The Birth of Esperanto

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Birth of Esperanto
by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof

This edition was translated by John Ellis in 1904.


Freely translated, from an Esperanto version of a Private Letter of Dr. Zamenhof written in Russian, by John Ellis.

. . . You ask me how it was that the idea of creating an international language occurred to me, and what was the history of the Esperanto language from the time of its birth till to-day? The entire public history of the language, that is to say, beginning from the day when I gave it to the world, is more or less known to you; further, it is not opportune now, for many reasons, to touch upon that period; I will consequently relate to you, in general lines, merely the story of the birth of my language.

It would be difficult for me to tell you all this in detail, for much of it I have myself forgotten. The idea, to the realisation of which I have dedicated my whole life, struck me (it is ridiculous to mention it) in my earliest childhood, and from that time never left me. This circumstance will partly explain why I have laboured upon the matter with so much determination, and why, in spite of all difficulties and hardships, I have not abandoned the idea, as many other working in the same field have done.

I was born in Bielstock, in the department of Grodno (Russia), where I spent the days of my boyhood. This fortuitous circumstance determined the direction of my future ambitions, for the inhabitants of Bielstock are of four different nationalities--Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews--each of which speaks a separate language, and is on bad terms with the others. There, more than anywhere else, an impressionable nature feels the heavy misfortune of diversity of tongues. One is convinced at every step that the diversity of language is the only, or at least the chief, cause which separates the human family and divides it into inimical sections.

I was brought up as an idealist. I was taught that all men are brothers; meanwhile in the street and at home everything, at every step, compelled me to feel that humanity does not exist, that there are only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, etc. This thought ever deeply troubled my boyish mind--although many may smile at the thought of a lad sorrowing for humanity. But at that time it seemed to me that the 'grown ups' possessed an almighty power, and I said to myself that when I was grown up I would utterly dissipate this evil.

Little by little I became convinced, of course, that these things were not so practicable as in my boyhood I had imagined; one by one I cast aside my various childish utopias, but the dream of one single tongue for all mankind I never could dispel. In a dim fashion, without any defined plan, in some way it allured me. I do not remember when, but, at all events, it was very early, I arrived at the consciousness that an international language was possible only if it were neutral and belonged to none of the now-existing nationalities.

When I passed from the Bielstock Gymnasium[1] to the Second Classical School of Warsaw, I was for some time seduced by the dead languages, and dreamed that some day I would travel throughout the world, and in flaming words persuade mankind to revive one of these languages for the common use. Subsequently, I do not now remember how, the conviction came to me that that was an impossibility, and I began, indistinctly, to dream of a new and artificial language. I often made attempts, inventing a profusion of declensions and conjugations, but the language of man, with, as it seemed to me, its endless mass of grammatical forms, its hundreds of thousands of words and ponderous dictionaries, appeared to be such a colossal, and yet tricky, machine that many a time I exclaimed--'Away with dreams! this labour is beyond human powers!' But, in spite of all, I always returned to my dream.

In childhood (before I could make comparisons or work out conclusions) I had learnt French and German, but when, being in the 5th class of the gymnasium, I began to study English, the simplicity of its grammar flashed upon my comprehension, thanks, chiefly, to the wearisome ploughing through the Greek and Latin grammars. I observed that the rich wealth of grammatical forms was not a necessity, but merely the blind result of accidental history. Under that influence I recommenced my research into language, and discarded the unnecessary forms, and I noticed that the grammar ever and ever melted under my hands, and soon I arrived at a tiny grammar, which, without causing any disadvantage to the language, occupied only a few pages. Then I began to devote myself to my dream more seriously. Still, the giant dictionaries left me no peace of mind.

One day, when I was in the 6th or 7th class at the gymnasium, my attention was, by chance, turned to the sign 'Ŝvejtskaja' (drink-shop), and close by to the sign 'Konditorskaja' (sweet-shop). Although I had seen it many times before, this 'skaja' aroused my interest, and showed me that by means of suffixes I might make one word into others, which need not be separately learned. This thought took complete possession of me, and all at once I felt the ground beneath my feet. A ray of light had fallen upon the terrific giant dictionaries, and they began to shrink rapidly before my eyes.

'The problem is solved,' I cried. I seized this idea of suffixes, and began to work hard upon it. I understood how important it was to make full use of this power--which, in natural languages, plays only a partial, blind, irregular and incomplete rôle--when consciously creating a new language. I began to compare words, to examine their constant and defined relationships, and every day I cast out from the dictionary a fresh vast series of words, substituting for this mass a single suffix, which signified a certain fixed relationship. I next remarked that a great number of words, hitherto regarded purely as 'roots' (such as 'mother,' 'narrow,' 'knife'), might easily be treated as 'formed words,' and disappear from the dictionary. The mechanism of language stood before me as though it were upon the palm of my hand, and, inspired by love and hope, I began to work systematically. After that I soon had the entire grammar and a small dictionary in manuscript.

This is an appropriate place for me to say a few words about the material for the dictionary. Much earlier, when I had examined and rejected every non-essential from the grammar, I had desired to exercise the principles of economy in respect of the word-material also. Thinking that it was a matter of indifference what form any particular word took, so long as it was agreed that it should express a given idea, I simply invented words, taking care only that they should be as short as possible, and did not contain an unnecessary number of letters. Instead of using "interparoli" (to converse), a word of eleven letters, why should we not express the idea just as well by some word of two letters, say, "pa"? So I simply wrote the shortest and most easily pronounced mathematical series of conjoined letters, to each factor of which series I gave a certain meaning (e.g., a, ab, ac, ad, ba, ca, da . . .; e, eb, ec . . .; be, ce . . .; aba, aca . . . etc.).

But I immediately rejected this notion, for my own personal experiments proved that these invented words were very difficult to learn, and even more so to remember. I came to the conclusion that the material for the dictionary must be Romance-Teutonic, altered only so far as regularity and other important requirements of language demanded. Standing upon this ground, I soon observed that the present languages possessed an immense supply of words already international, with which all the nations had a prior acquaintance, and which formed a veritable treasure house for the future international language--and, of course, I utilised this treasure.

In 1878 the language was more or less ready, although there was a good deal of difference between my lingwe uniwersala of that date and the present Esperanto. I told my fellow-students about it--I was then in the 8th Class of the gymnasium--and the greater part of them were attracted by the idea, and struck by the unusual easiness of the language, began to study it. On the 5th of December, 1878, we united to celebrate the birth of my language by a solemn festival. During the feast there were speeches in the new language, and we enthusiastically sang a hymn the commencing words of which were as follows:--

"Malamikete de las nacjes
Kadó, kadó, jam temp' está!
La tot' homoze in familje
Konunigare so debá."

which being interpreted into English, 'May the enmity of nations fall away, fall away, for the hour is come! All mankind must become as one family.'

On the table, in addition to the grammar and dictionary, lay some translations in the new language.

And thus the first stage of my language came to an end.

I was then still too young for my work to appear before the public, and I decided to wait five or six years longer, and during that time to carefully test my language and to work it out fully and practically. Half a year after the feast of December 5th, 1878, we finished our course at the gymnasium and separated. The future apostles of the new language made some attempts to discuss 'the new language,' but, meeting with the ridicule of their elders, forthwith renounced it, and I remained in a glorious minority of one. Foreseeing nothing but scoffing and persecution, I decided to hide my work from the eyes of all.

For five and a-half years whilst I was at the University I never spoke to anyone about it. That was a very trying time for me. The secrecy tormented me. Compelled to carefully conceal my thoughts and plans, I went scarcely anywhere, took no part in anything, and the most enjoyable time of life--the student-years--was, for me, the saddest. Sometimes I endeavoured to find distraction in society, but I felt myself a stranger, sighed and went away, and from time to time eased my heart by writing poems in the language I was elaborating. One of these poems, 'Mia penso,' I afterwards inserted in the first brochure which I published; but to those readers who were unacquainted with the circumstances under which they were written the verses would appear strange and incomprehensible.

For six years I worked at perfecting and testing my language, and it gave me plenty of work, although in 1878 I had thought that it was quite ready. I made many translations and wrote original works in it, and severe trials showed me that what I had considered to be quite finished in theory was nevertheless not ready for practical use.

There was much to lop, alter, correct, and radically to transform. Words and forms, principles and postulates, jostled with and opposed each other, whereas in theory, taken separately and not subjected to extended tests, they had appeared to me perfectly good. Such things, for instance, as the indeterminate preposition 'je,' the elastic verb 'meti,' the neutral termination 'aŭ,' etc, possibly would never have entered into my head if I had proceeded only upon theory. Some forms which had appeared to possess a wealth of advantage proved in practice to be nothing but useless ballast, and on this account I discarded several unnecessary suffixes.

In 1878 it seemed to me that it was sufficient if my language possessed a grammar and a dictionary; its heaviness and want of grace I attributed only to the fact that I did not know the language sufficiently well; but practice ever more and more convinced me that a language requires in addition an indescribable something, a uniting element, giving to it life and a defined and unmistakable spirit.

I therefore began to avoid making literal translations, and made an effort to think in the neutral language.

Later I noticed that the language with which I was occupied was ceasing to be a shadowy reflection of the language from which I happened to be translating, and was becoming imbued with its own life and invested with a spirit of its own, and acquiring a physiognomy properly defined, clearly expressed, and independent of any other influence. My speech flowed of itself, flexibly, gracefully, and totally untrammelled, just as my living native tongue.

Yet another circumstance compelled me to postpone for a long time the appearance of my language; for many years another problem of immense importance to a neutral language had remained unsolved. I knew that everyone would say 'Your language will be of no use to me until the world at large accepts it, so I shall make no use of it until everyone else does.' But since the world at large is composed only of its units, my neutral language could have no future until it was of use to each separate unit independently of whether the world at large accepted it or not.

This problem I considered for a long while. At last the so-called secret alphabets, which do not necessitate any prior knowledge of them, and enable any person not in the secret to understand all that is written if you but transmit the key, gave me an idea. I arranged my language after the fashion of such a key, inserting not only the entire dictionary but also the whole grammar in the form of its separate elements. This key, entirely self-contained and alphabetically arranged, enabled anyone of any nationality to understand without further ado a letter written in Esperanto.

I had left the University and begun my medical practice; I began to consider the publication of my labours. I had prepared the manuscript of my first brochure, 'an International Language, by Dr. Esperanto,' and sought out a publisher. And here for the first time I met that bitter practicality of life, the financial question, against which I had and still have to fight yet the more. For two years I looked in vain for a publisher. And when indeed I had found one he spent half a year in preparing my brochure for publication, and finally--refused.

At length, after strenuous efforts, I succeeded in publishing the brochure myself in July, 1887. Before I did so I was much perplexed--I felt that I stood before the Rubicon. Having once published my brochure, retreat would be impossible, and I knew what kind of fate attends a doctor who is dependent upon the public, if that public comes to regard him as a visionary, or a man who busies himself with side issues. I felt that it was staking my whole future peace of mind, my livelihood, and that of my family, but I could not abandon the idea which had entered into my body and my blood, and . . . I crossed the Rubicon."

Lazaro Ludoviko Zamenhof.

  1. School preparatory for the University.

Copyright.svgPD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1923, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 99 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.