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Esperanto & Esperantism


The following article was published in 1987 for a special issue of Language Problems and Language Planning. It was appeared again in 1997 in a collection of reprinted LPLP articles. The original manuscript was about twice the published length, and was severely abridged to satisfy the journal publisher's guidelines. To my chagrin the abridgement cut out few actual ideas. However, it did lead to a certain choppiness of the prose.

The text is reproduced here unmodified (even down to the inconsistent formatting of the bibliographic entries), except that footnotes have been moved back adjacent to the locations where they are cited rather than being inconveniently placed at the end of the text. Footnote numbering begins at 0 to follow the convention of the original text.

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The full colophon is:

Jordan, David K.
1987 "Esperanto & Esperantism: symbols and motivations in a movement for linguistic equality." Language Problems & Language Planning (Austin) 11(1): 104-125.
Reprinted: Humphrey Tonkin (ed.) 1997 Esperanto, interlinguistics, and planned language. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Pp. 39-65.

Esperanto & Esperantism:
Symbols and Motivations
in a Movement for
Linguistic Equality

David K Jordan*

*-This article has benefited from comments by James Cool, Jonathan Pool, Catherine Schulze, Humphrey Tonkin, and Richard Wood.
Abstract. One way to pursue linguistic equality is to create and use an international auxiliary language. The most visible such language is Esperanto. Only Esperanto, unlike hundreds of schemes, has become the language of a significant speech community. Why? Initially, Esperanto was shielded from divisive reformist tendencies by (1) the general view that Volapük, an earlier project, failed due to constant reforms, and (2) the emergence of an Esperanto offshoot, Ido, that attracted would-be reformers away from the Esperanto movement itself, leaving social visionaries rather than linguistic ones. Today (as in the past) an important key to understanding the distribution of interest in Esperanto is the symbolic valences it assumes in different social and cultural contexts. These are discussed especially for the United States.

My grandfather told me if everybody spoke English the world would work better. He had a point. When a language is badly known, subtlety is threatened. If it is unequally known, as between native and non-native speakers, the negotiation is not "fair" (Sapir 1931). Linguistic competence becomes a political resource; leadership falls to the better speakers.

But perhaps we can achieve linguistic equality with translation, a mutually foreign language, or even an international auxiliary language, created from scratch. Some (e.g., Tonkin 1979) maintain this third method is the only viable one. Others (e.g., Farb 1975: 354367) reject it as fundamentally ill-conceived. Whatever we may think of an artificial world language, the dream of creating one is surprisingly frequent, and the dream of speaking one even more frequent. The fate of these dreams and their dreamers can teach us something about the struggle for linguistic equality.

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Esperanto: A Dream Come True?

The most visible artificial (or "planned," as adherents prefer) international language is Esperanto. Devised by L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), a young oculist, it appeared on the world scene in Warsaw in 1887, as a pamphlet with a sketchy grammar and tiny dictionary. Unlike hundreds of such schemes, many published with more fanfare, Esperanto became a living language of about a million people and an ideological/social movement, dwarfing its only two serious competitors, Volapük and Ido. (Footnote 1)

1-Pechan (1966: 181-183) tabulates 171 schemes for new languages or simplifications of existing ones (such as Basic English or new-Latin schools) published between 1650 and 1960. The concentration of this activity is about 1880-1930.

2-I learned Esperanto in 1959 and have since been involved with the American movement. I have held offices in local Esperanto clubs and contributed pieces to Esperanto publications. This "participant observation" differs from the anthropological tradition in being (for most of the period) less methodical. What is lost in self-conscious research strategy is hopefully compensated in the continuity and diversity of contacts.

Why have only Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido ever attained spoken use? Why has only Esperanto become the language of a significant community? Are the reasons linguistic? Can these three be the only usable planned languages? If so, then the linguistic constraints on language planning must be narrow. Are the reasons sociological? Can Esperanto be the only language with a satisfactorily organized movement? If so, how and why is its organization unique? Are the reasons historical? Can 1887 have been the perfect moment and Warsaw the perfect city to launch a planned language? If so, why? Perhaps the reasons are psychological, relating to the motivations and gratifications of learners. Yet what can the learner of Esperanto have experienced, especially in the early days, different from a student of Idiom Neutral or Interlingua or Cosmoglot, now on the scrap heap of failed programmatics?

A key to the emergence of Esperanto was, paradoxically, the help of its competitors in resolving the conflict between those seeking formal perfection in a language and those wanting a linguistic equalizer now (warts and all). But the key to Esperanto's persistence is the way the ideals and symbols that survived this conflict have interacted with diverse cultures and language situations. (Footnote 2)

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Who Killed Volapük?

Published in 1879, Volapük was the creation of a polyglot German priest, Johann Martin Schleyer (1832-1912). It had mainly English words, imaginatively respelt, and a Germanic grammar modified to allow unlimited accumulation of inflectional endings.

3-Cf. Sprague (1888: vi) and Drezen (1931b: 106f), who confirm at least a large fraction of these numbers.

4-Interlingua of 1909 should not be confused with a project of the same name published in the United States in 1950 and intended as an instant-recognition printed medium for people familiar with western European languages (Gode and Blair 1955, Bernasconi 1976). Not all Volapükists were enthusiastic about the changes. A project called Bolak, for example, sought to re-Volapükize the rapidly evolving language (Carlevaro 1979).

Unlike all prior planned languages for undoing the disaster at Babel, Volapük came to be spoken (Drezen 1931b: 98-109, 164-168). One of its leaders (Simonson 1890: 14-16) claimed a million speakers, a thousand books, and thirty journals. (Footnote 3) Within ten years, he prophesied, "no country c[ould] afford to be without a teacher of Volapük in every one of its public schools." Ten years later the Volapük movement was dead.

The success of Volapük, even if much exaggerated by its adherents, is puzzling; its decline is not. The villain is reformism. Schleyer and others were unwilling to leave Volapük alone; they continued devising and squabbling over "improvements." Schleyer disavowed the Volapük academy in 1893 (Drezen 1931: 168) and set up a new one, while the original academy created a new language, Idiom Neutral (Flugel 1925: 174). Idiom Neutral was reformed in 1907 and replaced in 1909 by Interlingua, a revision of "Latino sine Flexione." (Footnote 4) Constant reform results in dysfunctional linguistic instability, as may be seen also in natural language reforms. (Compare the 1977 list of yet-more-simplified characters in China.) Briefly put, Volapükism as a movement extinguished Volapük as a language.

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The Birth Trauma of Esperanto

5 In modern editions, such as Zamenhof (1963), even errors have been retained, being corrected in the editorial notes. The 900-root vocabulary enshrined in the Fundamento grew to about 3,000 roots in Zamenhof's writing (Waster 1927). The largest general dictionary to date (Waringhien et al. 1970) contains over 15,000 articles. It marks all roots found in the Fundamento or its subsequent official addenda, and therefore canonical.

6 More exactly, such security comes more easily than in other languages. Many learners remain insecure. The forces favoring confidence are many, however. Jonathan Pool writes (personal communication):

The norm of native-speaker idiomaticity has little legitimacy in Esperanto. If criteria of correctness were strict, the mission to recruit speakers (not just believers) would be frustrated. Even fluent speakers have native-language-influenced accents and usages. The tacit contract, "I won't criticize your speech if you don't complain about mine," confers mutual benefit. Esperanto is also perceived as under continual development, so deviations from conventional rules can be defended as trial innovations. All this may reduce the salience (though not the existence) of incorrect speech.

7 One is reminded of charges (Bliss 1939: 57-58) that the Library of Congress classification is an abomination because it combines letters and numbers.

L. L. Zamenhof was beginning a medical practice in Warsaw when he made Esperanto public. His booklet (Zamenhof 1887) contained an introduction, some translations and poems, a sketchy teaching grammar, and a modest vocabulary. With revisions, these became honored as the Fundamento (foundation or fundamentals), the canonical basis for Esperanto grammar, style, and usage (Zamenhof 1963). (Footnote 5) The vocabulary is largely Latinate, but the grammar resembles "inflectional," "agglutinative," and "isolating" languages in various ways (Piron 1977; Wells 1978: 27). While tending toward "naturalism" (borrowing whole word stems), Esperanto differs from neo-Latin projects by making all morphemes productive in creating new words. An abstract suffix -eco, for example, can be attached to any root or stem in the language, yielding stulteco (stupidity), scienceco (scientificality), troeco (too-ness, i.e., excessiveness), or even ececo (nessitude, i.e., abstractness). Thus novice speakers usually feel reasonably secure that their utterances are grammatical, if not idiomatic. (Footnote 6) But even Romance roots do not necessarily generate Romance-looking words, leaving Esperanto looking "artificial" to those who confuse naturalism with Romance languages. (Footnote 7)

Esperanto was more polished at publication than Volapük. Volapük, allegedly completed in one night of insomnia, was apparently preceded by no more than a year of work (Drezen 1931b: 98-100; Simonson 1890: 14-15). Creating Esperanto dominated most of Zamenhof's teens and twenties. He translated from Goethe, Shakespeare, Orzeszko, and the Bible to assure himself that Esperanto would be fully functional.

Zamenhof's translations subjected Esperanto to strains and hence reforms before, not (as with Volapük) after, publication (Waringhien 1959: 19-54). Further, the internally consistent chrestomathy attracted people interested in literary applications rather than programmatic perfectionists, and provided alternatives to reform for writers having trouble expressing themselves. Zamenhof had proven that the language could express a wide range of ideas and passions, so the influence of reformers was mitigated.

The kindly, self-effacing Zamenhof and the flamboyantly possessive Schleyer may have attracted adherents with different attitudes (Flugel 1925: 171-177). Flugel (1925: 201) hypothesizes that for many persons "tampering" with a language is "the equivalent of an attack upon the mother … associated with the forbidden coprophilic tendencies … . (Footnote 8)

8-For a critical appreciation of Flugel, see Lieberman 1979: 97-101.

9-The possible Volapük influences on Esperanto have fascinated Esperantists. Writing for the Volapük centennial issue of an Esperanto literary magazine, Golden (1979) claims Zamenhof actually learned Volapük, though he coined the word volapukaĵo for inscrutable turns of phrase.

10 The primary defections after the vote against changes occurred in Germany. By 1903 there were no Esperanto societies at all in Germany (Drezen 1931a: 13). The seeming German loyalty to the superficially more Germanic Volapük is paralleled by French suspicions of it. The Volapük four-case declension system resembled German, while the two-case system of Esperanto resembled French. (Cf. pen jinoka obik with la plumo de mia onklino.)

Volapük, then, recruited perfectionistic reformers, while Esperanto drew in literati, loyalists, and organizers. Not only did Esperanto need less reform, but the faltering Volapük movement exposed the dysfunctions of reformist zeal. (Footnote 9) As Volapük collapsed, however, it also contributed converts, sometimes whole clubs of them (as in Nürnberg), to the Esperanto movement, and some of these were "playful language amateurs … consider[ing] the international language purely a technical instrument, correctable and perfectible according to personal preferences" (Drezen 1931a: 10f.). Although possibly the most reform-prone individuals opted for the neo-Volapük projects, Idiom Neutral and Interlingua, support for reforms in Esperanto grew.

Zamenhof collected all reform proposals but insisted he was at best a knowledgeable speaker, not the final authority. He suggested a "congress of learned persons," whose decisions "must be binding … even if the congress finds it necessary to change the language beyond recognition" (Drezen 1931a: 9; Jacob 1947: 31; Zamenhof 1888: 91). Zamenhof in fact retained his privileged position until his death in 1917. Meanwhile, reformers battled believers in evolutionary change. In 1894, prodded and threatened by a major contributor, Zamenhof offered a list of reforms to the readers of the movement's journal, La Esperantisto. The majority (157) voted against any reforms (Couturat and Leau 1907: 34). The reformists were defeated. The benefactor cut off the money. The Nürnberg Esperanto (formerly Volapük) club converted to Idiom Neutral. (Footnote 10)

In part through the defection of reformists (Drezen 1931a: 14), by the first international Esperanto congress of 1905, sentiment against reformism was strong. The congress's "Boulogne Declaration" defined the movement's goal as getting the world to adopt a neutral international auxiliary language without abolishing natural languages in their home territories. It declared Esperanto public property and defined an "Esperantist" as anyone knowing the language, regardless of what he used it for and whether he belonged to an Esperanto organization. The Fundamento was to remain the compulsory model of usage, with Zamenhof's other writings commended as desirable models (Lapenna et al. 1974: 419-420).

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Id and Ido

The Boulogne Declaration did not finish the flirtation with reform. In 1907-1908 a grandly titled but unofficial Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language recommended a variant of Esperanto called Ido —meaning "offspring" in Esperanto— which reformed the most objected-to aspects of Esperanto, such as diacritical marks (ĉ, ĝ, etc.). (Footnote 11) Negotiations among the Delegation, Zamenhof, and the Language Committee of the Esperantists (a quasi-academy) failed, and the Delegation began a new movement.

11 The author of Ido was almost certainly Louis de Beaufront, Zamenhof s representative to the Delegation. Esperantists ever since have referred to him as the Judas of the movement.

12-Estimates vary. Pechan (1979: 29) claims that the descendants of Esperanto have recruited defectors from one another and, in all, "have adepts equal to not more than one percent of the number of Esperantists."

Ido grew rapidly. Lapenna et al. (1974: 424) estimate that 20% of the Esperanto "leaders" and 3-4% of the ordinary members defected to Ido. (Footnote 12) By 1911 there were 200 Ido groups, including 40 in France (compared with 230 French Esperanto groups). After the Great War, which disrupted both movements, only Esperanto regained its strength. The Ido movement, always far smaller, continues today, officially "dedicated to the propagation, the free discussion, and the constant perfecting of the International Language." The two movements remain largely ignorant or suspicious of one another (Carlevaro 1977: 4). Esperanto leaders advise against even mentioning Ido or other competing projects (UEA 1968: 60).

Monnerot-Dumaine (1960: 102) lists two dozen other Esperanto offshoots. He also lists (1960: 108) a score of projects derived from Ido (two of which are themselves indirectly derived through two of the others), his own project of Esperanto-Ido "reconciliation," and (1960: 118) a dozen derivatives from Peano's Interlingua, the successor to Idiom Neutral, itself the successor to Volapük.

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Triumph and Warts

Esperanto might not have succeeded without the Volapük and Ido movements. Volapük poured defectors into Esperanto and warned the Esperantists against both reformism and personality cults. Ido probably drew reformists out of Esperanto, leaving the movement loyalists it required. Without Volapük to set the stage and Ido to draw away perfectionists, Esperanto might have collapsed.

Draining reformists away does not in itself build a vigorous movement. Loyalties must be built among those who remain. In addition to the idea of a planned international language, two forces unique to Esperanto seem to deserve credit for attracting these loyalties. They are the ideology of Esperantism, fashioned largely by Zamenhof, and the "political machine" provided by the movement's worldwide organization.

Zamenhof s ideology treats languages as tools of communication, and communication as a tool for improving human welfare. These credos imply that a second-best language the world can agree to use is better than a "best" language on which the world cannot agree. They imply also that the peoples of the world have much in common, so international communication will contribute to friendship and peace, rather than animosity and war. Zamenhof's "value-oriented" or "expressive" vision of an internationalist brotherhood, which for a time assumed religious garb, is called in movement parlance la interna ideo (the underlying idea of Esperanto) (Broadribb 1970; Forster 1982: 103-107, 347; Lieberman 1979). A contrary "norm-oriented" or "instrumental" ideology, advocating the perfection of the language as a practical tool (Forster 1982: 294, 347), has only a minority following among Esperantists, in contrast to its dominance within the Ido movement.

Zamenhof s followers regard other Esperantists not merely as speakers but as people sharing the interna ideo. In fact, the common term denoting "fellow Esperantist" is samideano (adherent of the same idea). Value-oriented Esperantists seek to prove that Esperanto is a catalyst for human brotherhood, both by persuading outsiders that Esperanto will solve their problems (Flugel 1925: 174, 176; Forster 1982: 230-260) and by creating a total Gemeinschaft at their own meetings (Forster 1971: 209-210). Many activists think "Esperanto outlived its creator not because of structural perfection, but because of … a community which linked the language to nonlinguistic ideas" (Corsetti 1981: 50; cf. Golden 1977).

13-It is as hard to estimate the number of speakers of Esperanto as to estimate the number of people who know shorthand. Incomplete UEA membership figures for 1978 (UEA 1979: 58) totaled 31,043, but only an unknown fraction of all Esperantists belong to UEA. Estimates from 100,000 to a million speakers are commonly used by publicists, but Janton (1973: 112) argues that two to seven million is more realistic.

The institutional force promoting loyalty to the Esperanto movement is the Universala Esperanto-Asocio (UEA), founded in 1908 during the Ido schism. UEA has supported publication and intercommunication among Esperantists. It has provided a center that serves members and promotes the idea of an international language. Its volunteer delegitoj (service agents) in various cities, serving members only, provide an effective inducement to remain in the fold. UEA benefits make members more or less independent of local organizations and thus of any factional disputes in them. UEA has remained relatively aloof from linguistic disputes. It has helped Esperantists spend their energy using the language rather than wondering if it is the best one.

Esperanto, then, developed a real speech community. This community is in a dynamic equilibrium. Each year it gains thousands of members and loses close to the same number by death, disinterest, and disaffection. (Footnote 13) Recruits come to Esperanto for many reasons, but those motivated by linguistic perfectionism tend to leave again soon. Linguistic perfection is unrealizable, and there is little cultural support for it in the movement.

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The Esperanto Movement and Its Symbols: Being an Esperantist

Living informants bring to the fore complexities that make a dichotomy between value (or movement) and norm (or language) orientations inadequate. Consider these (paraphrased) statements made to me in the late 1970s by long-time Esperantists:

George: I think what keeps me involved with the Esperanto movement is that I really love the language. I somehow feel as though I can see it, understand it, in a deeper way than I can English, and I find that really satisfying.

Sally: You know, I don't think we should put so much emphasis on getting Esperanto "accepted" at the United Nations and things like that. I think we would do much better if we could just let people know how great it is, how really practical, like when you travel. When I was in ____, I had a wonderful time, and the Esperantists were all so friendly. It was really all because of Esperanto.

George is an Esperantist by virtue of his interest in language. But he is a language watcher, not a reformer. He loves Esperanto as it is; he feels (he told me) a fascination in how it handles problems of expression. Any reformism is confined to details of literary style. Sally is one of Forster's Gemeinschaft people, interested in the social relations of the movement. Nevertheless, she belongs for "practical" reasons like travel. Foreign Esperantists are of interest because they are friendly and foreign, not merely because they are Esperantists. Her attitude appears even more "practical" or "norm-oriented" in contrast with Ann, who told me (paraphrasing):

Ann: Sometimes I wonder what will happen if Esperanto ever becomes universal. It seems a shame to think that Esperantists would be less friendly. It is so nice the way it is now.

Ann is closer to the value-oriented, movement enthusiast, though (atypically) she has lost sight here of the movement's main goal. Ann would not oppose the movement's growth, yet she might be a less active propagandist than Sally, more apt to promote internal solidarity. She might even find an ally in George, since an influx of new speakers could destabilize Esperanto as a language. (Footnote 14) The distinction between norm- and value-oriented Esperantists makes sense but is simplistic. Interest in practical problems need not occur with interest in language reform, and Gemeinschaft values can coincide with concern for the formal language.

14-Thee increasing influence of speakers of Germanic rather than Slavic or Romance languages is blamed by some Esperantists (e.g., Probal Dasgupta, personal communication) for the esoteric "passive participle crisis" of the 1950s, a dispute over the "real meaning" of past-tense passive verbs. Puzzles can lurk beneath the linguistic surface for years only to be brought to light by demographic shifts. The influence of Japanese and Chinese Esperanto usage is just beginning to be noticed.

15-At its extreme, this becomes a grim campaign with few resources, many defeats, and plenty of internal recriminations. A satire (Iltis, n.d.) during the 1960s is said to have provoked the widely quoted (and parodized) response from Ivo Lapenna, the humorless UEA president of the time: "Defeatism is not permissible at any level of a battling movement like ours."

If a single motivational dichotomy divides the Esperanto-speaking world today, it concerns the traditional goal of universal adoption versus a revised goal of limited utilization. The "official" position largely pursues the eventual universality of Esperanto and the equality of all natural-language communities, (Footnote 15) while according little legitimacy to deviant views. A top UEA leader (Bormann 1978: 32) writes that "Esperanto battles constantly against linguistic injustice… . Nevertheless the individual Esperantists have become aware of that only little by little."

Another (minority) position revels in what has already been attained. A group issuing a "manifesto" for this position (Literatura Foiro 1981: 13) describes the competing leaderships as the Primals (Pracelanoj) and the Manifestants (Manifestantoj).

The Primals want to attack the world with the unique solution to the terribly pressing problem of language; the Manifestants want to make the world aware of the positive value of the Esperanto phenomenon. Primals are depressed by the present dimensions of the movement, and they do not hesitate to bluff about our numbers and attainments; the Manifestants accept their role as a minority and simply ask respect for that minority. The Primals bandy about the problem of ethnolinguistic minorities; the Manifestants publicly declare that the Esperantists are one of these ethnolinguistic groups. Primals stress the propaganda aspect of Esperanto activism; Manifestants stress its personally enjoyable values. According to the Primals, these personally enjoyable values are (merely) the present positive stage on the road to victory; for the Manifestants, these values are the victory itself. Thus the task of the Manifestants is to export these values and leave behind the myths of the past, condensed in such hackneyed slogans as "The Second Language for Everyone!" "Stop English!" "Esperanto in the Schools!" "Esperanto for the U.N."

This (as any) dichotomy oversimplifies reality, yet many who generalize about Esperantists don't even admit a dichotomy, instead assuming the movement is a homogeneous mass. Stalin outlawed Esperanto as "an expression of reactionary ideology"; Hitler as a language spoken by Zionists and communists (Sadler and Lins 1972: 208). Less viciously, but just as ignorantly, ordinary people often imagine Esperantists as uniformly benevolent but unrealistic idealists, or (more commonly) uniformly screwballs.

Professional analysts also often overhomogenize. Flugel (1926: 180-183 and elsewhere) speaks of the (ultimately phallic) potency that people feel as masters of foreign languages, their (castration) anxiety about the possibility of making humiliating errors, and their joy at mastering the world via a universal language. Forster (1971: 203) speaks of Esperanto as the vehicle of a (single!) distinctive subculture. Wood (1979), while distinguishing native Esperanto speakers and ordinary Esperantists, ignores regional differences. Some authors assert Esperantists feel linguistically liberated because of the freedom to combine morphemes without regard to native conventions.

In reality, there seems to be no Esperantist "type." In the British Esperanto Association, for example, Labourites, vegetarians, civil servants, and educators are a bit overrepresented and Anglicans somewhat underrepresented. On the whole, though, they are hard to distinguish from the British population (Forster 1982: 299-332).

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Americans and the Symbolism of Esperanto

Having made my polemic against any assumption of uniformity among Esperantists as a whole, let me turn to some in the American movement, back to George and Sally and Ann and their compatriots, and try to describe some axes of their interest and involvement. First we must notice that the United States provides a quite different context for the study of any foreign language than do other countries. The model of the Esperantist as seeker of linguistic liberation may apply to some European elites, but American learners rarely progress enough to feel unconstrained. The premier, if incipiently deteriorating (Starr 1978), world position of English makes other languages unnecessary for most Americans, and makes those inclined to study a language uncertain which one is most worth learning (Lewin and Jordan 1981). Thus, while in most of the world Esperanto is almost never a person's second-learned language, many Americans who take on Esperanto are monolingual or nearly so. Compared with Esperanto students elsewhere, Americans tend, I think, to need more work but expect less work in learning Esperanto, and to demand less fluency in themselves and their fellows. Americans also tend to worry less about language problems in their own lives, while being easily convinced of the severity of language problems "over there." (Footnote 16) Strong motivations for learning Esperanto elsewhere hardly apply to the United States.

16-For the logic of appeal often made by American Esperantists, see Ornstein (1975).

17 The Esperanto movement has devoted few resources to establishing either claim. Perhaps such a demonstration is felt unnecessary, or perhaps some Esperantists fear that the claims are untrue. It is, however, difficult to test general claims like these.

18 Esperanto leaders (such as Tonkin in his introduction to Piron 1977) are often, understandably but perhaps dangerously, vague as to the meaning with which they use "neutral" in describing Esperanto.

19 Starr (1978) claims English is so widespread in international use as to be free of such political connotations.

20 The cultural tradition of a language is secondary when the language is used outside that tradition. Japanese speaking to Russians in Esperanto are no more likely to feel deracinated than when speaking in English or Samoan.

The symbolism of Esperanto is paradoxical. Other than its learnability, its political neutrality is the most common argument given for its superiority over "national" languages in international relations. (Footnote 17) Esperanto leaders have always claimed their language is "neutral," and it has caught on as a symbol of neutrality. One American college dean (Ward 1949: viii), for example, looks forward to a day when civilization's "great conversation" can authentically "be carried on by men without a country speaking Esperanto without an accent." Esperanto for Ward, as for Zamenhof, is a symbol of communication directly between equals whose interests have passed from the parochial to the universal.

Esperanto publicists have had difficulty with the notion of neutrality. The vocabulary of Esperanto is heavily Romance, and its grammar seems western to lay speakers of European languages, although this has been disputed (Piron 1977). Esperanto cannot incorporate equal parts of all languages, make its grammar equally similar to all natural languages, or provide a discrete translation for any particular word in any language. Most Esperantists maintain its neutrality lies not in catholic origins, but in its not being the language of any national state. (Footnote 18) This allegedly frees Esperanto from implications of political dominance that would make international use of a "national" language such as English unacceptable to, say, Chinese. (Footnote 19) Critics are quick to say that the clearly western vocabulary of Esperanto would imply western political (and cultural) dominance if it were an official international language.

Political neutrality is sometimes confounded with cultural neutrality, which in turn suggests deracination. One criticism of Esperanto is that it lacks cultural roots (see Tonkin 1968). Mead and Modley (1967) maintained that Esperanto could not work internationally because it was not spoken (for example) by mothers to children and it therefore lacked the connotative associations necessary for full expressiveness. (They were wrong: Esperanto, of course, is spoken, even by mothers to children, since there are marriages between Esperantists with no other language in common.) For Mead and Modley, the association of Esperanto with cultural neutrality was a fatal flaw. Mothers and children were necessary for a "real" language, even if used by construction workers and travel agents. (Footnote 20)

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America and Esperantujo

If there are political concepts associated with Esperanto, they would seem to be statelessness or interstateness. As an interstate language, one can imagine Esperanto used in multinational documents. As a stateless language, we have seen its use in rhetoric about a futuristic society without national entities.

21-The 1980 UEA yearbook (UEA 1980) lists 3,572 delegitoj in 1,212 places in 63 countries.

Participation in an interstate world suggests the Club Mediterrané, the United Nations, diplomats, and international corporations. In a sense, the network of UEA delegitoj gives each Esperantist a "man in Rio." (Footnote 21) Participation in a stateless society suggests futuristic images of a universalized humanity. An Esperanto socialist federation calls itself the "Worldwide Statelessness Association" (Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda), and world government activists are probably substantially overrepresented among American Esperantists.

Whether the international world or the future world, the imagery can differ excitingly from the sometimes humdrum world in which ordinary Americans live out their lives. The association with these images may be gratifying because of the importance attached to those who conduct and reconstruct international relations.

But the image of deculturalization lurks behind neutrality: the mothers and children. In a sense, the Esperantist world is alienated from the everyday American world. The alienation is symbolized in the word Esperantujo, formed with -ujo, a suffix for country names, in this case a fantasy country populated by Esperantists. Although this is used as a simple term for the Esperanto-speaking world, its "nationalistic" associations are clear. To complete the pattern, Esperanto has a flag and an anthem —one of Zamenhof s first poems. Becoming citizens of Esperantujo, Esperantists potentially are less citizens of the United States. Alienated individuals, inclined to blame dissatisfaction on "American society," may seek in Esperantujo more forgiving compatriots.

The typical answer of Esperantists to the charge that Esperanto has no "culture" is proudly to assert that it does, and technically of course they are right. (Footnote 22) But what motivates the assertion may be the desire for Esperanto to constitute an independent society with a culture all its own, and the handful of Esperanto-speaking children are pointed to as evidence that Esperanto is indeed used by mothers and children. The reasonable defense that only a limited job is to be done by an international auxiliary language is not generally offered. Rather the typical argument is that Esperanto is richer than at first sight appears. However absurd the mothers and children are in judging a language used across national boundaries, they are important to many Esperantists' views of the completeness of their language. Esperanto, it is implied, could function as an individual's only language. Joining the Esperanto-speaking world can be a personal act of "identity planning" (Pool 1979), like moving to a new country or changing ethnicity. (This is even done literally. A communal international settlement in the Brazilian jungle uses Esperanto as its principal language. This has received considerable praise in the Esperanto press and public.)

22 For anthropologists, culture consists of "the sum of the morally forceful understandings acquired by learning and shared with the members of the group to which the learner belongs" (Swartz and Jordan 1976: 46). By definition, no human group, as anthropologists define "group," lacks culture.

The less alienated may still discover the ease of becoming a big frog in the puddle of Esperantujo. People write (and, alas, publish) literary efforts in Esperanto who would not contemplate writing poetry or stories in English. People seek and treasure offices in local, national, and even international Esperanto organizations who would face impossible competition in larger groups. (The national association has under a thousand members.) Thus Esperantujo, whether from alienation or ambition, may become a significant social world, functioning in contrast to the ordinary American milieu.

Few Americans assert verbally and self-consciously this facet of Esperanto neutrality. Still, some alienation from Americans is visible in replies to a questionnaire distributed to students of Esperanto (mostly advanced and long-time movement members) in 1978. Respondents who agreed with a statement that it "is very important for Americans to learn Esperanto" were asked for their reasons. The pre-course statements (less contaminated by three weeks of intensive interaction) can be categorized as follows:

  1. because the world is multilingual (2)
  2. because of American leadership in the world (5)
  3. because it is good for those Americans (7)
  4. because it is good for us Americans (2)
  5. for the sake of bettering the world (3)
  6. because the Esperanto movement needs this (2)
  7. other (1)

At least a third of the replies (those in category 3) exclude the writer when they refer to Americans. Here are these replies:

23 It is not known whether the "ease" of Esperanto depreciates the prestige value of knowing it, but the utopianism and crankishness associated with universal language schemes surely do. Even Zamenhof published Esperanto anonymously to protect his fledgling medical practice.

24 Cf. the fantasy song about a traveler to exotic parts, greeted everywhere by natives singing in (and singing praises of) Esperanto (Jaehger et al. 1964). Zamenhof was probably responding to such sentiments among Volapükists when he included on the title page of his 1887 book the line: "Calling a language 'international' does not make it so."

This evidence suggests, at least, that alienation from American society and escape into Esperantujo may be a generally significant component of American motivation to learn or stay with Esperanto.

But Esperanto also offers snob appeal within American society. Because languages are studied seldom and badly in America, command of a second language (unless it is English) symbolizes sophistication. For Americans, especially monolingual ones, prestige may be a significant motive in learning Esperanto. (Footnote 23) A few may be persuaded that "The International Language" —the name UEA recommends— is the best and most prestigious language of all, the universally applicable (if not yet universally applied) culmination of all languages. (Footnote 24)

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The Movement

As we have seen, the movement can motivate individuals to learn Esperanto. I use "movement" to refer to all organized efforts to promote or use Esperanto. The Esperanto word is movado and is distinguished from afero (cause), that which the movado promotes, including the language, the intema ideo of international cooperation, and even the movement itself.

In the United States the movement includes the Esperanto League for North America (ELNA), affiliated with Universala Esperanto-Asocio, and about thirty local clubs (ELNA 1977: 7), as well as the American Association of Teachers of Esperanto. Many American Esperantists are members of international Esperanto organizations (especially UEA) and subscribers to Esperanto periodicals from abroad.

Local clubs in the United States act as promotional bases and as forums in which Esperantists may practice their proposed solution to world language problems. Local clubs are regarded by many as the "weakest link" in the movado because of the poor language skill often prevalent there, where beginning students sometimes make up the majority. "They spoke in Esperanto, then translated themselves into English for the beginners present," writes McMillan (1981) about an Esperanto club meeting in Los Angeles.

Many are attracted to the language by association with Esperantists. Here are paraphrased comments of some more informants:

Fred: I had a friend once, years ago, whom I very much admired. He was an Esperantist, so I became an Esperantist too.

Harold: My son got interested in Esperanto in high school, for some reason, and joined the local club. That got me kind of interested, so I started studying it too, but I didn't get too far.

Conventions also let Esperantists attract new members by conspicuous use of the language. For example (ELNA 1979), "Margaret … wandered into the college cafeteria during the annual Esperanto Convention and was surrounded by hundreds of Esperanto speakers from all over the world. Impressed with its practicality, she came home … [and] enrolled in a class."

25-The word derives from the name of Kazimierz Bein (1872-1959), who, under the pseudonym "Kabe," was an important early Esperanto stylist, but who subsequently abandoned the language, disillusioned about it ever becoming important.

Other Esperantists, who teach themselves from a textbook, come to the movement secondarily. George, the one who loves the language, claims he does not attend local club meetings because he does not really like the people. A very fluent Esperantist told me he rarely attended club meetings because "the level of these things is really very low," although he has used Esperanto satisfyingly in international travel and correspondence. Esperantists use the word kabeismo for the phenomenon of fluent Esperantists losing interest. (Footnote 25) Kabeismo represents the failure of the local movement to hold people like George, and their resultant disillusionment. The movement repels some of its most fluent members, who often come to it through the appeal of the language. A letter from Ian says:

The vast majority of the Esperantists ardently support the "international" part, but regard the "language" as a somewhat annoying secondary issue. … I am not bothered by the fact that chances for worldwide acceptance of Esperanto are practically nil, but by the fact that the Esperantists refuse to admit it, and instead pompously trumpet their slogans and that [vastly inflated] number of there being 15 million Esperantists in the world. Their asinine certainty that they are supporting (even if they do not speak) the language of the future is annoying and embarrassing to me. … We are a tiny, dispersed people with the arrogance of a world-conquering army. I love the language and like a lot of Esperantists …, but for my sanity I cannot remain much longer in the movement. Yet the Zamenhofan ethic of work [to advance Esperantism] prohibits my enjoying the language outside of the movement.

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Slow Motion

We recall that the 1905 declaration on Esperantism defined "Esperantist" to include anyone who knew and used Esperanto, regardless of other affiliations and the purposes of use. The goal was to keep political and religious deviants in the fold and thereby maximize both the size of the movement and the use of Esperanto in its intended function of communication across cleavages of misunderstanding. The converse implication, that only those who spoke and used the language were entitled to be called Esperantists, has never been emphasized, and the term is often stretched to cover a world of far-from-fluent boosters and hangers-on.

The (derogatory) Esperanto term for a long-time member who does not speak Esperanto is eterna komencanto (eternal beginner). Eternal beginners may be tolerated or even encouraged for a long time; some may even occupy socially (though rarely formally) central local positions. They pose a dilemma. As missionizers, most Esperantists want to expand the movement, so they hesitate to turn down a helping hand. But non-Esperanto-speaking Esperantists force meetings and business to be conducted in English, threatening the very purpose for which the organizations ostensibly exist.

This contradiction is discussed in local clubs, with various results. Some clubs insist on Esperanto in all meetings, suffering reduced efficiency. In other clubs all proceedings are bilingual and translated, causing boredom and disillusionment but democratizing participation and allowing eternal beginners to contribute social skills and other resources.

The difference between conducting the meetings entirely in Esperanto and conducting them partly (or sometimes entirely!) in English is dramatic. When language restrictions are removed, the silent, stolid old man in the corner comes alive and dominates the conversation. Two women who have been staring into space begin sotto voce chattering. With a switch back from English to Esperanto, silence and order descend. A single high school student of moderate fluency can dominate the decision making of a roomful of less fluent senior citizens. An immigrant who learned Esperanto in the more rigorous caldrons of Eastern Europe recounts yet again the tiring tale of his 1971 Esperanto class in Yugoslavia.

Esperanto-speaking clubs allow little participation to the non-speaker and exert pressure to learn the language. Such groups do not, in general, retain members who are unable or unwilling to learn Esperanto, and they tend to run classes in the language. The implicit decision is that beginners are properly disenfranchised, and that mere hangers-on are not Esperantists at all.

In clubs that indulge in English or bilingual meetings, non-speakers are clearly entitled to attend and talk. Such groups tend to pay only lip service to teaching Esperanto. They probably attract people interested less in language and more in "supporting" a group that is "supporting" a solution to an international problem.

Fluent speakers seem to be privileged minorities in nearly all clubs in America, possibly except a few college clubs. They tend to dominate the formal offices, and they often insist on the use of Esperanto partly (they admit) to silence dissenters who cannot speak the language. Fluent speakers draw into a separate social circle at larger gatherings. For them the attraction of the movement includes elite status and is obviously different from its attraction for the eternal beginners. (Footnote 26)

26 Casual observation suggests similar problems in American associations supporting ethnic languages as well.

This distinction between the fluent and the beginners tends to erode solidarity and provoke alienation and defection. It is often observed, for example, that American Esperanto societies sing Esperanto songs together less often than do those abroad. If the use of rapid-fire Esperanto by the fluent silences the eternal beginners, it also intimidates progressing but still unfluent speakers. I have heard halting speakers describe fluent ones as "frightening."

Eternal beginners cannot use Esperanto for serious international exchange. They may associate Esperanto with an international or futuristic world and participate vicariously. The usual local club is ambivalent toward them. It accepts and values all supporters, but it makes beginners second-rate citizens and (perhaps unknown to them) occasional objects of scorn for their lack of ambition. Possibly more for the eternal beginner than for the fluent Esperantist with international contacts, the local club is a Gemeinschaft.

The solidarity of the fluent tends to be with counterparts in other clubs and other countries. Some of the fluent, however, especially those who cannot afford to travel to the European center of the movement where most world Esperanto congresses take place, are caught in the middle. Too fluent to be happily confined to a local club, but not well enough connected beyond that level to feel fraternity with similarly fluent people in other regions, they are prime candidates for kabeismo.

For Esperanto, the United States is distinctive because of its size, wealth, power, and isolation, and the important world position of English. These facts give the American Esperanto movement peculiar recruiting problems and internal tensions. Members cope or fail to cope with these tensions differently. The distinction between those devoted to Esperantism as a movement and those devoted to Esperanto as a language, crucial to the tremendous early success of Esperanto in comparison with competing projects, fails to explain the differential success of Esperanto in different parts of the world, or the differences in who becomes an Esperantist and why.

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Things to Come

As a language, Esperanto works. It could have much broader international use than it now enjoys. The movement supporting it has great survival skills. It rebounded after attempted extermination by Hitler and Stalin, and it has possibly been helped rather than hurt by linguistic, political, and personal schisms. Its ultimate contribution to humanity is still unpredictable, but its continued contribution seems inevitable.

The unique achievement of Esperanto is that it is a pending proposal and a fait accompli at the same time. The "great conversation" among "men without a country speaking Esperanto without an accent" is for some a fear, for some a hope, and —for some— a way of life. And those who have joined this conversation during the century of its existence believe, rightly or wrongly, that they enjoy true "linguistic equality."

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