The AO Language.

Oksana Rosenblum writes about Yevgeniy Fiks’ solo exhibition “Himl un erd: Yiddish Cosmos” at Stanton Street Shul in New York (on view until December 16), which “explores the connections between the twentieth-century experience of Eastern European Jews and the Soviet space program.” Unexpected, eh? But I want to highlight this particular passage:

The revolutionary spirit dictated that the construction of a new society required the creation of a new language, so that inhabitants of all worlds, everywhere, could communicate. Volf Gordin, a prominent anarchist theoretician, accordingly proposed the idea of a universal language, which he called “AO,” in 1920.

It is worth taking a step back to discuss the Gordin brothers, Abba and Volf. Born into the family of a Lithuanian rabbi, they were fluent in both Hebrew and Yiddish. They spent their seemingly boundless energy on organizing the pan-anarchist movement, but their approaches differed. Abba at first attempted to work together with newly inaugurated Soviet power, but, having failed at that, found himself in exile and later escaped to the USA. Volf, on the other hand, remained in the Soviet Union and invented the “AO” language in 1920. The purpose of AO, like the earlier Esperanto, would be to unite the various inhabitants of the Universe, or cosmopolites, under a single linguistic umbrella. A circle of so-called inventists formed around Volf, who later turned to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, an early Soviet rocket scientist, to ask for his support in spreading the word about AO.

In April 1927, the First World Exhibit of Models of Interplanetary Mechanisms and Devices took place at the Association of Inventists in Moscow. The largest display at the Exhibit was dedicated to AO and explained how the language worked; it also contained grammar books and numerous related newspaper articles.

“Those who study and speak AO, are cosmopolites — citizens of the Universe”, read caption to one display.

Yevgeniy Fiks’ Stanton Street Shul exhibit draws deeply on this utopian history. His AO prints are visually bold and conceptually complex, unearthing and bringing to life an all-but-forgotten, substantively failed, yet beautiful attempt to create a universal language capable of overcoming national and state boundaries. AO was meant to be simultaneously as precise as a mathematical formula but inspirational enough to motivate its bearers, the cosmopolites, “to set off on an interplanetary voyage,” as one of the prints poetically states.

There’s an “Alphabet of the Language AO” image which looks impressive and explains that the language “derives its justification and existence from the absence in modern languages of any relationship between words and things-concepts and, even more, between sounds and things-concepts.” So it’s another in the endless series of doomed attempts to eliminate l’arbitraire du signe, but it’s a particularly striking one that doubtless ran straight into the Stalinist meat-grinder within a few years.


  1. Dmitry Pruss says

    Wasn’t AO just a bare-bones simplification of Esperanto? Wolf Gordin didn’t die from a Stalinist bullet. He was deported from the USSR, and, after a stint with the American Trotskyists, became a Protestant preacher in the US

  2. Trond Engen says

    They spent their seemingly boundless energy on organizing the pan-anarchist movement,

    I have nothing to add.

    but their approaches differed.

    But Oksana Rosenblum has.

  3. There was (this is something else completely) a terrific article about Brighton Beach recently in the New York Times. Here, for those who missed it. I loved both the snarky writing by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (one novel & teaches creative writing at Princeton) and the photography (by Alexey Yurenev – he too must have grown up there).

  4. Thanks very much for that! It makes me wildly nostalgic, since I spent so much time at Brighton during my NYC years. I can’t remember which of those restaurant/nightclubs I had my 32nd birthday celebration at in the early ’80s (in fact, I can only remember the evening in flashes) — I was kidnapped by friends at a bar near Grand Central (all those bars with free food to lure tired businessmen/travelers are long gone now), blindfolded, and taken on a subway for what seemed like ages until I was hauled down to street level (it was an el by then) with the smell of salt air at what turned out to be Brighton Beach (come to think of it, that was probably the first time I ever went there). We went to one of those places and had incredible quantities of food and vodka and I got carried around in a chair and afterwards those of us who could still move walked for miles east through the summer night to I don’t know where. Those were the days, my friend!

    It is indeed delightfully written (“with some minor but notable substitutions, such as the Atlantic Ocean for the Black Sea, and the boardwalk for Primorski Boulevard”); I never thought I’d see the phrase “cosmopolitan Moscow,” but such is the post-Soviet world.

  5. I sent the link to one of the friends who kidnapped me, who reminds me we walked to Sheepshead Bay, and by that point he (a large bearded guy) was wearing a dress (borrowed from a female member of the expedition). Я помню чудное мгновенье

  6. Oh yes, and that sign КНИГИ ЧЕРНОЕ МОРЕ in the top photo is “Black Sea Books,” where I spent a fair amount of time (and money) — not the best bookstore in town, but had some books I couldn’t find anywhere else.

  7. The one I remember from the boardwalk in the early 80s was called Odessa. It seems to have gone. Yeah, it was great. I only went there in summer. It seemed extremely exotic to me from London. Too bad I didn’t know you in NY! Thanks for the links esp. the Pushkin.

  8. It is too bad; you could have joined us on that unforgettable expedition! The Pushkin is great; unfortunately, it’s one of those anthology pieces memorized by generations of schoolchildren and hence frequently used in dumb jokes like mine.

  9. If you have a birthday expedition reunion, let me know. I’ll be right over.

  10. Hayyim Rothman says

    Dmitry Pruss writes: “[Wolf Gordin] became a Protestant preacher in the US”. He did move to the USA, but it was not him that became the missionary. It was their other brother Moshe (Morris). Some correspondence between Abba and Moshe is held in one of the archives in Jerusalem.

  11. Thanks for that clarification!


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