For our third open classroom, we focused on the possibility of developing a universal language, as a means to create a truly European public sphere. We invited Edwin Gardner and Christiaan Fruneaux of Monnik and Federico Gobbo an Esperanto scholar and Professor at the University of Amsterdam.
Monnik, a research collective based in Amsterdam, presented a speculative research project – a logographic script called Babel. It is recorded that the first historical civilisations used some form of logographic writing. While in alphabets, individually written characters represent sounds, a logograph is a written character that represents a word or phrase. As we understood from the discussion, a purely logographic script would be impractical for most languages, and none is actually known. Monnik’s project, however, is not a pragmatic solution for overcoming Europe’s linguistic boundaries, nor it is meant to substitute the continent’s rich plurilingualism. Through an exercise in design fiction, the studio set to investigate a proposal that can raise a discussion about mutual comprehension and cultural understanding. In fact, while Europe has tried to forge unity through common currency, market, regulation and parliament, it hasn’t succeeded so far in delivering a broad common identity. Through an artistic investigation into an European logographic writing, Babel asks questions about “the relationship between identity, symbolism and public space in a time of globalisation and continuous technological progress”. The name chosen for the project has an obvious biblical origin; it comes from the story of the city and tower of Babel, yet it does no refer to the divisions and chaotic dynamics following the divine punishment, but to the endless possibilities that would arise if humanity were to be united by one language: “No misunderstanding that cannot be resolved, no challenge that cannot be addressed through a joint effort”.
Their presentation put forth questions regarding visual and linguistic characteristics of Europe and of the Union’s project. For instance, it was said that by developing a logographic script we could read each other’s papers and write to one another, even if we don’t speak each other’s language. It’s difficult to think of any other design solution through which one could create a public space for Europe. In their research, Monnik also looked at current modes of communication, particularly contemporary languages that evolve on their own technological platforms. To give an example, emoji’s are spreading everywhere and have a visible impact on popular culture, but while such ideograms and smileys can help add expression to a colloquial digital exchange, they can hardly afford a translation of Melville’s Moby Dick. Despite the fact that everybody in the audience seemed amused when Edwin showed the cover of Emoji Dick, the emoji translation of the famed novel, the answer to the question ‘what language would suit such a compressed modernity?’ remained open to discussion.
Emoji’s are an example of how every generation grows up with a new technology platform, including its linguistic innovations.
Our second speaker was Federico Gobbo, a researcher and professor of Linguistics, Philosophy and Computing, whose focus is on artificial languages. Federico placed Babel in the larger context of invented languages, like Esperanto and Volapük. but also languages made up for fictional purposes like Star Trek’s Klingon. Through an informative and fascinating journey, moving from Thomas Piketty to Italian Science Fiction, from Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus to J.R.R Tolkien and from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Umberto Eco’s search for the perfect language, Federico complemented Monnik’s design research with a presentation on the Esperantist project and its legacy, both in Europe and its everyday life. We learned that the goal of its creator, Doctor Esperanto aka L.L. Zamenhof, back in 1887, was to create a politically neutral language that would transcend nationality and foster peace and international understanding between peoples. ‘Esperanto’, in fact, aptly translates as ‘one who hopes’.
In The Great Dictator, some of the signs in the shop windows of the ghetto are written in Esperanto, a language condemned by the Nazi as a plot to internationalize and destroy German culture.
In the context of the first globalisation, between 1870 and 1914, Esperanto established itself as part of the innovations of its time, along the telegraph, the telephone, the adoption of international standards and the success of universal exhibitions. Europe was the necessary cradle for Esperanto, a continent soon to be divided and deeply wounded by the first World War. Its reconstruction became a fundamental question. Federico read an excerpt from the ‘Appeal to the Diplomats’ that Zamenhof wrote in 1915, which speaks to this: ‘Will you begin simply to remake and patch up the map of Europe? Will you simply decide that territory A must belong to the nation X and territory B to the nation Y? […] In handing over any territory to the people of this or that race, you will always do an injustice to other people who have the same natural rights in respect of that territory.’
As we now know, sadly, it took the tragedy of another war to convince Europeans of the necessity of a shared peace project, and that resulted in something still very different from the federal state that Zamenhof foresaw. Specifically for his presentation at New Europeans, Federico set out to investigate the issues of identity and a shared vision in the contemporary everyday life of European Esperantist families. To do so, he asked Esperanto families living in Europe if they identify as European and what that means to them. The poll was carried out through the Esperanto mailing list. He received 13 responses, written in Esperanto, which he translated for us in English and read out loud. For example, one of the answers said that ‘if you do not know English, French and German, you cannot feel European. You have to travel a lot spending time to live in different countries’, and also:
The answers to Federico’s questions showed that the European feelings of Esperanto speakers are varied. Common traits are a refusal of military and imperialistic behaviour, a ‘light’ sense of territorial identity, sometimes linked to Europe, sometimes not. Esperanto in itself does seem to bring special values of European identity, at least in its present situation. This is indeed in the nature of Esperanto itself, which is not the official language of any state or specific territory, but offers instead the possibility of an alternative globalisation.
The two presentations provoked a lively discussion in the end, where a number of issues where raised, from the hypotheses of “neutral people” to critiques of the power relations embedded in ethnocentric systems, from lines of poetry to the struggle of the Esperantist LGBT community, from the role of history in the construction of a common identity to critiques of historicist beliefs that the future must always conform to the past.
The topic of a universal language proved incredibly fertile, and made the participants think, certainly beyond linguistic preoccupations. Fortunately, the format of the open classroom eventually allowed us a couple of drinks and the chance to learn ourselves our first words in Esperanto. For the curious, “Europe” translates as “Europo” – It’s easy!