BRIDGE OF WORDS by Esther Schor

BRIDGE OF WORDS

Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language
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KIRKUS REVIEW

The history of a new language that was invented “to bring conversation to a world of misunderstanding.”

Combining biography, history, and a memoir of her own “middle-aged anguish,” Schor (English/Princeton Univ.; Emma Lazarus, 2006, etc.) offers an illuminating, well-researched chronicle of the development of Esperanto from its origins in 19th-century Bialystok to its present iterations on six continents and in 62 countries. Herself a speaker of the constructed language, she reveals her experiences in Esperanto classes and interactions with Esperanto enthusiasts—earnest, quirky, and sometimes contentious—at conferences throughout the world. Central to her story is the father of the language, L.L. Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist who, ironically, was the son of a censor. As a Russian Jew, subject to virulent anti-Semitism, he sought a way to modernize the Jewish community and “gradually include people of other faiths and nationalities.” Communication was central to his vision: cobbling together grammar and word parts from German, English, Russian, Latin, and Greek, Zamenhof contrived a new language to enable conversation “despite differences of nationality, creed, class, or race.” Meant to be a bridge, Esperanto soon became a source of division, as followers of Zamenhof sought to seize power over the dissemination of the language and align it with their own widely dissonant political views, including imperialism, isolationism, socialism, anarchism, and communism. Multiculturalism, meant to be “the lifeblood of Esperanto,” was not easily achieved. “The problem,” said a former head of the Universal Esperanto Association, “is that language is an institution of power. Intended, Zamenhof hoped, to counter nationalism, fascism, and xenophobia, Esperanto sometimes was undermined by those same forces. As George Orwell, the nephew of an Esperanto leader, noted, “for sheer dirtiness of fighting, the feuds between the inventors of various of the international languages would take some beating.”

Schor is strongest in tracing Esperanto’s past and present, but she is less persuasive about its robust future in fostering transnational identity, “durable international networks,” and a strong sense of “belonging to the world.”

Pub Date: Oct. 4th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9079-6
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2016




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