Book Review: Esperanto: Language, Literature, and Community

Esperanto:  Language, Literature, and Community, by Pierre Janton, edited by Humphrey Tonkin, translated by Humphrey Tonkin, Jane Edwards, and Karen Johnson-Weiner

As someone who reads more than my fair share of books about invented languages and the relationship between language, literature, and community [1], and someone who genuinely enjoys the larger culture of which Esperanto is a part [2], I found this to be a deeply interesting book.  To be sure, this book is a short (around 135 pages before the endnotes) examination of its topics, and it is mostly in the English language and not in Esperanto as one might expect given the fact that the editor of this work was one of the foremost Esperantists of his age, and someone with whom I actually have a mutual acquaintance, surprisingly enough (or not).  What this book reads like to me is a very intriguing apologia, a defense of the legitimacy of the language of Esperanto and the culture that has developed around it over the last century or so.  Given that Esperantism was a factor that made someone more likely to be sent to the gas chamber or gulag archipelago during the heyday of 20th century totalitarian states, there is more than a little bit of a need perceived by everyone involved in this project to give a cogent defense of Esperanto in light of the larger universe of invented languages and internationalist culture.

The contents of this book are divided into several sections, beginning with introductory material, including the editor’s preface, abbreviations, and the introduction by the author.  After this there are seven chapters.  The first discusses Esperanto in the larger context of planned languages.  The next chapter covers the origins of Esperanto and give a brief discussion of the background of the language’s founder, Zamenhof.  After this there are chapters in the language, giving the basic grammatical rules for the language, and expression concerning the rich variety of word order and word creation.  The author then discusses Esperanto literature, both original and translation, where there is a rich group of translated materials from many languages into vivid Esperanto and also at least the beginnings of a good native Esperanto literature.  After this the author discusses the Esperanto movement and the desire for more peaceful and less nationalistic international relations, followed by a brief conclusion and a reasonably extensive section of notes and bibliography.  The book reads like a large pamphlet in defense of Esperanto to those who do not speak it but may be convinced either to learn it or to view with a greater degree of sympathy rather than being written to those who are a part of the Esperanto community and are likely more than aware of much of what is discussed.

This is not to say that Esperanto is not in need of a good defense or that it is a bad thing for books to be written to outsiders in an attempt to make them more sympathetic towards a language that has been viewed with a great deal of harshness and hostility throughout its history.  The author, to his credit, does not dance around the sort of reasons why Esperanto is in need of a defense.  The creator of the language was a Polish Jew, and the support of Esperanto as a language has often been associated with the support of international institutions and a tendency to denigrate nationalism in favor of internationalism.  The concern of many Esperantists with the causes of peace and social justice and better communication and international harmony have caused such people to run afoul of regimes that have little or no interest in any of those causes and who view the possibility of people communicating with others from around the world in an unfiltered and unmediated way as a direct threat to their own control over their populations.  For a language that from the beginning held with it the hope of more peace in a troubled world, that very desire has created problems for those who hold to the ideals of Esperanto’s founding.  That is so even today.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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