Wednesday’s post about the lack of international/intercultural communication on the Internet got my wheels turning. I think there’s more to this topic.
Cultural insularity is the world’s status quo, and there is currently no momentum at all towards a global language. Sure, the Esperanto organization still runs annual conferences, but we all know Esperanto was a well-intentioned dud. It was founded in 1887 with the publication of a book called Lingvo Internacia by Lazar Zamenhov, a Polish Jew. The movement was a hit, but the language never took root, and by the time Zamenhov died in 1917 Europe was in its worst depths of violence. The Great War provided insurmountable proof that Zamenhov’s ideas about global peace through global communication were naive. (His children were then persecuted and murdered during World War II for being Jewish, being Baha’i, and being related to Lazar Zamenhov).
But even if the planet Earth had been more hospitable to Zamenhov’s idealistic dream, Esperanto would have had to fail. This approach to language was too top-down, too rigid. Committees and congresses cannot create languages. Esperanto was a clean and rule-based specification, but the language lacked warmth, and lacked the quirky edges you could hang poetry (or jokes, or love songs) on. We learned through the bad example of Esperanto that languages must evolve organically, and artistically. Snoop Dogg turns out to have introduced far more enduring linguistic variations to the world than Lazar Zamenhov ever did.
Esperanto’s image was also doomed by its political affiliation. Some of these historical connections are not widely understood today, but naturally Esperanto was a part of the broad intellectual movement known as Modernism, which was often (though not always) allied with Marxism or Communism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There should be no doubt where Esperanto was positioned politically; it was a left-wing movement, along with farm collectivization, socialist realist artwork, Brutalist concrete architecture, the Helvetica font (yes, the Helvetica font) and collarless jackets. This is one major reason why the Esperanto movement is nowhere today (for what it’s worth, they are holding their next conference this July in Havana).
Beyond the tiresome left-wing/right-wing politics that haunt the Esperanto movement, there seems to be little broad support for a one-language movement. Some fear that the monumental and beautiful native languages of the world would become extinct. But this objection doesn’t really hold up to examination: there is no reason why the civilizations of the world could not and would not retain their native languages. Still, the idea of a global language is never mentioned in polite company; to venture the thought is to be laughed at.
Some may believe that the world should remain a tower of Babel forever, and it’s tough to figure out where many opinions might fall on this question. Words Without Borders, the acclaimed website for international literature, obviously represents a globalist sensibility, but Words Without Borders also represents the vibrant worldwide community of literary translators, who (as experts in the intricacies of their chosen languages) might be appalled at the idea of a global language. Other excellent organizations like Open Letter Books, PEN and the National Endowment for the Arts could be expected to be similarly lukewarm about the idea.
No person of good conscience could wish for the richness of the world’s separate languages to go away. And yet, there is no contradiction between the preservation of separate languages and the gradual emergence of a global language. The closer we look, the more it seems obvious that a world language would be a good idea — if it could possibly be achieved, and if it did not displace existing languages. The harder question, it turns out, is how to make it happen.
Nobody wants Esperanto 2.0. If a world language emerges, it will happen from the ground up. But it’s worth bringing the whole topic, which was once so popular and seemed so full of promise, back into the light. The ability to communicate easily, naturally and widely between the cultures of the world is vital for our future. The potential benefits of a linguistically integrated world are beyond measure. It’s a no-brainer, really.
Many centuries ago, respected Christian intellectuals argued that it was a sacrilege to translate the Bible into common languages. Current objections that it would be a sacrilege to bridge the languages of the world should be taken in a similar spirit.
But how can a new movement for a global language possibly take root, after such terrible previous starts? Where would it even begin? The 2010 Esperanto conference in Havana is probably not the answer.
I have no idea what the answer is. But I do think the question deserves some serious thought.