Betting on Esperanto
It all began in the 1870's in a part of the Tsarist Empire which is now
Poland. Four languages were then spoken in the town of Bialystok:
Polish, Yiddish, Russian and German. It was a traumatic experience for
boy growing up there, in a town fragmented by four communities, four
religions, four languages (with four alphabets) and four hatreds. It
was a place where just to express yourself was to label yourself.
Straight away you found yourself either part of the despised "them" or
else part of the colluding "us". Everything that happened took place
against a background of heightened ethnic and cultural awareness. If a
Pole had official business to sort out, it would be unthinkable for a
Russian official to speak to him in Polish: the Pole, with bitter fury
in his soul and vengeance in his heart, would have to stammer out his
request in Russian.
Rilke once said that a writer is someone who writes because he cannot
not write. That is how the young Zamenhof came to establish the
fundamentals of Esperanto: he could do no other. Bialystok's different
cultural communities were at one another's throats. And they showed
themselves most strongly of all in language and in accent. In this
context, using someone else's language was not just granting him a kind
of superiority which your own ethnic pride had to revolt against, it
was also submitting yourself to a contortionist's struggle against
grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. It was running a gauntlet of
snares which seemed almost to have been set on purpose to make you into
This climate of hostility and humiliation was traumatic for the young
Zamenhof, a sensitive and gifted boy. The situation was intolerable.
He had to try and do something so that everyone could stay loyal to his
own culture but nevertheless be able to communicate with others without
the insults to social and cultural identity which were an everyday fact
of life in Bialystok.
This meant having a language belonging to no one group, with a
structure conforming as far as possible to the natural flow of
linguistic expression, a language that did not force you into
contortions, a language which even people lowest on the social scale
could master. No such language existed? Never mind! He would create
one. With the naive enthusiasm of youth, he set to work. He brought
together the remorseless logic of the child (he was scarcely more than
a child) and the systematic working methods of an artist, eyes firmly
fixed on an aesthetic ideal, never ceasing to polish and refine what he
Had he, seriously, the slightest chance of success? Look at it from a
betting point of view. Would you, in say 1876, have risked a wager
that this 17-to-l8-year-old youth, hidden away in a small provincial
town in an obscure country (relative to what were then the centres of
influence), was likely to achieve his ambitious goal of being midwife
to a new language? Let us look at the story stage by stage. The young
man's father sends him away to study at a distant university and makes
him promise to give up playing around with language. Surely the boy
must see how absurd his project is? Yet he goes on. At the age of 27
he decides to get the fruit of his labours published. He goes the
rounds of the publishers. They are not silly: none of them says yes.
So he has an unprepossessing booklet printed at his own expense (he is
not rich). With no distribution network to place it in the bookshops,
what chance does he have to bring it to people's attention? Would you
have bet money, then, on this unknown?
All the same, the project attracts a handful of supporters, mainly in
the Russian Empire. A periodical is launched, written in this infant
language. Fired with enthusiasm, Tolstoy writes for it. But he falls
into disfavour with the state, and the tsarist censorship bans the
magazine, the only link between the first users of the language.
Hearing this, would you have bet that a living language could spring
from a project plagued by such an abortive beginning?
But life obeys a different logic. In all quarters of the world there
are people who hear about the language and set about learning it. The
linguists sneer: everyone (they say) will slavishly follow his own
habits of pronunciation, grammar, and semantics. No one will be able
to understand anyone else. Now, which would you bet on? The young
amateur? Or the specialists, unanimous in their rejection?
At the first congress, in Boulogne, in 1905, the speakers of the new
language do understand one another. But why would anyone take such a
tiny bunch of cranks seriously! Looked at from the standpoint of the
salons of Paris, which at the turn of the century are the arbiters of
value for everyone, the language does not look attractive. It is full
of un-French letters like k and j, and has consonants with ridiculous
accents on top. It looks repulsive, barbaric. The world over,
intellectuals reject it. The author's unrealistic attitude is shown in
his perverse decision to adopt accented letters which no printer has
available, so that publishing anything in the language means first
casting new printing sorts. Common sense tells you that betting on the
survival of this language would be throwing money down the drain.
It is 1914. War breaks out. Zamenhof dies. Lay your bets, gentlemen
. . . Who will bet on this orphaned language, symbol of a relationship
based on equality, in a world ruled by the law of the jungle?
It is the twenties. At the League of Nations, Iran proposes the
adoption of Esperanto for international relations. All are astonished.
The great powers swing into action. "This project must be buried. It
would jeopardise our cultural superiority." These member-states are
rich and influential. Their delegates do not hesitate to distort the
truth in the most shameful manner. Once again the project is ridiculed
and rejected. Honestly, would you have bet on it then?
Stalin and Hitler rise to power. Hitler regards Esperanto as the
language of conspiring Jews and freemasons; Stalin, as the language of
bourgeois cosmopolitanism. As we reach the forties, these men exercise
totalitarian power over almost the whole of continental Europe,
Esperanto is forbidden, books in the language are burnt, many of its
supporters are sent to concentration camps. In Japan, China, Spain,
Portugal and elsewhere, the authorities are less severe, but have the
same general attitude. Tell me: would it not be wise at this juncture
to bet on the disappearance of Esperanto in short order?
The Second World War comes to an end. Simultaneous interpretation
comes onto the scene. This device might seem to solve the
communication problem in congresses and conferences: but in fact it
scarcely serves to disguise a development which leads to the
uncontested supremacy of English. Everyone can see that English has a
tendency to monopolise international relations. It is the language of
the news agencies, the multinationals, scientific publishing and the
pop music which young people, dressed in American- style clothes, dance
to throughout the world.
Up against this Goliath, Esperanto is a David so small as to be
practically invisible. Looking at these rivals, who would rationally
vote for the second of them? Is there any sense in betting on a
language not backed by any vast social movement, ignored by financial
powers, unsupported by the media, and which the intellectuals either
jeer at or else believe to have been stillborn? Under regular attack
politically and intellectually since first published, it has neither
ally nor external aid. In an age when image is all, it has no means of
gaining publicity. It spreads only by its own intrinsic qualities.
And yet, judging by objective criteria - books published, participation
in international meetings, the geographical spread of small ads in the
Esperanto press, the number of Esperantist events, regular radio
broadcasts, the number of places where a representative of the language
can be contacted, and the like - in the face of this, it can be seen
that in the ebb and flow of political and economic vicissitudes
Esperanto has never ceased to spread; and over the last dozen years, in
particular, its progress has accelerated remarkably.
In 1976 there were thirty university-level institutions teaching the
language. Now there are 125 - more than a four-fold increase in ten
years. Esperanto is the medium of a considerable body of literary
activity which continues to grow. More songs are translated into
Esperanto than into any other language in the world. It is in daily
use in public broadcasting in countries as different as China and
Poland. It is the everyday common language of numerous married couples
of different national backgrounds, and the first language of some of
their children. In intercultural communication, objective cost benefit
analysis shows it to be clearly superior to English or to systems based
on translation and simultaneous interpretation.
If your had held Zamenhof's little booklet in your hands back in 1887,
the new and untried proposal put forward by an unknown 27-year-old,
could you ever have imagined have a century later the largest
international conference ever held in China would take place in this
language? Would you have bet that by 1986 not a day would pass without
a congress, a conference, a meeting or some other cultural event in
Esperanto somewhere in the world? Yet that is what has come to pass.
The mismatch between rational forecasting and the actual outcome of`
events makes one think. Looking into matters more deeply it is clear
that negative views on the future of Esperanto are based on one
repeated error, namely the failure to check on reality, the failure to
investigate how Esperanto works in practice, as compared with the other
systems available for intercultural communication. Furthermore, there
is a tendency to over-estimate outside pressure and to underestimate
the role of the individual's affective feelings in the process of
spreading a language and giving it fresh life. Why does Esperanto
display more vitality than some languages with official status, such as
Irish or Romansch? Because human beings like creativity, play, the
enjoyment of freedom and loving relationships.
Esperanto's structural qualities stimulate linguistic creativity, which
in most languages is firmly repressed from the moment a child enters
school. They give the language a kind of playfulness which unsettles
those who take themselves too seriously, but which corresponds to a
psychologically important yearning hidden deep within us. With its
great flexibility in grammar, vocabulary, and style, Esperanto gives
the user a feeling of freedom in self-expression such as no other
foreign language permits, all without the necessity for years of dull
study. Above all, it lets the user form real and lasting friendships
across cultural frontiers, thus satisfying a psychological need which
is deeper than most people imagine.
These are the facts: in the one hundred years of its existence
Esperanto has woven over the whole surface of the globe an abundance of
networks of friendship, linking men and women from all social strata
from every cultural background. In this field it has no rival. It
would have every right to look down on all those who have bet against
it for a hundred years and who have consistently lost. But that is not
its style. It does not push itself forward. It is enough for it to be
and to be alive. Available, for those who care to join in. Discreet,
even invisible, for those who prefer to communicate using systems which
are more expensive, more unfair, and more complicated. It is rather
disappointing that its aims and achievements are so often
misunderstood, and that people continue to overlook the valuable
contribution it can make not only to friendly and easy relations
between the peoples of the world but also to fairness and respect for
everyone's linguistic dignity.