Unifying language returns to Lithuanian home

  • 2002-05-23
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis, VILNIUS
Renato Corsetti, president of the Universal Esperanto Association, was in Lithuania this week to prepare the way for the 90th World Congress of Esperantists, to be held in Vilnius in July 2005.

Although there are only 3,000 people in Lithuania who speak Esperanto and some 400 studying it, the organizers promise this will be a huge international event.

Esperanto has about 3 million speakers worldwide. This puts it on a par with "minority" languages like Lithuanian or Hebrew. But because of the universality of the language, designed in the 19th century to act as a common global tongue that united elements from languages already widely spoken, few deny its importance.

Over 3,000 Esperantists from about 70 countries will attend the event in Vilnius, which will take place on July 23-30, 2005.

"Esperanto is coming home. Esperanto-speakers will gather in Lithuania, the country where Esperanto was invented," Corsetti said.

Esperanto was first published in 1887 by Lazarus Ludwig Zamenhof (1859-1917) under the pseudonym "Dr. Esperanto," meaning "one who hopes." This eventually stuck as the name of the language itself.

About 75 percent of the vocabulary comes from Latin and the Romance languages (especially French), about 20 percent comes from the Germanic languages (German and English), and the rest comes mainly from Slavic languages (Russian and Polish) and Greek.

Zamenhof was born in Bialystok, now in Poland, in 1859. Lithuania and much of Poland were then under the occupation of czarist Russia. Bialystok had been a town in the Lithuanian Grand Duchy for several centuries, and in the 1880s locals were still describing themselves as "Lithuanians."

Later, Zamenhof worked as a doctor in Veisiejai, a small town in southwestern Lithuania.

"His father was against his son's fascination with creating a new language, and even set fire to his son's notes. Later, his wife's father, a rich Kaunas businessman called Aleksander Zilbernik, gave him 10,000 golden rubles and encouraged him to create his new language," said Irena Alijosiute, secretary of the Lithuanian Union of Esperantists.

The central headquarters of the Lithuanian Esperantists are located in a house that belonged to Aleksander Zilbernik in Kaunas. Zamenhof used to stay there during his visits to the city. It is symbolically situated on Zamenhof Street.

A monument to Zamenhof was unveiled in Veisiejai in 1998. It has an engraved quote from a speech he gave in London in 1907 that began, "You are always in front of my eyes, my dear Lithuania, my suffering fatherland, which I'll never be able to forget."

The Universal Esperanto Association was founded in 1908 as an organization of individual Esperantists. It has members in 117 countries, and is financially supported by UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural arm.

From a political and ideological point of view the association is neutral. This allows for harmonious collaboration between such diverse countries as Brazil, China, Japan, Russia, the United States, Poland, Madagascar, Cuba and Iran.

"Lithuania will see how many people around the globe and from different countries and cultures may understand each other by talking and working together," said Lee Chong-Yeong, vice-president of the association's international relations. "Lithuania will be a member of the European Union in 2005. The Esperantists' congress will be a great opportunity for it to show itself to the rest of the world."

The number of people who can speak and write Esperanto stands at 3 million worldwide.

"Lithuanian leaders and Foreign Ministry officials have demonstrated a friendly approach toward the coming congress," said Social Democrat MP Stasys Kruzinauskas, who is fluent in Esperanto and head of the Vilnius section of the Lithuanian Union of Esperantists.

Esperanto is phonetic: every word is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. There are no "silent" letters or exceptions. But it is Esperanto's grammatical rules that make it exceptionally easy to learn. There is no grammatical gender and the word order is relatively free.

The Esperanto movement was strong in Lithuania prior to 1940. But after the Soviet occupation of the country, Esperanto speakers were accused of cosmopolitanism and deported to Siberia.

Hitler also hated Esperanto because Zamenhof was a Jew.

After Stalin's death in the late 1950s, Esperanto became legal again. However, the Lithuanian Union of Esperantists was re-established only in 1988. Lithuanian Esperanto activists have issued a magazine in Esperanto since 1991.

Corsetti asked Lithuanian officials to promote Esperanto as an international auxiliary language in the United Nations, UNESCO and the European Union. The Prague manifesto of 1996 - one of the UEA's main documents - describes the current world linguistic situation as undemocratic and discriminatory toward "small" languages.

"The child who learns English learns about the culture, geography and political systems of the English-speaking world, primarily the United States and the United Kingdom. We maintain that education in any language is bound to a certain view of the world. We are a movement of global education," the manifesto reads.