L.L. Zamenhof: Who He Was, Why He's on Google

December 15, 2009

No, Google hasn't been taken over by a foreign country. The green-and-white flag over the Google logo today is the banner of the artificial language Esperanto, flying in recognition of the 150th birthday of its inventor, L.L. Zamenhof.

Born on December 15, 1859, in Bialystok, Poland, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof was a doctor and linguist who dreamed of a universal second language that could unite people around the world.

L.L. Zamenhof, who wrote under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Doctor Hopeful), "grew up in a very contentious, divisive location in Poland, where there were speakers of at least four different languages near each other, and this led to a lot of ethnic animosity," said Jonathan Pool, the founder of the Utilika Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to universal communication based in Seattle, Washington.

Zamenhof's "analysis was that they couldn't understand each other and that they were segregated and enclaved by their languages," said Pool, a fluent Esperanto speaker.

L.L. Zamenhof and the Birth of Esperanto

L.L. Zamenhof decided to create an easily learned second language that could be used to transcend barriers. According to some experiments, Esperanto is about five times easier to learn than "natural" languages such as French or German, Pool said.

Drawing on a variety of Indo-European languages, including English, Spanish, German, and French, Zamenhof created a language with a simple syntax and morphology, which he eventually called Esperanto.

Zamenhof "didn't know Chinese or Japanese or any of the African languages," Pool said. "By today's standard, he was very Euro-centric, but he was being as international as he knew how."

Importantly, a few years after he had fine-tuned his language, Zamenhof gave up control of it to its users.

"Zamenhof looked up recent cases of [attempts at creating artificial languages] and he saw that the fatal flaw in these projects was their inventors kept grasping their own languages and trying to control and modify them, which created a lot of animosity among its speakers," Pool said.

English's Rise Would Trouble L.L. Zamenhof?

Esperanto, which sounds like Italian to many non-speakers, is still learned and used by people around the world, but it's by no means a widely spoken language.

"There's no place in the world where you can walk down the street and ask a question in Esperanto and think there's more than a 50 percent chance that anyone is going to be able to answer you," Pool said.

Estimates peg the number of Esperanto speakers worldwide at around half a million to a few million. Many of them are concentrated in Japan, Korea, Brazil, Bulgaria, and Poland.

"There's a tendency for people in countries whose languages are rarely learned internationally to learn Esperanto," Pool said.

The closest thing to a universal human language today is English, he added, but English in many ways fails to live up to Zamenhof's dream, which was to help create a more egalitarian world.

Unlike with Esperanto, with English, "you can always tell a non-native speaker by the accent and the little mistakes that a native speaker never makes," Pool said.

"Zamenhof would say [widespread use of English is] the right result with the wrong language, and therefore it's not well done. It's going to permanently classify most of the world as second-class citizens."

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