February 16, 1905

First Esperanto Society Formed

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1987
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On this day in 1905, the first Esperanto Society in the United States was established in Boston. Invented by a Polish doctor in the 1880s, Esperanto was an entirely new language created to promote international communication. With its simple grammar and phonetic spelling, Esperanto was easy to learn. It was soon adopted by large numbers of people in Central Europe, where many different languages were spoken in a relatively small geographic area. Boston in the early 1900s was full of intellectuals and scientists who found the idea of an international language appealing. Although it never gained widespread popularity in the U.S., it is spoken by more than two million people around the world.

Some 30,000 works — including novels and poetry — have been written in Esperanto.

On this day in 1905, the first Esperanto Society in the United States was established in Boston. Invented by a Polish doctor in the 1880s, Esperanto was an entirely new language created to promote international communication. With its simple grammar and phonetic spelling, Esperanto was easy to learn.

It was soon adopted by large numbers of people in Central Europe, where many different languages were spoken in a relatively small geographic area. Boston in the early 1900s was full of intellectuals and scientists who found the idea of an international language appealing. Although it never gained widespread popularity in the U.S., today it is spoken by more than 2,000,000 people in 86 countries.

One hundred years ago, Boston led the nation in establishing the first Esperanto Society in the United States; within a year, the city boasted two clubs. The MIT paper reported in 1906 that the new language was "growing rapidly in public favor. . . . It is thought by many," the article continued, "that this language will eventually be adopted by the entire Christian world."

Boston had just the right mix of multi-lingual immigrants, idealistic intellectuals, and scientists enthusiastic about the mathematical elegance of an invented form of communication. A planned language without ties to any one nation or ethnic group, Esperanto first emerged in Europe in the 1880s as part of a movement to promote a universal culture.

Esperanto was the invention of Dr. Ludwig L. Zamenhof, an idealistic and imaginative optometrist from the Russo-Polish city of Bialystok. Residents of Bialystok spoke Russian, Polish, German, and Yiddish. He believed that sharing a common language would make it easier for people to get along with one another.

"that this language will eventually be adopted by the entire Christian world."

Recognizing that such a language needed to be culturally neutral and easy to learn, he spent years devising a language with simple, regular grammar, phonetic spelling, and genderless nouns. In 1887 he presented his work in a modest little book titled Dr. Esperanto's International Language. For his pseudonym — and for the name of the new language — he created the word, Esperanto, which means "he who hopes."

Zamenhof's timing was good. At the end of the nineteenth century, more and more people were thinking in global terms. Steamship travel and telegraph lines shortened distances between regions of the world. New organizations, such as the International Red Cross, the Young Men's Christian Association, the Salvation Army, and the Olympics reflected this trend.

The MIT paper observed that "as international commerce continues to grow, a common form of speech becomes more necessary. No one international language could be successfully used by all nations. . . . the element of jealousy is too strong to allow it." Esperanto offered travelers, businessmen, and scientists a practical alternative to mastering the 3,000 different languages used around the world.

Within a few years, "Dr. Esperanto's" book was translated into Polish, French, German, and English. Esperanto spread rapidly, and by 1905 several hundred speakers from around the world attended the first International Congress of Esperanto speakers.

"as international commerce continues to grow, a common form of speech becomes more necessary. No one international language could be successfully used by all nations. . . . the element of jealousy is too strong to allow it."

After World War I, Esperanto speakers almost succeeded in having their language chosen as the official language of the League of Nations. Ten of the eleven delegates to the League voted for the proposal. France blocked the move, fearing that Esperanto would undermine the position of French as the language of international diplomacy.

The French were not the only ones to view Esperanto as a threat. Hitler claimed it had been created to unite Jews of the diaspora in a plot to dominate the world. Stalin called Esperanto "the language of spies." Both men persecuted Esperanto speakers.

During the McCarthy Era, American speakers of Esperanto had to defend the movement against the charge that that its links with Eastern Europe reflected the influence of Communism.

Esperanto survived these years of adversity. It remains extremely popular in Central Europe. As one Esperanto speaker pointed out, in a part of the world where a person might "travel 100 miles in any direction . . . and need to speak some other language to be understood, it's very practical to have a common language. For obvious political reasons, most people there certainly didn't want it to be Russian."

In the last decade, interest in Esperanto has grown dramatically in China, where more than half the world's Esperanto speakers now live. By the late 1980s, about 400,000 Chinese had enrolled in Esperanto courses. Chinese radio broadcasts programs in Esperanto, and an Esperanto magazine published in the People's Republic is read worldwide.

After World War I, Esperanto speakers almost succeeded in having their language chosen as the official language of the League of Nations.

An international convention in Warsaw in July of 1986 drew 6,000 delegates from 64 countries to mark Esperanto's centennial. A Polish rock band performed a rendition in Esperanto of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

Esperanto is not just a spoken language. Many classics, including works by Dante, Tolstoy, Goethe, Ibsen, and Sartre, have been translated into Esperanto. Some 30,000 works — including novels and poetry — have been written in Esperanto. Some 200 newspapers and magazines are published in the language. Over 20 short-wave radio programs are broadcast in Esperanto, including programs by Radio Peking and the Vatican.

Gatherings of Esperanto speakers can be found in Massachusetts, more than one hundred years after the first Esperanto Society was  formed. The Allen C. Boschen Esperanto collection at the University of Massachusetts--Amherst is a rich source of printed material in and about the language.

Esperanto has never gained the popularity here that it has in other parts of the world. One local speaker suggests that most Americans do not understand the need for a neutral, universal language. He points out, however, that those who travel abroad "are always sure of finding someone who can speak their language."

If You Go

The University of Massachusetts Amherst Special Collections includes the Allen C. Böschen Esperanto Collection.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western region of Massachusetts.

Sources

MIT, The Tech, October 22, 1906.

Boston Globe July 4, 1982; October 18, 1987; May 12, 1999

Themes

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