Towards a more radical deterritorialisation of language
The case for Esperanto
A reply to Ekaterina Yahyahoui
It is hard to imagine an ‘intensive usage’ of language being accommodated within international law. How would international treaty-making incorporate use of syntax ‘in order to cry, to give a syntax to the cry’? How would the judges of the ICJ treat counsel addressing them in language that is not intended to convey content, but rather to allow ‘a direct and immediate access to emotion’?
As international lawyers, our immediate response to these suggestions is a sense that such use of language is not ‘legal’: it may belong to the sphere of literature, or theatre, but not of law. That, of course, is the point. Law does indeed have ‘strict disciplinary conventions’, not only with respect to use of language, but also with respect to the reasoning and analysis involved in creating, applying and interpreting the law. The legal field (to borrow Bourdieu’s analytical tool) values certainty and rationality in language and thought. The ‘ideal’ legal text will establish the obligations of the various parties in such a way that there is little room for ambiguity or doubt. The ‘good’ judgment will be clear and will follow the precedent of existing law in a logical way. But these are not simply ‘conventions’, which could be altered by a different, more ‘intensive’ use of language. These are fundamental, structural features of the legal field. For this reason, any ‘intensive’ use of language will simply not be heard by the legal field, or will be confined to the margins. Although some areas of international law allow greater scope to take account of emotions and ‘non-legal’ matters (think, for example, of the avenues for victim participation before international criminal courts and tribunals), such use of language is carefully (and legally) circumscribed.
This suggests both the need for ‘revolutionary change’ in language in order to open up new possibilities for international law, and the impossibility of such change occurring through intensive use of language. What, then, of the second possibility for such change suggested by Deleuze and Guattari, namely deterritorialisation of language? The claim here is that ‘deterritorialisation always operates to subvert the existing hierarchies of power’. In the case of international law, I’m not sure that this is entirely true. In fact, as Ekaterina Yahyaoui acknowledges, the dominance of English as the language of international law, and the corresponding use of English by non-native speakers in the international law field perpetuates the ‘power imbalances in favour of native English speakers’. These power imbalances include not only the direct advantages which native speakers have in linguistic exchanges (think of how much more difficult it is to conduct treaty negotiations in a language which is not your own). They also include the indirect advantages of, for example, being more likely to be appointed to key international bodies (the International Law Commission or ICJ, for example, both of which require excellent English), and therefore having more influence over the development of international law.
The problem here is that only some of the players in the international system (non-native English speakers) use language in a deterritorialised way, while a powerful large number (native English speakers) continue to use the language which comes most naturally and easily to them. How, then, do we achieve a more far-reaching, and effective, deterritorialisation of language in the international system? One possible answer is to go back to the past.
In the 1920s, the League of Nations considered adopting the constructed language, Esperanto, as its working language. Esperanto was developed in the late nineteenth century by Ludovik Zamenhof, a Jew living in Poland. From a young age Zamenhof noted the conflicts between the four different ethnic groups in his community (Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews), and attributed this, in part, to the fact that they spoke different languages and so had no common understanding or sense of community. His vision was for Esperanto to be a language of peace, learnt by all in addition to their native tongue, and thus allowing all peoples to communicate with each other.
Esperanto, as a constructed and politically neutral language, represents the ultimate deterritorialisation of language. If Esperanto, rather than English, were the language of international law, then this might, indeed, affect the sort of ‘revolutionary change’ we are looking for. In the first place, it would radically shake up the existing linguistic hierarchies at work in the international system. If Esperanto were the only official and working language of the UN, there would be no advantage to individuals from any particular linguistic background: everyone would be communicating on equal terms, as non-native speakers of Esperanto. Secondly, this arrangement would remove the need for translators and interpreters to assist in the creation, negotiation and application of international law. Translation is currently central to international legal activity. While this is necessary to allow all parties to participate in the international legal process, it means that expression is never direct, but is always mediated through translators. By removing the need for translation, the use of Esperanto would allow individuals to communicate directly with each other, perhaps thereby opening up space for ‘direct and immediate access to emotion, feeling and lived experience of people’.
Moves to make Esperanto the working language of the League of Nations were ultimately blocked by the French, who were concerned about French losing its position as ‘the international language’. Today, perhaps, the situation might be different. French has already surrendered its position as the international language to English. And the non-native English speaking majority of the world’s states might be persuaded to support a shift away from English towards the more neutral language of Esperanto. On the other hand, those who benefit from the existing linguistic hierarchies, both native and non-native speakers, will be reluctant to undermine the language policies which support their power and advantage. If they were to do so, however, the ‘international language’ would at last become truly ‘international’, a change which might well open up greater possibilities for challenging entrenched power and injustice.
Dr. Jacquelin Mowbray is a Senior Lecturer and Co-Director at the Sydney Centre for International Law.
Cite as: Jacqueline Mowbray, “Towards a more radical deterritorialisation of language”, Völkerrechtsblog, 28 November 2016, doi: 10.17176/20180522-203206.