Invented cities, invented languages
Esperanto and urban textuality, 1887–1914
L. L. Zamenhof saw the creation of his proposed international language, Esperanto, as a process of construction, rather like the building of a city. This new city of words would replace the walls of language difference that had previously separated the nations. His poems imagined a new “foundation” replacing the Tower of Babel and destroying the walls of Jericho. Unlike most other projectors of international languages, Zamenhof saw the creation of a community of Esperanto speakers, who could claim ownership of the language, as crucially important. The language began as text, but soon, as a result of its growing community of users, became a spoken language. The language owed its popularity to the emergence of an urban European middle class, eager to travel and learn about the world — at a time when the modern city was also emerging, its sense of identity defined above all by shared text and a common narrative. A common narrative and a shared text were also generated among the speakers of Esperanto, who were imbued with faith in technological progress and a corresponding belief in the achievement of common values. They developed common symbols and common modes of organization reflecting those that they found around them, notably the holding of annual international congresses in European cities, and other city-based activities. Zamenhof’s own beliefs were driven above all by his experience as a Central European Jew and by his exposure to early manifestations of the Zionist movement, which led him to dream of a kind of post-Zionist universalism embracing all creeds and races. Sadly, this was not to be: he could not put an end to anti-Semitism, nor bring about the kind of ecumenism of which he dreamed. That vision was lost in the rise of nationalism in World War I and beyond.
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