Sylvan Zaft: Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village

Aug 17, 2015

I have to admit that I’m biased: I like both Esperanto itself as well as what it aims for ever since watching Red Dwarf and learning something about the language. Many years ago, I took a stab at learning it on lernu! but soon gave up. My interest was rekindled when Duolingo launched an Esperanto course. As of beginning of August 2015, English → Esperanto course is (with nearly 80 thousand learners*) the 12th largest course 8by the number of students) in the English → some language group; 43rd overall, 22nd if we exclude all some language → English courses.

Since I haven’t even finished the Esperanto tree on Duolingo (3/4 down the tree, ou yeah!) and haven’t even heard about some of the concepts, I haven’t tried to read any longer texts in Esperanto. I have started to listen to kern.punkto podcast and watching Evidea’s videos as a preparation to get into proper reading. In the meantime, in order to quench my thirst for Esperanto, I decided to read Sylvan Zaft’s book about it.

Via patraĉo estis ebriegulo kaj via patrino trafikis kiun ajn dum unua vido!

What Rimmer meant in Kryten

Zaft explains many key concepts of the language throughout the book and also discusses strengths and weaknesses of the language. The feeling I got was that a hater or even person who dismisses Esperanto as an artificial language would read two or three chapters and throw the book away as a piece idealist propaganda, because the criticisms creep into the text rather late. In a way, the book is a piece of propaganda and argues for adoption of Esperanto in international communication, but doesn’t do so in a dogmatic or imposing way. I’ve taken quite a few notes from the book and I will use this space to discuss them.

The main benefit of Esperanto from the perspective of a learner is its simplicity. Zaft repeats this point many times over when describing different aspects of the language - it’s no surprise, since it was Zamenhof’s goal. The aspects in which Esperanto lowers the barrier of entry include consistent endings for verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs; simple system of affixes which can be combined in a myriad ways to extend the meaning of a base root; regular verbs with simple tense system or phonological spelling.

An interesting point, which gets often overlooked by English speakers, is linguistic discrimination: native English speakers have a huge advantage over the rest of the world who struggle to learn it. Because English is the lingua franca of the current world, everyone tries to learn it - it’s not that hard on the passive level when the stakes are low, but becoming fluent and confident in speaking and writing is very hard and requires huge amounts of time spent learning and practicing. English is definitely easier than French, which used to be the lingua franca before English, but it hasn’t overtaken it, because it is easier to learn, but because the overall political powers shifted. United Kingdom sowed English all over the Empire over which Sun didn’t set and resulted in 400 million native speakers around the globe. It’s less than twenty percent of the global population, but countries where English is native have wielded disproportionately more political and cultural power - just look at Hollywood’s entertainment output.

Esperanto is put forward as an easy-to-learn second language which puts everyone on the same footing - it’s nobody’s native language and therefore no one has an unfair advantage - the beautiful metaphor used called it a linguistic handshake in which both sides reach out. It’s not not exactly true: Esperanto has existed for over a century and there are native speakers, mostly from multilingual households; they however form only a tiny fraction of speakers. In the omission of this key point lies, I believe, most of the derision towards Esperanto. The language is intended to be a tool for international communication, not to replace anyone’s native tongue. It’s been created simple exactly for that reason - be easy to learn and use.

Some people criticize Esperanto for not being the simplest language possible even though it was never meant to be so. Among the many artificial languages that have been created over the decades are many simpler languages, but none has gained as much momentum as Esperanto. Others take this and say that since Esperanto hasn’t become widely accepted over its life, let’s forget it and just learn English since everyone knows it. Zaft, like many other promoters of Esperanto, puts a lot of effort into explaining why English, as well as pretty much any national language, is a poor choice for international communication. I don’t want to go into details of all of those, but:

  • The aforementioned linguistic discrimination which many speakers of English don’t realize (and we like to laugh at them when they face the world where not everyone speaks their language, sorry it’s just irresistable).
  • English is full of exceptions, one of the worst areas is spelling. There was a nice piece about US spelling reform on The Gist some time ago discussing how hard it is even for native speakers to learn all the strange rules (all the silent e’s, you/u, read/read/read, though/dough, recipe etc.). Americans famously hold competitions in spelling because there’s something to compete in! Esperanto uses phonetic spelling where each letter corresponds to one sound and vice versa - something many languages gravitate towards. (Czech is pretty close but there’s the whole i/y situation after voiced consonants and assimilation of consonants followed by i or ě. I heard that Finnish is the best example of native languages. For that reason Esperanto dispenses with letters q (kv), x (ks) and y (i) and adds new ones ŝ, ĉ, ĵ, ĝ and ŭ. What I find strange is the need to invent new letters when there are already letters (š, č and ž) and groups (dž and au) with the same pronunciation in Czech and Slovakian. In any case this system reduces the problem how to pronounce a written word down to avoiding all the idiosyncrasies of one’s native language. English would need around 40 characters to express all its sounds - just look at IPA alphabet. An interesting point is that the messy spelling is a bridge between all variants of English: if the UK and the USA (and others) each adopted a spelling reform the written English would drift apart as much as the spoken English does.
  • English can be wonderfully concise which is great for headlines but it comes with being ambiguous, leading to humor but also to graver misunderstandings. There’s legalese to avoid them. Esperanto uses accusative ending to indicate object of transitive verbs which clears a lot of (not all) the ambiguity.
  • Many languages use grammatical categories to group nouns (and pronouns) and use different forms of verbs or adjectives - think of French (or Czech). In many cases (but definitely not all) the grammatical categories are called genders and they have some overlap with physical gender of concrete nouns, abstract nouns are, however, divided arbitrarily. Lexicon Valley has an excellent episode about grammatical genders. In English the distinction is reduced to third person pronouns (he/she, him/her) and creates an absurd situation where grammatical categories / genders don’t exist but neither does a gender neutral pronoun. Esperanto takes similar approach as English, i.e. no genders and no gender neutral pronoun.
  • English like any other language is full of idioms with fixed meaning. These have to be learned and memorized individually and form a hurdle to new learners. Esperanto doesn’t use idioms, or at least tries not to. Those that exist are often tainted by the native tongue of their creators and don’t survive long.
  • English has huge vocabulary with tens of thousands of roots which can be extended by affixes to create new meaning. However, each root can be associated with only some affixes to be understood. The best examples are all the negations: a-, dis-, im-, in-, il-, ir-, un- and non-. You can’t say unregular or aregular because the only irregular is correct. There are some rules to this chaos but it’s still a hard thing to get right. Esperanto has much narrower vocabulary of roots but they’re commonly expanded by around 50 affixes with fixed meaning to create related terms and Esperanto speakers are used to parsing the meaning out of those words. It is impossible to come up with an ungrammatical combination of affixes, because all are acceptable. Not all have meaning and not all are common enough to be understood on the fly, but they can be parsed using the knowledge of 50 affixes and simple rules how to combine them.

The goal of Esperanto is to ease international communication. Zaft shows that English, like any other native language, is not suited for this task but there’s an alternative approach in the wild. In the wild wild European Union with 24 official languages (and other international organizations like UN) and an army of translators for all the combinations. (Again, I can refer to Lexicon Valley on this topic.) The translations are of course not perfect and cost a huge amount of money which grows rapidly with addition of a new language. This is exactly the environment for which Esperanto was intended. Personally, I am a pessimist and can’t see a way how to get Esperanto there. It has so many clear benefits and most criticisms are based on misconceptions about the language. On the other hand, I find myself hoping for a better world which definitely includes Esperanto.

Zaft’s book is about Esperanto but not for Esperantits. It’s meant for people who are skeptical about the language but willing to learn something about it before dismissing it. I hope more people will read it and come around to the language to create a better world or at least politely decline after informing themselves.

  • A week later when I finished this article, the number of learners already exceeded 86 thousand. It has grown to 96.4 thousand learners by the date of publication of this article.