When Professor Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof created the language called Esperanto in late-19th-century Poland, he envisioned a world unified under a lingua franca — where concrete walls crumbled, iron fists melted, nations held hands with other nations, and everyone called out cheery "salutons" (hellos) from across indistinct borders.
Driving home the point that it's free of any national affiliation, Esperanto even flies its own flag — a solid field of bright green with a boxed star in the upper left corner. Needless to say, though, Doktoro Zamenhof's dreams of an international second language didn't quite pan out. But dig around any modern-day college campus and you'll likely find a handful of enthusiastic Esperantists who pride themselves on being members of an esoteric global family.
Steven D. Brewer, director of the Biology Computer Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts, has been a fervent fan of the language and its creed for more than 20 years. He now runs an Esperanto club in Amherst and thinks the tongue's obscurity is part of its appeal. "If Esperanto ever becomes as widely dispersed as people originally hoped it would be, it would lose a kind of cachet," he says.
Today, Esperanto is the most widely spoken "planned international auxiliary language" — of which there are several, including Ido and Interlingua — claiming up to two million speakers worldwide. That includes approximately 1000 so-called "native" speakers, usually the children of parents with different native languages who have spoken this common adopted tongue since birth.
Cautioning that "it's really hard to make distinctions like this accurately," Brewer estimates that there are 10 "really fluent" Esperanto speakers in Massachusetts and 100 who can use it conversationally, ranking the state second behind California.
But despite being so few and far between, the international Esperanto community is tight. Esperantists flock to annual conventions hosted by international Esperanto associations. This summer's World Esperanto Convention (uea.org/kongresoj/uk_2009.html) in the language's birthplace of Bialystok, Poland is expected to draw more than 5000 people from around the world.
And, like members of a secret society or persecuted fringe religion, Esperantist drop in on each other, guided to the homes of welcoming fellow-speakers by the Pasporta Servo, an analog version of couchsurfing.com, the networking site for backpackers in search of free lodging, which can be purchased at tejo.org/eo/ps.
"When you go to visit an Esperantist, it's like you're visiting a distant relative," explains Brewer. "They'll invite you in their house. They'll take to you to see the sites. They'll pick you up at the airport."
And when they're not gadding about the globe, chatting with foreign brethren in their shared tongue, Esperantists pore over stacks of newsletters, books, and translations churned out by a handful of independent publishers. Titles include Winne-La-Pu, Taglibro de Anne Frank, and Kiel Kuiri Sen Viando (How To Cook Without Meat). They also surf the 10,000-plus articles listed on Vikipedio, Esperanto's Wikipedia page, and nod to tunes by a parade of Esperanto music groups, such as Persone, Esperanto Desperado, and Kajto. Every week or so they gather in small, innocuous packs to practice their spoken Esperanto alongside cramming coeds in student-union halls.
A recent Tuesday night meeting of the MIT Esperanto Club (held in a third-floor study lounge) attracted four bookish-looking guys, chatting confidently in a language that sounds not unlike some weird mashed-up version of the Romances, with a dash of something possibly Slavic.
Apart from holding year-round weekly campus meetings — open to all — this January, the club is offering a free non-credit course in beginner and intermediate Esperanto. The opportunities are rare this side of the Atlantic, so interested readers should visit web.mit.edu/iap.
In the US, where Esperanto has never had the following it has in Europe, Asia, or South America, the Web serves as a valuable resource for studying, practicing, and providing a context for the language.
"The US is not as represented," says Jacob Schwartz, a computer scientist from Waltham who runs the MIT club and has a massive collection of Esperanto books, newsletters, CDs, and souvenir T-shirts from the many conventions he's attended over the years. "There are a large number of people who speak Esperanto but who don't belong to organizations," he says, estimating that America has far more than the 700 or so speakers who belong to the US Esperanto Association.
"There's a big online community and many speakers practice their Esperanto via Skype [the online phone service]," he says.
Schwartz directs beginners to lernu.net, which he describes as "an all-in-one site that offers courses, where you get feedback from an actual tutor, dictionaries, sound files to listen to, additional reading, music mp3s, chat room, tests you can take to measure your progress, and more."
There's also the Brazilian-based Esperanto language program "Kurso de Esperanto," available here