In an effort to create an easy-to-learn language with the potential to unify humanity, Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof invented Esperanto in the late 19th century.

dice marked with letters of the alphabet

Esperanto, a constructed international language from 1887, today is about forming friendships, say two Stanford students who traveled abroad to learn more from speakers and scholars. (Image credit: Michael Schwarzenberger)

His utopian ideal has waned, as have the hopes of “Esperantists” that the world would rally around Zamenhof’s constructed language. Yet Esperanto is alive and well in the 21st century, as Stanford students Bri Mostoller and Angelica Previte discovered on a sojourn in Europe.

The Esperanto movement “still has echoes of that initial founding ideal of world unification,” said Previte, a junior majoring in computer science. “But today, it’s more about fostering communication and ensuring that not everyone needs to speak English.”

Mostoller, a master’s student in Russian, East European and Eurasian studies, and Previte spent two months traveling around Europe, where they pieced together the history of Esperanto and spoke the language with aficionados in Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. They visited formal institutions devoted to Esperanto – notably the Esperanto Museum in Vienna – participated in tours conducted in the language and distributed a survey to major Esperanto organizations.

“I’ve been curious about Esperanto since grade school,” Mostoller said. “It’s fascinating how the language started in a local place and then aspired to international ideals.”

Their research also included interviews with everyone from scholars to Esperanto-speaking families. They met with native Esperanto speakers, whose parents – each from different linguistic backgrounds – had chosen Esperanto as a neutral language. Others learned Esperanto out of political conviction or to reap the cognitive benefits of speaking a language with streamlined grammar and syntax. All of this they documented on a bilingual blog, “Nia Espero,” to share their findings with a broader audience.

“The movement is much bigger than you think and it’s thriving,” Mostoller said.

A community of polyglots

Though novices, Mostoller and Previte see Esperanto as an inclusive subculture threaded together by local chapters and online groups. Esperantists tend to be polyglots – people fluent in many languages – who learn it as a hobby, while other speakers identify strongly with what Mostoller classifies as “nerd culture.”

A week into the research trip, Previte came down with a bad cold. Hesitant, Mostoller spent an entire day with an Esperanto-speaking youth group in Poland. To her surprise, she spoke with remarkable fluency and was welcomed into a community that, in her words, “used Esperanto to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers.”

“This language changes the basis of communication and allows you to meet people from all cultures at the same level,” said Mostoller, who believes that “Esperanto today is about forming friendships.”

Although Esperantists have long abandoned their global aspirations, many remain activists. Europe Democracy Esperanto (EDE), for instance, is a single-issue party that advocates for the rights of minority languages in Europe against the predominance of English and French. Esperanto has made its way into non-European countries as well.

“It’s not just old men from Central Europe anymore,” Previte said. “Now, there are speakers of all ages across Africa, East Asia and America.”

From turn of the century to Esperanto 2.0

In the early 1900s, Esperanto was the tongue of idealistic European men, who saw the language as a vehicle for uniting humankind – “to speak the same language,” as the cliché goes. Zamenhof was born in 1859 in Białystok, a city in northeastern Poland, where he grew up amidst strife between Poles, Germans, Russians, Lithuanians and other nationalities further divided by creed and language.

According to Previte, Esperanto was for Zamenhof a “utopian movement to unite people on a linguistically neutral basis.” Constructed at the crossroads of Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, it is designed to bring people together with ease: the word for “thank you,” for example, is dankon, with clear German overtones (danke), while the word for “hello” is saluton, similar to the French salut.

Esperanto was “a puzzle piece designed to fit the human mind,” said Mostoller, gesturing toward a future shorn of nationalism and aspirations to empire.

Today, the Esperanto community continues to grow, due in large part to the visibility it has gained through digital sources. For instance, Duolingo, a popular language-learning mobile application, added Esperanto to its catalog of languages in 2015 and has since mushroomed to more than 600,000 active users. Mostoller and Previte are excited to see the Esperanto community blossom as aspiring speakers connect online.

The community, it seems, has already reached a critical mass. For its estimated 2 million speakers, “Esperanto is very much a living movement with a lot of forward momentum,” Mostoller said.

Esperanto scholars

Mostoller and Previte became fascinated with Esperanto when they took a class in it at Stanford’s Bechtel International Center.

Wanting to expand their own knowledge and driven by the desire to “open up the world of Esperanto for greater understanding and interest,” as Mostoller explained, they then drafted a research project with Gabriella Safran, professor of Slavic languages and literatures who served as their faculty advisor. Their proposal won a Beagle II Award, a travel grant for undergraduate student researchers conferred annually by the Department of Anthropology.

Mostoller and Previte hope to fill a gap in existing research on Esperanto through their work. Rather than study linguistic properties, they instead focused on the community of Esperanto speakers. As “integrated observers,” they sought to paint a vivid portrait of Esperanto today. Though they hope their research will garner interest from scholarly journals, Mostoller and Previte are more eager to engage the Esperanto community and the public at large.

“Many scholars stop with explaining the theoretical aspects of the language,” Previte explains. “We want to fill the gap between this scholarship and personal human interest.”