Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

by Esther Schor

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A rich and passionate biography of a language and the dream of world harmony it sought to realize

In 1887, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, had the idea of putting an end to tribalism by creating a universal language, one that would be equally accessible to everyone in the world. The result was Esperanto, a utopian scheme full of the brilliance, craziness, and grandiosity that characterize all such messianic visions.

In this first full history of a constructed language, poet and scholar Esther Schor traces the life of Esperanto. She follows the path from its invention by Zamenhof, through its turn-of-the-century golden age as the great hope of embattled cosmopolites, to its suppression by nationalist regimes and its resurgence as a bridge across the Cold War. She plunges into the mechanics of creating a language from scratch, one based on rational systems that would be easy to learn, politically neutral, and allow all to speak to all. Rooted in the dark soil of Europe, Esperanto failed to stem the continent's bloodletting, of course, but as Schor shows, the ideal continues draw a following of modern universalists dedicated to its visionary goal.

Rich and subtle, Bridge of Words is at once a biography of an idea, an original history of Europe, and a spirited exploration of the only language charged with saving the world from itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805090796
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Esther Schor is 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.

Read an Excerpt

Bridge of Words

Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

By Esther Schor

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2016 Esther Schor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4341-3




1. Zamenhof's Babel

My friend Michael was reading galleys of his new book when an email arrived.

Dear Sir,

I am the proud translator of your book into Swedish. I have two questions (there will be more, I promise!):

1) "She had as much success reading The Cat in the Hat as she would a CAT scan." The book The Cat in the Hat is translated into Swedish, so far so good, with the title "Katten i Hatten" which is almost the same. A CAT scan however is a "datortomografi" or "skiktröntgen" — no cats in sight. I thought of exchanging the CAT scan for "hattiska hieroglyfer" — "Hatti hieroglyphs" — they should be pretty hard to read! But then we have to shift the resemblance from "CAT-Cat scan" to "Hat-Hatti." Or would you prefer something more technical and CAT scanny?

2) When you come home and find the knives "behind a set of rarely used dishes," are these some kind of plates or more like bowls?

Best wishes,


The email made Michael anxious. He imagined his Swedish readers coming upon "Hatti hieroglyphs," lowering the book, and staring into the middle distance, where they would find, as Anders put it, "no cats in sight." With cats become hats, scans become hieroglyphs, and dishes become plates or even bowls, was this still his book? "If only," Michael said wistfully, "I had written the book in Esperanto."

His assumption, of course, was that Esperanto was invented to be a universal language that would put us all beyond translation, and I can see why he thought so: it's an ancient dream, the dream of reversing the curse of Babel and restoring us to some lost capacity to understand language perfectly. But to put us "beyond translation" is decidedly not the project of Esperanto. Instead of deeming language to be compromised by its humanity, Zamenhof placed his confidence in human beings: both in their will toward understanding and in their recognition that understanding, at the best of times, is a fraught endeavor. A language of collective invention, he believed, would be far more likely to succeed than a language closely held, meted out, or even ostentatiously bestowed by its inventor. In fact, the more users coined new words, the more likely the language was to be widely used and cherished, for each new word traced a crossing from one language to another. Esperanto was invented not to transcend translation, but to transact it.

By aligning universal understanding with the future rather than the past, Zamenhof broke with the West's central myth of linguistic difference: the story of the Tower of Babel. Though biographers René Centassi and Henri Masson dubbed Zamenhof "the man who defied Babel," Zamenhof knew that to defy Babel was folly. For Zamenhof, Babel was not a curse to be reversed, but the mythic elaboration of an epistemological problem: how can we know the meaning of another person's utterance, whatever language they happen to speak?

Zamenhof was not only an acute reader of Genesis; he also spent most of a decade translating the entire Hebrew Bible into Esperanto, completing it only three years before his death. If Zamenhof doubted that there existed a unitary world language before Babel, he would have found the biblical evidence on his side. I don't simply mean the long chapter on human diversity — the "table of nations" (Genesis 10) — that immediately precedes the story of Babel. I want to suggest that even in the Garden of Eden story, the notion of an original, universal language is at best dubious.

Chapter 1 of Genesis represents both divine and human speech, and while God and Adam seem to understand one another — no one asks for translation or expresses befuddlement — what each does with language is clearly different. God creates with it, Adam names with it, and their languages differ as much as "Let there be light" differs from "You're a lemur." Even the appearance of mutual understanding may be deceptive; after all, God uses the word "die" in a deathless world without bothering about being understood. And while the biblical redactor is noncommittal about whether the humans understood their God, the poet John Milton in Paradise Lost was unequivocal: they did not because ... how could they?

This occlusion of understanding may be why there is only a modicum of conversation in Eden, very little of it quoted. For example, whether Eve actually speaks to Adam is anyone's guess, since she is never directly quoted in conversation with him. After Eve eats the fruit, the doings that follow — sharing the fruit, donning leaves, hiding out — occur speechlessly, in a quick dumbshow of shame that ends in the first rhetorical question: "Where are you?" God asks, and the ensuing duet of inquisition and blame isn't much of a conversation either. In the cascade of divine curses — on man, on woman, on serpent — speech travels in one direction, from power to powerlessness, and after Adam renames "the woman" Eve (Genesis 3:20), he will never name anything again, ceding the naming of his sons to their mother. At best, Edenic conversation is a lopsided affair; at worst, it's sabotaged, whether by divine commandment or serpentine deception.

By the time we reach the story of Babel in Genesis 11, whether God and humans speak the same language is almost beside the point; they barely speak to one another. After the flood, when the smoke from Noah's sacrifice rises, God, for the first time, can be heard muttering to himself: "for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21). What takes God by surprise, in the Babel story, is that humans have connived to do something in concert and on their own initiative. After the fiasco in the garden and the fratricide in the field, after all the quotidian murders, rapes, and betrayals, one wouldn't have thought so: "And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4). Their project — manifold and complex, like so many human undertakings — was hotly debated by the rabbis of the Talmud. Some apologized for Babel's builders, whose aim, they reasoned, was to climb up and slit the tent of heaven where another unjust flood awaited innocent and guilty alike. Other rabbis staunchly defended God. For them, the builders were a concatenation of sinners with various motives: to colonize heaven, to worship idols, to lay siege to the kingdom of God. And accordingly, they argued, God meted out fierce punishments to the builders, some of whom were turned to apes and others to phantoms.

But perhaps the rabbis overlooked a different provocation:

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. (Gen. 11:5-7)

What exactly was their offense? This was not the first time human beings "imagined" evil plans repugnant to God. In Genesis 6, when the "sons of God came in unto the daughters of men," he'd conceded that "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and ... every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). What was new to Babel was the builders' plan to "make us a name," for to name oneself is to usurp a divine prerogative. And since the punishment at Babel was to avenge the human will to "make ... a name" for oneself, God doomed each of the builders to speak only unto himself —to speak without being understood by another. God might have punished the builders of Babel by constraining the power to build, to rule, or to go to war, but he did not. Nor did God ram unintelligible phonemes into their mouths. Instead, having direly misestimated the power of human conversation, God blunted the human capacity to understand others and to elicit understanding.

In fact, the biblical narrative says nothing about the multiplication and dispersal of languages. The proverbial name for the story, from the Middle Ages on, is "the confusion of tongues" (confusio linguarum), not "the diffusion of tongues." In fact, the Hebrew word for "language" (safah, a lip rather than a tongue) is always singular in the story, as it is in the Latin Vulgate and the English King James Version. The "curse of Babel" renders all language as opaque as if it were what we call "foreign" language, and though "the same language and the same words" spoken at the beginning are spoken after the tower falls, translation has become necessary, even for speakers of the same tongue. If mortality is what it is like to live after Eden, misunderstanding — to speak perpetually in need of translation — is what it is like to live after Babel.

But the ruin of understanding was only one consequence of Babel. After destroying the tower, the builders' hedge against being "scattered abroad," God scattered them throughout the world. What better way to punish their arrogation of peoplehood for themselves, their choice to be a people? To give God his due here, we can imagine God's weariness, his exasperation with humanity. "I will never understand them," God might have thought. "I made them Eden, they sinned; I dried up the flood and they sinned again. Twice I filled their lungs with heaven and twice they spent my breath in evil. I have tried twice, twice, to make humans.

"Now I will make Israel."

When God renamed Abram Abraham, the curse of Babel was complete; with one carefully interpolated syllable, an idolator's son became the first Israelite. God's crowning revenge on the builders of Babel was the choice of Israel, and there, on Israel, God's attention rested, leaving the rabbis of the Talmud to finish off the builders of Babel. Which they most certainly did, declaring "the generation of the scattered" personae non gratae in the world to come.

The Tower of Babel story is not only a myth of misunderstanding; it is also a myth of the diaspora as an existential condition. From the Babel myth, Zamenhof intuited that the perpetual impulse of humans to stake "a name for themselves" on a piece of territory only compounded the problem of misunderstanding. And while Zamenhof accepted misunderstanding as part of the human condition, he refused to accept its human costs: lives lost to tribalism, anti-Semitism, and racism; pogroms just yesterday and perhaps a war of empires tomorrow. Instead, he set about to convince misunderstood and scattered human beings that they had the capacity, without divine intervention, to understand one another better by joining together not over land, not over a tower, but over language. (Even the people Israel, he pointed out on numerous occasions, were now among the scattered, and if they were going to claim any authentic, modern identity, they, too, needed to take the matter of language into their own hands.) Perhaps the language of Adam was given by God, but the language that would rescue Adam's and Eve's heirs from their worst impulses would be a very human thing.

2. West of Babel

Zamenhof's radically humanist revision of the "curse" of Babel sets him apart from the history of language invention in Western Europe, where Babel's curse was taken to be the doom of linguistic difference. To reverse this "curse" was not only to dream of language which was divine and perfect; it was also to dream of human beings capable of perfect understanding — beings who are different from us.

The most audacious of those who sought to reverse the "curse" of Babel yearned for God's own language, for words empowered to speak the universe into being. Others imagined secret, esoteric languages that were the preserve of initiates: kabbalistic acrostics, numerology, and anagrams; the gnostic "magic languages" of Paracelsus and the Rosicrucians; the divine "signatures" perceived in nature by the seventeenth-century German mystic Jacob Boehme. Still others invented devices, symbols, and meta-languages designed to mediate between human beings and the words they failed to grasp. Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language surveys a millennium of such inventions, among them that of Ramon Llull (ca. 1230–1315), a Franciscan who asked himself what language might best propound the truth of Scripture to infidels. Starting with logical propositions rather than glyphs and words, Llull selected nine letters and four figures, combined them into questions, compounded questions into subjects, and multiplied subjects into propositions. Using only these elements and the engine of combination, Llull's Ars Magna purported to generate 1,680 logical propositions, a repertoire from which one might choose a few key points to which an infidel would, without translation, necessarily consent. Such propositions would have a kind of liquidity from culture to culture, on which the truth could skip like a stone. By "truth," of course, Llull meant his truth, not the infidel's. That Llull died at the hands of the Saracens may suggest that something more than revelation was lost in translation.

In the early modern period, language needed to do more than propound truths; it needed to translate a host of others to European interlopers in Asia, Africa, and the Americas — merchants and governors as well as missionaries. Llull's Saracen "infidel" was displaced by the Chinese, Hindus, Native Americans, and Africans. Polyglot Bibles became the model for massive polyglot dictionaries called polygraphies. The frontispiece of Cave Beck's Universal Character of 1657 features a table around which three men in various national costumes are seated: a Dutch burgher, a mustachioed and turbaned Indian, and an African in a toga. On the right stands a native of the New World in a grass skirt and a Carmen Miranda–esque headpiece, who salutes in the universal sign for "Hey, no problem!" His long spear, its tip resting idly on the floor, is conspicuously flaccid, to assure us that he's checked his aggression at the door.

Meanwhile, the printing press, less than a century after its invention, scattered projects and programs for language reform all over Europe, many of which had germinated in newly emerging scientific societies. After the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, several members of the new "Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge" were spurred to invention by the legacy of Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Bacon's profound intuition, as he put it in The Advancement and Proficience of Learning (1605), was that "words are the footsteps of reason" — written, not spoken, words. Bacon held that written words could do more than simply refer to speech; they could refer directly to thought itself. Though Zamenhof was an autodidact when it came to philosophy and linguistics, his invention of roots that referred to ideas rather than words is remarkably consonant with Bacon's call for the invention of "real characters."

Thus with Bacon, philosophical rather than divine truth became the desideratum of language projects. Invoking Chinese ideograms, arbitrary signs that "expresse neither Letters, nor Words, but Things, and Notions," Bacon imagined characters that would represent thoughts with a philosophical rigor exceeding that of words. Moreover, Bacon believed Chinese characters to be universally legible among the peoples of Asia. Not only would "real characters" mean the same thing to one Briton and her neighbor; they would also be legible to people speaking different tongues — in fact, to all peoples and nations. The use of "real characters," in short, would grant Europe what Bacon believed Asia already had: a way of communicating without resort to translation, with characters that could be entrusted to convey thought itself. What Bacon didn't realize was that legibility across cultures did not imply that characters were understood identically among cultures. As soon as characters were interpreted as words, their philosophical purity was compromised.


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Table of Contents

Author's Note xv

Introduction 1

Part I The Dream of a Universal Language

1 Zamenhof's Babel 15

2 West of Babel 20

3 A World of Words 23

4 A "Vexed Question of Paternity" 25

5 Lingvo Internacia 28

Satnideanoj I NASK, or Total Immersion

1 Cu vi lernas gin? 35

2 Affixed 37

3 Greta's World 40

4 "A Stay-at-Home, Midwestern Guy" 43

5 Filipo and Nini 46

6 Total Immersion 49

7 Brigadoon Out 51

Part II Doktoro Esperanto and the Shadow People

1 Jewish Questions 59

2 Ten Million Promises 70

3 A Shadow People 77

4 Mysterious Phantoms 82

5 Homaranismo 91

6 Idiots 94

7 The Sword of Damocles 100

Satnideanoj II Iznik to Biarystok, or unit granda rondo familia


1 Revenants 109

2 "The Blackened Gull" 112

3 The Turk's Head 118


4 Bridge of Words 120

5 Big-endians and Little-endians 127

6 Adrian 129

7 Flickering Shadows 131

8 A Nation Without Pyres 135

Part III The Heretic, the Priestess, and the Invisible Empire

1 The Heretic 141

2 "Language of Ne'er-do-wells and Communists" 153

3 Amerika Esperantisto 160

4 Vasingtono 166

5 A Map in One Color 170

6 "A Bastard Language" 178

7 The Priestess 181

8 Vanishings 190

Samideanoj III Hanoi to Havana, or Usonozo


1 Usonozo 196

2 The American War 199

3 La Finavenkisto 202

4 The English Teacher 206

5 VIPs 210

6 Number One 213

7 You Got That Right 217


8 The True Believer 221

9 "Tiel la Mondo Iras" 224

10 Devil's Advocates 228

11 The Director 230

Part IV Esperanto in a Global Babel

1 Reinventing Hope 239

2 Aggressor 244

3 Lapenna Agonistes 248

4 Many Voices, One World 252

5 Sekso Kaj Egaleco 255

6 Samseksemuloj 265

7 Raumas Children 268

8 Global Babel 273

9 Esperanto in 2087 277

Samideanoj IV Bona Espero, or Androids

1 "A Little Piece of Heaven" 283

2 Androids 289

3 Utopians 296

4 Paper Kids 298

5 Tia Carla 303

6 The Builder 306

7 Plantman 307

8 Sebastian's Mantras 311

9 Mosaic of the Future 313

Coda: Justice in Babel 318

Glossary 325

Acronyms and Abbreviations 327

Notes 329

Selected Bibliography 343

Acknowledgments 349

Index 353

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