A Tale of Two Tongues - Believer Magazine
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A Tale of Two Tongues

Stephanie Tam
320 Snaps

I. THE ISLANDER 

Ever since Orlando Raola was a boy, he harbored a curiosity that stretched across the seas. Growing up in Havana, Cuba, in the 1960s, he perused the encyclopedia sets of his elementary school and pressed his ear to his shortwave radio to listen to programs on Radio Sweden. Always, he wondered what lay beyond the horizon. 

“Having been born on an island, and being an islander by nature, I always had this great curiosity: What is beyond the sea?” Orlando told me. “What is the world out there? I understood early that the only way to communicate with humans is through language, and I was interested in many different cultures.”

Of all the cultures out there, he developed a special fascination with those of the European Nordic countries, compelled by exotic visions of snow-capped mountains and blue-eyed Swedes. In 1981 he joined the Swedish Institute, a public agency devoted to promoting interest in Sweden around the world. Eventually, he decided to learn the language, and the institute shipped him a package containing dictionaries, cassette tapes, reading material, and textbooks.

As he sifted through the contents of the box, he felt overwhelmed. His heart sank as he realized the magnitude of time and effort it would require for him to master Swedish. He would study for years and years—and then what? He would be able to speak to a small sliver of the world. True, he found Swedish culture fascinating. But he was also curious about the cultures of Japan, Hungary, and China.

“Do I have time to learn all of these languages?” he asked himself. “No, there won’t be time.” Sitting amid the piles of books and cassettes, he realized something. What he longed for was not just any language, but a universal language: one that would connect him not just to one people, but to the whole of humanity. 

“That day,” he recounted with a slight smile, “that’s the day I became an Esperantist.”

II. THE DREAM OF A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

The dream of a universal language traces back millennia. One of our oldest stories about the origins of linguistic difference, the tale of Babel, is recounted in Genesis, the first book of the Torah. In it, men seek to build a tower that reaches the heavens: a rebellion of cosmic dimensions. To stop them, God scatters them into many nations and tongues across the earth. At its heart, Babel is an origin story about human miscommunication—language as a symbol for that which divides us. [1]

The history of universal languages tracks what its inventors believed divided humanity throughout the centuries. In the thirteenth century, the Catalan mystic and poet Ramon Llull developed a language that he believed would convert “infidels” to God’s truth. In his book Ars Magna, he designed a system of disks that could be rotated to combine theological concepts and generate 1,680 logical propositions by which the enterprising missionary might transcend linguistic barriers. (His eventual death at the hands of the Saracens suggests that the infidels felt otherwise.)

During the Enlightenment, the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz also attempted to create a logical language that transcended words. He planned to create a universal language out of symbols and equations that could not only perfectly mirror the mechanics of human intelligence but also calculate new knowledge and resolve disputes, which has led some to believe that his philosophy of mind and language anticipated artificial intelligence. “This language will be the greatest instrument of reason,” he wrote in The Art of Discovery in 1685. “….When there are disputes among persons, we can simply say: Let us calculate, without further ado, and see who is right.” 

Each effort to create a language intelligible to the whole of humanity was informed by its creator’s understanding of what could allow or impair communication—conversion, heathenism; rationality, irrationality—and a desire to solve the problems that proliferated among our “natural” languages. In other words, language has always evolved as both a bridge and a barrier.

III. THE OPHTHALMOLOGIST AND THE EDUCATOR

One hundred years before Orlando Raola despaired in front of his box from the Swedish Institute, a young ophthalmologist by the name of Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof looked with anguish at the rampant anti-Semitism ravaging his hometown of Białystok. Born as a Jew in the Russian Empire in 1859, Zamenhof was acutely aware of the forces that threatened to tear apart the fabric of his society—rising nationalism, ethnic divisions, the formation of nation-states—and that would eventually draw Europe into the first of two world wars.

Zamenhof had grown up believing that all people were part of the same human family, but when he looked around his neighborhood he saw only tribes divided by language. “In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies,” he recalled. “….the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.”

In his teens, Zamenhof began work on a language that could serve as a bridge for all cultures. His creation would eventually become known as Esperanto, the world’s most successful “constructed” language. Zamenhof wanted his international language to be easy to learn, so he created a simplified grammar consisting of sixteen rules. There are no gendered nouns—no feminine moon or masculine sun, as is the case in French. Each word ending indicates its part of speech: all adjectives end in a, all nouns in o, all adverbs in e. For instance, Eŭropo (Europe)is the noun; Eŭropa (European)is the adjective. To make a noun plural, one simply adds j to the end of the root; there is also an accusative case, in which words end in n (Eŭropon). That’s about all the rules when it comes to nouns.

Unlike in English, verbs do not change for person or number, and there is only one ending, -as, for verbs in the present indicative: for example, mi estas (I am), vi estas (you are), li/ŝi/ĝi estas (he/she/it is). Verbs do conjugate for present (-as), past (-is), and future (-os) tenses, unlike Chinese and Indonesian, which rely mostly on context. The spelling is phonetic, with each letter corresponding to a single sound—in contrast to many natural languages, which often disappear consonants from words as their pronunciation evolves, like poignant and Worcester in English.

As a universal language, Esperanto was intended to be unaffiliated with any particular nationality or ethnicity. Zamenhof compiled nine hundred root words primarily from Indo-European languages: German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. These could in turn be used to create new words, in a compound structure similar to those of languages like Chinese and Turkish. The word for steamship, for example, is vaporŝipo = vapor (steam) + ŝip (ship) + o (noun ending). In this way, vocabulary can be built up from the base of root words with suffixes and affixes: for instance, the verb manĝi (to eat) + the suffix –aĵo (a thing) = manĝaĵo (food). A truly “neutral” language was beyond this well-intentioned polyglot creator (Zamenhof learned nearly a dozen languages over the course of his life), given his European origins and influences; its phonology is essentially Slavic, and its vocabulary derives primarily from Romance languages. But Zamenhof succeeded in creating a language that was simple to pick up. [2] One study among Francophone children found Esperanto an average of ten times faster to learn than English, Italian, or German.

In 1887, Zamenhof published his language manifesto in a Russian-language pamphlet under the pseudonym DoktoroEsperanto(“Doctor Hopeful”). He referred to his creation simply as the “lingvo internacia” (“international language”). Eventually, though, it came to be known by the name—or, in this case, pseudonym—of its inventor: Esperanto.

Behind Esperanto’s humble linguistic LEGO blocks lay a vast vision. “La interna ideo de Esperanto…,” Zamenhof declared in 1912, “estas: sur neŭtrala lingva fundamento forigi la murojn inter la gentoj…” The core idea of the language was a neutral linguistic foundation to facilitate communication between peoples: in other words, it was intended to create world peace through mutual understanding. The idea was not for Esperanto to supplant natural languages, but to work alongside them as an auxiliary language to bridge nations. The global establishment of this “interna ideo” would be the “fina venko”—the final victory—and the undoing of Babel.

As for Doktoro Esperanto himself, he ceded its evolution to the public, inviting others to take the language into their own hands: “From this day the future of the international language is no longer more in my hands than in the hands of any other friend of this sacred idea. We must now work together in equality… Let us work and hope!”

Even before Zamenhof set to work on Esperanto, the foundation was being laid for a different sort of world language. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay delivered a treatise on Indian education that would have lasting repercussions for the spread of the English language in the British Empire. Macaulay had witnessed the struggles of a small number of British administrators to govern a massive local population. As chairman of the East India Company’s Committee of Public Instruction, he emphasized the need for his fellow colonialists to “form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” He supported his argument with glowing praise of the English language and an equally flamboyant savaging of Sanskrit literature:

It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit [sic] language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same…. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the West.

For Macaulay, the English language was a way to inject Englishness into the minds and hearts of colonial subjects. Like Zamenhof, he had a vision for language, but it was not of bridging ethnic divisions; it was of building empire. In 1820, the Prussian philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt had articulated a view of language as the activity that shaped an individual’s and a nation’s Weltansichten: “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of sounds and signs but a diversity of the views of the world.” However, this was no diversity of equals. Humboldt, like most of his European contemporaries, believed certain languages outranked others. Those that possessed more inflectional morphology—that is, those with different word forms indicating person, number, tense, et cetera—were superior. Thus, he extolled Greek and Sanskrit, while maintaining that “as an organ of thinking the Chinese language is, without any doubt, very inferior to those languages that have succeeded in giving a certain degree of perfection to a system that is opposite to its own.” [3]

Once Englishness became a cultural value to inscribe on India, English became the official medium of instruction in higher education and the language of the government and courts. Perhaps just as critically, and more enduringly, English became the language of aspiration: the linguistic gatekeeper to higher education, prestigious jobs, and social status. While language policies and their implementation varied across different colonies of the British Empire, the linguistic legacy of English is clear. It remained an associate official language in India even after the Indian Independence Act of 1947. As of the 2011 Census, an estimated 10 percent of India’s population—about 125 million people—spoke English, far more than in the United Kingdom, making it the nation with the second-largest Anglophone population, after the United States.

Macaulay’s treatise on English-language education displayed an unsettling prescience about the linguistic dominance it would one day wield:

[English] is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australasia; communities which are every year becoming more important, and more closely connected with our Indian empire. Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects. 

When it came to sheer numbers of speakers, English in the 1800s was nowhere near the most widely spoken language, nor even the one with the greatest prestige in Europe. French remained the primary language of diplomacy. It would take another century, two world wars, and the rise of another global power for English to truly achieve the linguistic hegemony it has today.

IV. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENCE 

By 2017, when I met Orlando Raola in Raleigh, North Carolina, he had served for six years as the outgoing president of Esperanto-USA. He was fluent in Esperanto and in English as well as in his mother tongue, Spanish. He had a jovial, easy manner as he recounted his linguistic adventures, his eyes creasing with warmth. In his day job, he is a chemistry professor at Santa Rosa Junior College. English has enabled his scientific career in the States, but it is Esperanto, he insists, that opened him to the world.

His experiences of learning the two languages could not have been more different. Born in 1955, Raola was exposed to English from an early age, first through his uncle, a language teacher, then, starting in seventh grade, through his school curriculum. He found Esperanto as a child, too, in Enciclopedia universal ilustrada, an encyclopedia that was then standard in every elementary school in Cuba. Every article was translated into several languages: French, English, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Dutch, and Esperanto. Later, his encounter with the Swedish Institute ignited his dream of a universal language, and he remembered Esperanto.

But it was not until around 1986, when his wife experienced a difficult pregnancy, requiring him to stay at home, that he had the time to learn it. He borrowed some magazines from the Esperanto society in Havana, and after some months he began writing to Esperantists in Hungary, Uzbekistan, and China. “At some point, I would receive thirty, forty letters a week,” he told me.

By the time his son was born, he was proficient, and hooked. There was a certain quality to the communication that he had never experienced in English. A kind of trust, an orientation of openness. Perhaps because there are no native speakers and the language is simple, a paradox takes place: when everyone is speaking a foreign language, and so everyone is speaking in translation, there can be an ease of understanding—or, at the very least, a shared understanding that communication across borders is not always easy.

V. LOST IN TRANSLATION

From the start, Esperanto had the disadvantage that besets every constructed language: it had no native speakers. Nor did it have any national prestige or economic utility that could act as learning incentives. Language benefits from network effects, which are virtuous (or vicious) cycles: the more people speak a language, the more culture, education, business, diplomacy, travel, et cetera, are proliferated in that language, and the more people want to learn it.

Zamenhof was aware of these network effects. In a bid to generate speakers, he included eight coupons in his 1887 Esperanto pamphlet that stated: “I, the undersigned, promise to learn the proposed international language of Doctor Esperanto, if it will be shown that 10 million people publicly give the same promise.” The idea was that you could sign one coupon and share the others with friends; once enough people committed to learning the language to create a community, you could learn en masse without fear of wasting your efforts. It was the kind of idea that, like Esperanto itself, made sense in theory. But 10 million—roughly the combined population of Paris and London around 1900—was an optimistic stretch even for an idealistic visionary. One year later, Zamenhof had collected only a thousand coupons.

Nonetheless, Esperanto gathered steam: first in Russia, then in Paris. Zamenhof focused on building up a continent-wide league of local Esperanto clubs to learn and share the language. Letter writing also became a key feature of the language’s spread: international correspondence connected Esperantists across borders and enabled them to practice the language when there were few speakers in their neighborhood (as was Orlando Raola’s experience). The first periodical in the language, La Esperantisto, was published in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1889. In the following decade, Esperanto was adopted by a group of French intellectuals who regarded it as a promising tool for promoting the modernist ideals of rationality and science.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the need for an international language was apparent, and the hypothesis that such a language might reduce interethnic hostilities plausible. The scientific community was already seeking a way to share the discoveries booming across Europe at the time, and as historian Michael D. Gordin documents in Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done before and after Global English: “The French would never tolerate German; the Germans would never tolerate English; the English would tolerate nothing at all; and none of the rising nationalist movements would submit to any of these three.” Latin, once the language of the academy in Europe, required too much time to master.

In contrast, Esperanto represented placid simplicity. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote an early endorsement of the language, claiming it took him only two hours to learn. Under the wing of its French advocates, the language was featured at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, alongside other technological world achievements of the past century, including talking films, diesel engines, and the telegraphone. By 1907, Zamenhof’s introduction to Esperanto had been translated into twenty-five languages, including Hebrew, Swedish, Japanese, Greek, and Arabic; Gordin documents sixty-four journals and at least 756 Esperanto organizations worldwide, 123 of which were outside Europe.

The first World Esperanto Congress was organized in 1905 in the French coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. The event was attended by about seven hundred participants and involved a festive round of banquets, balls, readings, speeches, and excursions across the English Channel to Folkestone and Dover. But the prestige that the French movement brought to the language also came at a cost. When Zamenhof showed the congress committee a draft of his keynote speech, which ended with a prayer invoking his Hillelist universalism—“Christians, Jews, or Mahometans / We are all children of God”—they were aghast. The French Esperantist Alfred Michaux reported the reaction:

One can hardly grasp the wonderment and scandal of these French intellectuals, with their Cartesian and rational spirit, representatives of lay universities and supporters of secular government, accustomed to and identified with freethinking and atheism, when they heard this flaming prayer to “the high moral Power.”

Zamenhof was pressured by the committee to distance Esperanto from any moral commitments. The compromise cut to his core, as Zamenhof wrote to Michaux: “The necessity of a language that is not national, but neutrally human cannot be felt so strongly by anyone but a Jew… who receives his education and instruction in the language of a people that rejects him, and who has fellow sufferers all over the world, but cannot communicate with them.” The irony was not lost on Zamenhof as the committee worked fervently to cover up his Jewish
origins, particularly to the French press and anti-Semitic public, in its efforts to promote Esperanto.

It would be the first, but not the last, to persecute the language for its Jewish roots. 

Today the United States is the leader of the English-speaking world, with almost four times as many native speakers as any other country. English was spoken in North America since the British colonies of the seventeenth century, but it was immigration and war in the twentieth century that drove the number of native speakers skyward. 

The dominance of English in the United States isn’t an accident of assimilation. Up until the twentieth century, multilingualism was, in fact, the norm. The original settler population derived from French, Dutch, and Swedish colonies, and many immigrants maintained their mother tongues. These languages were embedded in state institutions as well: Louisiana’s state legislature and courts functioned in English and French throughout most of the nineteenth century, and California’s 1849 constitution mandated that all laws be published in both Spanish and English. In the 1700s, secondary school instruction in German was common throughout Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas; as late as 1870, the US commissioner of education remarked, “The German language has actually become the second language of our Republic, and a knowledge of German is now considered essential to a finished education.” (This tolerance did not extend to the language of Indigenous Americans, who were—like Indians had been under the British Empire—regarded as in need of civilizing: their children were forced to learn English and abandon their native languages through off-reservation boarding schools starting in 1868.)

Two shifts precipitated the death knell of multilingualism and the ascendancy of English, first in the States, and then globally. The first was the arrival of approximately 24 million immigrants to the United States, most from southern and eastern Europe, from 1880 to 1924, which introduced a variety of languages and peoples into American society at an unprecedented rate. (Two million of these 24 million people were Zamenhof’s Jewish neighbors.) To the existing Anglo-American population, these immigrants were regarded as more foreign and less assimilable than the northern European immigrants of years prior. Nativist fears about the loss of American society and heritage swelled. Writer and critic Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s poem “The Unguarded Gates,” published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1892, expressed the mood of the times:

Wide open and unguarded stand 

our gates,

And through them presses a wild 

motley throng… 

Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, 

and Slav…

In street and alley what strange 

tongues are loud,

Accents of menace alien to our air,

Voices that once the Tower of 

Babel knew!

In 1906, the Naturalization Act was passed, and for the first time English proficiency became a requirement for citizenship. While Esperanto, across the Atlantic, was envisioned as a bridge to eliminate international and ethnic hostility, English was being erected as a buttress to protect Anglo-American identity. 

World War I strengthened the Americanization movement, a nationwide campaign to assimilate foreigners into American culture, and which weaponized English. At first, the movement’s primary target was German: a language that, the American Defense League claimed, “produce[d] a people of ruthless conquistadores [sic]” and was “not fit to teach clean and pure American boys and girls.” But a general emphasis on English as the language of patriotism eventually crowded out all others. In 1919, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in an address to the American Defense Society: 

We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boardinghouse; and we have room for but one soul [sic] loyalty, and that loyalty is to the American people.

To be a “good American,” in other words, one must be monolingual. English became the furnace that not only forged citizens but also dissolved difference in the melting pot of America. By the mid-1920s, many states mandated English-only teaching policies to immerse immigrant children in the language. Bilingual education was dismantled. Between 1917 and 1923, twenty-three states also banned foreign languages as subjects in their own right for elementary grades. The constitutionality of these laws would be overturned by the Supreme Court, but the damage done to the status of foreign languages has lasted to this day. The English-only ideology had been born, and even as more inclusive visions of America came to dominate popular discourse, its monoglot legacy would remain. 

VI. CLEFT TONGUE

In the decades following Esperanto’s debut and the ideological conflict at the World Esperanto Congress in Paris, the language fell prey to the very divisions it was created to resolve. For a brief period in the 1920s, Esperanto spread globally through an international leftist movement, galvanizing socialists, anarchists, and syndicalists. Then Hitler condemned the language as a tool for uniting Jews and had all but eliminated its use in Germany by 1940. In Mein Kampf, he expresses fears that Esperanto will empower Jews for world domination. After the invasion of Poland, the Gestapo received explicit orders to round up Zamenhof’s descendants. Zamenhof’s son, Adam, was shot by the Nazis, and his daughters, Zofia and Lidia, died in the Treblinka concentration camp.

Stalin also turned on Esperanto, decrying it as a “language of spies.” In an era of all-Soviet nationalism, there was no place for a neutral international language. Letters written in Esperanto were policed for content betraying the state agenda. Esperantists were systematically arrested and deported to the gulag. For nearly twenty years, the language was silenced throughout the Soviet Union.

Through his friendships with Esperantists, Orlando Raola learned about the seismic shifts taking place across Europe in the 1980s. By then, Stalin’s death had eased restrictions on Esperanto in the Soviet Union. His friends wrote him about the dismantling of Communist countries, and shared intimate stories of their disillusionment behind the facade of state propaganda.

One Esperantist from Uzbekistan confided in Raola his difficulty saving money for his son’s circumcision ceremony. He confessed anguished doubts about the troubles roiling the region—factories ceasing to function, the inflation of the Soviet ruble, the heavy taxation of his co-op—to his “al estimata Orlando” in 1989:

I think about what kind of end all this will take us to, to another civil war? Maybe to a big crisis? There are so many problems, and we are seeing now signs that even bread might become unavailable, we are already used to living without meat, or lard, or butter or cheese, without chocolates, and without coffee or tea…. But without bread, how can one live without bread?

He concluded, “Mi ne plu povas dauri la leteron, čar post tiu temo čio bolas on mi kaj pro sanga premo mi sentas kapdoloron. Pardonu min.” (I cannot continue this letter, because after writing what I have written, I feel boiling inside and my blood pressure soared, I have a headache. I beg your pardon.)

VII. SPEAKING IN TONGUES

After World War II devastated Europe, the United States ascended the world stage. English came alongside. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed a statement committing the nation to promoting the use of English, including a $50 million initiative devoted primarily to training English teachers overseas. Organizations like the Peace Corps and the US Agency for International Development actively encouraged English-language education abroad, while American leadership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and sponsorship of the International Monetary Fund elevated the geopolitical status of English as the language of military might and economic power. Cold War foreign policy also created a network of international students flowing into the United States, funded initially in part by the US government, but increasingly by grants from students’ home countries. As US higher education continued to gain prestige, more and more international students arrived: 7,000 in 1943; 26,000 in 1949; and 140,000 in 1971.

As significant as any initiative on the part of the US government, however, was the staggering demand abroad: in a globalized world, the utility of a common language skyrocketed. English, backed by the US dollar, became the linguistic currency of trade, technology, and education. From the 1960s, many countries, including Turkey and the Netherlands, required English as the medium of instruction in higher education. English proficiency led to job opportunities; one economic study in 2010 found it boosted wages by up to 15 percent in France, Austria, and Germany, among other countries.

Those eager to reap the fruits of globalization learned its language. English-language teaching (ELT) became a lucrative, multibillion-dollar industry. These profits concentrated primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom, the epicenters of the English-speaking world. Economist François Grin estimated that in 2005, the United Kingdom gained around €17 billion—about 1 percent of its gross domestic product—as a benefit of the English language. This revenue stemmed partly from the United Kingdom’s thriving ELT industry, but also its comparative absence of costs for foreign language education. 

By the turn of the millennium, English had achieved an unprecedented level of linguistic dominance. With approximately 1.5 billion speakers—less than 400 million of whom use it as a first language—it is the indisputable lingua franca of today’s world. (Mandarin, for comparison, also counts more than one billion speakers, but only about 20 percent are non-native speakers.) While English was first seeded by the British Empire as the language of the elite, its power was consolidated by the rise of the United States. As linguist David Crystal argues in his analysis of English as a global language, it takes a militarily strong nation to establish a language but an economically powerful one to expand it.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of international leftist movements, Esperanto never recovered its momentum. Here and there, hot spots bubbled up in regions where various groups picked up the language for their own utopian aims, among them pacifists in Japan, anti-imperialists in Iran, and spiritists in Brazil. Those who survived the decades of silence following the Soviet purges gradually resurfaced after Stalin’s death, in 1953, while newcomers learned the language through clubs and magazines around the world. They kept in touch via letter correspondence and annual congresses, in a similar fashion to early twentieth-century Esperantists. But never to the same extent, and never in force. Esperanto might have been made for a world divided by politics, but that riven world also prevented it from achieving its fina venko. 

Today, for the most part, the community of Esperantists remains small and is scattered across the globe. Estimates of the number of speakers vary widely, from one hundred thousand up to two million. But as there has never been a federal Esperanto government to conduct an official census, it’s difficult to find reliable metrics. If a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, then Esperanto is a dialect that started with neither and has suffered at the hands of both. And yet it survives.

“This is the key point to understanding why Esperanto still exists, and why—no matter how widespread English is—it’s still alive,” Raola insisted. “It’s in the quality of communication. People learn English for many reasons. It can improve their lives; they can find opportunities.”

Raola experienced this reality firsthand. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the Cuban economy collapsed, and in 1994 he uprooted his life and headed to the States. He arrived with forty dollars in his pocket and no relatives in the country, he told me. But Esperantists helped him rebuild his life. One Esperantist hosted him rent-free; another set him up with a computer, email account, and fax line, and found him a job; a third loaned him a car. Three years later, his family joined him.

“If you are an Esperantist, it’s because there’s something other than money that brought you there, and that makes a difference,” he continued. “The kind of reciprocal interest, the links that are established, the ease, the trust—the trust!—is a very important thing… Esperanto provides a safer space than you can get in English. That’s the reason.”

As the years went on, Raola traveled to many of the countries he’d dreamed about, always staying with Esperantists, who welcomed him into their homes. Because the community is small and scattered, it has an international hospitality system called Pasporta Servo, developed in 1974, essentially a forerunner of Couchsurfing: Esperantists share their addresses in a central directory and host one another for free. The first booklet contained thirty-nine hosts; the 2017 edition contains 974 addresses in eighty-one countries. There is a saying in the community: “English is for making money; Esperanto is for making friends.” Together, across national borders, Esperantists form a kind of microcommunity true to their name: those who hope.

“I have been to so many places, met so many people, have so many friends with which I feel at home.” Raola grinned, teeth bright. “Yes, whatever curiosity of the islander-beyond-the-sea has been satisfied.”

The dream of a universal language, a tongue that peoples from every nation would speak, has come closer to reality than ever before with English: a state of affairs that would have been regarded as impossible as late as the 1950s. 

English has achieved some of the victories that French intellectuals had hoped for Esperanto in 1905: It is a universal language for the sciences, for a shared system of knowledge, for international academic collaboration. Over 98 percent of elite natural science journals worldwide are published in English. And like Pasporta Servo, English allows its speakers to travel easily and freely in much of the world without needing to learn the local languages.

Zamenhof’s dream of world peace, though, has not been realized. If anything, the rise of English has shown that shared language has never guaranteed common understanding. While English has become a passport to the world for the linguistic elite, it is a barrier excluding those who don’t speak it. The explosion in the dominance of English has also accelerated the extinction of indigenous languages. Linguists predict that 50 to 90 percent of the estimated seven thousand languages spoken on our planet will die out over the next century.

The expansion of English has not bridged nations, nor even reduced interethnic hostilities—but then, why would it? Its spread was in part built on ideologies of national and ethnic superiority. If the aspirations of Esperanto and English represent two visions of humanity, the bridge and the barrier, the rise of one to universal stature suggests that the forces of empire trump those of internationalism. Even the terms natural language and constructed language (also referred to as artificial language), used to describe the different linguistic typologies of English and Esperanto, respectively, seem to imply that tribes are innate, whereas their transcendence is unnatural.

As more people than ever before learn to speak English across the world, the nations primarily responsible for its spread and dominance are experiencing violent internal backlashes against globalization and its deepening inequalities. While the resurgence of nationalism is part of the same story that gave rise to the preeminence of English, it also means the language’s center of gravity is again shifting. Once it belonged primarily to England; it now belongs to a majority of speakers in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Barbados, Guyana, Singapore (the list of former colonies goes on), and those who learn it as a foreign language use it to shape their own narratives.

At the same time, the persistence of Esperanto, with neither military nor monetary might behind it, evidences the enduring capacity of humans to reinvent themselves. In each generation, there are those who choose to hope: to envision new ways of existing and coexisting, a community without war, anti-Semitism, racism.

This should come as no surprise to those who know the history of languages, stories as ancient as the tale of Babel. According to linguist John McWhorter, language itself likely evolved out of the need to coordinate the scavenging for large mammals such as mammoths. In the early days of the human tribe, language was a tool that enabled us to survive, and then thrive, in a way we could have done only together. At the core of what divides and connects us is not, after all, language, but what language has always imperfectly expressed: the human heart. Language evolves; it changes; it reinvents itself time and again, just like our relationship to ourselves, one another, and the world. Whether in English or Esperanto, we are the only species capable of using words to imagine worlds we have never seen. 

[1] English literature scholar Esther Schor points out that the Babel story can also be read as an origin myth of national divisions: the story of Babel directly follows a chapter on the lineage of seventy nations, as though the Genesis author were tracing the birth of our political borders back to the beginning of linguistic diversity. Schor surveys a number of invented languages in her rich and personal history of Esperanto, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language.
  • [2]Whatever Zamenhof’s intentions were regarding neutrality, the history of English and Esperanto suggests that ease of learning is not primarily what makes a language widely spoken in a given country. Linguist David C. S. Li has estimated that speakers of European languages could reach competency in Esperanto within six months of intensive study, while speakers of Asian languages needed a year. Yet Esperanto has actually held greater appeal in China than in some European countries. At various periods, the language was taught at universities and supported by government-funded radio and television broadcasts. Chinese communists viewed it as a better means of communicating with Europeans than English, which was not only difficult to master but also the language of imperialists.
  • [3]Humboldt’s theories anticipated the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of the 1920s, the notion that language shapes cognition. While the racialized view and more deterministic version of the principle remains controversial, the general concept has found support from laboratory experiments. For instance, people whose languages divide up the color spectrum differently may actually see the world differently: one MIT study found that native Russian speakers, who have distinct words for lighter blues (goluboy) and darker blues (siniy), were swifter at discriminating between shades of blue than native English speakers. But while many linguists today celebrate the cognitive benefits of linguistic diversity, those differences were often used to buttress nationalistic narratives in the nineteenth century.




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