A brief history of Esperanto, the 135-year-old language of peace hated by Hitler and Stalin alike

In the late 1800s, the city of Białystok – which was once Polish, then Prussian, then Russian, and is today again part of Poland – was a hub of diversity, with large numbers of Poles, Germans, Russians and Yiddish-speaking Ashkanazi Jews. Each group spoke a different language and viewed members of the other communities with suspicion.

For years, L.L. Zamenhof – a Jewish man from Białystok who had trained as a doctor in Moscow – had dreamed of a way for diverse groups of people to communicate easily and peacefully.

On July 26, 1887, he published what is now referred to as “Unua Libro,” or “First Book,” which introduced and described Esperanto, a language he had spent years designing in hopes of promoting peace among the people of the world.

Esperanto’s vocabulary is mostly drawn from English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Polish, Russian and Yiddish, as these were the languages that Zamenhof was most familiar with. Grammatically, Esperanto was primarily influenced by European languages, but interestingly, some of Esperanto’s innovations bear a striking resemblance to features found in some Asian languages, such as Chinese.

Now, 135 years later, Europe is again riven by violence and tension, most notably by the war between Russia and Ukraine, which is at least partially driven by a political debate about language differences. Unfortunately, conflicts over language are common around the world.

The promise of peace through a shared language has not yet caught on widely, but there are perhaps as many as 2 million Esperanto speakers worldwide. And it’s still spreading, if slowly.

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