Archive for July, 2010

Utopia in Four Movements—or only three?

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

Susie and I attended the performance of Utopia in Four Movements today in Berkeley. Its goal, says Sam Green, is to get people thinking. It did that for me, and I recommend it if it plays near you.

One thought it inspired in me was that this performance opens by revealing an apparently utopian movement that in reality isn’t utopian (the Esperanto movement), and ends by showing us the opposite: an apparently non-utopian movement that actually is utopian (forensic anthropology).

Green doesn’t acknowledge the pervasively non-utopian features of the Esperanto movement. He focuses on the motivating hypothesis that a shared language could help everybody share the world. But that’s just the inspiration. The language’s design, governance, and spread are anything but utopian. The design was pragmatic, compromise-filled, trial-and-error, test-and-revise. The governance was launch-and-release, putting the language into the public domain after a few years of development, and since its release there has been no central authority controlling the continued enrichment of the language. And the spread has taken place with the usual pragmatic mix of persuasion, service, and exampling.

Most other artificial languages have been crafted by their inventors to embody nearly solipsistic ontologies. Making them easy to learn and intuitive to the masses has not been a consideration. They have not been tested by literary translation as was Esperanto early on, nor tested on human subjects. The inventors never let go, and never cultivated a speech community that could have taken the languages over.

Some observers assert that the relative success of Esperanto, compared with its artificial-language competitors, is attributable to the decision of its inventor, Zamenhof, to mimic the lexicons, grammars, and social aspects of natural languages, making his language only more regular and thus more learnable (as a second language) than natural languages, and letting the invisible hand of the speech community assume control early in the life of the language.

On this argument, then, the Esperanto movement helps make Green’s argument for the ultimate failure of utopias, though Green doesn’t clearly use this case in that way. This movement illustrates the possibility of combining utopian inspiration with pragmatic innovation to produce real, though not total, social change. Green likes utopian ideas, but not utopian tactics. That, I think, is why he’s attracted to how people are using and spreading Esperanto today.

What Green likes about the Esperanto movement is almost what I dislike about it. For my taste, it isn’t quite utopian enough in its tactics. Two cases in point. First, the leaders of the movement have all but given up on the idea of making Esperanto the shared second language of the world. Second, they are so intent on preserving continuity and naturality that they won’t figure out how to amend the language even when they hate how it works. For example, those who despise sexism in language still use Esperanto with its late-19th-century sexist morphology, though they wouldn’t be caught dead designing such rules into a language if they were inventing one today.