What nativism did for the Brexit vote, a Trumpian elixir of bigotry, misogyny, and anti-immigrant paranoia might soon do for us in what we nostalgically refer to as the United States. We’re so polarized, we chant our allegiances: I’m with her; they’re with him. Instead of a public conversation, we have an abyss too wide to speak across, but that is nothing new. It certainly wasn’t in 1887, when Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof, a Warsaw ophthalmologist, set out to enable people of different ethnicities, religions, and nationalities, to speak to one another as equals. The language he invented—as he put it, a “bridge of words”—soon took its name from his pseudonym, Esperanto, meaning “the hopeful one.”
Speakers of Esperanto have always been hard to count—the best estimate is hundreds of thousands—but these days, they are easy to find. They live in over 70 countries, on six continents. It’s not identity that they have in common: they are European and Asian; northern and southern; men, women and trans; gay and straight; students and retirees; moderates and leftists; activists and homemakers. They come in more colors than the children on the UNICEF box who, if memory serves, are only peach, brown, gold, and red.
I’ve found, in my seven years among Esperantists, that it’s what Esperantists do that makes them alike. Esperantists all enjoy using the language, or they wouldn’t be choosing to speak it; it’s a pleasure principle, not a job requirement or parental task. There are the idealists, who derive satisfaction from conversing in a neutral language free of the baggage of imperialism and commerce; putting both parties on an even footing linguistically can make for a very different kind of conversation. Some, as a practical matter, enjoy conversation with people who share no other language with them. Some feel the honor of speaking a language that people have been persecuted for, and have even died for, at the hands of Stalin and Hitler. And all the Esperantists I know bristle when their language is called “artificial”: they chat, tweet, and travel in the language. Some use it to make love and raise kids. Many use it to travel, enjoying Pasporta Servo, a world-wide service in which Esperantists offer one another up to three nights of free lodging and hospitality. Still others, the language freaks, simply enjoy the kick of a constructed language that is regular yet quirky, radically efficient, and uncannily able to meet one’s every linguistic need.
Zamenhof, a Jew raised in multiethnic, turbulent Bialystok, a “babel of languages,” realized that language was both a treasured bond and a divisive barrier. He knew that national languages bound communities together, but he believed that people did not need a shared past to feel loyalty and affinity; a shared future would suffice. To induce Esperantists to commit to their shared future, he did something no language-inventor has done before or since: he gave it to the speakers, to grow it, nurture it, and sustain it. Instead of a mother-tongue or fatherland, Esperantists have a language that is their collective child.
There’s no way Zamenhof could have anticipated the Esperanto of our own high-tech century, but he didn’t have to; the Esperantists have managed on their own. They’ve combined “YouTube” with an ending meaning “doing something,” to make jutubumi, or “messing around on YouTube.” They can lip-synch (bendomimi) or vacuum (polvosuĉili) or rap (repkanti). They’re surfing the TTT (tut-tera teksaĵo). A cellphone is a poŝtelefono (pocket phone), though I usually refer to my smartphone as a kromcerbo, meaning “spare brain.”
Seven years of using a language produced collectively, by trial and error, through negotiations and spats and reconciliations, have convinced me of Esperanto’s untapped potential as a means for political debate. Easily and cheaply learned, it brings all parties to the table on equal footing, speaking to, not at, one another. Any conversation occasions a common act, but an Esperanto conversation is generative. Perhaps a new word will come of it; a new friend; even a new realization. It is an occasion for open mouths to open minds.
While insisting that Esperanto was politically neutral, Zamenhof imagined it becoming the language of political life in multi-ethnic states. I’d like to think that if he were living now, in the country he hailed as a “land of liberty,” he’d point out that if Esperanto can enable us to look beyond the color of one’s skin, it can help us to look beyond the color of one’s state. Imagine it, just there, at the line where red and blue states meet, a “bridge of words” across the divide.
In addition to Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language (Metropolitan), Esther Schor is also the author of Emma Lazarus, which received a 2006 National Jewish Book Award, and Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria. A poet and essayist, she has written two volumes of poems, Strange Nursery and The Hills of Holland, and a memoir, My Last JDate. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, Tablet, the Jewish Review of Books, and The Forward, among other publications. A professor of English at Princeton University, Schor lives in Princeton, New Jersey.