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Paul Webb joins the HKRB to review a new book on the Babel-like nineteenth-century language of Esperanto and its unusual re-emergence in 2016.

Esther Schor, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language (Metropolitan Books, 2016) 384pp.

Readers of Hong Kong Review of Books will, no doubt, be familiar with some of the great works of Chinese literature. Think, for example, of Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin,  Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Ba Jin’s semi-autobiographical novel The Family. What will be much less well-known is that these three classics of  Chinese and world literature have also been translated into Esperanto — the international language  originally constructed in the late nineteenth-century as an easy-to-learn second language for everyone.

Mention of the word ‘Esperanto’ usually meets with a number of responses which can range from complete indifference to condescending disdain. Esther Schor’s new book Bridge of Words:  Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language is therefore a welcome addition to the literature in this field which may help to disperse the thick cloud of ignorance which so often envelops the subject.

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In a book which lucidly blends memoir, biography and history, Schor introduces the reader to the life of Dr L. L. Zamenhof — a polyglot Jewish opthalmologist who was born in 1859 in Białystok in what was then part of the Russian Empire. Mention of Zamenhof’s Jewish identity perhaps gives a clue to the circumstances which led him to ‘invent’ a language. He was born in a multilingual milieu speaking Russian and Yiddish at home, using Polish and German for business and chanting Hebrew in the synagogue. But he also lived in a part of the world where the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 had led to pogroms against Jewish people and where different ethnic groups effectively lived parallel lives. However, because he was born into the cosmopolitan Jewish bourgeoisie (his father Marcus was a censor for the Tsarist regime), Zamenhof certainly had the cultural and linguistic tools needed to design a language which, he felt, could reduce inter ethnic tension.

Consequently, after flirting with Zionism in Moscow and Warsaw, Zamenhof was ready to begin his ambitious project. On the assumption that existing languages were just too difficult for most people to learn, he developed a language with a stock of words drawn from an international lexicon and a regular grammar with almost no exceptions to its basic rules. Particularly useful was the ‘agglutinative’ nature of the language whereby Zamenhof created roots with meanings which could be changed by adding a prefix or a suffix. Indeed, the agglutinative character which Zamenhof gave to the language was a stroke of genius because it meant that one could build up a large vocabulary from a relatively small word hoard.

Schor also shows how Zamenhof effectively set the language free by refusing to become the arbiter of how Esperanto should develop. In contrast to the autocratic control which Johann Martin Schleyer — the creator of Volapük —tried to exercise over his language project, Zamenhof’s approach was different. As Schor says, “unlike most language inventors, Zamenhof renounced the privileges of a creator…He is the only language inventor on record ever to cede his language to its users….” Zamenhof’s language was consequently published in 1887 in a Russian textbook  known by Esperantists as First Book or  Unua Libro using the nom de plume ‘Doktoro Esperanto’.  As readers will no doubt have guessed, this nom de plume — Esperanto — became the name which has been associated with the language ever since. Needless to say, translations of the book followed into other languages.

But Schor’s account of the genesis and subsequent history of the language is not unequivocally glowing. Indeed, she entertainingly describes the conflict between Esperanto speakers over the movement’s purpose, reforms to the language and inevitable personality clashes between people with strong convictions. In parts, so much of the book reads like the story of a vaguely leftist and ineffective groupuscule for progressive polyglots. The flipping back and forth between history and Schor’s account of her Esperanto studies and her worldwide Esperanto congresses attendance also makes the historical chronology difficult to follow at times.

Yet the interweaving of memoir with history does work because Schor manages to combine an account of the facts of the matter with emotive and insightful pen portraits of individual Esperantists. Moreover, Schor tells us that in well over a century of existence, the Esperanto movement — primarily organised around the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) — has established a translation programme, created original works of literature, built relationships  with the UN and UNESCO and established a small but vibrant transnational speech community.

Though Schor never unequivocably says that the Esperanto movement has failed, one could argue that Esperantists have patently failed to persuade the peoples and governments of the world to use the language as a universal lingua franca. Such a view of Esperanto and its speakers would be premature. Although English remains the international language of the moment, there is no reason to suppose that this will remain so in the future and, in any case, there is little evidence for the view that English — or any other large globally dispersed language — is spoken to an advanced level by anyone outside of its native speaker community or a comparatively small group of transnational elites.

Schor therefore leaves the reader with the impression that the community of Esperanto speakers  is a small but global collection of people in diaspora. What could transform Esperanto into a language spoken by millions is the increased uptake of teaching opportunities which have, in many cases, moved to the internet, combined with acquired prestige for the language among the governing elites. Insofar as the internet is concerned, Schor refers to the websites lernu! and Duolingo which have proved to be very popular. Although Humphrey Tonkin — “an eminent man of letters in the Esperanto world and a professor emeritus of English Renaissance literature” — notes that Zamenhof may have inadvertantly created a language which is even less prestigious than the Yiddish which was spoken in the streets of Białystok, mass uptake of the language may concentrate the minds of the powerful. One only has to recall that Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Union Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, gave a speech in Esperanto at a Conference on international language policy in July 2016 to see that the tide may be making an unusual turn in favour of Esperanto.


Paul Webb is a social researcher, freelance journalist and Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University of Belfast.

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One thought on “Bridge of Words

  1. Pingback: Bridge of Words | pjvwebb

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