Esperanto in the world
Esther Schor wrote a book of her experiences in Esperantujo (“Esperanto-land”), Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language. Unfortunately, according to a generally favorable review by David Mikics in Tablet, she supports this idea: “If we could all speak the same language we would truly understand one another, and then wars and bloodshed would cease.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, that statement shows a remarkable degree of ignorance—even willful ignorance—or outright stupidity. Certainly Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, never held such a foolish notion. He did see clearly that speaking different languages blocks communication and thus exacerbates tensions and stymies peaceful resolution of conflicts, but he certainly had no illusions that having a common language would mean the cessation of bloodshed. (Really, would any sensible person ever say such a thing?)
Zamenhof was well aware of many counter-examples: the U.S. Civil War (same language spoken by both sides), the War of the Roses (same language spoken by both sides), the French Revolution (same language spoken by both sides), and many other conflicts in which both sides spoke the same language.
What Zamenhof actually believed was that having a common language is a necessary but not sufficient condition for peaceful resolution of conflicts. That’s much more sensible, it seems to me.
Mikics’s review also seems to presume that Esperanto is “a secret language.” It is pretty much the opposite of a secret language: Esperantists are constantly trying to tell others about it and encourage them to learn it—as a propaedeutic language, if nothing else.
Mikvics’s review begins:
It is 1922, and the League of Nations has just pledged to take up the question of a world language. It’s been a long, rewarding day at the Esperanto Congress. Speaker after speaker, in fluent Esperanto, has described the rosy prospects of the new universal tongue. Finally, with dinner time approaching, one of the lecturers turns to another and remarks, “Nu, vus makht a Yid?”—roughly, “How’s it going?” this time not in Esperanto but Yiddish.
This old joke plays on the fact that so many of Esperanto’s early champions were, like its inventor, Ludwik Leyzer Zamenhof, Eastern European Jews. They already had a common language for Jewish purposes, but Yiddish could never become truly universal. A huge majority of Jews knew Yiddish, and they had never made war on one another. So the early Esperantists had a messianic fantasy: If we could all speak the same language we would truly understand one another, and then wars and bloodshed would cease.
It was not for nothing that Zamenhof dubbed himself Doktoro Esperanto, Dr. Hopeful. His fervor has long since passed: Today’s Esperantists resemble ham-radio enthusiasts or birdwatchers, hobbyists rather than utopian dreamers. Few people realize that hundreds of thousands of people still gossip, joke and hold forth in Zamenhof’s ingenious tongue, and if they did, they likely wouldn’t care. It’s probably better to spend your time learning Lithuanian or Tamil, which, unlike Esperanto, stand at the center of a living culture, with native speakers and a literary tradition. But Esperanto is a unique case, because it flourishes, to the extent it does, without the support of a day-to-day home culture. Instead of a mamaloshen, it is a super ego sprache, the voice of high-minded, old-school internationalism. Despite its lack of a people and a territory, Esperanto has acquired many of the spices that a living language needs: slang, popular songs, and even a few poets and novelists. It has the edge over Klingon, at least for now.
Esther Schor’s entertaining new book, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, combines the life story of Zamenhof with a history of the Esperanto movement and sandwiches both between a lively account of Schor’s own experience as a globe-trotting Esperanto enthusiast. As you might expect, the Esperanto movement has its share of attractive oddballs, and Schor hits her stride when she sketches the friends she has met at Esperanto meetings in Vietnam, Cuba, Poland and elsewhere. She confesses that she occasionally “crocodiles” (the Esperantist term for speaking one’s native language at an Esperanto gathering). But she has worked hard at her Esperanto, attending the crash course held each summer in California along with a slew of international congresses. Esperanto speakers boast that, once you learn Zamenhof’s lingo, you’ll enjoy free room and board throughout the world, courtesy of your fellow Esperantists: no more Airbnb! The real draw, though, seems to be sharing the company of characters who, like the language they speak, are nothing if not original.
Zamenhof, Esperanto’s creator, was an eye doctor from Bialystok. The town was about 70 percent Jewish in Zamenhof’s day, with the rest mostly Poles, Russians, and Germans. As Schor puts it, Zamenhof, who was born in 1859, “grew up convinced that linguistic difference lay at the root of interethnic animosity.” If you could solve Babel, he thought, swords would be beaten into plowshares, and the nations rescued from their strife.
An amateur through and through, Zamenhof was a great improviser in the cause of linguistic simplicity. He made up words by taking a root, usually a Latinate one, and adding -o for a noun, -a for an adjective and -e for an adverb. Esperanto roots themselves remain invariable, which is not the case in Indo-European languages: Esperanto is what linguists call an agglutinative language (think Japanese, Hungarian or Navajo). Most important, Zamenhof had a stroke of genius after publishing his Unua Libro and Dua Libro, Esperanto’s “first and second books,” in 1887-88. He turned over the further development of Esperanto to the community of speakers: Let them argue out new vocabulary and grammar. The fact that speakers could make up the language together as they went along was a tremendous draw. Esperanto, in other words, was a Wiki.
Zamenhof’s original idea was, in its way, a traditional one. Esperanto was never supposed to be a native tongue, but rather an adaptable second language that would form a bridge between foreign speakers. The Western world had long had a lingua franca, whether Greek, Latin or, in Zamenhof’s day, French. But these languages had spread through imperial conquest. Esperanto, by contrast, was supposed to transcend nationalism. The language didn’t catch on the way Zamenhof planned: He hoped for 10 million speakers within a few years, but there has never been anything close to that number. Zamenhof’s belief in the fina venko, the final victory of Esperanto as a worldwide lingua franca, was dead long before the 1980s, when the Esperanto movement declared it impossible. Global English killed the Esperantist utopia without even breaking a sweat. [Not just global English: the Great War interrupted Esperanto’s initial momentum, which was gathering strength when war broke out and put an end to international cooperation on many endeavors, Esperanto among them. Then, after the war, as Esperanto began to grow again, World War II again put any growth on hold. – LG]
Esperanto, like English, is . . .
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