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Crocodiling in Esperanto On the Streets of Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam – A few weeks ago, on a sultry day in the western reaches of Hanoi, I crocodiled with an Australian. I also alligatored with a Nepalese and, with a charming young woman from Madagascar, I caymaned — in French.

Most of the time, however, I was trying hard to speak Esperanto, the most enduring and widely used of the international auxiliary languages, tongues invented to foster communication between people from different nations. Esperantists pride themselves on seeing beyond nationality, class, ethnicity and gender, but when it comes to language, they are given to fine distinctions. Krokodili — “to crocodile” — means to speak one’s native language at an Esperanto gathering. It’s one of several no-nos in Esperantujo, the imaginary country conjured into existence whenever Esperantists congregate, as they did in force in Hanoi at the 63rd annual International Youth Congress of Esperanto.

Alligatori means to speak one’s first language to someone speaking it as a second language; kaymani means to carry on a conversation in a language that is neither speaker’s mother tongue. In fact, the only time I heard “Ne krokodilu!” (“Don’t crocodile!”) was from the lips of someone unable to do so: a denasko, or Esperantist “from birth,” the offspring of two love-struck enthusiasts who met, coupled and raised children in their only common tongue. For the vast majority of Esperantists, though, the language is a motherless tongue — something they have chosen to adopt, often using “teach-yourself” guides or online tutorials.

After studying Esperanto on my own for six weeks, I came to this city to find out why hundreds of Vietnamese students have been attending night classes to learn a language invented more than a century ago by a Jew from Bialystok.

Born in 1859, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof was a 28-year-old polymathic physician-turned-oculist when he delivered his brainchild to the world. There’s poetic justice in the fact that a man who from youth dreamed of untrammeled communication was the son of a censor. His father, Markus Zamenhof, was a would-be man of letters who meted out his days monitoring Hebrew-language books and magazines for the Lithuanian authorities. When young Ludwig, departing for Moscow in 1879, left his father with an early outline of the language, Markus burned a manuscript he knew would inflame the regime he served. Eight years later, Zamenhof published his Lingvo Internacia, a Russian-language pamphlet including an introduction and a complete grammar scheme. Markus pulled some strings, and it slid by the censors. Soon Polish, French, German and English versions appeared, and in short order the language took on half of Zamenhof’s pseudonym, “Doktoro Esperanto” — one who hopes.

In Zamenhof’s own account, Oedipal drama takes second place to a formative ghetto childhood in Bialystok, where he grew up amid a babel of languages spoken by Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews. “No one can feel the misery of barriers among people as strongly as a ghetto Jew,” he later wrote. “No one can feel the need for a language free of a sense of nationality as strongly as the Jew who is obliged to pray to God in a language long dead, receives his upbringing and education in the language of a people that rejects him, and has fellow-sufferers throughout the world with whom he cannot communicate. My Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I have given my all for a single great idea, a single dream — the dream of the unity of humankind.”

There’s a certain irony to Zamenhof’s claim that his international movement is rooted in Jewish experience. After all, with Esperanto, Zamenhof parted ways with Jewish particularism, dividing his time between sowing the strange new words of his lexicon and preaching a utopian universalism. But Zamenhof’s Judaism, more brooding and ardent than it might appear, cast a long shadow over the movement. He was an early member of the Hibbat Zion movement, perhaps even in Moscow and certainly after he left it for Warsaw. As the Warsaw correspondent to the Russian Jewish paper Rassvyet (Dawn), under the pseudonym “Gamzefon” (an anagram of a Russified “Zamenhof”), he wrote anguished dispatches about the pogroms of December 1881, decried assimilation and advocated Jewish emigration, though he wavered on whether Palestine or the western United States would be the Jews’ best bet. Before 1887, he strongly considered internationalizing both Hebrew and Yiddish. But unlike the founder of the modern Hebrew revival, yeshiva-educated Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the gymnasium-educated Zamenhof deemed a Hebrew revival futile. Instead, he urged Yiddish speakers to adopt a Roman alphabet, and then he spent three years on a book of Yiddish grammar, unpublished for more than half a century after he died in 1917.

By 1887, Zamenhof had turned his attention away from both Jews and Jewish languages, forging a simple and utterly regular artificial language that was easy and inexpensive to learn. He endowed his lingvo internacia with flexibility — and idiosyncrasy — by combining prefixes and suffixes with 1,000 French, Teutonic and Slavic roots. Mono, for example, means money; monejo, a purse. While essentially unchanged from Zamenhof’s original outline (amplified in 1905), the language receives periodic shots of adrenaline from such artful coinages as horazonozo (literally “time-zone-sickness”) — Esperanto for “jetlag.”

At the back of Zamenhof’s original pamphlet were coupons that read “Promise: The undersigned agrees to learn the international language proposed by Dr. Esperanto if it can be shown that ten million people have publicly made the same promise.” Receiving only 1,000 promises, Zamenhof was undeterred. With a genius for networking (unrivaled until Esperantujo began to colonize the Internet), he immediately published the names and addresses of his first 1,000 disciples.

Unlike Volapük, an international language project that flared and quickly fizzled in the 1880s, Esperanto had legs. Through magazines, lectures, clubs and study circles, it strode into the lives of Swedes, Germans, Belgians, Danes; Zamenhof himself sent a copy to the American Philosophical Society. In 1905, the French offered to host a first, fateful international congress.

The flashpoint was Zamenhof’s insistence that the language was merely an instrument to a higher goal. In his reading, the voice of modernity belonged to Hillel, whose interpretations of Jewish law licensed the individual to criticize one’s own natal creed. Using Hillel’s epitome of Torah — “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor”— Zamenhof authorized his universalist ethics and refused to graft a Jewish teaching onto a “Judeo-Christian” morality. In an anonymous article published in Ruslanda Esperantisto, Zamenhof called this ethical ideal Hillelismo, “a doctrine that, without separating a person from his native country, or language, or religion, gives him the possibility of avoiding all untruths and antagonisms in the principles of his national religion and of communicating with people of all languages and religions on a basis that is neutrally human, on principles of common brotherhood, equality and justice.” Perhaps the most profound influence of Zamenhof’s Jewishness on Esperanto was his affirmation that international communication need not — indeed, must not — assimilate distinctive nations and religions to a single, world super-culture.

By the time he changed the name of his creed to Homaranismo (“humanitarianism”), Zamenhof had come to see its Judaic branding as a liability. He was right, at least where the French sponsors of the 1905 Boulogne Congress were concerned. But this pragmatic move did nothing to allay their concern. Embarrassed by Zamenhof’s idealism, and contemptuous of his prophetic speeches, the French conveners engineered a declaration of the movement’s “neutrality.” From such Gallic scruples arose the schismatic, and short-lived, “Ido” (Esperanto for “offspring”) movement. By all accounts, the Ido fiasco broke Zamenhof’s heart, but it did have one salutary effect: Those loyal to Esperanto dedicated themselves anew to larger and loftier goals than the success of a language cult. The French, however, were not the only ones to perceive a Jewish stain on the movement’s pure ideals. Writing “Mein Kampf” in the mid-1920s, Hitler called Esperanto a “Jewish conspiracy.” Shortly after the invasion of Poland, by special order, the Gestapo imprisoned all three of Zamenhof’s adult children. Adam Zamenhof was executed in prison in 1940; Sophia and Lydia Zamenhof died in Treblinka.

I never learned the Esperanto word for “multiculturalism”; I didn’t need to. It was simply the climate of Esperantujo. Our Vietnamese hosts provided an intensive tutorial in their culture and history, if not their politics, which are usually discussed with foreigners in a polite, glancing way. (When it comes to politics, there are Northern and Southern nuances; in Hanoi, people refer to local administrative councils as “the People’s Committee,” while in southern Ho Chi Minh City, one is more likely to hear them called “the government.”) We had Vietnamese-language classes taught, of course, in Esperanto; we trooped behind Nguyen Thu Quynh’s green-starred flag to such local sites as “Ha Long Golfo” and “Lago de Redonita Glavo,” whose names I only know in Esperanto.

Hour by hour, in international panels and food fairs, in the swapping of Polish and German tongue-twisters, in a contest for who could say “watermelon” in the most languages, I came to see the movement as a riposte to globalism — which for Esperantists is simply imperialism by another name. The axiom of the Esperanto movement — the interna ideo, as they call it — is that the only legitimate, ethical internationalism is one that places all nations, peoples and languages on an equal footing. Esperantists are quick to point out that “global English” is a fantasy, since only 10% of the world’s population speaks English. It’s not English that’s the problem — virtually all delegates had some competence in English — and it’s not even America, per se, though a Korean anti-war poster that read BUSH, REIRU A VIA STELO!!! (“Bush, go back to your star!!!”) drew delighted applause. The problem is a “global” language stuffed into mouths and strafed on T-shirts from Danang to Dakar by the empire of commerce.

Still, if the point of an international language is to speak across borders, why learn Esperanto? Even if the optimistic Universal Esperanto Association is right that nearly 2 million people worldwide speak Esperanto, that comes to 0.03% of the world’s population. Could Zamenhof have dreamed that someday Jews would outnumber Esperantists more than 6-to-1?

That the universalist Zamenhof’s three children perished as Jews is not an irony; Jews are what they were, what he knew they would always be when he devoted his life to the human cause. What is ironic, though, is that Zamenhof’s figurative children, without suspecting it, seem and act so much like Jews. Like us, Esperantists seek each other out; when they travel, many feel most comfortable in one another’s homes, availing themselves of the movement’s free hosting network. Some send their kids to Esperanto-speaking summer camp in France. Safely ensconced in Esperantujo, they conduct their solemn rites to rousing anthems; at long and leisurely meals, they tell jokes, kibbitz and tummel. They use the word “family” a lot. Like the Habonimniks of my youth, they favor the accordion; their Homoj!, yelled to convene a group, has just the cadence of Chevre! They reminisce about congresses past and play Esperanto geography. When it comes to namedropping, they don’t do too badly, either. If we Jews have Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and part of Harrison Ford, they claim Marshall Tito, Ho Chi Minh and the grandson of Khomeini. In fact, they seem so hungry for one another’s company, so hungry to talk in this shared tongue, that a grapevine of chatter twists and winds throughout every lecture, panel, meeting.

But this curious, if unabashed, tribalism is set to change. In Hanoi, without fanfare and without ceremony, I saw a torch passed from Europe, the movement’s birthplace, to Asia, the site of its youth and its hope. In fact, this year for the first time, both the Youth and Universal congresses — held in Yokohama, Japan — took place in Asia. (I’m told that the other big growth areas, also non-European, are South America and Africa, with planning under way for a congress in Benin.) The young Esperantists I met in Hanoi were not learning Esperanto to find a cadre of likeminded souls, nor to critique globalism. They were convinced that Esperanto would open them up to a wider world, and this is precisely what they were here to do — shmoozing, singing and boogeying with their counterparts from Iran, Turkey and Germany, from Togo, France and Australia. What drove them to Esperanto groups was the same impulse that had already sent them to intensive English classes, to the CNN Web site, and to train for jobs that had the word “international” and “foreign” in them.

I asked Lai Thi Hay Li, the president of our host group, if she saw any conflict between the staunch nationalism one encounters everywhere in Vietnam and the internationalism of Esperanto. She hesitated, as if summoning the effort to correct my most basic assumptions about Vietnam or Esperanto. But after a moment, she said simply, “No.” what it meant was, we are already living in two worlds: Asian and Western, communist and capitalist; one world scarred and maimed by war, and another nurturing and cherishing peace. It struck me that this is something Jews are good at, too, the kind of adaptation that to the eyes of outsiders often passes for contradiction. What Zamenhof did in Bialystok, Vietnamese teens are doing today in Bien Hoa.

Somewhere in heaven, where the lingua franca is surely Esperanto, Zamenhof must be kvelling over his youngest children, posed like the Boulogne and Dresden and Warsaw delegates before them for the official Congress portrait. Perhaps he’d shiver — as I did, despite the tropical heat — to hear the youth of Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Min City belting out “La Espero,” karaoke-style, to the timeless whirring of fans.

Esther Schor, author of “Emma Lazarus” (Schocken, 2006), is writing a book about Esperanto.

To listen to Esther speak a little Esperanto, use the player below:


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