Esperanto: The Bridge between Nationalism and Internationalism in Catalonia
Pilar Requejo de Lamo | University of St. Andrews
Issue 02 - December 2020
World Esperanto Congress, 1909, Barcelona. Chaired by Ludwig Zamenhof
azar Ludwik Zamenhof (1859-1917) was a man whose life was deeply affected by the nationalist and internationalist forces of the second half of the 19th century. Born in Białystok in the Russian Empire, now Poland, Zamenhof was exposed from a very young age to the disadvantages of growing up in a multilingual and multi-ethnic community where religious, national and racial conflicts were commonplace. At home, he spoke Russian and Yiddish, and his father taught him French and German. As part of his studies, he also learnt Latin, Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew, and throughout his life, he kept picking up new languages. Such an upbringing made him well aware of the challenges and tensions that different languages created among otherwise equal individuals. For Zamenhof, it was obvious that only the creation of a neutral language could help solve this problem.
It was 1887 when he finally published Unua Libro (First Book), an introduction to his constructed language Esperanto. His aim was not only to give the world an international language for practical reasons, but also to unite humanity as many others had tried before him. Some failed because of their complexity, while others never managed to draw enough attention; yet, the quest for an instrument to overcome linguistic barriers continued. It was a time of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, a period when old debates about the need for a common language were revived while small western nations revendicated their marginalised cultures. Zamenhof’s work, Esperanto, inadvertently managed to harmonise these, at first sight, oppositional forces.
Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof, at the Barcelona 1909 Congress.
Without falling prey to politics, Esperantism turned into a transnational social movement not only across Europe, but the world. A wide network of journals, books and correspondence laid a path for the organisation of universal congresses starting in 1905, where the most pressing issues were discussed and the diversity of the community celebrated. Groups and associations pushed for the recognition of the constructed language in their respective countries, which eventually led to the League of Nations discussing its use for its proceedings.
Although the language was at the core of their existence, the movement became something more, and soon they developed their own ideals, philosophies and doctrines based on fraternity, cross-cultural understanding and peace. However, the crystallisation of their beliefs into what they called Homaranismo (Zamenhofan humanism) caused friction among Esperantists, as many wanted to keep the movement free from religious and political connotations of any type. Yet, even if many did not officially subscribe to the philosophy, the ideals it stood for kept playing a pivotal role in the development of their activities and the promotion of the language.
In this atmosphere, it is difficult to see how nationalism could find a place. Zamenhof himself had fiercely advocated for the unity of the human race, and even those who rejected the most utopian ideals of Esperantism aimed at establishing some kind of transnational community to encourage international cooperation. There was no room for the traditionally divisive policies often associated with nationalism, and still, several nations managed to find a place for their political and cultural agendas. One of them, Catalonia, even had the opportunity to host the 5th Universal Esperanto Congress in Barcelona, an event that highlighted the connections and tensions between internationalism and nationalism.
By 1909, when Catalonia hosted this meeting, the artificial language had become a sensation among its population. Although the Mediterranean region was not as propitiously placed as other European ones, its closeness to France and its maritime ports made it more susceptible than other areas of the Iberian Peninsula to the news, ideas and influences coming from central Europe. It was a land through which foreign and national individuals passed, a place where many immigrant workers found their new homes. Their experiences shaped Catalonia as much as Catalonia shaped their lives, creating in the process a territory where diversity thrived. Nonetheless, a favourable geographical placement was not the only reason why Esperanto flourished there.
World Esperanto Congress, 1909, Barcelona.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a nascent nationalist movement was starting to gain popularity in Catalonia. Still far from turning into a campaign seeking the establishment of an independent state, these Catalanists sought to revendicate their uniqueness vis-à-vis the standardisation promoted by the Spanish central government. As they contended, the richness of their productions was lost in the vastness of the Spanish state. Instead of seeing Spain as a single and homogenous unit in which the Castilian character took precedence over regional identities, Catalonians understood the country as the union of very diverse peoples whose particularities made Spain a rich and prosperous country.
Additionally, their identity was essentially based on their common language. Catalan was what had differentiated them from other Spaniards for centuries; it was the product of a shared history upon which they had built their community. Unfortunately, a poor educational infrastructure and a late industrialisation process, compared to that of other European regions, had contributed to the lack of a standard set of grammatical rules, which in turn became one of the main preoccupations of these early Catalanists. By the time Esperanto reached the Iberian Peninsula in 1889, Catalonia was already captivated by linguistics.
Yet the passion of these Catalanists for their own language certainly could not explain their interest in a movement whose main objective was the establishment of a common international language. If Catalonia was already struggling with the influence exercised by the Spanish language, welcoming a new contestant could have been seen as counterproductive. However, instead of seeing Esperanto as an enemy, Catalonians saw in it an opportunity not only to defend their culture and language, but to spread the word about their region beyond the political frontiers of the Spanish state.
To do so, they relied on one of the most important goals of Esperantism: the protection of linguistic diversity. Esperanto did not aim at replacing national languages. On the contrary, it was born to prevent the most powerful languages from overtaking those spoken in smaller nations and/or by minorities. In essence, relying on a neutral language for communication with other nations removed the pressure that weaker languages could be experiencing as part of an early globalisation process in which French still enjoyed the prominence as a lingua franca to which it had raised during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Nevertheless, its relevance went beyond all this, for this pressure was not only about language. It was also about the culture that came hand in hand with it and which threatened to erase their true identities. Words were, and still are, more than combinations of letters and sounds designed to transmit some information. Every natural language reflects the ideas and character of the society where it originated. Thus, the adoption of a foreign language, even if only for transnational activities, inadvertently implied opening the community to external and uncontrollable forces. This menace was specially felt among Catalonians who had experienced first-hand the consequences of living under the ever-looming threat imposed by Spanish. The protection of their mother tongue was a requisite to guarantee the survival of their culture, and only an artificial language that was not linked to any national culture or ideology could provide its speakers with a neutral medium that ensured the safety of their identities.
Furthermore, Zamenhof’s priority had been to design a language that was easy to learn. With only sixteen grammatical rules, Esperanto learners did not have to spend much of their time memorising endless exceptions and verbs. The benefits of this perk were twofold. On the one hand, people would not see learning it as a challenge, and they could start practicing after their first lesson. This would allow them to experience the benefits of knowing an international language from the very beginning, which in turn would encourage them to keep studying and, more importantly, to spread the word about Esperanto. On the other hand, as it was not a time-consuming activity, it would not keep nationalists from working on refining their mother tongues and publishing the first grammars and dictionaries.
Poster for the World Esperanto Congress, 1909, Barcelona.
Of course, the compatibility of both projects did not mean that they were meant to cooperate. Not every Catalan nationalist learnt Esperanto, nor did every Catalan Esperantist join the nationalist movement of the region. The nationalist Catalan Esperanto movement was made up of a majority of well-educated individuals with access to the international arena through journals and/or friends abroad. These people saw in Esperantism an emerging transnational network through which they could internationalise themselves and their struggles, gaining in the process some recognition that could help them legitimise their position.
This instrumentalisation of the movement was organic. In no way did Catalonians force the nature of Esperantism and turn it into something that could help their political agendas. Certainly, many other nations such as Portugal or Spain itself used it in similar ways. The way in which Esperantism worked lent itself to this kind of practices for two main reasons.
Firstly, from the very beginning Esperantism relied on periodical publications to reach its audience. Most local, regional and national groups published their own journals to organise the movement at home and to offer news concerning Esperantism in the place where they were edited, but they were also distributed abroad. Copies of every number were sent to Esperanto groups from other countries, which in turn usually made short references to them in their own journals. Through this process of reviewing, Esperanto periodicals found a new public beyond their frontiers. Although their main goal was to help Esperanto speakers connect with each other, they also became a sort of ‘cover letter’. Especially in those coming from local and regional associations, these journals often used part of their limited spaces to present themselves and to encourage foreigners and locals alike to visit their most significant landmarks, cities and towns.
Secondly, because it was mostly a written and not a spoken language, Esperantists had to test the flexibility and versatility of the language through texts. To do so, some authors produced original pieces in Esperanto, while others opted for translating key fragments of books and plays written in their mother tongue. In this way, they were not only proving that Esperanto could be an artistic language capable of transmitting complex and refined works, but also showing the world that they were able to produce them in the first place.
As long as these activities stayed within the cultural realm, they were generally welcomed, especially in the case of Catalonia due to Spain’s interest in promoting organised leisure travel for economic purposes and Esperantism’s genuine interest in regional cultures. Nonetheless, given the number of Esperantists and their different backgrounds, the movement did not always meet the expectations of these nationalists, and problems emerged in various scenarios. Such was the case with the 7th World Esperanto Congress in Antwerp, Belgium.
Following the meeting in 1912, Frederic Pujulà i Vallès (1877-1962), a notable Esperantist and Catalan nationalist, denounced the attitude of the Belgian committee towards Catalonia in an article he wrote for the Esperanto journal Kataluna Esperantisto (Catalonian Esperantist). Like many others, Pujulà argued that within the Esperanto movement speakers should not be labelled according to their citizenship, but to their mother tongue. Three years earlier in Barcelona, the hosting committee led by Pujulà had been careful to distinguish between Catalonians and Spaniards when writing down the region of origin of its attendees. In Belgium, however, Basques, Catalonians and Spaniards had been put in the same group, whereas Poles, Finns, Scots and Icelanders had been given their own categories. ‘A general rule for everyone could be illogical, but an exception for one or against one is inexpedient’ wrote Pujulà about the incident. ‘Language is our business and we should not be grouped according to states, peoples, slavery or governments, but according to languages […]. Our strength and our raison d’être as Esperantists is the diversity of languages.’*
Despite these sporadic disappointments, there were a series of initiatives and events that certainly contributed to the cause of these Catalanists and proved that there was a strong link between nationalism and internationalism in the Esperanto movement. The first one was a project conceived by an Irish Esperantist, Patrick Parker, to preserve national languages. His idea was published by Tutmonda Espero (Global Hope), another Catalan journal, under the title ‘Mother tongues and Esperanto’ in 1909 as a call for Esperanto speakers from linguistic minorities to work together. Parker’s aim was to establish a universal league to ‘defend and protect’ national languages from the threat posed by those spoken by majorities. Although Catalan Esperantists were enthusiastic about the idea, there was no other news concerning the creation and functioning of such league.
Nonetheless, for Catalan nationalists the 5th Universal Esperanto Congress in Barcelona was undoubtedly the most significant opportunity they had to advertise their culture. The artificial language was still the one used in all communications and major events, but since visitors still had to find their way in a foreign country, they were encouraged to learn the local language as well. With this idea in mind, the hosting committee printed pamphlets and booklets with useful information not only about the upcoming event, but also about the region, including recommended cultural activities to take part in during their stay, and words and sentences in Catalan for them to learn. In addition to their efforts, regional and local institutions that were not affiliated with the artificial language also temporarily adopted Esperanto to promote Catalonia. Such was the case of the Societat d’Atracció de Forasters (Society for the Attraction of Foreigners), which published a travel guide in Esperanto right before the Congress. The event itself was an international success with almost 1,300 participants. Partial records of the meeting show that more than half of the attendants were foreigners, over one-third Catalonians, and only seven per cent from other Spanish regions. In fact, there were more British Esperantists than Spaniards.
The Congress in Barcelona, the transnational network of journals, and initiatives such as the one suggested by Patrick Parker demonstrated that Esperantism was an intrinsically international project that because of its respect for natural languages attracted numerous Catalan nationalists. For them, there was no incongruity between their desire to revendicate the Catalan language and its cultural background and the establishment of Esperanto as an international language. All they saw was an opportunity to connect and collaborate with other communities. In the same way that Catalans conceived Spain as a product of different peoples where their differences should be celebrated, they regarded the international community created through Esperanto as a diverse society in which every culture contributed. Unity did not have to imply uniformity.
*Frederic Pujulà i Vallès, ‘Pri… escepto, kiun oni faris en Antverpeno por katalunoj’, Kataluna Esperantisto, No. 24 (March 1912), pp. 385-386. Original text in Esperanto. The translation is my own and can be found in my MLitt dissertation ‘Early Esperanto Communities in 20th-century Spain: Tensions between regional and national organizations’ (2019).
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Pilar Requejo de Lamo is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews researching the relationship between nationalism, internationalism, and Esperantism in the early 20th century. A portion of this article is based on a paper presented at GRACEH 2020 titled ‘The Esperanto Movement as a Transnational Network for the Promotion of Regional Cultures’.