Spreading the word

Claire Provost

Published 22 May 2008

Observations on Esperanto

It is unlikely that George Soros, Japanese anarchists and William Shatner have much in common - except, perhaps, for their shared study of Esperanto, the "international aŭiliary language" now more than 120 years old and being heavily promoted by activists in Hokkaido, Japan in advance of this summer's G8 summit.

Invented in 1887 by Dr Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, Esperanto is a constructed language with Romanic and Germanic roots, Belarussian phonology, and Slavic semantics. The young ophthalmologist wanted an intermediary language to break through the language barriers that pervaded his home region in Poland, where different ethnic and linguistic groups lived in relative isolation from one another - an isolation that bred fear, suspicion and occasional violence.

There have been many attempts to spread the word (or vorto in Esperanto), but the latest spurt of enthusiasm comes from among contemporary anti-capitalist organisers hoping to use it to facilitate international action.

The Esperanto League for Freedom in Hokkaido (Libera Esperanto-Asocio en Hokkajdo), one of the many Japanese groups co-ordinating the anti-G8 summit protests, explains that it sees Esperanto as a "symbol of equality and internationalism".

Its goals are twofold: first, to see Esperanto used to aid communication between Japanese and foreign activists; and second, for the anti-G8ers movement to stimulate study of the language.

Many of the documents produced by the Japanese anti-G8 groups have online translations in English and Esperanto, and the Hokkaido-based Esperantists have put out international calls for groups to study and practise the language in the days leading up to the 7-9 July summit.

The calls echo those from a growing number of Esperanto study groups around the world from Brazil to South Korea.

Attempting to establish a common language is a tactic, but also reflects an ideology - an attempt to subvert the linguistic hierarchy of dominant languages. Activists argue that, just as the combined populations of the G8 countries, which rule the world, are a mere 14 per cent of the world's total, so native speakers of English, which dominates the spoken word, constitute little more than 5 per cent of the world's population.

Computer-savvy anti-capitalists have found that open-source software - including Linŭ, Open-Office, and Mozilla - has worked with Esperanto since 2003. Indymedia, the independent media resource, is talking about switching from English to Esperanto for international communications. The Finnish linguist Jouko Lindstedt estimates that 10,000,000 people worldwide have studied Esperanto.

Though it is most accessible to native speakers of Indo-European languages, Esperanto has always found fervent supporters in Asia (Japanese anarchists used Esperanto to communicate with European counterparts before the First World War). In China, as long ago as 1913, the country's first anarchist journal, La Voco de la Popolo, was released in Esperanto.

The totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin considered Esperanto "dangerous" and executed or imprisoned prominent Esperantists. In Mein Kampf, Hitler denounced the language as a tool of the international Jewish conspiracy; Stalin claimed it was "the language of spies".

In March this year, the German activist Martin Kraemer was denied entry into Japan by authorities at the port of Sapporo-Otaru, where he arrived playing "The Internationale" on his trumpet, having been invited by Sapporo's Esperanto League to help prepare for the anti-G8 summit protests.

Is it a contradiction for "anti-globalisation" activists to desire a global means of communication? Not really. The opposite of globalisation isn't isolation.

The Esperanto League for Freedom in Hokkaido explains: "While the enemy is pushing forward the pace of globalisation, it is increasingly important for us to march ahead together and realise an internationalised solidarity."

In this spirit, Esperantists from Hokkaido travelled to South Korea in December 2007 to assist in establishing a new Korean group of militant Esperantists.

As they say in Esperanto: "Alia mondo estas ebla!" (Another world is possible!).