The idea of linguistic exclusion discussed in the chapter by Paul Adams made me think of Esperanto, the most successful attempt thus far to create an artificial language purely for international communicative purposes. The story of Esperanto’s creation is remarkable in itself. Esperanto was literally invented by Leyzer Zamenhof, a Jewish man, who was born in the territory of the Russian Empire in 1859. His small town of Białystok (in present-day Poland) was populated by people from four different ethnic groups: Jews, Poles, Belarusians, and Germans. Each community spoke its own language and stuck to its own customs. The level of misunderstanding and mistrust was so high that Zamenhof, a medical doctor by profession, dedicated most of his time to the invention of a new language for intercultural communication, which, he hoped, would facilitate a more peaceful coexistence for people in multicultural communities.
Esperanto’s grammar and vocabulary were borrowed from multiple Indo-European languages and were constructed in such a manner as to facilitate easy recognition by speakers of different languages, as well as quick learning. Since its creation in the late 19th century, Esperanto gained a good deal of popularity in Europe, China, Japan, and the Americas. The world congress of Esperanto speakers has been held annually since 1905. Apart from its enthusiasts all over the world, Esperanto has gained the support and recognition of international organizations such as UNESCO.
Despite its seeming usefulness, Esperanto failed to develop into a real international tool of communication. Instead, English became the de-facto lingua franca—mainly for economic reasons and sort of by default. Esperanto enthusiasts all over the world, however, are vocal about actually replacing English as a language of international communication with Esperanto. What is interesting is that their main argument is along the same lines as the integral role of communication in global governance, which we have discussed in class: namely, that everybody has a right to participate in the political process, and language disparity hinders this participation. Enthusiasts, like Robert Phillipson from the University of Amsterdam, promote Esperanto as an auxiliary language which should become mandatory in the globalized world. Importantly, Esperanto is promoted as a second language, an auxiliary to the native one, thus it is not aimed at substituting native languages.
The advantages of Esperanto are obvious: it is nobody’s native language and does not carry any cultural connotations apart from the idealistic attempt to facilitate understanding. Thus communication in Esperanto is a more egalitarian process than in English. Also, as research of Esperanto speakers (Esperantists) shows, they tend to see themselves as a “voluntary, nonethnic, non-territorial speech community” (Li, p. 36). This seems to correspond with the processes of transnational network formation, which take place in a network society. Besides, learning an international language would require patience and attention to what someone is actually saying, and in the modern conception of democracy, this by itself is a significant act. So, according to Esperanto scholars, a neutral tool of communication like Esperanto is necessary for global governance to be truly democratic.
I feel that this debate about the international language of communication, as idealistic as it may seem, is timely, especially in light of the fact that there is so much frustration and resentment toward West-led globalization. I want to believe that the world is what we make of it, and if the present world order, with all its advanced technology, needs new tools of communication, sooner or later they will be introduced. And maybe in 100 years our descendents will speak a second, international, language, one that won’t be a result of economic hegemony, but rather of voluntary agreement.
Here is a very interesting video about Esperanto:
Daniele Archibugi, “The Language of Democracy: Vernacular or Esperanto? A Comparison between the Multiculturalist and Cosmopolitan Perspectives,” in Political Studies, vol, 53, 2005, 537-555.
David C. S. Li, “Between English and Esperanto: what does it take to be a world language?” in International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 164, 2003, 33-63.