Leiden Language Blog

On the trail of Esperanto with Kate Bellamy

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On the trail of Esperanto with Kate Bellamy An example of a trilingual information board in Biaɫystok

The beauty of [working in] linguistics is that your object of study – language – is all around you. In fact, it’s pretty hard to avoid language; from the moment you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed, your eyes and ears are bombarded with language in some form. Just think of the input you receive from the radio, TV, internet, messages and calls from your family and friends, even your pet parrot can imitate your speech patterns! 

One language you don’t receive much input from is Esperanto. So imagine my surprise – and delight – when I discovered trilingual Polish-English-Esperanto information boards in front of noteworthy historical monuments in Biaɫystok, northeastern Poland. The reason for the seeming over-representation of this constructed language is simple: Biaɫystok is the birthplace of Ludwik Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto.

Zamenhof was born in 1859 to Polish-Lithuanian Jewish parents. Unsurprisingly he grew up multilingual, speaking Yiddish, Russian and Polish. His passion for language and communication was clearly kindled from a young age, for already at high school he was developing the rules for an international language. It was at the age of 28 already (younger than many people receive their PhD in The Netherlands!) that he published his first handbook, entitled ‘Lingvo Internacia’ (International Language), a handbook for Esperanto, which appeared in Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, German, English and Hebrew. The name of the language as we know it now emerged later; learners adopted Zamenhof’s pen-name, Doktor Esperanto (“one who hopes”) as the name for the language, and it has stuck ever since.

Witness the delight of a fellow linguist at the location of Zamenhof’s family home

Zamenhof’s (real) name and influence are inescapable in Biaɫystok. The Esperanto Route (termed Szlak Esperanto on all the boards – strangely only in Polish) guides you round the most important sites in the city related to Zamenhof, from his family home (long since destroyed) to his middle school, via the Ludwik Zamenhof Centre. He is commemorated on plaques, road names – even a train from Warsaw to Łodź is named after him (although this probably more likely to be due to his Jewish heritage - not everyone is quite as obsessed with languages as we are!). 

The Ludwik Zamenhof Centre, Biaɫystok (nerd alert: note the genitive case on his name)

Basically, people and places related to linguistics are all around us. Language is woven into our social fabric, it is an integral part of our history. So don’t forget, next time you go on holiday, keep your eyes and ears open!

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