The Greatness of Dr. Zamenhof

A hundred and forty years ago —exactly December, 15th 1859— it was born a person who survived himself. The bloody events which he witnessed as a child in Byalistok inspired him altruistic principles of dedication to the progress of the human kind. Cruel unhappy things caused at least partially by the diversity of languages in that place which lies between East and West made him search and find a solution to the language problem at a world level.

Lazar Lewis Zamenhof belongs to the suffering people who centuries of persecution have hardened and made noble in many aspects, and whose children have given culture and progress a number of eternal intellectual values. His homeland was Poland, even if at the register they had inscribed him as a citizen of the Russian Empire because previous wars had given that area to the czars. But Zamenhof, not disregarding his loyalty for his folk or land, went over his state and turned into a citizen of the world, fellow to the whole human kind above all.


In Lithuania, sung by the great Adam Mickewicz in Master Tadeusz, peoples from the Aryan world had lived for a lot of centuries, and they had their own language, close to Sanskrit. In the Middle ages the Teuton Knights invaded it, the Polish nobility annexed it to their state, and the Russian Tsar attacked it frequently. At the same time, the ever harassed Hebrew immigrated there, bringing with them his crafts and erudition, as well as their wisdom for trade. When, at the end of the XVIII century the Polish-Lithuanian State fell down, its nobility had already been Polish at heart for a long time, in the cities there were Russian garrisons for the whole XIX century, the Hebrew took care of business, whereas the varied crafts and jobs were in the hands of the big German colonies. This division of the people according to their occupation matched the division according to their religions. This added to the linguistic division: in the noble castles and Catholic churches the Polish language ruled; in the city shops Hebrew was heard; the professionals usually spoke in German; in the countryside North peasants usually still spoke Lithuanian, and in the South they used Russian; at the czarist Governor's palace and garrisons only Russian was heard. Only Russian was also taught at school.

Several nations were living one beside the other without understanding each other. The Czar's politics profited from that widely and aroused one party against the others. On one hand there were oppression and slaughters, on the other there were revolts against the oppressors, sometimes subsequently. When Lazar was six, the Second Revolution (1863) had just finished, drowned in blood and hardness.

Indeed all this exerted a deep influence in the creation of a personality of a sensitive boy who since an early age started dreaming of unity for mankind based on equality among nations and mutual respect.

He soon identified, within his mind, this ideal with that of a coming supranational language which made possible that people kept their national languages as their essential way of expressing of their respective nations and cultures, understanding one another in the universal framework, getting to know one another and living in peace.

Since that moment it was essential for Zamenhof the idea of a common international language deeply stuck to internationalism, understood as equality and fraternity of peoples.


His idea started coming into existence at secondary school. He fed it while he studied medicine in Moscow, Warsaw and Vienna, where he specialised in ophthalmology in 1886.

One of the many qualities of his personality was the persistence with which he searched the best and most effective solution. For long years Zamenhof experienced the bases of his linguistic project, quickly getting rid of everything which he saw it was no good in practice; continuously improving it. When we walked on the path many utopians then and now had strolled before, he thought first about reviving Latin. In that time he was still at school. Later he thought about an a priori language, with all the words made up. When he tested its faults, he did not doubt at abandoning those plans. Meanwhile, he learnt English and discovered so that a language could exist without complicated declensions and conjugations. An alert exam of Russian, German and Polish told him about the possibility of decreasing the number of lexical roots for a suitable system of affixes. German and French made clear to him how useful the definite article could be. The later study of other languages solved the important problem of vocabulary, since the linguist compared study proved him that a great number of words were already international:

I soon discovered —he wrote in the famous letter to Borovko— that the present languages contain a great quantity of words which are already international and known to all the peoples and which are a thesaurus for the future international language..., and so I used that thesaurus.

So, due to his warm sagacity and patience, worth and intelligence, Zamenhof managed to prepare the base of a whole language. There was still the problem to find an publisher, acquire the resources to publish his book, and the permit from the Czar's censor. After unsuccessful tries to get a publisher, he decided to publish it by himself. The financial resources were provided by his father-in-law, Clara Zilbernik's father, to whom he married in 1887. Thanks to the acquaintance of his own father with the censor, he was also given the permit. July 1887 saw the first book in the new language for Russians. Soon followed the editions in Polish, French and German. The work was called Internacia Lingvo (International Language) and it was published under the pseudonym of Doctor Esperanto, a name later given to the language itself.

Before publishing this grammar, Zamenhoff tested his project with translations and original works in Esperanto, One of them is the poem Ho, mia kor' (O, my heart!, by the German poet Heine), in which several verses express the fear and distress of a man who, after a long effort and many sleepless nights, is waiting for the decisive moment.


The first manuals contained all the grammar in just sixteen basic grammar rules, with no exceptions and a 917 vocabulary, from which we can create —because of the exclusive Esperanto system of affixes and suffixes— at least ten thousand independent words. The roots are most international and also very widely known. According to the structure of the language, it is agglutinating, that is to say, its linguistic elements can be freely joined without changing the roots. Internationality of vocabulary and agglutination give the language easy to learn not only for the nationals of Europe and the New World, but also for the rest of people.

Thus it is not surprising that many people learnt the language soon and then sent handwritten letters in Esperanto to Zamenhof's house,. The international language spread at once throughout Russia, Germany, France, Sweden and other countries. Meanwhile, the first books in Esperanto had appeared. Zamenhof was very active in this field. His translations of The Ticket Collector, by Nicholas Gogol; Jorge Dandin, by Molière, Ipfigenia in Tauride, by Schiller; The Bajraj Rabbi, by Heine; The School, by Alejhem; Marta, by Orzeszko; Hamlet, by William Shakespeare; Fables, by Hans Christian Andersen; and The New Testament complete. Some of these translations were published after his death. Besides this, Zamenhof wrote a great quantity of original works in Esperanto: essays, articles, speeches and some poems. If we consider also the complex mail he has left us, we can have a clear enough picture about the size of his work in this field.

However, he was not alone any more. There were also brilliant translations by his countrymen A. Grabowski and Kasimir Bein, better known as Kabe. In 1899 the first magazine in Esperanto appeared in Nüremberg, La Esperantisto (The Esperantist). The important thinker and writer Leo Tolstoy supported Esperanto in public. In France famous people declared their favour to the new language and many even learnt it. It was not only used in literature, but also in international mail. The first local esperantist societies were created, and also other ones for the diffusion of the language, which were up to the needs of an international effective communication, according to Zamenhof.

During all this period, the language was mainly used in written. There was still the important issue of its sound use as a mutual oral communication tool. The great moment came in 1905 in the French city Boulogne-sur-Mer, when the First Esperanto Congress joined seven hundred people from over twenty countries.

A moving silence was broken in the city's theatre by Zamenhof when he stood up to say his first speech to the international audience and said:

In our meeting there are no strong or weak nations, privileged or unfavoured ones, nobody is humiliated, nobody is harassed; we all support one another upon a neutral foundation, we all have the same rights, we all feel ourselves the members of the same nation, like the members of the same family, and for the first time in the history of human race, we —the members of different peoples- are one beside the other not as strangers, not like competitors, but like brothers who do not enforce their language, but who understand one another, trustfully, conceitedly, and we shake our hands with no hypocrisy like strangers, but sincerely, like people. Let's be fully aware of all the importance of this day, because today among the generous walls of Bologne-sur-Mer have met not French wtih British, nor Russians with Polish, but people with people.

A great ovation followed this speech. For the first time in the cultural history of mankind people from different nations spoke in a common, neutral language which everyone felt as his own one. Esperanto turned from project into living language, fully used.


Why was Zamenhof successful where many others, among them several giants of thought —like Leibnitz and Descartes— failed? The main causes for his success can be summarized like this:
  1. The first one is the internationality and universality of his target.Zamenhof created a language which satisfied the needs not only of a definite group of nations, nor only some domains of life, but a language which any people in the world can use for any way of communication. Zamenhof foresaw the wake of the peoples in Asia and Africa, which now are claming their place in the World Community of Nations. Esperanto is equally suited for they all, as well as for the nations in Europe and the other continents.

  2. In the second place, because of its structure and vocabulary Esperanto is the most international language which there is, and so has been accepted as such by many users, being indifferent from which nation they come. The motto For a language to be international is not enough to be called like that, printed on the cover of the First book, has the fundamental principle of a great importance.

  3. The third element is the internationality of the linguistic collective. Zamenhof understood perfectly that a language is a social phenomenon, that if an International Language wants to play the role of real communication and of the thought of the international mass, this mass can be the owner of the language and make it evolve according to their needs. That is why he gave up all his personal rights and emphatically declared since his first book that the International Language, the same as any national one, is a social property. And he added: I do not want to be the creator, but just the initiatorof the language. In a different occasion, in 1888, he wrote:

    Everything else must be created by human society from life, in the same way as we can see at living languages... From now on the author must not be competent —nor any other person— to do so: this competence must rely on wisdom, logics and laws created by most of writers and speakers... The International Language must live, grow and progress according to the same laws with which the rest of the languages have been designed.. I do not wish to publish, as an author, any vocabulary and create all the language according to my personal whim top down... When the language is strong enough and its literature is wide spread, then what is in my book must lose all meaning, and then only the majority's laws will be competent.

    And the international conglomerate who have accepted the language for their international communication considers it exactly so. Society is the strength which keeps a language up alive and in evolution.

  4. Another cause for the success is the human internationality of the background of the idea. Zamenhof inspired in the language the idea of equality among all nations, of international brotherhood of peoples. This background is the spiritual base of the language itself. However, Zamenhof did not exaggerate the language's role in this way, as some misinformed people tend to think and make believe. In Geneve, en 1906, he nuanced:

    We are not so naïve as some think of us; we do not believe that a neutral base will turn men into angels, but we do know that evil people will always be evil; but we believe that communication and knowledge based upon a natural tool will prevent at least the great quantity of brutality and crimes which happen not because of ill will, but simply because of lack of knowledge and oppression.

  5. And the last element is the cosmopolitanism of literature. Zamenhof himself translated from several languages. After him, other distinguished writers contributed with their original works or their translations, so that soon the literature in Esperanto turned on itself to be a cultural fact worth noting with a prominent international feature. Just an example of internationality of original poetry: in the book Esperantist Anthology (Esperanta antologio) they included original poems by 90 poets from 35 countries.

Zamenhof was not just the initiator of the language, but also its first writer and poet. He was the bard of the little linguistic community. It is totally understandable that, due to his poems, Zamenhof managed to inspire courage, patience and persistence. His pictures are often simple, short-lived, the rhythm appealing. A strong rhythm, nearly like a garrison marching, is perceived in La Vojo (the way):

Tra densa mallumo briletas la celo,Through a thick darkness the objective glows
Al kiu kuraĝe ni irasTo which we go bravely
Simile al stelo en nokta ĉieloThe same as stars in the night sky
Al ni la dirketon ĝi diras. They show us direction.
Kaj nin ne timigas la noktaj fantomoj, And the night ghosts do not make us afraid
Nek batoj de l' sorto, nek mokoj de l' homoj, Nor the strikes of furtune, nor men's mockery,
Ĉar klara kaj rekta kaj tre difinita Because clear and straight and very definite
Ĝi estas la voj' elektita. It is the elected Way.
Nur rekte, kuraĝe kaj ne flankiĝanteOnly even, brave and non diverting
Ni iru la vojon celitan!Let's go on the meant way!
Eĉ guto malgranda, konstante frapante,Even a little drop, striking constantly
Tralaboras la monton granitan Makes a hole through the granite mountain.
L' espero, l' obstino kaj la patiencoHope, stubbornness, and Patience.
Jen estas la signoj, per kies potencoThere are the signs by which power
Ni paŝo post paŝo, post longa laboro, We step by step, after a long work,
Atingos la celon en gloro. Will reach our aim in glory.
Ni semas kaj semas, neniam lacigas, We sow and sow, never getting tired
Pri l' tempoj estontaj pensante, Thinking of future.
Cent semoj perdiĝas, mil semoj perdiĝas, A hundred seeds get lost, a thousand get lost,
"Ho, ĉesu!", mokante la homoj admonas"Oh, stop!", moking people advice
"Obstine antaŭen! La nepoj vin benos,Stubborn forward! Your grandchildren will bless you
Se vi pacience eltenos". If you patiently go on.
Se longa sekeco aŭ ventoj subitajIf a long drought or sudden winds
Velkantajn foliojn deŝiras,Make dying leaves disappear
Ni dankas la venton, kaj, repurigitaj,We thank the wind, and, renewed,
Ni forton pli freŝan akiras.We acquire a fresher strength
Ne mortos jam nia bravega anaro,Our brave members will not die
Ĝin jam ne timigas la vento, nek staro,They are not afraid of the wind, or standing
Obstine ĝi paŝas provita, hardita,Stubbornly they pass proven, hardened,
Al cel' unu fojon signita!To the objective once signed!
Nu rekte, kuraĝe kaj ne flankiĝanteWell, straight, bravely and not sideways
Ni iru la vojon celitan!Let's take the intended way!
Eĉ guto malgranda, konstante frapante,Even a little drop, constantly knocking,
Tralaboras la monton granitan.Makes a hole in a granite mountain.
L' espero, l' obstino kaj la patiencoHope, stubbornness, and Patience.
Jen estas la signoj, per kies potencoThere are the signs by which power
Ni paŝo post paŝo, post longa laboro, We step by step, after a long work,
Atingos la celon en gloro. Will reach our aim in glory.


Zamenhof died on April, 14th 1917 in Warsaw. The Great War and its terrors certainly influenced negatively on his weak heart. He felt that war destroys friendship and brotherhood among peoples, that is, the ideal and meaning of his whole life.

But his work lives on. Esperanto has come into any social layer, in spite of the difficulties which were set in front of it. Its literature has been growing all the time. The language is used in congresses and conferences, in magazines and newspapers, in radio and, sometimes, in Television, even as a family language.

Since the fifties it is spread in countries where it used to be forbidden.

Where it came, Esperanto provided at least some good will which its creator gave to it. IN 1954 the General Conference of UNESCO in Montevideo, on request from Mexico, proclaimed a resolution on the 10th of December by which it acknowledged the results achieved by Esperanto in the field of intellectual international interchanges and regarding the approaching of peoples. Also it confirmed that these results are included in the objectives and ideals of UNESCO itself.


Today, nearly a hundred and fifty years after his birthday, his name is solemnly celebrated in every country. Presidents of republics, Premiers and ministers, great scientists, linguists, Nobel Prizes, artists, writers and poets, cultural agents from different lands or political systems, different religious beliefs, gather in a supporting homage to a person whose entire life, mental energies and physical strength were devoted to the greater happiness of humankind.

More than 250 cities have name streets and squares after him (among them La Laguna, former capital city of the Canary Islands). Other towns have erected memorials. But he best and greatest memorial he erected to himself by means of his genial work.

Escrito por Ivo Lapenna

Freely translated from Esperanto and commented by Jesuo de las Heras on the 7th of December of 1996 at 16:21.

Click to go back to Esperanto Spain.

NOTE 1.- In 1890 there was a Spanish version published by J. Rodríguez Huertas in Málaga, but it contained important mistakes (such as substituting j for y, for example), which Zamenhof himself reproached. Some years later came a new Spanish version by Inglada, an esperantist from Valencia. Unfortunately, I could not track it till after I had already translated it on my own in 1993, and to which you can access by clicking this line .

However, if you cannot read Spanish or Esperanto, I will soon add the version by a member of the American Philosophical Society. If you cannot wait, you can buy it in paper from the Universal Esperanto Association.

Go on.

NOTA 2.- This is the poem:
Ho mia kor',
ne batu maltrankvile,
el mia brusto nun ne saltu for!
Jam teni min ne povas mi facile
Ho, mia kor'! Ho, mia kor'!
Post longa laborado
Ĉu mi ne venkos en decida hor'
Sufiĉe! trankviliĝu de l'batado,
Ho, mia kor'!

Go on.

NOTA 3.- This figure is in no contradiction to the one which I state in a different part of this Web Page, , since here we talk about a minimum,, whereas there we hint a maximum number of words which can be attained by using this very same system of prefixes and suffixes (200,000 words, but if we make the proper calculations, we will see that they can be many more!)

Go on.

NOTA 4.- Like Esenco kaj estonteco de la lingvo Esperanto (Essence and future of the language Esperanto). Unfortunately this essay is not available in English so far, but you can try it in Spanish. :-)

Go on.

NOTA 5.- If you want to read the full speech, click here..

Go on.

NOTA 6.-If you want to read this speech, click here.

Go on.