The International Language Movement: Preserving the Past
Most attempts to assess the number of speakers of the International Language Esperanto across the world indicate that the number is rising. Aided by on-line courses and apps, many young people are learning and using the language through social media and other forms of casual contact. There are similar increases in interest in so-called conlangs, and in the imaginary languages whose popularity began with J.R.R. Tolkien and now extends to such fictional worlds as that of Game of Thrones.
The traditional Esperanto movement is receding in relevance as the new Esperanto movement, rooted in the internet, takes over. Local groups of Esperantists, meeting on a regular schedule for conversation, and corresponding with friends in other countries through the mail, are disappearing. Even national Esperanto organizations are less strong than they were. The reason? These structures serve a less vital purpose than they once did. It is easy to bypass them through Facebook or LinkedIn, or the new app Amikumu. Conversation is possible through Skype. And those who want to listen to good Esperanto have hundreds of YouTube videos in Esperanto at their disposal.
These seismic shifts in the way we communicate mean that paper records are becoming less and less important. Printed books in Esperanto are getting lost as Esperantists turn away from them or previous generations of Esperantists die, leaving behind their libraries, their correspondence, the minutes and membership lists of local clubs, and all the paraphernalia that went with the old-style Esperanto movement.
The Esperantic Studies Foundation has launched a campaign to preserve and conserve this material. The Foundation is trying to track down unwanted book collections, collections of Esperanto magazines and periodicals, the paper correspondence of individual speakers of Esperanto, and records of local Esperanto clubs past and present. At its headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina, it is accumulating this material and passing it on to institutions that can preserve it and make it available to scholars. It is equally interested in the records of other organizations or individuals concerned with other projects for international languages or fictional languages.
Scholarly interest in the field is currently increasing. ESF wants to be sure that scholars seeking to work on Esperanto or on interlinguistics generally have at their disposal the best possible material and scholarly aids. It also provides financial support for selected projects.
If you know of material languishing in private hands – or indeed unknown to the public but in public hands – please get in touch with ESF. We will be glad to help preserve it, or glad to get the word out about its availability to scholars and researchers.
Two contrasting efforts to make material available to scholars and researchers are currently underway in U.S. universities and can serve as examples.
Princeton University is building its collection in Esperanto and interlinguistics primarily out of a linguistic interest. What is the history of the search for an international language? What do projects for international languages have to tell us about linguistic theory, about how languages convey meaning, about how they develop over time, and about who gets involved in planning and using them? It is on the lookout for printed books, particularly Esperanto books, but also for language projects and other materials that illustrate linguistic and historical aspects of the worldwide movement for an international language. It has a growing collection of books and is accumulating other materials of all kinds.
Among Princeton’s recent acquisitions are a copy of Zamenhof’s “First Book” launching Esperanto in the year 1887, the Esperanto papers of labor union leader and activist Mark Starr, and papers of Max Talmey, boyhood friend of Albert Einstein and serial adept of various language projects – his own and others’.
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is taking a different approach. It is interested in the Esperanto movement as an example of the growth and development of social movements in the United States and Canada, and of North American contact with the world. Its growing collection includes printed books, manuscript materials, archives of organizations, and Esperanto-related ephemera such as postcards, name tags, T-shirts, and photographs.
U Mass has recently acquired the archives of the national Esperanto organization Esperanto-USA. It already has an extensive collection of books and periodicals bequeathed to it by Allan Boschen, a local Esperanto speaker. A list of the holdings in the Boschen collection can be consulted at http://scua.library.umass.edu/ead/murb028.
We should also mention a third collection recently opened to scholars at The University of Oregon. This special collection, the George Alan Connor Collection, was bequeathed to it in the 1970s by the leader of the now-defunct Esperanto Association of North America (EANA). Of considerable historical value, the George Alan Connor Collection is described at http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv577849.
ESF is always eager to learn about additional materials held by universities, libraries, and individuals in North America that can be made available to scholars. Please let us know.