Many people erroneously believe Esperanto is the invention of '60s peaceniks looking for a common mother tongue in the Age of Aquarius. In fact, Esperanto was created by a Polish doctor and linguist, L.L. Zamenhof, in the late 1800s. Zamenhof lived in the polyglot, but predominantly Jewish, city of Bialystok, which later became part of Poland, where language barriers among Lithuanians, Poles, Germans and Belarusians contributed to the strife and violence in the community. If there were a common language that everyone could speak, Zamenhof believed, misunderstandings could be avoided and common bonds could be formed.
If only it were that simple. Language is politically loaded, as the "English-only" movements in the U.S. (against Spanish speakers) and Canada (versus French) indicate. Language signals culture, place, tradition and identity. It immediately tells us who does and doesn't "belong."
This polarization is precisely what Esperanto tries to defuse. Two million people speak Esperanto—more than the number of people who speak Icelandic—and while its popularity has waned, the language nonetheless has survived several extermination attempts. Stalin executed and exiled Esperanto speakers because he deemed the idiom "internationalist." Likewise, Adolf Hitler sent Esperanto speakers to concentration camps—Zamenhof's entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust—calling it a "Jew language."
In preparation for the National Esperanto Conference, which comes to Raleigh in the summer of 2013, Triangle Esperanto speakers are sponsoring a screening of the documentary The Universal Language. (It's in English, but can be subtitled in Esperanto.) Sam Green (The Weather Underground, Utopia, Part 3: The World's Largest Shopping Mall) directed the 30-minute film, which chronicles Esperanto's rise as a tenuous yet enduring global movement. He shows us an array of speakers, many of them travelers who, through the worldwide hospitality service Pasaport Servo, connect with their fellow Esperantists.
We hear from families, especially those with diverse linguistic backgrounds, who raise their children to speak Esperanto as a first language (it can be learned in about a year) and supplement it with their native idioms.
Dictators such as Stalin or Hitler are no longer the greatest threat to Esperanto. It is, ironically, English. Worldwide, about 1.5 billion people speak English as a first or secondary language—fewer than the number of Chinese speakers, but with greater cultural implications. English, in the form of American pop culture, threatens to snuff out diversity. Meanwhile, Esperanto, as its speakers would point out, could unite us even while celebrating our differences.