BY Kimberley Bradley in Profiles | 27 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

World of Words

The Esperanto Museum and the Department of Planned Languages in Austria’s National Library

BY Kimberley Bradley in Profiles | 27 FEB 12

Postcard for the 10th Esperanto World Congress, 1914 (Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)

‘M’athchomaroon!’ That’s the kind of answer I’ve been getting lately when I call up an old friend back home in the USA. For those not yet in the know, ‘M’athchomaroon’ is a greeting in Dothraki, a fictional language spoken by the inhabitants of Dothraki Sea in HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones, itself based on George R.R. Martin’s ongoing epic A Song of Ice and Fire (1996–ongoing). Even though Dothraki has no word for telephone, that hasn’t stopped fans like my friend from adding a touch of linguistic fantasy to everyday reality.

Dothraki could find a very real home – alongside Klingon from the television series Star Trek or even Sindarin, one of the elvish languages created by J.R.R. Tolkien for the elfin tribes in his fantasy epics – at the Esperanto Museum and the Department of Planned Languages, which are located inside the Austrian National Library in Vienna. The Esperanto Museum takes its name from the world’s most widespread and most aspirational planned language – a Utopian tongue designed to promote world peace and to facilitate international exchanges by virtue of belonging to no specific country and no particular people.

A painted portrait of Esperanto’s inventor Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (1859–1917) graces the exhibition space, along with trilingual signage in German, English and, of course, Esperanto (which literally means ‘one who hopes’). The hopeful polyglot – born in what was then the Russian Empire and what is now Poland – published a guide in 1887 to Esperanto. Its development is traced through Zamenhof’s brochures, vintage photographs of conventions, posters of chocolate adverts, anti-fascism messages and documentation of the language’s underground years (Hitler reviled Esperanto as a ‘dangerous Jewish language’ and forbade it entirely; Stalin didn’t ban the language but executed its speakers). On a contemporary note, there are consumer products with Esperanto names, like Mirinda soda and Movado watches, on display in vitrines, and an interactive Pac-Man game for visitors to learn verb conjugations.

Other planned languages include Volupük, which preceded Esperanto but never had its reach; Latino Sine Flexione (a Latin that’s mercifully removed all endings); and Hildegard von Bingen’s 23-letter secret Lingua Ignota (‘unknown language’ in Latin), which she invented for mystical writing but also used to describe ‘pusinzia’ (snot). There is also Starckdeutsch, a contortion of German meant only as a joke; Solresol, a musical language based on the seven notes of the solfège musical scale; and even a passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet read in guttural Klingon: a curious encounter of the Elizabethan age and the sci-fi era.

Located above the museum, the Department of Planned Languages houses tens of thousands of books, manuscripts, flyers and periodicals, which cover the existence of around 500 artificial languages. After about 80 years of expanding its holdings, the Department now has the world’s largest collection of technical information on planned languages. ‘They’re part of humankind’s linguistic creativity,’ says director Herbert Mayer, who claims that he speaks Esperanto better than English, ‘but very, very few planned languages make the jump to becoming a language in reality.’

However unexpected, the location in Vienna reflects the city’s remarkably polyglot past. Before the World Wars, most Viennese intellectuals spoke German, Hungarian, at least one Slavic language, French and maybe English; it was all part of the Danube Monarchy’s cultural melange, which made the Viennese especially supportive (even politically) of the idea of one world language. Royal court counselor Hugo Steiner founded the Esperanto Association in 1927; the museum opened in the Imperial Palace in 1928, only to close shortly thereafter for seven years during the National Socialist occupation, although its holdings stayed put in the city. The Department’s facility opened in 1990 and continually expands through private collections from scholars, writers and linguists.

It’s hard not to fill the silence that dominates the Department’s small reading room with questions about the speakers of planned languages. Do they have accents? In light of theories of cognitive linguistics, would speaking a planned language alter the speakers’ perceptions of reality? As these languages evolve, do they become more like a natural language? Could a planned language ever have the chance to become a cultural lingua franca and bring about, as Zamenhof hoped, a linguistic Utopia? Or has non-native English already taken on that role? Indeed, the rise of fantasy tongues like Dothraki suggests that the art of inventing languages has lost its Utopian calling to the escapism of TV series, films and video games.

An American journalist and editor based in Berlin and Vienna, Kimberley Bradley writes about art and other forms of visual culture.