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Gary Mickle:

Can Esperanto Save "Cultural Diversity"?

During the 1970's, the political emphasis of the Esperanto movement (or community, to use the now more fashionable term) shifted in a new direction. In a nutshell, its long established "peace" motive was overridden by a new one: that of preserving ethnic cultures, ethnic languages and ethnic identities. What is called "ethnism" [1] became something of a craze among Esperanto speakers. The word-root etn- itself began to feature prominently in Esperanto vocabulary in the form of words like etno [ethnic group] and etnismo [ethnism].

What had taken place was that an often exaggerated, but not totally baseless idea – that a common language might be of key importance in creating a peaceful world – was replaced by one that was totally implausible. It was now stated that a neutral common language, if introduced worldwide, would necessarily behave in a benign way toward ethnic cultures and languages, and would neither injure nor eliminate them the way English and other powerful languages do. Why did this idea catch on?

The reason is twofold:

  • The peace motive had lost credibility as an argument for the worldwide introduction of Esperanto. In the days of the cold war (and, in the 1960's, the Vietnam War), military conflicts seemed more rooted in the competition of political systems and ideologies than in ethnic discord, as had been perceived in earlier days.
  • Parts of the Esperanto movement, in particular the World Esperanto Youth Organization (TEJO), were receptive to an idea that would make them appear a bit more radical to their rebellious contemporaries, while not causing too much contention in their own ranks. Ethnic nationalism was good for that purpose. It was a political world view that could be presented in "anti-imperialist" terms to a left-leaning audience, and in conservative and tradition-oriented terms to those of right-wing persuasions.

That is why TEJO, starting in 1968, latched on to the idea of promoting Esperanto as a means of combating "cultural imperialism" and "language imperialism". That year's youth Esperanto congress in Tyresö, Sweden passed a well-known resolution on precisely those subjects, the Declaration of Tyresö. Over the next decade or so, these ideas gained currency in the general Esperanto movement, i.e. in the mainstream Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) and to a lesser extent even in the left-leaning World Anational Association (SAT).

A number of hypotheses have been advanced to explain how Esperanto is supposed to help preserve cultural diversity (which is habitually and too simplistically equated with ethnic cultural diversity), ethnic cultures and endangered languages. All of them relate to effects it would allegedly have if it were adopted for general use as "everybody's second language".

Esperanto and Nationalism in the Early Movement

Even in the first few decades of Esperanto there was willingness here and there to have it serve nationalist aims. Encouraged by the Catalonian activist Frederic Pujulà i Vallès [2], the Unió Catalanista in 1905 took the decision to use Esperanto in future relations with other nationalist movements. The Irish socialist and nationalist James Connolly [3], who had at an earlier time, in 1899, come out in favor of an international language and then, in the first few years of the 20th Century, learned Esperanto, explained in 1908 that the introduction of an international language, though ultimately inevitable, would not be expedited if small nations were prepared to sacrifice their languages. To the contrary, it would be delayed as a result of the struggle between the languages of the great powers that would then ensue all the more intensely. He added that many small, linguistically diverse communities would more likely agree on an international language than just a few great empires. Linguistic diversity would thus benefit the cause of an international language. It may be conjectured that Esperanto was the language Connolly was thinking of.

Just before the outbreak of World War I, in May 1914, Germana Esperantisto, the organ of the German Esperanto Association (GEA) reported [4] how one of its members, Franz Goldbach, had defended Esperanto against an attack by the right-wing nationalist von Pfister-Schweighusen. The latter had declared Esperanto a menace to German language and culture, arguing that its introduction would open the floodgates to the "most atrocious influx of foreign words" and would disengage the German language from the chivalrous rivalry that in his perception prevailed among the dominant languages of the world. The rebuttal written by an Esperantist remained within the parameters of nationalist thinking. "Are those that oppose the idea of an auxiliary language not prepared to take note of the fact that Germans much more than others are inclined to assimilate foreign qualities, and that this tendency becomes even more pronounced when the languages of alien peoples are promoted? Are they unaware that a great number of people have neither the time, the money nor the talent to learn one of the difficult natural foreign languages thoroughly enough to satisfy their need for international contacts? And is it really beyond their imagination that one may be an enthusiastic Esperantist and at the same time full of ardent love of one's country and one's dear mother tongue? It is baseless to talk of an 'atrocious influx of foreign words' in connection with the introduction of an international language, at least as far as self-respecting people are concerned. Whoever in spite of this is afraid of the excess of foreignisms in German, is only confirming what was previously said about foreign languages. The only remedy for the excess of foreignisms is to exile all foreign ethnic languages to beyond our borders, cultivate the mother tongue and adopt such an auxiliary language for international intercourse, as is independent of the internal life of the people."

The association of Esperanto with the ideology of nationalistic and puristic "language cultivation" reappeared after World War I. An extreme case of an Esperantist who was first beguiled by linguistic purism, and subsequently by the most extreme form of nationalism, was Theodor Steche (1895-1945). He was the son of Albert Steche, who for many years was the president of the GEA. At the end of the Weimar Republic, Theodor Steche was an up-and-coming young man in the German "neutral" Esperanto movement, well looked upon as an expert on language politics.

Steche is noteworthy in connection with our subject, the alleged "protective" function of Esperanto with respect to ethnic languages. Some of his opinions resemble ones that are current today, though not all of them. In a lecture [5] that drew quite a bit of attention when it was delivered in 1931 at the German Esperanto Association's annual congress, Steche attempted to refute in a thoroughgoing way the arguments of opponents who said that Esperanto, were it victorious, would:
a) supplant the national languages and
b) become a source of ugly and injurious foreign words in national languages.

As for the first argument, Steche explained that Esperantists were called upon to "see to it that Esperanto never did harm to the languages of the peoples, let alone seek to occupy the position of the language of a people" – something the Esperantists fortunately didn't desire. Furthermore, the auxiliary language, being a superstratum language, would be quite unable to usurp the place of the "languages of the peoples" without itself becoming such a language and consequently falling prey to dialectization, which is the inexorable fate of an ethnic language. That would be harmful to it. To drive home his point, he added that Esperanto was being supported by the Soviet Union, an internationalist state whose minority languages policy Steche regarded as commendable, whatever objections he might have to other aspects of its politics. Steche cited with approval the territorial reform of 1924, which bestowed upon each linguistically defined people a state or at least an autonomous territory of its own. This example, he said, showed that "the promotion of Esperanto coincides fully with fair treatment of minority languages".

As to the second argument – that the superstratum language would have a deleterious effect on the lexical substance of the ethnic languages – he acknowledges that superstratum languages of the past had indeed had such effects. "But from the 19th Century onward, ever since ethnic self-awareness is based on the mother tongue, this is no longer the case." He cites several examples of languages that were being successfully cultivated and kept pure of alien influences.

In conclusion, he calls on the leading personalities of the German Esperanto movement to become involved, as he was, in the German Language Association [Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein], at that time a powerful organization that promoted the (primarily puristic) "cultivation" of the German language. This, he hoped, would lessen the mistrust of Esperanto that "nationally minded" Germans "still" nurtured.

Steche was more active in that association than in those of the Esperantists, and he became a member of its advisory board. The Sprachverein at that time had tens of thousands of members. Steche was a linguist, and in 1925 he had published a book [6] on "language cultivation", which Esperantists in particular prized because in it he put forward the hypothesis that linguistic study of constructed languages and of Esperanto would prove helpful as auxiliary sciences in the efforts to purify the German language of exogenous lexical material ("foreign words"). Steche thought that this would be the case because Esperanto's derivational system had features that could be emulated in German in order to create terms consisting of native Germanic lexical material, which would replace foreignisms.

At the beginning of 1932, shortly after his debut on such an important podium of the Esperanto movement, Steche joined Alfred Rosenberg's Militant League for German Culture [Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur], in which he soon became the head of the department for German language affairs [7]. The Kampfbund was a branch of the Nazi movement. Steche soon after that joined the NSDAP, the Nazi party itself, and rose in its ranks. After the Nazi accession to power in 1933, he worked for a time as a censor. Under Rosenberg's supervision he conducted an abortive attempt to bring the Sprachverein into line ideologically (through the process known as "Gleichschaltung") [8].

According to Courtinat's [9] account, Steche killed both his family and himself as the Soviet army was approaching his home city in 1945. His death was in a sense symbolic of the (albeit temporary) decline and fall of the nationalistic alternate "intrinsic idea" of Esperanto, the anti-cosmopolitan vision of benefits that Esperanto would allegedly provide a world organized along nationalistic lines. Its decline was so complete that postwar generations of Esperantists neither heard of Steche and language purism nor had more than a foggy awareness of the prewar entanglement of parts of the bourgeois Esperanto movement with extreme varieties of nationalism.

After World War II

After World War II, the German Language Association was reestablished under a new name, but activity associated with language purism was inhibited by the still fresh memory of the connections between nationalistic language ideologies and fascism. Nor does language purism appear to have resurfaced in the Esperanto movement at that time, either in Germany or elsewhere.

A typical product of that era was instead the Declaration of Munich, a resolution passed unanimously by the Universal Congress of Esperanto (the UEA congress) in 1951. Its proponents, especially Ivo Lapenna, an already influential member of the UEA's board of directors and later that association's president, obviously wished to distance the movement from the reactionary ideas that had infested parts of it in the 30's. Though it was valued by the Esperantists of the time, the Declaration was later more or less forgotten – an undeserved fate, I think, because it illustrates the universalistic and moderately progressive attitude of the mainstream Esperanto movement of that era, in which there was not too much room for the ethnicistic and culturalistic thinking that had prevailed in that movement before the war and came back into fashion in the 70's.

The Declaration stated:

The representatives of the Esperanto movement from 40 countries, convened at the 36th Universal Congress of Esperanto in Munich in August 1951, have adopted the following Declaration:

"The goal of the Esperanto movement is full application of the International Language Esperanto in all areas of international life and for all international relations. Such widespread use of the International Language will logically result in:

(1) the attraction of ever wider strata of the population into active participation in international life;

(2) advancement of science and multiplication of intellectual exchanges on the international plane;

(3) enhancement of universal human solidarity and acceleration of the process of unification of humanity."

The passage about the "unification of humanity" is especially striking, because it is in such stark contrast to the UEA's usual "ethnic diversity" rhetoric during the last few decades. Ivo Lapenna personally expressed congruent views in his popular book Retoriko, the first edition (1950) of which contains the assessment of the linguistic future of the world that "because the human race, in broad and general terms, is moving from its previous state of fragmentation in all areas (bands, tribes, lineage groups, peoples and nations on the one hand; occupations, castes and classes on the other) towards unity, language too evolves from its previous state characterized by the great multitude of languages toward what will soon be a monolingual state." [10] His views on this subject remained essentially the same. The 3rd edition, published in 1971, which in other parts had undergone substantial revision, contains almost the same statement, modified only to the extent that the "monolingual state" that would arrive "soon" had become a "more or less soon-to-be unitary common language" [11]. In a footnote in the 3rd edition he cites the opinion of Mario Pei, an American author of many popular-science books about languages and linguistics, who in 1956 had said that it would not be surprising if, over a few centuries, national languages came to be used less and less, and the international language more and more. [12]. Pei was a confirmed supporter of the idea of an international language and in 1958 he published a book about the pros and cons of various proposed solutions to the world language problem. Although not an Esperantist, he knew the language at least passively and was generally a sympathizer. In this book he deals with the common objection that an international language could do harm to the ethnic languages [13]:

One problem that deeply concerns us all is the future of the existing national tongues. Will they be displaced by the international language, and eventually die out? Or will they forever continue to exist side by side with the new language for everybody?

Advocates of Esperanto, Basic English, Interlingua, etc. often assure us that their tongue is to be viewed "only" as an auxiliary language for international purposes, mainly commercial and diplomatic, that it will in no way affect the use of the national languages, that the latter will forever continue to exist and flourish despite the existence of the international medium.

This is again wishful thinking, but with the added feature that it is extremely doubtful whether even the wish should be there. The international language, valid at all times and in all places, will undoubtedly restrict the use of the national tongues, whose effective range is limited. […] As time goes on, there will be less use of the national tongues, more use of the world tongue. […]

The final outcome seems clear. The national languages of today will live on for centuries, but their use will tend to become more and more restricted. Ultimately, they will turn into cultural relics, like the Greek and Latin of today…

Perhaps characteristic of the time was a lament that was put to paper in 1955 by the workers' movement activist and SAT-member Luis Hernández [14]. His plea for language diversity and respect for minoritized languages is accompanied by an expression of regret that "this my romantic plea will seem reactionary to the modern advocates of there being fewer languages, because they – scientific Esperantists – certainly prefer to clear the way for the pretentious universality of four or five main idioms…" His conclusion, much like that of Connolly, was that "heavy bureaucratic domination on a worldwide scale of just a few main languages that had swept the others aside, at least out of use by official institutions, would have a fateful effect on Esperanto, closing the door to it once and for all".

It is notable that Hernández:

  • in making his plea for language diversity assumes the role of a dissident, something that he really was with such a position in those days, and
  • appears unfamiliar with the idea that Esperanto might one day protect threatened languages from harm. He only says that a larger number of languages could stimulate a desire to solve the language problem by means of Esperanto.

Informational tracts on Esperanto were generally free of "diversity-protection" claims until the 70's, when such claims in a short time became standard features of the movement's PR. Nevertheless, the mainstream Esperanto movement is often described to the outside public in a way suggesting that the "cultural diversity" theme has always been one of its focuses. A typical expression of this idea is contained in a declaration issued by the Universal Esperanto Association in preparation for a forthcoming Symposium on Linguistic Rights in the World, the current situation. It begins: "Linguistic rights are vital to all peoples, whatever the size of their population. This right needs to be preserved especially for small groups. The Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) has been supporting minority languages for over 100 years." [15]

Guy Héraud: Esperanto and the Ethnofederalist New Order

One of the first to popularize the idea of using Esperanto to protect ethnic diversity in the post-war period was a non-Esperantist who initially had contact with young Esperantists around 1970 – just as they were consolidating the course embarked upon with the Declaration of Tyresö. He was Guy Héraud, a French professor of law and one of the foremost advocates of ethnic federalism, an offshoot of what is called "ethnism". Ethnism is a variety of small-ethnic-group nationalism. Héraud was also an adherent of the New Right, a member of GRECE [16], the New Right think tank founded by Alain de Benoist. The New Right typically employs a tactic of bringing leftists and liberals into contact with supporters of the non-traditional right and their ideas. So it was by no means out of keeping with New Right politics that he sought contact with young Esperantists, even though most of them leaned to the left politically. In 1971 he personally participated in the "Language and Culture" seminar held by the Commission for External Relations of TEJO, the World Esperanto Youth Organization, in Strasbourg.

Héraud wrote an article [17] that became an object of attention mainly in TEJO. In it, he advanced the idea that Esperanto might be introduced as an international second language within a European Community that had been reordered according to the principles of ethnic federalism, i.e. one in which what are now ethnic minorities would become collective proprietors of their own monoethnic and culturally autonomous, but federally linked territories. He contended that the general application of Esperanto under these circumstances would permit such small ethnic groups to dispense more quickly with the major national languages that they are now constrained to use and which threaten their particular identity (such as German in the case of the Wends or French in the case of the Bretons).

This is not a totally unrealistic assessment, but only under the assumption that a) a new European order based on ethnic federalism could be achieved, b) Esperanto were introduced Europe-wide, and c) enough nationalist fervor could be instilled in the inhabitants of the new ethnic federal units for them to want to totally rid themselves of the previous "oppressor" languages. Be that as it may, many Esperantists were enthusiastic about the idea that Esperanto should help to preserve small ethnic groups and their languages. They didn't bother to examine the internal logic of the proposal, which was one of ethnic federalism and its nationalistic assumptions about people, communities and their identities.

Andrea Chiti-Batelli: Esperanto as the Modern Equivalent of Medieval Latin

By the 1980's, Esperantists had made the preservation of small ethnic groups and traditional identities part of their standard pitch for introducing Esperanto, though they generally omitted mentioning ethnic federalism. It was around this time that Andrea Chiti-Batelli, a former member of the staff of the Italian senate and one of Héraud's personal friends, came into the picture. Chiti-Batelli, like Héraud, concerned himself with Esperanto without becoming a full-fledged Esperantist, i.e. an active user of the language. He does, however, have a sufficient passive command of Esperanto to both know and actively influence the Esperanto movement and its politics. For years he has commented on its strategy in numerous writings [18], which frequently stress the idea that English has become a language of worldwide "glottophagy" (devouring of other languages) and "ethnolysis" (dissolution of ethnic groups). This state of affairs is depicted as a cultural disaster that can only be alleviated if a neutral and non-ethnic language is used in international communication – Esperanto, of course.

Chiti-Batelli does not provide as cogent an explanation as Héraud for the salutary effects that are supposed to result from the introduction of Esperanto. He has, however, repeatedly made a revealing comment, which explains why he thinks Esperanto would never be able to devour another language. He believes that Esperanto as an auxiliary language would "lack the destructive capacity that English has", because it would be "dead" (he himself putting this word in quotation marks), i.e. "nobody's home language and a language without the cultural and political weight of a people or state behind it" [19]. He further notes that among the "dead" languages that are available for consideration as candidates for international use, only Esperanto already has the necessary infrastructure. He compares large-scale use of Esperanto to that of medieval Latin, which was likewise "dead", even while it was still in use as an international language. Medieval Latin, he remarks, in no way prevented European vernaculars from flourishing and developing into modern-day national languages.

The notion that Esperanto after general introduction would have a social role comparable to that of medieval Latin is not plausible. First of all, Esperanto is far from "dead" even at present, with its limited number of users, and if anyone other than Chiti-Batelli calls it a "dead" language, Esperantists object strenuously. It is, in fact, a living language that develops spontaneously through use. Though Chiti-Batelli says it will never be anybody's "home language", the truth is that Esperanto-speakers even today frequently found families, in which Esperanto becomes one of the native languages of their children. Use of Esperanto as a native language would inevitably become a mass-scale social phenomenon in the hypothetical event that it became the universal second language of the European masses. Second, 21st Century Europe – and Europe is the continent Chiti-Batelli is interested in – is a bit different from medieval Europe. If used by the masses, and not by a tiny elite class as was Latin in the Middle Ages, and in a society having mass media, instantaneous electronic communication, etc., Esperanto could not help but quickly surpass English in terms of the volume of its use. Third, if Esperanto really did take on the functions that English presently has in Europe, then it would soon become the predominant language of the European Union and of the multinational corporations that operate in Europe. In other words, it would soon have a "cultural and political weight" equal to or greater than that of English at the present time.

Another obvious weakness in his chain of argument is the one-sided blame he puts on English for "devouring" small languages. In reality, there are many national and regional languages, even ones quite insignificant on a worldwide scale, which encroach upon the space of smaller languages, often coming to replace them completely.

Helmar Frank: The "Propaedeutic Effect"

Helmar Frank, professor of cybernetic pedagogy at the University of Paderborn in Germany, has written a lengthy paper on the future of the European Union, Europa so – oder besser? [20], much of which is an appeal for the adoption of Esperanto (which he idiosyncratically insists on calling "ILo") as the language of Europe. Frank asserts that "ILo" would never become what he and others call a "killer language" – one that replaces other languages or degrades them by injecting alien vocabulary into them [21]. In a valiant attempt to justify this view, he stresses the social role of the school system, the legislation that governs it and the effects of the system of public education on society as a whole. Frank cites experimental evidence to the effect that learning Esperanto at an early age is of great motivational and propaedeutic benefit to pupils who are to go on to learn other, more difficult languages afterwards. Accordingly, he optimistically looks forward to the inception of a universally polyglot society in Europe – to be achieved without increasing the time budgeted for foreign language instruction in schools. A society of polyglots would in turn be an environment that is conducive to language preservation.

Frank buttresses his argument by stressing the importance of the system of language law that guarantees the primacy of national languages in the education systems within their respective territories. Like Héraud, he expects Esperanto to be beneficial within an appropriate legal framework.

Frank's arguments focus on the wider social effects of language learning in the schools. The attribution of inordinate propaedeutic and motivational effectiveness to Esperanto as a facilitator of later undertaken language study does beg one question: why have similar effects of learning facilitation, attributable to the linguistic proximity of some national languages to others, not already been observed and systematically utilized, if the effects of beginning language study with an easy-to-learn language truly so enormous? Portuguese and Spanish, or Dutch and German, for example, are such pairs of closely related languages that could be used in each other's territory as a "propaedeutic" introduction to language learning.

Another objection is that Esperanto itself is by no means a snap to learn, as witnessed to by the varying level of linguistic proficiency attained by present-day Esperanto-speakers. Esperanto is several times easier to learn than English, but that still means that several years of school study would be needed to achieve anything approaching native-language equivalency. In all likelihood, the teaching of Esperanto would occupy most of the time now budgeted for English in the school systems of countries where it is now the primary foreign language, although the ultimate result would be more satisfactory. Frank certainly overestimates the amount of time that would remain available for study of other languages in a typical school setting.

It must be noted that Frank is dealing mainly with hypothetical benefits that would accrue to national languages and minority languages of some size. Frank sympathizes with ethnic federalism. He does not pretend that Esperanto could "save" small languages that are already close to extinction, but calls for the establishment of "culturally protected regions" for groups such as Wends in Germany, which are too small to establish states of their own.

Economy of Language Learning

Arguments for Esperanto containing calculations of the amount of time needed to reach a given level of proficiency in various languages pop up frequently. One common assumption is that the time saved by learning Esperanto instead of English would be redirected to the pursuit of greater proficiency in a student's native language. This is part of Helmar Frank's argumentation.

2000 h = 200 h + 1800 hA graphic example of such a calculation has been provided by one of the activists associated with Eŭropa Bunto ["Kaleidoscope of Europe"] [22], a group that organized a demonstration in Strasbourg on May 9, 2004 of Esperantists and so-called "language defenders" against the "risk of language hegemony, and eventually of a single language being imposed, which would have strong negative effects on the linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe". This particular slogan is: "English monolith or Esperantic rainbow? A difficult language can't protect diversity!" accompanied by a calculation that contrasts 2000 hours of English study to 200 hours of Esperanto study plus 1800 hours of diversified language study [23]. What is implied is that 200 hours of Esperanto study produce results equivalent to those attained in 2000 hours of English study. That is something that most Esperantists would probably agree is an exaggeration.

But the biggest problem with such quantification is the assumption that the time people would save by learning Esperanto instead of English might in a foreseeable social setting be invested in accordance with the wishful thinking of those who make the calculations, i.e. for the study of ethnic languages, especially of those threatened by extinction. Except under duress, real young people would use the time thus saved for any number of activities, but very, very rarely for the language studies recommended by the friends of linguistic diversity. And if the "politically correct" languages were learned on a compulsory basis in school, the results are hardly likely to meet the expectations of the proponents. Experience shows that languages learned as requirements at school are rapidly forgotten after graduation, if their use is not called for in real life.

Nevertheless, such arguments relating to the economy of language acquisition are among those most often advanced in order to explain how the worldwide introduction of Esperanto is supposed to retard the gradual disappearance of lesser-used languages.

Is Esperanto Culturally Inert?

From time to time it is stated outright or implied that "ethnic neutrality" – a quality that Esperanto indeed has – is tantamount to the absence of "harmful" cultural influence on ethnic culture or ethnic languages. A group of Esperantists wished to use the European Year of Languages (2001) to popularize Esperanto. Some of them wanted to convey the message that it has the potential to protect ethnic languages from "damage" caused by lexical imports from English. The "damage" being referred to here is, of course, not the breakdown of the language as such, but "loss of identity" among its native speakers, a great bugaboo of ethnic nationalists. A brochure [24] dealing with that topic was published in several languages. Its author, László Gados, repeats in several places that Esperanto is incapable of placing "mother tongues" in jeopardy the way English does. He calls upon politicians to "examine the application of a non-ethnic, i.e. planned language, in the function of a common language, considering that it is practically neutral, and that its application as a result would not pose a threat to any language in its native-language role".

First of all, the distinction between "mother tongues" and Esperanto is a terminological trick, because Esperanto itself is one of the native languages of some of its speakers, while some of the "mother tongues" have many non-native regular users. Here, as in other cases, no convincing arguments are produced to back up the claim that Esperanto would necessarily be culturally inert in a way that English or other national languages are not. What, indeed, would prevent Esperanto – if it actually were adopted as a neutral common language – from becoming a source of "injurious" slang expressions and other lexical material that would penetrate ethnic languages? Would its non-ethnic, planned, neutral quality make any difference in this regard? We needn't speculate about this. We have empirical evidence that Esperanto interacts with other languages exactly as English does! Esperantists, when speaking their native languages with other Esperantists who are speakers of those languages, can often be observed to inject large numbers of esperantisms into those languages when they deal with Esperanto-related topics. The subculture of Esperanto-speakers does not differ in this regard from international subcultures that cohere mainly through the medium of English.

Eŭropa Bunto, the association that demonstrated in Strasbourg, circulated an appeal, that began as follows [25]:

EUROPE AND LANGUAGE RIGHTS: we must act in 2004!

The year 2004 will see the enlargement of the European Union, as well as European elections. However, the language problem remains unsolved, hidden under the pseudo-multilingualism which favours the three most powerful languages. Consequently, we are at risk of language hegemony, and eventually of a single language being imposed, which would have strong negative effects on the linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe. It is for this reason that Esperantists, amongst others, support the use of a common (not unique) neutral lingua franca, which would permit equal respect towards all languages, and effectiveness for European democracy.

Some of the slogans slogans proposed by sympathizers and quoted on its website are:

"Esperanto has no homeland. Every Esperantist does."

"Long live my language…/I speak my language…/I love my language…" followed by "…thanks to Esperanto/…protected by Esperanto!"

Like László Gados, they imply that a "neutral" lingua franca would somehow not "endanger linguistic and cultural diversity" the way "powerful" languages do. Again, a credible explanation is not forthcoming. It is hard to understand why Esperanto or any other lingua franca – neutrality rhetoric aside – would not be "powerful" and any less an expression of "linguistic hegemony" than one of the present "three most powerful languages".

It should not really come as a surprise that these supporters of "cultural diversity" never elaborate credible scenarios of large-scale use of Esperanto. Esperanto is a real language and not one with magical properties. What is surprising is that many Esperantists feel free to exploit the credulity of the public by making it out to be a panacea.

The Verdict of the International Expert Commission on Ecological Linguistics

Although the advocates of "linguistic diversity" aided by Esperanto have begun to tone down their assertions in the last few years, the diversity-protection claim is still lurking about. It reappeared most recently in the "ecological linguistics expert opinion" commissioned by the Justo European University of Law, which is seated in Moscow, to a research group (the "International Ecological Linguistics Expert Commission") consisting almost exclusively of Esperantists [26]. Members of the commission were, among others, Renato Corsetti, Probal Dasgupta, Helmar Frank, Reinhard Selten and John Wells. The commission was presented with several questions about Esperanto, one of which was: "Can the language be of value from the standpoint of linguistic ecology – to contribute to the protection of linguistic diversity?".

Not surprisingly, the conclusion of this group of Esperantists was that it can. The Commission explained:

Being a neutral language, Esperanto makes no pretense of eliminating any national language. To the contrary, by performing the role of an auxiliary means of communication and cooperation in science, technology, culture, art and other areas of human activity, it contributes to the enhancement of the role and the longevity of all national languages within ethnic groups (including minority languages). There are hopeful prospects that because of the ease with which Esperanto can be learned, the number of its speakers will increase several times. Such a conclusion follows from today's practice of the language in particular countries. In Hungary, for example, Esperanto has been accorded the status of a means of communication and cooperation that is on an equal par with foreign languages. In international communication it contributes to the elimination of the linguistic discrimination that exists worldwide and is the original cause of the disappearance of minority languages.

Essentially, the Commission anthropomorphizes the language, declaring that it "makes no pretense" of depriving other languages of their domains of usage. This figure of speech is a style of argument common among the advocates of "language diversity": Esperanto, they say, does not "want" or "intend" to take the place of ethnic languages. Consequently, it will "protect" and "guard" them after it is introduced worldwide. By contributing to the elimination of language discrimination, the Commission says, it will strengthen minority languages. It does not go into detail about how that is supposed to take place.

More Cautious Advocacy of Esperanto and Language Diversity

Some of Esperanto's supporters have become so enamored of "diversity" politics that they simply can't dispense with the corresponding style of argumentation, even though they seem to realize that Esperanto, if adopted for worldwide use, would not really "protect" other languages from harm or "save cultural diversity". They avoid making empty claims by simply paying lip service to the "cultural diversity" ideology without implying that the introduction of Esperanto would benefit that cause.

One motive for Esperantists to touch upon the "diversity" issue at all is the belief that they need to prove that they are not intent on eliminating other languages in favor of Esperanto. The prejudice that Esperantists have such intentions actually does appear sometimes.

The Prague Manifesto of 1996 probably comes closer than any other document to being an official declaration of the political aims of the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) – the largest Esperanto organization. It has seven points. The sixth is relevant to our topic:


National governments tend to treat the great diversity of languages in the world as a barrier to communication and development. In the Esperanto community, however, language diversity is experienced as a constant and indispensable source of enrichment. Consequently every language, like every biological species, is inherently valuable and worthy of protection and support.

We maintain that communication and development policies which are not based on respect and support for all languages amount to a death sentence for the majority of languages in the world. We are a movement for language diversity.

This declaration was drawn up by people who definitely wanted the subject of language conservation to be brought up, but who were cautious enough not to claim that the introduction of Esperanto would directly benefit threatened languages.

An example of a cautious "diversity protection" claim for Esperanto is provided by Eŭropo – Demokratio – Esperanto (EDE). EDE is a kind of "Esperanto party" that put up candidates for the last election to the European Parliament in France. (The group attempted to get on the ballot in Germany too, but failed to collect enough signatures.) Its electoral program [27] has a large section on the introduction of Esperanto in the EU, and another that calls for "protective measures with the aim of maintaining the critical density that is essential to maintain a language, a culture, a people" and for the "guarantee of respect of local roots, the right of change of habitation in order to increase proximity to one's linguistic and cultural roots". These two sections of the program are separate and distinct from one another. Only in one place are the two topics linked. In a paragraph that enumerates the advantages of Esperanto, it is claimed that one such advantage is "guaranteed respect for diversity and thus, the preservation of the cultural particularities of Europe".

Sometimes Esperantists conjecture that political changes in the world might foment both the adoption of Esperanto and more effective action to preserve languages. They think that a future world of the kind that would accept Esperanto, would in any case be a world quite different from the present one, and would treat languages and language diversity differently. Renato Corsetti recently expressed doubt about the usefulness of debates on the qualities of Esperanto as a potential protector (or devourer) of ethnic languages. In a discussion about whether Esperanto could become just as glottofagous as English, he said [28]:

Esperanto does not have a nation behind it that wants to impose its own industry, its power, etc. In any case, it seems to me that there is not much sense in holding discussions, because a world that would accept Esperanto would be one very different from the present world, one that had already understood what human language rights are, and that would strive to protect all languages.

But what if Esperanto were Itself a Threat?

Esperantists only rarely thematize the possibility that Esperanto itself – if introduced as "everybody's second language" – could endanger ethnic languages and ethnic cultures.

A document of uncertain authorship (possibly written by François Simonnet) on the website of Libero por la Lingvoj (LPLL) [29] first makes the usual diversity-protection claim ("In our eyes, Esperanto is of interest mainly … to preserve the other languages and the dignity of every language group and every person."), while noting on the other hand, by way of precaution: "It must be asked whether it is not appropriate, as some of us maintain (though the debate remains open on this point and many others), to maintain strictly monolingual core groups within each language community." Here is a tacit admission that Esperanto, if it were truly universally spoken, might very well gradually replace other languages in the course of time.

Marcel Leereveld, the author of regular articles on Esperanto grammar in Laŭte, not long ago [30] dealt with "secondary matters" and "by-products" that accompany the "chief task" of the language's adherents – to bring it into general use as a lingua franca for speakers of different languages. As one of the secondary matters he counts use of Esperanto in the family, saying that it "if generally adopted, would destroy the ethnic languages".

So it isn't that the advocates of linguistic diversity lack awareness of how Esperanto, if it were to penetrate society to a sufficient extent, would no longer remain everybody's second language, but become the first language of many – and as such probably one more language that replaces other, weaker languages.

Future Prospects

It would not surprise me if there turned out to be a few other explanations of how the introduction of Esperanto is supposed to protect ethnic languages and cultures, considering the ubiquity of the ethnic and identitarian discourse both within the Esperanto-speaking community and in Esperanto-movement propaganda. But I believe that I have mentioned the most prevalent lines of argumentation here.

It is hard to predict the future of the ideology that links Esperanto to such topics as "cultural diversity", "linguistic diversity" and "preservation of ethnic identity". Such ideologies are especially typical of the European New Right and can best be described as "ethnopluralistic", to use the term coined by the New Right itself. If past experience can be relied upon, Esperantists will give them up when they lose their appeal in the rest of society. That is already happening, though not everywhere. Esperantists usually notice the direction the wind is blowing with a delay of several years. Will the World Anational Association SAT, with its traditional antinationalist approach, not help to raise their awareness?

Another crucial factor will be the outcome of the smoldering dispute within the Esperanto-speaking community between factions that cling to the original notion that Esperanto must achieve "victory" as the universal second language of humanity, and factions that discount the likelihood of such an event, and instead treat Esperanto as a kind of alternative life-style.

Advocates of the "diversity-protection" hypothesis often try to create the impression that they are speaking for all Esperantists, but that is a false impression.


[1] The variety of ethnism familiar to Esperantists through the activity of the Internacia Komitato por Etnaj Liberecoj [International Committee for Ethnic Freedoms] (IKEL) is more moderate than the original. The concept of "ethnism" was first given wide currency by the Occitanian nationalist François Fontan through his book Ethnisme, vers un nationalisme humaniste, 1961 [return]
[2] Poblet, Francesc: "Frederic Pujulà i Vallès, escriptor, catalanista i esperantista" in Kataluna Esperantisto July-Sept. 2003 (327), p. 14 [return]
[3] Connolly, James in The Harp, April 1908; quoted in Keable, Ken: James Connolly and Esperanto, 2001; available here http://www.communist-party.org.uk [return]
[4] "Deutsche Zeitungsschau", Germana Esperantisto, 1914 (5), p. 76-77; quoting from an article by Franz Goldbach in Burschen heraus! Zeitschrift des Akademischen Turnbundes, February 1914; the quotations are my translations from the German original [return]
[5] Steche, Theodor: "Sprachwissenschaft und Welthilfssprache", Germana Esperantisto, 1931 (6), pp. 85-90 [return]
[6] Steche, Theodor: Neue Wege zum reinen Deutsch, Ferdinand Hirt, Breslau, 1925 [return]
[7] Simon, Gerd: Himmlers Bibel und die öffentlichkeitswirksamste Podiumsdiskussion in der Geschichte der Germanistik (Erster Teil); kaj Europa-Gedanke und Sprachpolitik 1933-1945 [return]
[8] Simon, Gerd: Europa-Gedanke und Sprachpolitik 1933-1945 (vd. supre), p. 6 [return]
[9] Courtinat, Leon: Historio de Esperanto (Vol. 3), Bellerive-sur-Allier, 1966, p. 1016. This report is faulty, however, at least with respect to the place of the event. It refers to "Rostock-Greiswald". There is no such district in Rostock. This is almost certainly a reference to the city of Greifswald, 90 km from Rostock. [return]
[10] Lapenna, Ivo: Retoriko ((1st ed.), Paris 1950, p. 28; my translation from Esperanto [return]
[11] Lapenna, Ivo: Retoriko (3rd ed.), Rotterdam 1971, p. 59 [return]
[12] Pei, Mario: All About Language, London 1956 [return]
[13] Pei, Mario: One Language for the World and How to Achieve It, New York 1958, Ch. 17; also available on internet at http://miresperanto.narod.ru/biblioteko/pei.htm [return]
[14] Hernández, Luis: "Favore al la lingva diverseco" in Nica literatura revuo, November-December 1955; the quotations are my translations from the original Esperanto [return]
[15] "The Position of the Universal Esperanto Association on Linguistic Rights", http://en.linguistic-rights.org/; the UEA created this website in order to prepare the International Symposium on Linguistic Rights in the World, the current situation at the United Nations in Geneva on April 24, 2008 [return]
[16] GRECE = Groupement de Recherche et d'Études pour la Civilisation Européenne [return]
[17] Héraud, Guy: "Pour une solution du problème ethnique" in La Monda Lingvo-Problemo, Mouton, Den Haag, Nr. 5, 1970, pp. 103-113; an Esperanto translation, "Por solvo de la etna problemo", appeared in the Raporto on the "Language and Culture" Seminar, Stichting voor internationale kommunikatie, Amsterdam 1972 and in Corsetti, Renato (Ed.): Diskriminacio, UEA, Rotterdam 1984 [return]
[18] Chiti-Batelli, Andrea: Por politiko de Esperanto, UEA, Rotterdam 1997; as well as other works by the same author [return]
[19] Chiti-Batelli, Andrea: "Kia Eŭropa politiko por la Esperanto-movado" in Politika hegemonio kaj lingva hegemonio en Eŭropo, p. 5, UEA, Rotterdam 1995 [return]
[20] Frank, Helmar: Europa so – oder besser?, 1999 [return]
[21] Frank, Helmar: Europa so – oder besser?: Ch. 3.4 [return]
[22] Eŭropa Bunto: http://europa.bunto.free.fr/ [return]
[23] Eŭropa Bunto: this image appears to no longer be on the website [return]
[24] Gados, László: Brilu ĉiu lingvo samrajte!, Humana Eŭropa Asocio (PLU), Söjtör (Hungary) 2001; editions in several European languages are based on the Esperanto original [return]
[25] Eŭropa Bunto: "Europe and Language Rights: we must act in 2004!" http://europa.bunto.free.fr/prezento-en.htm [return]
[26] editors of Libera Folio: "Ekologi-lingvistika ekspertizo de Teĥeko", April 17, 2007, http://www.liberafolio.org/2007/teheko [return]
[27] EDE: "Nia programo", [return]
[28] Corsetti, Renato: message of March 8, 2007, "Glottofagia dell'Eo? (Risposta a Castelli)", http://it.groups.yahoo.com/group/esperantisti-italiani/message/14754 [return]
[29] Libero por la Lingvoj (LPLL): "Libero por la lingvoj – Liberté pour les langues", http://www.esperanto.com.br/libero/sciforespe.doc; the quotations are my translations from the French original [return]
[30] Leereveld, Marcel: "La Esperanta Kulturo", Laŭte, January-February 2007 (187), pp. 63-64 [return]

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