A Language Made for the World

Copyright Notice

This material is copyright © 1995 by Donald J. Harlow. Hard copies may be made for personal use only. Any user may make one electronic copy for personal use only. All copies must contain this copyright notice, including the date given below. No electronic copy may be located elsewhere for public access. Links to this original copy on the World Wide Web are encouraged. Please respect the conditions of this copyright notice; I simply don't want to have various unofficial (and perhaps not up-to-date) copies floating around elsewhere. Date: 2003.01.17.

              "The main problems that it was necessary to solve were the following:
              "I. That the language should be extraordinarily easy, so that it 
                  could be learned as though it were a game.
              "II. That everyone who learned this language should immediately be 
                  able to use it for understanding with people of different 
                  countries... that is, that the language from the very beginning, 
                  and thanks to its own construction, should be able to serve as 
                  an effective means of international communication."

                                  --D-ro Esperanto: Internacia Lingvo, Antaŭparolo 
                                    kaj Plena Lernolibro por Rusoj.  Warsaw: Chr. 
                                    Kelter & Sons, 1887

If many of us have found Esperanto attractive, there is more than one reason for this. The idealism behind Esperanto attracts those who are interested in world peace. The ability to use Esperanto as a means of direct contact with people all around the world attracts those who are interested in what goes on outside their own little society. But many, many Esperantists -- particularly the younger ones -- are turned on to the language by its remarkably simple, clear, consistent and easy-to-learn structure.

Few languages are consistent, and their inconsistencies are often the first encounters a child has with a world that rarely plays fair. The child learning his native language gradually deduces the rules by which the language operates -- and then discovers that they are not always applicable. "Daddy, I goed to the potty all by myself!" "Hey, you dumb kid, it's not 'goed,' it's 'went!'" It has even been suggested that a child's creativity begins to decline when he first learns that he cannot trust these rules that he himself has figured out.

Critics of Esperanto, usually the creators of competing projects discussed in chapter 3, are usually not interested in the consistency of its structure, but only in certain features that they themselves -- often because of their own linguistic prejudices -- find inconvenient. Their criticisms are often parroted by professional linguists who should know better.(1) I intend to address the more common of these criticisms in this chapter, to give you a chance to make your own judgements about certain aspects of the language.

Before you begin reading Esperanto, you have to know how it sounds, and how to read written Esperanto aloud. Esperanto phonology is straightforward. Of the standard 26 English letters, four are lacking: Q, W, X and Y. To make up for these, Esperanto supplies six new letters: Ĉ, Ĝ, Ĥ, Ĵ, Ŝ and Ŭ.

Esperanto has the standard five vowels: A, E, I, O, U. These are pronounced roughly like the five vowel sounds in the English sentence:

Pa let me go too.

Of the 23 consonants, many are pronounced as in English. Exceptions are as follows:

C: pronounced like the ts in English rats, tsar
Ĉ: pronounced like the ch in English church
G: always hard, as in get, bug
Ĝ: always soft, like j in jam, dg in ledge
H: always aspirated as in horse; never silent
Ĥ: like the Scottish ch in loch, German ch in ach. About halfway between H and K
J: like English y in boy, yet
Ĵ: like English s in pleasure, measure, treasure.
R: slightly trilled
S: always unvoiced as in set, house; never pronounced like a z
Ŝ: like English sh in sheesh!
Ŭ: like English w in how

The sound Ŭ deserves some extra comment. For all practical purposes it occurs only after the vowels A and E. The pronunciations of these diphthongs are:

: like English ow in how now brown cow
: like English ayw in wayward, but without the y sound

Technically, Ŭ could be used at the beginning of a word, as it occasionally is in proper names. But in ordinary words, it always appears only as the second part of a diphthong.

Finally, stress. Every word of more than one syllable is accented on the next-to-last syllable. In practice, this means: on the next-to-last vowel. Caution: don't make the mistake of stressing too early on words ending in a double vowel; Germanio is gher-mah-KNEE-oh, not gher-MAH-nyoh.

A more complete description of Esperanto letters and sounds can be found here.

Several criticisms about Esperanto's phonology have been raised over the years. A minor one is that the language is not truly phonetic -- that, for instance, the letter C represents two sounds, a T followed by an S. In fact, this is simply an English spelling convenience for a single sound that has no corresponding single letter in English. French authors often make a similar criticism of the Esperanto Ĉ, which English speakers recognize as a single sound, but whose French spelling -- again for convenience -- is TCH, CH corresponding to the Esperanto Ŝ. On the other hand, the combinations KS and KZ in Esperanto cannot be represented by a single letter X, since they are each, in fact, two separate sounds. In this sense I would claim that Esperanto's alphabet is even more phonetic than the so-called International Phonetic Alphabet, which, perhaps under Anglo-French influence, continues to list C as TS and Ĉ as .

The major criticism is the very existence of those six supersigned letters. These have been variously described as (a) unnecessary; (b) unavailable to printing houses; and (c) giving the language a barbarous, Slavic appearance.

I confess to being totally uninterested in criticism (c) which, to my mind, says more about the critic than about the language.

The availability of Esperanto type fonts may have been a more valid criticism in the past than it is today. When I helped put the ELNA Newsletter together at a commercial print shop in San Francisco in the early 1980's, we had no problem getting the appropriate fonts on film for our Editwriter. And today the ordinary user can create his own screen fonts on machines like the Macintosh, available just about anywhere and at prices that even ordinary individuals can afford. Even Esperanto PostScript fonts are available, for laser printing.(2) But even in those medieval times when type was molded out of lead and set by noisy Linotype machines, or even by hand, there never seemed to be a lack of Esperanto supersigned letters for those who needed them. In the middle 1960's the science-fiction author Harry Harrison, who is also a well-known Esperantist, published a novel called The Technicolor® Time Machine. In the story, one of his characters mentions the tiny (and fictitious) Jugoslavian town of Mali Loŝinj. Despite the fact that the letter Ŝ exists only in Esperanto, and that nowhere else is it used in the story, Doubleday Books managed to come up with it and print it. It is also worth remembering that more than a hundred years ago, when modern technical remedies were not available, the minor Warsaw printer Chr. Kelter & Sons was able to typeset Dr. L. L. Zamenhof's very first book, despite the fact that those six supersigned letters of Esperanto had never before beeen seen in the world. I myself have been using typewriters capable of producing the Esperanto letters since my late teens.

Even if the standard Esperanto letters were not available, there was always a legitimate substitute -- letters with the same base but a different supersign, although I have never actually seen this done except with the Ŭ. And there was always the old telegraphic fallback recommended, and used, by Zamenhof: putting the letter H after each supersigned consonant, and simply using a U without a supersign for a Ŭ. This has never been a popular remedy, except in that single field of telegraphy, and -- occasionally -- among reformists. I should add that there are Morse equivalents for the supersigned Esperanto letters -- Esperanto was adopted as a "clear" language for telegraphy in the late 1920's -- but just try to find a telegrapher who knows them!

Computer network aficionados, limited in their use of supersigned characters by the seven-bit ASCII communications standard currently in effect, have developed another solution: use of a following x to simulate a supersign. This "X-convention" is useful for several reasons -- among other things, it allows proper alphabetical sorting of words without special software -- but no one is really very happy with it.

Are the supersigned letters really necessary? The best answer to that is: the standard Roman alphabet has had, for some hundreds of years now, 26 letters; Esperanto has 28 sounds. So Esperanto can either be phonetic and have at least a couple of non-standard letters, or it can use only the standard alphabet, and be non-phonetic. Zamenhof decided to opt for phoneticity. After all, there are very few languages that use only the standard alphabet, and none of these are phonetic; almost all languages "alphabetized" in this century use non-standard letters. So Zamenhof felt that he was not going against custom by adding a few letters to Esperanto.

(The alert reader may wish to point out that neither Japanese nor Chinese use supersigned letters in their Romanized forms; doesn't this mean that supersigned letters are unnecessary? My reply is that no form of Japanese Romaji is very phonetic -- the distinction between long and short vowels is an example of this, though in one form of Romanization the circumflex is used to show length -- and that Chinese pinyin is so non-phonetic that educated Chinese speakers themselves often cannot understand it, since it lacks information to show necessary tones.)

Did Esperanto really need 28 sounds? I really don't know. But it does have them; and at this late date that is not going to change.

Still, you may ask, why didn't Zamenhof use the four Latin letters that aren't included in the Esperanto alphabet, thus reducing the number of required non-standard letters to two? Probably because he couldn't decide what to use them for. Q simply recapitulates K in all European languages that use it; W usually recapitulates the V/F pair in the Germanic and Slavic languages. X most commonly is the combination KS; although in some languages such as Portuguese and Chinese it represents the Esperanto Ŝ, such use would have raised the hackles of 19th century West Europeans far more than the supersigned letter did. And Y usually recapitulates the sound of J, again in Central and Eastern Europe; in the West the use of J is not well-defined (Ĝ in English, Ĵ in French, Ĥ in Spanish). So Zamenhof simply elected to scrap those letters. He apparently felt that it would be easier to create new letters for some sounds than to attribute to them single letters that had no relationship to them in any extant language.

One criticism to which English-speaking Esperantists have always been sensitive is the idea that the sound of Ĥ is very difficult for English-speakers; the usual reply to this complaint is that Ĥ is gradually disappearing from the language. When you read this in your textbook's pronunciation section, ignore it. Ĥ has never been healthier.

Letters by themselves are not of much use; they only begin to contain useful meaning when they take shape as words. Let's take a look at Esperanto's vocabulary. Consider the following piece of prose in Esperanto -- a short paragraph, chosen at random from an article about one of Ernö Rubik's group-theoretical toys, printed in a Hungarian Esperanto magazine.

   Ĉu ne tiel devus solviĝi ĉiuj problemoj de la ĥaosa mondo, inkluzive 
   la vetarmadon? La mondo ja similas al konfuza magia kubo, kiun samtempe 
   turnadas pluraj senkonkordaj ludantoj, kiuj ne povas aŭ volas vidi la 
   kubon en sia tuto, sed tenace insistas pri kelkaj, ŝajne reordigitaj 
   najbaraj kubetoj, kiuj konsekvencigas malordon sur aliaj facoj de la 
There are several different types of words in Esperanto. At the core there are about two hundred tiny particles that make up the "glue" that holds Esperanto, like any other language, together -- prepositions, conjunctions, etc. In the above paragraph we can see a number of these: ĉu, ne, sed, en, de, la.

Beyond these are the nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, the words that describe object and actions, which are linked together by this "glue" into sentences. Each of these consists of a root -- the language's basic semantic unit -- and, at least, one grammatical ending. Examples of such words are: devus, problemoj, mondo, similas, kubo. Because such words are, for the most part, taken from the European languages, many of them will be recognizable to the English-speaker, in one form or another: problemoj is "problems," similas is "resembles" ("is similar to"), kubo is "cube." Even mondo ("world") might be recognized as being related to our "mundane."

The only real difference between particles and roots is that particles may be (and usually are) used without grammatical endings, and roots may not; even particles can, if desired, be turned into nouns, etc., by taking endings, e.g. nun = "now," nuno = "the present." This distinction, that particles may be used with or without endings, but roots must always have endings, is actually less significant than it might seem; witness the recent use of the verb root in fari = "to do" as an independent preposition, far = "done by."

Because of our habit, as English-speakers, of seeing words as indivisible wholes, we will be less likely to recognize words made up of a root combined with one or more affixes and a grammatical ending, even when the root is familiar. I'm sure that most readers would recognize solvi as "to solve," but solviĝi ("to become solved")? Similarly, turnadas ("to go on turning"), from turni, "to turn", or malordon ("chaos") and especially reordigitaj ("reordered"), both from ordo, "order" {whose opposite is chaos). Who would think that the very common Esperanto word registaro has nothing to do with the English "to register"? (It means "government," from regi, "to rule", related to our "regal.") We encounter a similar situation with words compounded from two or more roots: the English-speaking reader may well recognize sama as "same," and tempo as "time"; but he may find it difficult to recognize samtempe as "simultaneously" ("at the same time").

How does the word-formation system work? As stated, it's fairly straightforward. There are about ten official prefixes (which are attached directly to the beginning of the root) and thirty or forty official suffixes (which are attached directly to the end of the root, ahead of the grammatical ending). Each affix has a particular meaning of its own, or modifies the meaning of the root in a particular way. For instance, the prefix mal- changes the meaning of a word to its opposite: malordo in the above passage means, not "order," but "chaos" (note, incidentally, the use of a synonymous form, ĥaosa, in the passage). The suffix -et- diminishes the size or intensity of the root: kubo is "cube," and kubeto, which is also "cube," gives the impression of tininess ("cubelet"). The suffix -ad- refers to an ongoing process: veti, "to bet," and armi, "to arm," come together with -ad- to become vetarmado, "the arms race". Very important are -iĝ-, which means "become in a state described by the root," and -ig-, "cause the state or act described by the root to occur": solvi, "to solve," becomes solviĝi, "to become solved"; reordigi, "to put into order again" (note also the re-, meaning "once again" or "back to its original state").

Why create such a complex, difficult-to-learn system? Because, in fact, it is neither complex nor difficult to learn; it is merely alien to the speaker of English, who is not used to such a process. The student of Esperanto has to learn a certain number of rules and a certain number of root words to which they can be applied; the student of, for instance, English is spared the rules -- as mentioned earlier, they are hardly to be trusted anyway -- but must memorize a vastly greater number of words. One study which compared the two languages found that, to understand 99.75% of the words in a randomly selected text which happened to be available in both languages, the English-speaker had to have a vocabulary of about 10,000 words; the Esperanto-speaker had to know only about 2800 roots.(3) The advantage for the student of Esperanto as a second language is obvious.

A more complete description of the Esperanto affix system can be found here.

Esperanto is sometimes criticized for using compound words where a "real" or "natural" language would have a "real" word. What constitutes a "real" word, as distinct from a compound word, turns out not always to be apparent to such critics. One Esperantist reported the case of a woman who, informed of the use of mal- to create antonyms, cried out in dismay: "You mean Esperanto has no basic word for unhappy?"(4)

A criticism of the system that I once heard was that "compound Esperanto words are more like definitions than actual words." The only reply that I can make to this is simply: Thank God! From my point of view as an end-user of the language, a word whose meaning is implicit in its structure is far more desirable than one whose meaning has to be learned separately.

As mentioned, it is unlikely that many compound or agglutinated words will be recognizable to the ordinary student of Esperanto at first sight. Esperanto has been criticized by its erstwhile competitors of the "naturalistic" school for this lack of immediate comprehensibility. Such criticism misses the point. Compound words in Esperanto are often unrecognizable because they are created according to a consistent, quickly learned system which, even though it has its origins in the inconsistent historical Indo-European derivational system, does not actually resemble it very closely. The historical system, which also appears in such "naturalistic" constructed languages as Occidental and Interlingua, has few one-to-one correspondences between affixes and meanings; new words cannot be created, but must be separately memorized. The Esperanto system does have such a correspondence; the user can create his own new words. Relatively little work is needed to learn the system to a fare-thee-well; but at least some effort is required.

It is, of course, relatively easy to produce a piece of Esperanto prose that is "immediately comprehensible" to the native English speaker, by the simple expedient of avoiding compound words; we proponents of Esperanto engage in such puerile exercises with depressing regularity. Whether anyone has ever been fooled by such a passage is an open question. Certainly nobody ever stayed fooled beyond his first encounter with a genuine Esperanto book or magazine. One disadvantage of creating such passages is that occasionally someone will attempt to use them to prove that Esperanto is incorrigibly biased toward the European languages, as Andrew Large does at one point in his book.

Another common criticism of the Esperanto word-formation system relates to the use of particular affixes. Two of these have, over the years, become primary whipping-boys of the critics (although in the case of the second, that metaphor is perhaps inappropriate). These are the prefix mal- and the suffix -in-.

The usual criticism of mal-, which turns a word into its opposite, is that it means "bad" and therefore involves a value judgement (why, for instance, is "left" -- maldekstra -- bad, whereas "right" -- dekstra -- is not?). This criticism shows a failure of understanding of the fact that Esperanto is an autonomous language, not just a simplified version of, for instance, Spanish; mal- in Esperanto simply means "opposite," and involves no such value judgement at all. One might just as well -- and perhaps with more justification -- criticize the Anglo-French term maladroit as an offense to all southpaws.

-in- is used to create the female version of a word whose root is taken to represent a male being, or one of unspecified sex. This has led in recent decades to charges of linguistic sexism from some quarters; why should the root word be male and the less basic version female? In fact, Zamenhof simply invented (or borrowed) the -in- suffix as a means of cutting the number of words to be memorized in half, and obviously intended no offense to the female half of the human race; after all, it was a woman who paid for publication of the first Esperanto textbook, and one of Zamenhof's own major translations into Esperanto was Orzeszko's novel Marta, an early Central European contribution to the genre of feminist literature. Furthermore, the suffix is generally used only in situations where a knowledge of the sex of the person involved is considered important -- not, for instance, in occupations. In other situations, the basic root is often considered neuter, not male; hence the more recent evolution of vir- as a prefix to show a masculized creature, e.g. virbovo = "bull" as opposed to bovino = "cow," both from bovo = "head of cattle." Finally, I should add that such criticisms have popped up only in the last few years, and geographically have been confined to non-Esperantists belonging to a relatively small group of cultures, most notably that of the United States. (5)

Please note that in an international language the need to distinguish between a male and a female human being through linguistic means is much more important than in an ethnic language. Men do behave differently, perhaps more circumspectly, when talking to women than when talking to men, and vice versa; and, when you are communicating by letter, there is no way of telling the sex of your correspondent by name alone, as you usually can when communicating with a person of English-speaking or even West European background.

A common, and in some ways valid, criticism of Esperanto's basic vocabulary is that it is almost wholly European in origin, and so gives a decided advantage to the native speaker of one of the (West) European languages and makes Esperanto unsuitable for Asians or Africans. Charles Berlitz, for instance, writes:

     The disadvantage of Esperanto as an international world language is that its 
     vocabulary, being based on the Romance and Germanic languages, leaves out the 
     languages of Asia and Africa spoken by the majority of the world's peoples.(17)

The mildest form of this criticism comes from Asian and African Esperantists themselves, who simply want their European colleagues to be aware of the (relative) difficulties they face and not contribute to them with an unthinking deluge of Europeanisms; the most severe form came to me from a (white American male) Berkeley student, who insisted that Esperanto was a consciously devised tool of American-European imperialism for maintaining dominance over the simple, uncomplicated people of the Third World. Knowing a few of these "simple, uncomplicated people," I tried hard not to laugh.

This is almost the direct opposite of the criticism mentioned above, of course. Where the "naturalists" attack Esperanto for not being European enough, these other critics claim that it is too European. An example: In late 1987 then U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar complained that "those people who speak languages that don't have a Latin basis will understand [Esperanto] only with great difficulty."(6)

While Esperanto has absorbed a number of non-European words into its vocabulary, including some that English has missed -- e.g. hibakŝo, "a survivor of a nuclear attack", and ĉanojo, "traditional Shinto tea ceremony," both from Japanese -- the criticism remains essentially valid; in terms of vocabulary, Esperanto is a European language.(18) But the criticism is not as important as many anti-Esperanto Westerners would care to make it out. First, no matter where vocabulary is selected from (or even if it is made up out of whole cloth), most people in the world are going to have problems with it. Second, because of Esperanto's word-formation system the problem is minimized along with the amount of roots one must learn. For an Anglophile in particular to criticise Esperanto as being "overly Western and too difficult for Orientals" strikes me as being either ingenuous or dishonest, given the alternative he obviously has in mind. (19) Esperanto's eight thousand official roots are hardly a task to learn compared with the forty to eighty thousand set (for starters) before the student of English. I believe it was Prof. Bruce Sherwood who once asked: "Which is more just -- for the American to spend one year learning Esperanto and the Japanese to spend two years at it, or for the American to spend no time learning English while the Japanese spends ten years studying it -- and failing to learn it?" The fact that Esperanto's greatest successes in the last decade have occurred in the Orient suggests that this criticism, though valid, is also relatively unimportant.

Languages such as French, Spanish, etc., have a maze of grammatical endings to show the use of words as nouns, verbs, etc., and also to show what role they will play in a particular sentence (subject, direct object, etc.). A particular ending will often play several different roles simultaneously; for instance, the Latin -ATUR shows that the word is a verb, first conjugation, in the passive voice, present tense, third person, singular. This, of course, means that large numbers of endings have to be learned.

Languages such as Chinese and, to a lesser extent, English have few if any such endings, and depend almost completely on syntax and context to show the meaning of a word. This leads to some amusing ambiguities, such as this favorite of compiler programmers: "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

To some extent, Esperanto splits the difference; word position plays some role (for instance, objects of prepositions always follow the prepositions in question), but the language also makes great use of eleven grammatical endings to liberate sentence order.

Why only eleven? Didn't I suggest, with respect to Latin, etc., that a great number of endings were necessary to cover all bases? But remember, Esperanto is both streamlined and agglutinative. First: in Latin you have to know whether a noun is first or third declension, or whether a verb is second or fourth conjugation (and there are appropriate subcategories). Esperanto has no declensions and only one conjugation. This considerably reduces the number of endings. Second, a verb's person is shown only by its accompanying subject, not by part of the ending. Third, nouns don't belong to separate classes or genders as they often do in other languages. FourthŠ But you can already see that the number of endings can be greatly reduced by streamlining.

Agglutination also reduces the number of endings. In, for instance, each Latin ending, taken as a unit, must play several roles at once, and the entire ending changes each time one of those roles is changed. For example, let's look at the Latin forms of "a fast girl" in the nominative and accusative singular and plural (Latin, of course, has many other forms; I choose these two because they correspond to the only two Esperanto forms that differ between themselves):

                    Singular               Plural

    Nominative      puellA celerIS      puellAE celerES
    Accusative	    puellAM celerEM     puellAS celerES
There are seven different endings involved here (actually eight; the two -ES on CELERES have to be memorized separately, because there are other dissimilar plural endings as well -- -UM, -IBUS, etc.). The -M by itself is indicative of the accusative singular, but it is not a real separate morpheme -- it appears in the genitive plural, as well -- nor is the -S (which also appears in the nominative singular of this particular adjective).

Now let's take a look at the Esperanto versions:

                    Singular               Plural

    Nominative      knabinO rapidA      knabinOJ rapidAJ
    Accusative      knabinON rapidAN    knabinOJN rapidAJN
If you are clever, you have already noticed that we have, in these eight endings, only four morphemes, each of which has a definite meaning, as defined below. These morphemes are constant, unchangeable ... and agglutinating.

-O on the end of a root tells you that it's playing the role of a noun. -A tells you that it's an adjective. If the -O or -A is followed by a -J, that means that the noun or adjective refers to more than one object (plural). -E tells you that the word is an adverb. Note: some people claim that the -O and -A endings have more than one task, that they tell you not only that the word is a noun or adjective, but that it is singular and nominative. This is incorrect. It is not, for instance, the -O that tells you that a noun is singular and nominative, but the absence of a -J and -N (see below) respectively. The -O and -A have only the one task: to tell you what kind of a word you have.

-N, attached to one of the above endings, shows that the word in question is the destination of a movement or the object of an action described in the sentence's verb. As such, its most common -- but not only -- use is as the direct object of a transitive verb.

Five of the eleven grammatical endings are used to show nouns, adjectives and adverbs. The other six refer to verbs. Three of these have to do with time. If a verb ends in -AS, it refers to an act going on now (present tense). If the ending is -IS, the act went on in the past and has been completed by the present time (past tense). If the ending is -OS, the act has not yet begun (future tense).

There is an ending -US which shows a potential, but not realized, act; this is called the conditional mood. In the passage above we see the expression ĉu ne tiel devus solviĝi ĉiuj problemoj de la ĥaosa mondo... (should not all problems of the chaotic world be solved in such a way...). This refers to something that might be, but isn't.

The ending -I refers to the infinitive, which is represented in English by the preposition "to," as in vidi, "to see."

The ending -U is called the volitive mood. It refers to commands, wishes, desires, etc. Its closest English equivalent is the imperative, or command, mood; but it covers much more ground.

While Esperanto roots are generally characterized as noun, adjective or verb roots, they are not in themselves nouns, adjectives or verbs, and require the appropriate grammatical ending to realize their potential. Use of a differend ending does not create an incorrect word; it simply redirects that root's potential. Any root may take any grammatical ending and become any part of speech, as long as it makes sense. For instance, konfuza, "confusing," an adjective, comes from the root konfuz', which is usually defined as a verb root and is used to make the verb konfuzi, "to confuse"; we can also produce konfuzo, "confusion," not to mention malkonfuzi, "to make perfect sense"; konfuzeti," to be a little bit confusing"; rekonfuzi, "to confuse all over again"; konfuziĝi, "to become confused"; konfuzigi, "to cause something or someone to confuse something or someone"; etc. Similarly, the root magi' gives us magia, "magical"; magio, "magic"; magii, "to perform magic."

(This leads to an interesting aside. Occasionally a root will end with a few letters that resemble a prefix or suffix; this is the stuff from which Esperanto puns are often made. It also leads to a process known in linguistics as back-formation, in which a complete word turns out to be divisible into a more elementary root and affix -- strictly by accident. There is a pseudo-suffix -io, used to show some sciences (ĥemio, for instance); someone, thinking of this, decided to back-form magio ("magic") to form mago, "mage"; and, subsequently, maga ("pertaining to a mage") and magi ("to behave as a mage"). Thinking along these lines, one author proposed creating the noun nanco ("the ethical handling of large amounts of money") by striking off the prefix fi- ("shameful") from the noun financo ("finance"), but decided that the fi- was too intimately linked to the whole concept of handling large amounts of cash.)

You can find an overview of Esperanto's morphology -- the "Sixteen Rules of Esperanto Grammar -- here. We should also include the "Table of Correlatives" in this grammar; it is found here. If you really want to get into learning Esperanto, several textbooks are listed, with comments, in Appendix 4 (to be posted later).

Several points of this grammatical system have been particularly irritating to Western linguists. In particular, many English-speakers are troubled by agreement between noun and adjective, and by the terrible, terrible N-ending.

Agreement in class (gender), number and case of adjectives with nouns is common in many languages; among the Indo-European ones, English is a notable exception in that it is not present. There are no classes of nouns and adjectives in Esperanto, but number and case remain. Many critics complain that this requirement is a piece of archaic ballast that Zamenhof carried over into Esperanto only because it was present in those (relatively primitive) languages which he knew. The argument is a poor one, since Zamenhof also knew English, and that language, by his own account, played an unusually influential role in the development of Esperanto's grammar.(7) In this case, Zamenhof simply felt that the English route was not the way to go.

The fact is that an adjective, being a modifier, must always describe something. Since there are often several somethings in the sentence, which something it describes must be shown in one way or another. English, like some other languages, chooses to restrict the location of the adjective to a particular location with respect to its modified noun, except in occasional special cases or for poetic effect; Esperanto, like many other languages, chooses to loosen this restriction by giving the adjective an ending that agrres with that of the noun it modifies.

Zamenhof's choice of -A and -O as adjective and noun endings was well-motivated; these two vowels are the ones that most easily form diphthongs with the -J semivowel, which in turn was absolutely necessary after Zamenhof decided to agglutinate both plural and case endings (the combination vowel = word type / semivowel = number / consonant = case was an absolutely brilliant creation). But they have been known to confuse people who have studied Spanish or Italian and who for some reason expect the presence of noun classes or "grammatical gender." In a 1960 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction the noted science writer Willy Ley, in answer to a letter from Harry Harrison, complained that one Esperantist had started a letter to him with Kara Amiko. If I remember Ley's argument correctly, it went something like this: "Either I am a man (which I am) and this should read karo amiko, or I am a woman, and it should read kara amika. If kara amiko is 'right' Esperanto grammar, then 'right' Esperanto grammar is wrong!"(8)

Even more despised than noun-adjective agreement is the so-called accusative ending, the -N. The usual argument goes something as follows: "The accusative ending is a piece of ballast, usually discarded sooner or later in the evolution of a language; the Western European languages, as they grew more advanced, got rid of it, and its presence in Esperanto shows the language to be unutterably primitive. We English-speakers get along very well without any special means of showing the direct object; why can't Esperanto?" Even among Esperantists, such criticisms are sometimes heard; and it is not unknown for American Esperantists, after listening to a few neophytes stumble through a set of sentences without remembering the -N ending, to claim that Esperanto itself is evolving away from this form.

Here, in fact, we have two criticisms: (1) the accusative ending is primitive; and (2) English proves it unnecessary.

There is a firm belief in some quarters that languages evolve in one direction only. This is a favorite myth of the language-builders of the "naturalistic" school, used to justify their gradual transition from schematic (and relatively successful) Esperanto to ultra-naturalistic (and relatively unsuccessful) Interlingua. Yet among the "modern" Western European languages we can show a counterexample. Spanish, after dropping the old Latin accusative morphemes in pre-medieval times, has more recently reevolved an accusative preposition to distinguish the direct object: the preposition a, as in Veo a mi madre (I see my mother), used with animate nouns to show the direct object. Similar evolutions are reported to have taken place in Romanian and Afrikaans, though I'm not familiar enough with those languages to confirm that. In any case, this is an accusative morpheme developed in recent times in a language that can hardly be called primitive.

As to whether English gets along well without a means of distinguishing object from subject -- I suppose I need only point out that in English, where nouns are concerned, the subject is always required to precede the object, a restriction that does not apply in Esperanto. Any other arrangement leads to confusion, unless semantic or cultural context makes the meaning unmistakably clear. Pronouns, incidentally do have varying direct object forms, and it strikes me as ironically amusing that the person learning English has to learn six different pronoun direct-object forms -- while in Esperanto he needs to learn only the one ending. (16)

All this reminds me of a theory I have seen expressed in the works of several otherwise competent authors, that in Julius Caesar's Rome the language of the common ruck must have been quite different from the classical tongue in which Cicero's magnificent orations are couched, since the ordinary Roman could never have handled the complicated inflections of the classical language that I studied in school. This theory ignores the fact that the average unlettered Russian serf of a century and a half ago spoke, without difficulty, a language just as inflected as that of ancient Rome, as does today's homeless Muscovite vagrant. In fact the theory says far more about the linguistic prejudices of its authors than it does about the linguistic competence of the average Roman citizen, freedman or slave. The same is true about criticisms of Esperanto's N-ending.

It would be premature here to go into the value of the -N ending for good writing style. But, all things considered, I don't think it an exaggeration to say that, after listening to all criticisms of the -N ending in Esperanto, the experienced Esperantist will still claim it as Zamenhof's most brilliant and useful innovation to the language.

Some critics have also suggested that Esperanto's grammar, like its vocabulary, is too strictly European. Esperanto-speaking linguists themselves are often uncertain about its structure. They will quickly refute such statements as those of French linguist Aurelien Sauvageot that Esperanto is a typical Indo-European inflected language,(9) but cannot themselves agree whether it is an agglutinative language like Hungarian, Japanese and Turkish(10), or an isolating language such as Chinese or Tibetan.(11) Pierre Janton suggests that Esperanto's structure is such that it can, more or less faithfully, reproduce the individual idiosyncrasies of an extraordinarily wide range of languages.(12)

A more telling criticism is that of H. Tani, that Esperanto's grammar, while not essentially European in nature, is far too often presented in a manner that stresses those grammatical points that are most comfortable for a European. "This thought," he says, "was strengthened when I looked through a few textbooks for Japanese. We are often forced to learn in the early lessons those grammatical points that are less easy for us such as the plural, prepositions, relative pronouns, etc.. The accusative, participles, verbified adjectives, agglutination, etc., which are relatively easy for Japanese -- when explained by comparison with the Japanese equivalents -- are introduced in later lessons. In a word, Esperanto textbooks give the same sort of impression to pupils that textbooks of European languages give."(13) A look through any textbook written for English-speakers will confirm this. In Teach Yourself Esperanto, the N-ending, which is absolutely necessary for carrying on even the simplest conversation, appears only in the third lesson, while in Claude Piron's short didactic novel Gerda Malaperis, originally written for students at the San Francisco State University summer Esperanto workshop, the author actually manhandles two different verbs in the first lessons to avoid using the -N. That this is not really necessary is shown by the very successful ten-lesson free postal course of Esperanto, in which the N-ending is introduced in the first lesson.

One aspect of Esperanto that has not, to my knowledge, been linguistically investigated is the contextual and kinetic. In other words -- what role do context and non-verbal signals play in the use of Esperanto as a means of interpersonal communication?

A good example of this is the little word ĉu. Ĉu, which derives from the Polish particle czy, is placed before a declaration to turn it into a yes-no question. Example:

Ĉu ne tiel devus solviĝi ĉiuj problemoj de la ĥaosa mondo?
Should not all problems of the chaotic word be solved in such a way?

Ĉu has also come to be used, by itself, as a response to a declaration. Used in this way, it has some of the meaning of the question mark standing by itself in the word balloon of a comic strip. But, used in this way, it can have any of several meanings: polite incredulity, enthusiasm, astonishment. Which of these is most appropriate is generally determined by context and, in actual conversation, by the speaker's non-verbal signals.

Question: How is it that Esperantists, who come from a wide variety of cultures which do not necessarily share the same systems of non-verbal signals, do in fact share such signals -- which, so far as I know, are not consciously passed on with instruction of the language -- on a worldwide basis? We may be able to see part of the answer in chapter 11 (to be posted at some future date).

What about our sample paragraph? Here's the same paragraph repeated, and an interlinear translation. See if this makes sense to you after what's been said above.

Ĉu ne tiel devus solviĝi ĉiuj problemoj de la ĥaosa
Should not all problems of the chaotic world be solved in such

mondo, inkluzive la vetarmadon? La mondo ja similas
a way, including the arms race? The world does indeed resemble

al konfuza magia kubo, kiun samtempe turnadas pluraj
a confusing magical cube, which is simultaneously being turned

senkonkordaj ludantoj, kiuj ne povas aŭ volas vidi la
by several inharmonious players, who cannot or will not see the

kubon en sia tuto, sed tenace insistas pri kelkaj, ŝajne
cube in its totality, but tenaciously insist on several, apparently

reordigitaj najbaraj kubetoj, kiuj konsekvencigas
reordered, neighboring cubelets, which bring about

malordon sur aliaj facoj de la kubo.
disorder on other faces of the cube.

What are the chances of any of what you have just read changing? Some constructed languages, such as Ido, changed from day to day; others, such as Occidental, seemed completely immune to change. Where does Esperanto fall in this spectrum?

Actually, in another sense, there's no spectrum at all. Ido and Occidental were identical in that few people ever actually spoke them. But Ido was the product of a committee, and Occidental was largely a one-man show. In neither case did any degree of mass inertia develop, either in the direction of change or away from it. So Ido, with no single controlling force, remained subject to continual modification; Occidental, under centralized control, remained free of it.

Prior to the beginning of this century, Esperanto might be considered to have fallen into the same category: few speakers, no inertia. In chapter three we read about the pressure for "reform" during this early period; and, as mentioned, Zamenhof himself headed it off. In this sense, Zamenhof played Von Wahl's role during these early years. But Zamenhof did not make the mistake Schleyer made and insist on retaining absolute authority for all time; from the moment Esperanto "went public," Zamenhof went to great lengths to "institutionalize" the language and take it out of the hands of individuals, whether reformers or autocrats. His greatest success was the adoption by the Esperantists in 1905 of the Fundamento de Esperanto, by explicit and implicit social contract between the Esperantists the unchangeable core of the language.

The Fundamento consists of three parts: the "Sixteen rules of grammar," which define Esperanto's morphology and, roughly, its word-formation system; the "World Dictionary," which defines some four thousand Esperanto roots in terms of their English, French, German, Polish and Russian equivalents; and Zamenhof's "Exercises," which by example describe Esperanto's syntax. Many Esperantists also consider Zamenhof's Language Answers, a later collection of replies to requests for clarification about the language, as being part of the canon, but they are not officially recognized as such.

If Esperanto's structure is effectively rendered unchangeable by the Fundamento, there is an even more fundamental (you should excuse the expression) characteristic of the language that militates against modification: its essential unity of structure. Far more than any of the ethnic languages, Esperanto is a structural unity, and any "minor" change would lead to much greater, less apparent changes in the entire language. As a result, structural changes are much more difficult to make successfully. The authors of the Distributed Language Translation project, which is being developed as a computer language translation system using Esperanto as a "bridge" language, confessed that their earlier attempts to modify Esperanto to make it more "suitable" had effectively failed because of this internal linguistic unity, and the final product would be using an intermediate language much closer to Classical Esperanto than they had originally planned.(14)

Does this mean that the language is completely immune to change? Hardly. But change occurs only in the most susceptible part of the language: its vocabulary. New words are constantly in the process of development, usually on an as-required basis; for instance, the term lasero was never invented by Zamenhof. Where the "World Dictionary" of 1905 contained about four thousand roots, today there are more than eight thousand that are official; and the most comprehensive Esperanto dictionary, a recent Esperanto-Chinese dictionary, contains more than eighteen thousand, both official and unofficial. In fact, Zamenhof himself, over his years as a translator into Esperanto, proposed some thousands of different neologisms, most of which have never been adopted or even copied. The continuing tension between proponents of neologisms and the "conservatives" who want to keep Esperanto pure and simple is one of several ongoing dialectics in the evolution of the language and its supporting movement.(15)

How long should it take for the student to learn the language? That's a question for which I have no pat answer. If you pick up a book and start learning Esperanto, or begin an Esperanto class, or start a correspondence course, you'll end up taking away just as much as you put into your studies. I've known people who, after twenty years of "studying" Esperanto, can hardly put together a complete sentence in the language; generally, they are people who (1) have never really felt any need to speak the language, (2) have never bothered to read anything written in the language, and (3) simply haven't devoted any time to improving their Esperanto.

On the other hand, there are occasional examples who show us what is possible with Esperanto. My favorite is the guy I met at the London Esperanto Club one evening, as we were both leafing through the new offerings at the book table. I started talking to him in Esperanto and soon realized that he was a relatively new Esperantist -- he hadn't been learning the language for more than six months, I guessed. His grammar was perfect and his vocabulary was adequate, but he still had to search for words as he spoke. We talked for about five minutes before I asked: "How long have you been studying Esperanto?" His answer was: "Well, last Saturday I was in Foyle's Bookstore and I saw an Esperanto dictionary, and I thought the language looked interesting, so..." One German woman of my acquaintance claimed to have learned the language in three days. A Rumanian Esperantist I know wrote his first letter in Esperanto after studying the language overnight. Count Leo Tolstoy said he could read Esperanto after three or four hours of study. And the Esperanto League for North America recently received a postcard, in good Esperanto, from a young man in New York who apologized for any errors he might have made, saying he had only been studying the language for two hours.

These are exceptions, and you should not expect to be so quick. But they do show what can be done.

There are a number of ways to go about learning the language. The ten-lesson free postal course, available through ELNA and online, is a good and inexpensive way to start. If you're lucky, you live in a place where you can find a class; if there is no class, but there's a local group, you might push them start a course. A set of four correspondence courses from the American Association of Teachers of Esperanto is available through ELNA. And, of course, you can buy a textbook and learn the language on your own, as I did; my own experience suggests that Esperanto is about the only language for which this is possible. Getting a textbook, of course, is not all that easy in the United States; most bookstores don't carry them. In China, I bought five different Esperanto textbooks in a hole-in-the-wall storefront bookshop in Nanjing...

Give it a try. You may be surprised at how easily you pick it up.


(1) See also appendix 11.
(2) At the time this was written, TrueType fonts did not exist. Currently there are also TrueType fonts for Esperanto.
(3) Setälä, Vilho: "La Genio de Zamenhof: Efekta Lingvo" ("Zamenhof's Genius: An Effective Language"), in Lapenna, Ivo (ed.), Memorlibro pri la Zamenhofjaro ("Memorial Book of the Zamenhof Jubilee"), London: UEA, 1960, p. 43. The original study by Setälä appeared in the magazine Esperantologio, Vol. I No. 1 (1949).
(4) Quoted by James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1986.
(5) For a typical discussion of sexism in Esperanto, see letter by Dianne Gorgen and Craig Wallace in Esperanto U.S.A., 1991(6); various replies in Esperanto U.S.A., 1992(1); and Prof. Jonathan Pool and Derek Roff, "Sekso kaj (Mal)egaleco" ("Sex and (In)equality"), Esperanto U.S.A. 1992(2).
(6) Quoted in Ulise, the house organ of Alitalia Airlines.
(7) Zamenhof, L.L.: Letter to Nikolai Afrikanovich Borovko.
(8) In Galaxy Science Fiction, Feb. 1960.
(9) Reported by Gaston Waringhien in Lingvo kaj Vivo, La Laguna: Stafeto, 1959, p. 14.
(10) Wells, John C.: Lingvistikaj Aspektoj de Esperanto ("Linguistic Aspects of Esperanto"). Rotterdam: UEA, 1990 (2d ed.).
(11) Piron, Claude: Esperanto, ĉu Eŭropa aŭ Azia Lingvo? ("Esperanto, European or Asian language?"). Rotterdam: UEA, 1978.
(12) Janton, Pierre: "Ĉu ekzistas lingvaj kriterioj de internacieco?" ("Are there linguistic criteria of internationality?"), Acta Interlinguistca 12 (July 1985). Warsaw: Akademickie Centrum Interlingwistyczne.
(13) Tani, H.: "Prezenti Esperanton pli japanece" ("Presenting Esperanto in a more Japanese manner"), La Movado 442 (Dec. 1987). Oosaka: Kansaja Ligo de Esperanto-Grupoj.
(14) Quoted in Esperanto, May, 1987.
(15) See chapter 9 (to be posted at some future date).
(16) It has been pointed out that poets will sometimes invert subject-object order for poetic reasons. A good example is line 75 of Robert Burns' poem Tam O' Shanter, where it is difficult to tell, except from extremely general context, which noun is intended as a subject and which is intended as an object. It appears that Burns did in fact intend to invert the order, and that Rossetti, in translating the poem into Esperanto, made an incorrrect assumption about this.
(17) Berlitz, Charles, Native Tongues, New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1982. Berlitz, a third-generation scion of the language-school family who is also an expert on such phenomena as the Bermuda Triangle, also believes that Esperanto, "having no national base, has a tendency to subdivide into national 'dialects' or offshoots, such as Esperantido, Nov-Esperanto, and Ido." If Mr. Berlitz ever sees this page, he may wish to check out chapter 3.
(18) Actually, Esperanto's official vocabulary has incorporated a fairly large number of non-European roots via the European languages which served as its sources; we find many words such as kafo, tabako, alĝebro and algoritmo. If we include Esperanto's unofficial roots, the actual percentage of non-European roots is conceivably higher than for, e.g., English. See as examples the Enciklopedieto Japana, Badiollah Samimy's Esperanto-Persa Vortaro, Tibor Sekelj's Elpafu la sagon.
(19) The quote from Charles Berlitz given above immediately precedes a long section of his book whose intent is to demonstrate that English is the most appropriate tongue to serve as an international language.

This document is owned by:
Don Harlow <donh@donh.best.vwh.net>