Some Comments about the Esperanto Alphabet

The standard letters

As you can see, the letters Q, W, X and Y are omitted. Why didn't Zamenhof, who invented Esperanto, include these letters?

Problem is that Q usually represents the K sound (usually in combination with U) in most European languages, and Zamenhof had already drafted K for that purpose -- why have two letters for the same sound? To use it for the Hx sound, as is done in many latinizations of Hebrew and Arabic, would sound too foreign; and the Pinyin Romanization of Chinese, in which it is used for Cx, was not yet in use. Furthermore, there is no equivalent of Q in the Cyrillic alphabet. Zamenhof apparently felt justified in dropping it.

W instead of Ux? Problem is that W has this sound primarily in English and some Romance languages (it is rare in the latter); in the Germanic languages and those Slavic languages that are written with Latin letters, W usually has the sound of V (or, at the ends of words, sometimes F). Since V and F already existed, and since the use of the English W would be very foreign to Zamenhof's original clientele, he felt justified in omitting the letter.

X is an extremely non-standard letter; in some languages (Spanish, Russian) it has the value of the Esperanto Hx, in some (Portuguese, Chinese Pinyin) it has the sound of the russian Sx, in French it is often silent. Furthermore, its use in English and other languages is really for a combination of two sounds, KS (or, sometimes, GZ), and Zamenhof's principles did not allow him to use one letter for two separate sounds. So he dropped X.

We often tend to assume that Y always has the sound of the Esperanto J. This is often the case, even in languages other than English, but not always. In the Germanic and Slavic languages, for instance, this sound is represented by J, as in Esperanto. Furthermore, in the Scandinavian languages Y has the sound of the German umlauted U. Since J (which see) was so familiar to Zamenhof's original clientele, he decided to drop Y.

The special letters

The special letters were created to satisfy the requirement that each letter correspond to one sound, and vice versa.

Zamenhof could not use a digraph such as CH for that sound, since C and H have independent sounds of their own. The soft G (often shown by a J in English) needed to be distinguished from the hard G; in many languages this is determined by the following vowel (soft before E and I, hard before A, O and U), but the letter G in Esperanto was allowed to have only one sound, independent of the letters around it. The rasped sound halfway between K and H (written CH in German and Gaelic, X in Russian and Spanish) needed a letter to represent it. The soft J (written J in French, S in English) needed a separate letter; here Zamenhof was apparently influenced by French usage. Similarly to CH, the letters SH already had independent sounds, and anyway digraphs were banned. Finally, for reasons given above, a letter was needed for the English W sound, but Zamenhof did not want to use W. Hence the six special letters.

Truth to tell, four of those supersigned letters could have been replaced by the four standard letters, by some judicious juggling: Q->Cx, Y->J, J->Jx or Gx, X->Sx, W->Ux. The changes, if they had been made in 1887, would not have been bothersome. Still, that would have left two unrepresented sounds (Gx or Jx, and Hx) for which special letters would have been necessary; and if you can't avoid introducing two special letters, why not go the whole route and introduce six?

The second part of the rule should probably read, more correctly: "to within allophony". What this means is that sounds in Esperanto do vary slightly, from speaker to speaker and, for the same speaker, depending upon the nature of adjoining sounds. These variations are small and have no effect on the meaning or use of a word.

When you can't use supersigns

The use of a following 'x' to show a supersigned letter on the net is a temporary workaround. When eight-bit text become standard fare on the net, and when the World Wide Web introduces use of other alphabets than ISO 8892-1 (for Esperanto, specifically ISO 8892-3), the X-ed letters will be replaced by their regular supersigned equivalents. In the meantime, you may want to get an Esperanto font of your own for your computer from

Other workarounds are sometimes used, and you should be aware of these. The officially sanctioned method, actually included in the Fundamento de Esperanto, is the use of the digraphs CH, GH, HH, JH, SH; U without a supersign does double duty for U and Ux. Zamenhof himself used this method in telegrams (there are International Code characters for the Esperanto letters, but telegraphers who are familiar with them are few and far between). The method has its proponents, but, due to the fact that C and H are both Esperanto letters and can be inadvertently joined during the process of agglutination, it is better avoided. X has the advantage of not appearing anywhere in Esperanto words.

Other symbols are used as well. You will find ^C, C^, Cy, and others. Cx is preferred; but if you don't like it, feel free to use your own system.

The letter A

The letter A should be pronounced as shown -- not as narrowly as the sound in CAUGHT or COT, but nowhere near as widely as the flat english A in CAT, MAN. In fact, the latter sound should never be heard in Esperanto.

For A, as for every other vowel, the sound should be clearly heard, not muted, even in an unstressed final syllable. This is particularly important for the verb endings, where the present -AS and the future -OS can be easily confused if you follow the American (and Russian) habit of muting unstressed vowels.

The letter B

B is always an explosive sound, a pop -- not like the sometimes soft Spanish V. The Anglo-American B is close enough for government work.

The letter C

Always like the English TS in TSAR, RATS, as shown.

Note that this is one single sound, not two; in almost every case, the English spelling TS is a spelling convenience for a single sound for which a single letter is lacking. This is even true in cases where the sound was originally a combination of two separate sounds; if you listen to the word RATS carefully, you'll find that it's not just a combination of T followed by S, but an actual different sound, about halfway between the two.

This is often true even when the sound is formed by a juncture of two words. The standard pronunciation of BEST-SELLER, for instance, is not (using Esperanto letters) BEST-SELR but BES-CELR.

The letter Cx

Very much as the English CH in CHURCH (at both ends).

As mentioned above, English-speakers sometimes try to suggest that C is really a combination of two sounds, T and S. French- and German-speakers, in addition, will occasionally make the claim that the 'Cx' sound is a combination of two sounds, T and Sx (English T and SH), since in both languages our CH is often spelled TCH (in French, CH is pronounced like our SH). Actually, once again Cx is about halfway between T and Sx, but is an independent sound in its own right. Fortunately, very few English speakers have as much trouble understanding this as they do understanding the corresponding independence of C.

The letter D

Pretty much as the English D, but with the tongue just a bit further forward in the mouth for best effect.

The letter E

The pronounciation is as shown. The major danger to English speakers is a tendency to pronounce the Esperanto E like the long English A, which is actually a diphthong rather than a vowel. Make sure that in saying E you don't add a Y-glide to the end. Otherwise, everybody will know that you are an American, and in rare cases you may even be misunderstood. See also the diphthong

The letter F

F should not be difficult. Remember to pronounce it between the upper teeth and the lower lip, not between the two lips.

The letter G

In many languages G is hard before A, O and U, and soft (usually) before E and I. In Esperanto, the un-supersigned G is always hard.

The letter Gx

This is the soft G mentioned above. It is always pronounced like the English J.

The letter H

H is always pronounced in Esperanto. It is never silent as in the English HOUR.

The letter Hx

This is one of the two hardest Esperanto letters for English speakers. It resembles the Spanish or Russian X, or the German or Scottish CH. The best description is that it lies about halfway between K and H (and is therefore sometimes written KH in English transscriptions of Russian words). Try pronouncing K, and then opening up your throat and letting the air push through with a rasping feeling.

The letter I

Always narrow, like the EE in MEET. Never wide like the I in PIN. When you pronounce it before another vowel (as in the very common ending -IO) try to avoid getting a Y-sound between the I and the O.

The letter J

This is identical with the English Y. You should have no problems with it.

The letter Jx

This is the French J. It is very rare in English, where it is usually spelled with an S (MEASURE, PLEASURE, TREASURE). It bears the same relationship to Z that our SH does to our S.

The letter K

As in English.

The letter L

Very similar to the English L.

The letter M

Very similar to the English M.

The letter N

Very similar to the English N.

The letter O

This is basically the same as the English O in NOTE or VOTE. But you must be sure not to end this vowel with a W-glide, as usually happens with the long English O. The problem is the same as the one for E.

The letter P

Very similar to the English P.

The letter R

The Esperanto R is very unlike the English R (which in turn is different from the French R, which in turn is different from the German R, which...).

It is pronounced with the tongue bowed down in the middle, and the tongue tip raised to touch the juncture between the front teeth and the gums. You flap the tongue perhaps twice while forcing air out between the tongue and the teeth. This gives you an R with a slight Scottish burr or Spanish trill. I keep the tongue-tip slightly to the right of center, myself.

The letter S

Always an unvoiced hiss, a sibilant. Never give it a Z sound, as is sometimes done in English and other European languages.

The letter Sx

Like the English S in SURE or the English SH.

The letter T

Similar to the English T. Notice that TH does not exist as a sound in Esperanto; if you ever encounter it (at the juncture between two agglutinated roots), this pair will always be pronounced as the two separate sounds T and H.

The letter U

Like the English OO in BOOT, but just a bit wider (in the direction of the U in PUT).

The letter Ux

This is very similar to the English W. Unlike the other semivowel, J, it can only appear in diphthongs (though it is occasionally used to transliterate non-Esperanto names beginning with W). Of five possible diphthongs containing Ux, only two -- AUx and EUx -- occur (there was one word with OUx, but it has gone out of use).

The letter V

As in English.

The letter Z

As in English.

The diphthong AJ

This is the EY in EYE. You will also hear it in HEIGHT, BLIGHT, BITE, etc. It is very common in Esperanto, as the ending of adjectives in the plural.

The diphthong EJ

This is the English long A as in MATE, HATE, LATE, FATE. To the untrained ear, it is quite similar to E; but remember, in our discussion of
E, that E does not have the Y-like semivowel glide on the end. Failure to make the distinction won't cause any problems in most cases, but there are some words in which the difference is important (e.g. "veno" = noun form of "veni", to come, versus "vejno", a vein).

The diphthong OJ

Very similar to the English OY in BOY. Like AJ, this is very common, since it is the ending of nouns in the plural.

The diphthong UJ

There are few words in English that exemplify this sound; BUOY is fairly close, as is the similar but somewhat differently spelled name BOWIE. The spitting sound PTUI would be spelled PTUJ in Esperanto; in fact, the most common word containing this sound is "tuj" (immediately, at once).

The diphthong AUx


The diphthong EUx

The usual example given is the AYW in WAYWARD. This is probably as close as you'll find in standard English; but drop the Y for better results.
The sixteen rules of Esperanto allow the accent to fall on the last vowel in one special case -- when the final O of a noun has been dropped. The missing O is shown by an apostrophe at the end of the word. This rule was apparently introduced to allow would-be poets to stress the last syllable of a line of verse. If you use it in ordinary conversation, people will look at you askance.

There are usually secondary accents on even-numbered vowels (counting from the end of the word). One exception to this is that MAL-words (which you'll meet in lesson two) usually get a slight stress on the MAL-prefix, even when it is in an odd-numbered position.

Send questions and suggestions to
Don Harlow <>
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