Is Esperanto a neutral language? The political paradoxes of the Esperanto Movement
Is Esperanto a neutral language?
The political paradoxes of the Esperanto Movement
F Gobbo (Amsterdam / Torino)
22-24 April 2017
The Politics of Multilingualism
University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam
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What is Esperanto?
Esperanto is a planned language, i.e. a language that violates the
priority of orality (Lyons) because a single man (or a committee)
writes its normative variety before to form a community of practice.
Ludwig Lejzer Zamenhof, an Ashkenazi Jew living mainly in the Pale
of Settlement, launched his lingvo internacia in 1887. Several
International Auxiliary Language (IAL) were proposed since then, but
only Esperanto became relevant from a sociolinguistic point of view.
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How many people speak Esperanto?
From: Gobbo (2015)4 (cc) 2017 F Gobbo
Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof: life
■ 1859: born in Białystok (Poland, then Tsarist Russia)
■ 1879-81: student of medicine in Moscow
■ 1881-1885: studies in Warsaw
■ 1887: launch of Esperanto (language project)
■ 1901: definition of Hillelism (religious-political project)
■ 1905: first World Esperanto Congress in France
■ 1906: launch of Hillelism
■ 1913: launch of Homaranismo (ethical project)
■ 1914: answer to the foundation of the Hebrea Ligo
■ 1915: Appeal to the Diplomats after the Great War
■ 1917: last words. Death in Warsaw
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Is a absolute neutral language possible?
Van Parijs (2011) attacks Esperanto not being neutral as it is not
“equidistant” from all the languages of the world (let’s call it
absolute neutrality). The history of Interlinguistics shows that only
a-priori languages, such as the philosophical languages by Dalgarno
and Wilkins, or Lincos by Freudenthal, are absolute neutral, but they
cannot be put in use in practice.
Esperanto is an a-posteriori language. It is based on the repertoire
of Zamenhof: early bilingual Yiddish and Russian, he spoke Polish and
German in his city, studied French, Latin and Greek in school, Hebrew
in the synagogue, self-studied English, contact with Lithuanian.
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A corpus-based analysis of the lexicon
LAT EPO GER I-EU GR BSLA
first 100 words 47 27 7 17 1 2
first 1000 words 704 121 101 50 15 9
total 70% 12% 10% 5% <2% <1%
■ LAT = Latinate (Latin, French mainly)
■ EPO = Esperanto special new words (correlatives mainly)
■ GER = Germanic (German mainly)
■ I-EU = Indo-European
■ BSLA = Balto-Slavic (Russian, Polish, Lithuanian)
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Zamenhof’s Hillelism and the
What is Hillelism? A religious-political project
From a letter to Abraham Kofman (1901) by Zamenhof:
Even if all scholars of the world would accept Esperanto, even if
one million people would use it, nothing will guarantee, that
within one year it will be put away and forgotten forever! […] It
will be strong only if will exist a group that woul accept it as its
family, heritage language. […] Neither the solution to the Jewish
question nor the grounding of a neutral language will be
possible without Hillelism, i.e. without creation of a neutral
people. (my translation)
For Zamenhof Esperanto is the vehicle “to spread among humanity
the truth of monotheism and the principles of justice and fraternity”
(in Schor 2015:132).
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The impact of the first World Esperanto Congress
Declaration of Esperantism, 1905
■ 1. Esperantism is the endeavour to spread throughout the entire
world the use of this neutral, human language which, “not
intruding upon the personal life of peoples and in no way aiming to
replace existing national languages”, would give to people of
different nations the ability to understand each other […] All other
ideals or hopes tied with Esperantism by any Esperantist is his or
her purely private affair, for which Esperantism is not
■ 4.Esperanto has no lawgiving authority and is dependent on no
particular person. All opinions and works of the creator of
Esperanto have, similar to the opinions and works of every other
esperantist, an absolutely private quality. […]
■ 5. An Esperantist is a person who knows and uses the language
Esperanto with complete exactness, for whatever aim he uses it
for. […] (my emphasis)
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Esperantism is not necessarily Zamenhof’s!
Zamenhof’s ideology treats languages as tools of
communication, and communication as a tool for improving
human welfare. [This implies] that the peoples of the world
have much in common, so international communication will
contribute to friendship and peace, rather than animosity and
war (Jordan 1987, my emphasis).
Esperanto outlived its creator not because of structural
perfection, but because of […] a community which linked the
language to nonlinguistic ideas (Corsetti 1981, my emphasis).
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Foundation of the Universal Esperanto Association
Hector Hodler reframes neutralism
In 1908 Hector Hodler founded the Universala Esperanto-Asocio
(UEA) as the “Red Cross of the Soul” in Geneva, a place where every
individual is accepted regardless of its ethnicity. His pillars:
■ network of konsuloj providing services to travelling Esperanto
■ cultural Esperanto centres (KCE) running year-long programs and
courses (like British Council or Goethe-Institut).
During WWI, UEA will act as a mediator resending letters from
France and Germany across the French-German front.
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How the French changed Esperantism
From: Garvía (2015).
Neutralism in the belle epoque
Esperanto attracts French intellectuals, mainly philosophers and
scientists, in order to solve the “scientific babel” (Gordin 2015), i.e.,
the neutral language to publish scientific research, and also:
■ for tourism (contact with the Touring Club);
■ for international commerce;
■ for diplomatic relations.
The Esperanto language is considered a neutral tool for practical
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Zamenhof’s Homaranismo: an
Homaranismo, Jewishness and nationalism
From: the answer to the invitation joingin the Jewish Espranto
League (20 June 1914):
Unfortunately I must stay aside this matter, as, according to my
convinctions, I am homarano (member of humanity), and I
cannot bound myself to the goals and ideals of a particular
ethnic group or religion. […] It is true, that the nationalism by
oppressed people – as a natural reaction of self-defence – is
much more excusable, than the nationalism of oppressing
people; but, if the nationalism of the strong people is ignoble,
the nationalism of the weak is imprudent: both generate and
subtain one the other, and present a vicious circle of infelicity,
from which humanity never will go out, unless everybody will
offer proper group’s love and won’t struggle to stay on a
completely neutral ground.
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Lapenna: the need to define neutralism again
The centre of the Esperanto Movement became the new UEA, and
thanks to the work by Ivo Lapenna it started to be in “Consultative
arrangements with UNESCO 1962 Category B”, after the Montevideo
Resolution IV.4.422-4224 (1954) in favour of Esperanto because its
results “correspond with the aims and ideals of Unesco”. Lapenna was
anticommunist, so UEA took the Atlantic side.
Lapenna, in his Esperanto en perspektivo (1974) argues that the
acceptance of a single national language for international
communication is irrealistic, as the other nations will not accept it.
At the international level, multilingualism is considered a problem
and Esperanto its solution.
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Tonkin’s new neutralism, linked with language rights
Since 1956, a distinct junulara movado “youth movement” formed
inside UEA with a definite association, called TEJO. En 1969 in their
meeting young Esperantists signed the Declaration of Tyresö (my
translation from Esperanto, my emphasis):
If we apply with consistence the concept of conserving the
integrity of individuals, you will condemn linguistic and
cultural discriminations in any form, and also the so-called
solution of the language problem, which is based on the
discrimination, and we find that until now we pay not enough
attention to the destruction of cultural and linguistic
background of many peoples. This destruction is nothing
else than a tool of linguistic imperialism.
The most influent person in UEA becomes Humphrey Tonkin.
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How neutralism was transformed in history
position year level nationality religion
LZZ’s 1901 individual respected new
Hillelism > patriotism (overcome in monotheistic
the long run) cult
internal idea 1905 individual / respected irrelevant
Swiss 1908 individual ignored irrelevant
French 1911 national respected respected
LLZ’s 1913 individual federated practical
Homaranismo (multicultural) monotheism
Lapenna’s 1948 national > respected respected
Tonkin’s 1974 national > respected ignored
generational (no political
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