The Language of Democracy: Vernacular or Esperanto? A Comparison between the Multiculturalist and Cosmopolitan Perspectives

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Abstract

Will Kymlicka has argued that ‘democratic politics is politics in the vernacular’. Does this statement mean that democratic politics is impossible in a multilingual community, whether at the local, national, regional or global level? This paper discusses this assumption and maintains that democratic politics should imply the willingness of all players to make an effort to understand each other. Democratic politics depends on a willingness to overcome the barriers to mutual understanding, including the linguistic ones. Anytime that there is a community of fate, a democrat should search the available methods to allow deliberation according to the two key conditions of political equality and participation. If linguistic diversity is an obstacle to equality and participation, some methods should be found to overcome it, as it is exemplified by the Esperanto metaphor. The paper illustrates the argument with four cases of multilinguistic political communities: (1) a school in California with English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students; (2) the city of Byelostok in the second half of the nineteenth century, where four different linguistic communities (Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish) coexisted. This led Markus Zamenhof to invent Esperanto; (3) the linguistic problems of the Indian state and the role played by English – a language unspoken by the majority of the Indian population in 1947 – in developing Indian democracy; and (4) the case of the European Parliament, with 20 languages and a wealth of interpreters and translators.

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