In 1887, a young Russian eye doctor named Ludwig Zamenhof published the first grammar of his Universal Language under the pseudonym Docktoro Esperanto (Doctor Hopeful). A kind of simplified Romance language, with a basic Indo-European grammatical structure but Slavic-language sounds, the Universal Language — or Esperanto, as it came to be known — is technically unrelated to any other language, even though it is comprised of a great number of them. It always follows its stated rules, which makes it quite easy to learn. (It is never irregular.) Oddly enough, Zamenhof originally conceived of Esperanto as a Jewish language — a replacement for both Yiddish and Hebrew. Zamenhof had grown up in 1870s Bialystock, a city divided along linguistic lines (German, Russian, Polish, Yiddish), where the Jews lived uneasily among their neighbors; his father was the czar’s censor for Jewish literature. The pogroms of the 1880s only intensified Zamenhof’s dream of a unified transnational culture for the Jews of Eastern Europe. The Universal Language would be the means by which the Jews would fully assimilate with their neighbors. Zamenhof even developed a humanistic Judaic philosophy to go along with it, which he called Hillelism.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zamenhof’s ideas were not warmly received by their intended audience. In his book The Jewish Century, Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine suggests that it was precisely their polyglot tendencies that allowed the Jews in Europe to move flexibly through, adapt to, and do business with a variety of host cultures and languages across the continent. What’s more, Yiddish already served as an internal code language, a bulwark against the vicissitudes of politics. The notion of sacrificing Yiddish for Esperanto must have seemed like unilateral disarmament.
And yet Esperanto quickly became an international phenomenon for an unintended audience. Groups of language enthusiasts would come together in each country where Zamenhof’s grammar was translated. The first World Congress of Esperanto was held in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. By that time, Zamenhof’s quasi-messianic vision of a Hebraic utopia was considered a potential embarrassment to the growing movement of Esperantists — an opinion he came grudgingly to share, eschewing any public leadership role as the language spread throughout the secular intellectual establishments of France, Switzerland, and Germany, among others. (Brazil, Hungary, and Iran had vociferous Esperanto associations as well; it’s often noted that the language has done especially well in countries with large but linguistically isolated populations.) World Esperanto Congresses became an annual fixture for speakers, writers, activists, and linguists, under the leadership of the Universal Esperanto Association, formed in Geneva in 1908.
The earliest known Esperantist in Iran was one M. Abesgus, a Russian banker posted in Baku, and then Tehran, around 1901. He seems to have sparked a wider circle of interest. There was an article on Esperanto in the magazine Bahar in 1910, followed by language courses in Tabriz. The first Esperanto textbook in Farsi was published in 1915 in Tehran, and there were a number of Iranian representatives at the World Esperanto Congress at The Hague in 1920.
Later that year in Geneva, the Persian prince Arfeh-ed-Douleh led one of the delegations that petitioned the inaugural general assembly of the League of Nations to make Esperanto its official language of international diplomacy. The petition had eleven co-signatories, and failed to pass by a single vote. (That vote belonged to France, who presumably felt the proverbial lingua franca was a sufficiently universal language.) That an invented auxiliary language not even thirty-five years old should have come so far onto the world stage is remarkable. Its failure at that crucial moment, however, left the movement in disarray. It would never fully recover.
Ludwig Zamenhof had three children, but it was his daughter Lidia who became the most ardent advocate for her father’s creation. She learned Esperanto at the age of nine, later espousing Homaranismo, the universalist humanist philosophy that Hillelism had evolved into in the early 1900s. In 1925, at a congress in Geneva, Lidia encountered Martha Root, a fluent speaker of the Universal Language and a passionate proponent of yet another universalism: the Baha’i faith, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam founded in Persia in the late 1850s and led by Mírzá Husayn Alí Núrí, who took the title Bahá’u’lláh and whose followers became known as Baha’is. The Bahá’u’lláh preached the unity of humankind and the identity of all the world’s religions — apostasy enough for him to spend the remainder of his life in Ottoman exile, in what is now Turkey, Iraq, and Israel.
The Bahá’u’lláh looked forward to a one-world government, and taught that all human beings should speak a universal language. For many Baha’is, Esperanto was clearly the solution. The Geneva congress featured a number of Baha’i presentations, and Lidia Zamenhof went on to become a devotee, teaching both the faith and Esperanto in lecture tours, workshops, and writings. In 1937 she was invited by the Baha’i international leader, Shoghi Effendi, to go on a teaching tour of the United States. The following year her application for a visa renewal was denied on a technicality, and at the end of 1938 she was forced to sail back to Poland.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Esperanto’s fortunes took a dark turn, in keeping with the times. The stock market crash and the ensuing depression decimated the finances of the Universal Esperanto Association, while World War II claimed the lives of many an Esperantist. Its associative baggage — Judaism, universalism, foreigners — continued to dog the movement throughout the twentieth century. In 1925 Hitler denounced the “Jewish language” of Esperanto in the pages of Mein Kampf. Soviet Esperantists were initially encouraged by the government, though they were silenced after the rise of Stalin: several dozen (estimates vary) people were executed one night in the spring of 1937 for their membership in the “espionage organization” Esperanto, and thousands more were sent to the gulag. The language was banned in the USSR until 1956, and an official organization of Soviet Esperantists would not be formed again until 1979.
During the last decades of the Cold War, Eastern Bloc Esperantists used their language to communicate with the West, either to acquire goods on the black market or simply to relieve their official isolation; their clubs, far from the watchful eye of Moscow, were more openly tolerated. That remains one of Esperanto’s weirder ironies: people were murdered for speaking it while it was still mostly an enthusiasts’ abstraction; later on, when it actually was subversive, it was defended as a harmless linguistic hobby.
Popping up in the background of so many political and cultural events of the twentieth century, Esperanto is the linguistic version of Woody Allen’s Zelig: an accidental chameleon. Over time, diluted with use and ideological competition, its initial utopian universalism became a kind of anyone-and-everyone-ism. Eventually, the idea of the language came to overshadow the language itself: Esperanto became a generic symbol for foreignness, otherness. In his 1940 masterpiece The Great Dictator, Chaplin used Esperanto for the background signage in the scenes taking place in the ghetto, because it would look recognizably — but unidentifiably — European and foreign without screaming “Jewish” to the film board. In the wake of the war, the US Army published a new war-games manual, number FM 301, in which the language of the mock enemy is Esperanto (which, of course, sounded like a weird combination of all the army’s most recent enemies).
Tragically, while Chaplin was fictionalizing the Warsaw Ghetto on film in 1940, Lidia Zamenhoff was living in the actual Warsaw Ghetto, feverishly translating Baha’i texts into Esperanto and helping out with the underground medicine trade. She was killed at Treblinka, some two hours northeast of Warsaw, in the latter half of 1942.
In 1975, M. H. Saheb-Zamani, a Tehrani professor of clinical psychiatry, returned to Iran after a stint at the World Health Organization in Geneva. An article he wrote for the Tehran University magazine ignited interest in Esperanto, which had been largely dormant for decades. Over the next three years an explosion of interest swept Iranian high schools and universities; teachers were encouraged by the Ministry of Education to learn the language in order to cope with the student demand, and by 1980 an all-Esperanto page was published in the national weekly magazine Javanan. In 1991, long after the movement had calmed down (as suddenly as it began), Saheb-Zamani proffered an explanation in the pages of Esperanto magazine:
Iranians have a wider worldview for several reasons, among them Sufi. They have no wish to stay chauvinistically in their own isolated country. At first, for five hundred years after the adoption of Islam in Iran, they made first-rate contributions to medieval world literature in a learned second language, Arabic… . Today they have been occupied for the past hundred years with French, German, Russian, and English, but the result is not worth mentioning. In high schools we learn foreign languages, mainly English, for around six years, with results a little bit better than zero. So the Iranians instinctively recognize that through their own language they cannot take part in the arena of world literature, they have an enthusiasm for learning other languages, but the majority of them have no hope of doing so. Esperanto gives them the key, solves the so-called inferiority complex.
What is especially strange about this moment is that the high wave of Esperanto popularity was almost entirely coincident with a surge in Baha’i persecution. Though they had long been a marginalized minority in Iran, the specter of Baha’i — an emblem of Westernization, Zionism, and foreign influence in the Shah’s government — was a key tool of the incendiary politics of the revolutionary movement. The Baha’i communities in Iran were the victims of fear-inducing propaganda, mob violence, street riots, and the desecration and seizure of their assets; many were executed after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Interestingly, the historical link between Baha’i and Esperanto seems not to have a specific relevance in the Iranian context, since the new government hardly needed further excuses to persecute either one of them. The Esperanto enthusiasts were chiefly students and not necessarily Baha’i, and in 1980, when the universities was shut down for three years, Esperanto was one of the casualties.
Esperanto is essentially a solution without a problem, a sort of inverted Babel: In an age when modes of communication have proliferated wildly, most people don’t recognize language as grounds for discrimination. While Esperanto has thrived on the internet through a host of forums, chat rooms, and teaching sites, its original mission has been obviated by that very success. English has bulldozed its way into languages that once had wide geographic anchorage (French, German, Russian) largely because speaking it has offered the best chance at economic growth. To learn Esperanto, an invented language with at best a million and a half speakers, is fundamentally a gesture of protest.
And yet, after decades of struggling to convince people to take it seriously, Esperanto is reaching a kind of acceptability among academic linguists. Some of this might just be literary critical mass: sufficient reams (or terabytes?) of original literature, translated literature, and commentary have made it an attractive subject for study. So, too, has the postmodern conception of language: old ideas about cultural grounding that ordered the hierarchies of language study have given way to more nuanced understandings about what constitutes a valid language. (How could they not, in the age of C++, Perl, and HTML?)
While there is still an Esperantist presence in Iran today, maintaining its slender branch of the UEA, it is a shadow of its former self. The Baha’i, for their part, have moved on, both in and out of Iran: The universal language the Bahá’u’lláh dreamed of, they have decided, is actually American English.