Planning the Past in Language Planning

A’dam Multiling (2014) 1:1, Nov, 6-15

10 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2014

Date Written: November 1, 2014


Language, based as it is on information already acquired, is invariably retrospective. Thus the language planner, regardless of the nature of the planning (status, corpus, acquisition, prestige etc.), and regardless of the nature of the population for whom the plan is designed, must construct or find a historical narrative to explain the endeavor. To take a simple example, the Finnish Kalevala, the Estonian Kalevipoeg, and the Welsh Mabinogion were all instances of the quasi-discovery of a historical and cultural narrative serving as justification for language revival in the present. The most radical examples of such heritage planning manifest themselves where we might least expect it: in planned languages - where an entire linguistic environment is created from the beginning. These languages can serve as instructive models for the language planner. Thus, it is widely understood that Zamenhof (almost uniquely among projectors of planned languages), influenced by the structuralism that was emerging at the time, conceived of Esperanto not only as a language but also as a language community. The early history of Esperanto can be defined in terms of this dilemma: Zamenhof needed a language that was recognizably like other languages, with its own history, but at the same time radically different. Zamenhof constructed his historical narrative by employing three strategies: literary translation embracing the literatures of Europe with which his potential users could identify, wholesale adoption of the semantics of European languages (allowing for community participation in the collective construction of meaning), and the attempted creation of a syncretic religious ideology. Offsetting this historical narrative were systems of word formation that went beyond European models, accompanied by a grammar that was also a radical departure from western assumptions. In attempting to balance the particular with the universal, and the past with the future, Zamenhof succeeded in creating a stable community, but, by constructing the narrative as he did, inevitably limited its applicability.

Suggested Citation

Tonkin, Humphrey, Planning the Past in Language Planning (November 1, 2014). A’dam Multiling (2014) 1:1, Nov, 6-15, Available at SSRN: or

Humphrey Tonkin (Contact Author)

University of Hartford ( email )

West Hartford, CT 06117-1599
United States

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