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esperanto and its rivals

17 june 2015

In Esperanto and Its Rivals, Roberto Garvía takes a sociological approach to the rise and fall of invented languages in late 19th-century Europe. I'd read some about this phenomenon from the linguistic and historical perspectives, and from the popular and journalistic angles (including Arika Okrent's smart and entertaining In the Land of Invented Languages). Garvía's study teaches me much more about the contexts for the international-language debate, and generalizes in interesting ways about why and how people adopt new inventions.

Of course, people ultimately didn't adopt Esperanto. Ludwig Zamenhof's artificial language fell far short of his goal of universal medium of international understanding. Yet it did succeed in some of the ways Zamenhof envisioned. It became a natural language, with living speakers, an impressive literary corpus, and naturally its own Wikipedia – and I don't mean "its own Wikipedia page," but its own entire Wikipedia, where you can read about things like polar bears and Lady Gaga. It became a way for Estonians to talk directly to Japanese without having to find the rare bilingual interpreter – or rather, for Estonians of sufficient linguistic idealism to talk to like-minded Japanese people, or any other Esperantists.

On the face of it, inventing a new language and expecting it to catch on globally is a weird, arrogant idea. At least J.R.R. Tolkien didn't dream of international congresses of Elvish speakers. But Johann Schleyer, inventor of Volapük, was a Messianic kind of guy. His language came to him all at once in a sort of vision in 1879 – as Garvía puts it, a solution in search of a problem. Schleyer was a Catholic priest in an era when the Church was embattled in the newly-united German empire. Catholics, of course, had their own established international language, Latin; but Latin was an ancient institution with all kinds of tendentious cultural baggage. Volapük was modernist and logical, and appealed to a range of intellectuals across a swath of mostly-Catholic Europe, especially Germany and Austria.

I should note, however, that Garvía shows his readers very little of the three major languages he discusses (Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido). One can see samples even of Volapük and Ido readily on the Internet, of course, so there's little need; and the intricacies of their construction are not Garvía's purview. But the intrinsic design of Volapük was one factor in its ultimate failure. Schleyer modeled his synthetic language on the heavily inflected morphology and grammar of Latin, and aimed for rigorously logical expression. His followers tended to be perfectionists who wanted to rationalize the language still further before it was ready for general use, and Schleyer was an authoritarian who feuded constantly with his most prominent supporters over intralinguistic matters.

By contrast, Ludwig Zamenhof designed Esperanto much more simply, grabbing vocabulary somewhat at random from a bunch of European languages and dumping most of the inflections that bedeviled learners of Volapük (or Latin or Greek or Russian, for that matter). He rolled out his language at juncture of maximal debate among Volapükists – Garvía's analysis of the sociological factors at work in adopting new technologies and standards is keen here. And then, Zamenhof stepped back and let people speak, read, and write in Esperanto; he wasn't fussy about its grammar or usage, and indeed expected the language to evolve like any other.

Zamenhof was a fervid utopian, though. As a Jewish intellectual in the waning decades of the Russian Empire, he was alert to the disasters brought on by ethnic and other prejudices. He saw Esperanto as a vehicle for promoting international (and intranational) peace and understanding. Esperanto had a base of secular-minded Jews from Eastern Europe, but quickly became an extraordinarily big tent for adherents of any number of late-19th-century reform movements. Pacifists, of course, but also mystics, Theosophists, vegetarians, socialists, and notably feminists are among the groups that Garvía catalogues. Volapükists were overwhelmingly male; Schleyer's language seemed to have a geeky, authoritarian appeal. Zamenhof encouraged poetry and democracy, and welcomed many women to the ranks and leadership of his language.

Garvía even notes the existence of Nazi Esperantists (127), which seems bizarre; but Nazism, of course, had international aspirations, and one of them was to appropriate Esperanto for its purposes and cleanse it of its Jewish element. Party leaders soon saw more harm than good in the language, and cleansed National Socialism of its Esperantists. But this weird development shows the plasticity of Zamenhof's invention.

Ido, by contrast, was a splinter movement from Esperanto, adopted by an international congress dissatisfied with Esperanto's messiness. Like Volapük, Ido was supposed to be a self-cleansing, ideally logical language, steered by a central Academy. In turn, it spawned opposition from supporters of a language called "Latino sine flexione," similarly steered by academy. These rivals to Esperanto suffered from a tendency to release new versions of their language annually. This hasn't even worked very well for Microsoft Windows, let alone a natural language with the goal of creating a living community of speakers.

Garvía stresses extrinsic factors (including sheer timing) and internal institutional structures in determining the popular fate of technologies and systems. One analogy he uses is to the VHS/Betamax struggle. The two systems might have been equally good at playing videos; I honestly can't remember. But timing and the arrival at a "tipping point" where it seems useless to adopt the minority solution make for an eventual monoculture. And so it was with the artificial languages. Still, I do think that there were certain intrinsic features of Esperanto that made it a survivor. It's simple and yet strange enough to seem truly international; it seems neither machine-made nor just another imitation Romance language. Yet Garvía's point about Zamenhof's laid-back leadership style is crucial, and an entirely new insight.

Garvía ends by examining Esperanto's ultimate consignment to a niche interest, where it remains. It was a near thing, perhaps. In the immediate post-WWI years, the need for an international medium of peaceful conversation was acute. The League of Nations almost adopted Esperanto as an official language. Of course, the League of Nations' endorsement might not have been the breath of life for Esperanto, given the League's ultimate inefficacy. But nationalism won out. The individual linguistic cultures of Europe, large and small, asserted their local primacy, and distrusted a homogenizing international force like Esperanto.

In Prague last month, I saw an exhibit of Czech symbolist art from the period that Garvía studies in Esperanto and Its Rivals. Central to the exhibit was a collection of illustrated books from the rise of the Czech nationalist movement, during the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Just as other languages across Europe (Irish, Polish, Catalan, Occitan) asserted themselves against the great imperial court languages like English, Russian, Spanish, and French, Czech writers resisted the German languages and created a medium for social identity and ultimately for nationhood, as it remains today. In such a climate, to expect linguistic minorities to adopt a single international medium was too much.

And of course the imperial languages resisted out of sheer size and inertia. Ultimately, as Garvía points out, English not only survived as a national language in many disparate countries, but achieved the status of lingua franca that Zamenhof had hoped for Esperanto, though on pragmatic, not idealist grounds. Meanwhile, one artificially-developed language did become the international Jewish tongue: modern Hebrew, which is now a nationalist emblem in its own right. Zamenhof could not have predicted anything like the vagaries of linguistic history in the century ahead.

Garvía, Roberto. Esperanto and Its Rivals: The struggle for an international language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.