Esperanto in the Czech lands goes back more than one hundred years. Individual enthusiasts were already promoting the language at the end of the 19th century, and in the 1920s the first clubs and associations started to emerge. In 1921, a world Esperanto congress was held in Prague and in the 1930s Czechoslovak Radio started airing brodacasts in Esperanto. The Second World War, however, put an end to this development. After a brief renaissance after the war, the movement was once again suppressed and came back to life again in 1969.
Petr Chrdle is the vice chairman of the Czech Esperanto Association. He told me about the state of the movement today.
"There are more organisations in the Czech Republic but the one with the oldest history is the Czech Esperanto Association which was disbanded in the 1950s and was reestablished in 1969. There is also the Czech Esperanto Youth Association and a few informal clubs. In the past we were able to tell the number of learners from the attendance figures of official courses but now most young people are learning online - there are three courses for Czechs available on the internet. Around 1000 Esperantists are members of organisations, but I cannot estimate how many people speak the language."
Petr Chrdle is also co-author of a textbook called "Esperanto in Three Months" which has sold several thousand copies. He is also a publisher.
"I say I am a publisher against my will. I also organise congresses and when I needed to publish proceedings it was difficult to publish them in small numbers. So my wife and I decided to start a publishing house, we made our hobby our job. We published our first Esperanto book, and then I went on to publish other things. So far I have published over a hundred books and almost half of them are connected to Esperanto. Either they are written in that language or they are Czech translations from Esperanto, or they are textbooks and dictionaries."
I was surprised to find out that Esperanto has its own fiction and moreover, there are Czech authors who have contributed with their works to the global Esperanto library. Publisher and vice chairman of the Czech Esperanto Association, Petr Chrdle.
"We have original literature, of course. We have at least two world-renowned authors. Namely Eli Urbanova who is from Prague and has recently turned 85. She became famous for her poetry and her autobiographical novel 'Hetajro dancas' or 'Hetaera is Dancing' which was a big hit all over the world. Then there is Karel Pic who wrote many novels in Esperanto, the best-known being 'La Litomiŝla Tombejo' - 'The Litomysl Graveyard'. So we do have something to be proud of in this area."
Eleven years ago, the 81st International Congress was held in Prague which adopted the so-called Prague Manifesto - a set of seven widely-shared principles of the Esperanto movement. Imagining all the people of different nationalities speaking one universal language I could not resist to ask about pronunciation and its obstacles.
"It is easy for us Czechs because the only sound we don't have is ĝ - in fact we have it but we write it differently. For English speakers it is much more complex but still less so than for other nations. You can often tell by people's pronunciation where they come from, if they are native speakers of East Slavonic languages or English. But what is important is that different pronunciation does not stand in the way of comprehensibility. People may not have a standard pronunciation but they understand each other and that's the main thing - Esperanto is a means of communication and understanding."
The word Esperanto itself means "one who hopes". The goal of its initiator L.L. Zamenhof was to create an easy and flexible language as a universal second tongue to foster peace and international understanding. While today English seems to be firmly established as the world's second language, Petr Chrdle says Esperanto opens doors where English would be of little use.
"I would challenge the statement that English is the global lingua franca - it is a butchered version of English. But you are right that the world speaks English - but what is the world? For example in Japan only businessmen who studied abroad speak English. If you go to Japan or Korea, English is of little use to you. However, Esperantists have one great advantage. There may be few of them but they are well-organised. When I travel anywhere in the world, I contact a local Esperantist. They are all idealists as it is not something you do for money. So automatically, they are friends. English won't earn you an invitation into a Japanese home. But through Esperanto I have stayed overnight in so many Japanese households."
In the early 1970s, the Czech Esperanto Association had some 2,500 members. Their number has since shrunk to around 900 and the average age is rising. Petr Chrdle, however, is not afraid the community will die out.
"No, we are not afraid we will die out. Our youth is not that numerous, I must admit, because most young people prefer to pursue lucrative careers. That affects all clubs and all hobbies. But they are there and are very proficient linguistically. They meet each other, they start international families where Esperanto is the common language and they give birth to children who are growing up as native speakers of Esperanto. So we are in no way afraid of extinction."