Writing by Benjamin Duncan. Illustration by Polly Burnay.
The summer before last, I was in Vienna on a one-day excursion from my hostel in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a completely impromptu decision, and as a result I gave the city a complete disservice, failing to appreciate the depth and richness of its culture in favour of aimless meandering. This brief nomadism led me to a most unimposing street (by Viennese standards, anyway), centred with a museum whose contents would intrigue me greatly from then on: the Esperanto Museum.
The story is as follows: In 1887, a Polish linguist by the name of L. L. Zamenhof released Unua Libro, an encyclopaedia comprising grammatical rules for a universal auxiliary language – that is, one which attempts to circumvent language barriers by implementing itself as a globally-spoken norm. Though the implications of such a norm on peace-harbouring and global communications are countless and certainly tied in with Zamenhof’s personal philosophy, it is by no means a new concept. Indeed, some claim it can be traced back to the 12th century, with the ‘Lingua Ignota’, or ‘unknown language’ which was created by a German nun by what she attributed to a ‘divine inspiration’ . A variety of attempts followed throughout the centuries, including one attempt to make a language based on singing musical phrases  – now that would be cool – but it was only Zamenhof’s which gained any form of traction. That language was Esperanto. 
Zamenhof, or ‘Doktoro Esperanto’ as he went on to dub himself, saw the ethnic divides and outward antagonism in his Russian-occupied town of Białystok as a ‘great torment’ and an ‘evil’ he sought to destroy - it follows, then, that his philosophy behind Esperanto was to manufacture a ‘means of international communication’, allowing for the transfer of knowledge and culture while retaining those values. Unua Libro bookended a decade of trials in translating literature into Esperanto, and was the fulcrum point at which the language went from the ramblings of a romantic dreamer to a viable ideology: The World Congress of Esperanto began in 1905, a convention which has seen 60 countries and 2000-6000 participants represented each year (except for the World Wars and COVID-19 pandemic, naturally.); 1908 saw an increasing sentiment to establish Amikejo (‘friendship-place’), the first Esperanto-speaking state ; and 1920 saw the proposition to the League of Nations by Iran to adopt the language for use in international relations. Even in more contemporary times, a number of universities, non-profit organisations, military training regimens and national broadcasting services translate to or work in the language – so why have so few of us heard of it, let alone speak it?
The matter ties into the key theme of identity. The cultural assimilation and peerless knowledge that Zamenhof advocated for contradicted with despot regimes throughout the 20th century, and what they sought to create – an extreme nationalism that valued hegemony and dominion over other cultures, not a mutual exchange of them. Esperantists and Zamenhof’s family were targeted during the Holocaust of Nazi Germany after outlawing the practicing of Esperanto in 1935, not only due to the Jewish heritage of Zamenhof but also his internationalist agenda. The language was treated similarly in the Great Purges of 1936-38 in the Soviet Union, wherein Stalin (an Esperantist himself, in a complete rebuttal of the Union’s previous support for the language) exiled speakers as conspirators against the Union .
Two totalitarian regimes, wholly disparate in views and methods of popular oppression - but wholly unified in the threat of auxiliary language. It raises questions on whether these two autocrats were genuinely concerned about threats of espionage against their regimes (which is viable – Esperanto was taught in concentration camps under the guise of sounding like Italian, a language which was permitted due to Mussolini’s fascist regime.), or rather about the implications of it. Academic literature has often spoken of ‘linguistic imperialism’, the dominance of a language over others as a wider consequence of a state exerting its power; this most certainly occurred in the colonial era, where English, Spanish, French etc. was an export, and the deficit of these languages elsewhere fed into the Orientalist narrative that justified imperialism. Looking at the linguistic diaspora of the globalised world, this process is hardly well-concealed; these ‘colonial languages’ are present on every continent, there are but 6 ‘United Nations Languages’, and native languages such as Gaelic, Navajo and Hawaiian could feasibly be rendered extinct in the near future. Perhaps Esperanto presented a new vehicle of linguistic imperialism that would’ve posed a threat to the same imperialism Stalin and Hitler wrought upon their respective regimes.
The UN languages are the predominant lingua francas of modern geopolitical discourse, languages which carry a far greater bulk of literature and media to incentivise their learning than Esperanto. So why is it such a tragedy that Esperanto nowadays is confined solely to those who think as idealistically as Zamenhof himself? A lot of commentators would negate this by hailing Esperanto as the only potential lingua franca without an imperialist sentiment behind it, one which could truly serve as a middle ground between two groups with respective values and firm ideologies, and one which could never be tainted by the exotifying filter of translation. For example, in June 2019, amidst mounting tensions between the US and Iran over the shooting down of a US drone, multiple media outlets claimed the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, referred to the White House as ‘afflicted by mental retardation’. In reality, the Persian phrase more closely aligned with ‘developmental difficulty’ . While appearing idiosyncratic, merely two ways of delivering the same insult, it cannot be denied that one of these wordings carries significantly more weight than the other and portrays US-Iran diplomacy as hindered by one particular stakeholder – if Rouhani’s discourse in diplomacy uses such vulgarities, it must be easier to make the mental transition that he is the perpetrator of unrest, and Trump is a peace-monger desperately defending his nation’s military and global peace. Conversely, if such negotiations were conducted in a mutually neutral tongue, there would be no mechanism through which to create such a smear.
Personally, I am in two minds about it. I agree with the argument above, that a neutral language would enable a more democratic mode of international discourse, and it would not be necessary to plunge a totally divergent culture’s tongue through a pre-determined filter. Whether Esperanto is the vehicle for that is, for me, contentious. The language in itself is ‘easy to learn’ from a similarly Eurocentric perspective, built upon the fundamental grammatical patterns of French, English, Spanish and German and Slavic languages, and despite Zamenhof’s predilections for cultural assimilation, it would be hard to fully prevent the same core-periphery precedent that the current UN languages conjure, particularly English and French. A totally seamless language would have to be of equal difficulty for all, a task I can’t help looking upon rather unconfidently.
Nonetheless, Esperanto is most certainly a global project that was not given enough time to prove itself as a global mediator, succumbing to a time where global mediation was seen as an erosion of the fundamental pillars of Stalinism and Hitlerism. Unless it sees a major resurgence (or, at least, the concept does and Esperanto is surpassed), it is unlikely that we will ever experience the reach of its influence on cultural interaction, nor will we truly know whether it was simply another veiled attempt at Eurocentric linguistic imperialism. Regardless, I hope that this article has exposed how much we take the current linguistic make-up of the world for granted, and how easy it is to regard the dominance of European languages as customary from the perspective of a country who exported them. I hope it has been conveyed that the translation of highly different languages into these serves as a way, intentionally or not, to skew and ‘Other’ these cultures, ingraining a narrative that should have become undone with decolonisation.
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