Polish linguist L.L. Zamenhof (1859–1917) created the Esperanto language, hoping that the development of an international common language would to help to bring about world peace. A profesional opthalmologist, the idealistic Zamenhof produced an 1887 pamphlet in which he introduced the principles of a new language, publishing his work under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto.
Lazar Markovitch Zamenhof was born into a Jewish family in Bialystok, then part of Russia and now in Poland, on December 15, 1859. He later used the name Ludovic (also transliterated as Ludwik or Ludwig) Lazarus Zamenhof and was known professionally by the initials L.L. His father, Markus Zamenhof, was a bookkeeper and language teacher in Bialystok, which at the time was a city in transition: its large Jewish population clashed with members of growing Polish, Russian, German, and Belarusian minorities. The young Zamenhof observed these clashes and believed that they were rooted in the fact that the various ethnic communities had no language in common.
In 1873 the Zamenhof family moved to Warsaw so that Markus Zamenhof could take a post teaching German. Ludwik Zamenhof studied several languages while growing up: He spoke Russian and Yiddish at home and acquired at least some competence in Hebrew, Polish, German, Italian, French, English, and the ancient languages of Jewish and Christian sacred texts: Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. The latter two Zamenhof taught himself, for they were not offered at his high school in Bialystok but were required for admission to the Gymnasium (college preparatory) high school in Warsaw.
Zamenhof received free tuition at the Warsaw Gymnasium because his father was a teacher there, one of just three Jewish instructors at the school. As a teen, Zamenhof began to experiment with the idea of an international language and even devised one, called Lingwe Universala, for which his notes have not survived. He was so young that his proposal was not taken seriously by publishers; he was also discouraged in his efforts by his father, who had been told that the young man's interest in creating a new language was a sign of oncoming madness. So Zamenhof applied to the University of Moscow to study medicine and was accepted.
Arriving in Moscow in 1879, Zamenhof became a classmate of the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, but because Jewish and Christian students rarely mixed, the two never became acquainted. Zamenhof continued to pursue his interest in languages in his free time and even wrote an analysis of Yiddish grammar under a pseudonym, L. Gamfezon. The book remained unpublished until it was issued in a parallel Russian/Esperanto edition in 1982. Meanwhile, unrest broke out in Russia after a terrorist group assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881, forcing Zamenhof to return to Warsaw, where he enrolled at the University of Warsaw. Three years later he finished his medical degree.
During this period, Zamenhof continued to work on his dream of a universal common language. He was not the first linguist to have such a dream. Volapük, a language created in 1879 by German priest Johann Martin Schleyer and still in use today, had a substantial speaker base and at least one convention had already held entirely in the language. Many users were dissatisfied with Volapük's complexity and its frequent use of umlauts, which were unfamiliar to speakers of most languages other than Germans.
English was not a language Zamenhof could speak fluently, but when he studied it in high school he was impressed by the simplicity of its verb conjugations: In most other European languages, the endings of verbs change far more frequently. He did not believe, however, that English, connected as it was to a major colonial power, could serve as the neutral international language he envisioned. Instead, he worked steadily to simplify the grammar of his new language and to purge it of any traces of irregular usage. In contrast to most existing languages, it would always follow its own set of comparatively simply rules.
By 1887, Zamenhof had completed a large pamphlet titled Lingvo Internacia (“International Language”), in which he introduced the principles of his new language. He released the work under a pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto (suggesting the meaning “Doctor Hope” in many western European languages), and the language took its name from this pseudonym. Publication of the pamphlet was funded by the remains of Zamenhof's dowry, which had been intended to give a firm foundation to his ophthalmology practice. Fortunately, Zamenhof's father-in-law approved of the diversion of funds.
Esperanto quickly generated enthusiasm, and in the late 1880s and early 1890s Esperanto groups began to displace Volapügroups in Germany and Poland. The language spread to Sweden and Russia, and then to western Europe; the first North American Esperanto club was founded in French-speaking Montreal, Canada in 1901. Three years later, in 1904, Esperanto enjoyed official recognition at the St. Louis Exposition world's fair. Zamenhof gained wide acclaim because of his creation; the French government inducted him into the Legion of Honor in 1905, and in 1910 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Unlike Volapü, which became the object of a tug-ofwar between Schleyer and his followers, Zamenhof took the important step of relinquishing control over Esperanto and making it open to anyone to develop. Again unlike Volapü, which underwent major revisions, Esperanto has remained generally true to Zamenhof's original principles, which emphasized simplicity and regularity. Unlike other constructed languages, the language favored no particular source for its vocabulary, and it was once used in U.S. Army exercises as a neutral language for soldiers playing enemy roles. Research has shown that it can be learned in about one-fifth the time needed to learn one of the natural European languages.
Moving into the 20th century, the progress of Esperanto was impeded during the Nazi era in Germany, when the government objected to its Jewish origins. Tragically, all three of Zamenhof's children would die during the Holocaust. More recently, the emergence of English as an international language has slowed Esperanto's growth, but estimates of speakers internationally with at least some familiarity with the language have ranged as high as eight million. The Internet, which allows for communications across continents, has also helped to stimulate interest in Esperanto.
According to biographer Alexsander Korzhenkov, writing in Zamenhof: The Life, Works and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto, “Zamenhof's interest in Esperanto was not primarily linguistic, but ethical, and he did not stop his project for international understanding with the creation of Esperanto, going beyond the language to propose a new religious and ethical rapprochement.” Zamenhof called for the inception of a belief system he named Hillelism or (in Esperanto) Homaranismo, in which the principle of loving one's neighbor was paramount. The ritual aspects of Judaism under this system would be retained, but as traditions rather than as integral parts of the religion itself. Toward the end of his life, he rejected nationalism of all kinds, including that oriented toward Judaism.
Zamenhof continued to practice medicine, for some years working in Warsaw's Jewish ghetto. Venerated among Esperanto speakers, who observed his birthday, December 15, as Zamenhof Day, he addressed the large conventions that gathered during his lifetime to promote the language and bring its speakers together. Zamenhof set out for Paris in August of 1914, planning to attend one such convention, but he was stranded in Germany by the outbreak of World War I. He and his wife could neither enter France nor return to Russian-controlled Poland, whose border with Germany was now closed. Esperanto speakers helped them travel back to Poland by way of Scandinavia, but the arduous journey damaged Zamenhof's already fragile health. He died in Warsaw of a heart condition on April 14, 1917.
Korzhenkov, Aleksander, Zamenhof: The Life, Works, and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto, Mondial, 2009.
Guardian (London, England), January 14, 1992.
National Geographic website, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/ (December 15, 2009), “L.L. Zamenhof: Who He Was, Why He's on Google.”❑