chapter  4
12 Pages

‘The new bilingualism’: Cosmopolitanism in the era of Esperanto


In recent investigations into the question of cosmopolitanism, the word ‘Esperanto’ uncomfortably floats in the margin, although the language itself rarely becomes the object of study; it is instead evoked as a byword for artificiality, non-historicity, or the emptiness of universality. For instance, Robert Pinsky’s essay ‘Eros against Esperanto’, despite its title, does not discuss Esperanto, but the language is used to criticize Martha Nussbaum’s take on cosmopolitanism, which he sees as too ‘universal’ and devoid of local and historical content (1996: 86). Pinsky describes Nussbaum’s ‘error’ as ‘like confusing a historical tongue such as English with a construct like Esperanto’ (85), and thereby highlights the authenticity and suitability of English as a world language. Also Gayatri Spivak, when asked if her notion of ‘transnational literacy’ might be useful to ‘examine the history of universal language movements’, distances herself from ‘planned reforms like Esperanto’, by ‘clinging to Ferdinand de Saussure’s wise words’: ‘In language […] everybody participates at all times, and that is why it is constantly being influenced by all. This capital fact suffices to show the impossibility of revolution’ (2001: 16). She thus understands Esperanto to be a kind of non-language, not suitable to keep pace with ever-evolving human life. As Spivak’s authority for her claim about artificial languages is Ferdinand de Saussure, she would not be too pleased to hear that he is remembered by Esperantists as a supporter of their movement. According to Théophile Cart (1855-1931), French Esperantist and Professor of Linguistics, and a former student of Saussure, in writing Saussure’s obituary: ‘he was very sympathetic to our movement, and firmly certified the possibility of an artificial international language, and approved of Esperanto’ (Cart 1913: 107; my translation). Ferdinand’s brother, René de Saussure (1868-1943), was also a renowned Esperantist and reformer of the language, illustrating the kinship between modern linguistics and Esperanto, both of which regarded languages as belonging to living human beings to be spoken and lived through, rather than as the dead ‘fossils’ which nineteenth-century philology took them to be. Early sympathizers of the Esperanto movement also include celebrities like Tolstoy and Max Müller, while Edmond Privat (1889-1962), a Swiss peace activist and trusted friend of Gandhi, was a leading Esperantist who acted as President of the Universal Esperanto Association. Despite having over one hundred years of history, and having created surprising international networks, including both

Esperantists and non-Esperantists, Esperanto, as a rule, lacks any serious consideration of its local and historical contexts and this has ensured that the language will safely remain a metaphor.