Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof – Founder of Esperanto

Dr. Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof (pronounce the Z as in English) was born in 1859 in Bialystok, then a Russian city, today in Poland. His family came from the well-educated Jewry of eastern Europe, a fruitful breeding ground for many new ideas. The Jews were striving for emancipated citizenship, but narrow limits were placed on that by a strengthening nationalism and anti-Semitism. From the 1880’s on there were again and again terrible pogroms in Poland and Russia, which destroyed all hopes for equality of rights. In Bialystok too conflicts between the various ethnic groups living there were everyday experiences. The city was home to Poles, Russians, Germans, and Jews. The climate of hatred and intolerance had a lasting effect on Zamenhof. His whole life was devoted to overcoming those conflicts.

It is noteworthy that Zamenhof did not try to cure the world by concentrating on one problem, but recognised that problem in its whole complexity and developed a philosophy of tolerance which he called Hillelism. That name was derived from the scholar Rabbi Hillel (c. 60 BC till 10 AD), who anticipated Kant’s categorical imperative; his teaching has even been crystallised in a proverb: "What you don’t want others to do to you, do not do to others”. Zamenhof’s basic idea was that the various cultures and religions should preserve their identity, but that they could meet only in a framework of neutrality that represents their common denominator. That was a result of his experience that the basic values in all cultures and all religions were similar, but in meeting the foreigner one must suppress what is divisive: unity in the variety of phenomena. So too in the field of language: an international language has sense only if one is convinced that worldwide mutual understanding – despite all differences – is possible and desirable.

Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof

Zamenhof was busy working on the project of an international language as early as his days in secondary school. Fragments of that prototype of what would later be Esperanto are:

Malamikete de las nacjes
Kadó, kadó, jam temp' está !
La tot' homoze in familje
Konunigare so debá.

(May enmity between the peoples fall. The time is due! All of humanity must unite in a family).

Esperanto, as he presented it in 1887, is the product of many years of work. From a linguistic point of view it belongs to the few fully functioning models of a planned language.

Zamenhof was by profession an eye doctor, and he worked in a poor section of Warsaw. Pressing financial problems accompanied him throughout his whole life, especially since he often worked free of charge for the poorest of the poor. His engagement for his language was scarcely a means of income; only toward the end of his life did he receive from the French publishing house Hachette royalties for his works

Zamenhof died of a heart problem in 1917 at the age of fifty-eight.  

last update 2/3/2016