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.

Astori, D. (2011) La Zamenhofa revo inter interlingvistika kaj lingva planizado. In Wandel, A. (red.) 64a Internacia Kongresa Universitato, Danio. 23–30 julio. Rotterdam: UEA, pp 73–83.
Couturat, L., Leau, L. (1903) Histoire de la langue universelle. Paris: Hachette.
de Saussure, F. (1995) Le Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot, coll «Grande bibliothèque Payot»
Docx, E. (2016) Esperanto: the language that never was. Prospect Magazine, June.
Drezen, E.K. (1991) Historio de la mondolingvo. Tri jarcentoj da serĉado (4a eldono). Moskva: Progreso (represo sur baze de la 2a eldono de Leipzig 1931).
Dröge, P. (2016) Moresnet. Opkomst en ondergang van een vergeten buurlandje. Houten – Antwerpen: Uuitgerverij Unieboek, Het Spectrum bv.
Hesse, H. (2007)  Demian: La historio de la junaĝo de Emil Sinkler . Novjorko: Mondial.
Kiselman, C. (1992). Kial ni hejtas la hejmon sed ŝajnas fajfi pri la fajlado? Literatura Foiro 138, 213–216.
Korzhenkov, A., (2010) Zamenhof: The Life, Works and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto New York: Mondial.
Lindstedt, J. (2009). Esperanto – an East European contact language? In Die Europäizität der Slawia oder die Slawizität Europas: Ein Beintrag der kultur-und sprachrelativistschen Linguistik. Studies in language and culture in Central and Eastern Europe, vol 2, Verlag Otto Sagner, Munchen; Berlin, pp. 125–134.
Lindstedt, J. (2010) Esperanto as a family language. In Dervin, F (ed.), Lingua francas: La véhicularité linguistique pour vivre, travailler et étudier. L’Harmattan, pp 69–80.
Maimon, N.Z. (1978). La kaŝita vivo de Zamenhof. Tokio: Japana Esperanto-Instituto.
Minnaja, C., Silfer, G. (2016) Historio de la Esperanta Literaturo. La Chaux-de-Fonds: Kooperativo de Literatura Foiro.
Piron, C. (1984). Contribution à l’étude des apports du yiddish à l’espéranto. Jewish Language Review 1984(4), 15–29.
Sadan, T. (2011) La reviviĝo de la hebrea sen mitoj. In Wandel, A. (red.) 64a Internacia Kongresa Universitato. Danio. 23–30 julio. Rotterdam: UEA, pp 32–41.
Schor, E. (2009a) Esperanto: A Jewish story. Pakn Treger. 60. Yiddish Book Center.
Schor, E. (2009b) L.L. Zamenhof and the Shadow People. New Republic. December.
Schubert, K. (1989) Interlinguistics: Aspects of the science of planned languages. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Soros, T., (2001a) Maskerado: Dancing Around Death In Nazi Hungary. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.
Soros, T. (2001b, 2a eld.) Maskerado ĉirkaŭ la morto. Rotterdam: UEA.
Sutton, G. (2008) Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto. New York: Mondial.
Tourangeau, R., Edwards, B., Johnson, T.P., Wolter, K.M., Bates, N. (2014) Hard-to-Survey Populations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wells, J. (2009) A Long Kolego: Review of Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto by Sutton G. In Times Literary Supplement: 6th February.
Zamenhof, L.L. (Dr Èsperanto). (1887) Meždunarodnyj jazyk. Predislovie i polnyj učebnik. Varšava: Tipo- Litografija X. Kel’tera. (Reprinted in: iam kompletigota plena verkaro de l.l. zamenhof, parto una, unuaj libroj por esperantistoj 1887-1888. Kioto 1991: ludovikito).

Gobbo, F. (2016). Lingua, politica, cultura: Serta gratulatoria in honorem Renato Corsetti. New York: Mondial.

A review by Paul Webb

 Books which honour the achievements of a notable scholar don’t conventionally have much of a readership outside of the select group of peers who are familiar with the honorand’s work. Such a view would be unwarranted in the case of Lingua, politica, cultura: Serta gratulatoria in honorem Renato Corsetti.

Edited by Federico Gobbo, Professor of Interlinguistics and Esperanto at the University of Amsterdam, the book includes 29 chapters written by an international cohort of established scholars and friends of the honorand in the broad areas of language policy, language learning and Esperanto studies with two additional sections of miscellanea. Contributors  to this volume include Humphrey Tonkin of the University of Hartford with a paper on official language politics, Probal Dasgupta of the Indian Statistical Institute on small-level descriptions of language varieties, Ilona Koutny of  Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu on the ease, or otherwise, of learning Esperanto and Fabrizio A. Pennachietti of the Università degli Studi di Torino who presents a fascinating paper on how the Hebrew dual noun obnayim has been mistranslated in Exodus and Jeremiah under pressure from the translators’ mother tongue.

All of these scholars will, no doubt, be well known to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Corsetti’s work. For those readers who are not familiar with the man and his achievements, the editor provides a helpful resume in the forward.  Thus we learn that Corsetti worked at “La Sapienza”, University of Rome, on language policy and child bilingualism. Gobbo clearly has a high opinion of Corsetti describing him as “one of the most important post-war strategists of the Esperanto movement” (p. xiv). Hyperbole? Not in view of the breadth and depth of articles on offer in this volume.

The reader can, for example, read Fettes’ article on the Esperanto movement as a case study in cosmopolitanism or Christoph’s contribution which  conceives of the movement as a forum inside which participants are able to bridge differences between participants  beyond the narrowly linguistic. Blanke’s paper on the engagement of a group of linguists in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) with interlinguistics is particularly enjoyable as it describes how some of the groups and journals which were created in the period following de-Stalinisation continue to be influential in contemporary Germany. Especially noteworthy is Cerbasi’s paper on the impact of emigration on Romanian writers in the twentieth century with its focus on Norman Manea, Emil Cioran and Paul Schuster.

Equally appealing is the multilingual presentation which pervades the entire volume with articles appearing in English, Italian and Esperanto. Abstracts in all three languages also precede each paper which adds to the accessibility of the book. The multilingual nature of the volume is particularly appropriate  when one considers that these are the working languages for Corsetti’s scholarly endeavours. Lingua, politica, cultura is therefore a welcome addition to the small number of multilingual books published in the Anglophone world which, perhaps inadvertently, encourage receptive multilingualism. There should be more of this! An “essential bibliography” is included for those who wish to explore further.

Unfortunately, the book is marred by a number of typographical errors which pervade the text as well as translations into English which don’t read well for an Anglophone audience. The English translations also seem to be incomplete in places. That said, my view is that the stimulating content more than compensates for such infelicities. Somewhat paradoxically, the sheer eclecticism of the contributions in terms of content and theoretical orientation does not detract from what is an intellectually enriching work. As Gobbo observes in the forward, some contributions are Chomskyan whilst others are not and others support multilingualism  whilst others consider it to be problematic (p. xv).

More could have been made however of the academic pedigree of each contributor. Books of this kind can read as though they have been written for the initiated which is a pity when one considers that the material in the volume ranges from contributions which will be accessible to any literate person to heavyweight academic contributions.  A biographical note on each contributor would have been welcome and might have gone some way to counteracting the seemingly ineluctable rule that Festschriften are read by a small, charmed circle of people.

Fortunately, these reservations are minor quibbles. Lingua, politica, cultura: Serta gratulatoria in honorem Renato Corsetti is a worthy testament to an interesting, polymathic campaigner for language rights and an effective window on the world of the intellectually diverse, if small, interlinguistic research community.