Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-4hhp2 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-27T19:18:55.604Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Roberto Garvía Esperanto and Its Rivals. The Struggle for an International Language. [Haney Foundation Series.] University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia (PA) 2015. viii, 226 pp. $55.00; £36.00

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2018

Marc van Oostendorp*
Meertens InstituutPO Box 10855, 1001 EW Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Rights & Permissions [Opens in a new window]


Book Review
© Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 2018 

From roughly the 1880s until the 1920s, the issue as to which language should be the international lingua franca was an important intellectual battleground, particularly in Europe. English was slowly on the rise, but German was still going strong as a language of international scholarship, whereas French functioned as the language of international diplomacy. Yet, around this time, many Europeans became more interested in another type of solution, one that was considered more efficient and more democratic: that of a language specifically designed for this purpose.

Soon, the proponents of different “artificial languages” started fighting each other. The reasons behind these battles were not necessarily that people disagreed on whether the ideal language should use ed or kaj for the word “and”, or whether it should have grammatical cases. In his book Esperanto and Its Rivals: The Struggle for an International Language, the Spanish sociologist Roberto Garvía clearly shows that the disagreement was, to a large extent, also a battle about who should be in power within such a language.

Garvía concentrates on three main language projects around this time. The first was Volapük, invented by Johann Martin Schleyer (1831–1912), a Catholic priest living in Litzlstetten in southern Germany, close to Konstanz. Schleyer believed that the language was presented to him in some kind of revelation. Initially, he did not really seem to know what the purpose of this “international” language was, as Garvía demonstrates. The time was ripe for the idea of an international language; however, and only nine years after Schleyer published his first sketch of the language, there were fifteen Volapük journals and 257 clubs all over the world. “In some European countries”, Garvía writes, “the language was also taught in public schools, business schools, and universities, and a new profession, Volapükatidel, or teacher of Volapük, was created”.

Yet, within a few years, that all evaporated. The main reason seems to have been the fierce discussion between Schleyer and his followers, such as the Frenchman Auguste Kerckhoffs (1835–1903). While for Schleyer, Volapük was supposed to mostly replace Latin as an international language for subtle intellectual discussion and poetry, Kerckhoffs believed that it should serve as a language for international trade. This implied also a difference in opinion on what the language should look like. In Schleyer’s proposal, the language was rather complicated, with elaborate systems for case endings for nouns and tense endings for verbs; he thought this was necessary to obtain the necessary subtlety. For Kerckhoffs, however, such subtlety made the language overly complicated and impractical. Other followers had slightly different views on the usefulness of the language, for instance to promote international peace, or to be used in international science.

An accompanying problem was that Schleyer believed that Volapük was his intellectual property, and he did not believe in compromise. He envisioned a Volapük movement that was structured more or less on the model of the Roman Catholic Church, in which Schleyer himself played the role of pope.

The rigidity of that structure, combined with the diversity of opinions among followers about the goal of the language as well as its preferred grammar, weakened the movement considerably. That, in turn, led to another language proposal taking over quite rapidly: Esperanto (1887), invented by the Polish-Jewish oculist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859–1917).

Zamenhof’s view on the artificial language movement was a very different one. For one thing, he did not claim copyright on his language, but made it “open source”: in his second booklet on the language, which he published, like the first, as Lingvo Internacia [International Language] under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (where Esperanto means “the one who hopes”), he declared that he gave authority over the language to the community of users, of which he would be only a member.

As in the case of Volapük, the proponents of Esperanto had a wide variety of goals in mind for the language. Indeed, the initial infrastructure of Esperanto consisted mostly of journals and associations that had “converted” from Volapük after disappointment about the fights in the movement and difficulties with the language. So here, too, pacifists united with people who saw a commercial advantage in having an international language, as well as with people who just liked to play with a new language.

In the literature on Zamenhof, there is an emerging consensus that Zamenhof himself might originally have been driven by a different goal altogether, namely to develop a language for the Jews of Europe. Garvía clearly subscribes to this idea as well. Zamenhof was very engaged with the fate of the Jews in Poland; he had been active in the early Zionist movement, but had also been actively promoting the idea that there could be a Jewish state in America. Furthermore, he believed that one of the problems of the Jews was that they did not have their “own” language. He wrote one of the earliest grammars of Yiddish, but later believed that this language would never be taken seriously and always be seen as a kind of “broken German”. As to Hebrew (his father was a censor for Hebrew for the Czarist regime), Zamenhof was sceptical that this language would ever be able to function in the modern world. Esperanto, which was easy to learn for Jews across Europe, could be a solution. The fact that it was also easy for non-Jews to learn might originally have been an attractive additional feature that later became the main goal of Zamenhof’s project, which seems to have been to unite people across ethnic and cultural borders.

The Esperanto movement soon blossomed even more than Volapük had ever done. There have been (and still are) separate associations for socialists, pacifists, internationalists, Catholics, Protestants, Baha’í, and a wide variety of other social movements and world orientations. The first generation of Esperantists has already declared that “anybody can be an Esperantist who wants to use the language for some purpose”, although Zamenhof and many others at the same time have always emphasized the importance of what they call the “interna ideo” of the language – an “internal idea” of mutual respect and collaboration.

Privately, Zamenhof also connected this ideal with an idea about religion: that there should be a common, neutral religious ground, roughly the “golden rule” (do not unto others what you do not wish to be done unto you). However, when he wanted to read a “prayer” to the “mysterious Force” that unites all people, a group of French intellectuals rebelled. Generally, they believed that Zamenhof was not modern enough and they also thought that his Jewish background might be an impediment for the movement (especially after the debates about Dreyfus had all but torn apart French society).

An important language-reform proposal came from circles closely related to these Zamenhof sceptics: the language Ido. Ido is an Esperanto word meaning “offspring”, and the name was originally intended to indicate that the language was meant as a slightly improved version of Esperanto. The language was published anonymously, but was designed primarily by the French mathematician and Leibniz scholar Louis Couturat (1868–1914). In spite of the indeed rather small differences between the two languages, a bitter feud ensued, which seems to have been, at least in part, also a fight about who should have power over a language. The Idists believed that the organization of the Esperanto movement was too democratic or too populist, and guidance over a language should be in the hands of an intellectual elite. They furthermore rejected the spiritual “interna ideo” and favoured a purely practical approach to language design instead. The result was that a fairly large proportion of the leadership of the young movement transferred to Ido. However, the majority of “ordinary” Esperantists stayed with Zamenhof and his project.

One could say that history has proved Zamenhof’s vision to be right – hence Garvía’s title: Esperanto and its Rivals. A language probably cannot work when the movement supporting it is too hierarchically organized. This is why Esperanto survived the battles and continues to be with us today, even though it obviously never came close to the original goals of its founder and his contemporaries.

One might regret this state of affairs, as Garvía notes, given that the solution that the world did adopt, that of English as an almost universal lingua franca, creates quite some inequality – between those for whom English (or a closely related language) is the native language and those for whom it is not. Esperanto and Its Rivals presents an interesting account and an excellent overview of the battles to find a more just and democratic solution to the language problems of the world.