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The Speech Community Against the Language Council: Vocabulary Choice, Authority and Standardisation in a No Man’s Language

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Abstract

This chapter focuses on what speakers do with Esperanto while they speak Esperanto. In 2016, while Esperantists in Paris discussed technology, surveillance and freedom, a question emerged, turning the political debate into a linguistic discussion: how to say drone in Esperanto? Relatedly, in a constructed language, how can speakers refer to things they have no words for? Who has the authority to decide whether a contested word is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? From this, I analyse why Esperantists frequently create their own words instead of searching the ‘right’ one in dictionaries. I propose to understand how the language ideology of equality and inclusion upon which Esperanto is based grounds vocabulary development, using Esperanto as a starting point for a theoretical reflection on language authority, variation and error.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This issue gained visibility in recent years with languages constructed for artistic purposes, such as Marc Okrand's Klingon (Star Trek) and Paul Frommer's Na'vi (Avatar), whose speakers recognise the language creators as ultimate authorities and the only people authorised to coin new words in these languages (Schreyer 2015, and personal communication).

  2. 2.

    Over its history, similarly to what happened to Volapük, Esperanto emerged as a fertile ground for language reformers (Garvía 2015). In 1894, Zamenhof faced the first proposal of spelling reform. It, however, was later dismissed by a vote from the subscribers of the periodical La Esperantisto. Also noteworthy is the -ata/-ita debate (summarised in De Hoog et al. 1961), on verb tenses and forms of the past participle, where the Akademio played a decisive role.

  3. 3.

    This advice comes from Claude Piron (1989), to whom Esperanto’s internationality depended on the language being understood by Esperanto speakers from culturally and geographically distant places, such as China and Japan. Along surprisingly similar lines, also Max Weber (1949: 58–59) prompted social scientists to write for a ‘Chinese reader’—meaning someone less prone to share the commonsense assumptions of Western scholars.

  4. 4.

    For instance, the Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko (Wennergren 2005)—PMEG, Complete Manual of Esperanto Grammar, whose abbreviation jokingly reads as ‘pomego’, big apple—answers the pioneers’ call for developing and normalising the language. The PMEG goes beyond Zamenhof's Fundamento and also covers aspects like punctuation and prefixes of units of measurement (such as gigawatts, GW), which were not set in Esperanto’s sixteen basic grammar rules.

  5. 5.

    Even though, as highlighted before, such terminology and categorisation are mine, not Zamenhof’s.

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Fians, G. (2021). The Speech Community Against the Language Council: Vocabulary Choice, Authority and Standardisation in a No Man’s Language. In: Esperanto Revolutionaries and Geeks. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-84230-7_5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-84230-7_5

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