G. Mickle: La patrina lakto kaj la tero
Eugeno Lanti: Manifesto de la Sennaciistoj
• • •
This website is maintained by Gary Mickle. Criticism, remarks, suggestions etc. may be sent .
• • •
Last update:
• • •

Gary Mickle:

An Unconvincing Scheme to Save Mother Tongues

(The original Esperanto version of this article was submitted to Revuo Esperanto in 2002, but rejected.)

Anna Ritamäki has recommended ("Pledo por la gepatraj lingvoj vekas atenton" [Plea for Mother Tongues Attracts Attention] in Esperanto, July-August 2002, p. 160) that we familiarize ourselves with Brilu ĉiu lingvo samrajte!, a brochure written by László Gados. Several national sections of the Universal Esperanto Association UEA [1] have now published it in their own languages. To be sure, this work is worth having a look at. It is a good example of a troubling nationalistic political tendency that is spreading within the "neutral" Esperanto-movement partly through an unusual channel, that of PR material intended for a non-Esperantist audience, but which influences the thinking of Esperantists as well. This tendency has been uncritically accepted within the movement until now, making that movement's "progressive" self-image look more and more doubtful.

Linguistic Mixophobia

It makes a considerable difference whether Esperantists attack the world's present linguistic order with the argument that:

  • the exchange of cultural products and the currents of mutual cultural influence between various parts of the world are totally unbalanced, and that the inequitable world language order exacerbates the lack of balance,
or with the argument that
  • cultural influence by one ethnic culture on another is generally a kind of aggression and a factor of "damage" to the cultures that are subject to such influence, damage that "manifests itself in the fact that several or many elements of an ethnic group's culture or its linguistic component are superseded by cultural (linguistic) elements proper to another ethnic group" (Gados), for example through the agency of lexical borrowing, these days mainly of the anglicisms that are taking root in many languages.

The first type of discourse tends to focus on the world system with its grossly inequitable distribution of wealth and political power, which corresponds to equally steep cultural and linguistic hierarchies. The second type of discourse analyses cultural exchange and the world's linguistic order in terms that are essentially nationalistic. As it perceives things, the problem lies not so much in inequality as in convergence, i.e. the loss of distinctions between ethnic and national cultures (which are simplistically referred to as "the" cultures). Individual identity, something that is actually multi-faceted and dynamic, is treated as if its core substance were ethnic or national, and as if it were susceptible to crisis ("loss of identity") when an individual is subjected to "excessive" alien ethnic influences.

Mixophobia (according to Pierre-André Taguieff [2] a "repulsion in the face of mixture of human groups that expresses an obsession about becoming unclean, more precisely, with the loss of the ethnic group's identitarian purity") is a word that aptly describes the way Gados and other language nationalists relate to the phenomenon of lexical borrowing. It is also the link in the chain of historical continuity that directly connects old-style racism with the modern "New Right" ideology called differentialism or ethnoplurism. The old mixophobic obsession with biological mongrelization is visibly analogous to the present-day bugaboo of ethnic cultures mixing and converging. On the subject of the "links between racism and nationalism", Eric Hobsbawm [3] speaks of the "evident analogy between the insistence of racists on the importance of racial purity and the horrors of miscegenation, and the insistence of so many – one is tempted to say of most – forms of linguistic nationalism on the need to purify the national language from foreign elements". But is this analogy so obvious to those Esperantists who desperately want to believe theories about "glottophagy" (i.e. "linguistic voracity"), spawned at least in part under New Right influence, and how that glottophagy can be averted with the aid of Esperanto, because they have been talked into believing that in its popularization lies the language's last chance for victory? Such theories have been circulating for years, and Gados seems to be enlarging them by the hypothesis that the "damage" inflicted on an ethnic language when it takes on alien lexical material is compromising its ability to perform its "role as a mother tongue". This role would seem to be that of instilling in successive generations the particular "identity" that they are preordained to have, although Gados is not very forthcoming with clarifications about this point.

Globalization as a Threat to Culture

In his comments on globalization, the author conjures up the nationalist image of rich cosmopolites who are active enemies of the nations. Where the cosmopolites were once personified as Jews and freemasons, they usually appear today in the guise of members of the board of directors of multinational corporations. Gados posits that the latter group, a small economic elite, is the driving force behind the destruction of humanity's cultural diversity, because that diversity imposes limitations on the worldwide sales of its merchandise. "They are pursuing their interests. It would be to their advantage for the world to be more monochrome, for it to be monolingual. That runs counter to the interests of those peoples that wish to preserve their linguistic and cultural heritage. Have they not just as much of a right to pursue their own interests?" These statements, along with the final rhetorical question, seek to imply that the "peoples" (a) are cohesive groups that are unified by a common will, and (b) are being actively prevented from, or have actually been rendered incapable of preserving their heritage, determining their identity, etc. It is theses like these that activists of the so-called New Right advance as they penetrate movements critical of globalization – with a measure of success in some places, though not everywhere, fortunately, because these movements have in many cases become aware of who they are dealing with.

The Baseless Claim that Esperanto Can "Threaten" no Mother Tongue

Gados claims repeatedly that Esperanto can threaten no "mother tongue" the way English does. Politicians should therefore be open to the idea of "checking into the application of a non-ethnic so-called constructed language in the function of a common language. If they did so, they would ascertain that it is practically neutral and that its use would therefore endanger no language in its mother-tongue role". Unfortunately, he makes no attempt to substantiate this claim with convincing arguments, though he makes it several times.

First, the text never makes clear why a national language is any less able to fulfill its "mother-tongue role" as a result of the expansion of English in the world, although the reader might surmise that it has something to do with the "damage" that allegedly stems from lexical borrowing from English. Does this mean that a child acquires no mother tongue if it grows up among people whose language is larded with anglicisms? Or does it perhaps not acquire the "right" identity? If lexical borrowing is the real problem, then a second question arises: what is to prevent Esperanto, were it to be introduced one day as the neutral common language of Europe, from itself becoming a source of "harmful" lexical borrowings? Is the fact that it is not ethnic, or that it is planned and neutral, a factor that inhibits borrowing from it? In reality, we know from experience that the opposite is true: some Esperantists, when they are together and elect to speak their national language instead of Esperanto, spice up that language with just as many esperantisms as fashion-conscious anglomaniacs do with anglicisms!

The people that worked to produce the German edition of this text admit in an indirect way the tendency that is criticized here. Ulrich Matthias [4], who created the German edition together with Frank Stocker, notes that this particular edition is not merely a German translation, but one that has partially been revised in its content. They had been concerned, as they put it, with "preventing the reader from regarding the brochure as nationalistic".

If I were faced with the choice between the prospect of a world that introduced Esperanto out of convictions rooted in ethnopluralism, and that of a world that just drifted along paths that are less than ideal in terms of language policy, but without sinking into the morass of ethnopluralism, I would not hesitate to chose the latter alternative. There is no danger, however, that the first perspective will become reality, as such arguments can be taken apart all too easily. Gados' work is mainly good as documentary evidence of the progressing adoption of a form of New Right and nationalistic thinking on the part of Esperantists, and certainly not as a means of convincing readers – except for ones who are predisposed in favor of such political thinking – that Esperanto is worthy of attention.

[1] or in the case of Germany the Deutsches Esperanto-Institut, which is affiliated with the Deutscher Esperanto-Bund (German Esperanto Association, a national section of the Universal Esperanto Association, UEA) [return]
[2] Pierre-André Taguieff: Le racisme, Paris 1997 [return]
[3] E. J. Hobsbawm: Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge 1990 [return]
[4] in Esperanto aktuell (organ of the German Esperanto Association), 4/2001 [return]

• • •
Sennaciismo kosmopolitismo kontraunaciismo