Winter 2000–2001

Esperanto: An Interview with Sabira Ståhlberg

Still alive and kicking

Nina Katchadourian and Sabira Ståhlberg

The Esperanto language was created in 1887 by the Polish linguist and doctor L.L. Zamenhof (1859–1917). Considered a failed language by many, it is still spoken by millions in people and is in fact growing in some regions of the world. Sabira Ståhlberg, editor-in-chief of the online Esperanto magazine Kontakto and the vice-president of the World Organization of Young Esperantists from 1991–1993, has spoken Esperanto the better part of her life. Nina Katchadourian met her during the the week-long Esperanto Cultural Festival that took place in Helsinki, Finland, during July 2000, to find out about the Esperanto community and the problems and misperceptions facing it.

Cabinet: How did you come to be involved with Esperanto?

Sabira Ståhlberg: When I was 13 or 14, my mother bought a book. We were very interested in languages and I had seen some films about Esperanto. My mother went out to buy a book about Saami (the Lappish people) and came back with a book about Esperanto instead!

Did the whole family learn Esperanto together?

Yes…We used to sit in the car on our way to the countryside and practice Esperanto.

Last night, I noticed that various accents sometimes came through in the way some people spoke Esperanto. Is there a particular correct pronunciation?

Zamenhof established the correct pronunciation using phonetic indications. But I think it depends how much you travel with Esperanto, because the more you travel, the more you learn an international pronunciation.

Are there sound recordings of him speaking?

Yes, there are, from 1905. And he speaks very clearly, very fluently, and very beautifully.

Did the Esperanto he spoke then sound like an older Esperanto compared to today?

Yes, not so much phonetically, but in the words he uses. We use other words now for certain things, and new words have come into use as well.

How do words get added to the language?

In the same way as in every other language. People start to use some form of a word, and then there are people who think of how to make new words in accordance to the rules of Esperanto, and figure out how we can establish a word that’s easy to use.

Is there an official body that approves new words?

There is an academy, and it’s based in the countries where the academicians live. Officially I think it’s based in Switzerland, but the President of this academy is in Brazil, the Vice President is in Sweden, and the Secretary is in Italy! They usually talk over the net.

I’m curious if anything like an Esperanto national anthem exists, for example, or a national poet?

There is a song by Zamenhof—it’s a poem he wrote which was set to music—which is the official anthem. There have also been jazz and blues versions of it! Mostly it’s played during the international meetings.

How many speakers are there worldwide?

It’s very difficult to say because there’s no state body to count them. Some people say it’s a few million, some people say 10 million. I’d guess a few million.

Is there a sense of where people are clustered?

At the moment, the countries where the numbers are growing are Brazil… South America in general is growing fast. Another part of the world where it’s growing is Vietnam and also Korea. They are teaching it at universities there. There was a Minister of Education in China in 1912 who wanted to introduce Esperanto as the official first language in schools in China. But there were political problems and it didn’t work out.

Esperanto has a European language base; is it easiest to learn it coming from any particular language?

Mostly people who speak some Italian, or Spanish or Portuguese get into it the fastest… but they also have the worst time sorting out which words belong to which language!

How did Zamenhof go about making Esperanto?

He started as a ten year old boy, making a language, but then this father burned the papers since he thought it was a waste of time. Zamenhof said afterwards that this was good, because he had to start from scratch. So for 10 years or so he worked on this, and found that it was easiest to skip all the genders and the indefinite articles. This makes it very easy. He spoke Polish, Russian, and Yiddish himself, but he put all the languages he had learned and a few others together, and made huge lists of languages and checked to see where words overlapped. He worked the language out statistically, in a sense.

Within his lifetime, how far had Esperanto managed to go?

Zamenhof died in 1917; he managed to participate in a few conferences, and he also saw the growth of a huge literature. He did a lot of writing and translation himself. It had developed pretty far…plus, the first couple had married in 1899 because of Esperanto!

Did Zamenhof speak it at home?

Yes, his children spoke Esperanto and his daughter Lydia wrote a lot in Esperanto. But then World War Two came and the family was Jewish. Lydia died in Treblinka. Lydia’s brother wife was saved and her son is now active in the movement.

Has there been a steady curve up in number of speakers, or have there been periods of greater and lesser interest?

Yes, there have been many highs and lows. There was a peak in the 1890s, and lots of people who learned went on to become intellectuals. Then the World War One came, and the Esperantists did a lot of work obtaining information about people in camps and in prisons, like a kind of Red Cross. The Red Cross got a lot of ideas from the Esperanto movement of this time. The low points came after the Second World War because Hitler used to send Esperantists to camps from the 30s on. They were really suppressed in the 40s. But there are stories about German soldiers not telling their bosses that they speak Esperanto and saving French soldiers. And of course there was a split in the Esperanto movement during the Cold War. The people in the East could not communicate, although in Eastern Europe Esperanto used to be state-supported. So I would say that the Esperanto movement is very dependent on what is going on in the world. And I would say that this is quite normal, because Esperantists are just ordinary people who live in one more world, or one more dimension.

Would simply being an Esperanto speaker be enough to be sent to a camp?

Yes. Esperantists used to have a lot of friends all over the place and having contact with foreign countries was not legal after 1935, I think. Alexander Solzhenitsyn says in Gulag Archipelago that the first to be sent to Siberia were the Esperantists and the Tartars because they had contacts and friends. There were lots of Esperantists in Russia. But the interesting thing is that they started teaching Esperanto in Siberia, so lots of people came back from the camps speaking it.

Are there places in the world now where there are political consequences for speaking it?

North Korea. I was in China in May, and they used to send Esperanto magazines from China in unmarked envelopes and they are being returned. They don’t know if these people have died or if they’re being controlled. Some Arab countries are sometimes difficult because they think it’s some kind of Jewish idea to overthrow the world, and so on, but the International Congress is in Israel this year, and right now they are meeting in Jordan with various academics and politicians.

What do you think are some of the most common misperceptions of the community or the movement? One thing, for example, that I may have been wrong about is that it was meant to become the world’s language.

Zamenhof said he wanted to make a language which would be easy to learn—which he did—and he wanted to have a tool for direct communication. He saw too much ethnic violence and he wanted people to have a common language to speak. This is very much in line with the nineteenth century, with everyone looking for a utopian solution. But he was very concrete about this. He spoke Latin and Greek and so on, but he didn’t think people should learn them—they were too difficult, and you can’t speak them.

I think one misconception that one encounters is, “Why didn’t it become the world language?” The thing is, “the world language” was a utopia from the previous century. Maybe that will happen some day, maybe there will be a common language for the world…

But was that really one of his goals?

Not a political one. He did want it to be the International language, or an International language, if not the first language people spoke then perhaps a second language. He did not specify ways that it should be implemented politically, however. First and foremost, he wanted people to speak it, to have it to use. He was, I think, very disappointed in politics. Poland was part of Russia and his father was a censor. What Zamenhof wanted to do was to give a tool to ordinary people to be able to communicate. There was a period in France at the beginning of the twentieth century where they said Esperanto would be everyone’s second language, and would be the world language. But this did not come from Zamenhof; it was from the French connection, and these ideas are still part of the outside perception of Esperanto. Some Esperantists also still believe this, but I think most are pretty realistic. Some people use it for their own personal pleasure, others are satisfied just writing letters once in a while, and then there are people who want to consume culture and literature who see it as a challenge. Now there is a growing consciousness about having the same quality in Esperanto culture and literature as in any other language. And this is good because it used to lag behind in the 50s and 60s.

So Zamenhof had an idea, that people speaking this common language would communicate better, and that this might engender peace, But there are plenty of people who do speak the same language who are fighting all the time. Is Esperanto different because people who choose to learn Esperanto do so in a spirit of goodwill to begin with?

I think people who learn Esperanto, already have some idea of mutual comprehension and internationalism and so on. Of course there are also people who learn Esperanto who have racist ideas or something, but there are fewer of them…Esperantists are usually very tolerant, and this shows in the fact for example that there are many blind people who speak Esperanto. They have their own movement. Some people’s perception of the world changes internally, especially those who learn it in their teens and travel to sing songs with people from, like, 60 different countries and your. The Esperantists are helping each other in Kosovo now, the Albanians and the Yugoslavians. The Koreans and the Japanese are doing similar things.

And other misconceptions?

It’s probably the question of “artificiality.” Someone made the point that every language is artificial—it just depends how many people create it. Bahasa Indonesia is also invented but by a group. Esperanto was created by one guy. This concept of an “artificial language” has now been changed into “planned languages.”

There have been other planned languages too, one based on a more Germanic root.

Yes, it’s called Volapük. But this language has died out—it was too difficult, and the founder began changing it himself. Zamenhof was very good about this; he said, “OK I’ve published the book, I’ve made the Fundamento. Now it’s your turn.” and he gave it to the speakers to do what they wanted. There is a small offspring of Esperanto called Ido and there are a few hundred people who speak it. Mostly, they are Esperantists! The base is more Romanic. It was a French group again. It sounds like really funny Esperanto. “Edo” means “offspring.”

If you have children will you speak Esperanto at home with them?

Yes, of course. In my family, we all speak Esperanto, so it’s the natural choice. But our children will probably be multi-lingual.­

UPDATE JANUARY 2007: Sabira Ståhlberg is no longer affiliated with the Esperanto movement or language.

Esperanto’s world organization is The Universal Esperanto Association. To hear a song in Esperanto by Jomart kaj Natasa, a duo originally from Uzbekistan and now living in Stockholm, check out the web extras in the issue 1 table of contents. For more music in Esperanto by other bands, see [link defunct—Eds.].


Sabira Ståhlberg has served as vice president of the World Organization of Young Esperantists from 1991–1993 and currently serves as editor-in-chief of the online Esperanto magazine Kontakto.

Nina Katchadourian is an artist based in New York.

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