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Europe

Esperanto, Often Given up for Dead, Finding New Popularity

The Internet is helping bring about a resurgence of the planned language Esperanto, long given up by many for dead. In Rotterdam, Esperantists are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the World Esperanto Federation.

The Esperanto center in Fulda, Germany

The shiny, modern Esperanto center in Fulda, Germany

The language that was developed in the late 19th century to bring about world peace was hit hard by Stalinist purges and Nazi ideology in the 20th. But its greatest blow was likely from something else: a general lack of interest, not to mention the emergence of English as the global lingua franca.

But as speakers of Esperanto gather on July 19 for the beginning of the World Esperanto Congress in Rotterdam, they will be celebrating a resurgence of interest in the language as well as the fact that their world body has made it to the century mark, battered perhaps, but still kicking.

This "auxiliary language" owes its boost to the online world.

"The Internet has opened up new possibilities," Boris-Antoine Legault, a leading Esperantist in North America, told the Canadian Press. "Esperanto is a fantastic tool on the Internet as a bridge language."

Ulrich Matthias and his Chinese wife Nan Matthias-Wang are raising their daughter as a native Esperato speaker

Ulrich Matthias and his Chinese wife Nan Matthias-Wang are raising their daughter as a native Esperanto speaker

Be it blogs, forums, or online tutorials, the Internet has allowed Esperanto to reach larger audiences than it used to. Pre-Internet, learning Esperanto generally meant ordering a book from a little-known publisher or perhaps visiting one of the few dusty Esperanto offices still open in a few larger cities.

Estimates on the number of Esperanto speakers are hard to come by. They range from several hundred thousand to about two million. And although the death of the artificial language, which sounds something like Spanish or Latin with a little German thrown in, has often been announced, Esperanto speakers are an enthusiastic and determined group who have kept the language alive.

Lofty goals, tough times

Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof

Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof

Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist from Bialystok, published his Esperanto grammar in 1887. He believed that a universal second language would foster international understanding and war would become a thing of the past.

In the early days, Esperanto found many adherents, especially among the working class. It grew most rapidly in eastern Europe and Russia, as well as in western Europe, the Americas and China and Japan.

But totalitarian regimes looked on Esperanto with suspicion. Adolf Hitler mentioned the language in his book "Mein Kampf," saying it would become the language of the so-called international Jewish conspiracy once they achieved world domination because Zamenhof was a Jew.

Stalin denounced the Esperanto as the "language of spies" and had Esperantists executed. It was illegal in the Soviet Union until 1956.

The 89th International Esperanto Conference in Beijing was in 2004

The 89th International Esperanto Conference in Beijing was in 2004

Still, Esperantists worked hard to promote the language after World War One, and the League of Nations almost declared it as a model neutral global language. But it ran up against national sensitivities that hindered more widespread acceptance. Opposition was especially fierce in France, which saw its role as the language of international communication endangered by this artificial upstart.

"During this time, in the 20s, English began to grow in influence and France was extremely sensitive when it came to language questions," said Detlev Blanke, a linguist and Esperanto researcher from Berlin.

Upswing

After the Second World War, the language experienced a short-lived flowering but the juggernaut of English was hard to withstand.

Esperanto in Iran

Esperanto in Iran

In the 60s and 70s, the language made some inroads into popular culture. In 1965, William Shatner of Star Trek fame starred in the only movie ever made in Esperanto, a horror flim called "Incubus."

But Esperantists and linguists like Blanke feel there is cause for cautious optimism about the future of the language.

"I think that in connection with better understanding among people, that we need a more democratic language policy, something which we don't have right now in Europe," said Blanke. "In this context, I think interest in the Esperanto model is growing."

North American Esperantist Legault agreed: "We think that a national language is not adequate," he says. "In addition to being more fair, everyone has to make a small effort to learn the language, but no one has a big advantage."

While its original goal of becoming a global second tongue might still be far away, a small, but flourishing culture has grown up around the language. There is Esperanto music, books and even what some would call literature -- the PEN writers' group has officially recognized it.

Britons are soon going to be exposed to the language like never before. The Littlewoods Direct company is using Esperanto is one of its TV spots to advertise its clothes. "We know that the majority of people who watch the ad will not understand what is being said, but the language is as beautiful and stylish as our clothes," said merchandising director David Inglis. "And we have added subtitles."