If only American swimmer Ryan Lochte had spoken Esperanto.
Chances are pretty good that if you’re under 40, you’ve never heard of Esperanto, a language created in the 1800s that was envisioned as a bridge among the world’s many cultures. It’s now largely forgotten, even though it’s recognized by the United Nations.
Except in Brazil, where robust groups speak it in the capital of Brasilia and where it is often associated with Brazil’s Spiritism movement, which believes the dead communicate with the living. Esperanto is seen as a link.
In Rio’s bustling downtown business district there’s a giant green sign – the color of the Esperanto flag – with “Esperanto” written in bold letters and a phone number to call. On the other end of that line is a very enthusiastic Givanildo Ramos Costas.
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“We’re signing people up for September,” said Costa, 70, who answered the phone and heads Rio’s Cultural Cooperative of Esperantists, as speakers of Esperanto are known.
Costa not only is a longtime speaker of the language, he also hosts a weekly Tuesday show on Radio Rio de Janeiro AM 1400 that is conducted in Portuguese and Esperanto, and teaches listeners the language.
“I was always interested in a language that could be used by all peoples,” he said, recalling how he began studying it in the 1970s, at a time when Brazil, and much of South America, was governed by military dictators.
Hitler persecuted Esperanto speakers, claiming them to be part of a Jewish plot. Josef Stalin sent them to the gulags.
Esperanto dates to 1887, when a Polish Jewish ophthalmologist from Bialystok named L.L. Zamenhof published his work, Unua Libro, which gave birth to Esperanto. At the radio station, Costa shows off a dog-eared, decades-old copy of an Esperanto manuscript translated into Portuguese.
Global interest in Esperanto has ebbed and flowed since then. It played a part in the founding of modern Belgium. Hitler persecuted Esperanto speakers, claiming them to be part of a Jewish plot. Josef Stalin sent them to the gulags.
Today an estimated 2 million people worldwide speak some degree of Esperanto, and its main appeal is as an alternative to English and French, the international languages. Esperanto was recognized by the U.N. in 1954. In 2012, Google Translate added it to the dozens of other languages it can translate. China publishes official propaganda in Esperanto.
“Esperanto is apolitical. There is no religion or ethnicity. We call ourselves a language. . . . It’s not tied to one country or people,” Costa explained, his love of the language palpable. “It’s just for unification.”
The nonprofit EsperantoUSA.org is one of the bigger U.S. supporters, with affiliates all across the United States. California’s Esperanto Society of Sacramento meets monthly. In the tech-heavy North Carolina Research Triangle, the Esperanto Society of the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) meets on the third Sunday of the month.
“I read about it in a magazine many years ago and was just intrigued,” said Charles Mays, a Raleigh resident and group founder, who subscribed to a postal course three decades ago that he’d seen in a magazine for amateur radio enthusiasts. “I stuck with it through the years.”
Esperanto is apolitical. There is no religion or ethnicity. We call ourselves a language. . . . It’s not tied to one country or people. It’s just for unification.
Givanildo Ramos Costas, who heads Rio’s Cultural Cooperative of Esperantists
The internet has breathed new life into Esperanto, said Mays, pointing to the website www.duolingo.com. It boasts 506,000 learners so far in its Esperanto course for English speakers.
At Radio Rio de Janeiro, Esperanto’s potential as a bridge is on display. A McClatchy reporter and a Russian national who came to watch the Rio 2016 Olympics were in the studio with Costa. The red light flicked on, indicating the program was live on the air.
After some introductory music and banter with the engineer, Costa told listeners he was going to demonstrate the utility of Esperanto. He spoke to the reporter in Portuguese and then translated to Esperanto for Farida Biekmana Curova, a young Russian engineer who speaks neither English nor Portuguese.
Curova, 28, said she came to the Olympics with the hopes of putting her Esperanto to use.
“I came to Rio de Janeiro alone, and Esperanto was one of the motives for my trip, since I stayed in the house of Esperantists,” said Curova, who hails from a small central Russian city a few hours from Moscow.
McClatchy interviewed Curova through an Esperanto translator named Leandro Silvestre de Marcelo. He’s a 25-year-old Rio resident who took a shine to the language five years ago while following Spiritism, and now teaches Esperanto to his family.
“My father is learning a little bit at a time. He says I should study English,” de Marcelo offered. “I study English, but I speak Esperanto!”
Some basic greetings in Esperanto
Hello, I am American. Saluton, mi estas usonano.
It’s nice to meet you. Gi estas agrable renkonti vin.
See you later. Gis revido.
Thanks for reading. Dankon pro legado.