Saturday, June 7, 2008

New World Order

Back near the end of the 19thC, there was a growing desire to rationalize and systematize all kinds of processes. That desire led us to the assembly line and Taylorist studies of efficiency, and also led us to the uniform high school curriculum we still struggle against. But the underlying assumption is that there was one right way of doing things, that it could be scientifically determined, and that it would apply across circumstances. As Henry Ford himself said, "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today."

So a group of well-meaning folks got together and thought about how we might benefit from having better communication across nations. The telegraph was still kind of a luxury and the radio was a decade away from creation, but there was a growing awareness that the social world of the 20th century would not be as spatially limited as it had been throughout prior history. And so a new language was created, called Esperanto. It was not derived from any existing language. It made use of some of the grammatical structures of European language families, but "scientifically selected' for ease of learning. The spelling system was rationalized (no more worrying about how to pronounce words ending in "ough," for instance -- think about the difference in vowel sounds between rough and cough and through and though. Esperanto would end all of that.).

But Esperanto never really caught on. It turns out that German people like to speak German, Russians Russian, Swedes Swedish, Mexicans Spanish, and so on. Not just because it's easier not to have to learn a new language, but because language carries culture and meaning and history. There's an Italian phrase "traduttore tradittore," which means that the translator is a traitor -- changing the language inherently changes the subtleties of meaning. It's estimated that a couple of thousand people in the world are now fluent in Esperanto, which they mostly use when they go to conferences with one another. (By comparison, there are nearly a hundred thousand people who speak Navajo, a language so unfamiliar worldwide that the American military was able to use it as an unbreakable code during World War II.)

About that same time, it was thought that architecture could be equally rationalized and de-localized. Adolf Loos' famous conflation of ornament and crime was not merely an aesthetic critique nor a rant against fashion-based design that would become obsolete; it was fully immersed in its era of scientific understandings, and equally in opposition to cultural history. This way of thinking led us toward the architectural Esperanto that we know as the International Style of high Modernism.

And, as it turns out, people didn't take to that either. We seem to appreciate things that have relevance to their larger region, culture, and history. They "fit the story." We can place ourselves within them, understand them at an everyday level without careful study, make comfortable use of them.

I'd imagine that the proportion of the population who really delight in new, theoretical architecture is somewhat higher than the proportion of Esperanto speakers and somewhat lower than the number of Navajo speakers.

With apologies to Don Henley and Glenn Frey...

Esperanto, why don't you come to your senses?
You been crossin' those fences for so long now.
Oh, you're a smart one;
I know that you got your reasons.
But your cultural treasons
Have kept you outside.

Don't you diss the local language, boy,
She's got you by the numbers.
You gotta meet them where they're at to get their love.
Now it seems to me a century
Is enough to merit slumber.
But you need to prove that you can rise above.

Esperanto, oh, you ain't in nobody's favor.
You think and you labor, with no one to hear.
And progress, oh progress, well, that's just some people talkin'.
Your progress is walkin' out where no one draws near.

2 comments:

mankso said...

You wrote:
>And so a new language was created, called Esperanto. It was not derived from any existing language.

Excuse me - but I can't let that pass! The whole point about Esperanto is that it IS made from existing ethnic languages. It is an 'a posteriori' constructed language, not an 'a priori' one. Just check 'Esperanto' in that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia!

And you further wrote:
>It made use of some of the grammatical structures of European language families, but "scientifically selected' for ease of learning. The spelling system was rationalized (no more worrying about how to pronounce words ending in "ough," for instance -- think about the difference in vowel sounds between rough and cough and through and though. Esperanto would end all of that.).

You seem rather confused about language! Esperanto is Esperanto, and English is English - which one are you talking about? I think the point that you are trying to make is that Esperanto is phonemic, i.e. if you see it written you know for sure how to pronounce it, and if you hear it spoken you will always spell it correctly.

And please check the Prague Manifesto:
http://lingvo.org
for 7 good reasons for being interested in Esperanto today. Thank you.

Brian said...

I think ignorance, rather than prejudice is holding back.

According to the CIA factbook, for example, within a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now within the top most used 100 languages out of 6,000 worldwide. It is the 17th most used language by Wikipedia, and is used both Skype and Google.

In the United Kingdom eight British MP's have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008

In China, the International Olympics Committee have appointed its first ever Esperanto translator for the Beijing Olympics.