On Dr Lazarus Ludovic Zamenhof

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Dr Lazarus Ludovic Zamenhof (1859 – 1917) studied at the medical faculty of Moscow University at the same time as Anton Chekhov, but completed his studies in Warsaw because of the political situation in Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. He then went to Vienna to study ophthalmology, which he subsequently practised.

But his real passion was language. He was born in Bialystok, and the entry about him in the Jewish Encyclopaedia of 1906 says:

Four different languages are spoken there, and to this fact he attributed the constant dissensions and misunderstandings which disturbed the city.

A brilliant linguist himself, he set about devising a universal language that would, in effect, reverse the consequences of the destruction of the Tower of Babel (he wrote a tragedy in five acts, titled The Tower of Babel, when he was 10 years old). In 1885, he published his first pamphlet on the universal language that was to become known as Esperanto under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto, which hardly needs translation.

The Esperanto idea caught on – to a degree. I have before me my only Esperanto book, the Esperanto Pocket Dictionary, seventeenth edition, 1939, formerly owned by Ernest Whittler of 548 Whitworth Road, Rochdale (the north of England was apparently always keener on Esperanto than the south). According to the preface, this little book had sold 48,000 copies between the first edition in 1915 and seventeenth in 1939 – far more than any book of mine.

I know it is very wrong of me to do so, but I cannot help smiling when I learn that antraks is the Esperanto for anthrax, ezofag for oesophagus and strut for ostrich. Altogether I have derived much plezur and amuzado from this little book, which cost me £1 in a charity shop.

Many books have been translated into Esperanto and the British Esperanto Association in Stoke-on-Trent has about 15,000 of them. You can buy Esperanto books online from the Association, including Winnie-la-Pu, which again needs no translation.

There is a terrible tragedy in the history of Esperanto. Dr Zamenhof hoped by his supposedly universal language to unite humanity. He devised a doctrine that he called homaranismo, according to which peoples would become friendly by the use of the same language. At the First International Esperanto Congress held at Boulogne-sur-mer in 1905, he concluded his speech by “a Prayer under a Green Flag,” which went:

A green flag held high
Means goodness and beauty.
The secret power of the light will bless us,
And we will achieve our aim.
We will break down the walls among the nations,
And the walls will creak and groan,
And will fall down forever and love and truth will reign on earth.

I think the goodness and sincerity, if not necessarily the realism, of Dr Zamenhof are obvious. Alas, he died of heart failure in 1917 in Warsaw, which was then under German occupation in the midst of the First World War. He was said to have been very anxious about the future of humanity, and with very good reason. All three of his children were killed in the Holocaust when Warsaw was once again occupied.

Esperantists celebrate December 15, Dr Zamenhof’s birthday, as Zamenhof Day.

3 thoughts on “On Dr Lazarus Ludovic Zamenhof

  1. Pingback: Doktoro Esperanto | A dose of Theodore Dalrymple

  2. Hannu Haukilahti

    Ah, my grandfather when traveling in train was forced to try Esperanto somewhere in southern Germany in the twenties. He realized that the co-passengers didn’t know German or English and he could not imagine they would have spoken his own mother tongue which was Finnish! They got well along until they reached the Danish border where the passports were needed and grandpa saw that the gentlemen were Swedens who, naturally, spoke the Swedish language which indeed is the second language spoken in Finland.
    So he had once in his lifetime used Esperanto in a real life situation. You bet he was happy to tell about the incident!

  3. Bill Chapman

    Esperanto has not yet gained the recognition it deserves, but, all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In nearly 130 years, it has managed to grow from a drawing-board project with just one speaker in one country to a complete and living natural language with probably a couple of million speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn’t taken the world by storm – yet – but it’s slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the Internet giving it a significant boost in recent years. Over 550,000 people have signed on for the new Duolingo Esperanto course in its first year.

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in about twenty countries over recent years.Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.


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