Sharing Knowledge in Esperanto: From Expert to Participatory Cultures, 1900/2000 (Leverhulme Research Project Grant, 2022-2025 – Bernhard Struck & Guilherme Fians)

Is Esperanto still around? This question comes up in any conversation on the auxiliary language constructed in the 1880s. The answer is: yes – and it is thriving. A young generation is learning Esperanto online and communicates via Telegram chats, Facebook, and Twitter posts, and dedicated YouTube channels. The revival of Esperanto in the 2000s is no coincidence. This non-national language functions as an antidote or escape-community amidst rising nationalism, populism, Brexit, the so-called ‘migration crisis,’ and Trumpism. This happens at a time when digital media empower long-distance exchanges and foster new communicative arenas for Esperanto. Yet, this phenomenon is not new. Around 1900, as postcards, telephones, steamships, and railways connected the world, Esperanto groups mushroomed across Europe. The period was also characterised by rising tensions involving exclusionary nationalism, mass migration, and linguistic discrimination. During both periods, internationally-oriented audiences resorted in large numbers to using Esperanto, mobilising both this language and the latest communication technologies (earlier postal services, later the internet) to co-produce and exchange knowledge across national borders. There has been no overarching study on what is actually communicated once people communicate in Esperanto.

The project has three goals. The first, to analyse the Esperanto-mediated co-production and circulation of expert and lay knowledge. Dialoguing with scholarship on Esperanto studies, transnational history, and the anthropology of media, the project will constitute the first attempt to account for these instances of knowledge production. The project will shed light on the roles that the language and communication technologies played for cross-border communication over a century.

The second, to mobilise Esperanto as a gateway to bring scholarship on nationalism and internationalism into a productive dialogue. The project follows the hypothesis that media help produce national imagined communities, as it has been argued, while also playing a fundamental role in developing transnational imagined communities. Whereas radio broadcasts, TV shows, and printed newspapers convey news primarily in national languages, the emergence of media in Esperanto (magazines, radio broadcasts, YouTube, digital media groups) foster the gathering of people from different national and linguistic backgrounds – fostering a cosmopolitan sense of belonging to the world that partly complements, partly contradicts, people’s sense of belonging to a certain national identity.

The third relates to community-building and knowledge production. Around 1900, associations of Esperanto-speaking scientists, physicians, engineers, and lawyers fostered the production of expert knowledge that is international in its own right, made to be shared, and to benefit epistemic communities across the world. This lent Esperanto a function in the advancement of science and progress worldwide. A hundred years later, Esperanto-mediated communication realises its full potential via the production of situated knowledge. Young speakers use digital media to share information about each other’s cultures, learn one another’s mother tongues, or simply gain access to news and political perspectives from fellow Esperanto-speakers from across the world. These forms of collaborative situated knowledge are then turned global via Esperanto-mediated communication. As speakers seem to largely move from expert to lay knowledge-sharing, also the Esperanto-speaking community shifts from an assemblage of epistemic communities to an assemblage of participatory ones.


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