Feliĉan datrevenon!

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To the majority of this blog’s readers, the heading to this post will be opaque. If history had worked out differently, however, the phrase could have been as well known as “Happy Birthday”; for this is what it means. Many people may find something familiar about it but be unable to place the language. It is, in fact, Esperanto – the most widely used of the various artificial international languages to be constructed – and today, December 15th 2009, is the 150th birthday of Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, the language’s inventor.

Zamenhof was born in Białystock, Poland, and grew up in a multilingual environment: Russian, or rather the variant of it now distinguished as Belarussian, was his first language, but he also used Polish and Yiddish within his family and learned German, English, Latin, Greek, French, Hebrew… the list goes on. (Even his name is subject to translation issues: he is alternatively known as Eliezer Levi Samenhof.) Growing up surrounded by different, sometimes quarrelling nationalities, Zamenhof set out to devise a neutral means of communication that would, he hoped, foster perfect understanding between communities and reduce conflicts accordingly. In 1887, whilst he was practising as an ophthalmologist, he published Lingvo internacia. Antaŭparolo kaj plena lernolibro (International Language. Foreword And Complete Textbook), using as his pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto,” or “Doctor Hopeful”. The language attracted considerable attention over the next decades, the first international congress of Esperantists being held in 1905, and in 1910 Zamenhof was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a medical man in his day job, Zamenhof himself obviously falls within the Wellcome Library’s interests and the library catalogue reveals biographical and historical studies of the man and his work. More surprising, perhaps, are the other ways in which Esperanto occurs in our holdings. For those in search of a more challenging, less anodyne Esperanto vocabulary than one gets from the header to this article, there is a leaflet on birth control in the language, within the papers of the Family Planning Association. The association with birth control continues in a publication to be found in the papers of the family planning pioneer Eileen Palmer: C V Drysdale’s Diagrams of International Vital Statistics with description in English and Esperanto, together with a Table of Correlation Coefficients between Birth and Death-Rates (1912). The association of the new language with early twentieth-century advanced thought is obvious. It was not merely the preserve of idealists, however: hard-headed businessmen were also looking at it. Within the Wellcome Foundation’s own archive is a file that indicates Wellcome’s drugs company was, in 1909, working out the legal frameworks that would govern the use of Wellcome trademarks in Esperanto.

Sadly, as we know, Esperanto did not end conflict between nations and it was in the middle of the greatest conflict the world had yet known that Zamenhof died, in 1917. His language lives on to this day: until recently, classes were hosted some fifty yards from the Wellcome Library. Within the Library, traces of his great project occur in many different areas of our holdings. Other, earlier schemes to break down barriers to communication, such as John Wilkins’ seventeenth century universal language, are also documented. Readers are invited to pick over these heroic failures and muse on how different the world might have been. Bonŝancon!1

1Good luck!

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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3 comments on Feliĉan datrevenon!
  • Anonymous


    A really enjoyable little article – beg to differ on the comment that Esperanto is a historic failure though. It's still widely used, if you look for it!

  • Tim Owen


    That was a fun article, and I particularly liked little asides such as mentioning the different versions of his name. (I've written Samenhoff, the German spelling, before after having seen someone else explain it, but then not found corroboration online.)

    I think it's very easy for people to say simply “Esperanto failed” or refer to it exclusively as a past-tense phenomenon, but you manage to avoid doing that in a snidey way. Considering that it started off with a single speaker and now has, at least I would think, over 100,000 speakers, it's not been too bad a project from a teenager, especially when so emminent an intellectual as Descartes didn't succeed in this area.

    It's still around, enough for people like me to have a late-night drink around a table comprising such disparate language groups as me (English), a few Catalonians, an Italian, a Russian, and a Scouser, regaling each other with dirty jokes or even serious talk, in a manner which wouldn't be possible for us were it not for our having a common language which we can all speak to a very high standard.

    Anyway, thanks for the article 🙂

  • Chris Hilton


    Thanks for being gentle with me! – looking back over the article, yes, I should have drawn a clearer distinction between projects like Wilkins' which are definitely dead and gone, and Esperanto which is still very much alive. It would be fairer, I agree, to say not that it failed but that it has not yet succeeded in becoming universal. It goes without saying, I hope, that the Library is still interested in relevant medical documents in the language – I'd be fascinated, for instance, to know if there is AIDS documentation from the 1980s that delivers the message in Esperanto. Anyway, many thanks for reading (Dankon!).

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