Like its vastly more successful digital cousins — C++, HTML, Python — Esperanto is an artificial language, designed to have perfectly regular grammar, with none of the messy exceptions of natural tongues. Out loud, all that regularity creates strange cadences, like someone speaking Italian slowly while chewing gum. William Auld, the Modernist Scottish poet who wrote his greatest work in Esperanto, was nominated for the Nobel Prize multiple times, but never won. But it is supremely easy to learn, like a puzzle piece formed to fit into the human brain.
Invented at the end of the 19th century, in many ways it presaged the early online society that the web would bring to life at the end of the 20th. It’s only ever been spoken by an assortment of fans and true believers spread across the globe, but to speak Esperanto is to become an automatic citizen in the most welcoming non-nation on Earth.
The League of Nations almost adopted Esperanto, but the idea was shot down by the French delegate. Zamenhof was Jewish, so Adolf Hitler denounced Esperanto as a language designed to unify the Jewish diaspora, and the Nazis were officially anti-Esperanto. Joseph Stalin was reportedly an Esperantist, but he turned on the language in the late ’30s, calling it a “language of spies,” and started purging people who spoke it.
Ayatolla Khomeini, too, waffled on Esperanto. Shortly after the Iranian Revolution, he urged his people to learn the language as an anti-imperialist counterpoint to English, and an official translation of the Qur’an followed. But adherents of the Baha’i faith had been fans of Esperanto for decades, and Khomeini was definitely not a fan of Baha’i, so his enthusiasm dimmed.
And Baha’i’s not the only smaller religion that’s embraced Esperanto as a liturgical language. In Brazil, which has one of the world’s largest populations of Esperantists, the language is intimately associated with the séance-centric Spiritist movement, and many followers of the neo-Shinto Japanese religion Oomoto have studied some Esperanto.
Mao Zedong liked Esperanto too. The Communist Party of China has published an Esperanto magazine, El Popola Ĉinio, since 1950, and state radio stations still regularly broadcast in the language.
And perhaps most famously, George Soros grew up speaking Esperanto, though his public involvement with the language hasn’t gone beyond getting his father’s Esperanto memoirs translated into English.