Esperanto and Its Rivals

Roberto Garvía explores the history of artificial spoken or written languages and the people who fought for them. Taking the three most prominent—Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido—Garvía investigates what drove so many to invest incredible energy and time to learn and promote them.

Esperanto and Its Rivals
The Struggle for an International Language

Roberto Garvía

2015 | 240 pages | Cloth $55.00
Languages | Anthropology | Sociology
View main book page

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Emergence of Linguistic Conscience

Chapter 2. A Language in Search of a Problem
Chapter 3. Who Were the Volapükists?
Chapter 4. "Pandemonium in the Tower of Babel": The Language Critics
Chapter 5. "Strangled in the House of Its Friends": Volapük's Demise
Chapter 6. "My Troubled Child": The Artist and the Kulturkampf

Chapter 7. "The Purpose of My Whole Life": Zamenhof and Esperanto
Chapter 8. "Let Us Work and Have Hope!": Language and Democracy
Chapter 9. "The Menacing Thunderstorm of Reforms": First Esperantists and First Crises
Chapter 10. The French Resurgence
Chapter 11. "Bringing Together the Whole Human Race": Esperanto's Inner Idea

Chapter 12. The Demographics of Esperantujo
Chapter 13. Pacifists, Taylorists, and Feminists
Chapter 14. "Hidden-World Seekers": Esperanto in New Wave and Old Religions
Chapter 15. Freethinkers, Socialists, and Herderians

Chapter 16. "One Ideal International Language": Ido
Chapter 17. "Linguistic Cannibalism"



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In 1928, the young Eric Blair, later known as George Orwell, moved to Paris to begin his career as a writer and to improve his French. He first set up quarters at the home of his bohemian aunt Nellie Limouzin and her lover, Eugène Adam. Better known in revolutionary circles as Lanti, the man who is against everything, Adam was a radical Esperantist. He was the founder of Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda, an international—or, more accurately, a non-national—working-class organization that combined class struggle with the advancement of Esperanto as the language of the coming proletarian revolution. Adam refused to speak French at home. Since Esperanto was the home language, Orwell soon had to find different lodgings in order to refine his French.

This was not Orwell's last exposure to Esperanto. During the Spanish Civil War, when he volunteered to fight against General Franco's pro-fascist forces, Esperanto was widely used in newspapers and on radio stations and even by the Catalan government to inform International Brigades about the war. Nor was Esperanto Orwell's last encounter with international language projects. From 1942 to 1944, while working for the Eastern Service of the BBC, Orwell broadcast news commentaries in Basic English, an artificial language fashioned by the linguist and philosopher C. K. Odgen.

Given his long acquaintance with artificial languages, it is not surprising to find in Orwell's fiction the most notorious, effective, and popular use of an invented language. In Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949), Orwell introduced us to Newspeak. Deliberately designed for totalitarian dominance, Newspeak "was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible."

Orwell's portrayal of an artificial language as a potent tool of political submission was certainly not the kind of speculation that many Esperantists and Basic English adherents might have expected from a former supporter of artificial languages. In any case, by the time Orwell published his dystopic novel, Basic English and Esperanto were not the only artificial languages on the market. Ido, created in 1907 by the philosopher Louis Couturat, still had some supporters, as well as Occidental and Novial, devised in 1922 and 1928 by the linguists Edgar de Wahl and Otto Jespersen, respectively. Volapük, an artificial language created in 1879, still lingered in the memory of many Europeans, too. And shortly after Nineteen Eighty-Four went to press, yet more artificial languages appeared. Interlingua was sponsored by the International Auxiliary Language Association and supported by the philanthropist Alice Vanderbilt Morris.

Although today it is barely remembered, a spirited, intense "battle of artificial languages," as contemporaries called it, figured prominently in the intellectual landscape from the late 1800s to the outbreak of World War II. The American Philosophical Society, the International Association of Academies, the International Peace Bureau, the League of Nations, and even the Comintern participated in this battle. The problem posed by emerging nationalisms and linguistic chauvinisms, and the increasing internationalization of scientific research, persuaded many that an increasingly interconnected world plainly required a lingua franca. There is currently a debate on the problem of international communication, linguistic rights, and the impact of globalization on less commonly used languages. But, truly speaking, this debate began more than one hundred years ago, when the first wave of globalization took place and artificial language supporters raised their hands to make it clear to whoever was willing to listen that they had found the solution to all those problems.

This book is about the battle of artificial languages and the social movements that supported them. It focuses on the three most prominent languages that contended for supremacy: Volapük, invented by the German Catholic priest Johann Martin Schleyer; Esperanto, created by a Russian Jew, Ludwig Zamenhof; and Ido, a reformed Esperanto created by Couturat, a French philosopher. Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido, however, did not stand alone. Other minor contestants, such as Reform Neutral, Latino sine flexione, Occidental, Novial, and Basic English also made their mark.

If, strictly speaking, rationality recommends learning the language of your neighbor, or, perhaps better, an international language, what drove Volapükists, Esperantists, and Idists to invest so much time and energy to learn and promote their languages, when many others deemed it preposterous, when not anti-patriotic? Were they sharing the same dream, or were artificial languages going to serve different purposes and interests? Why were there so many artificial languages, and how was it that the Esperantists managed to crowd out their rivals? Was it because Esperanto was a better language, or because the Esperantists proved to have the best strategy?

As detailed in this book, the battle of artificial languages was fought neither by marginal people nor in an institutional vacuum. Rather, the battle of artificial languages was entwined with the intellectual dilemmas of the time, reflecting the anxieties that traversed the European mindset amid the drastic economic, social, and political transformations taking place in every corner of the continent. Whether these anxieties were based on the role of science on human relations, the fate of spirituality and religion in a more secularized world, the importance of ethnicity and national identity, the so-called "Jewish problem," the prospects for peace, or the place of nature in a more mechanized world, artificial languages supporters liked to think that they had the cure.

Among all the artificial languages created between the last decades of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War II, only Esperanto is still thriving; its former rivals are only ghosts on the Internet. And after more than 100 years of face-to-face interactions and an impressive literary corpus, Esperanto has been transformed into a full-fledged language, with its own irregularities, ambiguities, exceptions, and conventions.

Although Esperanto won the battle of artificial languages, it did not become a global language. Today, English holds that position. But by the time the battle of artificial languages began, nobody could tell which, if any, of the three main national languages, English, German, and French, would become the global language. In fact, it was the fierce competition between English, German, and French, and the national rivalries between their speakers that opened a window of opportunity for the cause of an artificial language. A non-ethnic lingua franca would not only assuage national rivalries but also put everybody on equal footing. Since a lingua franca is a collective good, we might then wonder why a neutral language such as Esperanto did not prevail. If linguistic fairness recommends a neutral language, then Esperanto or any of its rivals would seem like a better choice for an international language. This book explores how Esperanto won the battle for supremacy among competing artificial languages, but lost the war to become a lingua franca.

Confident that the balance of power among leading nations and international rivalries would prevent a national language from becoming the lingua franca, Volapükists, Esperantists, and Idists worked hard to make their case. They set up journals, collected membership fees, organized language courses, issued language certificates, created their respective language academies, organized at the local, national, and international level, convened international congresses, participated in special interest organizations, lobbied international bodies, forged links with other social movements, and fought bitterly against each other.

In this fight and the fight for universal acclaim, Volapükists, Esperantists, and Idists pushed forward different strategies. It is around the role of the movement leaders in the imprinting and implementation of these different strategies that the narrative of the book unfolds. This focus on strategy and leaders helps to explain the strength and weaknesses of each of the movements, their inception, reception, and eventual failure. In one respect, the battle for supremacy among Volapükists, Esperantists, and Idists resembled other "standardization" battles. Readers may well remember the long battle between VHS and Betamax to become the standard videotape recording system. Similar standardization battles have taken place in the past, including the QWERTY versus the Dvorak keyboard, the light water design for power reactors versus other choices, or the alternating versus direct current for electrical supply systems.

Economic historians have tried to explain the mechanisms of these standardization battles. In their words, the adoption of one standard over another is "path dependent." Path-dependent processes occur where positive feedback mechanisms operate; in other words, where one person's decision to adopt one technology instead of another increases the probability that the next person will follow suit. People follow the path that others have opened for them—in a sense, the path of least resistance. At a certain point, the process tips over and one technology takes a clear lead over its alternatives, making it practically impossible for losing options to dislodge the probable winner.

Interestingly, however, the winning technology is not necessarily the best or the most efficient. Its victory is largely the result of decisions made at the beginning of the process, under conditions of relative uncertainty as to both the qualities and the real potential of competitors, and the eventual result of the contest. This means that first movers have an advantage, but nothing makes it inevitable that they will emerge as the final winners. As the economic historian Brian Arthur put it, the final outcome of a path-dependent process is not "guaranteed to be efficient." Nor is it "easily altered" or "predictable in advance."

Since languages are technologies of communication, we can interpret the battle of artificial languages as another example of a path-dependent process.

This battle, however, differs from other standardization battles in three important respects. First, whereas a typewriter, for example, is a single-purpose technology—it only serves to create a document—an artificial language might serve two or many purposes. Very much like natural languages, artificial languages are instruments of communication, but might also serve non-communicative purposes and become identity markers. In this sense, an artificial language can be marketed as a purely neutral instrument of communication, or be symbolically attached to a social or political agenda, such as universalism, pacifism, the advancement of science, the promotion of minority languages and nations, ecumenism, socialism, and so on. Unlike typewriters, artificial languages can have multiple purposes.

Second, in addition to being single-purpose instruments, typewriters and video recorders are end products. They do not change after use. Artificial language speakers, on the contrary, do not "buy" an end product. Using the language they have chosen to learn, they can try to change it regardless of the opinions or priorities of the language's inventor or other speakers. All languages are conventional, but the conventional nature of languages is most visible in the case of artificial ones. Some may be happy to say "et" to mean "and," others might prefer the Greek "kai," and the same goes for grammar or any other component of the language. Not being an end product, an artificial language can mutate in a thousand directions. Whereas changes in the design of end products are in the hands of the producers, changes in an artificial language are in the hands of the users, who, for the survival of their language should be able to reach a collective agreement as to its basic characteristics.

Third, whereas it is difficult to imagine VHS or Betamax adopters in the pre-blog and social media age launching periodicals and setting up local organizations or sites dedicated to promoting and extolling their chosen product, this is indeed what happened among international language supporters. Artificial language users committed their time and effort in varying degrees to their language's success. In the case of artificial languages, unlike other standardization battles, we find collective action rather than individual adoptions.

These three qualifications suggest that in the case of languages, path dependence intersects with social movements. Social movement literature and scholarship is important for understanding the fate of artificial languages because, ultimately, it is not purely technologies or formal qualities that compete, but the social movements that embrace those languages.

A common ground between path dependence and social movements literature are the topics of leadership and strategy. Artificial language users may agree or disagree on this or that word or grammatical rule, and they also might have different understandings about the nature of the language, as a pure instrument of communication or as a tool that might serve other purposes or identities. How they resolve these potential disagreements depends a great deal on leadership and the decision-making process, which may or may not facilitate agreement, evolution, and growth.

An important characteristic of the language movements covered in this book is the crucial role of their inventors. Whereas in other social movements it is possible to separate leadership and issues, grievances and demands, in the Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido movements the language and the organizational template imprinted by their leaders were two sides of the same coin. In this sense, artificial language movements resemble social movements of a messianic character, where the message converges with the strategy to popularize the chosen language. It is for this reason, and also because research on path-dependent processes focus on the early stage of the process, that I concentrate on the organizational templates and strategies that leaders imprinted on their movements.

Leaders mobilize and inspire followers, set up an agenda for action, frame a discourse that helps them identify the challenges and legitimize their actions vis-à-vis the external world, collect resources, outline an organizational strategy, and decide on decision-making processes. To understand the organizational and decision-making repertoires that artificial language inventors imprinted on their language movements, I explore the social and political contexts that shaped their thinking. As we will see, their conceptions of how language works and the organizational strategies they advanced largely determined their followers' responses, and, ultimately, the fate of their languages. But before turning to Johann Martin Schleyer, the first mover and the inventor of Volapük, it is important to understand how Europeans ceased to think of languages as artifacts, or as mere instruments of communication, in order to transform them into markers of identity.