In 2014, Stephen Colbert went undercover to Comic-Con dressed as a character from “Hawkcat, the most popular human-animal franchise ever published in Esperanto.” The joke played off the ridiculousness of superhero movies, but it also played off the obscurity of Esperanto, a language invented by utopian ophthalmologist Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, who died in Warsaw, Poland, nearly 100 years ago. Zamenhof intended his language, which he originally named the Lingwe Universalia, to be a “bridge” between nations and ethnicities, fusing populations as divided as the Jews, Russians, Germans, and Poles in the town of his youth. Clearly, his experiment was a massive failure on its own terms. It did not prevent a century of wars (many fought, notably, between people who spoke the same language). Instead, Esperanto’s speakers were persecuted throughout the 20th century, including Zamenhof’s own children, all three of whom died in the Holocaust. Today, the community’s estimated 1 million to 2 million members are mocked—with some reason!—as goofy cranks, up there with stamp-collectors in the pantheon of nerdy joiners.
And yet, as Princeton literature professor Esther Schor shows in her combined history of the language and memoir of her seven-year encounter with it, Bridge of Words, the success of Esperanto might be measured less in what it did for humanity at large and more in what it did, and continues to do, for its speakers, including Schor herself. Esperanto may not have changed the world. But in both its ideals and its practice, it holds out the possibility of transforming the lives of the people who use it.
Schor’s book alternates evenly between a history of the language and her own personal history, as she attends Esperanto conferences and moves deeper into an understanding of the language and its speakers. And although she is undeniably a powerful and scrupulously thoughtful writer both of intellectual and private history, the balance ends up feeling like an unfortunate choice.
The sections in the past are for the most part much more interesting than those in the present. Esperanto came out of the idealistic late 19th century, from a thinker who had previously been attached to another utopian concept of this time—Zionism. Zamenhof, born in 1859, was originally a nationalist who argued that Jews should create a settlement in America. But, frustrated with nascent state-building efforts in Palestine, he began envisioning a larger project that would protect Jews from violence by joining all people together under the beacon of a new neutral language. Publishing his first description of Esperanto in 1887, Zamenhof argued that Jews should adopt a set of humanistic cultural beliefs he dubbed “Hillelism” after the first-century B.C. Rabbi Hillel (he later changed the name to Homaranismo).* These ideals would replace the seemingly outmoded religious traditions that, in his mind, kept the Jews subservient to Russian mainstream culture. Zamenhof hoped an invented tongue—one “unlimitedly rich, flexible, full of every ‘bagatelle’ which gives life to language, beautiful-sounding, and extraordinarily easy”—would connect Jews to the rest of humanity.
It’s perhaps not surprising, given this ambitious and complicated mission, that Zamenhof ran into trouble nearly right off the bat. French intellectuals loved Esperanto—but anti-Semitism was ferocious in the post-Dreyfus era, and when Zamenhof staged a conference in Boulogne, France, in 1906, his local fans concealed his Jewishness from the press. Zamenhof tussled with many of the popularizers of Esperanto, who downplayed the nonlinguistic aspects of his program or made language reforms that he deemed unnecessary. And yet, uncharacteristically for founders of a new nation, linguistic or otherwise, Zamenhof was intent on allowing speakers of Esperanto to make their own choices about what the language should mean, as well as how it should be used: “I am leaving each person to clarify for himself the essence of the idea [of Esperanto], as he wishes,” he said in a 1907 speech.
Schor argues for the “heroism” of this decision, and this seems right. Zamenhof wasn’t just performing a George Washington–style abdication of power; he was also allowing the language to evolve much like a living language. Esperantists have remarkable control over how they speak the tongue, and—at least according to Schor’s book—spend a lot of time arguing over the many different ways of saying things like “cluster bomb” or “make-up artist.” Speakers of Esperanto have also had tremendous freedom to promote a wide range of causes, from Marxism to civil rights to feminism to Baha’i to Chinese Communism. Esperanto’s ability to contain such ideological multitudes partially accounts for the suspicion with which repressive governments have long viewed it. Under Stalin, Esperanto speakers—who had originally been supported by the Soviets —were purged and sent to the gulag as spies. The Nazis attacked Esperanto groups in Germany and banned it outright in 1940, viewing the language as a Trojan horse for sinister Jewish and Bolshevik interests.
During the Cold War, Esperanto was still viewed as a potential threat by many right-wing governments and in the McCarthy-era United States. The U.S. Army assigned the language and Esperanto symbols to a punching-bag enemy called “Aggressor” in training exercises and PR films. Under attack, membership dwindling, the Esperanto movement struggled with a number of existential questions, not all of which have been resolved today. Was Zamenhof’s original goal of universality still relevant, when English had emerged as the semiofficial language of international government and commerce? Could Esperanto speakers come up with different—perhaps more amusing—goals? What was the ideology of Esperanto, anyway: anti-fascism, neutrality, women’s rights? Was the point really about ideology at all or just about people from around the world joining to speak a neutral language together? Manifestos were written, attacked, discarded. Songs and poems were composed in Esperanto restating the movement’s basic, and rather vague, principles (likely to go well with a three-chord guitar progression): fraternity among nations, free movement of knowledge and people, universal connectedness, etc.
Esperanto today, after many years of stumbling through the forest, has mostly found its purpose as an international Eurail pass for adventurous and slightly kooky multilinguists. In 1966, Argentine Esperantist Rubén Feldman González founded what’s now Pasporta Servo, a free, Esperanto-speaking Airbnb with more than 1,000 hosts across 90 countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The internet has also opened up immense new opportunities for would-be Esperantists. Now anyone can take Esperanto classes at Lernu or on Duolingo; search in Google Esperanto or at Vikipedio; or email Pasporta Servo hosts to set up instant, free international lodging. For many of the Esperanto speakers Schor interviews, the opportunity to connect with people anywhere, in a neutral language (i.e., specifically not English, with its colonial baggage), is enough enticement to learn the tongue. Others are more passionate believers in the ideology, however they define that, including a 26-year-old Israeli who’s probably one of the world’s few remaining believers in the “fina venko,” Zamenhof’s phrase for the “final victory” when the Babel world in collapse at last turns to its Esperanto grammar books.
Schor herself has complex goals, and her book—as ambitious, soulful, intellectually hefty, and yet occasionally naïve as the project it describes—sometimes gets tangled in them. This is true in some of the long sections at Esperanto conferences and workshops, in which she tends to allow her characters (Vietnamese English teachers, Cuban amateur erotic film-makers) to run off with the book in extended conversations about the fate of Esperanto or email exchanges reprinted in their entirety. She ends with a sojourn at Bona Espero, a school for farm children in rural Brazil run by two rugged Esperantists from Germany and Italy. Ruminating on the recent breakup of her 30-year marriage, Schor flirts with the studly Argentine music teacher, receives some wisdom from the school’s guiding spirit, and interacts with the schoolchildren, in whose traumatized state she sees a mirror of her own pain (“so many ways of being orphaned. Now I’m dreaming that I’m the orphan”). With Esperanto, you can go anywhere, talk to anyone, communicate endlessly on any subject—but you never leave yourself at home.
Correction, Oct. 5, 2016: This piece originally misspelled the name of the set of cultural norms established by Rabbi Hillel. They are called Homaranismo. (Return.)
Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language by Esther Schor. Metropolitan.
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