Esperanto: An International Auxiliary Boondoggle

The constructed international auxiliary language (conIAL) invented by Ludwig Zamenhof known as Esperanto is, at least among people like me whose homeland is the internet, well-known enough that it doesn't need much introduction. In most European languages, even the name "Esperanto" has become an informal synonym for such any medium of communication between different language groups.

A while back I translated a few poems from Esperanto. As a result, a few Esperantists have sent me emails asking about my relationship with the language, how I feel about it, etc. This essay attempts to offer that information, regarding the language's ostensible viability and naturalness as a universal language, as well as the circumstances surrounding its genesis. It is, at least theoretically, the first of two. (I may be writing a second part dealing specifically with the phenomenon of Esperanto poetry, and what the language offers as a poetic medium.) It isn't just here for those of my regular readers who happen to be curious, but also to provide some information not easily available online in a usable form, much of it understudied, to the random googler who wants to decide whether to learn this language with all its wonders and blunders. (And believe me, it has plenty of both.) [Note: This essay is a work in progress, as I come up with more ideas, or if people correct me or give convincing evidence against something, I'll modify it accordingly.]

First, I'll say it plainly:
Esperanto is a terrible candidate for a universal language. But it's still worth learning for other reasons

But before I go further, to the Esperantists reading this, I'd like to say this:

Ĉi tiu eseo celas ankaǔ tiujn Esperantistojn (verŝajne kiel vin), kiuj scivolas kion mi aǔ iu kiel mi (aliavorte: "neesperantista esperantlingvano") pensas de la bazlingvo de via malgranda rondo familia, por tiel diri. Sed atentu unue: neniel miskomprenu miajn rimarkojn -pri la Esperanta uzado, la malperfekteco de Esperanto (nur kiel internacia planlingvo!), kaj la malofte konataj veroj de lia kreinto- kiel kritikojn celantajn vian senparan kulturon, sian valoron, aǔ vin mem. Fakte, mi plifrue planis skribi plenan malsaman eseon Esperantlingve por trakti la lingvon el Esperantista vidpunkto aparte, sed mi konstatis finfine ke multe prefereblas ne fari tion, kio eble prezentus Esperantujon kiel sekretan societon.

In the Beginning

Esperanto is among my many pullulating language fascinations. I have known about, used, and been interested in the history of Esperanto and other constructed languages since my early teens. However, a lot of that time it was not out of a belief that it could become a real universal human language, but because language acquisition is for me, as I soon discovered, a recreational activity and a joy in and of itself. On the contrary, it didn't take much time looking at it before realized that Esperanto is, in virtually every way that matters, chock-full of features that, thought not all drawn from European languages per se as people claim, nonetheless clearly favor European learners.

Then came the conversations in Esperanto. It became apparent to me that, though many can craft written sentences in Esperanto, a far smaller number were actually able to communicate with any fluency- whereas the number of people who try to learn the language and then give up is quite high.

Still, I thought for some time that it might make a passable Lingua Franca for Europe, even if such a thing was functionally impossible. Several years and one linguistics degree later, I realized that, of European learners, it favors most especially central and east Europeans. (And for some time I didn't realize just how profoundly the latter was the case.) Moreover, the schematic derivational morphology coupled with the propensity of European speakers to import European borrowings has had the unintended effect of giving the learner an even greater burden than most regional languages would or could. At the same time, it contains features that absolutely no language on earth uses and which speakers themselves seem to find weird enough to avoid in many cases, leading to the features being applied inconsistently and contributing to the lexical burden. On the other hand, it's still definitely worth learning for other reasons.

The only person on the internet with a good knowledge of linguistics who gives Esperanto a thorough structural autopsy is Justin B. Rye whose page can be found here. Indeed, it was through long email-debates with him that I came to some of my conclusions. He makes a number of good points (and a couple which seem suspect to me, which I myself endlessly debated with him in a couple long email threads over the past three years or so.) His basic point is that Esperanto is in nearly every way more central European than anything else. I differ in that I think the features aren't central European themselves, but certainly do favor European learners. (But that's academic at best.) Anyway, I will try not to repeat what Rye has said since I don't like typing for no reason. Moreover Rye's observations -which do have a good deal of merit to them- seem to be based not on Esperanto as it is actually used but as it was designed, or else just taking the rules and just running with them. My concern is more with the practices of the Esperanto community. I'll try and make points that he doesn't, mainly having to do with the language's ostensible learnability as actually spoken, its morphological quirks, how in some ways Esperanto actually violates linguistic universals, as well as the outright false, and sometimes downright bigoted, claims made by its more zealous proponents. I will only address phonology briefly, as Rye has done that well enough for me already. These observations are based not primarily on my scrutiny of a textbook, but on my experience using the language actively (usually via skype, IM, correspondence and sometimes in person) and passively (usually reading, sometimes watching the occasional Esperanto short film.)

Esperanto sounds

Those of you who are native English speakers and don't know Esperanto, look at the word postscio, which in Esperanto means "hindsight". The c is pronounced like English "ts", the i is stressed and sounds like like english "ee" and the o is pronounced as in English. Now, knowing that, go ahead and try to pronounce it out loud: "post-sts-EE-oh".

Now the word scii meaning "to know" (note that the two is are separate syllables.) Try it out: "s-ts-EE-ee"

No, it's not just you. Most of the world's population (unless they're from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or certain parts of North Africa) would have a hard time pronouncing things like this. No surprise, then, that in rapid speech vowels are often inserted to break up consonant clusters, and rearticulated vowels get glides shoved in. Postscio in particular is even used as a tongue-twister!

Now, consider the words for quarantine, linguist and equinox: kvaranteno, lingvisto, ekvinokso. All are easily recognizable, but notice that v there? Yes, it is pronounced like the english V. Odd that you'd have it where most have a u (making a W sound). That's because Esperanto doesn't allow you to have a w sound except as the second element of a diphthong as in (pronounced like the "ow" of "now.") What makes this absurdly un-universal is that, although V is a familiar sound to most Europeans (and although English speakers associate the substitution of V for W with foreign accents), it is cross-linguistically uncommon, being only a quarter as frequent as W. In fact, having a V sound and lacking a W sound (or only allowing a W sound in certain environments) is a very distinctive feature of Central European, Eastern European and Central Asian languages. Now remember where the language's creator hailed from? Odd, huh.

But that's only the beginning of the weirdness of this language. It's actually even weirder than any natural European language. But we'll get to that soon.

Esperanto and Psychology: Claude Piron's Religion

Ĉu vi jam konas l' eliksiron
De famkonata profesoro
Por faciligi la akiron
De nia lingvo -- sen doloro?

-Raymond Schwartz "Esperanto Elixer"
(Do you yet know of the elixer/ of a well-renowned professor/ which renders easy the acquisition/ of our language- without any grief?)

The late Claude Piron, a psychologist and Esperantist, was probably the most diehard proponent of Esperanto as a universal medium and the most condescendingly dismissive of those who didn't think so. So it seems useful to examine the case he makes. He has a bit to say in a section of an essay entitled "Language and Psychology." I'll start with that, and break it up with comments.

To summarize a very complex subject, let me say that using a language is a matter of reflexes. Two sets of reflexes intervene in the use of national or ethnic languages: innate reflexes, and conditioned reflexes. The first ones are the inner ones, the congenital ones; the others come from the outside world, they have been introduced in the natural, spontaneous, first-level functioning by a lengthy process of correction, which is two-pronged: correction by parents, relatives, friends and teachers; self correction by the child who wants to imitate its human environment as perfectly as possible. If you say feet rather than foots, many sheep rather than many sheeps, he came rather than he comed, it is because you have been conditioned to repress the first forms, to which your innate reflexes used to lead you, and to replace them by the standard forms.

Active correction by parents, relatives, friends and teachers has little to do with language acquisition, and there's a mountainous body of linguistic research over the past 40 or so years which has shown that much. Moreover, that selfsame research has shown that it is actually the irregular forms (i.e. "feet, came") that are learned and used first by children, since they are encoded lexically before they are encoded derivationally. So much for the "innate" reflexes bit. Already this guy is starting to sound suspect- not the kind of guy who should be pontificating on cognitive linguistics. Immediately after the above bit, Piron says:

Esperanto relies entirely on innate reflexes. You cannot make a mistake in the plural of a noun or in the tense of a verb, because the possibility to err simply does not exist.

In Esperanto you feel natural and at ease because you feel secure. You know that you can follow your natural reflexes. This is never the case in another language. I once pronounced indict as rhyming with convict. Why? Because I knew the word only through reading and I generalized the pronunciation pattern I had assimilated from derelict, depict, afflict and similar words. This happened to me fort years after I had started learning English, a language I have never ceased to practice ever since. It shows that really mastering English is out of my reach, as is confirmed by the fact that, in spite of so much more practice than the average European, I still cannot publish a text in English without having somebody correct my language. The mistakes I make in English are simply impossible in Esperanto. Since, moreover, the latter is a foreign language for everybody, no one has a feeling of superiority, the relationship is adult-adult from the beginning. The fact that everybody has his own accent does not prevent communication to unfold quite smoothly. And the language is very rich. What determines richness and diversity is not the number of basic elements (a limited number in Esperanto) but the range of possible combinations, as can be ascertained by studying organic chemistry... or Esperanto poetry.

Esperanto is not a foreign language for everybody. There are about a thousand native speakers (called denaskuloj literally "From-birth-ers") around the world. I've even met some of them. And they get pretty pissed when someone, whether to praise Esperanto or to dismiss it but usually the latter, claims that there are no native speakers. It's ironic that Piron would make a factual mistake that is more typical of people who try to denigrate the language which he holds so dear.

Piron's general implication (here anyway) is that somehow people learn Esperanto as if they were children. They don't and he knows it. First they have to unlearn their native speech habits. If your language (like Classical Chinese) does not distinguish between verbs and adjectives, you're lucky in that most Esperanto adjective can be used as verbs- but not all of them are in practice. If, on the other hand, your language uses adverbs and adjectives interchangeably, it's going to take some work to remember which is which. If you don't have accusative case-endings in your native language, you're going to have problems with those of Esperanto. Regarding the last point about the accusative, he even admits as much in the following excerpt from one of his Esperanto essays (my translation follows the Esperanto):

la Esperanto-medio estas tre tolerema pri gramatikaj kaj vortaraj fuŝoj, en mezuro neniam renkontata alilingve. Forgeso de akuzativo aŭ fuŝa uzo de ĝi estas, praktike, rigardata normala, probable ĉar tio preskaŭ neniam ĝenas la interkompreniĝon. Nur kelkaj pedantoj faras el tiaj eraroj dramon, sed ili situas ekster la normala medio Esperantista. (Atentu! Ne miskomprenu ĉi tiun rimarkon pri lingvaj eraroj kiel rekomendon! Mi situas sur tereno pure observa.) Alivorte, ne estas rilato inter perfekta uzo de la lingvo kaj la sento de identiĝo al ĝi. Oni povas senti sin esperantisto eĉ se oni ĉiufoje preterlasas akuzativon.

The Esperanto-speaking environment is very tolerant of grammatical and lexical blunders, to a degree never encountered with another language. Forgetting the accusative, or using it incorrectly is practically seen as normal, probably because it almost never inhibits intelligibility. Only a few pedants make a big deal out of those mistakes, but they are at a remove from the normal Esperanto environment. (Careful! Don't mistake this remark on linguistic errors for a recommendation! I am merely acting as an observer!) In other words, there is no correspondence between the perfect use of the language and the feeling of self-identity with it. One can feel oneself to be an Esperantist even if one leaves out the accusative all the time

Okay. So people do make mistakes. And he's right, of course. In my experience Esperantists do mess up their accusatives. As for the claim that "no one has a feeling of superiority" it is pretty quickly called into question in one of Piron's French essays on the Esperanto accusative, wherein he doesn't stop at just making excuses, but actually descends into outright chauvinism (again, my translation follows the French):

La présence d’un accusatif rend-elle la langue difficile ? Pour certains, sans doute, encore qu’i1 s’agisse probablement davantage d’une mauvaise pédagogie que d’une difficulté intrinsèque. Tout dépend de la manière dont le déconditionnement est opéré par rapport à la langue maternelle chez celui qui apprend l’espéranto. Mais quoi qu’il en soit, l’un des traits distinctifs de la langue de Zamenhof est la rigueur, qui résulte de l’application inconditionnelle du principe "analyse immédiatement perceptible" dont il a été question ci-dessus.

L’espéranto est une langue qui ne supporte pas le laisser-aller et les solutions de facilité. L’exactitude y a toujours le pas sur la facilité. La grammaire en offre de nombreux exemples, tels que les adjectifs possessifs réfléchis, l’impossibilité pour un verbe d’être à la fois transitif et intransitif...

Ces difficultés sont réelles, mais elles diffèrent des difficultés que présentent la plupart des langues nationales en ce qu’elles n’ont rien d’arbitraire. Il n’y a difficulté que dans la mesure où la langue maternelle de l’intéressé est moins nette, puisqu’il n’y a variation du signifiant, en espéranto, que s’il y a variation du signifié. C’est pourquoi ces difficultés jouent en fin de compte un rôle positif. Elles représentent les exercices à faire pour arriver à manier un instrument de précision, très riche en nuances, plus souple que la majeure partie des langues nationales. L’effort fait pour maîtriser chacune des difficultés de l’espéranto est toujours immédiatement rentable du point de vue de la qualité de la communication, ou de l’acquisition de l’art de penser avec rigueur. Il diffère essentiellement des efforts, quantitativement beaucoup plus importants, qu’exige la maîtrise des genres allemands, de l’orthographe anglaise ou de la conjugaison française, qui sont des legs de l’histoire sans aucune contrepartie au niveau du signifié. La rigueur de l’espéranto exige incontestablement une discipline, mais la qualité de la communication est à ce prix. Tous ceux qui s’y sont astreints s’accordent à reconnaître que le jeu en vaut la chandelle.

Does the existence of an accusative case make the language difficult? For some, no doubt, though it is probably more a matter of bad teaching practice than an inherent difficulty. It all depends on the way in which one deprograms the Esperanto learner with respect to his/her native language. But regardless, one of the distinctive traits of Zamenhof's language is the rigor which results from the unconditional application of "immediately perceptible analysis" which has been the issue at hand.

Esperanto is a language which does not abide sloppiness or easy solutions. Exactness always trumps ease. The grammar offers numerous examples thereof, such as reflexive possessive adjectives, the impossibility of a verb to be both transitive and intransitive at once...

These difficulties are real, but they are different from the difficulties posed by the majority of national languages in that there is nothing arbitrary about them. The difficulty only exists inasmuch as the prospective learner's language is less straightforward, since there is no change to the signifier, in Esperanto, without a change to the signified. This is why these difficulties, when all is said and done, play a positive role. They represent the drilling necessary to be able to wield an instrument of precision which is quite rich in nuance, and more pliable than the majority of national languages. The effort made to master every one of the difficulties of esperanto is always immediately of benefit with regard to the quality of communication, or the acquisition of the art of thinking rigorously. It differs in kind from the efforts, quantitatively much more significant, exacted by the internalization of German genders, English orthography or french conjugation, which are the legacy of history without any reflection at the level of the signified. The rigor of esperanto indubitably requires discipline, but that is the price for the quality of communication. All who have put themselves through it are in agreement in their acknowledgment that the pain is worth the gain.

Notice the presumption that, if the learner has trouble, it's the fault of the learner, his/her teacher or his/her native language, and that the accusative will help with "thinking rigorously." Oh please. What's really striking isn't just that such a notion is immediately obvious nonsense to anyone who's taken a single intro linguistics course, nor the odiousness of the attitude of "you must suffer to be worthy،" No, what's striking is just how at odds this kind of fulmination is with the spirit of egalitarianism espoused by the language's creator, who would have probably been grieved, offended and enraged to see his creation used as a way to denigrate certain kinds of languages, condescend to their speakers, and used as a way to imply a kind of superiority. You'd think an Esperantist of all people would be aware of this. This kind of pomposity (which is so characteristic of the older French pedagogical tradition of which Piron is a product) does not do much for his claim, when writing in Esperanto, that Esperanto-speaking environments are oh-so-tolerant of misused accusatives. (Mind you, in practice they actually very often are quite forgiving. But his condescension and pseudolinguistic bullshit is indicative of the kind of absurdity that some Esperantists are indeed driven to when pressed to defend features of their language which are clearly a stumbling block; in this case: saying that it's all for the learner's own good.

By the way, as proof of just how unnecessary the accusative is, note that native Esperanto speakers show a huge propensity to drop the accusative, even if they use certain other quirky features more generally. (c.f. BK Bergen's L1 Nativization in Esperanto)

Derivational Dementia

And what of the rigor Piron so loves? He has this to say about it:

The same neuropsychological law that governs language use at the first level - it was called by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget generalizing assimilation - applies to word formation as well as to grammar. If you analyze the speech of small children, or of foreigners, you will notice that they manifest a very strong natural tendency to generalize any language element they have previously assimilated. For instance, your brain has registered that there seems to be a pattern in the derivation of the names of professions: report -> reporter, farm -> farmer, etc. Your natural reflex will be to generalize that pattern. So you will deduce that the man dealing with fish is a fisher. That is the word that many foreigners will use spontaneously, it may be the word you used as a child. But your human environment has blocked this natural formation and introduced a conditioned reflex so that you say fisherman. Esperanto differs from all other languages in that you can always trust your natural tendency to generalize a pattern. In English, after I have learned tooth and teeth, I am still at a loss if I need to speak of the professional who deals with teeth: dentist is a word I have to learn separately. And why do I have to write translator and not translater, following the general pattern? In Esperanto, once you have learned to form the name of the professional with the suffix -isto, you do not hesitate: there is no conditioned reflex to block your innate reflex, since the right to generalize a structure suffers no exception. Look at the translations of the words I have just used as examples: raporti → raportisto, farmo → farmisto, fiŝo → fiŝisto, dento → dentisto, traduki → tradukisto.

I'll just skip over the I-can't-believe-it's-not-linguistics of Piron's simpleminded understanding about child language acquisition, and say that regularity is a good thing to have in a language designed for ease, so it's no shock that Piron points this feature out. But it's nowhere near as simple as he makes it out to be. One of Piron's peculiarities (useful for my purposes in examining the arguments for Esperanto) is his ability to adopt any position as long as it suits his need at the time. Sometimes, as I've shown, he'll talk about how the difficulty of the Esperanto accusative is good training to think clearly (kind of like in Calvin and Hobbes when Calvin asked why he had to do some difficult task and his dad would just tell him that "it builds character"), and at others, he'll talk about how Esperanto always allows you to trust your instincts. When taking the latter position, as he does here, Piron assumes time and again Esperanto learners are a blank slate, learning the language as if it were their first. If they were, then perhaps the "always trust your instincts" bit might be the case. Unfortunately, Esperanto as actually used by its speakers is nowhere near as regular as Piron claims- because people import elements of their native language and, when the elements are widely intelligible enough, they become generally accepted even though they defy regular derivational patterns. The fact that the majority of Esperanto-speakers are also users (whether native or not) of a European language leaves its mark on Esperanto.

Limiting ourselves to just the -isto form mentioned by Piron, consider the following anomalous derivations for agent-nouns that exist in Esperanto as a result of people using it as a real language and not a theoretical construct:

Gaps caused when the verb is a back-formation of the noun:
aǔtori "to author (a book)"
aǔtoro "an author"
(But no *autoristo. )

Nouns borrowed as new stems competing with the derived forms,
barbo "a beard"
barbiro OR barbisto "a barber"
(c.f. Albanian berber, English barber, Italian barbiere)

Overlap between two different regular derivations
Polico "the police"
Policisto OR Policano "a policeman"
(Both are widely used, in my experience. -ano is another schematic word-building component which means "member, follower, participant" as in kristano "a christian")

Just plain old "whoopsie" moments
turo "a tower"
turisto "a tourist"
(A verb turi meaning "to tour" can be found in one or two grammar textbooks to justify this, but I assure you that you certainly won't find it on any of the legion Esperanto tourism websites, and I haven't had occasion to encounter it. Esperantists- correct me if I'm wrong)

Semantics borrowed from European cognates
Raso "Race, species"
Rasisto "A racist"
(not "ethnographer")

Sekso "sex" (both the biological and conjugal)
Seksisto "A sexist"
(not "sexologist" or "prostitute")

Speaking of sex and prostitute, a really funny one can be seen with words for them. Esperanto has a few verbs in general use meaning "to have sex with". The intransitive one used by Zamenhof, which follows the native snap-together pattern of Esperanto, is sekskuniĝi from "seks-" (sex) +"kun" (with) + "iĝi" (become). But the word sekskuniĝisto doesn't exist (I've never heard/seen it, and google can't find a single instance.) Another word is seksumi, a later coinage. But seksumisto is decidedly rare. A prostitute, being someone who has sex for a living, is amoristo which is derived from amori, another (somewhat more common) word meaning "to have sex with", whose root amor- is a borrowing from southern Romance. And amoro likewise means "sex" (which, though functionally unambiguous, is still unintentionally funny in the context of Esperanto morphology since as am- is the regular root for "love" and oro actually means "gold." Thereby giving a new meaning to the English word "gold-digger.") How this in any way favors one's natural instincts is a mystery to me. But it gets even better: amoristo isn't even the only word for prostitute. In conversation and reading material, you're nearly as likely to find prostituitino, ĉiesulino (lit. "an everyone's woman") and (in speech and smutty poetry) putino (c.f. french putain, Spanish puta). Indeed, words for prostitute in many languages have a propensity to develop a huge amount of synonyms. A prostitute can be a publikulino, a stratulo, a sinvendisto (self-seller) etc.

Here's another lexical clusterfuck stemming from the same problem: poezio "poetry" is a common word but poezii "to compose (a poem)" is somewhat rarer in actual use. Instead, for the latter, people are much more likely to use verki "to compose (any work of literature : prose, poetry)" or versi "to put into verse". Thus the regularly-derived esperanto words people are most likely to use to describe poets are versisto "verse-writer, a versewright", or verkisto "litterateur, a man of letters." However, neither of these is nearly as common as the Romance borrowing poeto. Thus you end up with the following hilariously un-intuitive situation:

Poezio "poetry"
Poeto "poet"

Mind you, things like this have not gone unnoticed by Esperantists. The internet is chock-full of threads like this one with Esperantists frowning on the use of poeto instead of the extremely rare poeziisto. But guess which word is used in Esperanto poetry anthologies (including William Auld's Esperanta Antologio), literary essays and actual conversation? Yup: poeto. The whole affair reminds me of Arabic-speakers being pedantic assholes to other Arabic-speakers for calling a computer a "كومپيوتور" kumpyutur rather than a حَاسُوب ħāsūb (roughly "counting-object".) In fact, as a final bit of unintentional humor and a sign that Esperanto isn't going to let anyone control it, consider that none other than Claude Piron himself, in an essay entitled " A literateur's view of Esperanto" (Esperanto el la vidpunkto de verkisto) penned the sentence

"Por poeto, sed ankaŭ por prozulo, la vortmuziko ege gravas." (For a poet, but also for a prose-writer, verbal music is of paramount importance.)

That's what I really love about Piron: you can always count on him to be his own counter-example. Ah, language development! Embarrassment to language-nutjobs everywhere.

One finds similar issues with other derivational word-builders. Take -ero meaning "the smallest discreet part of something" and which can be used on its own as ero "an element" (which can also cause real ambiguity with ero, a frequently-encountered contraction of erao "era"). At first, this looks pretty good: pluvero "raindrop" from pluvo "rain", sablero "a grain of sand" from sablo "sand", fajrero "a spark" from fajro "fire." You get the idea. Easy enough to use. But then, you still have to learn guto de pluvo "a drop of rain", grajno de sablo "a grain of sand", sparko "a spark". Even though such terms were originally used mainly in poetry by Zamenhof and the generation after him, they seem to have a foothold in the spoken language for many, so the vocabulary burden isn't lessened all that much. Plus, if one knows that teksto is "a text," just how obvious is it that tekstero means "excerpt"? And if libro is "book" then why is "page" not librero but paĝo? You then get into even more trouble when the snap-together lexemes begin to push into international scientific vocabulary, which causes all kinds of problems. For example, "morpheme", the linguistic technical term for the smallest indivisible meaning-generating segment of a word, ends up being vortero from vorto "word". And this word is indeed in active use, in Esperanto Wikipedia, Esperanto books discussing morphology and elsewhere. Not only is the obfuscation of international technical vocabulary a pretty stupid thing to do on general principle, and especially so for an international language, but the language's speakers seem not to accept it entirely, which is why vortero, in all contexts in which it is used, is losing a competition with its synonym morfemo, just as vorterosigno "logogram" is jockeying with logogramo. One can see a similar pattern with other somewhat technical terms, such as belskribo "calligraphy" which is losing out to kaligrafio, and even non-technical words have similar processes happening: like estonteco "future" (from est- "to be" + -ont- "in the future" + -eco "general character") which is on occasion now replaced by futuro, a word which referred originally only to the grammatical tense and not to the actual temporal phenomenon, except in poetry. All it does, in the end, is make the lexicon even more bloated with synonyms. Oh, and if you know the word pasi means "to pass," and come across pasero, you may spend a while wondering what could be "the smallest unit of something that passes" before someone tells you that it has no esperanto etymology and is in fact a borrowing meaning "sparrow" (c.f. Latin passer.)

The "mal-" prefix

In the introduction to his "Elementary Esperanto Primer", Daniel M. Alboro states
Because the rules of word-formation are regular in Esperanto, many words which require separate roots in ethnic languages can be expressed by adding affixes to one root in Esperanto, e.g. “patro” (“father”) vs. “patrino” (“mother”) and “bona” (“good”) vs. malbona” (“bad”). Thus, one needs to learn about half as many roots in Esperanto as one would to achieve an equivalent level of fluency in an ethnic language.

The mal- prefix, in fact, is probably one of the most severely crippling aspects of the language in terms of naturalness. The prefix, used as a meaning reverser, typically results things like the word for "cheap" malmultekosta (from multekosta "expensive) etc. So far so good. And most languages do have something like it (english "un-" and latin "in-" for example.) But in Esperanto, lot of the mal- words translate semantic primes, concepts which never, in any natural language's morphology, derive from another. Very few languages other than Esperanto derives a basic word for bad as "ungood" (malbona), small as "unbig" (malgranda) or slow as "unfast" (malrapida). One partial example would be many dialects of spoken Arabic, which -rather than say "bad"- has formulations that break down as "not good" (e.g. In Damascene Arabic mnīħ is "good" and to say "This is a bad person" you'd say hada šəkhəš mū mnīħ "this is a not good person.") Moreover, no natural language at all actually works this way with the entire core lexicon. Arabic words for "fast" and "slow", for example, don't work this way. At best, natural languages only do it with a subset of the vocabulary. And most don't actually reverse the meaning consistently like this one does, so much as simply negate it: often resulting in some semantic distinction (compare difference between "sad" and "unhappy" or "hated" and "unloved" in English.) Even in slavic languages, whose malo- prefix does sometimes operate this way and was the inspiration for the Esperanto morpheme, this doesn't happen to basic semantic primes! Mind you, for the distinctions between "unhappy" and "sad" in the modern language (or at least with the speakers I've encountered) you do have the option to use nefeliĉa or negaja versus malgaja or malfeliĉa. But this only makes the language even less like any natural one by using two different negators to specify different semantic ranges! I mean, that's the kind of thing I'd do if I were designing an alien language for a Sci-Fi movie!

The reason seems to be that is that it is somewhat out of touch with the way humans tend to categorize things. Our minds are too prone to operate in terms of black/white, this/that, us/them yin/yang etc. That "black and white thinking" is seen as a common and often immedicable failing, illustrates just how binary we can be. It isn't intuitive for most people to speak of one constituent of every single binary as being derived from the other (i.e. white and unwhite) even if they do sometimes think that way when it comes to social categories. Moreover, because no language operates like this to this extent, many of the less quotidian mal- words seem to have a tendency to be avoided by speakers who instead tend to import substitutes for them en masse from various European languages. Especially in the more abstract range of the lexicon, where some of the more unweildy mal- words are avoided the most, this trick don't really cut down on the size of the vocabulary because at that level most things don't really come in true pairs of opposites anyway!

For example, you'd expect the opposite of libera "free" and libereco "liberty" to be mallibera and mallibereco which indeed they are (and moreover malliberejo means a holding cell, a prison or a jail). So far, so good. But words like premateco "oppression", sklaveco "bondage", premado "oppression" or subjugigi "to subjugate" or despoteco "tyrrany" are also very much in use and must be learned in addition to the mal- words and are quite likely to be used instead of them. Moreover, the fact that, since Esperanto's inception, people have tended quite often to resort to borrowings to replace these words has lead to a situation where malliberejo isn't the only word for jail, prison or holding cell. For example, while on Esperanto Wikipedia the headword for the article on prisons is Malliberejo, the article on San Quentin State Prison is Ŝtata Prizono de San Quentin. And for the meaning of "jail cell" there's also the widely-used word karcero. Moreover in spoken Esperanto, even the word malmultekosta "cheap" which I mentioned before competes with the synonym ĉipa, borrowed from English. So it all just makes more work for the learner by often doubling the lexical burden, as evidenced by this tweet responding to an Esperanto tweet by saying "what is ĉipa?" If there's one thing an easy language doesn't need, it's to be full of metastasizing unnecessary synonyms.

As an illustration of just how poorly the mal- shortcut fits into language use some times, and the kind of problems and vocabulary burdens it can give you, consider the case of poetry. It seems that, at a somewhat early date, poets who wrote in Esperanto took issue with the ubiquity of "mal-" words for some reason, and coined new words (usually from latin) to replace them, thereby making literary esperanto less accessible to someone who just follows the ideal clockwork mechanism people imagine Esperanto to be. Indeed, the Esperantist Kristian Langgard advised poets to do this, saying that they should "Above all learn the words that should replace the mal- words which, in addition [to making rhymes harder] are too long and without poetic effect" (Precipe lernu la vortojn, kiuj devas anstataŭi la mal-vortojn, kiuj cetere estas tro longaj kaj sen poezia efekto.) Such replacement words, off the top of my head, are trista "sad" for malfeliĉa and malgaja, lanta "slow" for malrapida and obskuro "dark" for mallumo. Note that not all of these are just used to conserve syllabic space in meter (obskuro is just as long as mallumo), and many ended up used in titles of poems as well (as in Marjorie Boulton's sonnet sequence Trista Tenereco "Sad Tenderness".) Esperanto poets, in other words, for some reason, found some of the mal- words so intractable that they were willing to make their own language more difficult just to avoid them some of the time! It's no surprise that some of these substitutes, therefore, (such as trista) have become part of the actual spoken and written language.

What it all means

It's probably apparent by now that derivational clunkiness isn't restricted to mal- or -isto or -ero, but is in fact a general clumsiness in the schematic word-structure Zamenhof created. The irregularities that have begun cropping up in the derivational system may, to some, sound like a reason why Esperantists just shouldn't add words to the language, should just use the language's native derivational scheme, or why the language needs to be regulated. In fact, it is none of these. Languages, when they have enough speakers, simply cannot be controlled or governed. Humans do not analyze or speak languages schematically and, in speech as in all things, tend to do what is easiest and still gets the job done: that it may introduce deviations from exact patterns is of no consequence, because human beings are not exact creatures and our internal senses of what is grammatical or not work not just by rules, but also by habit- an aspect of human cognition that Piron fails to take into account. We can understand words like understand, and recreational without even noticing that their constituent parts suggest "to stand beneath" and "re-fashioning". In fact, if you're like most native speakers, you probably didn't even realize that the oddity was there until I pointed it out. Esperanto, whether learned in adulthood or spoken natively, is no different. In a language like Esperanto, being able to dissect the constituents of a word to triangulate it's meaning is, at best, only a way to deal with an occasional new vocabulary item. It is not a skill that allows for rapid comprehension.

Even though there are polysynthetic languages and heavily agglutinating languages where people do parse words at this level, this tendency isn't fostered or facilitated in Esperanto precisely because its tendency to separate lexemes into words (and the way in which its speakers therefore intuit word-boundaries) has little in common with such languages. E.g. William Auld's Esperanta Antologio is not Esperantantologio, and his line kredis pri la homa digno "they believed in human dignity" could not be phrased as homdignokredis, save perhaps in highly experimental poetry, without sounding unnatural to Esperantists. Thus the morphological wordbuilders, despite being usable (and used) as separate lexical items on their own, tend to be analyzed in derivations as bound morphemes- distinct from their lexemic counterparts. In fact, one could make a good case that, say, ero as a lexical item meaning "piece or element" is in fact not the -ero suffix of words like neĝero "snowflake" but behaves merely as a back-formation, and is of no cognitive help in parsing words formed with the suffix- no more so than a knowledge of the English back-formation "an ism" would be of intuitive use to a child learning a word like "Creationism."

For this reason the fact that, for example, policisto and policano would technically, according to Zamenhof's rules, mean "a policeman in his capacity as an enforcer of law" and "a policeman in his capacity as a member of the police department", respectively, is of little consequence and at best an afterthought. People tend not to observe lexical distinctions they don't need (why else do only astronomers and pedants really care about the difference in English between "meteor" and "meteorite"?).

This phenomenon is also why, in natural languages, words formed off of regular derivational patterns very often end up taking irregular semantic properties. For example, in Arabic, نَامَ nāma "to sleep" when made into the regular causative نَوَّمَ nawwama doesn't mean "to put to sleep" but rather "to hypnotize," and the word طَعْمٌ ṭaʕmun "food" when turned into the causative verbal noun ٌتَطْعِيْم taṭʕīmun means not "the act of feeding" but rather "injection" (and to make matters more confusing طَعْمٌ ṭaʕmun can be derived into a whole other causative ٌاِطْعَام iṭʕāmun which does in fact mean "feeding") The same sort of thing happens in Esperanto too. Take the word aperi "to appear." Now, with the causative -igi you'd expect aperigi to mean "to bring into being, to bring forth." And it does indeed. However, it is now used more and more with the more specific meaning of "to publish" (despite the protestations from the prescriptivists that people should really be using publikigi for that.) Take the following sentence which I have excerpted from an article "Monato", an Esperanto periodical:
En marto de 2002 la usona registaro aperigis la jaran raporton pri homaj rajtoj

"In march of 2002, the American government published its annual report on human rights"

Likewise, the mal- word formed off of it malaperigi has now come to mean something like "eradicate, obliterate". Derivational regularity, even when adhered to, does not stop semantic irregularity from occurring precisely because experienced speakers tend to take the word as a whole.

The Esperanto Verb: False Advertising

One of the things that Esperantists like to say to praise their language is that it has a simple system of verb conjugation which is easily learnable. As I plan to show, however, it is anything but.

Usually one is told that there are four "tenses" in esperanto: Present, past, future and conditional, plus an imperative, and that they do not vary for person or number. Like so:

Mi amas "I love"
Mi amis "I loved"
Mi amos "I will love"
Mi amus "I would love"
Amu! "Love!"

And you can plug in any pronoun for "mi" and the verb won't change (e.g. vi amas "you love" etc.) Not too bad. Unfortunately, however, it doesn't end there. The language actually as has a whole range of other tenses: progressive, perfective, prospective and more- most with two forms: a compound one and a synthetic one. And each has a passive and an active version. Here are just a few:

mi amantas OR mi estas amanta "I am loving"
mi amatas OR mi estas amata "I am being loved"
mi amantus OR mi estus amanta "I would be loving"
mi amatus OR mi estus amata "I would be loved"
mi amintas OR mi estas aminta "I have loved"
mi amitas OR mi estas amita "I have been loved"
mi amitus OR mi estus amita "I would have been loved"
mi amontas OR mi estas amonta "I am about to love, I will love"
mi amotas OR mi estas amota "I am going to be loved"
mi amintis OR mi estis aminta "I had loved"
mi amitis OR mi estis amita "I had been loved"
mi amontis OR mi estis amonta "I was about to love"
mi amotis OR mi estis amota "I was going to be loved"

To this one can also add aspectual forms such as the inchoative/inceptive mi ekamis "I started to love, I fell in love" and the imperfective mi amadas "I keep on loving" (i.e. don't stop).

Mind you, not all of these forms are used frequently, or all by the same speakers or the same contexts. (The future compound forms, for example, are decidedly literary.) And not all of them are Zamenhof's design either (the use of a participle as a verbal stem as in amantas, for example wasn't his idea but a development of the language through a hundred years of usage, but that just goes further to show that a language cannot be planned and still stick to the plan.) And one can, if one wishes, stick to the basic 4 tenses. And many do, much of the time. But they do get used, especially with participle adjectives. This, in turn, gives speakers the habit of using compound tenses with participles and, therefore, allows the formation of a whole range of them including the ones listed above.

Here two samples of actual use, taken from the literary prose of William Auld:

Compound conditionals where a simple conditional would have sufficed:
Mi varme dankas lin pro tio instigo, sen kiu mi tutcerte ne estus entrepreninta la laboron

"I warmly thank him for that encouragement, without which I most certainly would not have undertaken the task"

Nominalized future participles where most languages (even modern European ones) would use paraphrastics:
Antaŭ ol literatura verko povas aperi en traduko, tradukonton, ekzemple, oni devas trovi.

"Before a work of literature can appear in translation, one must, for example, find someone to do the translating"

But wait. There's more. Esperanto is also developing something called a mediopassive voice. If you know Greek (where this feature is usually referred to as the "middle voice") or are a non-native speaker of Spanish (where this feature is marked reflexively e.g. by the se in mi padre se enojó) then you've suffered through it and know how unintuitive its internalization can be. Mediopassive or middle voice is marked with -iĝi which began simply as an intransitivizer meaning "to become characterized by", and has begun taking on several functions of the passive voice and reflexive pronouns. Here's an example from Esperanto Wikipedia:

Hera, la suspektema edzino de la olimpestro, alivestiĝis kiel la servistino de Semela
"Hera, the susupicious wife of the Lord of Olympus, disguised herself as Semele's servant girl.

This would be usually be phrased as sin alivestis, reflexively as in English- and there's no way to be certain which form will win out. But -iĝi has started to encroach on true passives as well, and is now in free variation with them in verb phrases with unspecified agents. E.g. "He was seen leaving my house" can be phrased either mediopassively as Li vidiĝis eliranta mian domon, or passively as li estis vidata eliranta mian domon. In fact, the only time where it seems like would be truly odd not to use the classical passive is (a) in adjectival or nominalized forms such as nigre vestita viro "a man dressed in black" (though there's nothing grammatical preventing such things as nigre vestiĝinta) or (b) with specified agents (i.e. the doer and the done are both mentioned) as in li estas vidita per multaj eliranta mian domon "he has been seen leaving my house by many people".

Now, as a compound whammy, here's an example (again from William Auld) which uses compound tenses, middle voice in -iĝi and future-marked adjectives:

Oni ricevas la impreson, ke malgraŭ spackostumoj kaj asteroidoj la homa vivo estas malmulte ŝanĝiĝinta, kaj certe ne pliboniĝinta aŭ pliprofund­iĝinta, dum la venontaj plurmil jaroj

"One gets the impression that, space suits and asteroids notwithstanding, human life has changed little, and certainly has not improved or deepened, over the course of the thousands of years to come"

But wait. There's more. Esperanto, believe it or not, has a subjunctive (yes, the bane of every English speaker who's had to learn Spanish or French) or, more precisely, something similar which linguists actually call a jussive. The imperative amu! form is also used to convey wishes as in:

Kresku tiu ĝardeno "May this garden grow, I hope this garden grows"
Ni iru "Lets go"

It also fulfills the role of the subjunctive as used in the Slavic and Romance languages:

mi volas, ke li venu "I want him to come"

That this is far from instinctive or easily internalized for many speakers can be evidenced by this thread post on lernu.net where a guy, after studying Esperanto for a while, is still confused about how to use such forms and is asking for help with them. Mind you, I'm not saying that a conIAL should be effortless, but I'd at least expect it not to require learners to go searching for help in understanding its features.

In summary, the verbal system of Esperanto's actual fluent users is only marginally less complicated than that of, say, classical Greek! Even acquiring a passive understanding of certain forms will be anything but instinctive for speakers of many languages. For example, for English speakers, whose language does not have future participles, things like my example tradukonto "one who will do the translating" above will especially take some getting used to. The fact that they are all completely regular does little to alleviate the learner's cognitive task of parsing such forms. And they're a stumbling block for non-Europeans too. Even leaving aside the -iĝi issue and the jussive, among those languages that -like European ones- have valency-categories expressed by participles, not all have participles with three inherent tenses encoded into them in both passive and active forms. For example, Arabic and Hebrew (like English) don't. But because Latin, Greek and Lithuanian all have something close to that, I guess Zamenhof figured it must be some kind of syntactic near-universal. Whatever.

(By the way, a large number of the world's languages don't even have obligatory verbal tense at all- e.g. Sino-Tibetan languages like Mandarin which lack grammatical tense but use pure grammatical aspect to encode the same temporal information in different terms.)

The Strange Cases of Vowels

Another feature much vaunted by Esperanto's proponents is its root-class system. Nouns end in -o (as in vero "truth"), verbs in -i (as in veri "to be true"), adjectives in -a (as in vera "true"), and adverbs in -e (as in vere "truly, really"). As my ver- examples suggest, Esperanto is designed so that you can switch the vowels around to create new words, thereby minimizing the number of stems you have to learn and saving some dictionary space.

To a degree this worked, though it leaves a whole lot of ambiguity, and ultimately failed to be applied neatly (as Justin B Rye nicely points out here) and it does wonders for poetry in allowing language to be manipulated with ease.

However, in practice, for semantic reasons not all stems alternate so easily. suno "sun" may intuitively be derived into suna "sunny, solar", but if libro is "book" then is libra "booklike"? Nonetheless, that any noun can be theoretically turned into an adjective or an adverb has given speakers license to use such concoctions in ways that adjectives or adverbs typically aren't, since lexical classes don't normally overlap this way. If it happens, you'd expect speakers reanalyze the nature of the classes themselves, and that is what is happening in Esperanto.

Because -a can be tacked onto virtually any stem, it encourages the treatment of words ending in -a not just as members of a particular word-class, but also as members of a more general morphosyntactic one. In Esperanto, it has taken on a general subordinating function, somewhat like the English promiscuous genitive 's in Paul's Book, though not quite. (Yes, it really has been called a promiscuous genitive.)

In Esperanto as used today, you not only have bona fide adjectival uses like la ruĝa tablo "the red table" but also things like la tabla ruĝo "the table's redness" where the -a of tabla isn't strictly adjectival (i.e. "table-like") but rather a subordinator. It becomes even more obvious in when you have speakers attaching it not only to Esperanto roots but even to foreign names, as in the following which I have excerpted from a UEA book review:

Inter tiuj estas la Auld-a "Paŝoj" al plena posedo kaj la Boulton-a "Faktoj kaj Fantazioj"

"Among those are Auld's "Paces" and Boulton's "Facts and Fantasies"

These two functions can sometimes conflict as kvarona jarcento and jarcenta kvarono can both be used to mean "a quarter of a century." Moreover, and even more bizarrely, of these two phrases, it is the former that occurs much more often, as a google-search will confirm.

Functionally, therefore, it would seem that in modern Esperanto (at least at the literary level, less so in common speech) the -a/-o alternation does not just mark a nice easy word-class between nouns and adjectives as advertised, but rather any relationship between the modifier and modified in a noun-phrase- adjective + noun, noun+ noun-adjunct, possessor+possessed etc. The type of relationship depends on context and the precise root. That La Auld-a "Paŝoj" would be preferred to the La Paŝoj de Auld suggests that (a) this language seems to be developing in ways not imaginable by its planner (or most textbooks) and (b) the direction of development isn't necessarily one that will make the language easy to learn- for Europeans or anyone.

But it doesn't end there. The -e, ostensibly marking things as adverbs (as in aparte "seperately"), has taken on a mind of its own as well. The following is taken from a 1942 translation of Hans Christen Andersen's The Wicked Prince:
Li invadis ilin fajre kaj glave.

"He invaded them with fire and sword"

The following from a blog entry published in December of 2010:
La iPad interfaco tre facilas uzi, kaj mi amas la manieron per kiu ekrana teksto glitas kiam mi puŝas ĝin fingre.

"The iPad interface is very easy to use, and I like the way the screen glides when I push it with my finger"

The following phrase from Claude Piron
en mezuro neniam renkontata alilingve

"to a degree never encountered in another language"

And the following which you can hear a lot:

Ĉu li estas hejme
"is he at home?"

These show a tendency to use the adverbial -e with nouns as a general way to specify manner or place. Because of its universal applicability it's not just marking adverbs (which, in languages that have them, are normally a distinct subset of the lexicon), but marking nouns as belonging to a more general adverbial phrase, one which may in fact be composed purely of nominal forms. It's behaving, essentially, like an ablative case-ending that doesn't inflect for number.

In fact, in its ability to also do double duty as an adverbializer when applied to adjectives, it bears an eerie resemblance to the indefinite accusative of Classical Arabic, where the -an of, say, قَلَماً qalaman "a pen" can either mean that the pen is the object of the sentence (e.g. رَأَيْتُ قَلَماً عَلَى ٱلطَاوِلةِ ra'aytu qalaman ʕalā ṭ-ṭāwilati "I saw a pen on the table") or that it is part of an adverbial phrase (e.g. يَكْتُبُ ٱلْكِتَابَ قَلَماً yaktubu l-kitāba qalaman "he writes the book with a pen"). It even gets used in ways that violate any analysis of the word as a pure adverb as in the following, taken from a message board:

Mia opinie ankaŭ tiu sekto estas superflua.
"In my opinion that sect as well is superfluous"

Here, a possessive pronoun mia is modifying opinie which *requires* analysis as a noun- and yet it is being here used with an -e, suggesting that -e is being intuited not as a marker of a word-class, but as a modifier of nouns. (The "correct" way to express this would be laŭ mia opinio). In fact expressions like mia/via/ŝia opinie have become so prevalent in Esperanto-speaking circles that Esperantists, instead of just scolding people who use them, have needed to find a way to re-analyze the usage to make it fit with the classical definition of "adverb" and Zamenhof's proscriptions. What they've done, in such cases, is delete the word boundary in the orthography, so that miaopinie is reanalyzed as a weird adverb, and they can rest easy believing their root-class vowels to be pure, claiming things like miaopinie to just be a sign of how "rich" the language is (eyeroll.) But miaopinie isn't just a set phrase. In fact, there is a general tendency to use such nouns with adjectives, and then delete the wordboundary so it looks like just one adverb. Such examples, taken from the internet, include

mi jam legis tion mialingve
"I've already read that in my (mia) language (lingve)"

Instrui la anglan fremdalande
"Teaching english in a foreign (fremda) country (lande)"

What is especially suggestive is the general tendency not to drop the -a from the adjective (as can be seen in these two examples), suggesting a subordinate relationship between modifier and modified as if these were two words. The word-boundary, in other words, is just something they're orthographically pretending isn't there.

And what about the verbal -i (and its morphs -as, -is etc.)? Well, it because it too can be attached to any stem, it too quickly took on odd behaviors (for a verbal ending.) Especially when attached to stems that are more semantically adjectival (such as ebla "possible" or falsa "false") it functions as a kind of copula (a copula is an equating device, like the verb "to be" in English.) Thus you have things like falsi "to be false" or ebli "to be possible" (as in the Esperanto song Tio ne eblas "That cannot be"). However, it introduces a further irregularity in that the copular use is not generalizable to the entire language without clashing with the "original" verbal planned use. Thus bezona "needed, necessary" corresponds to bezoni which does not mean "to be necessary" but rather "to need." The rule that -i can apply to any root only forces the speaker to construe it in such a way as to make it usable with as many roots as possible, not to make all such uses consistent with one another.

So, if one were to characterize -i, its would seem to mark a stem as a predicative. However, the way in which its predicative nature interacts with the rest of the sentence is semantically and lexically determined. Just because you know that, for example, rapida means "fast", you have no way of knowing that rapidi usually means not "to be fast" but actually "to hurry (to do something.)" And once you know that, you still have no reasonable way of predicting its verbal use or meaning in a sentence like mia horloĝo tro rapidas "My clock is too fast" (i.e. is ahead of where it should be.) In other words: it's irregular, and you have to learn what -i does to different stems in different environments through actual usage- especially for the bare stem. There are patterns for how it works with some derivational morphemes like -igi, -iĝi, -adi, but even these have their own irregular quirks sometimes. For example, nasko means "birth" and so you'd expect naskigi to mean "to give birth to (a child)". But in fact "give birth to" would be naski with the bare root. Naskigi has a slightly different meaning of "to father (a child)." (i.e. the difference between "bear" and "beget" in literary English.)

So it would seem that -a/-e/-o/-i mark not the parts of speech Europeans are used to, or even any lexical class (since they are not restricted to different lexical sets, even though Zamenhof tried to change that rather half-assedly). Rather, they mark syntactic class more generally. I.e. -e means not "this is an adverb" but "this is part of an adverbial phrase", -a means roughly "this is part of a noun-phrase", and -i means basically "predicate starts here." What lexical categories there are need to be learned the hard way- for the roots themselves belong to different lexical classes, and one needs to learn which one belongs to which in order to know how a given word interacts with its class-vowels. There are other languages that do work this way, but they aren't particularly common- and especially not ones that are further hamstrung by pedants trying to make things behave, or pretend they behave, the way a Polish eyedoctor in the 19th century said they should.

I am not the first person to notice this. In fact, the better grammars of Esperanto written in Esperanto themselves tend not to classify such words as nouns, adjectives or adverbs but as something else. Wennergren, for example, just calls them o-vortoj "o-words", a-vortoj "a-words" and e-vortoj "e-words." But things like, to take one example from above, mia opinie (and the subsequent deletion of its word-boundary in the orthography) suggest that the situation has even more to it than that.

Though all languages evolve, and any international language would, too, this syntactic weirdness of the class-vowels falls squarely on Zamenhof's shoulders- no system could remain stable as he designed it, and it's small wonder that the language ended up developing massive oddities like this just in order to remain usable.

The Inane -Ino

One last suffix I'll bring up, because it leads nicely to my next point, is -ino a suffix which marks nouns as biologically feminine (i.e. amoristo "male prostitute" vs. amoristino "callgirl.") It doesn't take much pondering to realize that this is patent sexism. Admittedly, there is a fair amount of research demonstrating that when natural languages do this, it doesn't really have much effect on the way speakers perceive gender relationships. Nonetheless, it's still pretty grating- especially because some of the words that don't take the -ino suffix and are assumed to be intrinsically feminine do suggest sexism on the part of whoever coined them, such as the vulgar fikisto "whore" (literally "one who fucks") from fiki "to fuck" which is almost always used to refer to a woman, with fikistino hardly ever used.

Moreover, as with mal- words, Esperanto takes this to a ridiculous extreme by obliterating common semantic primes. Just consider viro "man" vs. virino "woman" (i.e. "maness"), or patro "father" vs. patrino "mother" (i.e. "fatheress.")  If this is what Piron imagines to be a reflection of how humans naturally think, one of us must be in the wrong fucking species! Sure, some language do do things like this (Hebrew for example has ish "man" vs isha "woman") but it's far from being a common pattern. And it's still sexist.

Bertilo Wennegren, in his "Comprehensive Handbook of Esperanto Grammar" (Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko) has this to say on the ino issue:

La signifo de radiko ne estas ŝtone fiksita. La lingvo povas evolui, kaj ankaŭ fakte evoluas kaj ŝanĝiĝas. Multaj vortoj, kiuj antaŭe estis uzataj preskaŭ ĉiam kun vira signifo, estas nun pli kaj pli uzataj kun neŭtra signifo. Precipe ĉe profesioj la evoluo de la modernaj socioj ĉiam pli kreas bezonon de vortoj neŭtraj. Sed estas evidente, ke tiu evoluo ne povas trafi ĉiujn vortojn. Firme viraj vortoj kiel patro, viro, knabo, sinjoro, reĝo k.a., neniam ŝanĝos sian signifon. Ili estas kaj restos viraj. Same ŝajnas, ke neniuj inaj vortoj iam ŝanĝiĝos....oni memoru, ke la uzado de ina sufikso estas nur gramatika afero. Zamenhof vivis en socio, kiun regis viroj, kaj tio postlasis spurojn en lia lingvo, sed la lingvo ne kreas la diskriminacion, nur spegulas ĝin. Iuj Esperantistoj ne volas vidi la lingvon trankvile evolui rilate al sekso, sed volas ĝin draste reformi. Oni proponadas diversajn novajn afiksojn kaj pronomojn por fari la lingvon “perfekta”. Tiuj reformoj efektive kaŭzus pli da problemoj ol ili solvus. Feliĉe en la praktiko ĉiuj tiuj klopodoj montriĝas vanaj malŝparoj de energio.

A suffix's meaning is not set in stone. The language can evolve, and does indeed evolve and change. Many words which once were used almost always to denote males, are now more and more used with a neutral meaning. Especially as concerns professions, the evolution of modern societies continues to create a need for neutral words. But obviously that evolution cannot affect all words. Words which are solidly masculine such as patro, viro, knabo, sinjoro, reĝo (father, man, son, master, king) etc. will never change their meaning. They are and will remain masculine. It likewise seems that none of the feminine words will change either......let it be remembered that the use of the feminizing suffix is a merely grammatical affair. Zamenhof lived in a society dominated by men, and this has left traces in the language, but language does not create discrimination so much as reflect it. Some Esperantists do not want to see the language calmly evolve in its relation to gender, but wish to drastically reform it. They propose various new affixes and pronouns to make the language "perfect." Those reforms would, in effect, cause more problems than they would solve. In practice fortunately, all of these attempts have proven to be futile expenditures of effort.


A Language Unique As Any Other

Opinions like Wennegren's preponderate in Esperantist circles, and it's not surprising. After all, most people don't like the idea of having to change the way they speak their language- and why should they? Nobody likes someone telling them how to talk.What it shows, both intentionally and unintentionally, is that Esperanto, with all its typological quirks, lexical chaos and strangeness, is like any other language on earth: its origin, features, and behavior are limited and determined by time and space. In its phonology, morphology and syntax, it bears the stamp of its origin as a 19th century conIAL: extreme freedom in what is grammatically acceptable, a clockwork morphological system, inherent sexism and a mal- prefix which doesn't seem to do any good a lot of the time. But as a living language, it has speakers changing it (usually unconsciously) through constant usage. This usage, like any usage, is not schematic or systematic. Morphological anomalies (such as agent-nouns without -isto) crop up, a plethora of synonyms are introduced alongside the regular derivations, syntactic norms become a bit more fixed, and even the evolution of new conjugational patterns (like amantas for estas amanta) becomes possible- these signs of usage are a testament to Esperanto's success as a language people want to be using. Even features that are unheard of in other languages, such as the typological oddity of the mal- words, isn't stopping people from being perfectly at home with common words like bona and malbona, and competitors such as as liva "left" for maldekstra haven't gotten much traction in common speech- precisely because, like any language, core vocabulary doesn't change quickly for any reason: it is mainly the more abstract mal- words (where the problems are not just typological but also functional) which seem to be losing ground in favor of near-synonyms (such as mallibereco). And mal- even finds new uses, such as in youth-slang where trinki "to drink" yields the hip formation maltrinki "to take a piss." As Esperanto continues to live, it is showing itself more and more to be a regular human language, with unique features stemming from its artificial heritage. Despite being not as simple, regular or innately accessible as advertised, it is nonetheless a easier to gain at least a working knowledge of than many other languages (though certainly not all.) To learn it and take part in its culture of 1.5 million speakers, and read its uniquely rewarding literature is an experience worth having. As such, it is worth learning: if only to become part of the community of its speakers, many of whom are among the coolest people I've ever met.

Now, on to non-linguistic issues:

The Language's Birth and the Modern World

The impetus for Esperanto, and its creator's beliefs, rested on widely-influential ideas and widely-held premises of 19th century central Europe. Zamenhof, in a world dominated by the notion that humans were destined for a glorious future, truly believed that humans (and God) were by nature inclined toward reason, that rational thought and scientific progress would guide humanity to greatness through the 20th century, and that the "a great familial circle" of humanity would come together if only given the chance. To him, the great evil responsible for the strife-stricken nature of the world was nationalism and religious intolerance. These, he believed humanity's greatest misfortune- dividing peoples, engineering enmity, solidifying language barriers.

The key issue here is that it was this fractiousness of humanity, rather than the discreet problem of language barriers, which spurred Zamenhof to create Esperanto in the first place. Indeed, as he got older, he cared less and less about it as he attributed less and less importance to the problem of language believing that that religion, and not language, was the greater source of strife. Indeed, he devoted most of his later years not to the neutral human language of Esperanto, but to the development of a neutral human religion which he called "Homaranismo" (which could be roughly rendered as "Humanitism,") which Esperantists were less than enthusiastic about (and which, to be honest, is less a truly universal philosophy than one which assumes that the social problems he perceived in Eastern Europe were universal to humanity.) Though he continued to produce work in Esperanto, it seems to have been more because it assured him an audience (of Esperantists) than for any other reason, and he took pains to get it translated into major European languages. Most of the banner-waving portrayals of Zamenhof as the patron saint and progenetor of Esperanto neglect that, toward the end of his life, he was probably its most unmotivated speaker. Zamenhof, in short, outgrew Esperanto which he himself eventually saw as flawed and tried (unsuccessfully) to reform.

Moreover, the world has outgrown the circumstances Esperanto (as a universal language) was intended for. In Zamenhof's time, Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, The US and Japan were all superpowers of relatively equal strength, and so not only English, but also French, German, Latin were all seen as essential components of a lettered European's education (to this one could add the Portuguese sailors had to know.) Today, though, as American English plays an increasingly ubiquitous role (despite the seldom-acknowledged waning geopolitical stature of the United States, American culture has lost little of its prestige) Esperanto, for better or for worse, simply cannot compete. Not that there aren't people who struggle horrifically with English and who are at an unfair disadvantage because of it, but I doubt very much that Esperanto, even if it were in English's place, would really do much better for more than a small handful of practiced language-learners however easy it might be.

Neither Zamenhof nor anyone else of his era could imagine what technical modernity would bring. Indeed, the greatest current prospect for the "family of humanity" which Zamenhof hoped to foster isn't any language or belief system, but the internet- a system allowing contact between any two people with access to a network connection. Even though well over two thirds of all internet users are not native English-speakers, every major programming language is English-based, something like 65-80% of all web content is in English, and one cannot get very far in the IT industry without at the very least a reasonable passive knowledge of written English. Granted, most such English-users, outside of maybe northern Europe, can't claim fluency or even conversational proficiency (even in India, where the official language is English, the number of speakers isn't much above 15%.) But most don't need it. My own experience from traveling in foreign countries whose language I don't speak is that people know just about as much English as they need to. A cab driver can follow directions and talk about prices, a shop-owner can talk about his commodities, a gamer can handle internet jargon, a student of international politics reads the Economist, and a prostitute can likewise follow directions and talk about prices. English today, though it offers innumerable obstacles for learners (including one of the two or three most arbitrary orthographies on earth), is close to what Zamenhof dreamed of in his youth. His mistake was to believe that an international language would be the cause, rather than the effect of cross-cultural information flow.

Thanks to: Gene Keyes for pointing out ĉiesulino

Epilogue: A Better Choice

In today's situation, the only way for a conIAL to be widely usable is to allow one-way (i.e. passive) communication with the maximum number of people, with minimal effort on their part. In other words, it would be mutually intelligible with the native languages of as great a portion of the world's population as possible. The usefulness of such a language would be almost immediate in, for example, scientific writing (possibly as a medium for article abstracts.) Articles would therefore be more accessible to people who aren't fully at home in, say, in English, Russian or German.

If you know much about conIALs other than Esperanto, then you know I'm talking about Interlingua- designed for maximal intelligibility among a maximum number of people. It has its parochial features, to be sure, (like definite and indefinite articles) but there are far less of them, and they are parochial to a much larger group. In fact, to illustrate, I'll give a translation into Interlingua of the paragraph just before this one:

In le situation de hodie, le sol modo pro un conIAL de esser utilisabile in grande, es permitter le communication unidirectional (i.e. passive) con le maxime numero de personas, e con le minime effortio de lor parte. In altere parolas, tal lingua serea mutualmente intelligibile con le linguas native de tanto grande portion del population global como possibile. Le utilitate de tal lingua serea quasi immediate in, per exemplo, le scripto scientific, (possibilimente como un medio pro le summarios de articulos). Le articulos serea ergo plus accessibile pro personas qui non possede completemente, per exemplo, le anglese, le russo o le germano.

Now had a language like that been proposed in the late 19th century as an international medium, it might have actually caught on. If there's one criticism to be made of Esperanto, it is that it has made the very idea of a conIAL seem so prejudicially absurd to so many people that better, more workable candidates like this are all but ignored. But then, I suppose a similar criticism could be made of English for being so dominant.

Inter Linguas
A.Z. Foreman

Le lingua del terra parla
Un parlamento de linguas
Le sol se pone, occide
Le occidente cadite.
Le glossa, io sape, es clause.
Io sape e non pausa:
Vole solmente que poemas,
Inter linguas, incide venas.

126 comments:

  1. A few nits:

    Children acquire both regular and irregular plurals at the same time; it's the regular rule that is acquired and overapplied later. The vast majority of English plurals are regular, and the vast majority of plurals that children use are regular too.

    What makes the native speakers of Esperanto special is that their usage is not model usage. Esperantists listen to Kimo, but they don't try to reproduce his thick Danish accent.

    What mia opinione shows is that in Esperanto adjectives can modify adverbs as well as the other way about. There's nothing wrong with that: grammatical terminology never means quite the same thing in two different languages.

    Giuseppe Peano, the mathematician, published his Latino sine flexione in 1903, so I think it reasonably qualifies as a "better choice" put forth at the end of the 19th century. Later it also came to be called Interlingua, or Interlingua de Peano (as distinct from Interlingua de IALA).

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    1. "Children acquire both regular and irregular plurals at the same time; it's the regular rule that is acquired and overapplied later."

      Yes. It would be strange if small children showed a preference to learn irregular verbs first. They just repeat the verb in the form that they listen in useful situations, and most common verbs happens to be irregular.

      My baby daughter has learned some (Brazilian Portuguese) past tense verbs because she repeats my narrations of facts (e.g. "acabou" = "it finished" = it's over).

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  2. Thanks for a very interesting article. As a linguist and conlanger, I've always found Esperanto's design and aspirations to fall on the spectrum from "silly" to "offensive", but your article has the odd effect of making me like the language more, because I am able to see it as an interesting, unusual natural language. The use of subordinating -a and adverbial -e were especially intriguing.

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  3. That Interlingua snippet, as well as the poem, is no more comprehensible than anything you had in Esperanto. I understood too few words to be able to understand the rest from context, and the fact I recognized 'hodie', for example, as Latin did nothing to help me understand what it meant in context. It might as well have been written in Romansch or Loglan.

    I hesitate to imagine what a Chinese or Japanese person would make of it, let alone someone whose primary language is Swahili. Are there any conIALs that are equally accessible to people from Europe, Asia, and Africa?

    (Sorry if this went through multiple times. I think the commenting software ate my first attempt.)

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  4. Question. Over the course of a century, has spoken Esperanto undergone any phonological changes? And have there arisen any words with...irregular patterns of inflection?

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  5. It's interesting that the use of -a you describe in modern Esperanto lines up pretty well with what many non-European languages do: use the same syntaxic or morpholigical structure to denote both adjectives and genitives/complement groups.

    Here's an example from Cantonese (this kind of merger seems to be most common around South-East Asia and Indonesia):
    a³³-faay⁵⁵ ge³³ piŋ¹¹-guo³⁵
    Ah Fai assoc apple
    'Ah Fai's apple'

    hooŋ¹¹ ge³³ piŋ¹¹-guo³⁵
    red assoc apple
    'red apple'


    In fact Cantonese (and several other languages) goes one step further and also use the same structure for *relative clauses*:

    a³³-faay⁵⁵ maai¹³ ge³³ piŋ¹¹-guo³⁵
    Ah Fai buy assoc apple
    'apple that Ah Fai bought'

    Would anything like that work in Esperanto?
    "Mia aĉetita pomo" or even "mi ekaĉeta pomo"???

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    1. More natura "la de mi aĉetita pomo", which is calqued off of the instrumenta+participle constructions of Slavic languages, but that's syntactically different.

      The esperanto class-vowel is also further complicated by an interaction of the derivational and the inflectional at the lexical level. Whether it is a genitive or an adjectival relationship depends on the lexico-semantic peculiarities of the root in question, as I mentioned in my post, since these morphemes cannot be used at the same time. Ruĝ- is pretty clearly primarily adjectival when class-vowels are added to the simple stem, likewise tabl- is clearly nominal. Thus la tabla ruĝo is semantically not the "table-like redness." But Is "la suna horo" to be understood as "sunny hours" or "the sun's hours" (or "solar hours" for that matter)? The fact that other lexical items are used when "sunny" is intended involves knowledge of the lexicon and not the syntax. Zamenhof tried to fix this by creating different roots for different word-classes later on. But by then it was too late. Likewise you may want to be careful with how you use the -a morph in rendering things like "The sun's skylike height."

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  6. I don't think native speakers of Eastern languages would have troubles with pronunciation. I think that Esperanto has more common sounds with Eastern/Slavic languages than English or any other language of Celtic origin. My mother tongue is Czech and I can tell you that we have here words like "prst" (finger); no vowel at all and nobody has a problem with it.

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  7. You asked for comments on this essay, and I’m happy to oblige. I’m a native speaker of English, fairly well read and well-travelled (if I say so myself), but I have never previously come across one word in your title, in speech or in writing. I understand the phrase “pseudolinguistic bullshit” but I wish you would not use that expression or “pissed off”. You use the word “assholes” in a place where the meaning is clear without it. You display an insensitivity to register. That kind of vocabulary is out of place in an essay although it may be acceptable in a bar.

    I speak Esperanto, but I’m not particularly fond of the word “Esperantist”. It sounds sectarian to me, a bit like Methodist, Baptist, socialist Islamist … I grant that the circumlocution “Esperanto speaker” is rather long.

    By the way, The word is “eseo”, not “esejo”.

    Just like you, “I have known about, used, and been interested in the history of Esperanto and other constructed languages since my early teens”. Like you, I have a degree in linguistics. Unlike you, I have used Esperanto extensively on my travels, visiting people in some fifteen countries in their homes, and hosting Esperanto-speaking visitors.

    You should beware of the danger of creating monstrosities, only to have the joy of slaying them. One example is the word postscio which you give and go on to criticise. I have never seen or heard the word, even used as a tongue-twister, and it is not in my edition of the Plena Ilustrita Vortaro. Benson gives postvidado for hindsight. Where there is a potential concatenation of consonants, usage solves the dilemma. So, for example urbdomo meaning town hall has become urbodomo in practice.

    On your critique of Piron, I disagree strongly with your comment that “Active correction by parents, relatives, friends and teachers has little to do with language acquisition”. As a parent, grandparent, a former teacher of French and German, I’m happy to confirm that children do indeed learn as a result of such corrections, sometimes explicit sometimes not so. The child who hears that there is cheese in the kitchen, and asks “Can I have a chee?” soon learns from the smiles and subsequent discussion that “chee” is not part of the language. I was present when a Welsh child used “gwladau” as the plural of the word for “country”, only for the standard form “gwledydd” to be interposed by a chorus of voices. You seem to be discounting experience as well as the “mountainous body of linguistic research” on child language acquisition. I really can’t see any weakness in Piron’s view that the irregular plurals and verb forms in ethnic languages are lacking in Esperanto.

    You mis-state Piron’s position by suggesting that he thinks “if the learner has trouble, it's the fault of the learner, his/her teacher or his/her native language”. I don’t read his comments that way. He is simply saying that the learner has to make an effort. I do accept your argument that learning the accusative does not necessarily help with "thinking rigorously." This was the case made during my childhood for learning Latin.

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    1. The mountainous body of linguistic research has indeed shown that children learn language primarily not from adults, but from people whom they perceive to be part of their peer group if at all possible. It is, for example, why if you speak to your child in American English but raise them on the Llyn peninsula, they'll speak English like a Welsh person and may even call their mommy a mummy. I don't know what research you're referring to, but I'd love to see it. It is true that there are individual cases where a child learns not to use a given form because of how adults react, but that is not the main vector for language acquisition.

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  8. I couldn't get all my thoughts into one posting, and my careful use of italics has disappeared!

    You assume that the accusative is unnecessary, but I see it as a neat way of avoiding clumsy circumlocutions of the type we have in English. The accusative can allow for occasional OVS word order. For example “Ŝinkon mi deziras” meaning “It the ham that I want”. Incidentally, you cite the phrase "tradukonton ... oni devas trovi" without commenting on the emphasios offered by the word order there.

    You’re right that turi meaning "to tour" has no place in Esperanto. The meaning can be conveyed in several ways. I would use rondvojaĝi.

    You write that “The mal- prefix, in fact, is probably one of the most severely crippling aspects of the language in terms of naturalness”. I see it as thoroughly natural and normal. Indeed, it allows for joke words such as maltrinki, and for formations that have much to commend them. I remember someone referring to the Manx language at m”maltutmonda”

    You have some interesting ideas here and you’re right that “Languages, when they have enough speakers, simply cannot be controlled or governed.” That is certainly the case for Esperanto.

    Like you, I don’t enjoy typing, but you need to distinguish between potential forms and actual use I have never come across the monstrosities you cite mi amitis or mi amontis. They are not even literary.

    Esperanto may not be perfect, but I've used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job.

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    1. --You assume that the accusative is unnecessary, but I see it as a neat way of avoiding clumsy circumlocutions of the type we have in English. The accusative can allow for occasional OVS word order. For example “Ŝinkon mi deziras” meaning “It the ham that I want”. Incidentally, you cite the phrase "tradukonton ... oni devas trovi" without commenting on the emphasios offered by the word order there.--

      Lots of SVO languages (Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Bulgarian) allow OVS topicalization of various types without overt morphosyntactic differentiation of subject and object. The absence of an accusative would do nothing to disallow that since there is this thing called context. Moreover, it's possible in theory for this to work in other ways. Such as spoken French:

      "Marc admire Marie beaucoup"

      versus

      "Marie, Marc l'admire beaucoup" or "C'est Marie que Marc admire beaucoup"

      More to the point, there is nothing intrinsically "clumsy" about something like "It is Mary whom Mark admires a lot" in written English (and in spoken English simply emphasizing the name "Mary") or "As for, Mary...." That you deem such constructions clumsy says more about your prejudices than anything else.

      The issue with the accusative is that it is objectively unnecessary, complicating and parochial. A number of studies have shown that it is much easier for a speaker of a case-inflected language like Russian to learn to handle the word-order and caselessness of, say, French or Dutch than the reverse. This has been shown with Anglophone learners of German vs Germanophone learners of English in an extensively-reproduced experiment.

      -- Indeed, it allows for joke words such as maltrinki--

      Which I mention

      --Like you, I don’t enjoy typing, but you need to distinguish between potential forms and actual use I have never come across the monstrosities you cite mi amitis or mi amontis. They are not even literary.--


      Do a google search for "Skribitis"

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  9. YOUR CRITICISM OF ESPERANTO

    Thank you very much for your very interesting criticism of Esperanto. I'm French and I first heard of Esperanto in Britain at the age of 16. I wasn't very enthusiastic about it and decided to study English instead and I eventually made a living with it for many years.

    Yet I must admit that I have mixed feelings about your article. I agree with many things you say. First the use of the prefix mal- has always disturbed me: it is very offensive for us as, in all Romance languages, it means "evil", so you aren't small, but evil-big, you're not weak, but "evil-strong", poor but "evil-rich", etc. and an "evil-closed door" (malfermita) isn't an open door, but (at least for French people), a door that hasn't been closed properly (une porte mal fermée; whereas in Italian "fermare" means to stop). Zamenhof has no excuse for this blunder: all Slavic and Baltic languages use the prefix ne- which is widely understood (included by Iranians and Indians who have nā & na), all the more so as 70% of the Esperanto vocabulary, far from being Slavic, is of Latin origin. George Orwell in 1984 clearly shows that such a reduction in vocabulary can be used by a dictatorship (Big Brother's) to limit human thought: "good ≠ ungood > plus-ungood > double-plus-ungood…"

    An IAL, just as any natural language, should have a very rich vocabulary, even if everybody isn't obliged to learn all of it; it's up to each person to learn and use as many words he likes: some people cant be content with using 800 words while others need many more.

    I also agree with the complete uselessness of the accusative, of the subjunctive (which doesn't exist in Slavic languages by the way), the hidden complexity of the verbal system. Let me just mention the participles; whereas in English you have two invariable participles ("worked & working", and my students sometimes mix them up), there are six in Esperanto: "aminta, amanta, amonta, amita, amata, amota"; but these can be put in the plural: "amitaj…amontaj…", and in the accusative: "amitan, amitajn…" So you end up with 6 x 4 = 24 different forms. (Just think that the agreement of French participles - 8 forms - is an insoluble problem for French people themselves !)

    However, I would be much more reluctant to follow you on "the patent sexism" of Esperanto; you cannot just speak of "patent sexism" because a language has a feminine and a masculine. Let's face facts: half the world population is made up of women, the other half of men, and there are no hermaphrodites in the human species (this would be a Sci-Fi movie indeed).

    - Right, the 19th century was an extremely sexist period.
    - Right, Esperanto is a 19th century conlang reflecting the ideas of the time.
    - Right, when you need a professional's services you don't care about his sex, for ex. when you say "Call a doctor !" or "I want to see my lawyer (attorney)".
    - Right, no other language uses forms like "virino, patrino" (which make me think of "virago" and "padrino", i-e godfather)… even in the most backward prehistoric Indo-European languages man & woman (wīros* & gwenā* in PIE), father and mother (pətēr* & mātēr*), son & daughter (sūnús* & dhugətēr*) have different names. Accepting the difference is not being sexist, but realistic: what we want is equality between women and men, not a society of androgynous ET's, half human-half robots.

    On the other hand, English is very ambiguous and often rather awkward on the subject ; for ex. when "He invited a student for a drink" you never know if it's all right or whether he should be prosecuted for sexual harassment. Or when you meet a friend who is a girl, yet isn't your girl-friend…



    ………………………………………………………………To be continued

    Joël Landais

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  10. ADVERBS

    Another thing is the extended use of adverbs, which I personally find very convenient… when you don't go too far. You criticize the use of fremdalande, but don't forget that in English you can say "teaching English ABROAD". The alternative, that is using prepositions, is much more difficult, because prepositions are never the same from one language to another (even sometimes within the same language). For ex. you say BY bus, BY car, BY train, but the French will say PAR le train, EN bus, EN voiture, the Spaniards EN tren, EN coche, EN autobús, Italians CON il treno, IN macchina, IN autobus, Germans MIT dem Zug, MIT dem Auto, MIT dem Bus. It's all very confusing, and I find the Slavic solution much more simple, for ex. Russian "poezdom", by train, "avtobusom" by bus, "peshkom" on foot, "perom" with a pen, or Croatian "automobilom" by car, "brodom" by boat… Of course, Slavs use the instrumental case for this, but in a language without declensions (apart from that blasted accusative) why not use adverbs to express the means and the manner ?

    However "mia opinione & mialingve" are going too far and are just ridiculous !

    ENGLISH AS A LINGUA FRANCA… "People know just about as much English as they need to…"
    I have travelled a lot all over the world, and, if you expect more than consuming sea, sex and sun, that is if you want to discover the country and the people, English simply doesn't work.I could tell you hundreds of anecdotes about it. In Greece, for example, eating "gavros" (fried anchovies) is a must, but what do the waiters tell you ? "Small fiss"… and what if you want to eat sardines ? I suppose "big fiss" is reserved for sharks and whales…
    Now seriously, I hired a taxi in Thailand recently to take me from the Cambodian border back to Bangkok - a 6 hour drive - essentially because the driver spoke English quite well (or so it seemed to me). We had arranged to meet on a Thursday afternoon, and the receptionist told me on the Tuesday before that a young woman was waiting for me at the reception (yes, the taxi driver was a woman). I was very lucky it wasn't the other way round: I would probably still be in Thailand.

    ESPERANTI, INTERLINGUA & CO…

    I had always believed Esperanto to be a great progress compared to Volapük and all the conlangs before that, until I discovered Universalglot quite recently. Universalglot was published in 1868, that is 10 years before Volapük and 20 years before Esperanto, and yet is much better insofar as it is both much more natural and much simpler. Based on Romance languages, English and German, it has a very simple grammar.
    http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k131148w/f9.image.r=pirro.langEN
    This is what Otto Jespersen, the great linguist and author of Novial said about it: "one to which I constantly recur with the greatest admiration, because it embodies principles which were not recognized till much later" (Wikipedia).

    Volapük and Esperanto are much more artificial and influenced by a priori languages that prevailed in the 17th and 18th centuries (CF Umberto Eco "La ricerca della lingua perfetta".)

    ……………………………………………………………To be continued

    Joël Landais

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great call on Universalglot Joël. I looked it up and instantly connected with it. Even having studied Esperanto for a while, and speaking Romanian and English (by the way, I can corroborate the comments about Esperanto favoring eastern European speakers), its overall presentation is not as obviously intelligible as it should be. Universalglot clicked immediately and I can tell it flows mere seconds after becoming acquainted with it. Jespersen was right, and Novial is also awesome in its own right. Both Universalglot and Novial are much, much more pleasant to read and work with than Esperanto. I'd like to see a resurgence of them. I'm definitely going to have a closer look.

      Delete
    2. You should have a look at Uropi, an IAL based on the Indo-European roots that are common to al (or most) Indo-European languages.

      See for example

      http://uropi.canalblog.com/
      http://uropi.free.fr/

      Delete
  11. Sorry for being so long, but your article itself is not so short and thus requires long answers.

    ESPERANTO, INTERLINGUA & CO…

    My criticism of IALA Interlingua, Latino sine flexione, Occidental, and the like, is that, getting closer and closer to natural languages (which is a good thing), they have become less and less international and more and more Latin-based; they are 100% Latin, just as Slovio is 100% Slavic.

    This is essentially why I have spent so many years creating Uropi, which was initially meant to be "A common language for Europe". This is an IAL based on the Indo-European roots common to most languages of Europe, Iran and India.

    Of course, Uropi tries to avoid all the shortcomings you mention about Esperanto.

    - Its pronunciation is close to that of Italian, avoiding both Slavic consonant clusters and the difficult English vowels, diphthongs and spelling.

    - Its grammar boils down to a simplified English grammar, for ex. "I vol" = I want, "Vol tu ?" = Want you ? "He vol ne" = he wants not (as people used to say in Shakespeare's time).

    - There IS Uropi poetry.

    - Uropi uses all the international words and its basic vocabulary stems from the common Indo-European roots such as "pater, mata" (father, mother), "son, dota" (son, daughter), "frat, sesta" (brother, sister), "sol, mar, mor" (sun, sea, death), "sto, sedo" (stand, sit), "pod, oj, nas" (foot, eye, nose), "jun, novi, lej, veri" (young, new, light, true)…

    Of course you may say such a language favours Europeans, but this would be forgetting the fact that half the world population speak an Indo-European language (Nearly everybody in Europe and America, many people in Africa using English, French or Portuguese as a lingua franca + India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan… etc, not to mention languages like Filippino and Indonesian which were strongly influenced by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English…).

    What could the alternative be anyway ?
    An indigestible brew made of Latin sprinkled with Chinese, with a hint of Arabic, a touch of Swahili, a drop of Japanese ?

    I suggest you had a look at Uropi:

    http://uropi.free.fr/ (Official website)

    The Uropi Varkia, where all sorts of Uropi documents are stored (grammars, dictionaries, texts, poetry…)
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/uropi_varkia/

    and the Uropi blog, where you can find many articles in Uropi, English and French about various subjects including Uropi itself:
    http://uropi.canalblog.com/

    I have a list of 200 everyday sentences and phrases in Esperanto for which I gave the equivalents in Uropi, English and French. The comparison speaks for itself.

    http://f1.grp.yahoofs.com/v1/IHsTUQkN3NLyKHAoncs3TxsnT5qdNpp_-dnmIhdZgvvdTFunDusPzIbdPJXKukDpSEwjCXsdoVd1M8lsRpxn7Q/Esperanto-Uropi-Engli-Franci%20/Esperanto%20-%20Uropi%20-%20Engli%20-Franci%20-.htm

    Sorry for the absence of links: I didn't know how to do.

    Joël Landais

    ReplyDelete
  12. This post is part of a long tradition of criticizing languages, as Mark Twain's classic "The Awful German Language." English spelling is a favorite target.

    I think in any real language there are going to be weirdnesses. You can complain about them, or just accept them as part of the language. After a while one gets to be fond of them.

    A previous commenter had pointed out that he had never run across some of the odd words cited in the article. I haven't found any part of the (small) Esperanto grammar to be a showstopper. The participle system is not used much. I don't particularly like the overuse of the mal- prefix, but you get used to it.

    In contrast, the basic structure of the language makes it so much easier than any ethnic language I've run across. Tolstoy said that he learned to read Esperanto in two hours. With his background in French, I can (almost) believe it!

    And really, any of the neo-Latin constructed languages of the time would be a worthwhile candidate for an auxiliary language. I personally like Interlingua and Latino sine Flexione ... because they are so like Italian. But I've come to appreciate the power of affixes and invariant roots in Esperanto.

    But as far as a discussion about a suitable international language, this is all about 120 years too late. Linguistic details are irrelevant now. Instead we are in the realm of history, politics and social movements.

    Zamenhof and the early Esperantists did a brilliant job of starting a social movement -- getting people involved, setting up social networks, establishing a flag and an insignia. As I learn more about the Esperanto movement, I marvel at its depth and tradition. There is a reason that Esperanto has outlasted the other constructed languages ... and why you are criticizing its language features rather than those of Volapük or Novial.

    The reason that Esperanto hasn't made further progress towards becoming the auxiliary language is not because of the accusative; it's because of politics: the desire of dominant countries to maintain the economic advantages of their languages. As the Director General of the British Council stated that “Britain’s real black gold is not North Sea oil, but the English language.”

    ReplyDelete
  13. "/.../there's no Interlingua poetry/.../"

    I am an interlingua poet.
    Here is my blog:

    http://poemasepensatas.blogspot.se/

    Amicalmente,

    M.S.

    ReplyDelete
  14. "At best, natural languages only [negate words such as with "mal-"] with a subset of the vocabulary. And most don't actually reverse the meaning consistently like this one does, so much as simply negate it: often resulting in some semantic distinction (compare difference between "sad" and "unhappy" or "hated" and "unloved" in English.)"

    Sad: malgxoja; unhappy: negxoja.
    Hated: malamata; unloved: neamata.

    Mal creates antonyms, "ne" is for "not." I've never found this to leave ambiguity in Esperanto.

    ReplyDelete
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  17. An interesting article with interesting comments. You do set up some straw men to criticize, and you make some generalizations that I don't think hold true for the community of Esperanto speakers.

    That said, however, what intrigues me is how quickly the responses shifted to "Oh, you should consider this other constructed language" or "I have a new language I've constructed that's much better than Esperanto" (to loosely paraphrase/summarize). And so on and on it goes, the endless stream of projects creating more and more languages . . . while Esperanto speakers are actively and busily engaged in actually USING the language, creating its literature and culture, and benefiting from the communication it opens up between speakers of different native languages. The Esperanto organization in the U.S. has a slogan: "Esperanto: The International Language that Works!" and it's actually true.

    Is Esperanto perfect? By no means. Even Zamenhof himself acknowledged that. We would all be hard pressed to find or create a perfect language. But the Esperanto community by consensus "froze" its basis (in the "Fundamento"), therefore removing it from the realm of "project" and moving it into the realm of "living language" (even if created . . . )

    It would be worth your time reading some of the early works in Esperanto that deal with this specific point. Some people don't like "mal-", some people don't like "kaj", some people think Esperanto isn't enough like English, others think there need to be more roots from African and Asian languages--once you open the door to such modification the language splinters and falls apart.

    I just got back from an 8-day Esperanto course in British Columbia and can verify that Esperanto is alive and well and spoken quite well by a large number of people.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. >> The Esperanto organization in the U.S. has a slogan:
      >>"Esperanto: The International Language that Works!"
      >> and it's actually true.

      It's also true for Interlingua. Hell, I can go to Spain and speak interlingua and be understood without anyone else having to learn the language. Believe me, I've tried.

      Point being: so what?

      >>But the Esperanto community by consensus "froze" its basis (in the "Fundamento")

      No it didn't. If you actually read my piece you know that this just isn't true. the fundament of the language is changing radically, and is already quite at variance with anything Zamenhof envisioned.

      >> therefore removing it from the realm of "project" and moving it into the
      >> realm of "living language" (even if created . . . )

      The notion that a living language needs to somehow be "frozen" in some way or another to count as such really suggests a breathtaking ignorance of how languages actually work. Actually read my post.

      >>once you open the door to such modification the language splinters
      >>and falls apart.

      I'm not actually advocating that. All I'm saying is that Esperanto, as it is, is hopelessly parochial as an auxiliary conIAL, and is nowhere near as simple or easy as advertised, especially for non-Europeanates.

      >>I just got back from an 8-day Esperanto course in
      >>British Columbia and can verify that Esperanto
      >>is alive and well and spoken quite well by a large
      >>number of people.

      I didn't say it wasn't spoken well by a large number of people. Nor that it wasn't, in a very major sense, alive.

      Note what I said:

      "Despite being not as simple, regular or innately accessible as advertised, it is nonetheless a easier to gain at least a working knowledge of than many other languages (though certainly not all.) To learn it and take part in its culture of 1.5 million speakers, and read its uniquely rewarding literature is an experience worth having. As such, it is worth learning: if only to become part of the community of its speakers, many of whom are among the coolest people I've ever met."

      Delete

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