SEEDS AND GERMS: THE FLOURISHING OF ESPERANTO

PAM LONGOBARDI, Georgia State University
Presented at CAA Annual Conference, Los Angeles,
Feb 1999 on panel
"Post-Lingua: The Interraciality of Tongues"

My interest in Esperanto was reawakened during a stay in Eastern Europe in 1993. I kept bumping into small flyers and hand written notes announcing meetings of Esperantists. A memory of my first contact with the language was sparked: on my 11th birthday my father presented me with an Esperanto primer, actually his army-issue field manual, with the hope I would learn some of it. I never learned to speak Esperanto. I am not an Esperantist. But the language has continued to pique my interest-- enough to research it, to make art about it and to follow its curious voyage. The strange phenomenon of the language Esperanto arises in part due to the unusual conditions of its origin and the impossible odds of its survival for the past 110 years. Like the dinosaurs, recognized mainly for their extinction, Esperanto is considered to be a failed language, its position being "permanently stalled at the threshold of success." From a single speaker over a hundred years ago to more than two million today, one could ask, "Has esperanto succeeded?", or has it joined the ranks of other "failed" belief systems, like alchemy. It could be described as the brilliant yet utterly far-fetched notion of a Utopian dreamer. Yet it has survived repression by Tsarist Russian censorship in its infancy, two World Wars, and a plague of attacks from the vocal mistrustful. Esperanto is beautifully simple to learn, (with only 16 rules of grammar) logical (because it is completely devoid of irregularities), yet capable of expressing complex thought. It also sounds wonderful, its closest linguistic form being Italian. It is not the only artificial language, of which there are scores, many as abstruse as Esperanto, from Loglan to Klingon and Suma to Unilingua. But it is the one with the most viability. Like a particularly resistant germ strain, it has weathered dormancy and outright attack to spread its seeds to over 100 countries on all continents and to an estimated two million living speakers. 

The conditions surrounding Esperanto's invention are of note because like "natural " languages, a geo-political climate was the spawning ground for its birth. Dr. Ludwik Zamenoff, its inventor, was a Jew living in late 19th c. Poland. His town Bialystok was a Russian controlled enclave in which there were four main ethnic groups: Russians, Jews, Poles and Germans, each speaking their own separate language. There was isolation and the attendant hostility between the groups. Zamenhof writes:"...had I not been a Jew from the ghetto, the idea of uniting humanity would ... never have come into my head....". It was under these conditions that Zamenhof spent his formative years, having a "national" language of Polish for external social interchange, a "familial" language of Hebrew which was spoken for worship, and an "official" language of Russian, which repressively supplanted the other two.

In 1887, Zamenhof published the 1st Esperanto text titled Unua Libro under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto. A large part of its success in taking hold worldwide was Zamenhof's tireless and passionate promotion of Esperanto, not only as a language, but as a cause. "Unua Libro was thus at one and the same time a textbook of the language and a manifesto for a social movement."

This same almost religious fervor attends the present-day devotees of the language, a united and altruistic diaspora. It is truly more than a language, it is an ideology. Its devotional aspects are evident in the "promise" printed in the endpapers of Unua Libro required of readers and new speakers, in part created to control splinter groups while generating cohesion and dedication. It read: "I, the undersigned promise to learn the international language proposed by Dr. Esperanto, if it is shown that 10 million people have publicly made the same promise." A rather brilliant marketing strategy this appears to have been, as he launched the language with fewer than 1000 promises returned and to this day, the total number of speakers are only one-fifth of that to which he aspired. Thus individuation, and the lack of a nationalist core, put Zamenhof in the position of being the leader, almost in a religious sense, of the ideology of Esperanto. He became a "conversionist, an evangelical spirit."

Groups formed and a journal La Esperantisto ensued. Recruitment, pyramid fashion, was the major objective. Zamenhof saw this clearly as a grass-roots movement; in fact, governmental or economic influence was viewed with suspicion. Today, strident attempts from the grass roots base to enjoin political entities are one of the contemporary movement's goals. Current targets include attempts to have Esperanto become the Eurolanguage, and to be adopted as the official language of both the UN and the FAA. 

Esperanto meetings and world congresses occurred over the next ten years. The 1914 Congress was planned to take place in Paris with a registry of nearly 4000 participants but had to be canceled due to the outbreak of W.W.I. Before the end of the war, Zamenhof died, deeply depressed by the worldwide disintegration of peace, believing both his ideals, and his language, to be dying with him.  

And yet, Esperanto persisted. In 1954, UNESCO passed a resolution in favor of adopting Esperanto. Twice petitions of nearly one million signatures have come before the United Nations. Yet Esperanto continues to remain outside the power structures that could propel its dreams of acceptance into reality.  

Why then has Esperanto failed? And in what sense? It has achieved neither the goals nor the magnitude of acceptance that its creator desired. Though there has been an attempt to eliminate any hint of ideology, political or other, from it, the very name of the language encapsulates profoundly idealistic aspirations. According to Pierre Janton, the language was, and is, associated with an almost "mystical humanism." Perhaps its ideals of pacifism, altruism and "greenness"  do not mesh with the military industrial complex in which it was born. In this world, power is not attained through dissemination and benevolence, but though dominance, aggression, accretion of wealth and resources, and strongly nationalistic tendencies. The bigger the power structure, the larger the influence, and as we move from the military industrial complex to the digital technocracy of the Information Age, the dominant ruler and likely successor to the linguistic throne is English. The hegemony of English in science, technology, and aviation has declared itself the defacto "interworld language". Perhaps, however, the largest contributing factor to the spread and dominance of English, is capitalism.

Esperanto is not tied to economic power. Zamenhof's insistence on its "value-free" nature in order to protect its development in Tsarist Russia has impeded its ability to gain economic power in the present day. Though the modern movement points out the economic potential of the language in raucous amplitude, the psychological impediment of not actually having an economic base at all, aside from modest membership dues, is an insurmountable pitfall.

Thus despite its fervent populace, Esperanto still exists in a hobbyist mentality. Strides taken include a passionate, dedicated and vocal core group on nearly every continent. This has generated thousands of websites and millions of speakers worldwide. ELNA, the Esperanto League of North America, sends reams of informational and motivational material to its membership. Kent Jones, a tireless advocate, organizer and agitator appears to be a one-man promotional machine. As an educator joining the membership, I was personally contacted by Jones and given free weekly hour-long Esperanto speaking lessons over the phone, on his dime, along with a weekly average of 5-8 fervent email copies of his efforts worldwide.  

A language with such simplicity of form, clarity of worthy goals and selfless devotees would suggest easy acceptance. However, there is clear psychological resistance to Esperanto. Claude Piron has detailed a psychoanalytic series of "defense mechanisms" including denial, projection and rationalization that form the basis of critical attacks and opposition to Esperanto. One particularly vivid and emotional illustration comes from the field of linguistics: 

"Take a bird, perhaps one of our lake swans, pluck it completely, gouge out its eyes, replace its flat beak with a vulture's or an eagle's, graft on to its leg-stumps the feet of a stork, stuff an owl's eyeballs into the sockets... now incite your banner, propagate and shout the following words: "Behold the Universal Bird!", and you will get a slight idea of the icy feeling created in us by that terrible butchery, that most sickening vivisection, offered to us under the name of Esperanto... " (Cingria)

On some operational level, Esperanto is seen as threatening to both linguists and to governments, primarily feared for its potential to usurp control of the modes and conditions of exchange. Do people feel they are being "sold" an idealistic and unrealistic product? Why are there suspicions? Esperanto is a language without a country, yet is capable of insidious infiltration into every corner of the earth. It does not conform to authority, in fact it tries in every way to unravel control over interactions between people and groups. It erases hierarchy. 

One of the most virulent attacks on Esperanto has come on the grounds of its artificiality. Perhaps the idea that it was developed by a sole individual rings of totalitarian overtones, the notion of a  "planned" language raising the eyebrow of distrust provoked by any form of colonization. A language is considered to be pure if it developed "naturally". Yet what is "natural" about the way any language develops, as if this occurs in a controlled experiment, a petri dish uncontaminated by external agents like sociopolitics or geography.

Regardless of the success or failure of its self-fulfilling prophecy, Esperanto exists and is impacting a cultural, if not fully political, presence. Recent work made in and about the Esperanto language is coming from Eastern European rock bands, international curators and North American artists. Patricia Villalobos Echeverria, in collaboration with Lloyd Pratt created "Triada" a work which attempts to cross boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, geography and language. Triada is a multichannel broadcast quality sound piece which utilized Esperanto as a kind of layering bridge between the English and Spanish texts of the piece. Echeverria writes "Esperanto seemed an ambitious and unbelievably problematic project: to standardize and homogenize even European languages was a bold move on the part of its inventor, but to expect Esperanto to unite those who spoke it seemed at best myopic. Assuming that speaking a standardized language guarantees understanding seemed a serious oversight of cultural difference, one which emulates the schism of modernist thought and art practice. With its quest for one harmonious truth, modernity divorced itself from the sociological and cultural implications of reality. To use Esperanto ..underscores the interruptions in communication instead of its unifying character."

Another ambitious and perhaps more problematic project was the 1998 exhibition at Jack Tilton Gallery entitled Esperanto 98. Curated by Christian Haye, Esperanto '98 "wants to test the theory of art as a universal language. Four artists from disparate points around the globe attempt a conversation within the walls of Jack Tilton Gallery..." While vague notions of  Universality may come into mind, what one viewed in this exhibition was more a presentation of pedantic identity groups with little or no conversation occurring. The four ethnicities represented included Nigerian, Chinese, Turkish, and Israeli and with the exception of Fatimah Tuggar of Nigeria, none of the work was overtly text-based, as might be expected in an exhibition of this title. In a strong yet disunified representation of identity, this exhibition tended to reinforce the problematic nature of assumption of any sort of universality, art- or language-based. When identity is so inherently linked to nationality, to mother-tongue, the basis for communication optimally rests in using the best vehicle at hand, one's native language. Perhaps this further underlines the divisions necessary in establishing identity in the post-modern leveling field, and makes hope for "unification" in the sense of Zamenhof's Internal Idea , still faraway.

As an artist, my interest in language and the memory of the battered field manual lead me to research into the language's odd past. My search revealed this ultimate irony: Esperanto's original goals of unification, world peace and community through communication were completely subverted when, in 1962, the US Army adopted Esperanto as an operations code language for the Aggressor in field maneuver-tactics training. I wanted to frame this irony in a form that complimented its linguistic source and created an artist's book entitled Ten Words: An Esperanto Dictionary. This was an English-Esperanto dictionary of only ten words, chosen for the loose narrative structure they performed in sequence: eyewitness, desire, rare, signal, absence, sexual, no, seed, germ, meaning. It was a picture dictionary, with definitions that were shaped from existing entries, but flavored to underline a sense of loss, or failed expectations.

A second work emerged from the book project. This installation, entitled "Seeds and Germs" from 1995 centered on the definitions of two words "seed" and "germ" found in a 1931 Webster's Dictionary. The piece had gelatin encapsulated text in English and Esperanto, various words and a paragraph that described a brief history of the artificial language.

Words bracket our knowledge and experience of the world, and make it possible to digest the otherwise incomprehensible nature of the world. Though words come out of the mouth and go in through the ears, we "eat" our words, we "swallow" the story, we internalize information in our gut. This somatic reversal of order is interesting to me. The encapsulation and transparency of the words in the gelatin capsules and glassware refers to this. The two words "seed" and "germ" have been found to have almost identical definitions and yet they are opposites. It becomes a value judgment as to whether something is a "seed" or a "germ," determined by the desirability of its presence in the surrounding context. It is of interest that each namable concept also contains its inverse, the "germ" of contradiction or opposition. The slide projections can be seen as either seeds or germs. The social climate of any given time period has its own seeds and germs: ideas, diseases, populations (human, animal or botanical) have been on both sides of the coin.

The glassware is chemistry lab equipment. These elements contain a bit of their own hidden agenda, as materials of the sciences, as well as the way they become stripped of that meaning when re-presented. The groupings suggest organic growth (the bottles) and architecture growth (the stack.) The stack contains an inorganic chemical ethylene glycol, which is translucently beautiful, sweet to the taste and a deadly poison. This would not change perceptibly over the course of the six-month exhibition. The round vessels looked to me very much like internal organs of the body, perhaps hearts or stomach. They were filled with water and a word cast in gelatin, then sealed with wax. It was interesting to see what sort of entropy or development took place in the sealed containers. Things of all sorts actually grew in them.

The odd history of Esperanto to me perfectly represents the failure of universal meta-narratives, the sad yet recurrent subversion of good intentions, and the shifting platform of meaning upon which all language rests. Esperanto is alive and growing. Perhaps someday it will fulfill the hopes of its inventor, not to supplant other languages but to be a corollary. Perhaps this Utopian dream, "the most beautiful dream of humankind" is an ideology not tolerable in this present world. Because Esperanto has become a double, both a language and a symbol of all "that denies elitism, hegemony and all forms of dominance by the few over the many." It is doubtful that existing power structures would willingly sign on to this. But Esperantists are full of hope. After all, the word Esperanto means "one who hopes."