Interlinguïstiek, een vak voor meertaligheid by Federico Gobbo

Citation: Gobbo, Federico (2015) Interlinguïstiek, een vak voor meertaligheid. Interlingvistiko, fako por multlingvismo. Interlinguistics, a discipline for multilingualism. Oratie 532 van de Universiteit van Amsterdam. Uitgesproken bij de aanvaardiing van het ambt van bijzonder hoogleraar ‘Interlinguîstiek en Esperanto’ aan de faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen op vrijdag 13 maart 2015. Amsterdam: Vossiuspers UvA.

‟Esperanto? What´s that?” or, alternatively, ‟Esperanto? Isn´t that a dead language?” These are just two of the most common responses when ‟Esperanto” comes up in polite conversation, if it indeed ever does! But interlinguistics in general and its most vibrant and vital child – the international language Esperanto – couldn´t be more alive.

Interlinguïstiek, een vak voor meertaligheid or Interlinguistics, a discipline for multilingualism is the text of Federico Gobbo´s multilingual inaugural lecture as Professor of Interlinguistics and Esperanto at the University of Amsterdam. In the lecture, Gobbo has a number of objectives: to introduce the reader to interlinguistics – the study of linguistic communication between people who cannot either actively or passively communicate with each other using their different L1 languages, to correct possible misconceptions, to answer typical questions which the interested enquirer generally asks about Esperanto and to point the way towards fruitful areas of research.

Does Gobbo deal with these objectives satisfactorily? I think that he does but with the proviso that his examples are rather terse. In his discussion of the history of interlinguistics, Gobbo refers to Descartes´ letter to Mersenne of 1629 in which Descartes accepts the idea of a simplified planned language. Gobbo doesn´t however place Descartes´ interest in planned languages in context with the result that one could come away from the text with the impression that Descartes´ interlinguistic interests were not shared by other European intellectuals of the period. Brief references to such luminaries as Leibniz and Wilkins (Couturat and Leau, 1903, Drezen 1991) could have gone a long way to counteracting this impression.

Gobbo naturally refers to Zamenhof (Korshenkov 2010, Zamenhof 1887) — the initial creator of the language — and to Zamenhof´s life in the Russian Empire of the late nineteenth and early twientieth centuries. Moreover, he provides tantalising descriptions of the co-equal emphasis which Zamenhof placed on both a bridge language and an inter-religion (first, Hillelism and then, Homaranism) as necessary pre-conditions of a cosmopolitan world civilisation (Astori 2011). If anything, Gobbo does rather downplay the degree of Zamenhof´s innovation. To this reader at least, Zamenhof´s religious views seem very redolent of something resembling Reconstructionist Judaism which will, if Zamenhof´s argument is followed to its conclusion, eventually mutate into a de-mythologised religious humanism (Schor 2009a, 2009b).

That said, Gobbo´s laconic method of presentation leaves the reader wanting to know more and this is surely one of the hallmarks of a good educator. How did Yiddish influence Esperanto? (Maimon 1978, Piron 1984, Kiselman 1992, Lindstedt 2009) Why did Zamenhof move away from his support for Zionism and Yiddish as a potential world Jewish lingua franca at a time when Yiddish seemed a much better bet than Hebrew? How did the birth of Esperanto mirror the revitalisation of Hebrew? (Sadan 2011) None of these questions are answered by Gobbo directly but he provides a useful list of references for those who want to know more.

Fascinating too are Gobbo´s comments on ‟Esperantio” or ‟Esperanto land” as a trans-national, non-geographically bounded community of people who share not only the language but also cultural products which are unknown to non Esperanto speakers. With the captivating exception of the short-lived micro-state Moresnet (Dröge 2016), Esperanto congresses and occasional Esperanto speaking visitors, literary products — both original and translated — seem to be the cultural glue that binds the community together. Gobbo refers to Zamenhof´s translation of the Bible and Hamlet as examples of the cultural ties which bind but why not also refer to more contemporary works too in order to show that Esperanto is a very modern phenomenon? Why not mention Tivadar Soros´ Maskerado with its connection to contemporary thought leaders like George Soros, Tivadar’s son? Or to Hesse’s classic Demian? Obviously, these choices are arbitrary but I´m making the point that this small speech community has an imposing literature (Sutton 2008, Wells 2009, Minnaja and Silfer 2016).

Equally interesting are Gobbo´s answers to common questions asked by people who are new to Esperanto. Responding to perhaps the most common question about the number of Esperanto speakers in the world, the author gives a range from 1000 for first language speakers to 1 000 000 for people who have had some contact with the language. Unfortunately, estimating the number of speakers of a diasporic-type language is essentially guess work. As Lindstedt says, ‟there are no reliable statistics on the speakers of Esperanto” (Lindstedt 2010). That´s not to say that reliable statistics could not be collected by an Esperanto speaking statistician using innovative sampling methods for estimating the numbers of, what effectively is, a hard-to-survey population (Tourangeau et al 2014).

Gobbo concludes the lecture with an introduction to some potentially fruitful areas of work and recommends that further research is needed on lexicology, semantics and pragmatics. He also contends that a diachronic study of the language would be a welcome development. This is an excellent lecture which is both interesting in content and highly original in its presentational style. The continual interweaving of Dutch, English, French, Italian and Esperanto together throughout the document is highly imaginative and amounts to a textual representation of the multilingual world in which we now live. Although terse in style, its content will encourage those who are interested in such things to consult the sources about what is a unique, if neglected social, linguistic and cultural phenomenon. Gobbo does underplay the genius of Zamenhof but this review will hopefully have convinced you that the venerable doctor from Białystok was something more than a typical Mitteleuropean.

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