Why We All Should Be Esperantists
By Ronald J. Glossop

(for 10th Annual Conference of Concerned Philosophers for Peace on the theme "Reconciling Peace with Justice," Chico, California, September 1997)

I would like to address an issue not often discussed among philosophers (or anyone else) but relevant to several of the specific questions and topics circulated in connection with calls for papers for this conference. In the April 16, 1997 announcement from CPP Executive Director William Gay some of the suggested questions to be considered were: "Is escape possible from power relations embedded in language?" and "Is it possible to honor one's ethnic origins and identify with all of humanity?" In the call for papers from Ron Hirschbein in Chico one of the suggested topics was "Balancing/promoting inter-ethnic cooperation while preserving diversity." While the issue I wish to discuss is related to these topics, I am quite confident that those posing these questions and issues were not thinking about the specific question I want to address. Nevertheless this question is quite appropriate for a conference on the theme "Reconciling Peace with Justice." This question is, How should we deal with the issue of which language(s) to use in the rapidly evolving global community?

In his 1993 CCP Presidential Address entitled "Linguistic Violence" William Gay discussed various forms of linguistic violence. In the section of his address entitled "Types of Linguistic Violence" he twice mentioned the issue of language choice in a community. He said: "Beyond literacy is the issue of what language is accepted as the official one and whose interest this decision favors and in what ways others are oppressed by this decision."[i] He also said: "More neglected in the literature is the way in which, under colonialism, the languages of national groups in the third world have been relegated to an inferior status in favor of a first-world language as the official one."[ii] These statements point to the issue I wish to address. Professor Gay also raised another issue at the end of that Presidential Address which is relevant to this question of language choice for the world community, namely that the topic of change in language and language policy is ultimately an issue where "politics comes first."[iii]

The question of which language(s) should be used in the global community is also related to Hirschbein's suggested topic of "Balancing/promoting interethnic cooperation while preserving diversity." The need for communication and "interethnic cooperation" throughout a rapidly evolving world community means that it is very probable that only one or a few languages are going to be used for this international communication. At the same time there are over 3,000 languages in the world, 240 spoken by at least a million persons and thirteen of them spoken by more than 100 million people.[iv] How can the need for efficient two-way communication at the global level be reconciled with the need to preserve at least some of this diversity?

If we look at how this issue of achieving a resolution of the tension between efficiency in communication and preserving diversity is being addressed in some of the major international organizations of the day such as the United Nations and the European Union, the situation is not very encouraging. In February 1946 the U.N. General Assembly decided that the United Nations would have five official languages--Mandarin Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. There were to be two working languages, English and French, in all the principal organs. Arabic was added as an official language of the U.N. in 1980, and now all six of the official languages have also become working languages in the General Assembly.[v] Under the Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly, it is also possible for delegates to use a language other than the six official languages if they themselves provide interpretation into one of the six official languages. In the 1992 session of the General Assembly, 12.5% of the speakers, the highest proportion ever, used this option.[vi] But even though there seems to be a move toward preserving at least some linguistic diversity in the public formal sessions where presentations may be mainly for political show, in fact more and more of the actual communication among the various national representatives at the U.N. is taking place in informal private meetings where virtually everyone uses English. Stephen B. Pearl, former Chief of English Interpretation at the U.N., explains that this change reflects the fact that most countries have concluded that the public debate which takes place at the U.N. is not that important anyway because the decisions on how to vote are usually made in the national capitals. Consequently, the delegates sent to the U.N. are sent there precisely because they have the skill to operate in English, the language used in the informal meetings.[vii] So we have a public performance where various languages are used to make a point about the political status of the countries involved and then behind-the-scenes meetings where the real dialogue and negotiating takes place, almost entirely in English. There is a public show of diversity but a hidden reality of uniformity where one language is rapidly shoving even the other official languages out of business. Furthermore, even this outward show of diversity is possible only because of a large staff of translators and interpreters. If we think of the world language problem not just from the viewpoint of the leaders of government and others who can afford to have translators and interpreters at their beck and call, it becomes obvious that even the minimal diversity which comes with six chosen major languages is not something that can function in the world community as a whole.

In the European Union we have a similar situation. At the formal level we have the "principle of complete multilingualism," the principle that all representatives in the European Parliament have the right to speak or to listen in their own state language.[viii] That means that there were 9 official languages for the 12 countries in 1992, and now that Finland, Sweden, and Austria have become members there are 11 official languages for 15 countries. The Language Service already consumes more than half of the administrative budget of the European Parliament,[ix] and as still more countries become members and new languages are added, the situation will become untenable. Meanwhile other linguistic communities such as the Catalans in Spain have pushed the European Parliament to declare that all European languages, even regional rather than state ones, deserve recognition. Catalan, however has still not been made an official language of the EC. Instead the Catalans have been "encouraged to continue seeking some sort of other recognition," though it is unclear what this would be.[x] Although the official policy is the "principle of complete multilingualism" in the European Parliament and for official documents, and although there is an understanding that both English and French will be the working languages, there are some EC operations where English has become the first among equals as far as actual language use is concerned.[xi] English is meeting more resistance in Europe than at the United Nations, but as long as the only solution being considered is to use some existing national language, English is probably going to gradually eliminate the others.

Suppose that for a moment we ignore what is actually happening and focus instead on what kind of language policy should be adopted in order to reconcile the need for cooperative action and the aim of preserving linguistic diversity. What is the ideal way of dealing with this issue? Timothy Reagan of the University of Connecticut has addressed the issue of "the role that can be played by language planning and language policy in contributing to the reconciliation of the forces for diversity and the pressures for unity."[xii] He cautions that the tension between diversity and unity "is one that almost always goes far beyond language, language differences, and language rights."[xiii] Although language is not the only factor in disputes about ethnic differences and diversity, it is a powerful symbol often linked with group identity and thus cannot be ignored. When he turns his attention to the language situation in Europe, he observes that the range of options on language policy and language planning can be arranged along a "continuum of diversity," from an extreme where "all languages used on the continent would be accorded equal status and rights" to the opposite extreme of having a single language selected as the only one having official status.[xiv] Neither extreme would be acceptable. The first is just unworkable while the second would arouse intense opposition from the major languages not selected. Reagan expects the Europeans to adopt a solution along the lines of what they are already doing, namely, "the principle of complete multi-lingualism" with each country having the option of naming one language. But, he notes, "Such a solution is not really the most reasonable one" because it "inevitably requires an immense expenditure in terms of interpreting, translation, and publications services, and so on, while at the same time it will in essence favor the existing 'languages of wider communication' (such as English and French), and penalize the smaller languages (e.g. Catalan, Danish, and so forth)."[xv]

He then makes the point that "the use of a single, relatively neutral language -- however one chooses to define 'neutrality' in this context -- in conjunction with continued use of national, regional, and ethnic languages would provide a possible alternative, both internationally and intranationally, and might be both cheaper and more effective in the long run."[xvi] He then observes that Esperanto could fill this role. What is especially noteworthy here is that Reagan is not an Esperantist but a disinterested scholar just looking at the possibilities. He goes on to list three pragmatic advantages of Esperanto as a single language for Europe: (1) it is neutral as none of the national languages would be; (2) it is demonstrably easier to learn than any of the European national languages; and (3) it "already exists, has an international user population, and has an extensive lexicon suited to contemporary needs."[xvii] Reagan also lists some possible objections to Esperanto. They are: (1) it would represent a break from the existing way of dealing with the language problem, in the process undoubtedly arousing the opposition of interpreters and translators employed by the present system; (2) the number of people already familiar with Esperanto is relatively small; (3) there are widespread negative attitudes toward Esperanto, whether such attitudes are rational or irrational. His final conclusion is: "Esperanto would appear to offer considerable promise, and certainly giving it more serious consideration than has been done in the past would not seem unreasonable."[xviii] The use of a neutral language like Esperanto needs to be considered as a viable way of getting linguistic efficiency while preserving linguistic diversity.

This conclusion should not be surprising. When L. L. Zamenhof developed Esperanto in the last part of the nineteenth century, he was motivated precisely by this concern of providing for linguistic unity while preserving linguistic diversity. He realized that a just language policy[xix] would involve developing a new neutral language that would be no one's first language and everyone's second language. Since it would be learned as a second language by everyone, it would be necessary to make it relatively easy to learn. Since it was being constructed as a new language, it would be possible to create a completely rule-guided and totally phonetic language without the kind of grammatical and spelling irregularities which create obstacles for those trying to learn existing national languages. The grammar could be made simple by having one system of conjugation for all verbs and just a few rules for other grammatical features. The vocabulary could be borrowed to some extent from existing languages, especially from those Latin roots common to many of the European languages. A system of rule-guided prefixes and suffixes could be established which would permit the rapid expansion of one's vocabulary by a logical system of word-building. Zamenhof presented his language to the world in 1887, and it has been learned and used by large numbers of people all over the world. The issue of how many Esperantists there are in the world is complicated by the question of just how well persons must be able to use the language before they are counted as Esperantists. There are about 50,000 persons who belong to some kind of official Esperanto organization, and some informed persons estimate that "about 250,000 people throughout the world speak Esperanto fluently, and one to two million can carry on a simple conversation in it."[xx]

If Esperanto is such an appropriate solution to the world language problem, why has it not made more progress? Why do we hear so little about it? Here we need to return to William Gay's point about the role of politics in determining language policy. The national governments, especially the more powerful ones, control the policy decisions in international bodies, whether they are for the whole world like the United Nations or regional like the European Union. These national governments are interested in promoting their own national languages, which is just what they have done. Another factor in such an issue is that even the diplomats from the less powerful countries have their positions because they already have learned the major national languages such as English and French. Are they going to be persuaded to vote to make some other neutral language the official language of the international organization? That would be voting against their own personal interest. A neutral language like Esperanto may be the rational way of dealing with the language problem, but there are no powerful national governments promoting it and there are some interested parties who oppose it.

The issue of teaching Esperanto to all of the children of the world did come up for consideration at the first meeting of the League of Nations in December 1920.[xxi] The resolution included the statement that the League of Nations "hopes that this instruction [of Esperanto] will become general in the whole world, in order that children of all nations from now on would know at least two languages, their mother tongue and an easy means of international communication," and it called for the Secretary-General to prepare a detailed report on the results being obtained in teaching Esperanto in various countries.[xxii] France vigorously opposed this resolution on grounds that French was already the universal language.

The next year a new proposal, drafted again by Lord Robert Cecil of South Africa, was presented to the League's Committee on the Agenda. In spite of opposition from France, a report from that committee calling for more study of the teaching of Esperanto was accepted. The Esperantists worked with the Institut J.J. Rousseau in Geneva and the League itself to hold an international conference on the teaching of Esperanto in schools. The language of the conference was Esperanto, and the efficiency with which business was conducted when no interpreters were needed much impressed the observers from the League. The Secretary-General's 1922 "report, Esperanto as an International Auxiliary Language, took a fairly favorable view of Esperanto"[xxiii] but was "careful not to suggest the use of Esperanto as a diplomatic language or in the business of the League itself -- a proposal which would certainly have antagonized the French."[xxiv] Despite some opposition most of the report was accepted, and the specific issue of teaching Esperanto in the schools was referred to the League's Committee on Intellectual Cooperation.[xxv]

The chair of this committee was none other than French philosopher Henri Bergson. Despite the fact that "Bergson had earlier expressed himself in support of Esperanto, he admitted acting under the instructions of B?rard, the then French Minister of Education, to 'drown' Esperanto."[xxvi] In his summary of the committee's deliberations Bergson said that "the invention [Esperanto] would only be desirable if in the long run it imposed itself" and that "from henceforth the business of the League of Nations and of its Committee on Intellectual Cooperation was to encourage the study of living languages, and not that of an artficial language."[xxvii]

In 1923 at the fourth general meeting of the League of Nations France introduced a resolution "recommending the study of foreign languages rather than an artificial one," but this resolution against Esperanto was opposed and eventually withdrawn.[xxviii] In 1924 a new leftist French government adopted a new policy toward Esperanto and "it was resolved unanimously [by the general meeting of the League] to recommend to member states that Esperanto be acceptable as a 'clear' language in telegrams.[xxix] In 1925 the Universal Telegraph Union agreed to accept Esperanto as a clear language, and from 1923 to 1932 the International Labor Office issued a regular bulletin in Esperanto.[xxx]

The Esperantists then began to focus their attention on "technical meetings" where the value of Esperanto would be tied to limited interests such as teaching the language in schools, using it in commerce, using it in radio broadcasting, and using it in science.[xxxi] The Esperanto movement also began to get intertwined with factional struggles in the socialist movement and even a factional struggle within the Nazi movement in Germany. World War II proved to be a disaster for the Esperanto movement, not only because both Stalin and Hitler actively persecuted the Esperantists but also because so much of the fighting and destruction took place in eastern Europe, just that part of the world where the Esperanto movement had been the strongest. Another factor which was very damaging to the Esperanto movement and which has become steadily worse is the influence of English as the language of the politically, economically, scientifically, and technologically powerful United States. The general feeling, even among leaders of non-English-speaking countries, is that the language one needs for international communication is English. Why bother with Esperanto even if UNESCO did pass resolutions in 1954 and again in 1985 supporting the teaching of Esperanto?[xxxii]

This situation puts the moral pressure directly on us whose native language is English. The question is, Why should the rest of the world be forced to use the English language for international communication when only a declining 5.7 % of the world's population are native speakers of the language, and when only 8.4 % of the world's people are able to use the language?[xxxiii] There are three other languages with a larger number of native speakers -- Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish. We see here a linguistic imperialism based on the superior military, economic, technological, and political power of the United States. The situation has nothing to do with how good the English language is or how readily it can be learned. Furthermore, this situation of linguistic imperialism is arousing plenty of complaints and demands for language rights throughout the world as people using other languages indicate their concern about how to protect their own languages from the unwanted dominance of English.[xxxiv] There is also the bind in which the less-developed countries are put. They need to use a major language, often the language of their former colonial oppressor, in order to have access to the rest of the world with the result that their already scarce educational resources must be used to teach their children a difficult-to-learn second or third language as well as their national and/or tribal language.[xxxv]

What can be done about the situation? Obviously, one positive reaction would be to become involved with the promotion of Esperanto as a neutral world language which is much easier to learn than English and which is not the threat to other national languages that English is. This is a justice issue as well as a matter of preserving diversity while dealing efficiently with the problem of global communication. We could, and should, begin with ourselves and our own children. We should learn Esperanto so that we can use it at our international meetings such as the World Congress of Philosophy to be held in Boston in 1998 or at meetings of IPPNO. It is inappropriate to raise objections about others engaging in linguistic imperialism while we continue to do so ourselves.

There is an additional argument for teaching Esperanto to our English-speaking children. Our school system in the United States is such that most children are not learning any language other than English. This means that the children in the rest of the world are likely to be having an experience of learning at least one language in addition to their native language while many of our children are not. Esperanto is the perfect way to introduce all of our children to a second language.[xxxvi] My experience in teaching Esperanto to children indicates that fourth or fifth grade is the ideal time to begin. If you do not already know the language, you can learn it along with your children and then use it along with them -- on the internet, reading publications from other countries, corresponding with children in the rest of the world, and even traveling to Esperanto conferences throughout the world. An extra benefit from Esperanto is the sense of identity with the world community that comes with learning a whole-world language rather than just another national language.[xxxvii] There may be other things that we can do to try to promote a just language policy for the world community and to develop a lively sense of being part of that evolving larger planetary community, but there is no reason not to begin with Esperanto for ourselves and our own children and grandchildren.


[i]This statement is in "Part III. The Analysis of Linguistic Violence" under "Section 2. Subtle Forms of Linguistic Violence," third paragraph. As far as I know this address has not yet been published, but a copy could be obtained from Professor Gay, Department of Philosophy, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte NC 28223

[ii]This statement is in "Part III. The Analysis of Linguistic Violence" under "Section 3. Abusive Forms of Linguistic Violence," fifth paragraph.

[iii]At this point Gay is quoting from Rossi-Landi, "Ideas for the Study of Linguistic Alienation," Social Praxis, Vol. 3 (1975), p. 90. The extent to which language policy at the United Nations is a matter of political power is put succinctly by Humphrey Tonkin as follows: "Those [language] services [at the U.N.] are in truth intended less to facilitate communication or improve language equality, than to set the terms of communication and to perpetuate a language inequality roughly parallel to the inequality of actual political power embodied in the relative standing of the members of the organization." See Humphrey Tonkin, "Language Equality at the United Nations: An Achievable Dream" in Kurt E. Muller (ed.), Language Status in the Post-Cold-War Era, Lanham MD: University Press of America, 1996, Vol. 4 of Papers of the Center for Research and Docu-mentation on World Language Problems, University of Hartford, W. Hartford CT, pp. 142-43.

[iv]According to The World Almanac, 1997, pp. 642-43, these thirteen languages and the total number of persons who speak them are: (1)Mandarin Chinese-999 million; (2) English-487 million; (3) Hindi-457 million; (4) Spanish-401 million; (5) Russian-280 million; (6)Arabic-230 million; (7) Bengali-204 million; (8) Portuguese-186 million; (9) Malay-Indonesian-164 million; (10) Japanese-126 million; (11) French-126 million; (12)German-124 million; (13) Urdu-104 million. One can also find listed on pp. 642-43 the 240 languages (including Esperanto) spoken by at least one million persons.

[v]Jean Gazarian, "Is Linguistic Evolution in the United Nations a Consequence of Recent Political Evolution?" in Kurt E. Muller (ed.), Language Status in the Post-Cold-War Era, p. 24.

[vi]Gazarian, "Is Linguistic Evolution in the United Nations . . . ?," pp. 25-26.

[vii]Stephen B. Pearl, "Changes in the Pattern of Language Use in the United Nations" in Kurt Muller (ed.), Language Status in the Post-Cold-War Era, pp. 36-37. It is worth noting in passing that one also needs to be able to use English in order to live in New York. In a similar way French was the dominant language at the League of Nations located in French-speaking Geneva, Switzerland.

[viii]Joshua Fishman, "Ethnolinguistic Democracy: Varieties, Degrees, and Limits" in Kurt E. Muller (ed.), Language Status in the Post-Cold-War Era, pp. 10-11.

[ix]Gerhard Leitner, "Europe 1992: A Language Perspective," Language Problems and Language Learning, Vol. 15 (1991), p. 291. In this article Leitner reviews what was happening with regard to language use in Europe up to that time, argues for limiting the number of languages the European Community tries to promote to the major languages, and at the end suggests that German is likely to become more influential in the future.

[x]Fishman, "Ethnolinguistic Democracy . . . ," pp. 12-13.

[xi]Fishman, "Ethnolinguistic Democracy . . . ," p. 16.

[xii]Timothy Reagan, "The Contribution of Language Planning and Language Policy to the Reconcili-ation of Unity and Diversity in the Post-Cold-War Era," in Kurt E. Muller(ed.), Language Status in the Post-Cold-War Era, pp. 59-66. The quotation is from p. 60.

[xiii]Reagan, "The contribution of Language Planning and Language Policy . . . ," p. 60.

[xiv]Reagan, "The contribution of Language Planning and Language Policy . . . ," pp. 62-63.

[xv]Reagan, "The contribution of Language Planning and Language Policy . . . ," p. 63.

[xvi]Reagan, "The contribution of Language Planning and Language Policy . . . ," p. 63.

[xvii]Reagan, "The contribution of Language Planning and Language Policy . . . ," p. 64.

[xviii]Reagan, "The contribution of Language Planning and Language Policy . . . ," p. 65.

[xix]For an extended discussion of how Esperanto provides a just and rational solution to the world language problem, see Ronald J. Glossop, "Language Policy and a Just World Order," Alternatives, Vol. 13 (1988), pp. 395-409.

[xx]Robert J. Coontz, Jr., "Esperanto, the Language that Could Have Saved the World," Muse, Vol. 1, No. 4 (August 1997), pp. 34-40. The quotation is from p. 37. The World Almanac, 1997, p. 642, says that there are 2 million Esperantists.

[xxi]The record of the discussion of Esperanto at the League of Nations is presented in detail in Peter G. Forster, The Esperanto Movement, The Hague: Mouton, 1982, pp. 169-87. This book is also a good source in English for the history of the Esperanto movement from its beginning until the time of its publication as well as having an appendix which provides information about the language itself.

[xxii]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, p. 172.

[xxiii]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, p. 174.

[xxiv]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, p. 175.

[xxv]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, p. 175.

[xxvi]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, p. 177.

[xxvii]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, p. 176.

[xxviii]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, p. 177.

[xxix]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, pp. 177-78.

[xxx]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, p. 178.

[xxxi]Forster, The Esperanto Movement, pp. 179-82.

[xxxii]The Esperanto version of the text of the 1985 UNESCO Resolution IX.4.4.218 (8 Nov 1985) can be found in Esperanto, December 1985, p. 203. The English-language version is available from UNESCO, 2 U.N. Plaza, Room 900, New York NY 10017.

[xxxiii]According to The World Almanac, 1997, p. 642, the number of native speakers of English in mid-1996 was 330 million. According to p. 838 the total population of the world in 1996 was 5,772 million. The requisite division indicates that 5.7% of the world's population are native speakers of English. The total number of speakers of English is given as 487 million, which is 8.4 % of the world's total.

[xxxiv]For example, the May 1997 issue of the Esperanto biweekly publication Eventoj (Events) has a front-page article about "Linguistic Imperialism" from the newsletter of the Norwegian Esperantists, an article which was also published in translated form in a Bulgarian newspaper. As another example, the Canadian Centre for Linguistic Rights at the University of Ottawa has issued a 700-page set of the proceedings of a conference on linguistic rights held in 1995. A review of the proceedings can be found in Esperantic Studies, Spring 1997, in the front-page article "The UN and Language Rights: Reports from the Front Lines" by Mark Fettes. Esperantic Studies is published by the Esperantic Studies Foundation, 3900 Northampton St. NW, Washington DC 20015.

[xxxv]For a presentation of how Esperanto can help the poorer countries of the world, see Tibor Sekelj, The Language Problem of the Non-Aligned Movement --Some Recommendations, Esperanto Documents 26A, Universal Esperanto Association, Nieuwe Binnenweg 176, 3015 BJ Rotterdam, Netherlands.

[xxxvi]Ronald J. Glossop, "Integrating Language Study and Global Education" and "A Brief Response to Kurt Muller" in Kurt E. Muller(ed.), Language Status in the Post-Cold-War Era, pp. 109-16 and 137-39. For concentrated scholarly information about the teaching and learning of Esperanto, see Alvino E. Fantini and Timothy G. Reagan, Esperanto and Education: Toward a Research Agenda, Esperantic Studies Foundation, 3900 Northampton St. NW, Washington DC 20015, 1992.

[xxxvii]Ronald J. Glossop, Confronting War: An Examination of Humanity's Most Pressing Problem, 3rd ed. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1994, pp. 278-79.

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