Remember Esperanto?

Okay, maybe I’m being a little unfair. Many readers, I suspect, have never heard of Esperanto — the artificially constructed language that some nineteenth and twentieth century utopians sought to turn into a universal language — so how can I expect them to remember it? The truth is that I barely remember it. Only once do I recall coming into contact with this artificial language. I have never heard anyone speak it, and to the best of my recollection I only saw it written once. During a visit to Amsterdam in 1978, I noted that the instructions for the use of public telephones (remember those?) were written in five or six different languages, Esperanto being one of them.

That one brief exposure lay buried somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious memory until roused by a recent book review in the Forward. I haven’t read the book in question, a biography of Ludwik Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, and I’m not likely to read it. I already have a long list of books of higher priority that I’m trying to find the time to read — but the book review got me thinking about the role that language plays in identity.

Esperanto is supposed to be a particularly easy language to learn, having been designed with that in mind. I have no knowledge of linguistics, so I won’t venture an opinion on that. According to this book review, Zamenhof, who died in 1917, was Jewish. I hadn’t realized that Esperanto had Jewish roots but I can hardly be surprised. Jews have been in the forefront of utopian movements throughout the modern era.

Esperanto has not exactly taken the world by storm. Its advocates claim that it currently has two million speakers world wide, which is more than I would have expected. Even if that figure is accurate, the key question is how many (if any) of those speakers use Esperanto as their primary language

Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the prime mover in the revival of Hebrew as a spoken vernacular language, would have understood that distinction. Other than the restoration of Jewish sovereignty itself, the revival of Hebrew has been modern Zionism’s proudest achievement. Ben Yehudah’s decision to raise his son Bentzion speaking only Hebrew was a radical act that served as a catalyst for the nascent movement for linguistic revival.

Of course, the Hebrew language was never really dead. It had always been the language of prayer and study, and the vehicle by which Jews of diverse origins could communicate. But it had been centuries since Hebrew had been a day-to-day vernacular, and it was that facet of the language that Ben Yehuda and his contemporaries sought to revive. As explained by Naftali Tur-Sinai, who would later become the first president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the primary ingredient for the revival of a language is the will of its speakers: “Even an artificial language which has never been, alive as Esperanto … can be made to live if only there is a recognized need for it, and a stubborn will of people to make it come alive.”

When it comes to pure “stubborn will”, nobody beats the Jews. In the course of a century in which they created a state, built an army, developed an advanced economy and made the desert bloom, the Jews of Israel somehow found the time and inner resolve to revive the Hebrew language. The result is that, even accepting the inflated figures of Esperanto’s cheerleaders, there are more speakers of Hebrew in the world today than of Esperanto — even though the world’s Jewish population, to borrow Milton Himmelfarb’s phrase, is no more than a rounding error in the Chinese census.

The speakers of Esperanto could not match the will of the early Zionists because their fundamental premise was wrong. They believed that a common language would impel people to make the entire world primary focus of their loyalty. As the continuing weakness or instability of supra national institutions keeps reminding us, the world is not ready for universal citizenship. To take an obvious example, despite concerted efforts to create a “European” identity across national boundaries, we have seen considerable blowback in numerous countries of the European Union.

The centrality of language as a focus of loyalty remains as strong as ever. The way we speak conditions the way we think. In George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, the totalitarian government was creating Newspeak, a language in which concepts such as freedom would simply not exist. If we have no way to express such concepts, then they can hardly motivate us to action. Cultural diversity is a prerequisite freedom.

Orwell did not invent that connection, nor was he the first to recognize it. In fact, the Torah beat him to it by more than three millennia, as we can see from the story of the Tower of Babel:

And they said, “Come let us build us a city, and
a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name
for ourselves” …. and the Lord said, ‘If as one
people with one language for all, this is how they
have begun to act, then nothing that they propose
to do will be out of their reach. ”
(Gen. 11:4-6, JPS translation).

Regardless of whether you view this story literally or allegorically, the message is the same. The centralization of power in the hands of human beings can be dangerous. Differences in language, far from being an obstacle to be overcome on the road to global harmony, is one of the safeguards preventing accumulation of power in too few hands. When humans become too powerful, they forget that there are limits to their power. The practical limitations created by the diversity of languages is one important barrier against the excesses of human hubris.

Those who invented Esperanto had the best of intentions, but in their eagerness to diminish armed conflict, they ignored the countervailing danger of excessive power in too few hands. Jews, from the beginning of our history, have been in the business of reminding the world that the ultimate source of power is God, not humanity. That message has not exactly made us popular, but delivering it has been our raison d’etrere– so the fact that Hebrew speakers outnumber Esperanto speakers is good news for a world that is desperately in need of some.