Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language
AuthorEsther Schor
SubjectsEsperanto, interlinguistics
GenresNon-fiction, memoir
PublisherMetropolitan Books
Publication date
4 October 2016

Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language is a 2016 non-fiction book by American poet and professor Esther Schor. Concerning the history of Esperanto, the world's most widely spoken constructed language, it looks at various figures within Esperanto's history as well as Schor's own experiences with the language as an Esperantist.


Further information: History of Esperanto, Esperantujo, and Esperanto culture

Esperanto is the world's most widely spoken constructed language. Created by Polish doctor L. L. Zamenhof in 1887, it is intended to be a universal second language for international communication.[1][2][3] The language prospered in the first half of the twentieth century, especially among communists, it enjoyed great support in the Soviet Union. However, in the lead up to and during World War II, Esperantists were persecuted in countries such as Nazi Germany, Portugal, and the Soviet Union – the movement was also quietened during the Cold War due to its associations with communism.[citation needed]

Esperanto is one of the only constructed languages to have native speakers, of which there are around 2,000. Estimates of the number of speakers worldwide vary greatly, but there are likely between one and two million;[4] the concentration of speakers is highest in Europe, East Asia, and South America.[5][6]

Esther Schor is an American scholar, essayist, and professor of American Jewish studies at Princeton University. Before Bridge of Words, she had written a biography of Emma Lazarus, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and published an anthology of original poetry. Schor is a writer for several publications, including The Forward, The New York Times Book Review, and the The Times Literary Supplement.[7][8]


The flag of Esperanto

Bridge of Words is both an autobiographic memoir about Schor's relationship with Esperanto and the history of Esperanto, especially the connections between Esperanto and Judaism. The book is split into four parts: "The Dream of a Universal Language", "Doktoro Esperanto and the Shadow People", "The Heretic, the Priestess, and the Invisible Empire", and "Esperanto in a Global Babel" – each contains sections concerning both interlinguistics and Schor's travels with Esperanto.

In the introduction and first part, Schor introduces her first experiences with Esperanto, and gives a synopsis of its history. The first chapters give a history of attempts for a universal language, both philosophical languages and international auxiliary languages. Schor defines the start of the universal language movement as beginning with Francis Bacon's 1605 The Advancement of Learning, and discusses its opposition by figures such as John Locke. Schor writes about the creation of Esperanto and the systems behind its etymology and grammar. She recounts her experiences of learning Esperanto in a full immersion summer course held at the University of San Diego, recounting dialogue with Esperantists that she met there.

The second part discusses Zamenhof's relations with Judaism. After biographies of Markus and Rozalia Zamenhof [eo; pl], Zamenhof's parents, Schor describes antisemitism in the Russian Empire and Zamenhof's views on Zionism. Zamenhof's ideas for a reformation of both Yiddish and Judaism (in the form of Hillelism) are discussed. Schor also gives an account of the early history of Esperanto: early publications such as the Unua and Dua Libroj, La Esperantisto, as well as Zamenhof's 1894 attempts to reform the language are mentioned. Esperanto's increasing traction with the influence of Louis de Beaufront and the strained relations between Zamenhof and the leaders of Esperanto over Judaism are covered; Schor calls the creation of the Universal Esperanto Association vital to the movement's reparation after the schism that birthed Ido. Schor recounts her experiences at Esperanto conferences held in İzmir and Białystok: she describes the Anti-Esperanto sentiment seen there, with the vandalism of a statue of Zamenhof. She gives biographies of Esperantists such as Humphrey Tonkin and covers the role of the Akademio de Esperanto.

Publication and reception

Schor in 2010, at a Esperanto-USA gathering

Bridge of Words was published on 4 October 2016 by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. It has 384 pages.[9] Bridge of Words was not Schor's first work on Esperanto; she had previously written several articles concerning the language on the subject for the journal Language Problems and Language Planning,[10] and delivered a TED talk, entitled "The Transformative Vision of Esperanto" at a TEDx conference in Rome in 2009.[11] By the time of the book's publication, Schor had been part of the Esperanto community for seven years.[12] The book was met with mixed reviews.[13] Its reception discussed the depth of Schor's research, the inclusion of the information about her Esperantic experiences, its accessibility, and the passion she showed for the history of Esperanto.[14]


Frederico Gobbo [eo] gave a positive review of the style of the book – "Schor's work is not a purely academic and scholarly work, even though the quantity and quality of the notes supporting the arguments is impressive. So, the book can be read like a novel. Moreover, Schor's language style is a real pleasure for the reader". However, he wrote that the quality of Esperanto in the book suffered from occasional "[o]dd expressions or errors" as a result of Schor not being entirely fluent. He also wrote that Schor placed a viewpoint too americentric in the work, with not enough focus on Esperanto in countries such as in Brazil or in in France.[15]

A review by Javier Alcalde [eo] in the European Journal of Jewish Studies called the book "a solid work, in many respects ground-breaking. A must-read for everyone interested in Jewish history, interlinguistics or social movements, but also for Esperantists themselves." Alcalde compared the work to Arika Okrent's In the Land of Invented Languages in that it followed the author's journey with Esperanto and Roberto Garvia's Esperanto and its Rivals in that it placed large importance on the role of Esperanto alongside other social movements. He found the interviews with Esperantists to be perhaps "the best study so far of the current community of Esperanto speakers", and praise Schor for "shed[ding] light on the difficulties faced by the Esperantists in a democratic regime during the McCarthy period." Alcalde criticised, however, inconsistencies in the book's essays, and an over-focusing on the author's experiences in California and Brazil as opposed to more history of Esperanto in Western Europe.[16]


The reception of Schor's autobiographical writing about her travels was on the whole negative:[17][18][14] Brit Peterson's review of the book in Slate called the autobiographical material "an unfortunate choice": "The sections in the past are for the most part much more interesting than those in the present." She discussed Schor's "complex goals" in writing the book, calling it "as ambitious, soulful, intellectually hefty, and yet occasionally naïve as the project it describes".[17]

Paul Webb, writing for the Hong Kong Review of Books, saw her "flipping back and forth" between Esperanto history and her travels as "mak[ing] the historical chronology difficult to follow at times." Webb praised Schor for combining an "account of the facts of the matter with emotive and insightful pen portraits of individual Esperantists.[19] Michael Wex had a "minor quibble" with the memoir parts of the book: "Schor is less assured as a memoirist than as a scholar, and while these latter sections are not without interest, they go on at greater lengths than the material warrants."[20]

Michael Upchurch, reviewing in the Chicago Tribune, saw Schor's memoir material as a positive aspect of the work: "the memoir/travelogue vein of the book is relaxed and anecdotal". He wrote that "Schor's account of these controversies can get pretty tangled, but it's enlivened by crusaders' over-the-top rhetoric and detractors' withering put-downs."[18] Ezra Glinter of Haaretz saw the memoir parts as "demonstrat[ing] anecdotally" Esperanto's strength: "While these parts of her book sometimes go astray ... they are also among the most delightful"; "her book provides a fascinating look into one of the most idealistic social movements of modern times."[21]

Martin Rubin's review in the The Washington Times saw Schor's enthusiasm as "infectious", but wrote that the book had "a certain breathlessness of tone" owing to her travels. He also criticized her coverage of Robert Cecil as superficial: "Ms. Schor’s grossly inadequate characterization of him is yet another depressing example of the scholarly tunnel vision so prevalent in the groves of academe today."[22] Joan Acocella of The New Yorker found the material about Zamenhof to be "by far the best part" - he disapproved of Schor "unloading personal matters" by wrote that Schor "ends on a strong, high note, taking on a number of what she calls myths about Esperanto".[23]

The book was praised for its depth of scholarship on Esperanto's history and for Schor's passion for the subject: Chris Foran wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the book was a "meticulous recounting of Esperanto's organizational history", and viewed Schor's travels as "where the deep-rooted faith in the language emerges."[14] Ross Perlin, reviewing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, praised the book as "a guide to this modern-day diaspora [Esperantujo], from a participant-observer attuned to the Jewish dialectic of universalism and particularism."[24] A piece from Kirkus Reviews called the book "an illuminating, well-researched chronicle of the development of Esperanto", although it viewed Schor's writing about the future of Esperanto as "less persuasive".[9] Joseph Lowin, reviewing for the Jewish Book Council called Schor "a writer of beautiful English and a thorough researcher and scholar".[25]


  1. ^ Manero, Ana (2022-12-15). "How Esperanto started and developed". Europeana. Retrieved 2023-12-16.
  2. ^ "Esperanto". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 2023-12-16.
  3. ^ Pennaredonda, Jose Luis (2018-01-10). "The invented language that found a second life online". Retrieved 2023-12-16.
  4. ^ Corsetti, Renato; Pinto, Maria Antonietta; Tolomeo, Maria (2008-06-01). "Regularizing the regular: The phenomenon of overregularization in Esperanto-speaking children" (PDF). Language Problems & Language Planning. 28 (3): 265. ISSN 0272-2690.
  5. ^ Salisbury, Josh (December 6, 2017). "'Saluton!': the surprise return of Esperanto". The Guardian. Archived from the original on December 28, 2017. Retrieved May 16, 2018.
  6. ^ Dean, Sam (May 29, 2015). "How an artificial language from 1887 is finding new life online". The Verge. Archived from the original on December 26, 2017. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  7. ^ "Schor, Esther H.".
  8. ^ "Past Winners of the National Jewish Book Award for American Jewish Studies". Jewish Book Council. Retrieved 2020-01-26.
  9. ^ a b "Bridge of Words". Kirkus Reviews. 2016-07-18. Retrieved 2023-12-11.
  10. ^ "Esther Schor | John Benjamins". John Benjamins Publishing Catalog. Retrieved 2023-12-12.
  11. ^ Schor, Esther (2018-07-17), "The Transformative Vision of Esperanto", TED, retrieved 2023-12-12
  12. ^ Saxon, Jamie (2020-04-04). "Hal Foster and Esther Schor receive Behrman Award for the humanities". Princeton University. Retrieved 2023-12-12.
  13. ^ "Book Marks reviews of Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language by Esther Schor". Book Marks. Retrieved 2023-11-18.
  14. ^ a b c Foran, Chris (2016-10-14). "Book review: Charting history, hopes of Esperanto". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved 2023-12-01.
  15. ^ Gobbo, Federico (2017-12-31). "Esther H. Schor. Bridge of words: Esperanto and the dream of a universal language". Language Problems and Language Planning. 41 (3): 321–323. doi:10.1075/lplp.00011.gob. hdl:11245.1/0e4d44f6-37d5-4e14-8269-5ec6daf1afbb. ISSN 0272-2690.
  16. ^ Alcalde, Javier (2017-10-05). "Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, written by Esther Schor". European Journal of Jewish Studies. 11 (2): 210–213. doi:10.1163/1872471X-11121001. ISSN 1025-9996.
  17. ^ a b Peterson, Britt (2016-10-04). "How Esperanto Failed to Change the World and Succeeded in Transforming Its Speakers". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2023-12-01.
  18. ^ a b Upchurch, Michael (2016-12-20). "Esther Schor blends memoir and history in 'Bridge of Words,' the story of Esperanto". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2023-11-18.
  19. ^ Webb, Paul (2016-12-17). "Bridge of Words". Hong Kong Review of Books. Retrieved 2023-11-18.
  20. ^ Wex, Michael (2016-11-11). "The Jewish Roots of Esperanto". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-12-01.
  21. ^ Glinter, Ezra (2016-11-28). "Esperanto: Universal Language, or Yet Another 'Jewish Conspiracy'?". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 2023-04-28. Retrieved 2023-12-01.
  22. ^ Rubin, Martin (2016-11-21). "BOOK REVIEW: 'Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Draam of a Universal Language'". The Washington Times. Retrieved 2023-11-18.
  23. ^ Acocella, Joan (2016-10-24). "A Language to Unite Humankind". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2023-12-01.
  24. ^ Perlin, Ross (2016-10-02). "Nostalgia for World Culture: A New History of Esperanto". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 2023-11-18.
  25. ^ Lowin, Joseph (2016-05-03). "Bridge of Words". Retrieved 2023-12-01.