Chapter Four
Spelling Esperanto

Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft.  This is the 4th chapter of  Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village.  You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies.   You may not post this material to any site.   You are invited to insert links to this site.   For any other use, including publication, you must first get my permission.   I welcome any suggestions about how to improve this work.   My address is sylvanz@me.com.

One of the pleasures of learning Esperanto is learning how to spell in the language.  Like a number of other languages, Esperanto is perfectly phonetic.  This is one of the things that makes Esperanto so much easier to learn than languages such as Chinese, Japanese, French and English.

Learning How to Write in Chinese and Japanese

Imagine if it were decided that everyone in the world would have to learn as the main international language that language which was spoken by more people than any other.  Everyone would have to learn Mandarin Chinese.  According to the Ethnologue, 885 million human beings speak Mandarin Chinese while 332 million speak Spanish and 332 million speak English.  Everyone would have to learn how to recognize and to draw a separate character, called an ideogram or an ideograph, for thousands of individual words.  This would take many years of study.

Because of the use of ideograms, Chinese does have one significant advantage over languages which use an alphabet.  Because most words are represented by just one character and not by a bunch of letters, educated readers can read Chinese more rapidly than their counterparts can read English, French, Arabic or Esperanto.  In the languages that use alphabets a word may require five or ten different characters, letters, to represent it, and not just one or two.

It makes good sense for the Chinese to keep their system of ideograms because of this advantage. However, the immense difficulty of learning thousands of these ideograms makes it impractical to consider Chinese for use as an easy-to-learn international language.

Learning How to Spell in French

It is not at all easy to learn how to spell in French.  There are good historical reasons for this.  One is that there are more sounds in French than there are letters in the Latin alphabet which French, like English, uses. Another reason is that French spelling was essentially fixed a long time ago but French pronunciation kept changing.  Because the French have kept the spelling forms that were used hundreds of years ago, they can read the old texts easily.  This is a big advantage.  However, because present day French spelling does not match present day French pronunciation, learning correct French spelling can be very difficult.  This is a disadvantage.

French is such a difficult language to spell that French dictionaries not only have to give the regular spelling of each word but they also have to present the pronunciation of each word using a second alphabet, a phonetic alphabet which consists of forty different symbols, one for each of the sounds of the language.  The 26 letters of the modern Latin alphabet have to represent 40 different French sounds.  Accent marks over the vowels help somewhat, but there can still be different ways of spelling the same vowel sound.  (For instance, the words O, au, aux and eau are all pronounced alike.)

French has many homonyms, words that are pronounced the same way but are spelled differently and have different meanings.  Some examples of English homonyms are “threw” and “through”, and “to”, “two” and “too”.

Here are some French homonyms.  The French words are in bold type.

sans without cent 100 sent (he)smells
vain vain


20 vin wine
mets dish mai May mais but
août August ou or where

This does not cause problems for the native speaker, of course, because the context makes the meaning clear but it may cause difficulties in spelling for the foreign student just as foreign students of English may make mistakes regarding “to”, “too” and “two”.

In French sometimes two or more letters are required to write down a single sound.  It is not difficult to find words which have twice as many letters as they have sounds.  Maintenant, which means “now”, has ten letters which represent five sounds.  Enceinte, which means “pregnant” or “enclosed”, has eight letters which represent just four sounds.

Most final consonants are only pronounced if the following word begins with a vowel or a certain kind of an “h.” The common verb ending ‑ent is not pronounced at all.  The following three forms of the French verb that means “to talk” or “to speak” are all pronounced the same way:

je parle


I am speaking

tu parles


you (familiar) are speaking

ils parlent


they (masculine) are speaking

French is such a challenging language to spell, even for native speakers of the language, that French educators have devised a special kind of classroom exercise called a dictée or dictation which they use a lot.  In this exercise the teacher reads a passage aloud, clearly and slowly, and the students write down what they hear.  The student tries to write out the passage making as few mistakes as possible.  Some of these exercises are fiendishly difficult.

For a few centuries, up until the twentieth century, French was the most commonly used international language.  French achieved this status due to the prestige of French culture and the influence of the French state.  French did not achieve this status because it is an easy language to spell.

Learning How to Spell in English

English spelling is even more difficult than French spelling.  There are a number of reasons why it is so difficult.  One reason is that English has even more sounds than French but only twenty-six letters with which to spell those sounds.  Unlike French, English does not take advantage of accent marks over vowels to help distinguish between different sounds.  Another reason is that English words come from a vast number of sources, from different dialects of English and from languages all over the world.  Various foreign pronunciations are kept even when they do not accord with earlier English forms of spelling.  Thus, for example, the “p” in the English term “coup de grace” is silent as it is in the original French.

English spelling is so difficult that every year in the United States special contests are held among schoolchildren to see which student can last the longest, spelling words without making a mistake.  These spelling bees can be very challenging competitions.  Champions are selected at every level, from the classroom level or school level up to the national level.  The National Champion gets his or her picture in the paper and wins a college scholarship.

English spelling is so difficult that many college graduates never master it.  Native speakers of English who have to check their spelling include many professional people and holders of advanced degrees.  This is not because these people are stupid.  It is because the English system of spelling, for good historical reasons, is grossly illogical.

When people all around the world decide to study English for use as an international language, they take on this tremendous burden of illogical spelling.  It must be particularly galling for people whose native tongues are spelled phonetically to have to confront and try to master this illogical system.  They have to devote hundreds of hours of hard work to do so.  They do not spend all of this time at once.  However, every time they learn a new word and have to check how it is spelled, they spend a little bit of this time.  A minute here and a minute there add up.  If a student has learned how to correctly spell, say, 5000 English words, that student has spent hundreds of hours learning how to spell correctly in English.

As with French, the makers of English dictionaries not only give the correct spelling (or, in some cases, correct spellings) of each word but they also represent the sound of each word by utilizing a system of specially marked letters.  The American Heritage Dictionary lists the different ways of spelling each of these sounds in Standard American English.  (Standard British English is pronounced somewhat differently.) According to this highly reputable dictionary there are often a great many different ways of spelling a single sound in English.

The sound of o as in go is spelled in these twelve additional ways:



as in mauve



as in yeoman



as in sew



as in roam



as in foe



as in oh



as in brooch



as in shoulder



as in flow



as in bureau



as in borough



as in owe

Some of these are rare; others, more common.  Someone learning how to spell English has to learn how to keep these thirteen ways of spelling a single sound apart.  What makes it more difficult is that many of these ways of spelling the sound of o as in go are also used to spell other sounds:

The letters ew spell the o-sound in sew but an oo-sound in flew.

The letters ow spell the o-sound in flow but an ow-sound in cow.

The letters ough spell the o-sound in borough but an uff-sound in rough

And so on.  And so on.  And so on.

The o as in go example is only the most complex case.  There are a great many other sounds in English which are spelled in multiple ways.

Let us consider a consonant sound that is spelled in different ways. 

The sound of s as in say also appears as:



as in mess



as in cell



as in piece



as in psychoanalysis



as in science



as in schism



as in isthmus

As a final example let us take the sound of ch in church which is also spelled in these ways:



as in cello



as in Czech



as in bitch



as in question



t as in adventure

Many pages could be filled with similar examples.

Here are some pairs of words in which the last part of each word is spelled the same but pronounced differently:

alive / give

break / streak

raid / said

dour / four

ache / mustache

English has a lot of letters which are written but not pronounced such as:

the b



the g



the k



the gh



the l



the s



For each new word, foreign students must make a special effort to learn how that particular word is spelled. When they comes across the word fish, for example, they have to learn which of the five ways of spelling the f sound is used, which of the ten ways of spelling the i sound is used and which of the twelve ways of spelling the sh sound is used.

Of course, the more foreign students study English, the more of a feeling they will develop for English spelling patterns.  They will realize that the gh way of spelling the f sound never occurs at the beginning of a word.  Nevertheless, irregularities in spelling will always betray him.  They are strewn throughout the entire language like thousands of little traps.  Facing these irregularities, logic and intelligence are helpless.

In order to adopt English for more efficient use as an international auxiliary language it would make sense to spell the language phonetically.  That would save each foreign student of the language many hundreds of hours of valuable learning time.  However to do so would require an alphabet of more than forty letters.  Most native speakers of English would greet such a proposal with disdain or with incredulity.  When people have spent their whole lives getting used to a system that they use every day, they do not want to change it, no matter how much it might help other people if they did so.  (Esperantists, of course, would be just as resistant to changes in their language.)

If a phonetic system for spelling English were adopted universally, it too would have to vary for each one of the many different kinds of English that are spoken.  People pronounce the language quite differently in different places.  Just think of the forms of the language that are commonly used in Chicago, Boston, Mississippi, Yorkshire, Scotland, London, Bombay, Nigeria and Jamaica, to say nothing of Papua New Guinea.

The Standard English system of spelling is very advantageous in one way.  English is a national (or state) language in many different countries which were once part of the British Empire, countries as different as Jamaica, England, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana and South Africa.  Even though the pronunciation may vary among all of these countries and more, the written language is essentially similar.  This makes it easy for people in one of these countries to read materials written by people in another of these countries even though some individuals from the two areas might have difficulty understanding each other’s pronunciation.

The many millions of non-native speakers of English who study the tongue as an international auxiliary language have to constantly concern themselves with the spelling of words.  After hundreds of hours of work none of them will have fully mastered the English spelling system.  When they see a new word in print they will not automatically know how to pronounce it.  All they will be able to do is make a guess or look for their dictionary or utilize their multi-media computer’s pronouncing dictionary.

The Ease of Learning to Spell in Esperanto

Compared to learning how to spell in English or in French, learning to spell in Esperanto is a snap.  Americans who have mastered the materials of a simple, thirty hour introductory course in Esperanto will be able to spell much better in Esperanto than in their native language.  A foreign student of English could study spelling for a thousand hours and still would not be able to spell as well as a beginner can in Esperanto after a short introductory course.  This is because spelling in Esperanto is phonetic.  (Esperanto is not at all unique in this.  Many other languages are spelled phonetically including Finnish and Swahili.)

Each Esperanto letter represents just one sound.  Each Esperanto sound is represented by just one letter.  An international language is to be learned by people all over the world.  If one of the criteria for selecting a language for international use is that it should be easy to spell, then Esperanto meets that criterion.

New Esperantists can correctly spell words that they hear for the first time and they can correctly pronounce words that they see for the first time.

The situation regarding Esperanto can be summed up with this single, simple statement:

There is one way of spelling each of the 28 different sounds.

Chapter Five   Pronouncing Esperanto

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