Antilanguage & Esperanto

In 1987 my friend Laurie Notch, then a student in anthropology, introduced me to M.A.K. Halliday's conception of anti-language via his seminal article on the subject. (See abstract below.) As part of her coursework, she embarked on field work with the Esperanto Society of Washington, which was then experiencing a burst of activity, coinciding with the Esperanto centennial. Laurie thought Esperanto could be seen as an anti-language and incorporated this concept into her analysis. I was intrigued by the concept in general, which I immediately thought could be applied to black American use of language as well as to many other outgroups and marginalized cultures.

Most of the studies I've come across in recent bibliographic searches are highly specialized. In addition to the vast array of minority cultures, outcast cultures, and subcultures, there are studies of children's language, mysticism, and poetry as antilanguages. I found only one article referencing Esperanto (and its predecessor Volapük), in the context of the concerns and struggles over language in France at the end of the nineteenth century. I've not seen anything like this before, and the article is quite fascinating. (See abstract of Staller below.)

Esperantujo (Esperanto-Land, or the Esperanto speech community) could certainly be counted as an anti-society. Does Esperanto exhibit all the linguistic features of an anti-language? It is a separate language, not a subset of another language, though in some sense it could be considered linguistically as an anti-language to the "Standard Average European" whence it comes. Since Esperanto's phonology, syntax, morphology, and lexicon are by definition all different from the languages from which it was drawn, Esperanto could be said to fulfill these criteria for antilanguage by default. (As a multitude of Esperantists come from non-Indo-European language backgrounds, drawing a linguistic parallel would be an empty gesture, but certainly the social parallel holds.)

What about semantics and the intensity of metaphorical expression? Here the linguistic patterns, as a result of the originating social needs, are somewhat different from other antilanguages. Ostensibly, the purpose of Esperanto was to bring disparate speech communities together, not to isolate itself from the larger speech communities in which Esperantists functioned, though in practice this occurred as a by-product of the establishment of the Esperantophone community, due to the utopian, internationalist moral idealism that animated it (though one should not discount a covert nationalism among oppressed national speech communities), in opposition to the social fragmentation and nationalism governing the social order. (Esperanto has, though, functioned for some people as a secret language, deliberately.) Linguistically, Esperanto was designed to be easier and quicker to master than ethnic languages, by way of systematic construction eliminating grammatical irregularities and other logically unnecessary complications, and maximizing its flexibility via the exploitation of agglutination as well as the morphological marking of grammatical categories. Semantically, Esperanto cannot be said to subvert or double-code the meanings of the Romance, Germanic, and other source languages from which its lexicon was drawn. The semantics of "Standard Average European" was naively taken over wholesale. Nor is there any extraordinary resort to metaphor. The antilanguage features of Esperanto are mainly manifested in its subcultural terminology, in locutions such as 'samideano' (fellow-thinker, meaning Esperantist), 'krokodili' (literally 'to crocodile', meaning to speak one's ethnic tongue in a situation in which one should be speaking in Esperanto), 'kabei' (to act like Kabe, a pioneer Esperanto poet who dropped out of the movement), etc. Perhaps exploitation of Esperanto's agglutinative capability, allowing for economy, compression, and creativity of expression, could be considered a manifestation of antilanguage for those who find this expressively liberating.

There are some conceivably anti-language features within the Esperantophone community as compared with the standard language as it was originally created. For example, the anationalist workers' Esperanto movement that flourished between the world wars had distinguishing features. In particular, the suffix "uj" (meaning container, but also used to designate countries) was replaced by the suffix "i" to deemphasize the national and ethnic character of nation-states. For example, 'Francujo' (container of Frenchmen, i.e. France) was replaced by 'Francio' (French-land). The word 'kamarado' (comrade), used then by socialists internationally, could be considered a replacement for 'samideano' (the common Esperanto designation). Other 'deviations' of more recent vintage include the individual creation of archaic versions of the language, specialized dictionaries not only of technical vocabularies but of cultural specialties such as obscenities and insults, avant-garde poetry and novels, literary tendencies capitalizing on neologisms, extending even to grammatical words (new prepositions, etc.; cf. Karolo Piĉ), new genres (e.g. pornography as opposed to literary erotica), new subcultures (e.g. gay).

I've provided this sparse documentation of Esperanto in connection with the concept of antilanguage as an unusual angle on Esperantology (Esperantologio). I also want to call attention to the concept of antilanguage in general and to put it into general circulation for consideration of its possible applications.

— Ralph Dumain, 29 April 2006


Anti-languages, a term created by the linguist MAK Halliday, are a way of communicating within a language that excludes outsiders. An anti-language uses the same grammar and words as the main speech community, but uses them in a different way so that they can only be understood by insiders. Cockney rhyming slang is an example, where words that are familiar to all of the speech community are only understood by 'those in the know', the people who understand their true meaning within the minority speech community. Antilanguages are often used by criminals and people on the fringes of society, who do not want to be understood by everybody.

Halliday, M.A.K. “Anti-Languages,” American Anthropologist, new series, vol. 78, no. 3, September 1976, pp. 570-584.

ABSTRACT: At certain times and places we come across special forms of language generated by some kind of anti-society: these we may call "anti-languages." An anti-language serves to create and maintain social structure through communication, just as an everyday language does; but the social structure is of a particular kind, in which certain elements are strongly foregrounded. This gives to the anti-language a special character in which metaphorical modes of expression are the norm; patterns of this kind appear at all levels, phonological, lexicogrammatical, and semantic. The study of anti-languages offers further insights into the relation between language and social structure, and into the way in which text functions in the realization of social contexts.

Hernández Martín, Jorge. “Dialogism and Parody in the Detective Story,” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, vol. XXI, no. 2, Invierno 1997, pp. 295-311.

On the parodic transformation of the detective story by Jorge Luis Borges, with reference to Mikhail Bakhtin, Gary Saul Morson, and Halliday’s concepts of antisociety and antilanguage.

Staller, Natasha. “Babel: Hermetic Languages, Universal Languages, and Anti-Languages in Fin de Siècle Parisian Culture,” Art Bulletin, vol. 76, no. 2, June 1994, pp. 331-354.

ABSTRACT: In fin-de-siècle Paris, language was the arena for battles over trade and national security, over epistemology and the future of art. While Symbolist painters and poets made plain their contempt for the vulgar locutions of crass society at large, I argue that Seurat and others engaged linguistic themes that were also being debated in apparently unrelated domains of official culture. But Symbolist artists turned those linguistic themes inside out, manipulating them in ways that ultimately subverted bourgeois society's goals.

Ragnarsson, Baldur. “Esperanto Kiel Anti-Lingvo” [Esperanto as an Anti-Language], en Serta gratulatoria in honorem Juan Régulo, v. II. Esperantismo (La Laguna: Universidad de la Laguna, 1987), pp. 579-581. Ĉi tiu artikolo troviĝas ankaŭ en Strategiaj Demandoj de la Esperanto-Komunumo (1-a Internacia Simpozio Varsovio, 1984 - 04 - 24-28), red. Czesław Biedulski (Varsovio: Pola Esperanto-Asocio, 1985). p. 80-83.

This is the one article on the subject I've seen in Esperanto. While Esperanto is not ostensibly intended as an antilanguage, Esperantists become socially marginalized and take on that role. This happens on an individual basis as well as collectively. There are other areas in which we can see this phenomenon at work, for example in literature. Poets create their own poetic worlds, which can be anti-worlds. Two poems by Esperanto-poet William Auld and one poem by the author are analyzed as examples. While in a social sense this is a negative tendency, there is also the positive counterbalance of creativity. The tendency of poets toward mental isolation is unlikely to disappear, even if one day the outside world penetrates the Esperantist subculture, and so poets will always create anti-worlds. Note the neologisms anti-gramatiko (anti-grammar), antimondo (anti-world), antifaktoj (anti-facts), antilogika (anti-logical), antieco (anti-ness), and anti-ĉambro (anti-room, en example in one poem). [RD]

Nonsense, Irony, Humor” by Susan Stewart

Esperanto Kiel Anti-Lingvo de Baldur Ragnarsson

Esperanto Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo
(includes interlinguistics links)

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Uploaded 29 April 2006
Addendum 24 May 2006
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