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Delayed success story

Günther Birkenstock / sadNovember 25, 2012

Esperanto came into existence about 125 years ago - nowadays, it has speakers around the globe. Although political forces limited its spread in the last century, it's now becoming increasingly popular.

Ulrich Matthias und seine aus China stammende Frau Nan Matthias-Wang (r) lesen am Montag (31.01.2005) mit ihrer zweijährigen Tochter Christina in ihrer Wohnung in Wiesbaden ein Kinderbuch auf Esperanto mit dem Titel "Mil Unuaj Vortoj" (Tausend erste Worte). Die Eltern lernten sich vor fünf Jahren auf dem Esperanto-Weltkongress in Hongkong kennen. Ihre Tochter wächst als einer von weltweit rund 1.000 Menschen mit der Kunstsprache Esperanto als Muttersprache auf. Foto: Frank Rumpenhorst dpa/lhe (zu dpa-Korr: "Babbeln auf Esperanto - Mehrere hundert Hessen pflegen Kunstssprache" vom 31.1.2005) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance /dpa/dpaweb

It's not known exactly how many people speak Esperanto - estimates range from half a million to 2 million people worldwide, most of whom live in Europe. In Germany, about 100,000 people know the "planned language."

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a doctor and philologist from Bialystok, Poland, created the language at the end of the 19th century, while the first Esperanto book was published in 1887. Zamenhof, who lived in the region when it was still a part of Russia, wanted to create a medium for understanding that would bring people from different nations and cultures together, and in the process promote world peace.

Political barriers

The fact that the language has only a few hundred thousand speakers after 125 years is due primarily to political barriers, explained historian Ulrich Lins, who was deputy director of the Universal Esperanto Association for some years.

"Especially in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union, the language was considered dangerous, a means of subverting national interests," Lins told DW. Esperanto was believed to facilitate the international exchange of information - a crime in those countries at the time. As a consequence, Esperanto speakers were persecuted, Lins said.

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto. 15.12.1859 - Warschau 14.4. 1917.
Zamenhof invented Esperanto to help bridge cultural barriers during the nationalist era he lived inImage: picture-alliance / akg-images

Although Esperanto enthusiasts had numerous motivations, they were often especially free-spirited people, cosmopolitans opposed to the excesses of nationalism. "Esperanto was for those who wanted to practice grassroots internationalism," Lins said.

This often placed them near communists and socialists on the political spectrum. And that Zamenhof was Jewish colored its followers even more, in the context of the times.

"After World War II, English became so dominant that Esperanto didn't stand much of a chance," Lins explained.

But in recent years, Esperanto appears to be on the up again. The Internet has made it possible, now more than ever, to communicate across national boundaries. Esperanto could become a medium for overcoming linguistic hurdles in modern times.

International travel made easier

Roland Schnell knows from personal experience that Esperanto can make international travel easier. Schnell is a spokesperson for an Esperanto association in the Berlin area with about 100 members. He says that there are around 1,000 people who can speak the language in the region.

"Couchsurfing has been around in Esperanto since 1974," Schnell told DW. "And the language is used a lot." By couchsurfing, Schnell is referring to an international network of hosts offering free lodging to others. There is often more than just room and board involved, for example, showing guests around the area.

Schnell couldn't speak French, but he told DW that he quickly made contacts in France using Esperanto. Today, he can also understand French.

Numbers unimportant

Schnell thinks it's not important that Esperanto has fewer speakers than English or French. "The total number doesn't matter. It's about voluntarily offering a means of communication that everyone can use," he added.

Esperanto continues to display its practical use, Schnell emphasized. "Wine, whisky and cigar dealers used advertisements in newspapers," he explained. Although such advertisement is increasingly difficult due to the diminishing significance of such papers in the Internet age, there are other possibilities, he told DW.

Esperanto Cultural and Congress Center in Fulda, Germany 19.09.2005) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Some hotels are using the word "Esperanto" to profile their international characterImage: picture-alliance /dpa

Currently, the Berlin Esperanto association is planning to attach placards to bicycles distributed around the city. In Warsaw, a public system for sharing some 1,100 bicycles is called "Veturilo," which means vehicle in Esperanto.

Schnell also said that Esperanto is being employed as an effective marketing method. Some hotels have begun to use the word "Esperanto" in their names in order to emphasize the establishment's international character.

Whether or not these initiatives are behind Esperanto's increasing numbers of speakers isn't clear, Schnell said. But the language is clearly attracting more and more followers.