Esperantic Studies: State-of-the-Art

by Asya Pereltsvaig

Esperantic Studies is a field of scholarly study centered on Esperanto in a broader context of multilingual and interlingual communication. This three-part article discusses the state-of-the-art in different areas of Esperantic Studies, particularly Esperanto Linguistics, Esperanto History (broadly construed), and Global Language Studies. Much of the existing body of work within each area, sadly, consists of discrete strands of research conducted by individual scholars that rarely address the same issues from different perspectives, offer alternative views, or challenge each other’s theories. One of the goals of the current project, and of Esperantic Studies Foundation in general, is to provide an overview of the past research, current thought, and issues open for future research to aid a better integration of research in different areas of Esperantic Studies.


Part 1: Esperanto Linguistics

The peculiar nature of Esperanto make it a fascinating case study for linguists, who have examined its structure, internal history, acquisition, and use. Esperanto is unusual in many ways: it has been originally created artificially, in a highly multilingual environment. Moreover, it was designed with the expressed purpose of becoming a language of interlingual communication, a language easy to learn for people from the widest range of linguistic backgrounds. Although it never became a universal lingua franca, Esperanto now has up to 2 million users and approximately 1,000 native speakers. Yet even for such native speakers, Esperanto is virtually never their only language. Its use is limited to certain domains, and for the great majority of the speakers, including native ones, Esperanto is not the dominant language. These facts make Esperanto and its speakers useful in tests of the robustness of generalizations about linguistic typology, Universal Grammar, first and second language acquisition, language contact and creolization, variation, standardization, and change.

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Part 2: Esperanto History

The field of Esperantic Studies extends beyond the linguistic scholarship on Esperanto. Scholars across a broad range of disciplines have examined the historical, social, political, ideological, and even economic contexts in which Esperanto was created and became popular around the world. Esperanto is one of several “neutral planned” languages (i.e. consciously designed languages that are not based on a sole ethnic or national language), and unquestionably the most successful of such languages in achieving its goals of becoming a means of interlingual communication, acquiring a community of first and second language speakers, and making an impact on the global political and ideological landscape. The role of ideas such as internationalism, decolonization, cosmopolitanism, as well as new approaches to religion, have played an important role in the creation and popularization of Esperanto. The scholarship on the history of the Esperanto movement in particular countries, such as Germany, USSR, and Japan, illuminates Esperanto in a broader context.

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Part 3: Global Language Studies

While the study of Esperanto, its linguistic structure and the history of its attendant movement, constitute the core of Esperantic Studies, the field extends to broader issues that concern language policy and planning, individual and societal multilingualism, and the use of language in specific areas such as education and science, government and administration, and business and the workplace. This cluster of topics is, however, rather wide-ranging, making it difficult to draw a precise boundary of Esperantic Studies. In this article, therefore, I focus on three specific topics: the use of language in science and education (particularly, in higher education), models of language use in contemporary (and future) globalized world, and the issue of linguistic justice. Furthermore, I consider the role that Esperanto plays in those areas.

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