosted the International Congress of Esperantists in Leningrad, at which nearly half of the delegates were foreign visitors. In the following year, a smaller group of international Esperantists were invited to participate in the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Revolution. Transnational connections with Esperantists around the world were bolstered through pen-pal letter writing campaigns, radio broadcasts, and the publication of newsletters and books. Yet, the Esperanto movement was not entirely free even in the early years of the Soviet regime: it was subject to heavy censorship, as discussed in detail in Vlasov (2011), which documents the history of Esperanto journalism in the Russian Empire and early Soviet Union in 1887-1938. A broader historical overview of the use of Esperanto in Russia in public and private spheres is found in Vlasov (2014a, b).

An interesting parallel emerges between the treatment of the Esperanto movement by the early Soviet regime and its handling of other non-territorial ethno-linguistic groups—most notably the Jews and the Roma (Gypsies). The Bolsheviks rejected the “extraterritorial national-cultural autonomy” approach, championed by Austrian Marxists like Otto Bauer, and insisted that a nationality had to be associated with a distinct territory. Yet the ethno-linguistic apartness of the long-persecuted Jews and Roma was hard to deny or to obliterate. Similarly, although not a ethnic group, Soviet Esperantists’ use of a distinct language positioned them apart from the “new Soviet people”, created on the basis of the Russian ethnicity, and increasingly of the Russian language as well.

Curiously, in all three cases, the authorities made an emphasis on theater (often musical theater) as the main, or even the sole, expression of these groups’ cultural identity. For example, in the 1930s, Soviet authorities supported an Esperanto theater (Berdichevsky 1986). In the case of the Roma, virtually all aspects of their traditional culture were actively suppressed, both in the interwar period and after World War II; the only expression of their ethnic identity that was allowed—and even promoted—in the Soviet Union was the musical theater. Although many of the Roma became professional entertainers in theaters and choirs already in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Gypsy musical theater as a genre of its own reached new heights in the 1930s. In 1931, the “Romen” State Gypsy Theater was founded in Moscow. It continued to exist, and even receive lavish state support, throughout the Soviet years because the authorities saw it as a way to entertain foreign visitors with limited Russian, at the same time showing them that the USSR actively promoted its ethnic minorities, even the Roma, who have frequently been victims of discrimination elsewhere in Europe. Ironically, the first director of the “Romen” State Gypsy Theater was a Jew, Moishe Goldblat. Moreover, since 1940 all its performances were in Russian rather than Romani, the ethnic language of the Gypsies.

Similarly, Jewish theater received much attention in USSR in the 1920s and 1930s (see Veidlinger 2000 for a detailed discussion). Jewish theater troupes, performing in Yiddish, existed in a number of cities including the capital of the newly created Jewish Autonomous region in the Russian Far East, Birobidzhan. The most important such institution, Moscow State Jewish Theater, was established in 1919. From 1928, it was directed by a great Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels; the theater’s foyer, as well as decorations and costumes for its first production, were designed by Marc Chagall. Some of the productions were of non-Jewish themed plays, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, yet the focus was on Yiddish-language plays, such as Tevye the Milkman (better known in the West in its musical adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof). Yet, in 1948 the Moscow State Jewish Theater was shut down, as part of an anti-Semitic persecution campaign. Thus, although the dates differ, the paths to cultural identity through theater that the Jews, Roma, and Esperantists were forced to follow in the early Soviet Union were largely parallel; these parallels and links between Esperanto, Roma, and Jewish theater in the early Soviet union are worth exploring further in future research.

Because of the internationalist nature of the Soviet regime in the first two decades of its existence, Esperantists’ activities aligned well with the state ideology; in fact, the Union of Soviet Esperantists collaborated with the Communist International (Comintern). As noted in Berdichevsky (2014: 39), “many socialists referred to Esperanto as ‘the Latin of the Proletariat’” (see also Lins 1988: 190-241). But in the late 1930s, when the Soviet regime turned both more repressive and decidedly less internationalist in its ideology and policies, the Esperanto movement in the USSR was decimated. Although the Union of Soviet Esperantists was never officially disbanded, its activities stopped in 1937 when all its leaders were arrested and banished to the Gulag (see Berdichevsky 2014: 39, Lins 1988: 383-396). Formerly a weapon of international revolution, Soviet Esperanto activists were now rebranded as traitorous spies and “enemies of the people”. There were probably several reasons for this change-of-heart towards the Esperanto movement, including the “petit-bourgeois” roots of Esperanto’s creator, Ludwik Zamenhof; the interest in Esperanto on the part of the anarchist movement, especially such leading anarchist figures as Emile Chapelier and Gassy Marin, who “encouraged the adoption of Esperanto as the international language of anarchists” (Konishi 2013b: 277); the support that the Soviet Esperanto movement received in the 1920s from Leon Trotsky (Sirotkin 1999: 130); and the Jewish roots of both Zamenhof and Trotsky. The Esperanto language was labeled in the Soviet press as a “tool of Zionism and Cosmopolitanism” (the latter term was also intimately linked with the Jews, who were labeled bezrodnye kosmopolity ‘rootless cosmopolitans’). These labels are echoed, ironically, in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where he declares Esperanto to be a Jewish tool for enslaving other peoples and “the creation of Jews, Communists and Freemasons” (Berdichevsky 2014: 40). (“Freemasons” was, of course, another label closely associated with the Jews.)

Going back to the Soviet Union, it eventually became clear to Stalin that Esperantists outside the USSR were unwilling to follow the party line dictated from Moscow. Even more dangerous was the correspondence between rank-and-file Esperantists in the Soviet Union and abroad, as “Soviet Esperantists were able to inform correspondents abroad about the ugly realities of Soviet life” (Berdichevsky 2014: 39) and learn the truth about life abroad, which was progressively more and more distorted by the Soviet propaganda. But most importantly, the Soviet regime feared—and consequently, viciously persecuted—any alternative to its own ideology, be it in the form of a religious, political, or nationalist movement.

The history of the Esperanto movement in late imperial Russia and early Soviet Union is the topic of Brigid O’Keeffe’s forthcoming book, which she summarized in an article in Her research is centered, however, on the intellectual history of the movement in a global context, and she focuses on the “golden age” of the Russian Esperanto movement. What would also be an interesting and fruitful subject for a more detailed study is how the Soviet authorities viewed the Esperanto movement at different times, and especially during the period of repressions in the late 1930s. A fertile comparison might be drawn between the treatment by the Soviet authorities of the Esperanto movement and other internationalist movements, such as the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). The latter was formed only in 1942, five years after the Esperanto movement effectively ceased to exist in the USSR, but it had a similar history. For some time, Soviet authorities used the JAC’s connections in Western Europe and North America to gather moral—and more importantly, material—support for the USSR’s war effort. Yet, as soon as JAC’s network was no longer necessary, the most prominent members of the Committee were arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage, tortured, and executed by a firing squad after a secret mock trial. JAC chairman Solomon Mikhoels (mentioned above in connection with the Moscow State Jewish theater that he directed) was murdered in 1948 on the orders of Stalin, and his body was run over to create an impression of a traffic accident.

The Soviet Union was not the only state to persecute its Esperantists. According to Forster (1982: 9) “Esperantists have tended traditionally to have a lukewarm, even hostile, attitude to governments as sources of support”, and for a good reason. In many countries, the Esperanto movement found itself “operat[ing] outside the institutions of the nation-state”, in what Konishi (2013: 91) describes as “hidden space-times outside the realms of state guidance” (Konishi focuses on Japan, but his description is appropriate elsewhere as well). But while some states have mostly ignored Esperantists, scores of autocratic or totalitarian regimes persecuted them, including “the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin; Fascist Italy during the latter period of Mussolini’s rule; the Japanese government of the later 1930s and World War II, Nationalist Spain under Franco from 1939 to about 1950; all the “People’s Democracies” in Eastern Europe from 1948 to 1955; and the regimes of miniature psychopaths like Enhver Hoxha in Albania, the Iranian mullahs and Romania’s Ceausescu, who made learning a foreign language the equivalent of disloyalty” (Berdichevsky 2014: 42). The persecution of Esperantists under Hitler and Stalin are also discussed in detail in Lins (1988), a new Esperanto edition of which is to be published by UEA and the English translation by Humphrey Tonkin is expected to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Despite this history of persecutions, and contrary to the commonly-made claims that Esperanto is a failed project, surviving merely as a “utopian curiosity” kept alive by a “handful of intelligentsia” (cf. Scott 1998: 257), Esperanto can be said to have succeeded where other constructed languages, such as Volapük and Ido, failed. In the face of charges such as those of political scientist James Scott describing Esperanto as “an exceptionally thin language, without any of the resonances, connotations, ready metaphors, literature, oral history, idioms, and traditions of practical use that any socially embedded language already had” (cited in Konishi 2013a: 93), Esperanto managed to become the language of a significant community. What are the reasons for its global success?

One possibility is that Esperanto is constructed well from the linguistic point of view, namely that its linguistic properties make it a winning global language. Some linguistic aspects of Esperanto indeed make it a relatively typologically neutral language (see “State-of-the-Art: Esperanto Linguistics”). However, on the whole, the view that Esperanto’s success is due to its linguistic characteristics is hardly tenable, especially in light of the global success (or lack thereof) of various ethnic languages. As argued convincingly by McWhorter (2009), English has become a global language not in virtue of its linguistic peculiarities but due to political, economic, and possibly even ideological reasons. (For a more detailed discussion of English and Esperanto as languages of interlingual communication, see “State-of-the-Art: Global Language Studies”.) In fact, McWhorter argues for the opposite causal connection: it is not the case that English became a global language due to its linguistic profile, but its linguistic profile is largely due to its status as a global language, or at least a language learned by numerous adult second language learners.

Therefore, the secret to Esperanto’s global success must also lie in its external history rather than language-internal properties. Jordan (1987/1997) considers a number of external factors that may have been key to Esperanto’s global success: sociological (its uniquely satisfactorily organized movement), historical (its emergence at the right time in the right place), and even psychological (related to the motivations and gratifications of learners). Jordan’s conclusion is perhaps paradoxical: he claims that

“a key to the emergence of Esperanto was… the help of its competitors in resolving the conflict between those seeking formal perfection in a language and those wanting a linguistic equalizer now (warts and all). But the key to Esperanto’s persistence is the way the ideals and symbols that survived this conflict have interacted with diverse cultures and language situations.”

A different take on Esperanto’s global success is presented in Berdichevsky (2007). He notes that “in spite of all these forecasts, Esperanto has not only NOT disappeared but continues to grow, albeit much of its progress has been invisible to critics and sceptics”. Berdichevsky views Esperanto’s appeal to the “common man” as one key to its success. However, a more close examination of the global geography of the Esperanto movement suggests that both economic and political factors are more significant in determining where the Esperanto movement was able to take hold.

The question of Esperanto’s relative success on the international arena is considered in Garvía (2015), who explores the social and political contexts of the three most prominent artificial languages—Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido—in an attempt to identify the factors that led almost all artificial languages to fail and helped English to prevail as the global tongue of the twenty-first century. Particular attention is give to the roles played by social movement leaders and inventors, the strategies different organizations used to lobby for each language, and other early decisions that shaped how those languages spread and evolved.

Although, as discussed above, the roots of the Esperanto movement are in Eastern Europe, its global success cannot be explained without investigating its history in Western Europe, Asia, and elsewhere around the world. The dynamics of the international Esperanto movement are discussed in detail in Forster (1982), especially in Part I of his book. Part II of Forster’s book deals specifically with the Esperanto movement in Britain, which had the second largest number of Esperantists in Europe in the 1920s-1930s (after Germany) and in 1950s (after Sweden). (No figures are available in Forster 1982 for the 1940s.) Yet in subsequent decades the number of organized Esperantists in Britain declined slightly, whereas the corresponding figures in other European countries such as France and West Germany grew. The history of the Esperanto movement in France is discussed in detail in Forster (1982: 74-109). Moreover, from the mid-1950s onwards the Esperanto movement flourished in Eastern Europe, where in earlier decades its members were persecuted and even imprisoned (Berdichevsky 2014: 42). The growth of the Esperanto movement at this time is particularly impressive in Bulgaria and Poland, where the number of UEA members grew by three orders of magnitude between 1954 and 1979, making them the two largest Esperantist countries in Europe. (Curiously, although countries of the Warsaw pact appear to have larger national Esperantist movements than Western European countries, Germany appears to be exceptional in this regard: the number of UEA members in West Germany was nearly three times that in East Germany in 1979.) Because of these developments, by the late 1970s Britain moved down to the 9th spot in the ranking according to the UEA membership.

Despite these changes in relative ranking within Europe, the organized Esperanto movement remained throughout the 1950s-1970s mostly a European affair, and even became increasingly more so: in 1954, three out of four members of UEA lived in Europe (excluding those in the Soviet Union or Turkey), while in 1979, this number was up to 82%. Yet, the growth of the Esperanto movement in non-European countries cannot be discounted either. In the 1960s, the non-European countries with the largest numbers of Esperantists included Argentina, Brazil, United States, and Canada in the Western hemisphere, and Israel, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand in the Eastern hemisphere. Yet, all these eight countries combined had fewer members in 1964 than Bulgaria alone (Forster 1982: 34). In the following decade, South Korea and Mexico were added to list of non-European countries with more than 100 UEA members. An examination of figures presented in Forster (1982: 34-36) makes it clear that the Esperanto movement remained geographically limited; the correlations with GDP and urbanization levels are also striking (cf. Sikosek 2003). (For a discussion of the Esperanto movement in Tanzania and Togo, see Goes 1999.)

In this context, particularly remarkable is the popularity of Esperanto in Japan, which in 1964 had the highest number of UEA members or of local group members outside of Europe (Forster 1982: 34-36). In fact, Japan had “the highest number of registered Esperanto speakers by far of any non-European country, including the United States” already by 1928 (Konishi 2013b: 25). The number of Esperantists in Japan is even more impressive if considered relative to the total population size. But the roots of Esperanto’s popularity in Japan are much deeper. According to Konishi (2013a: 91) “Esperanto became a fad in Japan the year after the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5)”, competing with “naniwa bushi, a popular style of singing”, another craze of 1906 in Japan. The enthusiasm of the Japanese for the newly introduced Esperanto was so intense that “nine new Esperanto textbooks were published (Mukai 1980, 18) and the first Esperanto-Japanese dictionary, Sekaigo (World language), flew off bookshop shelves (Nihon Esperanto undōgojusshū nen kinen gyō ji iin kai 1956, 11–12)” (ibid). Among the early Esperanto enthusiasts in Japan were “Futabatei Shimei, a prominent Meiji-era … crafter of modern Japanese language and literature, … Japan’s foremost ethnographer (Yanagida Kunio), a leading cosmopolitanist and educator (Nitobe Inazō ), a renowned liberal critic and journalist (Hasegawa Nyozekan), a well-known proponent of “Taishō Democracy” (Yoshino Sakuzō ), a popular songwriter (Kitahara Hakushū ), a celebrated children’s author (Miyazawa Kenji), and an influential leading anarchist (Ōsugi Sakae)” (ibid). (For a discussion of these intellectuals’ involvement with the Esperanto movement, see also Nojima 1996, Okamura and Satō 2010, Satō 2004, Stegewerns 2007: 151, 156, 316, Konishi 2015). But it was not just the intellectual elite that found Esperanto appealing; rather “it was studied and discussed by elites and nonelites alike in noninstitutional spaces such as in rural homes and coffee shops, often at night, after institutions privileged by state and financial power had closed” (Konishi 2013a: 92). Why did Esperanto become so popular in Japan at such an early date? Surprisingly, there is little discussion of the Esperanto movement in the historiography of modern Japan, the works of Sho Konishi (2013a, 2013b) being a welcome exception.

Konishi (2013a: 92) links the Japanese fascination with Esperanto in the early years to “a forgotten grassroots movement” that he calls “worldism”, which developed in contrast to the “nation-state centered notions of world order and international relations that held sway in the twentieth century”, especially during the Russo-Japanese war. Thus, it was the internationalist and supra-nationalist aspects of Esperanto, its role as “the linguistic glue connecting disparate individuals, groups, and associations” (Konishi 2013a: 92) that was particularly appealing to the Japanese. As such, the sudden popularity of Esperanto in Japan in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War challenges the conventional historiographical narrative that “Japan’s waging of an impressive modern war with a European power strengthened Japanese nationalism” (ibid). Konishi’s account sheds a new light on the intellectual history of Japan in the period following the Russo-Japanese war, as well as on the consensus view that internationalism began to develop in Japan only as “a product of World War I” (Konishi 2013a: 93), particularly of “the democratic and internationalist promises made by the Allied nations at that time” (ibid), as maintained, for example, by Shea (1964: 40).

A different take on the spread of the Esperanto movement in Japan is found in Lins (2008: 47), who explains it in terms of Japan’s “desire to learn from the west, … to use Esperanto as a bridge between east and west”. He also ties the popularity of Esperanto with “the popularization of pacifism in postwar Japan” (ibid), thus disregarding the rise of the Esperanto movement nearly half a century earlier, discussed by Konishi (2013a). It should also be noted that Lins attempts to find common roots for the popularity of Esperanto shared by Japan with other countries in East Asia, particularly in China. (Esperanto has also been very popular in South Korea, but there appears to be remarkably little literature addressing this topic.) However, some of the causes for the Esperanto’s popularity in East Asian countries, discussed by Lins, appear to be more applicable to China than to Japan. For example, Lins writes that Esperanto was also linked to other political movements such as “the battle against the Japanese invasion of China beginning in the 1930s (“For the liberation of China through Esperanto”)” (ibid). Clearly, this factor played a role in promoting Esperanto in China but not in Japan. Moreover, Lins (1947) also highlights the connection between the ideology of peace and harmony of all humankind associated with Esperanto and various strands of religious and philosophical thinking popular in East Asia. However, the one religious/philosophical school that appears to be relevant in this respect is Confucianism, popular in China but not so much in Japan (and not very widespread in South Korea). Yet, Lins appears to contradict himself since he also asserts that “the movement progressed thanks primarily to those who avoided too much missionary zeal and preferred to recruit on the basis of Esperanto as a neutral device” (ibid). Moreover, another related issue that is worth exploring in more detail is the Chinese-Japanese non-state relations as a factor in the growth of Esperanto in China (see also Konishi 2013b: 279).

However, the fascination with Esperanto in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia cannot be explained solely within the context of these countries. An important factor that fed the growth of the Esperanto movement in Japan, documented by Konishi (2007a, b, 2013b), is the connections—often unofficial, even clandestine—between important Japanese intellectual and cultural figures and their counterparts in Russia. For example, Konishi (2013b) describes the relationships established through correspondence, travel, and networking by such prominent Russian figures as anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Lev Mechnikov and writer Lev Tolstoy with Saigo Takamori, one of the most influential samurai in Japanese history, and writer and philosopher Tokutomi Roka. (Curiously, Lev Tolstoy was one of the earliest learners of Esperanto; Charters 2015: 288.) Notably, these relationships were pursued despite diplomatic and military tensions between Russia and Japan at the time. Although none of the above-mentioned figures were themselves involved directly in the Esperanto movement, such networks created an intellectual environment that was conducive to the ideas of what Konishi (2013b) calls “cooperatist anarchist modernity”, that is, “a commitment to realizing a modern society through mutual aid and voluntary activity, without the intervention of state governance”. These ideas later crystalized into a number of social and ideological movements, including the Esperanto movement, as well as the Japanese Nonwar Movement, the women’s movement, and even the popularization of the natural sciences.

The links between anarchism and Esperanto, and between Russia and Japan were embodied by Vasilii Eroshenko, a blind young Russian Esperantist and children’s literature writer. He was encouraged to go to Japan by anarchist Peter Kropotkin; upon his arrival, he “very quickly became associated with leading figures of the Japanese anarchist movement” such as Ōsugi Sakae, Kamichika Ichiko and others (Konishi 2013b: 288). Shortly thereafter Eroshenko gave his first public lecture, on Kropotkin’s anarchism, in Esperanto. During his tour of Japan, his lectures drew thousands of people across Japanese society, “including women, socialists, literary writers, those involved in the arts, and the members of numerous associations in Japan” (Konishi 2013b: 285) and quickly made him “one of the most widely known foreigners living in Japan in the Taishō period (1912-26)” (ibid). According to Konishi (2013b: 287-288), Eroshenko’s blindness heightened the Esperantist message of internationalist, transracial coexistence; liberal intellectual and Esperantist Hasegawa Nyozekan wrote of Eroshenko: “In his eyes could not develop the distinction of skin color, the reason that man has tormented man. His eyes also cannot see the horrible colors that divide the world map and incite war” (cited in Konishi 2013b: 287). Eroshenko was also instrumental in establishing ties between Baha’i missionary Agnes Baldwin Alexander and the Esperanto networks in Japan and translating her English translations of the Baha’i scriptures into Esperanto (Konishi 2013b: 282-283). Eroshenko’s activities caught the eye of the Japanese police that “described his relations with Esperantists … as ‘disturbing to stability and order’” (Konishi 2013b: 285). Although extensive surveillance and searches did not reveal weapons, socialist propaganda, or anti-state speeches, Eroshenko was deported from Japan, in an incident that turned into an embarrassment for the Japanese government because of his widespread popularity. Nonetheless, the Japanese government and police continued to focus their efforts on the Russian non-governmental agents like Eroshenko rather than those who might have been spying for the Soviet state. It is possible that this concentration on the Russians who did not represent the state allowed Richard Sorge, the most famous Soviet military intelligence officer, to operate in Japan with impunity for eight years (Deakin and Storry 1966, Prange, Goldstein, and Dillon 1984, Whymant 1996).

Going back to the spread of Esperanto in East Asia, it should also be noted that because China and Japan largely remained isolated and closed to the outside world in the first half of the 20th century, Chinese and Japanese Esperantists had little opportunity to use the language in practical ways (see also Müller-Saini 1998), they “tended to emphasize Esperanto as an idea” (Lins 2008: 47). But in the second half of the 20th century, “the economic prosperity of Japan and the opening of China, by allowing greater contact with the outside world, have given Esperanto the opportunity to demonstrate more strongly its usefulness as an easily learned means of communication, also for direct contact between Chinese and Japanese” (ibid). Clearly, the popularity of the Esperanto movement in East Asia is an issue that needs much further research and scrutiny. A related—and underexplored—issue (mentioned to me by Sho Konishi, personal communication) concerns the fact that some of the leading Esperantists in Japan (and elsewhere) never registered as members of the Esperanto societies. In studying the Esperanto movement, such unaffiliated Esperantists should not be ignored, particularly, in the contemporary context of “the demise of the membership-based organization” among Esperantists, as discussed in Tonkin (2015). How such unaffiliated Esperantists see themselves in relation to the larger community and why they chose to become Esperantists are questions that merit a detailed further study.

To read an overview of scholarship on Esperanto Linguistics, click here.

To read an overview of scholarship on Global Language Studies, click here.

Footnote 1: As an adult, Zamenhof wrote that he first thought of creating an intercultural auxiliary language at the age of six.  Over the next 22 years, he developed this idea and published the first book describing Esperanto, which is now referred to as the Unua Libro, on July 26, 1887.


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