Justin Rye's Rant

WARNING : BAD LANGUAGE
This was intended as an opinion piece, not an objective guide to a Victorian constructed international auxiliary language (the clue’s in the URL), but people have nonetheless ended up linking to it as one of the few available information sources on the topic that isn’t an advert.  As far as the web is concerned, Esperantism is rather like phrenology or spiritualism: forgotten and ignored by everybody except a few diehard zealots and even fewer debunkers.

Learn not to speak Esperanto

Contents

Background

Esperanto was invented in 1887 by an oculist from Białystok, Dr Ludwig L Zamenhof (AKA “Doctor Hopeful”).  Even its proponents estimate there to be barely a million Esperanto speakers in the world (largely Central/Eastern Europe); compare Albanian with about six million, Mandarin Chinese with 1000 million, and English with (depending how you count) 400 to 1800 million.  Here in Scotland I’ve met more Klingon speakers than Esperantists!Most people I know despise Esperanto, but largely for daft reasons – “Everyone speaks English nowadays anyway”, “It sounds a bit foreign”, “It has no cultural identity of its own”, etc.  I, on the other hand, dislike it for being:
  • Just good enough to inspire anti‐revisionist fanaticism!
  • Just bad enough to strike the general public as risible!
  • Easily improvable enough to inspire constant half‐baked “reforms” whose inventors argue amongst themselves!
So the result of Zamenhof’s labours is that it’s inconceivable that any constructed international auxiliary language, however good, could succeed. An optimally designed world auxiliary language would be
  1. Clear – i.e. all its rules would have been carefully chosen and explicitly established.
  2. Simple – involving a minimum of grammatical complexity (e.g. irregular forms, fiddly inflections, or arbitrary categories like “feminine”).
  3. Universal – as learnable for Tamils, Koreans, or Zulus as for the Europeans who already have so many advantages.
  4. Elegant – designed to strike potential speakers as painless and natural to use.
My contention is that Esperanto contrariwise is
  1. Obscure – full of assumed rules and unadvertised usages.
  2. Complex – with cases, adjectival concord, subjunctives etc.
  3. Parochial – designed to appeal primarily to Europeans.
  4. Clumsy – full of hard sounds, odd letters, and absurd words.
It looks like some sort of wind‐up‐toy Czech/Italian pidgin.  And if there’s one part of this world that doesn’t need a local pidgin, it’s Europe, which is not only the continent best covered by online translation services, but also the home of the current de facto global lingua franca: English. If Esperanto vanished from existence, nothing of value would be lost; the world shows no sign of wanting to learn an invented common tongue.  Maybe someday that’ll change – but if it does, we’ll have no shortage of candidates to choose from, since Esperanto has any number of better designed but less well known competitors.  (They may have fewer existing speakers, but the difference is dwarfed by the billions they’d need to gain to be accounted a success.)  Or the UN could hire a linguist or two and get a language purpose‐built, the way Hollywood now routinely does for fantasy movies! I’m following standard convention for linguistics here: /slant/ brackets for phonemic analyses, [square] ones for phonetics, and angle brackets for words spelled in the conventional orthography.  This includes using the proper Unicode characters both for IPA symbols and Esperanto’s accented letters, as in ĉirkaŭŝmiraĵo = “stuff smeared around” (pronounced roughly “cheer‐cow‐shmee‐RAH‐zhoh”). Please bear in mind that my critique is aimed at Esperanto’s pretensions as a global auxiliary language; if you’re a hobbyist polyglot looking for a seventh European tongue to learn, feel free to waste your spare time on it.  If you’re a hobbyist language inventor looking for something to base your constructed language on, I’d advise you to start from somewhere else.  This 130‐year‐old design isn’t worth trying to fix up; and Esperantists refuse to consider the possibility of directed reforms anyway, because the core grammar established in the “Fundamento” was set in stone in 1905.

SECTION 01: PHONEMES

01a: Introduction

The mutually distinct sound units that a given language recognises as elementary building blocks for word‐making are referred to as “phonemes”.  Esperanto has 23 consonants and (if we assume the common diphthongs like OJ count as sequences rather than phonemes) just five vowels:
Esperanto:
/m b p v f w/
/– d t r/
/n ts z s l/
/– ʒ ʃ j/
/– ɡ k x h/
/i e a o u/
By way of comparison, English (or my dialect, anyway – details available) has 24 consonants and 19 vowels, since diphthongs like OY are normally counted as phonemic.

01b: Clarity

Languages vary hugely in what articulations they are willing to recognise as an “R‑sound”, or even a “T‑sound” (which in English can among other things be an aspirated alveolar plosive, a glottal stop, or a tap; in Spanish that tap is more likely to be heard as R, and T is unaspirated and dental).  In the absence of clear definitions, the compromise Esperantists have settled on is that “R‑sounds” like the French/German version are acceptable but the best pronunciation is the Italian one, which also happens to be standard in the Slavic family.

01c: Simplicity

Does the inventory really need to include a /ts/ phoneme (C as in cico = “a teat, nipple”, pronounced “TSEE‑tso”), given that the second column has an odd gap where its voiced partner /dz/ would go?  Esperanto could easily do without some of those consonant phonemes, like all these languages that get by with far fewer:
Andean Spanish:
/m p β ɸ r/
/n t ð s ɾ/
ʝ l/
/– k ɣ x/
Hawaiian:
/m p w/
/n ʔ l/
/– k h/
Japanese:
/m b p w/
/– z s r/
/n d t j/
/– ɡ k h/
Rotokas:
/p β/
/t ɾ/
/k ɣ/

01d: Universality

The languages of Zamenhof’s home region show a strong areal resemblance; Belorussian and Yiddish and Lithuanian all use similar sets of consonant phonemes, prominently featuring sounds that are uncommon in global terms and fall into a characteristically European grid pattern.  Compare the Esperanto inventory with the following (parentheses indicate phonemes slightly disguised by the spelling system):
Eastern Polish:
/m b p v f w/
/(mʲ) (bʲ) (pʲ) (vʲ) (fʲ) –/
/– d t r/
/n (dz) ts z s l/
/(nʲ) (dzʲ) (tsʲ) (zʲ) (sʲ) –/
/– ʒ ʃ j/
/– ɡ k x h/
/– (ɡʲ) (kʲ) (xʲ) –/
/i e a o u/
/– (ẽ) (õ) –/
Zamenhof included in Esperanto every Polish phoneme with a consistently used letter or digraph of its own, leaving out only the ones that are harder to recognise as phonemes: the nasal vowels, “soft” (palatalised) consonants, and /dz/.

01e: Elegance

Complaints about the ugliness of this roster of sounds are always brushed off as a matter of taste.  But surveys say distinctions like /h/‐vs.‐/x/, /ts/‐vs.‐/tʃ/, /v/‐vs.‐/w/, /z/‐vs.‐/ʒ/ are statistically rare, so it’s the people who find Esperanto’s phonology bizarre and awkward who are being objective!  Zamenhof himself clearly acknowledged some sounds as worth avoiding: /ʒ/ (as in seiZure) occurs in no more than a handful of common roots, while /x/ (as in loCH) is rarer yet, appearing only in uncommon ones.  Adding them to Esperanto was a misstep that could have been fixed easily at any point.

1f: Miscellaneous

It’s bad enough that Zamenhof couldn’t see past the spelling conventions of the first language he learned to write with the Roman alphabet, but note that I compare the inventory to Eastern Polish; modern standard Polish has no phonemic /h/‐vs.‐/x/ distinction.  It’s not just some vague Central/Eastern European bias – it’s specifically a local dialect of Polish!

SECTION 02: GRAPHEMES

02a: Introduction

Unsurprisingly, Esperanto spelling is much more regular than English, in which GH is famously unruly – see my own Spelling Reform page.  Its graphemes (the contrastive units in a spelling system) can even be charted in a strict one‐to‐one correspondence with its phonemic inventory.
Orthodox System:
⟨M B P V F Ŭ⟩
⟨– D T R⟩
⟨N C Z S L⟩
⟨– Ĝ Ĉ Ĵ Ŝ J⟩
⟨– G K Ĥ H⟩
⟨I E A O U⟩

02b: Clarity

Using a fully phonemic orthography (one phoneme: one grapheme) is a sensible policy.  Unfortunately, sources such as “Teach Yourself Esperanto” go further, claiming that it is phonetic (one sound: one letter) – which is (a) pointless and (b) infeasible.  In any speakable human tongue, phonemes have permitted ranges of allophonic variation in different contexts, and getting used to these rules is how you learn to speak (and hear) without a foreign accent.  But Zamenhof declared both that such variation was forbidden and that Esperantists didn’t need to follow the rules.  A great help.

02c: Simplicity

The way this spelling system irregularly pairs up the circumflexed G not with K but with C, and S not with Z but with J, must be intended to increase the recognis­ability of Romance‐derived words like riĉa = “rich”; but if that was such a high priority, why is the language chock‐full of spellings like ekskuzi, ĥoroj, kvarco = “to excuse, choirs, quartz”?  As an inevitable side‐effect it erodes the recognis­ability of words from anywhere else, such as ĝazo = “jazz” or deĵoro = “duty” (Polish dyżur).  And what was the point of dressing up the velar fricative Ĥ as a form of the glottal approximant H, or of introducing a special separate “semivowel” diacritic and then only using it on Ŭ, not Ĭ?

02d: Universality

Esperanto’s distinctive accented letters were a blatant display of parochial spelling traditions.  Most of the world’s typewriters had a W key; very few had one for Ŭ.  And as for Ĉ, Ĝ, Ĥ, Ĵ, Ŝ keys… families of accented consonants (like Ć, Ť, Ż) are a common feature of the writing systems of the area from the Baltic to the Balkans; Zamenhof’s idea of how to make it more international was to avoid those particular diacritics in favour of one normally found over vowels in the Romance family.  The result was a set of hybrid accented characters that suited everybody equally badly.

02e: Elegance

The problems with these diacritics were obvious enough to force a concession: the Fundamento permits us to resort to the digraphs CH, GH, HH, JH, SH, plus unadorned U – hence chirkaushmirajho.  Many Esperantists nonetheless reject this scheme and advocate other, heretical ASCIIifications such as cxirkauxsxmirajxo.

02f: Miscellaneous

Just to show how easy it is, here is an alternative approach with no diacritics (all compound phonemes become compound graphemes):
Heterodox System:
⟨M B P V F W⟩
⟨– D T R⟩
⟨N DZ TS Z S L⟩
⟨– DJ TX J X Y⟩
⟨– G K H⟩
⟨I E A O U⟩
I’ve heard from a good few independent inventors of schemes like this – it’s a no‐brainer.  But reforming ĉirkaŭŝmiraĵo into txirkawxmirajo just demonstrates how much else you’d need to change before you’d have anything worth using!

SECTION 03: SYLLABLES

03a: Introduction

Natural languages have sets of “phonotactic” rules governing the ways sounds are allowed to come together in sequences (both the things speakers need to be able to pronounce and the things they need to be able to recognise).  Some languages – such as Hawaiian – permit only open syllables with no consonant clusters of any sort; others – such as English – have rules allowing words like hung, strengths, visions but prohibiting the ones we might write as nguh, tle, sionsvi.  Instead of giving Esperanto any sort of explicit phonotactic framework, Zamenhof relied on his gut feelings about what kinds of sequence needed to be avoided.  As a result his dictionary has, for example, lots of instances of the sequence CI, but oddly few cases of CU, because in the Slavic family /ts/ is historically a /k/ affected by a following front vowel.

03b: Clarity

Zamenhof coined plenty of words like knabĉjo, postscio, ŝtrumpojn (= “sonny, hindsight, stockings (obj.)”) but none like pjuz, snoŭi, ŭiv (cf. English pews, snowy, weave).  Does their nonexistence mean those sequences of sounds are forbidden, or are they just accidental gaps waiting to be filled?  New coinages have often led to arguments – and been resolved by the application of a parochial set of phonotactic prejudices.  Thus for instance when Indian Esperantists coin the word Bharato as their preferred name for “India”, it ends up in dictionaries as Barato.

03c: Simplicity

Some of Esperanto’s individual sound units are themselves phonetically compounds; for instance, the affricate C is like a combination of T and S, but Esperantists are expected to be able to tell the difference between vircenso = “a census of men” and virtsenso = “a sense of virtue” (and likewise for Ĉ/TŜ and Ĝ/DĴ).  On the other hand, the common diphthongs EJ, AJ, OJ, UJ, EŬ, AŬ are supposed in theory to be mere ordinary sequences of vowel plus consonant, though this orthodoxy has a couple of problems.  For a start it implies that naŭa (= “ninth”) divides into syllables as /na wa/ (cf. na za = “nasal”); but if /wa/ is a legal syllable in a common word, why does Esperanto go to such lengths to avoid it in borrowings like Vajomingo = “Wyoming”?  And if AJ is just a chance encounter of A and J, why do they keep happening to end up together like this while O and Ŭ never once meet in Zamenhof’s whole dictionary?  This is the sort of pattern that usually leads phonologists to suspect such diphthongs of being compound phonemes, just like the similar ones in English.

03d: Universality

Esperanto’s phonotactics are above‐averagely permissive, or to see it from a learner’s point of view, difficult.  This is another Eastern European trait – compare the way English avoids initial /ʃt‐/ in favour of /st‐/, German does the reverse, and Spanish avoids either, but the Slavic languages and Esperanto allow both: stelo = “star”, ŝtelo = “theft”.  And in one case, Esperanto goes even further, ignoring a phonotactic constraint that’s part of a widespread local standard: continental European languages may permit many closed syllables, but they generally cut down on the range of possibilities by losing the voiced/voiceless distinction in final consonants (which is why Austrians pronounce Arnold with a final [t] sound and Russians pronounce Chekhov with an [f]).  Esperanto mostly avoids letting words end in voiced obstruents (any of B, D, G, Ĝ, Ĵ, V, Z), but makes a surprising exception for just three words, all taken from Latin: apud, sed, sub = “at, but, under”.

03e: Elegance

The whole problem is that Zamenhof mistook his own prejudices about “euphony” for an off‐the‐shelf global standard of phonotactic elegance.  There is no such standard; Italian is full of tongue‐twisters to Japanese‐speakers (investigarlo = “to investigate it”) and vice versa (hyakugyoo = “a hundred lines”).  Creating a phonological system acceptable to everybody requires at the very least a recognition that the language is made up of sounds rather than just letters.

03f: Miscellaneous

While Zamenhof basically failed to give his brainchild any phonotactic system worthy of the name, he did manage to specify a canonical way to make Esperanto more euphonious: drop some of those final vowels!

SECTION 04: WORDS

04a: Introduction

The “roots” Zamenhof created for his dictionary appear to abide by a set of rules forbidding repeated letters, or strings of more than two vowels or four consonants in a row; but thanks to the way words are put together, all of these things are nonetheless commonplace in Esperanto sentences: ekssklavoj ekkriis = “ex‑slaves cried out”.

04b: Clarity

Word stress is the only part of Esperanto’s phonology that Zamenhof specified clear rules for: it always falls on the second‐last syllable.  This of course means that after you’ve learned the word VIvi = “to live”, with a stressed I, you need to recognise viVANta with no stressed I as a suffixed form of the same root (= “living”), an annoyance that (for instance) initial stress would avoid.  Mind you, this is assuming that everybody agrees what “stress” is, which they don’t.  In English, it’s a combination of factors including loudness, pitch, and duration; but there are plenty of major languages that make some or all of those into independent variables, or that don’t stress any syllable in particular.

04c: Simplicity

In this context, simplicity means learnable rules for building speakable words.  A good proportion of the world’s population find any syllable more elaborate than “(optional) consonant plus vowel” hard to pronounce, which limits things unreasonably; but it would be easy enough for an auxiliary language to make do with syllable structure rules like those of Spanish, where it never gets much trickier than uno, dos, tres.

04d: Universality

Zamenhof boasted of having made Esperanto sound pleasantly similar to Italian, but his idea of how to achieve this objective was to begin with consonant‐crammed roots and tack on inflections with initial vowels: lingv‐oj = “languages”.  But Italian allows few syllable‐initial strings of consonants (mainly things like /bl‑, ɡr‑, sp‑/); Esperanto permits many.  Italian uses closed syllables sparingly (chiefly ending in /l, n, r/); Esperanto loves them.  And the rigid penult‐stress rule may be like Italian, but it’s even more like Polish.

04e: Elegance

When two nouns are run together into a compound, potentially creating an ugly consonantal logjam, it’s explicitly left to the coiner’s personal taste whether the first noun should keep its final vowel (as in mezOnombro = “an average”) or whether it should be dropped (as in pendŝnuro = “a hanging‐rope”).  If I cross a hamster with an ostrich, I get to call the result a hamstrstruto!  Deferring such decisions to Esperantists’ native‐tongue prejudices results in a dictionary full of entries like fiŝknelo, kristnasktago, sciencfikcio = “fish quenelle, Christmas day, science fiction”.

04f: Miscellaneous

If you hear a string of syllables like “laBLAlo­SAliAbla”, you might guess that it’s la BLAlo SAli Abla.  But wait – how do you know it isn’t laBLAlos AL iABla?  The idea that you can identify nouns by the way they end in ‑O (and so on) breaks down if you can’t tell which vowels are word‐final; you have to learn to recognise the individual roots first to be able to pick them out, and the fact you need to ignore the class‐marker vowels while doing so just makes it harder.

SECTION 05: VOCABULARY

05a: Introduction

Vocabulary is the most arbitrary part of language: words vary in form more or less randomly between unrelated tongues, and none of them work any better or worse than any other.  Vocabulary is also the most superficial layer of a language: words are constantly getting borrowed from one dictionary into another, and this can add up to a significant proportion of the lexicon without the result being a different language.  And thirdly, vocabulary is the kind of language learning that most people find relatively routine – even if there’s a lot of it to do, it’s no harder than learning the names of new acquaintances, while the rest is a matter of unlearning entrenched mental habits. Above all, though, vocabulary is the most obvious aspect of a foreign tongue, so padding out your Warsaw‐centric constructed language with Romance dictionary entries can be an effective way of making it seem less parochial.

05b: Clarity

In this case I’ll take “clarity” to mean having an adequate stock of technical, poetic, and everyday words to be generally usable.  Zamenhof was if anything overzealous in this department – the wordlist attached to the Fundamento not only has entries such as lol‑ = “cockleweed” and pips‑ = “pip” (a disease of poultry) but two different roots, kis‑ and ŝmac‑, both equated to English “kiss” (and French baiser).

05c: Simplicity

The inverse problem, overlooked by Zamenhof, is that language learners want to be able to start communicating with as little rote learning of vocabulary as possible.  The trick here is to devise a strictly limited shortlist of essential words (like “house” or “clothes”) which can be used as metonyms standing in for more specialised terms (like “palace” or “sou’wester”) and combined into self‐explanatory compound words (like “treehouse” or “nightclothes”).  Unless you’re designing a Newspeak, you’ll also have a dictionary full of fancy words, but their definitions can be written using just the essential set!  This idea was pioneered by “Basic English”, which cut its core list to 850 words (largely by cheating); more recent schemes have demonstrated that a language designed from the ground up with lexical efficiency in mind can do much better.

05d: Universality

Zamenhof followed notably warped selection criteria.  His vocabulary sources were chosen mainly for their appeal to educated nineteenth‐century Europeans – and that’s not a question of recognis­ability; Russian had more speakers than Italian, it was just less fashionable.  Then he threw scraps to key local ethnic groups by adding a few words from an assortment of tongues: nepre (= “certainly”) from Russian nepremenno, tornistro (= “a rucksack”) from Danish tornister, tuj (= “immediately”) from Lithuanian tuoj… and so on.  A real global auxiliary language would instead make consistent use of the vocabulary sources that have been spread across the whole world, whether by expansionist empires or the scientific community.

05e: Elegance

The dictionary is full of spelling‐based borrowings – especially placenames, which frequently look as if they’ve been transliterated into Cyrillic and then back without regard for pronunciation: Jamaica becomes Jamajko, New Guinea becomes Nov‐Gvineo, Washington becomes Vaŝingtono, and so on.

05f: Miscellaneous

When I say “Romance” dictionary entries, what I really mean is the members of that family that Zamenhof saw as prestigious.  A lot of the time he used dog‐Latin garbled in a distinctively dated and parochial fashion, but there are obvious cases where he picked a basic vocabulary item directly from French – for instance, the verb “to buy” is comprar in Portuguese/Galician/Spanish/Catalan, cumprar in Romansh, comprare in Italian, and cumpăra in Roumanian, but acheter in French and aĉeti in Esperanto.  There are also a few cases that favour an Italian form, but the most globally successful branch of the modern Romance family, dominating most of the New World, is ignored.

SECTION 06: CATEGORIES

06a: Introduction

Esperanto goes way over the top in flagging lexical categories (AKA word classes or “PARTS OF SPEECH”) via its neat but somehow risible final vowel system:
  • ‐A = adjective: vivA = “alive/vital” (plus number and case concord)
  • ‐E = adverb: vivE = “vitally” (even some adverbs can add a case ending)
  • ‐I = verb infinitive: vivI = “to live” (but finite verbs replace this with other endings)
  • ‐O = noun: vivO = “(a) life” (plus number and case inflections)
  • ‐U = verb imperative: vivU = “live!” (melodrama exclamation)
This grand scheme was based on the idea that every root is an elementary semantic unit with one associated adjective, verb, and so on, each of which is equally basic – an idea with an attractive air of symmetry and logic, but one that turns out to be fatally flawed.  Some Esperantists are still in denial to this day, but the authoritative position of the Academy of Esperanto is that each root has an underlying category; viv‑, for instance, is fundamentally a verb.

06b: Clarity

Esperanto now has a distinctive derivational system that allows any root to disguise itself faultlessly as an adjective, adverb, verb, or noun by simply changing its final vowel… while simultaneously requiring users to identify the class it originally started in to know how to coin other words from it (the most famous example is: brosi, kombi = “to brush, to comb”, and broso = “a brush”, but kombo = “an act of combing”, not “a comb”).  The major reorganisation required to actually fix this might have been feasible in the nineteenth century, but by the time the problem was understood the language’s grammar had been declared “untouchable”, so it was just papered over.

06c: Simplicity

Knowing whether a word is functioning as a verb or noun or whatever isn’t enough to be able to predict how it’s going to function in sentences.  Each word class actually covers multiple hidden subclasses:
  • ‐A: true adjectives, determiners, or participles (which have some of the properties of verbs).
  • ‐E: participles again, normal verb‐modifying adverbs, or degree modifiers (like extremely).
  • ‐I: transitives, intransitives, or linking (“copular”) verbs, all of which may in Esperanto be “impersonal”, meaning that they occur without a subject (like necesas = “it is necessary”); they also may or may not take an infinitive or subclause (wish to/wish that).
  • ‐O: just he/she/it and countable/non‐countable.
If you already know the meaning of a word, you may be able to guess what subclass it falls into… or you may not, since words that are otherwise synonyms can differ in behaviour (e.g. say/speak/tell.  The final vowel system may tell you what general category a word fits into, but to know how it will behave you still need to remember its individual dictionary entry.

06d: Universality

Grammatical categories like “adjective” or “preposition” are based not on universal logical principles but on arbitrary conventions that vary from language to language.  The ones Zamenhof took for granted are based on the traditions of classical grammars, which are a poor fit for many of the tongues of Europe, let alone other continents.  Hungarians won’t be used to prepositions; Germans have to learn that adverbs aren’t the same as plain adjectives; and Slavs have to cope with a definite article…

06e: Elegance

Shoehorning words into this system can mangle them horribly.
  • ‐A: boa, gala, penta, praa = “by marriage, bilious, repentant, ancient”
  • ‐E: die, male, obee, ree = “divinely, contrariwise, obediently, again”
  • ‐I: mini, peni, pii, scii = “to mine, to try, to be pious, to know”
  • ‐O: ego, logo, mono, pesto = “a huge thing, a lure, money, a plague”
  • ‐U: fluu! ĝuu! skuu! instruu! = “flow!  enjoy!  shake!  teach!”

06f: Miscellaneous

Esperanto is oddly happy to sacrifice final vowels, no matter how much they contribute to a word’s recognisability.  Asia becomes Azio, coffee/café becomes kafo, quasi (= “as if”) becomes kvazaŭ, and so on from alpaca and banana through to yoga and zebra.  If only there were fewer word classes to distinguish, maybe some nouns could end in ‑A or ‑E… which would also make the rhymes in Esperanto poetry more interesting!

SECTION 07: DERIVATION

07a: Introduction

Esperanto follows regular morphological rules for both derivation (building new vocabulary items) and inflection (fitting words for their role within a sentence).  Zamenhof put a lot of work into creating a range of widely applicable derivational affixes, such as ‑ig = “render” (or “cause, arrange to have done”) and its intransitive partner ‑iĝ = “become” – as in blankIGi = “to whiten (something)”, blankIĜi = “to whiten (go pale)”.  Nonetheless, his original ideas required various amendments before they were usable, and they still look rotten to me.

07b: Clarity

These affixes are often stretched in unpredictable ways.  The suffix ‑aĵ is used to form more‐or‐less “concrete” derived nouns ranging from bovaĵo = “(some) beef” to majstraĵo = “a masterpiece”; then there’s ‑uj meaning “(bulk) container” as in cigaredujo = “a cigarette box”, which Zamenhof also applied in pomujo = “an apple tree” (not “apple barrel”) and Belgujo = “Belgium” (not “a Belgian ghetto”).  Modern Esperantists have mostly given up on these uses and say pomarbo, Belgio instead.  As if to rub it in, Zamenhof came up with an explicitly meaningless suffix ‑um for use when inspiration failed: nazo = “a nose”, nazumo = “pince‐nez”.  Meanwhile, having both freely attachable prefixes and suffixes inevitably leads to derivational ambiguities such as fireĝido: is that fi‐reĝido = “a corrupt prince” or fireĝ‐ido = “offspring of a tyrant”?

07c: Simplicity

Who needs all these affixes?  Isn’t the two‐word expression “make white” adequate?  (Don’t tell me we need complex affixing rules to produce indefinably subtle poetic shades of meaning; Literary Chinese had no such rules, but is renowned for its nuanced poetry.)  In particular, why do these affixes (like ‑ej in dormejo = “a dormitory, place for sleeping”) need to be treated as a privileged class of special roots?  They’re all explicitly licensed to appear as independent words (ejo = “a place”), while ordinary roots (like loko = “a place”) are equally free to form compounds by the same regular and productive derivational processes (sidloko =  “a seat, place for sitting”), so why treat them as two different kinds of thing?  Even dictionaries admit as they itemise the closed lists of “official” prefixes and suffixes that there’s no way of justifying it.

07d: Universality

Esperanto seems strangely resistant to some of the commonest and most recognisable affixes spread across the globe by the “classical” languages.  Compare the prevalence of the abstract noun endings ‑acy, ‐ia, ‐ity, ‐(at)ion with Esperanto’s use of ‑eco.  Those ‑ion words that Esperanto does condescend to admit have to hide their family resemblance; thus regiono = “region” but nacio = “nation”.

07e: Elegance

Clockwork morphology can produce some amusing quirks.  There are false resemblances (foresta = “absent”, fosilo = “a spade”, grandmama = “big‐breasted”); there are absurdly fussy distinctions (edzigi, edziĝi, edzinigi, edziniĝi, geedzigi (sin), geedziĝi all mean “to marry”); and then there are ambiguities such as kataro = “catarrh” vs. kataro = “a herd of cats” – there are so many of these I’ve given them their own page. Strangest of all, though, is the prefix mal‑ (inspired by Russian malo = “little”), which is a meaning‐reverser like Newspeak “un‐”.  The only word for “bad” is malbona, “on the left” is maldekstre, “to open” is malfermi, and so on.  It’s an imaginative vocabulary shortcut, but it’s often gratingly artificial, not to mention longwinded (“cheap” is malmultekosta), inconsistent (“to the south” isn’t malnorde), and misleading (malodora isn’t “malodorous”)!

07f: Miscellaneous

Esperanto has a special suffix to mark “feminine” (or to be more accurate, female) nouns: ‑in (from German; in the Romance family that’s a unisex diminutive).  But this has no equivalent “masculine” marker – being male is just taken to be the default!

SECTION 08: INFLECTION

08a: Introduction

Turning to the other side of morphology, instead of following the messy fusional inflectional groundplan widespread in Europe, Zamenhof worked to give his invented language the sort of pseudo‐agglutinative model made popular by Volapük.

08b: Clarity

Most of Zamenhof’s explanations of Esperanto grammar were dedicated to setting out its inflectional system, but they assume a readership familiar with the traditional terminology for all the kinds of inflection that happen in classical languages.  Indeed, his original pamphlets explicitly addressed a readership familiar with Latin.  But didn’t those people already have a shared second language?

08c: Simplicity

The big difference between inflection and everything else that has been mentioned so far is that it wouldn’t have been hard for Esperanto to do without inflection entirely.  Yes, there need to be mechanisms for indicating whether a given argument is the agent, and whether it’s plural, and when the narrative is set; but none of these things require mandatory word endings.  Consider for instance the English sentence yesterday you hit the three white sheep, which makes everything clear without inflecting anything.  The Esperanto version is hieraŭ vi frapIS la tri blankAJN ŝafOJN; but what information would be missing if I was allowed to say hieraŭ vi frapI la tri blankA ŝafO?

08d: Universality

Esperanto’s morphological system is at least more straight­forward than alternatives like the Hebrew/Arabic system of triconsonantal roots, but a lot of the time it’s more heavily dependent on inflectional endings than the norm even among modern European languages.  Zamenhof could have combined Romance‐style order‐based case‐marking with Germanic‐style periphrastic tense constructions; instead each time he picked an inflecting approach, which just so happens to be the standard followed in the Slavic family.

08e: Elegance

The down side of having a limited and highly regimented set of inflections to mark common grammatical features is that they can make the language sound oddly monotonous.  In Latin, for every adjective that’s inflected as a third‐declension feminine accusative plural you’re also liable to get one that’s neuter or vocative or irregular or something and thus has a quite different form; but Esperanto can easily end up full of repeats of the same distinctive word endings.

08f: Miscellaneous

Perhaps Esperanto’s strangest inflectional feature is its forms like iri RomEN = “to go Romewards”.  That may look like a proper noun in some sort of obscure lative case, but Esperanto doesn’t inflect nouns like that – honest!  No, no, it’s, um, a case‐marked adverb.

SECTION 09: NOUNS

09a: Introduction

Esperanto noun phrases can be identified by the fact that they must contain at least one noun (AKA “substantive”), which must end in ‑O and inflect both for number and for case.  I mean, unless it’s a pronoun, numeral, infinitive, or any of the other things that get to be exceptions; but the rules do apply to personal names, which get turned into Esperanto nouns as in Jakobo amas Julion = “James loves Julia”.  However, enough Julias and Karlas and Marias complained that it has become common for female names to cheat and use ‑A instead of ‑O.

09b: Clarity

It can be hard to explain to people who aren’t used to them what case‐ or number‐inflections are for.  The former is extremely tricky; but even the latter is hardly obvious if you’re not used to it.  Why are zero secondS and one point zero secondS plural?  Indeed, what’s the point of pluralising two secondS?  Why do we need to pluralise nutS, oatS, and vegetableS when rice, wheat, and fruit is singular?  Esperanto could have eliminated the need for answers to these questions by emulating Japanese, which essentially does without plurals (one ninja, two ninja…), or Tagalog, which marks number only if it seems relevant (using a separate regular plural‐marker word).

09c: Simplicity

The same goes for case; if you’re designing a universal language, obligatory inflections are always a bad idea.  In a sentence like venigu viaN monoN = “bring your money”, the verb is marked as a transitive imperative, so the inanimate noun that’s sitting where direct objects usually go can’t be anything else; but it’s absolutely compulsory for both the noun and its accompanying possessive to carry the redundant ending.  And yet the sky doesn’t fall for sentences where the object is incapable of carrying case endings: venigu iom da mono = “bring some money”.  Compare la reĝo estos maljunulo = “the king will be an old man”, distinguished from “an old man will be the king” by word order alone.  Case‐marking isn’t needed, so why make it mandatory?

09d: Universality

Languages disagree not only on the most natural way to indicate which of a sentence’s components is the subject (Russian gives nouns fusional case endings, Japanese has particles after noun phrases, Swahili uses prefixes on verbs, and Mandarin relies on word order), but even on how to define this traditional notion of “subject”.

09e: Elegance

These inflections combine to give phrases like ĉiujn tiujn ĵaŭdojn = “all those Thursdays”.  That use of ‑J as a regular plural might be familiar to the Italians (one percent of the world’s population) who sometimes use ‑I, or even the Slavs (five percent) who use ‑I or ‑И; but compare ‑S, known to practically everybody who has any hope of recognising Esperanto’s vocabulary sources!  Meanwhile, case‐marking ‑N might be familiar to German‐speakers (two percent), though even in German it’s a plural ending too.  No; in fact the people who are meant to find ‑ojn endings natural are the speakers of Ancient Greek (zero percent)… except that they never used ‑oin to mark the accusative plural.

09f: Miscellaneous

The Esperanto ‐N suffix appears not only on direct objects of verbs but on various other sentence constituents – hence lundoN rajdu ĉevaloN nordeN unu mejloN en LondonoN = “on Monday, ride a horse northward one mile into London”.  And yet even though it occurs on both adverbs and temporal expressions, it never appears on temporal adverbs such as hodiaŭ = “today”.

SECTION 10: PRONOUNS

10a: Introduction

Zamenhof’s coverage of pronouns in the sixteen rules of the Fundamento actually left out half of them, and failed to recognise the related category of “determiners” (which includes various things he thought were pronouns, “correlatives”, articles, or adjectives).  Mind you, the existence of determiners is one of those facts about how human languages work that wasn’t recognised until after he was dead, so it’s not his fault the language he designed was so bad.

10b: Clarity

Not all languages distinguish between “a/some fish” and “the fish”, and even within Europe the ones that do it with articles use them in subtly different ways.  For instance, the Esperanto article la occurs in dek minutoj post LA unua = “ten past one”; LA Dio benu vin = “God bless you”; and LA birdmigrado estas mirinda = “bird migration is remarkable” (all out of “Teach Yourself Esperanto”).  Far from clarifying the situation, Zamenhof declared this to be something that people should consider giving up on.

10c: Simplicity

I’m not saying Zamenhof should have devoted a separate word class to determiners.  He already had too many of those; even if he really needed to have a definite article, it didn’t need to be in a special irregular category of its own!  Come to that, there are languages (like Japanese) that don’t treat pronouns as a special case – syntactically and morpho­logically, they’re simply nouns.

10d: Universality

Instead of trying to find any sort of standard, Zamenhof copied his whole system of “personal pronouns” from English, though most of the individual words were given Romance disguises.  No mechanism is provided for translating “I (humble masculine)”, “we (exclusive dual)”, or even plain “you (plural)”; but if you’re accustomed to a compulsory distinction in the third‐person singular (only) between male, female, and nonhuman referents, you’re in luck!  That might look appealingly regular if your native tongue is a typical Indo‐European one where “she” can just mean something arbitrarily feminine‐gender, but almost everyone else is used to having a single third‐person pronoun that can apply to anybody.

10e: Elegance

The possessive forms are a total mess.  The pronouns that end in I each get a corresponding pseudo‐adjective (ĝia = “its”, ilia = “their”).  However, the “correlative” pronouns (such as iu = “someone”) only get a quasi‐genitive form (ies = “someone’s”), which isn’t shared with the plural and nonhuman forms – instead those are apparently expected to make do with plain prepositional phrases (de iuj = “some people’s”, de io = “something’s”).

10f: Miscellaneous

These word‐forms may not display much regularity, in the sense of behaving like normal nouns, but they do score highly for uniformity, in the sense of “did you say li estas, ni estos, or mi estus?”

SECTION 11: ADJECTIVES

11a: Introduction

Esperanto adjectives end in a superficially latinate ‑A, then add inflections to agree with the noun they modify.  If there’s any logic behind this, wouldn’t it imply you need to put similar markers on the definite article la?  That’s how things work in the natural languages Zamenhof copied the word from: if there’s one place in a noun phrase where inflections belong, it’s on articles.

11b: Clarity

Zamenhof’s things‐ending‐in‐A category includes “third”, but not “three”; “many” and “every kind of”, but not “every”; “their” and “one’s”, but not “whose”… part of the problem is that many of the words that he classed as adjectives (and many he didn’t) are technically determiners, and follow subtly different grammatical rules.  You can say la nova domo = “the new house”, but not (as in Italian) la mia domo = “the my house”.

11c: Simplicity

Above all, why oh why did Zamenhof give his “simple” international language universal obligatory case‐and‐number concord?  The Esperanto for “the houses are new” is la domoJ estas novaJ – which is on the fussy end of the scale even by European standards.  Compare French les maisonS sont nouvelleS, where the “plural endings” are silent; German die HäusER sind neu, where the predicate shows no concord; or Russian domA novY, which has a special short form.  Even Volapük didn’t get it this wrong – domS binom nulik!

11d: Universality

English may depend on an adjective to say “a new house”, but many languages go about things differently.  Some, like Japanese or Korean, prefer to express the same idea using stative verbs (“being‐new house”); others, like Quechua, use appositional nominals (“new‐thing house”).  Doing without the lexical category of adjectives can eliminate the need for a whole bunch of grammatical rules.

11e: Elegance

Thanks to the root‐classes fiasco, talking about abstractions like “awkward‐ness” in Esperanto requires knowledge of the root’s underlying class:
  • Flava = “yellow(‐coloured)” is an adjective‐root, so to form the abstract noun you simply change the final vowel: flavo = “(the colour) yellow”.
  • Malva = “mauve(‐coloured)”, from the noun‐root malvo = “a mallow plant”.  Forming the abstract noun requires an extra suffix: malveco = “(the colour) mauve”.
  • Unua = “first”, from the numeral unu = “one”.  Unuo is “a unit”, and unueco is “unity”, so “firstness, primacy” has to make do with the irregular unuaeco.

11f: Miscellaneous

The standard European model is to have inflectional comparatives (like “newer”), but just this once Zamenhof instead adopted an idea from as far away as France: the phrasal comparative as in pli nova = “more new”.  Mind you, globally speaking the most widespread approach is to say something like “this house is new beyond that one”.

SECTION 12: NUMBERS

12a: Introduction

Zamenhof declared numerals an entirely separate part of speech from nouns and adjectives and so on, with no case‐agreement (though bizarrely “one” does have a plural: unuj kontraŭ aliaj = “against each other”).  This is another giveaway of his background: in the Slavic languages “one sheep, three sheep, five sheep” all work differently (Polish jedna owca, trzy owce, pięć owiec), and if that’s what you’re used to, putting them all in the same oddball special category looks sensible – though it turns out there’s still a dividing line between tri mil ŝafoj = “three thousand sheep” and tri milionoj da ŝafoj = “three million sheep”.

12b: Clarity

Tridek duonoj is “thirty halves”; tridek‐duonoj is “thirtyseconds”; and tri dekduonoj is “three twelfths”.  They’re distinguish­able in writing, but we hardly needed an invented language to get an inter­nationally standard way of writing “³ ⁄ ₁₂”!

12c: Simplicity

The “basic” number‐terms tri, trio, tria (= “three, threesome, third”) are a crowded jumble, making a mockery of the regular root/noun/adjective pattern they imitate (note for instance that both tri and tria can occur as either argument or modifier).  Knock‐on effects include the baroque selection of derivatives needed for triFOJE, triOBLE, triOPE (= “three times, triply, in threes”).

12d: Universality

You might think it’s obvious that numbers always appear in a fixed position before whatever they enumerate – there’s wide agreement on this among the world’s biggest languages, regardless of which way round they put adjective and noun.  But a startling proportion of more minor languages (such as Fula, Malagasy, and Thai) have postposed numerals, and if there isn’t a rule forbidding that order, dek unu (literally “ten one”) is ambiguous: “eleven” or “a single ten”?

12e: Elegance

Numbers naturally get strung together in complex combinations – but unlike the big four word‐classes, they can end in plain consonants (and even consonant clusters) with no class‐marker vowel, resulting in tongue‐tangling compounds like sescent‐sepdek‐kvara = “674th”.  Compare the personal pronouns, which never need to form compounds and yet always have a root‐final vowel.

12f: Miscellaneous

Why, other than because of European tradition, do we need a one‐word label for 10³ (“thousand” = mil instead of “ten hundred”) but not for 10⁴ (“myriad”) or 10⁵ (“lakh”); and a label for 10⁶ (“million” = miliono) but not for 10⁷ (“crore”) or 10⁸ (a Japanese “oku”)?  If Esperanto was built around the S.I. system of prefixes this might make sense, but there’s no sign Zamenhof ever heard of “kilo‐” etc.  Indeed, pico is the Esperanto for pizza!

SECTION 13: PREPOSITIONS

13a: Introduction

Esperanto has several dozen prepositions – a word class so named because they are positioned before nouns in phrases like in phrases.  European languages with large numbers of cases, such as Russian, divide prepositions into subsets depending on whether they are followed by genitive, dative, or whatever, and many of them can alternatively take the accusative case (also used on direct objects) to show “motion towards”.  Esperanto borrows this trick, but collapses all the other cases into the nominative (subject) form, with results that can be confusing: in effect it’s “of I”, not “of me”.

13b: Clarity

Esperanto’s ‐N ending simply replaces some prepositions, modifies the meanings of others, and never associates with the rest.  Zamenhof didn’t just mix these prepositional functions confusingly into his case system, he also made them officially ill‐defined!

13c: Simplicity

Esperantists like to pretend that the difference between sub la tablo = “beneath the table” and sub la tablon = “(to) under the table” is some sort of abstract, semantically triggered phenomenon unconnected to the individual prepositions, but that won’t wash since a few of them (including al = “to”) indicate “motion towards” without the ‑N.  “Motion away” gets no such special treatment; instead Esperanto just creates a compound prepositional phrase, el sub la tablo = “out from under the table”.  If we’re allowed compounds, why not use them for al sub la tablo?

13d: Universality

You might be surprised how few languages have the category “preposition”.  Where Yiddish expresses the phrase jump onto a table via a preposition slightly assisted by case‐marking, Vietnamese uses chained verbs (“jump ascend table”); Finnish has highly specific cases (“jump table‐ALLATIVE”); and Punjabi goes for postpositions (“jump table onto”).  Even English prepositions disobey the usual European rules by appearing with no following argument: I broke the table I jumped onto.

13e: Elegance

Prepositions are another kind of word that can suffer from an unavoidable vowel shortage in compounds like postftiza, subskvamoj, transŝprucis = “post‐consumptive, underscales, gushed across”.

13f: Miscellaneous

Many of Esperanto’s preposition‐plus‐verb compounds are element‐by‐element clones of opaque idiomatic expressions:
  • altranĉi (literally “toward‐slice” = German zuschneiden) = “to cut out”
  • elpensi (literally “out‐think” = Polish wymyśleć) = “to invent”
  • subaĉeti (literally “under‐buy” = Russian podkupitʼ) = “to bribe”

SECTION 14: ADVERBS

14a: Introduction

“Adverbs are formed” (we are told) “by adding e to the root”; but this is only true of adverbs that have adjective equivalents (cf. English “‐ly words”).  Plenty of other words that function as verb modifiers (such as plu = “more, further”) are irregular, while the set of words ending in ‑E also includes things like absolute = “absolutely”, which turn up modifying absolutely anything and only get labelled “adverbs” because that’s a traditional wastebasket category.

14b: Clarity

Some of Esperanto’s adverbs belong to the esoteric word class of things ending in ‑AŬ.  This set includes, for instance, the plain adverb baldaŭ = “soon” (which even has a comparative and a superlative), the less regular mostly‐adverb ankoraŭ = “still”, and the non‐adverb anstataŭ = “instead of”.  Other obvious candidates, such as jam = “already”, were arbitrarily left out as irregular bare roots.

14c: Simplicity

Esperanto grammar favours a proliferation of adverbs.  “Whistling” in “whistling, I set out” can’t be a mere adjective fajfantA describing the subject – no, it’s got to be “whistlingly”: fajfantE mi ekiris.  Likewise, “it’s good that you came” becomes ke vi venis estas bonE; and “last night it was raining” becomes hieraŭ noktE estis pluvantE – literally, “yesterday nightly there‐was rainingly”.

14d: Universality

While English (like the Romance tongues) derives “‐ly words” from adjectives by adding a distinctive suffix, many languages survive happily with no such category, instead making do with adjectives and phrasal expressions – and I’m not talking about Classical Nahuatl here; I mean languages like German, where schnell covers both “quick” and “quickly”.  Esperanto instead follows the model of Polish and distinguishes adverbs from their adjective equivalents just by their final vowel.

14e: Elegance

The only justification for the omnipresent agreement marking on adjectives was that it might occasionally make it easier to keep track of which word modifies which if they get reshuffled for some reason.  So why do adverbs behave so differently – don’t Esperantists want to be free to express themselves by scrambling I ate only a slightly surprisingly cooked sausage into surprisingly I ate an only slightly cooked sausage without affecting the meaning?  Agreement markers on adverbs could give them that sort of freedom, but they somehow lose interest in this principle when it doesn’t result in Esperanto becoming more like a European language.

14f: Miscellaneous

The bare root ĉiam = “always” has an adverb counterpart ĉiamE = “perpetually”.  But wasn’t it already an adverb with essentially that meaning?  What’s really going on here is that ĉiame only exists as a by‐product of ĉiamA = “perpetual” (compare ĉie, ĉieA, ĉieE = “everywhere, ubiquitous, ubiquitously”).  The adverbs that Esperanto flags as a primary lexical category on a par with verbs and nouns are exactly the ones least deserving of that status: the ones that are minor variants of the adjectives.

SECTION 15: VERBS

15a: Introduction

Unlike adjectives, adverbs, and nouns, which layer their inflectional endings “on top of” the word‐class marker vowel (as in dom‐O‑J‑N), in the case of verbs the different endings each replace the final ‑I of the infinitive and take over its class‐marking function in addition to their own (in a surreptitiously fusional manner).  Leaving aside participles for now, Esperanto verbs have five alternative endings: the imperative/jussive ‑u, the tense marks ‑is/‐as/‐os, and the conditional ‑us.

15b: Clarity

If you’re wondering why Esperanto needs a special conditional inflection, appearing (unlike the Romance equivalent) in both “if” and “then” clauses of a condition, and masquerading as an extra basic tense… well, it might have something to do with the fact that’s what Polish has.  The conditional can be confusing for learners at the best of times, but just to make things especially bad for those reading the English version of the Fundamento, they’re told it’s the “subjunctive mood”.  No, that’s the verb‐form in “long live the king!”, covered in Esperanto by vivu!

15c: Simplicity

It should be apparent to anglophones that special verb endings for infinitives, conditionals, and future tenses are a redundant complication.  Likewise the imperative inflection: fancy polite forms are all very well, but for obvious reasons most languages arrange it so commands can be given via the most basic verbal “stem” available!  What may be less obvious is that English is itself over‐complex in some ways, with its vestigial subject‐agreement and its obligatory tense distinctions even where the context makes them nonsensical.  None of this is necessary; mandatory tense inflections for example can be replaced with auxiliary verbs (“will”), adverbs (“soon”), or if you insist, optional inflections.

15d: Universality

One feature displayed by verbs in almost all human languages, though sidelined in Latin‐based grammatical folklore, is aspect, the distinction (e.g.) between I forgot and I have forgotten.  The mechanisms Esperanto provides for marking aspect are a random collection of unreliable makeshifts, such as Slavic‐style uses of derivational prefixes to give near‐synonyms with added aspectual overtones.

15e: Elegance

I always thought the forms that Zamenhof picked for his tense inflections (‑os for future?) were bafflingly unmotivated; finally it turns out that he was following an established tradition.  Various earlier and more obscure constructed languages had adopted similar schemes; Pantos‐Dîmou‐Glossa even picked the same three arbitrary vowels to indicate past, present, and future.

15f: Miscellaneous

Verb valency features – transitivity/intransitivity, passivisation and so on – are another of those fields where Esperantists congratulate themseves about how logical and regular the language is, but I’m not so sure.

SECTION 16: PARTICIPLES

16a: Introduction

Participles such as viv‐inta/ ‐anta/ ‐onta = “having lived/living/about to live” merge tense, aspect, and voice alternations into a single (fusional) unit.  Even when given a final ‑A or ‑E they’re still verblike enough to have objects: fajfante melodion mi ekiris = “whistling a tune, I set out”.

16b: Clarity

In the active voice, you can use either plain tensed verbs ending in ‑is/‐as/‐os or compounds using the participles, which have extra aspectual implications; but in the passive, compounds are the only option, so it’s unclear whether they’re meant to carry the same connotations.  This design flaw eventually led to a schism within the ranks of the Esperantist movement: should “smoking is forbidden” be la fumado estas malpermesITA or la fumado estas malpermesATA?  The trouble with using ‑ita is that ‑is describes a past event, which seems to imply that the prohibition has ended (“smoking used to be forbidden”).  The trouble with ‑ata is that ‑anta describes an ongoing process, which seems to imply that the prohibition is only just coming into force (“smoking is being forbidden”).  After decades of squabbling, the “itismo” faction succeeded in having their interpretation declared orthodox, but the truth is, both sides were right: Zamenhof’s scheme makes no sense.

16c: Simplicity

The tendency of European tongues to form passives by way of elaborate participial circum­locutions is an accidental side‐effect of the way their actual passive‐voice verb endings have eroded away; there are much more streamlined ways of doing it.  Look at Mandarin: wŏ mà tā means “I scold him/her”, and just as we insert extra verbs to express “can scold” or “will scold”, they have one for “undergo”: wŏ bèi mà = “I am scolded”.

16d: Universality

Forms like vivanta are designed to superficially resemble those used in compound tenses in the modern Romance languages, but none of those languages use constructions like vi estas vivontaj = “you (pl.) are about‐to‐live”.  Guess what language builds a “future tense” out of what is etymologically an (imperfective) present form of “to be” plus a participle (agreeing with the subject)?  Yes, Polish: (wy) będziecie żyli = “you (masc. pl.) will live”.

16e: Elegance

This is another context where inflectional regularity can mean repetitive sentences: “you were going to have lived” is vi estis estonta vivinta, or vi estis estontaj vivintaj if you’re plural.  Some Esperantists say that participles, being adjectives, can be freely converted into verbs, so it would be better to compress this into vi estontis vivinta(j) or logically even vi vivintontis.  Fortunately, nobody does.

16f: Miscellaneous

The fact that esperanto means “someone hoping” is itself a glitch.  The standard pattern is clear enough: if bonA means “good” and you want to say “someone good”, you add a suffix: bonULo.  But this breaks down for participles: brulantA means “burning”, but “someone burning” is just brulantO, which should by rights mean something like “current burningness” or “an ongoing conflagration”.

SECTION 17: CONJUNCTIONS

17a: Introduction

Conjunctions are an entirely traditional lexical category, but their intricacies are mostly a matter of syntax rather than morphology, so Zamenhof’s inflection‐obsessed grammar guide implicitly denies the category even exists, let alone distinguishing the different types.

17b: Clarity

Letting a noun function unmodified as a verb is unthinkable in Esperanto; and yet outside the system of class‐marker vowels this sort of unsignposted category‐swapping happens all the time.  For instance, some temporal prepositions moonlight as subordinating conjunctions: dum = “during/while”, ĝis = “up to/until”.  Zamenhof didn’t include any equivalent for “since”, leaving that to be covered by de kiam = “from when”; but as de is already badly ambiguous, modern Esperantists mostly seem to avoid that in favour of ekde kiam.

17c: Simplicity

Correlative conjunctions are ones that operate in pairs, sometimes as the same word repeated, like ĉu… ĉu… = “whether… or…”, and unpredictably sometimes not, like tiel… kiel… = “as… as…” (more literally “that‐much… how‐much…”).  You might expect “the bigger, the better” would involve some variant of that last, but instead it uses a pair of super‐specialised conjunctions stolen from German: ju pli granda, des pli bona.

17d: Universality

It’s actually not all that rare for a language to lack some or all types of conjunctions… but it doesn’t tend to make their grammars any simpler!  Still, one frequently used trick deserves a mention: at least half of the world’s non‐Indo‐European languages treat nouns conjoined in lists as if the “and” was a preposition (or equivalent) meaning “along‐with”, entirely separate from clausal “and‐then”.

17e: Elegance

A lot of Esperanto’s conjunctions come from Latin (nek, sed, tamen = “neither, but, however”), but the single commonest one is an especially eccentric choice.  “And” happens to be i (or something similar) not only in most of the Romance languages but also the Slavic family; and yet instead Zamenhof went all the way to Ancient Greek for kaj.

17f: Miscellaneous

The question‐forming word ĉu is a neat idea… though maybe a bit redundant, when interrogative intonation or punctuation will do – you agree?  But its form is copied from its inspiration, the Polish czy (or maybe Ukrainian chy), rather than resembling the question words like kiu = “who?” etc.

SECTION 18: WORD ORDER

18a: Introduction

Some traditionally prestigious languages like Latin and Greek (and others such as Polish) have what’s known as “free” word order, which doesn’t mean that sentence constituents can be shuffled at random with no effect on the meaning; it means that instead of sentences always being Subject–Verb–Object (or whatever), the ordering is determined partly by information structure: words conveying new or important information get the best seats.  Esperanto propagandists sometimes seem to confuse free word order with free speech, but setting word‐order defaults is no more an infringement of your civil liberties than is any other kind of grammatical rule.

18b: Clarity

The linguistic feature most effective at freeing adjectives to wander the sentence without ambiguity is gender agreement (preferably with a dozen or more different genders); for nouns, it’s having the verb heavily inflected for agreement with its arguments.  Esperanto lacks any trace of either feature; all it’s got is number agreement and a single overworked case distinction, so it’s more limited in its options.  It often relies on word‐order rules to make sentences intelligible, but most of these rules are undocumented.

18c: Simplicity

Europeans are familiar with the idea of sets of sentences being related via order‐shuffling rules such as question‐inversion: I am reading it → am I reading it?.  That’s a complication Esperanto doesn’t share; it’s mi legas ĝin → ĉu mi legas ĝin?… which only makes it more perplexing that it does have WH‐extraction.  When the question is mi legas kion? = “I am reading what?”, Esperanto avoids that simple word order just as English does – instead question words like “where/who/why?” move to the start of their clause: kion mi legas? = “what am I reading?”

18d: Universality

Some of Esperanto’s word‐order conventions are no more than optional defaults; others (although taken for granted in grammars) are unbreakable.  “Yesterday you hit the three white sheep” may legally become la tri ŝafojn blankajn vi frapis hieraŭ, but it’s never ŝafojn hieraŭ tri frapis la vi blankajn!  The following “obvious” order rules demonstrate classically European default assumptions:
  • All the possible reorderings of la tri blankajn ŝafojn other than a slight displacement of the adjective are illegal;
  • Prepositions precede their noun phrases – “onto a table” is always sur tablon, not tablon sur;
  • Chains of infinitives run in a consistent direction – “to want to try to quit smoking” is voli peni ĉesi fumi, never peni voli fumi ĉesi.

18e: Elegance

Esperanto’s pretensions towards flexible word order are intended to allow those accustomed to (for instance) Subject–Object–Verb sentences to keep that familiar order and say mi ĝin legas = (literally) “I it am‐reading” (cf. French je le lis).  But if reshuffles might happen for no better reason than that, we can’t rely on them for the purpose they serve in most natural languages: to allow expressive shifts of emphasis.

18f: Miscellaneous

Not only does Esperanto’s so‐called free word order fail to allow for exotic possibilities like postposed articles, in some cases it forbids reorderings that are commonplace in English, such as a pie of which I ate only half → a pie I only ate half of.

id=”19″ SECTION 19: SYNTAX

19a: Introduction

Zamenhof’s efforts to explain Esperanto grammar focussed on its morphology and neglected its syntax, so it’s no surprise that Esperanto’s phrase structure rules and so on usually turn out to be like the ones he grew up with.  The syntactic rules of a heavily inflecting language like Russian can afford to be relatively lightweight, but Esperanto needs something slightly better thought out.

19b: Clarity

Zamenhof didn’t entirely ignore the topic: one whole sentence out of his sixteen rules deals with syntax, and in particular, negative constructions.  Instead of explaining anything about how they work, it defines a way they don’t work, wrongly!  The approach that he was assuming we need to be warned not to use was the system of negative concord that was standard in the Slavic languages but derided by nineteenth‐century schoolteachers because it wasn’t used in Latin.

19c: Simplicity

Polish has strong subject agreement on verbs, and usually omits subject pronouns – compare Latin cogito ergo sum = “(I) think therefore (I) am”.  In particular it always leaves the indefinite pronoun implicit in sentences like pada = “it’s raining (neut. sg.)”.  Esperanto uses explicit arguments instead of subject agreement – but it does borrow the idea of impersonal verbs, mis­interpreting them as literally subjectless.  Then to really complicate matters Esperanto allows ellipsis of repeated subjects.  So does la fiŝoj estas bongustaj sed pluvas mean “the fish are tasty but it’s raining” or “the fish are tasty but are falling as rain”?

19d: Universality

The way reported speech works in Esperanto is another obtrusively parochial feature.  If on Tuesday I tell you morgaŭ mi iros tien = “tomorrow I will go there”, on Wednesday you might report that as vi diris, ke hodiaŭ vi venos ĉi tien = “you said that today you would (literally: will) come here”.  Everything is rendered from your point of view, with the exception of tense inflections, which are always preserved as direct quotes.  The rule could have been to make everything consistently direct (“…that tomorrow I will go there”) or consistently indirect (“…that today you were going to come here”), but Esperanto insists on mixing the two, because that’s what the Slavic languages do.

19e: Elegance

Relative clauses in Esperanto, such as la homo, kiu gajnis = “the person who won”, use pronouns out of the interrogative column on the so‐called correlatives table.  Muddling these two functions is a trademark misfeature of many European languages that causes unnecessary confusion in sentences like “I asked the person who won”.  Approaches without this ambiguity can be a lot less trouble all round; for instance Esperanto could just imitate the languages that allow la homo, ke tiu gajnis = (literally) “the person such‐that that‐one won”.  This makes possible sentences like ĉiuj, ke mi estas pli juna ol tiuj = “everyone I’m younger than”, which is otherwise un­relativis­able in Esperanto (you can’t say “everyone than whom I am younger” because ol = “than” is a conjunction, not a preposition).  It could even distinguish between “restrictive” and “descriptive” relative clauses the way English does, although that might require it to abandon its use of strict Central/Eastern European comma placement rules.

19f: Miscellaneous

Esperanto reflexives use a pronoun si that covers all of “it/him/her/one/themselv(es)”, but not “my/our/yourselv(es)”; it’s ili vidis SIN = “they saw themselves” but vi vidis VIN = “you saw yourselves”.  If you’re guessing this is another Slavicism, no: for once it’s a case where early Romance‐ and Germanic‐speaking learners managed to impose their native habits on Esperanto before its syntax was completely established.  Zamenhof himself tended to forget this rule!
Ranto Appendix – Ĥ

MISSHAPES

Here just for light relief is a catalogue of accidental by‐products of Esperanto’s neat snap‐together derivational system: words that can be interpreted in either of two unrelated ways.

Meaning AEsperantoMeaning B
“a purchase”aĉeto“a contemptible little thing”
“to alternate”alterni“to sneeze at”
“avarice”avaro“a group of grandfathers”
“a banana”banano“a bath member”
“a barbarian”barbaro“a group of beards”
“a thankful person”dankanto“Danesong”
“to delegate”delegi“to read off”
“a diet”dieto“a minor deity”
“an exterior”ekstero“a former world”
“an accomplishment”elfaro“a group of elves”
“a daughter”filino“dirty linen”
“a galley”galero“a drop of bile”
“a colleague”kolego“a big neck”
“a pumpkin”kukurbo“a city of cakes”
“lavendery”lavenda“in need of cleaning”
“an oxeye daisy”lekanto“someone licking”
“menstruation”menstruo“a mind‐hole”
“a casserole”marmito“a sea‐tale”
“a modulation”modulo“a fashionable guy”
“a niece”nevino“non‐wine”
“an eye”okulo“eighth person”
“a ream of paper”paperaro“a papal mistake”
“a person”persono“a sounding‐out”
“a demand”postulo“a successor”
“pretend”pretenda“needing to be ready”
“speed”rapido“a turnip‐sprout”
“regular”regula“aristocratic”
“a re‐seeing”revido“a child of a daydream”
“a sardine”sardino“a Sardinian woman”
“sensitive”sentema“without theme”
“sugar”sukero“a drop of juice”
“superiority”supero“a serving of soup”
“a hole card”trukarto“art of faking”
“urine”urino“an aurochs cow”
“an evening”vespero“a wasp component”
“virtuousness”virtemo“a manly topic”

Many of these come from the longer list that Geoff Eddy used to maintain, which itself made no claims to being exhaustive.  But for the benefit of those who insist I justify mentioning them, I’ll say again that I am not presenting them as evidence that Esperanto has more such ambiguities than English – they’re just funny!

That said, misinterpret­able English words like unless aren’t strictly comparable, because a natural language is defined by the usage habits of its native‐speaker community; the conjunction derived from the Middle English expression on lesse may look as if it should be a synonym for “more”, but that’s not what it means.  It’s only artificial languages that are defined by the prescriptive grammarbooks they’re learned from; and in Esperanto, the rules say the derivational morphology is universally productive, so if it’s possible to construct a compound fi‑lino (literally “shameful flax”) then that word’s as legitimate as any.  Oh, and the mis‐division problem is not inevitable in a constructed language; for a start, hyphens could be compulsory.

Ranto Appendix – B

FUNDAMENTO

1  2 3 4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16 ]
“But, surely, Justin – you must be aware that there’s an official source for all the answers about Esperanto grammar:”
L.‐L. ZAMENHOF 1905

Fundamento de Esperanto

FUNDAMENTA GRAMATIKO de la lingvo esperanto EN KVIN LINGVOJ
Some sources – including “Teach Yourself Esperanto” – claim that the sixteen rules in this document constitute a comprehensive description of the Esperanto language.  Others realise how ludicrous that idea is, but say it’s only a summary of all the “untouchable” rules Esperantists aren’t allowed to modify.  That doesn’t make much sense either, since some of the early reform proposals that were rolled into a single political football and kicked out as “Ido” would have been perfectly compatible with it… still, whatever it is, I personally used to see it as a barrelful of fish which it wouldn’t be sporting to wheel onto the firing range.  However, by popular request:
GRAMMAR
A) THE ALPHABET
The text comes in French, English, German, Russian, and Polish editions, each of which starts not with a Rule 1 but with an entire Section of rules that don’t count towards the total of sixteen, setting out what the funny letters mean.  Enshrining this in a specification document implies that unlike, say, Cornish, which is still Cornish no matter how you spell it, Esperanto must be written in this prescribed orthography.  If you use Elvish Tengwar, it’s not Esperanto any longer.
Aa,
a as in „last“
Bb,
b as in „be“
Cc,
ts as in „wits“
Ĉĉ,
ch as in „church“
Dd,
d as in „do“
Ee,
a as in „make“
Ff,
f as in „fly“
Yes, the punctuation is in Polish… but more significantly, these are really rather shoddy pronunciation guides.  As an RP‐speaker I’m advised to pronounce A and E as [ɑː] and [eɪ], while the versions in other languages say to use [a] and [ɛ] – or [ɑ] and [e] if you’re French.  Francophones are also told that C is pronounced like ts in French tsar, which (depending on what dictionary you believe) might mean [dz] or just [z].
Gg,
g as in „gun“
Ĝĝ,
j as in „join“
Hh,
h as in „half“
Ĥĥ,
strongly aspi­rated h, „ch“ in „loch“ (scotch)
Ii,
i as in „marine“
Jj,
y as in „yoke“
Ĵĵ,
z as in „azure“
Calling Ĥ a “strongly aspirated h” is quack linguistics; extra aspiration just produces a louder [h].  If Zamenhof had bothered to ask a phonetician he’d have learned that the sound in Scots loch is the voiceless velar fricative [x].
Kk,
k as in „key“
Ll,
l as in „line“
Mm,
m as in „make“
Nn,
n as in „now“
Oo,
o as in „not“
Pp,
p as in „pair“
Rr,
r as in „rare“
The French are clearly instructed to pronounce O as [o]; Poles are equally clearly told to use [ɔ]; and anglophones… well, it might mean [ɒ][ɔ][ɑ], or a variety of other things depending on your accent.  If it’s anything like mine, you’ll probably pronounce R two different ways in the one word rare.
Ss,
s as in „see“
Ŝŝ,
sh as in „show“
Tt,
t as in „tea“
Uu,
u as in „bull“
Ŭŭ,
u as in „mount“ (used in diphthongs)
Vv,
v as in „very“
Zz,
z as in „zeal“
Anglophones are told U is [ʊ]; everyone else is told it’s [u].  And as for Ŭ, the French are instructed to say it as in German laut and the Poles are just told it’s “short”… even though both languages have native [w] sounds!  The odd way Esperanto Ŭ is limited to diphthongs is the one identifiable feature Zamenhof took from Belorussian.

Remark. — If it be found impraticable to print works with the diacritical signs (ˆ,˘ ), the letter h may be substituted for the sign (ˆ), and the sign (˘ ), may be altogether omitted.

Assuming he means “impractical”, this is a fairly generous license to write ĉirkaŭŝmiraĵo as, um, cʰirkausʰmirajʰo or something.
B) PARTS OF SPEECH
Despite the name, this section mostly deals not with defining the lexical categories of Esperanto but with taking them for granted and describing how they inflect.

1. There is no indefinite, and only one definite, article, la, for all genders, numbers, and cases.

The French and Russian versions of this document (but not the German or Polish ones) add a footnote here saying that Esperanto’s use of definite articles is just like French or German, but foreigners who have problems can simply not use them.  That’s a myth; when you’re struggling to understand what a Parisian Esperantist is saying, the information conveyed by la may be vital.  If it was an ornamental nonsense‐syllable, it would be crazy to waste a sixteenth of the ruleset on it!

2. Substantives are formed by adding o to the root.  For the plural, the letter j must be added to the singular.

Notice the assumption all through these rules that the language is fundamentally made up of letters rather than sounds.
There are two cases : the nominative and the objective (accusative).  The root with the added o is the nominative, the objective adds an n after the o.  Other cases are formed by prepositions; thus, the possessive (genitive) by de, “of”; the dative by al, “to”, the instrumental (ablative) by kun, “with”, or other preposition as the sense demands.
One moment Esperanto has only two cases, the next it has as many as it has prepositions – they’re just spelled the same as the nominative.  If you imagine this is merely an attempt to explain Esperanto grammar to speakers of English in terms of features neither language has, you’re forgetting that these rules are definitive: they say Esperanto has a dative case governed by the preposition al, so it’s heretical to deny that fact!

E. g. root patr, “father”; la patr’o, “the father”; la patr’o’n, “the father” (objective), de la patr’o, “of the father”; al la patr’o, “to the father”; kun la patr’o, “with the father”; la patr’o’j, “the fathers”; la patr’o’j’n, “the fathers” (obj.), por la patr’o’j, “for the fathers”.

Because apparently we need to be shown examples of how to stick an ‑N onto a word, but its function can be explained by repeating the label “objective”; the idea that a noun phrase governed by a transitive verb needs to carry accusative marking is an unspoken assumption, not an official rule.  And in what soon becomes a running theme, the prototypical noun is an intrinsically male word.

3. Adjectives are formed by adding a to the root.  The numbers and cases are the same as in substantives.

If dative case‐marking is indicated the same way on adjectives as it is on substantives, by adding the word al, that means “to a new house” is al nova al domo, right?*

The comparative degree is formed by prefixing pli (more); the superlative by plej (most).

Oh no it isn’t – prefixing would give pliblanka, “whiter”!  Esperanto does use prefixing in, for instance, malpli = “less”, but the above is a botched attempt at a word‐order rule (the only one on the list): adverbial modifiers like pli and tre (= “very”) precede the word they modify.
The word “than” is rendered by ol, e. g. pli blank’a ol neĝ’o, “whiter than snow”.
Why is it only French and Russian readers who are told about the preposition el, used with superlatives?  Are the rules different for them?

4. The cardinal numerals do not change their forms for the different cases.  They are : unu (1), du (2), tri (3), kvar (4), kvin (5), ses (6), sep (7), ok (8), naŭ (9), dek (10), cent (100), mil (1000).

Okay, so numerals are a separate PART OF SPEECH from the articles and substantives and adjectives.  But this isn’t a random vocabulary lesson, it’s an exhaustive list, and zero isn’t on it.

The tens and hundreds are formed by simple junction of the numerals, e. g. 583 = kvin’cent tri’dek tri.

Yes, that’s a typo in (the English version of) the original; it should be 533.
Ordinals are formed by adding the adjectival a to the cardinals, e. g. unu’a, “first”; du’a, “second”, etc. Multiplicatives (as “threefold”, “fourfold”, etc.) add obl, e. g. tri’obl’a, “threefold”.
If only the ordinals had been given an affix of their own, instead of being misclassified as the adjective forms of the cardinals, words like “triple” or “threefold” could just have been different adjective senses of the root tri.

Fractionals add on, as du’on’o, “a half”; kvar’on’o, “a quarter”.

Fractions are regular nouns – it’s only the particular integers named above that are indeclinable: “add a thousandth, a thousand, and a million” is adiciu milonoN, mil, kaj milionoN.
Collective numerals add op, as kvar’op’e, “four together”. Distributive prefix po, e. g., po kvin, “five apiece”.
That’s a clone of the Slavic preposition po, not a unique “prefix” deserving of its own special mention.
Adverbials take e e. g., unu’e, “firstly”, etc.
Those are the specifically ordinal adverbs, which is why the cardinal adverbs ended up in sidings like kvarope.

5. The personal pronouns are : mi, I; vi, thou, you; li, he; ŝi, she; ĝi, it; si, “self”; ni, “we”; ili, “they”; oni, “one”, “people”, (French “on”).

If you want to say “people”, why not stick to that word?  You’d save on special exceptional pronouns, and avoid the collision with oni, “to be fractional”!  And meanwhile, what a surprise that the third‐person‐plural pronoun ili appears to be derived from the masculine singular.
Possessive pronouns are formed by suffixing to the required personal, the adjectival termination.
So when Rule 2 said possessives were formed with de
The declension of the pronouns is identical with that of substantives.
Oh, so the root with the added o is the nominative, then for the plural, the letter j must be added?
E. g. mi, “I”; mi’n, “me” (obj.); mi’a, “my”, “mine”.
Despite that “adjectival termination”, the “possessive pronoun” mia is indeed a pronoun (like English mine) or determiner (like my), not an adjective.

6. The verb does not change its form for numbers or persons, e. g. mi far’as, “I do”; la patr’o far’as, “the father does”; ili far’as, “they do”.

A poor choice of example‐word, since fari is never an auxiliary verb and “do” is rarely anything else.
Forms of the Verb :
a) The present tense ends in as, e. g. mi far’as, “I do”.  b) The past tense ends in is, e. g. li far’is, “he did”. c) The future tense ends in os, e. g. ili far’os, “they will do”.
Tense‐marking is fetishised; aspect‐marking is marginalised.
 ĉ) The subjunctive mood ends in us, e. g. ŝi far’us, “the may do”. d) The imperative mood ends in u, e. g. ni far’u, “let us do”.  e) The infinitive mood ends in i, e. g. fari, “to do”.
If these are all “moods”, why is the so‐called subjunctive (really a conditional) dressed up like a tense?  Can’t a verb vary simultaneously in tense and mood?  (Also, two typos: “she” written “the”, and far’i without its flyspeck.)

There are two forms of the participle in the international language, the changeable or adjectival, and the unchangeable or adverbial.

If Esperanto adverbs are “unchangeable”, how is it that they inflect for case?

 f) The present participle active ends in ant, e. g. far’ant’a, “he who is doing”; far’ant’e, “doing”.

In what sense of the word “end” does far’ant’a end in ant?  No, despite being listed under “Forms of the Verb” and translated as a noun phrase (“he who…”), it ends in the adjective‐marker ‑A.  Meanwhile, DOING probably occurs as a sound‐effect more often than as an appropriate translation for farante!
 g) The past participle active ends in int, e. g. far’int’a, “he who has done”; far’int’e, “having done”. ĝ) The future participle active ends in ont, e. g. far’ont’a, “he who will do”; far’ont’e, “about to do”.
Rather than have a separate element to indicate tense, which could be emphasised when tense was relevant or omitted when it wasn’t, he’s built it in three times over, once as a verb‐ending, again as part of the active participles, and yet a third time for passives.  Unless we’re meant to think of ‑is‑int‑, and ‑it‑ as sharing a morpheme ‑i‑… in which case, why does it also turn up to mark infinitives?
 h) The present participle passive ends in at, e. g. far’at’e, “being done”. ĥ) The past participle passive ends in it, e. g. far’it’a, “that which has been done”; far’it’e, “having been done”. i) The future participle passive ends in ot, e. g. far’ot’a, “that which will be done”; far’ot’e, “about to be done”.
This seems to be saying that all verbs, transitive or not, necessarily have passive forms (dorm’at’a = “being slept”), but that’s just a minor oversight.  More importantly, Zamenhof also overlooked the question: if the present participle construction adds some sort of progressive‐aspect element, how do I form a non‐progressive passive?
All forms of the passive are rendered by the respective forms of the verb est (to be) and the participle passive of the required verb; the preposition used is de, “by”.
Wasn’t that the marker for the possessive (genitive) case?
E. g. ŝi est’as am’at’a de ĉiu’j, “she is loved by every one”.
Remember how “he” definitely “did” and “the father does” while “she” only “may do”?  Remember how the active participles mean “he who”?  Whereas now “she” happens to be the one used as the canonical example of passivity…

7. Adverbs are formed by adding e to the root.

Except that we’ve already met adverbs where the ‑E is tacked on after an affix, not directly attached to the root, as well as an adverbial modifier that ends in I:
The degrees of comparison are the same as in adjectives, e. g., mi’a frat’o kant’as pli bon’e ol mi, “my brother sings better than I”.
Speak of the devil.  Once again the male relatives hog the limelight.

8. All prepositions govern the nominative case.

Heresy!
C) GENERAL RULES
That’s all the PARTS OF SPEECH finished – if Esperanto has any conjunctions, they’re a secret.

9. Every word is to be read exactly as written, there are no silent letters.

Here we go again with the writing‐system rules.

10. The accent falls on the last syllable but one, (penultimate).

The only scrap of information about Esperanto phonology that gets to be counted as an official numbered rule.

11. Compound words are formed by the simple junction of roots, (the principal word standing last), which are written as a single word, but, in elementary works, separated by a small line ().

Not only is this yet another rule wasted on prescribing how the language should be written down, it’s a rule that more or less nobody has ever been seen to obey – these “small lines” don’t even appear in the portions of the Fundamento written in Esperanto!  What’s more, each translation has its own conflicting version; the German edition for instance says the lines are standard (but optional in correspondence with fluent speakers), while the Polish shows them as slashes with no explanation, and the original “Unua Libro” used things that look more like commas…

Grammatical terminations are considered as independent words.  E. g. vapor’ŝip’o, “steamboat” is composed of the roots vapor, “steam”, and ŝip, “ a boat”, with the substantival termination o.

Thus in vaporŝipoj the plural‐marker grammatical termination j is the principal word.

12. If there be one negative in a clause, a second is not admissible.

So you can’t order a coffee with no milk and no sugar, and asking “doesn’t this get us nowhere?” is forbidden!  Still, we’re luckier than the Germans, who are prohibited from using the negative word ne in a sentence containing a negative word. Incidentally, one of the dullest non‐answers I get to my criticism of the mandatory case‐, number‐, and tense‐inflection systems is that redundancy can be useful.  Of course it can.  But the rest of the time it’s useless.  That’s why I suggest making it optional, and letting speakers decide how much of it they need.  Meanwhile, here’s Zamenhof explicitly outlawing a popular form of redundant marking, instead of telling us anything about how negation does work!

15. In phrases answering the question “where ?” (meaning direction), the words take the termination of the objective case;

“15”?  More evidence that Zamenhof needed better glasses.  And somebody must have told him that “where to?” was bad grammar.  This construction isn’t restricted to answering questions, though – indeed, it can be asking one:
e. g. kie’n vi ir’as ? “where are you going ?”;
Look, there’s an ‑N in that question there, attached to the kie… yes, this is the only example given of a full sentence that involves a case inflection, and the word that’s inflected is an irregular adverb!
dom’o’n, “home”; London’o’n, “to London”, etc.
Answering this question with a plain placename in the nominative would be dangerously ambiguous, of course – unlike “where did you come from?”, where it’s perfectly safe…

14. Every preposition in the international language has a definite fixed meaning.

Indeed, some are blessed with several – de, for instance, which as well as being a possessive or sometimes agentive marker also happens to have the bonus definite fixed meanings “from” and “since”.

If it be necessary to employ some preposition, and it is not quite evident from the sense which it should be, the word je is used, which has no definite meaning;

Wait, what?  So, uh, this je… is it a preposition in the international language?  And how exactly would I detect such a necessity?
for example, ĝoj’i je tio, “to rejoice over it”;
That “it” being an unlisted pronoun.  (Oh, it’s not a “personal” pronoun, like ĝi is?  Sure, that makes sense.)
rid’i je tio, ”to laugh at it”; enu’o je la patr’uj’o, a longing for oneʼs fatherland”.
Well done managing to cram patr back in again there.  Mind you, the dictionaries all say enuo is “annoyance”, and patrujo is a container for fathers, so this sounds like a scene in a maternity unit waiting room…
In every language different prepositions, sanctioned by usage, are employed in these dubious cases,
No, many of the world’s most important languages don’t even have prepositions.
in the international language, one word, je, suffices for all.  Instead of je, the objective without a preposition may be used, when no confusion is to be feared.
If je can stand in for any other preposition, this means ridi je tio can also mean “to laugh despite it”.  Oddly, the Esperanto versions of this text that I’ve seen allow for ‑N only to mark accusative or dative, and say nothing about it standing in for an imaginary preposition that means nothing in particular!

15. The so‐called “foreign” words, i. e. words which the greater number of languages have derived from the same source, undergo no change in the international language, beyond conforming to its system of orthography. — Such is the rule with regard to primary words, derivatives are better formed (from the primary word) according to the rules of the international grammar, e. g. teatr’o, “theatre”, but teatr’a, “theatrical”, (not teatrical’a), etc.

“No change” is a blatant lie; for instance, quasar becomes kvazaro, conveying neither the sound nor even the spelling of the original.  Come to that, nor is it true that these are “so‐called foreign words” – it’s new arrivals we call “foreign”, not Middle English ones like theatre.  But Esperanto doesn’t have any older, “native” vocabulary!

16. The a of the article, and final o of substantives, may be sometimes dropped euphoniae gratia,

That’s “for the sake of euphony” – as I’m sure we all agree, Esperanto is improved by any reduction in the amount of it that’s spoken.
e. g. de lʼ mond’o for de la mond’oŜillerʼ for Ŝiller’o;
I’d have thought the more important consideration was that Schiller pronounced his name with one [l] and no [e].
in such cases an apostrophe should be substituted for the discarded vowel.
So as well as unpronounced and unwritten small lines, Esperanto has these almost in­distinguish­able apostrophes too!  But where does the stress go on Ŝillerʼ?  And how are these silent characters not prohibited by Rule 9? Now, what’s missing from these sixteen commandments?  Well, almost anything about the phonology, derivational morphology, or syntax… it would take about as many rules again just to get the kind of basic overview I’d want to see in the front of a tourist phrasebook.
Ranto Appendix – A

FAQ

In the hope of reducing the number of people demanding explanations for the same old mis­understandings, here’s a Frequently Asked Questions list.

i) What makes English so much better than Esperanto, then?
Did I say anything about English being good?  It has all the unfair advantages of a widely used natural language, but it also has plenty of annoying features of its own; so if you write web pages about its drawbacks as an international language (oh, here’s one) I’ll be more than happy to link to them.
ii) What’s so difficult about inflections like ‑ajn?
Any grammatical mechanism is going to seem natural and self‐evident to you if your mother‐tongue does it.  But imagine how disorientating it would be if Esperanto adverbs had obligatory tense‐prefixes to show agreement with their verbs, or if there were different pronouns for referring to people older and younger than yourself.  You’d be constantly having to remind yourself to pay attention to people’s ages just to be able to produce grammatical sentences.  That’s what Esperanto’s like for the vast majority of us who aren’t accustomed to compulsory number‐agreement on predicate adjectives.
iii) Can’t we just work around these problems?  For instance, you can just ignore any aspects of Esperanto you think are over­complicated.
To deal with that second part first: no, that’s not an option – if I ignore the language’s rules, I’m left with no way of parsing sentences.  Esperanto needs fixes, not workarounds; but its fundamental grammatical rules were declared “untouchable” over a century ago.  You can come up with your own private‐language reform‐scheme if you like, but you’d better not use it on an Esperanto web forum!
iv) Why do you give examples of features from all those exotic languages, as if it would make sense to combine Cantonese pronouns, Swahili verb inflections, and Thai noun‐classifiers?
If you design your invented auxiliary language with the starting assumption that Cantonese is more “exotic” than German, you can’t expect to produce one suitable for the whole planet.  However, the idea isn’t that it should “multiply together” all the world’s widely varying grammars, it’s that it should start from the “common factors” in typological universals, and you can’t find those by surveying Polish, Yiddish, and Belorussian.
v) Why are you so obsessed with Esperanto?
Actually, these days I rarely think about artificial interlanguages at all unless someone else raises the topic.  You don’t need to be a fanatic to recognise Zamenhof’s mistakes, and writing web pages costs nothing.  Nor is it some sort of fringe viewpoint – on the contrary, the number of people not learning Esperanto is growing every day!
vi) Have you read “Psychological Reactions to Esperanto”?
Yes, and I’m impressed by how effective it is at making Esperantism look like Scientology, but I wasn’t planning on mentioning it – it’s Esperanto I object to, not Esperantists.  But since you insist, here’s a link.  Happy now?
vii) What about such‐and‐such an alternative Constructed International Auxiliary Language?
There are half a dozen or so big names, all featuring clear design improvements on Esperanto, and minority candidates to suit any taste.  I’m not going to try to summarise my views on all of them here… I’d end up having to turn my whole site into yet another conlangopaedia (and those sites have a remarkable tendency to rot away).
viii) But don’t you realise that nobody speaks any of those?
Well, approximately nobody, but then again by the standards of Hindi approximately nobody speaks Esperanto, either.  The pragmatic solution to communication barriers is to pick the language everyone else speaks regardless of its shortcomings; the idealistic solution is to pick one on the basis of its technical merits.  Picking a poorly engineered artificial language gets you the worst of both worlds.
ix) If other invented auxiliary languages are simpler and more regular than Esperanto, why haven’t they become globally successful?
It would hardly be the first case of a better product losing out because a rival brand was first‐to‐market.  But the main factors that make a language successful with the general non‐hobbyist population have little to do with its grammar (except in that it helps if you already speak something closely related).  The things that matter are how strong the social pressures are obliging you to acquire it, and whether appropriate teaching materials are conveniently available.
x) Isn’t it unfair to expect Zamenhof to have known about modern linguistics?
Sure; there was essentially no chance that a nineteenth‐century European polyglot was going to design anything worth keeping – it’s like criticising some Victorian inventor’s efforts to build a steam‐powered helicopter.  Except that I don’t know of any organisations dedicated to promoting gyro­locomotives as the best possible form of transport…
xi) What’s all this about 2017 being an anniversary?
Among other things, my fiftieth birthday was also the centenary (to the very day) of Dr Zamenhof’s death, and the twentieth anniversary (give or take a week or so) of “Learn NOT to Speak Esperanto” first going onto the web.  The format has its origins back in the days when the Internet was populated by people with degrees and 28k modems, when it was more important to make pages concise than easy to read; but at last I got round to giving it the overhaul it had needed for so many years.
xii) Why isn’t there an Esperanto version of your essay?
Because it’s not aimed at Esperantists; it’s a warning to people who might consider learning Esperanto in future.  There’s no point putting the “Danger – do not open” signs on the inside of the door!
xiii) Will you do my homework for me?
Glad to – just give me your teacher’s email address and I’ll send it direct.

Ranto Appendix – B

FUNDAMENTO

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 ]

“But, surely, Justin – you must be aware that there’s an official source for all the answers about Esperanto grammar:”

L.‐L. ZAMENHOF 1905

Fundamento de Esperanto

FUNDAMENTA GRAMATIKO
de la lingvo esperanto
EN KVIN LINGVOJ

Some sources – including “Teach Yourself Esperanto” – claim that the sixteen rules in this document constitute a comprehensive description of the Esperanto language.  Others realise how ludicrous that idea is, but say it’s only a summary of all the “untouchable” rules Esperantists aren’t allowed to modify.  That doesn’t make much sense either, since some of the early reform proposals that were rolled into a single political football and kicked out as “Ido” would have been perfectly compatible with it… still, whatever it is, I personally used to see it as a barrelful of fish which it wouldn’t be sporting to wheel onto the firing range.  However, by popular request:

GRAMMAR
A) THE ALPHABET

The text comes in French, English, German, Russian, and Polish editions, each of which starts not with a Rule 1 but with an entire Section of rules that don’t count towards the total of sixteen, setting out what the funny letters mean.  Enshrining this in a specification document implies that unlike, say, Cornish, which is still Cornish no matter how you spell it, Esperanto must be written in this prescribed orthography.  If you use Elvish Tengwar, it’s not Esperanto any longer.

Aa,
a as in „last“
Bb,
b as in „be“
Cc,
ts as in „wits“
Ĉĉ,
ch as in „church“
Dd,
d as in „do“
Ee,
a as in „make“
Ff,
f as in „fly“

Yes, the punctuation is in Polish… but more significantly, these are really rather shoddy pronunciation guides.  As an RP‐speaker I’m advised to pronounce A and E as [ɑː] and [eɪ], while the versions in other languages say to use [a] and [ɛ] – or [ɑ] and [e] if you’re French.  Francophones are also told that C is pronounced like ts in French tsar, which (depending on what dictionary you believe) might mean [dz] or just [z].

Gg,
g as in „gun“
Ĝĝ,
j as in „join“
Hh,
h as in „half“
Ĥĥ,
strongly aspi­rated h, „ch“ in „loch“ (scotch)
Ii,
i as in „marine“
Jj,
y as in „yoke“
Ĵĵ,
z as in „azure“

Calling Ĥ a “strongly aspirated h” is quack linguistics; extra aspiration just produces a louder [h].  If Zamenhof had bothered to ask a phonetician he’d have learned that the sound in Scots loch is the voiceless velar fricative [x].

Kk,
k as in „key“
Ll,
l as in „line“
Mm,
m as in „make“
Nn,
n as in „now“
Oo,
o as in „not“
Pp,
p as in „pair“
Rr,
r as in „rare“

The French are clearly instructed to pronounce O as [o]; Poles are equally clearly told to use [ɔ]; and anglophones… well, it might mean [ɒ][ɔ][ɑ], or a variety of other things depending on your accent.  If it’s anything like mine, you’ll probably pronounce R two different ways in the one word rare.

Ss,
s as in „see“
Ŝŝ,
sh as in „show“
Tt,
t as in „tea“
Uu,
u as in „bull“
Ŭŭ,
u as in „mount“ (used in diphthongs)
Vv,
v as in „very“
Zz,
z as in „zeal“

Anglophones are told U is [ʊ]; everyone else is told it’s [u].  And as for Ŭ, the French are instructed to say it as in German laut and the Poles are just told it’s “short”… even though both languages have native [w] sounds!  The odd way Esperanto Ŭ is limited to diphthongs is the one identifiable feature Zamenhof took from Belorussian.

Remark. — If it be found impraticable to print works with the diacritical signs (ˆ,˘ ), the letter h may be substituted for the sign (ˆ), and the sign (˘ ), may be altogether omitted.

Assuming he means “impractical”, this is a fairly generous license to write ĉirkaŭŝmiraĵo as, um, cʰirkausʰmirajʰo or something.

B) PARTS OF SPEECH

Despite the name, this section mostly deals not with defining the lexical categories of Esperanto but with taking them for granted and describing how they inflect.

1. There is no indefinite, and only one definite, article, la, for all genders, numbers, and cases.

The French and Russian versions of this document (but not the German or Polish ones) add a footnote here saying that Esperanto’s use of definite articles is just like French or German, but foreigners who have problems can simply not use them.  That’s a myth; when you’re struggling to understand what a Parisian Esperantist is saying, the information conveyed by la may be vital.  If it was an ornamental nonsense‐syllable, it would be crazy to waste a sixteenth of the ruleset on it!

2. Substantives are formed by adding o to the root.  For the plural, the letter j must be added to the singular.

Notice the assumption all through these rules that the language is fundamentally made up of letters rather than sounds.

There are two cases : the nominative and the objective (accusative).  The root with the added o is the nominative, the objective adds an n after the o.  Other cases are formed by prepositions; thus, the possessive (genitive) by de, “of”; the dative by al, “to”, the instrumental (ablative) by kun, “with”, or other preposition as the sense demands.

One moment Esperanto has only two cases, the next it has as many as it has prepositions – they’re just spelled the same as the nominative.  If you imagine this is merely an attempt to explain Esperanto grammar to speakers of English in terms of features neither language has, you’re forgetting that these rules are definitive: they say Esperanto has a dative case governed by the preposition al, so it’s heretical to deny that fact!

E. g. root patr, “father”; la patr’o, “the father”; la patr’o’n, “the father” (objective), de la patr’o, “of the father”; al la patr’o, “to the father”; kun la patr’o, “with the father”; la patr’o’j, “the fathers”; la patr’o’j’n, “the fathers” (obj.), por la patr’o’j, “for the fathers”.

Because apparently we need to be shown examples of how to stick an ‑N onto a word, but its function can be explained by repeating the label “objective”; the idea that a noun phrase governed by a transitive verb needs to carry accusative marking is an unspoken assumption, not an official rule.  And in what soon becomes a running theme, the prototypical noun is an intrinsically male word.

3. Adjectives are formed by adding a to the root.  The numbers and cases are the same as in substantives.

If dative case‐marking is indicated the same way on adjectives as it is on substantives, by adding the word al, that means “to a new house” is al nova al domo, right?*

The comparative degree is formed by prefixing pli (more); the superlative by plej (most).

Oh no it isn’t – prefixing would give pliblanka, “whiter”!  Esperanto does use prefixing in, for instance, malpli = “less”, but the above is a botched attempt at a word‐order rule (the only one on the list): adverbial modifiers like pli and tre (= “very”) precede the word they modify.

The word “than” is rendered by ol, e. g. pli blank’a ol neĝ’o, “whiter than snow”.

Why is it only French and Russian readers who are told about the preposition el, used with superlatives?  Are the rules different for them?

4. The cardinal numerals do not change their forms for the different cases.  They are :
unu (1), du (2), tri (3), kvar (4), kvin (5), ses (6), sep (7), ok (8), naŭ (9), dek (10), cent (100), mil (1000).

Okay, so numerals are a separate PART OF SPEECH from the articles and substantives and adjectives.  But this isn’t a random vocabulary lesson, it’s an exhaustive list, and zero isn’t on it.

The tens and hundreds are formed by simple junction of the numerals, e. g. 583 = kvin’cent tri’dek tri.

Yes, that’s a typo in (the English version of) the original; it should be 533.

Ordinals are formed by adding the adjectival a to the cardinals, e. g. unu’a, “first”; du’a, “second”, etc.
Multiplicatives (as “threefold”, “fourfold”, etc.) add obl, e. g. tri’obl’a, “threefold”.

If only the ordinals had been given an affix of their own, instead of being misclassified as the adjective forms of the cardinals, words like “triple” or “threefold” could just have been different adjective senses of the root tri.

Fractionals add on, as du’on’o, “a half”; kvar’on’o, “a quarter”.

Fractions are regular nouns – it’s only the particular integers named above that are indeclinable: “add a thousandth, a thousand, and a million” is adiciu milonoN, mil, kaj milionoN.

Collective numerals add op, as kvar’op’e, “four together”.
Distributive prefix po, e. g., po kvin, “five apiece”.

That’s a clone of the Slavic preposition po, not a unique “prefix” deserving of its own special mention.

Adverbials take e e. g., unu’e, “firstly”, etc.

Those are the specifically ordinal adverbs, which is why the cardinal adverbs ended up in sidings like kvarope.

5. The personal pronouns are : mi, I; vi, thou, you; li, he; ŝi, she; ĝi, it; si, “self”; ni, “we”; ili, “they”; oni, “one”, “people”, (French “on”).

If you want to say “people”, why not stick to that word?  You’d save on special exceptional pronouns, and avoid the collision with oni, “to be fractional”!  And meanwhile, what a surprise that the third‐person‐plural pronoun ili appears to be derived from the masculine singular.

Possessive pronouns are formed by suffixing to the required personal, the adjectival termination.

So when Rule 2 said possessives were formed with de

The declension of the pronouns is identical with that of substantives.

Oh, so the root with the added o is the nominative, then for the plural, the letter j must be added?

E. g. mi, “I”; mi’n, “me” (obj.); mi’a, “my”, “mine”.

Despite that “adjectival termination”, the “possessive pronoun” mia is indeed a pronoun (like English mine) or determiner (like my), not an adjective.

6. The verb does not change its form for numbers or persons, e. g. mi far’as, “I do”; la patr’o far’as, “the father does”; ili far’as, “they do”.

A poor choice of example‐word, since fari is never an auxiliary verb and “do” is rarely anything else.

Forms of the Verb :

 a) The present tense ends in as, e. g. mi far’as, “I do”.
 b) The past tense ends in is, e. g. li far’is, “he did”.
 c) The future tense ends in os, e. g. ili far’os, “they will do”.

Tense‐marking is fetishised; aspect‐marking is marginalised.

 ĉ) The subjunctive mood ends in us, e. g. ŝi far’us, “the may do”.
 d) The imperative mood ends in u, e. g. ni far’u, “let us do”.
 e) The infinitive mood ends in i, e. g. fari, “to do”.

If these are all “moods”, why is the so‐called subjunctive (really a conditional) dressed up like a tense?  Can’t a verb vary simultaneously in tense and mood?  (Also, two typos: “she” written “the”, and far’i without its flyspeck.)

There are two forms of the participle in the international language, the changeable or adjectival, and the unchangeable or adverbial.

If Esperanto adverbs are “unchangeable”, how is it that they inflect for case?

 f) The present participle active ends in ant, e. g. far’ant’a, “he who is doing”; far’ant’e, “doing”.

In what sense of the word “end” does far’ant’a end in ant?  No, despite being listed under “Forms of the Verb” and translated as a noun phrase (“he who…”), it ends in the adjective‐marker ‑A.  Meanwhile, DOING probably occurs as a sound‐effect more often than as an appropriate translation for farante!

 g) The past participle active ends in int, e. g. far’int’a, “he who has done”; far’int’e, “having done”.
 ĝ) The future participle active ends in ont, e. g. far’ont’a, “he who will do”; far’ont’e, “about to do”.

Rather than have a separate element to indicate tense, which could be emphasised when tense was relevant or omitted when it wasn’t, he’s built it in three times over, once as a verb‐ending, again as part of the active participles, and yet a third time for passives.  Unless we’re meant to think of ‑is‑int‑, and ‑it‑ as sharing a morpheme ‑i‑… in which case, why does it also turn up to mark infinitives?

 h) The present participle passive ends in at, e. g. far’at’e, “being done”.
 ĥ) The past participle passive ends in it, e. g. far’it’a, “that which has been done”; far’it’e, “having been done”.
 i) The future participle passive ends in ot, e. g. far’ot’a, “that which will be done”; far’ot’e, “about to be done”.

This seems to be saying that all verbs, transitive or not, necessarily have passive forms (dorm’at’a = “being slept”), but that’s just a minor oversight.  More importantly, Zamenhof also overlooked the question: if the present participle construction adds some sort of progressive‐aspect element, how do I form a non‐progressive passive?

All forms of the passive are rendered by the respective forms of the verb est (to be) and the participle passive of the required verb; the preposition used is de, “by”.

Wasn’t that the marker for the possessive (genitive) case?

E. g. ŝi est’as am’at’a de ĉiu’j, “she is loved by every one”.

Remember how “he” definitely “did” and “the father does” while “she” only “may do”?  Remember how the active participles mean “he who”?  Whereas now “she” happens to be the one used as the canonical example of passivity…

7. Adverbs are formed by adding e to the root.

Except that we’ve already met adverbs where the ‑E is tacked on after an affix, not directly attached to the root, as well as an adverbial modifier that ends in I:

The degrees of comparison are the same as in adjectives, e. g., mi’a frat’o kant’as pli bon’e ol mi, “my brother sings better than I”.

Speak of the devil.  Once again the male relatives hog the limelight.

8. All prepositions govern the nominative case.

Heresy!

C) GENERAL RULES

That’s all the PARTS OF SPEECH finished – if Esperanto has any conjunctions, they’re a secret.

9. Every word is to be read exactly as written, there are no silent letters.

Here we go again with the writing‐system rules.

10. The accent falls on the last syllable but one, (penultimate).

The only scrap of information about Esperanto phonology that gets to be counted as an official numbered rule.

11. Compound words are formed by the simple junction of roots, (the principal word standing last), which are written as a single word, but, in elementary works, separated by a small line ().

Not only is this yet another rule wasted on prescribing how the language should be written down, it’s a rule that more or less nobody has ever been seen to obey – these “small lines” don’t even appear in the portions of the Fundamento written in Esperanto!  What’s more, each translation has its own conflicting version; the German edition for instance says the lines are standard (but optional in correspondence with fluent speakers), while the Polish shows them as slashes with no explanation, and the original “Unua Libro” used things that look more like commas…

Grammatical terminations are considered as independent words.  E. g. vapor’ŝip’o, “steamboat” is composed of the roots vapor, “steam”, and ŝip, “ a boat”, with the substantival termination o.

Thus in vaporŝipoj the plural‐marker grammatical termination j is the principal word.

12. If there be one negative in a clause, a second is not admissible.

So you can’t order a coffee with no milk and no sugar, and asking “doesn’t this get us nowhere?” is forbidden!  Still, we’re luckier than the Germans, who are prohibited from using the negative word ne in a sentence containing a negative word.

Incidentally, one of the dullest non‐answers I get to my criticism of the mandatory case‐, number‐, and tense‐inflection systems is that redundancy can be useful.  Of course it can.  But the rest of the time it’s useless.  That’s why I suggest making it optional, and letting speakers decide how much of it they need.  Meanwhile, here’s Zamenhof explicitly outlawing a popular form of redundant marking, instead of telling us anything about how negation does work!

15. In phrases answering the question “where ?” (meaning direction), the words take the termination of the objective case;

“15”?  More evidence that Zamenhof needed better glasses.  And somebody must have told him that “where to?” was bad grammar.  This construction isn’t restricted to answering questions, though – indeed, it can be asking one:

e. g. kie’n vi ir’as ? “where are you going ?”;

Look, there’s an ‑N in that question there, attached to the kie… yes, this is the only example given of a full sentence that involves a case inflection, and the word that’s inflected is an irregular adverb!

dom’o’n, “home”; London’o’n, “to London”, etc.

Answering this question with a plain placename in the nominative would be dangerously ambiguous, of course – unlike “where did you come from?”, where it’s perfectly safe…

14. Every preposition in the international language has a definite fixed meaning.

Indeed, some are blessed with several – de, for instance, which as well as being a possessive or sometimes agentive marker also happens to have the bonus definite fixed meanings “from” and “since”.

If it be necessary to employ some preposition, and it is not quite evident from the sense which it should be, the word je is used, which has no definite meaning;

Wait, what?  So, uh, this je… is it a preposition in the international language?  And how exactly would I detect such a necessity?

for example, ĝoj’i je tio, “to rejoice over it”;

That “it” being an unlisted pronoun.  (Oh, it’s not a “personal” pronoun, like ĝi is?  Sure, that makes sense.)

rid’i je tio, ”to laugh at it”; enu’o je la patr’uj’o, a longing for oneʼs fatherland”.

Well done managing to cram patr back in again there.  Mind you, the dictionaries all say enuo is “annoyance”, and patrujo is a container for fathers, so this sounds like a scene in a maternity unit waiting room…

In every language different prepositions, sanctioned by usage, are employed in these dubious cases,

No, many of the world’s most important languages don’t even have prepositions.

in the international language, one word, je, suffices for all.  Instead of je, the objective without a preposition may be used, when no confusion is to be feared.

If je can stand in for any other preposition, this means ridi je tio can also mean “to laugh despite it”.  Oddly, the Esperanto versions of this text that I’ve seen allow for ‑N only to mark accusative or dative, and say nothing about it standing in for an imaginary preposition that means nothing in particular!

15. The so‐called “foreign” words, i. e. words which the greater number of languages have derived from the same source, undergo no change in the international language, beyond conforming to its system of orthography. — Such is the rule with regard to primary words, derivatives are better formed (from the primary word) according to the rules of the international grammar, e. g. teatr’o, “theatre”, but teatr’a, “theatrical”, (not teatrical’a), etc.

“No change” is a blatant lie; for instance, quasar becomes kvazaro, conveying neither the sound nor even the spelling of the original.  Come to that, nor is it true that these are “so‐called foreign words” – it’s new arrivals we call “foreign”, not Middle English ones like theatre.  But Esperanto doesn’t have any older, “native” vocabulary!

16. The a of the article, and final o of substantives, may be sometimes dropped euphoniae gratia,

That’s “for the sake of euphony” – as I’m sure we all agree, Esperanto is improved by any reduction in the amount of it that’s spoken.

e. g. de lʼ mond’o for de la mond’oŜillerʼ for Ŝiller’o;

I’d have thought the more important consideration was that Schiller pronounced his name with one [l] and no [e].

in such cases an apostrophe should be substituted for the discarded vowel.

So as well as unpronounced and unwritten small lines, Esperanto has these almost in­distinguish­able apostrophes too!  But where does the stress go on Ŝillerʼ?  And how are these silent characters not prohibited by Rule 9?

Now, what’s missing from these sixteen commandments?  Well, almost anything about the phonology, derivational morphology, or syntax… it would take about as many rules again just to get the kind of basic overview I’d want to see in the front of a tourist phrasebook.

Ranto Appendix – C

TIMELINE

A potted history of the constructed international auxiliary language movement.

1800s:
In the nineteenth century, inventing a whole new language was a task that required a combination of genius and fanaticism even to produce something mediocre, but plenty of people tried: broadly comparable schemes earlier than Zamenhof’s included Communications­sprache (1839), Lengua Universal (1852), Pantos‐dîmou‐glossa (1858), Universalglot (1868), Volapük (1879), Weltsprache (1883), Néo‐Latine (1885), Pasilingua (1885), Langue Universelle (1886), and Spelin (1886).
1859:
L. L. Zamenhof born in Białystok; raised speaking fluent Russian (and/or Belorussian), Yiddish (and/or German), and later mainly Polish.
1861:
Emancipation of the Russian serfs by Tsar Alexander II.
1870s:
Concept of the phoneme developed by Polish linguists; unfortunately none of them ever happen to pop into Dr Zamenhof’s place for an eye test.
1880s:
World population reaching 1.5 billion.  By this stage there is already an established global auxiliary language movement holding international conventions – it may be a noble cause, but Zamenhof didn’t create it, and may even be the main reason for its failure.
1887:
Zamenhof publishes Unua Libro = “First Book” (in Russian, then French, German, and Polish) which opens with the claim “My whole grammar can be learned perfectly in one hour” and includes a pledge that people could take: “I, the undersigned, promise to learn the international language, proposed by Dr. Esperanto, if it shall be shown that ten million similar promises have been publicly given.”  In other words, Zamenhof’s idea of a plausible first step was to get one human being in every 150 on board.
1888:
A translation “for Englishmen” is issued which is so bad that it is rapidly suppressed; a replacement is published the following year.
1890s:
The auxiliary language movement abandons Volapük in favour of Esperanto as an obviously superior design.  However, it also becomes obvious that any number of things could be done to improve on Esperanto – even Zamenhof himself agrees with this sentiment and offers a list of possible reforms.  Others claim that allowing changes would fragment the movement (and that this would be bad).
1900s:
Zamenhof increasingly loses interest in Esperantism, instead publishing his ideas for a new neutral global religion.
1905:
The first World Esperanto Congress votes through the Declaration of Boulogne: “The only single, perpetually obligatory foundation of the language Esperanto for all Esperantists is the work, ‘Fundamento de Esperanto’, to which no one has the right to make changes”.
1907:
Ido schism; reformists defect to set up their own even less successful movement.
1911:
The Encyclopædia Britannica entry for Esperanto (written by famous linguist Henry Sweet) describes its design as “jarring and repulsive”, as well as “hopelessly antiquated even from the narrow point of view which regards ‘international’ as synonymous with ‘European’”.
1915:
Responding to criticisms of the broken root‐classes system, Esperantist René de Saussure (younger brother of famous linguist Ferdinand de Saussure) devises a workaround.  His ideas for follow‐up reforms lead to his expulsion from the movement.
1917:
Death of Zamenhof.  Meanwhile in the alternate timeline where the movement splintered into a thousand rival schemes, the result is decades of chaos – after which (for all we know) one design emerges as the clear winner, and goes on by the end of the millennium to become the successful global lingua franca that Esperanto isn’t.
1920s:
Esperanto propaganda already claims millions of speakers.  If these figures were all reliable it would imply that the movement has been mostly losing ground for the past century; but odds are it just means that modern Esperantists are less enthusiastic exaggerators.
1930s:
Hitler and (later) Stalin ban Esperanto as an international conspiracy and persecute its speakers.  Mao on the other hand ends up supporting it.
1949:
Famous polyglot and Esperantist Mario Pei claims it has at least six to eight million speakers (“although some estimates would place it at considerably higher figures”).  You’d think this would mean at least as many names on that pledge by now, but it’s never mentioned, quite possibly because it’s an embarrassingly short list of dead people.
1950s:
By this time, advances in linguistics mean that devising a language requires only a combination of expertise and hard work to produce something passable, so Esperanto has an increasing number of technically superior rivals, none of which have any real hope of growing in its shadow.
1954:
First public demonstration of a very primitive machine translation system.
1957:
Publication of Cresswell and Hartley’s “Teach Yourself Esperanto”.
1959:
The world’s population reaches three billion, which is twice what it was in 1887; Esperanto would only need to continue to appeal to a consistent proportion of the public to give the impression of a spectacular rate of growth.  Instead estimates continue to be similar random numbers in the low millions.
1960s:
With Stalin dead, Esperanto becomes (relatively) popular with inter­nationalists in communist Eastern Europe, where it has the advantage of not being the language of the USA.
1967:
The “ita–ata schism”, a language‐design controversy caused by uncertainty about the correct handling of Esperanto passive participles, is resolved by means of political manoeuvring.
1973:
A famous estimate by French Esperantist Pierre Janton claims “two to seven million” speakers.
1980s:
Significant advances in machine translation, though it’s notoriously low‐quality and not available to the general public.
1981:
The population of the world has now tripled since 1887; lots more people are going to join the movement real soon now due to USENET newsgroups (say the Esperantists on newsgroups).
1990:
A famous estimate by Esperantist Sidney Culbert gives the total number of speakers as two million – but that’s rounding up from 1.6 million, itself almost certainly a gross overestimate.  Counts by non‐Esperantists tend to be a digit or so shorter.
1999:
The population of the world has quadrupled since 1887; a membership surge is imminent due to the World Wide Web (say the Esperantists’ web pages).
2000s:
Extracting semantics from arbitrary text strings becomes big business; machine translation rapidly goes from “laughably useless” to just “amusingly unreliable”.
2010s:
By now more or less any language enthusiast with access to Internet resources is in a position to design and disseminate a constructed international auxiliary language scheme as good as Zamenhof’s without getting out of bed.
2014:
Much publicised appearance of a website reviving that old pledge with new celebrity endorsements.  Yes, that’s an archive.org link.
2017:
The population of the world has quintupled since 1887; ten million signatures would mean just one human being in every 750.
2020s:
Even if the UN turned into a World State and declared Esperanto a compulsory subject in all primary schools, it would still be decades before you could reasonably expect it to start being reliably useful for communicating with random foreigners.  By which time, you’d probably be better off leaving the language problem to your translator app.
Ranto Appendix – D

GRAMMAR

The Esperantists who write to me are split fairly evenly into two groups: the ones who insist that Esperanto has only sixteen rules (the set Zamenhof originally published under the heading “Complete Grammar of the International Language”), and the ones who insist that nobody believes such nonsense.

The first group seem to be labouring under the delusion that the incompleteness of that ruleset is a good thing, as if grammar was a load of unnecessary red tape imposed by some cabal of authoritarian schoolmasters.  Surely (they say) there’s no need for petty regulations defining how syntax or allophony work – all that’s needed is a rule saying “you can do it however you like as long as it’s clear what you mean”.  Unfortunately, the way of expressing yourself that feels right to you is just going to be the one that follows the conventions you’re accustomed to, and the only people you can reasonably expect to share that feeling are the ones who grew up speaking a very similar language (in other words, people you hardly need Esperanto to talk to).  Trying to communicate complex ideas across a real language barrier in a tongue where you improvise the grammar as you go along would be about as profitable as playing cards at a table where all the participants have their own opinions about what game they’re playing!

Nor is devising a grammar a matter of working up a few simple rules based on universal logical principles; that isn’t what natural languages are built out of.  (After all, if there was an obvious objectively best and clearest way of expressing things that people from all over the world agreed on, languages wouldn’t be different in the first place.)  No; grammars for fully‐functioning human languages provide an artificial, systematic, two‐way mapping between the set of possible meanings and the set of possible utterances, which is an enormous amount of work for a rulesystem to do!  So if you genuinely want to minimise the total number of rules, you can’t afford to let the list include drivel like “Every preposition in the international language has a definite fixed meaning”; instead it would be more likely to start with a bunch of high‐level general principles along the lines of “All head/dependent structures are strictly left‐branching”.  Fortunately, learners don’t need to be able to recite them as commandments as long as they develop the habit of following them.

Far from making languages hard, it’s grammar that makes them speakable, and the fact that some potential utterances are forbidden as ungrammatical makes a language easier to use.  While you’re listening to somebody speaking, you work out what they’re trying to say by unconsciously building up a mental model of what kinds of valid sentences are compatible with what you’ve heard so far, and that’s largely a process of progressively eliminating possibilities until you’re left with just one.  When you hear the word the, you know it’s the start of a noun phrase; if it’s followed by can, you automatically disregard the interpretation that it might be the auxiliary verb meaning “be able”, because that would be ungrammatical.  You may not be conscious that you’re applying any such rules, any more than you’re aware of the way you constantly adjust the conformation of your larynx while speaking; it’s just part of your fluency in the language.  Zamenhof failed to specify anything close to an adequate supply of rules to make his creation usable; any time two people succeed in communicating in Esperanto, they do it not by obeying the rules explicitly stated in his “Complete Grammar” but by falling back on the language’s immeasurably larger system of tacitly assumed additional rules – a system built on the compatible usage habits of its European early‐adopter community, now converted into entrenched idioms that outsiders are expected to pick up by osmosis.  (Babies are good at that, but adults mostly aren’t.)


Take word‐order rules, for example.  When Germans choose to phrase a sentence as morgen tanzen wir = (literally) “tomorrow dance we” instead of wir tanzen morgen = “we dance tomorrow”, it may feel to them as if they’re expressing their creative freedom to make the sentence flow pleasantly, but what they’re really doing is habitually abiding by strict grammatical constraints that outlaw most orderings and assign systematically varying connotations to the valid ones.  Newcomers to Esperanto with disparate habits of this sort are encouraged to just carry on following the rules they’re used to – the good news is that they can usually rely on the language’s word endings to keep an utterance like morgaŭ dancos ni intelligible.  What nobody mentions is that this also implies some bad news: if every order is equally normal, no order has any special stylistic effect!

That’s not how things work in natural languages with “free” word order.  That name, with its suggestion of grammatical anarchy, is misleading; if anything, these languages have more word order rules than usual.  It’s just that the syntactic order rules (like “the subject comes first”) can be overruled by other, subtler ones that deal with information structure, distinguishing the elements of the sentence that are the focus of interest from the parts that are unimportant or already known.  In many languages, the rule of thumb is that important stuff moves towards the start of the sentence, but it’s also possible to put the “topic” of the sentence in final position, and often the emphatic form is simply the opposite of the normal order, whatever that is.  Unfortunately, Zamenhof failed to recognise that any such rules were required.  Instead he left Esperanto in a state that would require us to treat all word‐order variations as canonically meaningless, because no matter what peculiar order the sentence is scrambled into, that might be the neutral default in the speaker’s native tongue.

And yet there nonetheless exists Esperanto poetry that relies on the assumption that speakers will all react similarly to a particular “elegant” and “euphonious” phrasing.  This is because the dogma fed to learners is a lie: Esperanto does have a consensus system of word‐order rules – and as usual, they’re basically the ones that the first Esperantists had grown up taking for granted.  For instance, adjective plus noun goes in that order by default, so doing anything else implies special emphasis, which can mean the difference between mi faris nur unu negravan krimon = I only committed one minor crime and mi faris nur unu krimon negravan = I only committed one minor crime.  This is a rule that learners accustomed to postposing all their adjectives need to be warned about, but while advanced grammar references written in Esperanto might acknowledge it as existing, beginners are still taught that adjective placement never affects meaning.

Ranto Appendix – E

SEXISM

Consider the implications of usages such as the following:

  • “Man is a mammal and suckles his young” – the human race is male by default; “Womankind” is a subset of “Mankind”.
  • “The reader is entitled to his opinion” – if you’re female, you have to pretend otherwise to read legal documents.
  • “Wizard” is praise, but “witch” is an insult (abuse is the only field in which there are more words to describe women).
  • “The UK’s greatest living author” is ambiguous: does it rule out the possibility of authoresses who are greater?

This doctrine of Male‐As‐Default treats women as a negligible subgroup, and femaleness as abnormal but always noteworthy.

Sexism is (in principle) avoidable in English, via words like “human, people, he/she, they”, and sex‐neutral job titles where sex is irrelevant.  Things are different in languages where the distinction is one of grammatical gender – such as German, where Feminist is masculine, Männlichkeit = “manliness” is feminine, and Weib = “woman” is neuter.  Grammatical gender in Indo‐European languages originally started as an arbitrary system of agreement categories that had nothing to do with reproductive biology, but over the centuries people started expecting males to be masculine and females to be feminine, and built their cultural assumptions into the grammar.  As a result, the French for “they” is ils in the masculine and elles in the feminine, but mixed groups are ils, even if they’re made up of 99 women and one hornet (un frelon, grammatically masculine).

So how about Esperanto?  Surely a language without arbitrary gender‐classes, designed by an enlightened progressive humanist, will avoid such pitfalls?  Well, uh… no.  In fact, as first propagated his brainchild was blatantly and systematically sexist.  All animate nouns were assumed to be male, unless given the ghettoising suffix ‑in.  A word like studento didn’t mean “student”; it meant “male student”, and a female one needed to be clearly labelled as a studentino.  Such usages have become less common over the past century, but there’s no real consensus on which words are still inherently male: certainly reĝo = “king”, probably soldato = “soldier”, maybe juĝisto = “judge”… so an Esperanto job advert for a tajpisto = “typist” is ambiguous (how sexist is the advertiser’s dialect?) without aŭ tajpistino = “or typistess”.

For many other common words the male‐centred scheme is still mandatory.  A “mother” is a “fatheress” (patrino), a “girl” is a “boyess” (knabino), a “woman” is a “maness” (virino, which also happens to be the word for a kind of hypothetical mini‐virus), and so on with brotheresses, husbandesses, unclesses, cousinesses, nephewesses, and sonesses‐in‐law – a sex‐obsessed set of kinship terms incompatible with the systems traditionally used in many other cultures.  Vietnamese, for instance, has a common monosyllable em meaning “younger sibling(s)”, which is an idea that Esperantists need a whole phrase to express.  There is a prefix ge‑ to indicate “both sexes”, as in gepatroj = “parents”, but it’s still a matter of some debate whether you can use it in the singular, or to refer to a group of parents who might all happen to be women.  Only one clearly neutral noun exists: homo = “person” (cf. French homme = “man”).  Even the affix ‑ul, although glossed as “person”, is widely treated as male by default; if it wasn’t, “young people” would always be junuloj instead of junuloj kaj junulinoj!

“Horse” = ĉevalo, “mare” = ĉevalino; Esperanto also provides for ĝirafino = “female giraffe”, blatino = “cockroachess” (“henroach”?), and so forth, regardless of tradition (in English “ducks” are female by default), let alone actual biology (most hornets are sterile females).  Farmers may also find handy the Esperanto “pup” suffix ‑id as in ĉevalido = “foal”, and the “stud” prefix vir‑ as in virĉevalo = “stallion” – but why aren’t these affixes routinely extended to humans in the same way, to give common words like fratido = “nephew” or virstudento = “male student”?  Too “dehumanising”?

Then again there are the derogatory affixes, fi‑ and ‑aĉ, demonstrated in “Teach Yourself Esperanto” just as feminists would predict: by forming sex‐specific insults.  Fivirino is “dirty woman, slut”; virinaĉo is “crone, contemptible female”; and we are never offered the male equivalents (whatever they are).  If you can’t see what the fuss is about, try imagining an equivalent racist language, with black and white pronouns, a suffix ‑afro, and an assumption that the human race is Caucasian (“one white, one vote”).  Now imagine the ‑aĉ suffix being exemplified with virafraĉo

Time for a few jokes.  Is a casino a feminine case?  Is a neutrino a female eunuch?  And if a fraŭlino is an unmarried woman, is an unmarried man a fraŭlo?  Well, actually, yes; a merry jest from Dr Zamenhof.  Ha ha ha… (sob).

The use of ‑in doesn’t make words any more recognisable – on the contrary, it wastes the one opportunity to adopt a root with near‐global recognis­ability: MAMA!  And it doesn’t shrink the vocabulary, either – on the contrary, ‑in is strictly redundant when there are already distinct words for “he/she”, and if the default was unisex there would be no need for explicitly neutral ge‑ or homo.  The only thing ‑in is good at is reflecting nineteenth‐century social attitudes; and even if the linguistic discrimination doesn’t worry you (like two of my correspondents who explicitly supported it because it’s misogynistic), this scheme of compulsory lopsided sex‐marking rules is offensive just for its substandard design.  Look for instance at one of the side‐effects of the rule that any affix can lead an independent life as a word in its own right: ino = “a female”; ina = “feminine”.  Generally, Esperanto requires more intricate morphology to refer to women than men; but here is an exception.  “Teach Yourself Esperanto” translates “feminine intuition” as la ina intuicio.  So… how exactly do you say “masculine intuition”?  It’s not vira – that’s “manly” as opposed to virina = “womanly” (viroj are specifically adult human males, whereas even a kitten can be an ino).  Candidates for a masculine affix parallel to the feminine have been proposed (‑ab, ‐iĉ, mal‐in, ‐uĉ, ‐ul, ‐un*), but while few present‐day Esperantists may support Zamenhof’s original system, equally few take the obvious first step of marking male and female symmetrically.

Ranto Appendix – F

POLITICS

Many Esperantists have a weird model of “political neutrality”.  English is considered an unacceptably partisan choice as a world auxiliary language because it’s closely associated with (if not original to) the USA, while Esperanto is considered neutral because it isn’t a “national language”, it’s the language of a harmonious and open community.  That sounds sensible enough until you compare it to other world‐wide standards such as S.I. units, which became international by being adopted as “national” standards for more than one nation‐state; the “neutrality” Esperantists prize so highly (just like its small‐town friendliness) is the mark of a failure.  After all, if the EEC had adopted Esperanto as its lingua franca in the seventies, Belgium would by now be full of eurocrats claiming it as their native language; wouldn’t that make Esperanto just as politically unacceptable as English for an Asian interlinguist?

Besides, Kurdish isn’t a “national language” either, but that wouldn’t make it a politically neutral choice as a global auxlang.  Nations aren’t the relevant question; what matters is the power‐balance between existing speakers and new learners, and that’s mostly dependent on how the learners are organised.  There are obvious reasons why people might be wary of adopting the tongue of the current coca‐colonial superpower, but that isn’t the only option – here in the UK we have our own independent standard dialect, and India and Ireland have versions with quite different geopolitical associations.  None of these countries maintain National Language Academies full of English Grammar Police, and even if they did, they couldn’t stop foreigners setting up their own rival standards.

(Please note: using English to point out the holes in Esperantist propaganda is not the same thing as advocating World English – if I knew all my readers spoke Spanish, I’d choose different examples…)

How would it be possible for a global social‐engineering project like Esperantism to be politically neutral, anyway?  Stalin and Hitler didn’t think it was; they saw international communication as a dangerous thing and global auxiliary language organisations as conspiracies of dissent.  What, you disagree with the policies of Stalin and/or Hitler?  Fine, but that means you’re abandoning any claim to political neutrality…

As a further illustration, consider one of the irregularities in Esperanto’s word‐building system.  The names of nations such as Austria or Belgium are formed from the word for an inhabitant, using the ‑ujo “container for” suffix:

  • Aŭstr‐ujo = “Austria” from aŭstro = “an Austrian”,
  • Belg‐ujo = “Belgium” from belgo = “a Belgian”.

But most countries outside Europe are handled the other way round, using the ‑ano “member of” suffix:

  • Aŭstralio = “Australia” gives aŭstrali‐ano = “an Australian”
  • Tunizio = “Tunisia” gives tunizi‐ano = “a Tunisian”.

The situation is obscured by rampant irregularity – e.g. Svislando is inhabited by svisoj, whereas Irlando is inhabited by irlandanoj; and to top it all off ‑ujo is normally replaced by ‑io in modern Esperanto.  But ignoring all that: why the big split between countries like Austria and countries like Australia?  Wouldn’t a single system have worked everywhere, so that Austrians are (say) aŭstrianoj?  Zamenhof’s insistence on going the long way round shows the influence of the political worldview in which races are elementary units and nation‐states are natural homelands for single ethnic groups (each with its own unique culture and language) – a doctrine that was all the rage in pre‐World‐War‑I Eastern Europe, or indeed apartheid‐era South Africa.

Ranto Appendix – H

ALLOPHONY

Allophony is one of those features of spoken languages that even fluent polyglots are often completely unaware of, since it’s possible to pick up a foreign system by “feel”, without being conscious of the gory details of what’s going on in one’s mouth and throat (and occasionally nose).

The “phonemes” that each language builds words out of aren’t predefined globally standard units; they are sets of sounds grouped together by criteria made up by that language.  Fluent speakers hear all the different realisations of the same phoneme (known to linguists as its “allophones”) as essentially the same thing, but this is because they’ve learned to ignore what’s really hitting their ears.

As an example, English has a phoneme /l/ with allophones that can include the following:

  • The L in bland is a “plain” voiced alveolar lateral approximant.  It’s produced by putting the blade of the tongue against the ridge behind the teeth, forming a characteristic kind of incomplete seal (air escapes around the sides, hence the name “lateral”).  It’s accompanied by the humming effect produced in the throat that’s known as “voicing” (which continues uninterrupted all through that word).
  • The L in athlete is something else: since it follows a dental fricative sound, it tends itself to be pronounced energetically, with the tip of the tongue still touching the teeth, while the rest of the tongue will already be getting in position for the following vowel.  Meanwhile, there’s no voicing during the TH, and it takes a while for it to start again afterwards, so this time the sound is a partly devoiced dental lateral fricative with palatalisation.
  • And as for the L in wool, the dominant pronunciation in southern England and parts of the US isn’t even a lateral – it’s just a semivowel pronounced in the back of the mouth (very like the one at the start of the word).  In the dialects that don’t go this far (such as my own), it’s still normal for this /l/ to be “darkened” (technically, “velarised”), with the back of the tongue raised in the same way that it would be to produce a following G.

These within‐set variations may seem trivial – because English phonology defines them as trivial.  But different languages build the sets in different ways and have different attitudes to what makes sounds “essentially the same” or “obviously distinct”.  It isn’t as simple as “all sounds involving a lateral articulation are L”; some English Ls aren’t laterals at all, and many languages divide the space up into several discrete lateral phonemes – dialects of Irish have up to four!  Which means the things that sound to you like clear instances of L (or R, or T…) may be unrecognisable as such to those with a foreign linguistic background.


So what happens in Esperanto?  Are the individual sounds as totally invariant as the corresponding letters, or do they flex slightly to make things easier to pronounce in context?  Does N always represent a purely dental/alveolar nasal even in words like sinjoro = “Mr.” or Honkongo = “Hong Kong”?  Anybody trying to pronounce the word ŝnuro = “rope” is likely to find it much easier if it’s legal to make the N slightly devoiced, with the tongue making contact somewhere further back in the mouth than usual (to match the preceding Ŝ), and possibly coloured by the following vowel – in fact the whole word might be pronounced with lip‐rounding.  Is that allowed?

Or consider words like eKZorci = “to exorcise”, oBServi = “to observe”, with their consonant clusters that mix voiced and voiceless sounds.  An English‐speaker would naturally expect the whole cluster to follow the voicing of its first element, so that the words are effectively pronounced as if they were written eKSorci, oBZervi.  However, Zamenhof’s native languages do this the other way round, making them eGZorci, oPServi, and these pronunciations are so widespread among Esperantists that some sources advocate them as the realisations to aim for.  Is that standard Esperanto or just a tolerated mis­pronunciation that learners should eventually hope to eliminate?

Zamenhof’s initial writings on this topic were unclear, but when pushed for an answer he went on the record with a position of unequivocal wishy‐washiness.  The impossible invariant pronunciations were always the technically correct ones, but there shouldn’t be any requirement for Esperantists to learn to pronounce them that way; instead everybody should be allowed to get away with using the pronunciations they find natural, because (not “so long as”!) it wouldn’t interfere with mutual intellig­ibility.

This has crazy implications in two directions at once.  On the one hand, it confirms that in correctly pronounced Esperanto the principle of “one sound: one letter; one letter: one sound” is an ironclad law, and that the only rule about what allophonic variation occurs in what contexts is that none occurs in any context.  In other words, Esperanto isn’t quite a real human language, in that its phonological system lacks the components required to make it speakable.

And on the other hand, Esperantists are encouraged to talk with an accent, mispronouncing and mishearing things in whatever way they’re used to.  The examples Zamenhof gave were all pronunciations that would be natural for him as a native of Białystok; they weren’t likely to result in communication problems, but this is unsurprising given Esperanto’s close compliance with the Eastern European phonological standard.  Even within Europe, speakers of other languages following Zamenhof’s instructions would be likely to cause trouble with their varying habits:

  • A lot of UK English‐speakers naturally turn aRmo = “an arm” and amo = “love” into homophones;
  • French‐speakers tend to merge kioM = “how much” with kioN = “what (obj.)”;
  • Spanish‐speakers have trouble distinguishing raBi = “to rob” from raVi = “to delight” or Juro = “a law” from Ĵuro = “an oath”.

All of these mispronunciations are avoidable, if learners put special effort into overcoming their ingrained articulatory habits.  That task is an ordinary part of learning to speak a language… but it’s only possible if the target language has a working phonological system of its own that you can acquire!

The official rule is that there are no rules, because there don’t need to be rules.  As usual the only people who really can get by on their native intuitions without learning any explicit new rules are learners from the same corner of Europe as Zamenhof.  Everyone else has to imitate them without the aid of any authoritative guidelines.

Ranto Appendix – I

INVENTORIES

Esperanto’s phonemic inventory looks perfectly normal, as long as what you’re comparing it with is the Central/Eastern European standard model; it’s only when measured against the global average that it looks frankly bizarre.  Of course, Zamenhof wasn’t in a position to perform such a comparison – it wasn’t until 1984 that (for instance) the UCLA Phonetic Segment Inventory Database was compiled (UPSID for short), sampling hundreds of representative members of different language families around the world. Since we are in a position to do that, let’s have a look!  We’ll need to start by massaging the data slightly – we don’t want to be told, for instance, that /m/ is nearly four times as common as /d/ just because the database has split the vote for “alveolar” and “dental/alveolar” subvarieties of /d/ (which are barely distinguish­able).  But with that taken care of, let’s see what sort of basic phonemic inventory you get if you collect up all the sounds that occur in at least half of the languages in the survey.  It ends up like this:
/m b f w/
/n d t s r l/
ɡ k h j/
/i e a o u/
Yes, /ŋ/ as in haNGiNG is considerably commoner in worldwide terms than any of the sounds that Esperanto spells C, Ĝ, Ĥ, Ĵ, P, Ŝ, V, Z!  And as a matter of fact if I wasn’t letting it claim the votes for its minor variants then /i/ would fall off the list too.  That’s a sign that this inventory might be a bit too minimalist (copying the basic Latin five‐vowel system was one of Zamenhof’s few good decisions!), so let’s try relaxing the criteria and letting in the sounds that are shared by at least a third of the surveyed languages:
/m b p f w/
/n d t s r l/
ʃ j/
ɡ k h ʔ/
/i e a o u/
If you evened out that one gap in the middle, either by adding a /dʒ/ (as in JuDGe) or by subtracting the /tʃ/ (as in CHurCH), you’d have something quite close to a workable, regular, “average” phonemic inventory which happens to be about the same size as the Roman alphabet.  But even after growing to include the glottal stop /ʔ/ (as in “uh‐oh!”) and palatal nasal /ɲ/ (Spanish Ñ), the consonant inventory above still lacks most of those strange, exotic sounds like V. Of course, when linguists bring real‐world evidence to debates like this the Esperantists start whining – “But those languages in UPSID are mostly ones I’ve never heard of!  When you take into account the fact that people are more likely to speak European languages than ones out of the depths of the rain forest, Esperanto’s phonemic inventory looks fine, probably!”  Now, this argument hardly seems consistent with their usual attitude to the prospect of anglophones getting to impose their preferences on the small fry, but more importantly, I’ve checked, and the answer is no.  When you survey the world’s top two dozen or so languages, weighting the vote by the number of native speakers they have, Esperanto is still obviously parochial, because then the biggest voting bloc isn’t Poland and its neighbours, it’s Southern and Eastern Asia.  Speakers of major languages are:
  • more likely to have a phonemically aspirated /tʃʰ/ (CH as in aTCHoo!) than to have either /dʒ/ or /ts/ (Esperanto Ĝ, C), and in general, more likely to have a systematic phonemic distinction between a whole column of plain voiceless plosives and one of aspirated plosives (/p t k/ vs. /pʰ tʰ kʰ/) than to have a plain /h/;
  • more likely to have retroflex plosives (the character­istically Indian‐sounding /ɖ ʈ/, pronounced with the tongue curled back) than to have /ʒ/ (i.e. Ĵ);
  • more likely to distinguish between /n/ and /ŋ/ than between /v/ and /w/, and in general, more likely to have four different nasal phonemes than to have only one or two (Esperanto M, N).
Meanwhile there’s a fairly even three‐way split over handling of suprasegmental features.  One third of the votes go towards having phonemic stress distinctions (ABstract vs. abSTRACT), and one third towards having phonemic tones (as in Mandarin mā/má/mă/mà = “mother/hemp/horse/scold”); but there’s no way of taking an average, and the only sane approach is to side with the one third of votes that go for option three: have neither. However, coming up with a segmental inventory the same size as Esperanto’s from such a survey is straightforward enough; gathering up the top scorers gives:
/m b p f w/
/n d t z s r l/
/– ʃ j/
ɡ k x –/
/i ə u/
/e a o/
It’s really not much more like Zamenhof’s.  Furthermore, while the UPSID approach is designed to provide information about human language in the abstract, this one is subject to passing fads.  The survey results change from decade to decade along with the world’s demographics – and the trend is currently away from Eastern Europe.  (I should also mention that polling only the linguistic heavyweights disenfranchises Africa, with its numerous medium‐sized languages.) That sixth vowel /ə/ (which occurs twice in AgendA) just beats /tʃʰ/ to make it onto the chart, spoiling what would otherwise have been another nice plausible five‐vowel system.  The problem is that this isn’t something that has been designed as an intuitive, coherent phonology; a setup with three plosive columns, /b/ vs. /p/ vs. /pʰ/, just happens to be what you get when you average out the two‐column grids common in Europe (/b p/) and China (/p pʰ/) with the four‐column layout popular in India (/b bʰ p pʰ/).  Most learners would probably find a setup with only a two‐way distinction easier to handle; and by the same token, a global auxiliary language probably shouldn’t have a voiced fricative column just for /z/, either.
Ranto Appendix – J

MISSPELLINGS

A lot of the time, Zamenhof seemed to think of Esperanto only as a proposed written language, with words designed to appear on paper instead of being spoken, and of the foreign words he was borrowing as strings of letters rather than sounds.  Silent U, for instance, was often misidentified as a /w/ and Esperantised into a V – as in gvati = “to keep watch”, taken from French guetter (pronounced roughly “getEH”).  Meanwhile the presence or absence of a circumflex accent was occasionally treated as no big deal – so “a German” is germano, not ĝermano; “a piston” is piŝto, not pisto; and “because” is ĉar even though the French word it’s based on is car (with a “hard” C).  In these cases the idea may be that another borrowing has already claimed the phonetically closer form, leaving only the slightly mangled version as a second best… but in the case of ĉar, the root that got there first was kara meaning “dear”, and in French that’s cher, so you’d think it would make more sense to do it the other way around.

It’s easier to sympathise with cases where Zamenhof was dealing with English words containing sounds that have no neat Esperanto equivalent.  Under those circumstances it’s hard to improve on the option of giving up and borrowing bird as birdo (pronounced “BEER‐doh”) and sun as suno (“SOO‐no”).  But in other cases it’s obvious that whoever borrowed the word had simply never heard it spoken: plejdo = “a plaid”, pronounced “PLAY‐doh”?

Or consider Esperanto’s KZ as in ekzameno = “an exam”, with its tricky sequence of voiceless stop and voiced fricative that needs to be painstakingly distinguished from the KS in words like eksa = “former”.  That could have been egzameno (cf. Polish egzamin), but GZ never occurs in Esperanto because that spelling never occurs in Russian!  Instead when foreign words with an X are borrowed into Russian as words pronounced with /ɡz/, they indicate their origin by using a spelling with KZ (Cyrillic КЗ).  Russians don’t have a /k/‐sound in ekzamen any more than we have one in exam, but Zamenhof preferred to copy an un­pronounce­able irregular spelling even when that spelling was in a different alphabet!

And there are plenty of individual borrowings that demonstrate a policy of preserving the source‐language spellings at any cost:

aĉeti (roughly “ah‐CHAY‐tee”) = “to buy”
from (exclusively) French acheter (/aʃte/, roughly “ash‐TEH”)
boato (roughly “bo‐AH‐toe”) = “a boat”
from English boat; cf. German Boot (both pronounced just “BOHT”)
ĉerko (roughly “CHAIR‐co”) = “a coffin”
from French cercueil (/sɛʁkœj/), ultimately sarcophagus
fraŭlino (roughly “frow‐LEE‐no”) = “Miss”
from (dated) German Fräulein (/’fʁɔʏlaɪn/, roughly “FROY‐line”)
honto (roughly “HONE‐toe”) = “shame”
from French honte (/ɔ̃t/, roughly “AWNGT”)
pilko (roughly “PEEL‐co”) = “a ball”
from Polish piłka (/’pʲiwka/, roughly “PEW‐ka”)
pugno (roughly “POOG‐no”) = “a fist”
from Italian pugno (/’puɲɲo/, roughly “POON‐nyo”); cf. Spanish puño
saŭco (roughly “SOW‐tso”) = “sauce”
from French sauce (/sos/, roughly “SOCE”), or the English
soifo (roughly “so‐EE‐fo”) = “thirst”
from French soif (/suaf/, roughly “SWAHF”)
teamo (roughly “tay‐AH‐mo”) = “a team”
from English team (/tiːm/ – yes, there’s an “i” in team!)

Apart from anything else, where would Esperanto be if any of these languages significantly reformed their orthographies?  After all, the original German and Russian texts in Zamenhof’s writings are already hard to read today due to changes in the way the languages are written.

Ranto Appendix – K

LEXICOPHAGY

For language‐design questions like the best way of signposting subclauses or distinguishing subjects from objects, it’s possible to look for a “cost‐effective” answer that has been widely reinvented.  That kind of solution doesn’t really apply to questions of vocabulary, such as when you’re trying to choose good words for “day” or “dog” or “dictionary” – languages rarely just happen to invent the same words for things, but they often borrow words from their neighbours (a phenomenon that’s relatively uncommon for grammatical features).  The best a language inventor can do here is try to find an unbiassed mechanism for picking lexical items that will be recognised all around the world.  As a result, vocabulary is the field where being “eurocentric” is most excusable: a policy of always accepting words from whoever was best at spreading them across multiple continents is bound to mean taking more of them from imperialist cultures such as the Romans than from their victims (though it does at least leave the door open to occasional contributions from Arabic).

Not that Zamenhof was eurocentric because he was following this sort of policy; he was parochial by design, working on the basic assumption that only members of the European social elite should get a vote.  He justified his vocabulary choices on the basis that “every educated man” would recognise roots taken directly from Latin.  This at a time when far from getting Latin lessons, over three quarters of the population of the Russian Empire were illiterate.

Nonetheless, he did make significant use of one of the two truly global word sources: the Western Colonial Vocabulary, made up of words like chocolate, hotel, kangaroo, police, school, shampoo that were gathered and/or distributed by the European imperial powers over the past 500 years.  Since they were present in most of Esperanto’s source languages, obvious candidates from this category were often adopted – though not always: hence piedpilko = “a football” and lernejo = “a school”.

The other common stock, which Zamenhof neglected more comprehensively, is the International Scientific Vocabulary: words usually built from English, Latin, or Greek roots for newly classified phenomena, like astronaut, interferometry, microchip, neolithic, sociopath, tele­communication.  Esperanto swallows many of these words as unanalysed borrowings, but makes no attempt to take advantage of the common roots they are built from, such as astro‐, micro‐, neo‑ and so on.  On the contrary, Esperanto “purists” insist on replacing ISV loanwords with coinages built from natively Zamenhofian roots, such as antikvscienco = “archaeology”.  In fact the one and only unambiguous case of a Greek word that made it into Esperanto’s basic vocabulary is kai = kaj = “and” – precisely the sort of function‐word that isn’t part of this stock!

Zamenhof can be pardoned for failing to predict that words such as the above were going to end up so widespread in the dictionaries of the world; but as a global wordlist develops, Esperanto looks more and more perverse in its parochial root choices driven by lexical tokenism.  Of course, radical suggestions like stocking the core lexicon with fragments of technical jargon are invariably decried by Esperantists as obscure; but which is the average non‐European inter­nationalist more likely to recognise – German die Haut as in haŭto = “skin”, or Greek derma as in dermatology, epidermis, hypodermic, etc.?

 ExistingSourceAlternatives 
 birdo = “bird”∼Englishavis, ornithos 
ĉevalo = “a horse”FrenchEquus (caballus)
fajro = “fire”English/Yiddishignis, pyros
fingro = “a finger”Germanicdigitus, daktylos
haro = “hair”Germaniccapillus, trichos
hundo = “a dog”GermanicCanis (familiāris)
koro = “a heart”Romancecardia
libro = “a book”Romancebiblionkitâb
oro = “gold”Romanceaurum (Au)
prava = “right(ful)”Slavicrēctus, orthos
sango = “blood”∼Romancehaematos
stelo = “a star”Romanceastron
suno = “sun”∼Englishsōl, hēlios
ŝafo = “a sheep”GermanOvis (ariēs)
ŝtono = “a stone”∼Germanicpetra, lithos
tago = “a day”German/Yiddishdiēs, diurnus

I’d like to interrupt this table for a moment to underline what a terrible choice tago is.  Every other branch of the Germanic family gives the word an initial d, as do most of its Indo‐European cognates and equivalents – Gujarati divas, Hindi din, Russian denʼ, Spanish día, Welsh dydd… and then Esperanto words like dimanĉo, hieraŭ, ĵaŭdo = “Sunday, yesterday, Thursday” are left as individual borrowings when they could have been self‐explanatory compounds.

 tempo = “time”Romancechronos 
timo = “fear”Latinphobos
vorto = “a word”Germanicverba, lexis
vosto = “a tail”∼Russiancauda, ura

Incidentally, the Esperanto for “dictionary” is itself a good example of How Not To Do It: vortaro, with the inscrutable literal meaning “word‐herd, collection of words”.  I mean, I wasn’t expecting Zamenhof to see the potential of the Arabic word qâmûs, which has got into other languages from Swahili to Urdu to Indonesian (though by a strange coincidence, it’s originally a loan from Ancient Greek!) – but how did he manage to overlook the example of all the Germanic languages that make the compound “wordbook”?

Ranto Appendix – L

MORPHOLOGY

Morphology is the part of grammar dealing with the ways individual words are constructed out of components technically referred to as “morphemes”.  Morphemes may be things that are capable of standing as independently viable words in their own right (“free morphemes”, like word), or they may not (“bound morphemes”, like the plural ending ‑s); and it’s useful to recognise two distinct kinds of process for combining them:

  • DERIVATIONAL morphology deals with the ways fresh words are coined (e.g. by compounding), or existing ones converted from one word class to another.  (The “words” I’m talking about here aren’t the things you hear spoken in sentences; they’re more abstract linguistic units known technically as “lexemes”, though we might as well just call them “dictionary entries”.)  Derivational processes have cumulative, reorderable effects (unrepacked and reunpacked have two different meanings), and as long as they’re “productive” – that is, still in use building new words – they tend to be regular in form; however, in natural languages they can also become “non‐productive”, leaving the examples that are already in the lexicon to erode away into irregularity over the centuries.  A newly invented language has no need to carry that sort of historical baggage, but derivational processes also routinely tend to be slightly unpredictable in application.  They can never be entirely governed by predefined rules, since derivation has the task of labelling all the disorderly and erratic features of the real world.
  • INFLECTIONAL morphology deals with the ways words are modified to fit into a particular sentence by adding case endings, person agreement, and the like; picking the appropriate inflection to apply to a word in context is usually grammatically compulsory.  Inflectional changes tend to be applicable to all members of a word class, with a completely predictable meaning but often (in natural languages) a mildly or extravagantly irregular form.  They apply as prefixes or (especially) suffixes to a lexeme as a whole, not to its component morphemes; and when a word carries more than one inflectional marker they either have a fixed order or sometimes fuse into a single affix.

One of Esperanto’s selling points is that it allegedly has completely tidy, automatic, productive morphology.  Mind you, it’s more work to invent a fully functional language with eccentrically organic morphology than it is to make it meticulously regular, so this was the lazy approach!  Unfortunately, Zamenhof’s scheme was sabotaged from the start by the fact that he was unaware of the distinction between inflectional and derivational morphology.  Inflection in a constructed language can be perfectly systematic; if you assemble a word like lern‐ant‑a‑j‑n = “learning (obj. pl.)”, its meaning follows routinely from the grammar rules.  Derivation isn’t necessarily like that – instead much of the time meanings are a matter of precedent.  If the lexeme lern‐ej‑o = (literally) “learning‐place” wasn’t already in use, you could coin it as a new word to refer to any old location where somebody once did some learning (just as an ek‐ir‐ej‑o becomes a “starting‐place” as soon as anybody or anything sets off from there); but as it happens the word has the established idiomatic meaning of “school”.  And that’s despite the fact that most people learning the word aren’t doing it in a school!

The ‐ej suffix in lernejo is on the official list of specialised affixes, along with just a couple of dozen others.  Given the support of a word‐class marker vowel, these can stand as words in their own right (ej‑o = “a place”, ul‑o = “a person”), which means they’re as close to being free morphemes as are ordinary Esperanto roots (like lern‑), if not quite as free as the words that can appear as bare roots (like the article la = “the”).  In many cases the affixes are shadowed by non‐affixes with the same senses (lok‑o = “a place”, hom‑o = “a person”), which can themselves be used regularly and productively to form compounds, making it unclear why we’d need both; the official affixes are a rather pointless intermediate category in between the necessarily open class of ordinary dictionary entries and the necessarily closed class of special inflectional endings.  Yes, the affixes have a characteristic form intended to make them easier to pronounce in compounds… but this is just an indictment of the poor design of Esperanto roots.  The Fundamento confuses things further with a proclamation that all morphemes are equal (“Grammatical terminations are considered as independent words”), but this is nonsense: the “grammatical terminations” on a word like lernantajn are bound morphemes.

Constructing new words with ejo and ulo and so on may be a process of derivational compounding, but there are a couple of morphemes on the list that people sometimes argue are inflectional: ‑ig = “render” and ‑iĝ = “become”.  There are languages with causatives/inchoatives that constitute an integral part of the inflectional system, and it has been suggested that one of them – Hebrew – may have been in the back of Zamenhof’s mind when he added ‑ig to Esperanto.  But if it was like the Hebrew “hiphʿil” form (which for a start isn’t a suffix) then it would automatically turn transitive verbs into ditransitives (with two simultaneous direct objects, illegal in Esperanto).  Instead it behaves more like the derivational causative suffixes in languages such as Lithuanian: kalt‑as = kulp‑a = “guilty”; kalt‐in‑ti = kulp‐ig‑i = “to accuse”.  It’s not an inflected form of the adjective, it’s a separate lexeme derived slightly unpredictably from that adjective.

And then there are those word‐class marker vowels.  The way the noun lok‑o = “a place” relates to the adjective lok‑a = “local” and the verb lok‑i = “to (set in) place” is about as diagnostically derivational as it’s possible to get, but Zamenhof couldn’t see this.  He thought of being a noun or adjective or verb as a transient grammatical attribute added to an underlyingly categoryless root, so he handled it the same way as he handled verb conjugations: with a set of inflectional endings, which are expected to work uniformly and predictably, replacing one another rather than stacking to mark the word’s history (the way deriv‐ation‐al‐ly carries the traces of being an adverb formed from an adjective formed from a noun formed from a verb).  In reality, as even the Academy of Esperanto now admits, roots start with an inherent lexical category (loko is a noun‐root), and this entire mechanism of systematic zero derivation was broken by design.

Ranto Appendix – M

LIVING

Earnest enthusiasts often declare that the existence of Esperanto websites proves that it’s a living language; but they’re wrong – it isn’t, and if they had any sense they’d be happy about that.

The reason they’re so keen to make this claim seems to be that they’ve heard that living languages inevitably evolve over time.  Hurrah, they think: we can stop pretending that Esperanto is perfect and switch instead to claiming its flaws will naturally dissolve away!  (And obviously, anybody who criticises a living language must be some sort of racist, except of course when Esperantists do that themselves.)  Unfortunately for them, Esperanto isn’t changing the way living languages do, and needs the kind of systematic redesign that natural language change can’t provide.

A “living language” isn’t just “a language used by living people” – after all, people still use Latin (and various similar dead liturgical languages).  A living language is one with a viable community of native speakers using it as their primary medium of communication in everyday life, including bringing up their own children in it.  If it stops being passed on from generation to generation, the language becomes moribund and eventually dead; but that’s not something that has ever really started for Esperanto.  Yes, it’s true that Esperanto has had mother‐tongue speakers, but those denaskuloj have never formed the sort of native‐speaker community that naturally assumes control of the development of the language.  On the contrary, almost all of them go on to raise families in some other language, while new speakers continue to learn Esperanto as a foreign language from courses based on the sacrosanct Zamenhofian ruleset.

But these facts shouldn’t make Esperantists unhappy, because being a “living language” isn’t a status that a constructed lingua franca necessarily needs to aspire to in the first place.  Some of the most successful languages in history have been dead ones!  Living languages are defined by the way their native speakers use them, so they continually mutate and diversify, and foreign learners simply have to put up with that.  But being dead, Latin had the advantage that two people in different countries who had learned it from timeworn textbooks could communicate on more or less equal terms; there was no privileged population of speakers using it as their mother tongue, and as a result it didn’t inconveniently change from decade to decade.  Perfect!

(As long as they stuck to reading and writing, anyway.  Until the late nineteenth century there used to be multiple competing traditions in spoken Latin, none of them very close to the authentic classical pronunciation, so a word like circuitus = “a going‐round, a circuit” would be pronounced [tʃirˈkuitus] by the Pope and [tsɨrˈkvitus] by a Russian academic.  Borrowings like Esperanto’s cirkvito = “a circuit” were taken from the Eastern European regional standard just as that standard died out!)

Meanwhile, a lot of people seem convinced that the mark of a successful constructed international auxiliary language is that people use it for all sorts of highbrow purposes – this being, after all, the tactic that European ethnic minorities such as the Welsh have traditionally adopted to persuade their foreign overlords of how deserving of respect their ethnic language is.  But it seems to me that Esperantists are missing the point of the exercise, which is to show outsiders that even if they don’t recognise Welsh as precious for any other reason, there are cultural treasures that they’d lose access to if the speech community withered away.  Esperanto doesn’t have a National Eisteddfod, and hasn’t had a millions‐strong population of first‐language speakers for the many generations it takes to generate that sort of literary heritage.  If you produce an Esperanto equivalent of the Mabinogion, congratulations, but you’re writing in a non‐native language for an audience who are reading in a non‐native language, and who wouldn’t be appreciably worse off with a good translation.

Global auxiliary languages are supposed to be valuable for an entirely different reason: as a bridge between communities isolated by language barriers.  They present the hope that everybody in the world can have access to all of those hoarded treasures, if only in translation.  The idea isn’t to tempt those communities to emigrate permanently onto the bridge by building an amusement arcade there!  Quite aside from the disastrous consequences this would have for the survival chances of languages like Welsh, it’s a sign that Esperantists have lost track of the original goals of the international language movement.  A successful worldwide lingua franca isn’t something that a few zealots use for fancy intellectual pursuits; it’s something that billions of people learn at school, and regard as dull but practical.

Ranto Appendix – N

GROUNDPLANS

Faced with the charge that the design of Esperanto’s grammar is parochial, the nearest thing Zamenhof’s apologists have to counter‐evidence is the fact that Esperanto’s morphology was avowedly influenced by “agglutinative” languages such as Turkish rather than the “fusional” model dominant in Europe.  What this means is that where for instance Spanish verbs go through various unpredictable mutations to mark different related senses (hacer = “to make”, hago = “I make”, hacen = “they make”), the Turkish equivalents are completely regular, with one affix marking tense and another to indicate the subject agreement (yap‐mak = “to make”, yap‐ıyor‑um = “I make”, yap‐ıyor‑lar = “they make”).  To switch to past tense, Spanish comes up with another random‐looking form (hicieron = “they made”) while Turkish just changes the marker in the tense slot (yap‐ti‑lar = “they made”).  It was recognised well before Zamenhof came along that the Turkish approach makes a better groundplan for the morphology of a constructed international auxiliary language, since it avoids the need to memorise combinatorial tables of conjugations.  In Zamenhof’s neighbourhood this groundplan was represented by the non‐Indo‐European languages Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian – all predominantly agglutinative, though they look very europeanised when put alongside other examples such as Korean, Luganda, or Quechua.

Zamenhof eagerly adopted the concept of discrete invariable building‐blocks; but he didn’t recognise the distinction between derivational and inflectional morphology.  It’s the derivational system that allows Esperanto morphemes to link together in long German‐style chains like the compound noun te‑kruĉo‐mufo‐kolekt‐ist‐ar‑ej‑o = “tea‐pot‐cosy collectors’ club‐house”.  Inflectional morphemes don’t get much beyond ekzil‐it‑o‑j‑n = “exiles” – and even there, the ‑it is a composite tense/aspect/mood/voice marker which is thoroughly fusional, while the ‑ojn is modelled on the declension patterns of Ancient Greek and would hardly be any more trouble to learn if the suffixes really were a single fusional blob.  Esperanto is more like a version of German with better organised inflectional endings than it is like a paradigm­atically agglutinative language.  A genuinely Turkish‐style Esperanto would handle all the various modal, reflexive, conditional, or aspectual forms of verbs by stacking verb endings, so that (for instance) mi ne estos vidita = “I won’t have been seen” would use perfect, passive, future, negative, and subject‐agreement endings to form something like, say, vid‐iv‐at‐ur‑en‑im.

The third major option (which has influenced Esperanto’s verbal system there) is the “analytic” groundplan, which consists of avoiding inflectional morphology, like subject‐agreement affixes, in favour of separate words, like explicit subject pronouns.  (When it eliminates derivational morphology as well, that’s the fully “isolating” groundplan.)  It turns out that a case can easily be made for thoroughly analytic solutions being more convenient for more people:

  • They have better extensibility – that is, they can be taken from sparse simplicity to rich subtlety just by learning more vocabulary.
  • They accommodate different agreement‐marking instincts well – you can include or omit or relocate verb modifiers depending on your mother‐tongue habits, and there’s also nothing to stop you treating them as if they were attached to the verb as inflections.
  • Inflecting grammars are basically alien to speakers of languages with no inflecting features; but the barrier is one‐way, because there are no languages entirely lacking in analytic features.
  • Analytic languages are by no means obscure – for a start they dominate Eastern Asia from China through to Indonesia, and English is itself largely analytic; that already adds up to something like forty percent of the human race (and climbing)!

The natural equivalent of the artificial auxiliary language is the “creole” (which is what a sub‐linguistic pidgin turns into once children start growing up together as a community of native speakers); they are “designed” by the innate preference babies have for a complete but easily learnable grammar, and they tend overwhelmingly to use analytic rather than heavily inflecting groundplans.

(And for the sake of completeness I should also mention the fourth basic groundplan: “polysynthetic” grammars are exemplified by the West Greenlandic one‐word sentence nalunaarasuartaa­tilioqatigiiffis­sualiulersaalera­luallaraminngooq = “it seems that they were well into the process of talking about founding an association for the establishment of a telegraph station”… but this is rarely proposed as a model for an auxiliary language!)

Ranto Appendix – O

ROOT‐CLASSES

Zamenhof gave Esperanto one strikingly unnatural feature: the ‑A ‐E ‐I ‐O ‑U word‐class marking endings, superficially resembling the sets of “thematic vowels” in Latin‐ or Russian‐style declensional systems.  Forcing words into this pattern may add that little bit of extra distortion to the roots, but it was intended to serve three purposes:

  1. Class‐Marking – if all nouns end in ‑O this makes it easier for learners to find their way around a sentence.

    Now, this part did work to some extent.  Unfortunately… sentences are heard as streams of noises rather than as sequences of discrete words, and listeners don’t benefit from a rule that ‑I marks an infinitive and ‑O marks a noun if they can’t tell the marker vowel from any other I‐ or O‑sound.  Sure, readers can see the spaces between words… but if it was just for readers, what was wrong with the old German trick of capitalising nouns?  Besides, all the “little words” learners need most help with are left outside the system: ilI is the pronoun “they” and maltrO is the adverb “too little”.

    Once you’ve identified the individual verbs and so on, the next step is to be able to find your way around phrases and clauses; but Zamenhof showed no sign of recognising this higher‐level structure as something learners might have trouble with, instead filling his writings with long, contorted, under‐punctuated sentences.  Just for example, the first sentence of the foreword to the Fundamento doesn’t get around to mentioning its subject noun until 43 words in, a few words after its main verb.

  2. Class‐Switching – any given root can take any one of the endings, reducing the number of separate dictionary entries required: a verb can become an adjective, or a noun can become an adverb, without retaining any trace of its history.  (The more normal approach in natural languages is for class‐switching to involve adding some sort of extra suffix, so users can easily tell that for instance the noun goodness is derived from an adjective.)

    Unfortunately… this radically artificial approach has unpleasant effects.  For a start, a single noun may be associated with more than one adjective – take for instance the roots dent‐, sun‐, viv‑.  As nouns they mean “tooth, sun, life”, but the adjectives are ambiguous in each case between “pertaining to” and “richly supplied with” the noun (“dental/toothy”, “solar/sunny”, “biotic/lively”).  Even when the class‐switching might work neatly, it often doesn’t: for instance, nouns converted to verbs may end up either transitive (broso/brosi = “a brush/to brush”) or intransitive (fajro/fajri = “a fire/to be on fire”).  Compare also the haphazard behaviour of roots like timo = “fear” and naŭzo = “disgust”.

  3. Class‐Abstraction – the roots themselves are classless abstractions, so there’s no need to memorise whether viv‑ is basically a verb, noun, or whatever.

    Unfortunately… as soon as anyone else looked at this scheme, it became apparent that it simply didn’t work.  The only way Zamenhof’s morphological shambles could be sorted out was by abandoning the doctrine of class‐abstraction and declaring a basic category for each root in the dictionary.  Thus for instance while bros‑ = “brush” is inherently a noun, komb‑ = “comb” is a verb – which is why kombo means “an act of combing”.  The meaning “a tool for combing” requires the compound komb‐ilo, but “a tool for brushing” is simply the original noun broso = “a brush”.  (No, ilo and ili aren’t related.)

    Most unfortunately of all, this attempt to break and reset Esperanto’s backbone was implemented as a “quick fix”, with as few detectable alterations to the published grammar as possible, rather than as an honest attempt to eradicate the problem (which would involve redesigning the language’s morphology from the roots up).  Many of my Esperantist correspondents have themselves been unaware of these retro­spectively imposed root‐classes – they aren’t mentioned at all in “Teach Yourself Esperanto”, despite their effects on the functioning of derivational affixes.  For instance, forta = “strong” is an adjective‐root, so you can add the causative affix ‑ig to get fortigi = “to strengthen, render strong”; but unua = “first” is from a numeral‐root, so unuigi means not “render first” but “unify, make one”.  Similar fiddly distinctions govern the usage not only of ‑ilo (above) but of various other basic affixes such as ‑ado (sometimes used to form verbal nouns), ‑eco (sometimes needed to form abstract nouns from adjectives), and so on.

And thus Esperanto has wedged itself between the two stools of naturalism and regularity.  People familiar with the Romance (or indeed Slavic) languages often expect the ‑A ending in mi estis la triA (= “I was the third”) to signal feminine agreement, which of course it doesn’t.  But it isn’t serving any other useful purpose, either.  The word tria isn’t underlyingly an adjective‐root, and its syntactic function here isn’t that of a modifier: it has been promoted to the position of head of a definite noun phrase.  It’s just that it has got stuck in a form that ends in ‑A.

Ranto Appendix – P

TENSE

Some languages follow a scheme where every main clause must contain a marker, which is built right into the verbal conjugation system, to indicate whether the action is set in the past, present, or future (from the speaker’s point of view).  Since this is true of many Indo‐European languages – and especially since it’s true of Latin – it is taken absolutely for granted in traditional schoolbook grammar, and people often find it hard to grasp that there could be alternatives, let alone that they might have advantages.

However, only about half of all languages grammaticalise tense in anything like this fashion; and you don’t need to go far to find one that doesn’t work like Latin.  English does have grammatically compulsory tense marking on verbs, but it’s only a two‐way distinction between past and non‐past; we don’t strictly speaking have a “future tense”.  Seriously, don’t listen to those classics‐crazed schoolteachers!  I will leave is just a modal construction – parallel to I can/should/must/may leave – with uses that include referring to a future time (compare I leave tomorrow).  That doesn’t make it a grammatical future tense any more than o table! is a first‐declension feminine singular noun in the vocative case.

It’s already routine in English to use a variety of present‐tense constructions when talking about the future, as in we’re leaving soon, because it’s going to start raining; and it’s easy to imagine a minor variant of English applying the same sort of logic for past events – we’re recently leaving, because the rain is coming from stopping.  Tense inflections are anything but essential!  Indeed, quite a lot of the time they’re somewhere between useless and actively misleading:

  • Plutonium is an actinide – a timeless scientific fact presented as if it might become false at any moment.
  • Time is a dimension – an abstract truth that’s logically incapable of changing over time.
  • This dormant volcano erupts once every million years – remote past plus remote future equals present tense.
  • I could give it up tomorrow if I wanted – imaginary future scenario, but marked with the past tense inflection.
  • Suddenly the Klingons attacked – fiction uses past tense by convention regardless of dateline.
  • was born in 1967 – the tense marking is redundant, even if this is a time travel story.

In English you might plausibly argue that the simple non‐past form is just the unmarked default, not a present tense, but that certainly isn’t true for Esperanto, where all the tenses are equally elaborately inflected; and Esperanto forces us to put these inflections on verbs that would be better off without them, treating sentences like the above as if they needed to be pinned to a timeframe just as much as my alarm clock is ringing.

Some of the languages completely lacking in tense inflections are weakly inflected in general, while others instead focus on signposting the subtly different concept of “aspect”.  Either way, this doesn’t mean that they are incapable of specifying whether a thing happened in the past, present, or future; it just means that the question “when?” is treated the same way as others like “where/why/how often?”, and answered where relevant by means of adverbs or auxiliary verbs or the like.

As with all mandatory inflectional markers, replacing it with some sort of optional non‐inflectional modifier makes it easy to do things that Esperanto currently can’t:

  • asserting the truth value of a statement to be invariant over all of eternity (or just over as much of it as we care about) without inconsistently tying this assertion to a single particular moment in time;
  • deliberately leaving the dateline vague because it’s unknown, or irrelevant, or confidential;
  • leaving it unstated because it’s obvious, perhaps because a temporal context has already been established;
  • throwing the emphasis onto it when it’s important;
  • putting modifiers on the time markers themselves (to give forms such as a “future superlative”);
  • applying exactly the same optional time markers to adjectives or nouns;
  • turning those markers into an open set that can be extended if you absolutely need to.

(If you think that last is never going to happen, ask a physicist.  In an Einsteinian universe, events in a distant galaxy are not necessarily part of my past, present, or future!)

Ranto Appendix – Q

ASPECT

Aspect is the less famous partner of tense.  Where grammatical tense systems deal with whether an event is objectively in the past, present, or future, aspect systems are concerned with fuzzier questions such as whether it is in the foreground or background of the narrative.  Although it has traditionally been confused with tense, or at best treated as an obscure variant, in worldwide terms it’s tense that’s relatively minor – a good proportion of languages don’t have any special tense marking, while languages similarly lacking in aspect marking are rare (although as it happens the one good example is German).  Even Mandarin Chinese, otherwise uninflecting, has affixes for flagging aspect.

Different languages concentrate on marking different aspectual oppositions, but the most basic one is the distinction between perfective and imperfective (not to be confused – some hope! – with perfect vs. imperfect):

PERFECTIVE
an individual event given the spotlight, often implying that this action was completed as a single step in the narrative.  Example: I got in my van, drove to the city, and met them.
IMPERFECTIVE
a general state viewed as the frame to the narrative (seen from “inside” and emphasising its internal structure).  Example: As I drove the rain was still getting heavier.

Those two example sentences might be describing the same drive from alternate perspectives; the difference is a matter of narrative emphasis rather than objective scheduling.  The languages of the Slavic family make considerable use of this distinction, but they signpost it in an unusually messy way: each verb in the dictionary is one of a canonical perfective vs. imperfective pairing, like Russian skazatʼ/govoritʼ = “to speak” or napisatʼ/pisatʼ = “to write”.  They’re often distinguished by prefixes, but it’s an irregular, seemingly derivational process, unlike the simple inflectional alternation common in other aspect‐marking systems.

Plenty of other occasionally used aspectual oppositions exist; here are some summaries (but bear in mind that you could write entire books about the subtle details):

DYNAMIC vs. STATIVE
more a matter of different kinds of word in the dictionary (“lexical aspect”) than of different uses of a given verb.  Dynamic situations necessarily involve change, while statives deal with ones that naturally persist (and may even be a special category of adjectival verbs).
EPISODIC vs. HABITUAL vs. GNOMIC
(situations viewed as) isolated incidents, regular customs, or universal truths; occasionally marked by regular inflections, though never (as far as I know) a systematic three‐option alternation.
INCEPTIVE vs. PROGRESSIVE (or CONTINUOUS) vs. CESSATIVE
presents an event as (suddenly) starting, as ongoing/recurring (“I am driving”), or as coming to an (abrupt) end; this can easily be mistaken for tense, but each one may be set in the past, present, or future.
PERFECT (vs. IMPERFECT)
perfect is just a traditional bad name for retrospective (or sometimes even for perfective); several continental European languages have further muddled the situation by recycling their perfect construction as a plain past tense.  The “imperfect” is just whatever’s left over.
PUNCTUAL vs. DURATIVE
distinguishes (things presented as) sharply delimited, momentary events from more prolonged or open‐ended ones.  Durative verbs are often stative and atelic, but we’re sinking! for instance is neither.
RESULTATIVE (or RETROSPECTIVE vs. PROSPECTIVE)
highlights the immediate present implications rather than the events themselves; for instance where it broke is simply past tense, it has broken has resultative overtones implying that it remains unfixed.  The same idea can apply either to (usually recent) past or (imminent) future.
SEMELFACTIVE vs. FREQUENTATIVE (or ITERATIVE)
one‐shot as opposed to repeated events; Old English had a frequentative suffix still visible in pairs like spark/sparkle.
TELIC (or COMPLETIVE) vs. ATELIC
divides processes with an inherent goal or end‐point (swam the river) from ones that can just carry on unlimitedly (swam backstroke).  Where this is inflectional rather than lexical aspect (and/or if it also implies a cessative) it tends to be labelled as “completive”.  This doesn’t cover the idea of trying and failing, which is usually treated as imperfective.

English sentences are often ambiguous with regard to aspect, and when they do mark it, it’s usually by way of optional periphrastic forms, as in you ARE going/you HAVE gone/you USED TO go.  None of those constructions are anything you’d want an auxiliary language to copy, but the general idea of using catenated verbs as in fini iri = “to finish going” and kutimi iri = “to be accustomed to going” could easily be expanded to cover all of the above shades of meaning via one standard mechanism.  What Esperanto uses instead is a mess of bolted‐on afterthoughts.

  • ‐ad: in cases like ternadi = “to sneeze repeatedly” this is a frequentative affix, and the same is true in nouns derived from those verbs (ternado = “repeated sneezing”).  In other cases it’s more of a durative, emphasising uninterrupted continuity: marŝadi = “to keep walking”.  But usage authorities disagree about what happens in the special case of a verb that is itself derived from a noun‐root (such as krono/kroni = “a crown/to crown”).  Some say that here, exceptionally, adding ‑ado simply turns it back into a plain deverbal noun: kronado “a coronation, an act of crowning”.  Likewise for fulmado: is it “continual flickers of lightning” or a single “lightning‐flash”?
  • ek‐: a prefix specially designed to be used for aspectual purposes, which is a good start, but then it all goes wrong.  Half of the time, it’s an inceptive, as in ekdormi = “to fall asleep”; the other half of the time it’s a punctual marker, as in ekvidi = “to glimpse briefly”.  You have to learn each individual case to be sure that these coinages don’t mean “to doze off momentarily” and “to begin watching”; the only reason they share the same prefix is that both functions are associated with Slavic perfectives.  Being a derivational affix, it also gets to occur as a word in its own right, but eki only seems to be a synonym for komenci.
  • el‐: a prepositional prefix literally meaning “out from” – hence eliri = “to exit, head off out”.  Equivalent Slavic prefixes such as Russian vy‑ can function as a telic marker, as in vyuchitʼ = ellerni = “to learn by heart, master fully”.  Like the above, however, this isn’t an inflection of the verb; it’s a purely derivational process, creating a new dictionary entry alongside kunlerni = “to learn together” and relerni = “to relearn”.
  • ‐iĝ: this is sometimes mentioned as an (“inchoative”) aspect marker, but the distinction between grandi = “to be big” and grandiĝi = “to grow, become big” is an inherent difference in the situation being described (tenuously related to stative/dynamic) rather than a matter of grammatical aspect.
  • ‐int‐/‐ant‐/‐ont‐: the Fundamento (in most translations) represents these as simply “past”, “present”, and “future” participles, which is a bare‐faced lie; what they really mark at least some of the time is (past) retrospective, (present) progressive, and (future) prospective, and the compound constructions created using them are distinguished from the simple tensed verbs by their taken‐for‐granted aspectual implications.  For instance, it’s true to say that la suno fariĝos ruĝa giganto = “the sun will become a red giant”, but that’s not the same as saying that la suno estas fariĝonta ruĝa giganto = “the sun is about to become a red giant”.
  • ‐it‐/‐at‐/‐ot‐: in the case of the passive participles, the absence of any one‐word tensed equivalents for them to contrast with resulted in decades of argument over whether the distinction between these three forms was primarily a matter of tense or aspect.  “Aspectism” was eventually declared orthodox by the Academy of Esperanto (at least for ‑it‑), but nobody seems to be telling modern learners about this – I’ve heard from people who assumed the opposite and had no idea they were heretics.
Ranto Appendix – R

SUBJECTS

A good polyglot learns to take the rules of any given target language for granted as natural laws; a good linguist on the other hand learns that there are many different ways of doing things.  Esperantists (who tend to be hobbyist Euro‐polyglots) often trumpet the language’s case‐marking system as an indispensable guide to the fundamental “argument structure” of a sentence.  But even disregarding the way Esperanto marks various other things the same way as its “direct objects”, there’s nothing logically necessary about subjects and objects.  Indeed, the terms are only meaningful once you’ve defined them for a specific language in terms of the more universal concepts of:

  • Agent = “Subject” of a transitive verb (“WE saw Sam”)
  • Experiencer = Argument of an intransitive verb (“WE waited”)
  • Patient = “Object” of a transitive verb (“Sam saw US”)

Different languages group these according to various schemes (known to linguists as “alignments”).

  1. the pedant’s solution (known from one Australian language).  Clearly more complicated than there’s any call for.
    Agentdistinguished asErgative case
    Experiencerdistinguished asIntransitive case
    Patientdistinguished asAccusative case
  2. the clairvoyant’s option (less rare; much use of context): cases not distinguished even by word‐order rules.
    Agent / Experiencer / Patientall treated alike(i.e. no cases)
  3. the monster raving loony candidate (some Iranian sightings); combines all the drawbacks of (A) and (B).
    Agent / Patienttreated alike asTransitive case
    Experiencerdistinguished asIntransitive case
  4. the orthodox Indo‐European approach; two cases, Nominative (= Nonpatient) vs. Accusative (= Patient).
    Agent / Experiencertreated alike asNominative case
    Patientdistinguished asAccusative case
    (In English, for instance, Nominatives go before the verb and Accusatives after.)
  5. looking glass logic – the rather widespread opposite of (D); Agent vs. Nonagent.
    Agentdistinguished asErgative case
    Experiencer / Patienttreated alike asAbsolutive case
    (This often strikes Europeans as “passive”: sentences “hinge” on the Absolutive – often meaning the Patient – not the Ergative; cf. “Sam was seen by us”.)
  6. a compromise solution – part (D), part (E).  Also common.
    Agent / (voluntary) Experiencerhandled asNominative case
    Patient / (involuntary) Experiencerhandled asAbsolutive case
    (So in “I slid on the ice”, “I” may be Nominative if it was deliberate skating or Absolutive if it was an accident.)

What’s more, many languages mix the above systems!  For more detail, and further examples of exotic possibilities Zamenhof never considered, see… well, I used to cite an old favourite language typology textbook here, but I should probably be pointing people at the World Atlas of Language Structures

Ranto Appendix – S

VALENCY

Valency categories are a feature of classical European grammar so basic they’re often taken for granted; they regulate the number of noun phrases that can be associated as arguments with a given verb (or other wordclass, but never mind that for now).

  • One argument: It¹ exists
  • Two arguments: I¹ seek the Holy Grail²
  • Three arguments: Sam¹ lent me² this hat³

Excluding commands with omitted subjects (“stop!”), zero‐argument verbs don’t occur in English; Esperanto behaves like a Slavic language by expressing “(it)’s raining” as pluvas.

Compared to the European standard model, English has somewhat relaxed valency rules, allowing many verbs to occur with any number of arguments (“give”: “please give generously; I gave earlier; cows give milk; she gave me this”).  Grammar books warn that no such “illogical” behaviour is tolerated from Esperanto verbs – an intransitive‐to‐transitive valency change may be obvious from the accompanying noun cases, but it must also be signalled with the suffix ‑ig = “cause, render”, like this:

  • boli = “to bubble, to boil (intransitive)” → boligi = “to cause to bubble, to boil (transitive)” – Esperantists are always full of disdain for the ambiguity of English words like boil;
  • manĝi = “to eat” → manĝigi, which can mean “to cause to eat, to serve food to” or “to cause to be eaten, to serve as food” – you’d think it would be worth avoiding mix‐ups here, but dictionaries assure me it can mean either…
  • naski = “to give birth to” (the transitive verb indicating what a mother does to a baby) → naskigi = “to beget” (what the father did nine months earlier).  Shouldn’t it mean either “cause to give birth” or “cause to be born” (either way, a job for a qualified obstetrician)?

What was that about logic?

Meanwhile, there’s the case where a single entity occupies both subject and object slots – reflexives, which you’d think “logically” might get some similar valency‐modifying suffix.  Instead they’re handled as normal transitives with a special pronoun: ili vidis sin = “they saw themselves”.  The rules for reflexives are just a direct copy of the continental‐European grammatical standard, including random details like the way reciprocals (such as “they saw one another”) can work either as reflexives (ili vidis sin reciproke) or non‐reflexive constructions (ili vidis unu la alian).  Otherwise the use of si is mandatory any time you refer back reflexively to a third‐person subject with a pronoun, even if it’s the kind of possessive pronoun that’s disguised as an adjective: ili vidis siajn = “they saw their own ones” (only within the same clause, though; “they said they were their own ones” uses iliaj).  However, there’s one detail of reflexive pronoun usage that Zamenhof’s source languages disagree on: can it be used in the first and second person?  The Slavic languages say yes, but for once Esperanto doesn’t follow their lead, so it’s vi vidis vin = (literally) “you saw you”.  The explanation is that this rule was introduced not by Zamenhof but by early Esperantists from Germany and France.

The subtleties of valency categories wouldn’t matter so much if they weren’t critical to passivisation, which converts any two‐argument verb to a special one‐argument form.  Converting an active sentence like mi legis la libron = “I read the book” involves four steps, in English or Esperanto:

  1. Simple tenses become compounds: legis → estas leginta
  2. Active participles become passive: leginta → legita
  3. The subject is demoted to a “by phrase”: mi → de mi
  4. The object is promoted in its place: libron → libro

So “the book was read by me” = la libro estas legita de mi.

One extra possibility that English allows to mislead anglophone Esperantists is the promotion of indirect objects (“I was lent this hat by Sam”).  It seems reasonable that Esperanto doesn’t permit anything quite like that… but Esperanto passives also have a stranger limitation.  La libro estas legita de mi is also what you get if you go through the passivisation process starting from mi estas leginta la libron = “I have read the book”.  So does that passive construction mean “was read” or “has been read”, and whichever it is, why is there no clear way of saying the other one?

It’s not even as if Esperanto really needs all these complex passivisation rules.  The point of passives is to give centre stage to the “Patient” of a situation rather than the “Agent”, and most modern European languages provide easier ways of doing that.  Esperanto should never have needed the construction at all when it (at least potentially) has options like:

  • Topicalising reshuffles: la libron mi legis
  • Special vague pronouns: oni/iu(j) legis la libron
  • Unspecific subjects: homo(j)/ulo(j) legis la libron
  • Zero subjects: — legis la libron

One alternative to passive constructions that gets into Esperanto from various European languages is a convoluted use of ‑iĝ, the intransitive converse of ‑ig, in a “mediopassive” sense.  La libro iĝis ruĝa = “the book became red”; la libro ruĝiĝis = “the book reddened”; and by analogy, la libro legiĝis = “the book got read”.  Just as with ‑ig the logic of this is then stretched to breaking point by verbs like sciiĝi, a tonguetwister that ought to mean “to get known, spread (as news)”, but is instead used as “to become aware”.  Zamenhof even used it with an object as an approximate synonym of “to learn”.

Ranto Appendix – U

“CORRELATIVES”

The scare‐quotes are because “correlatives” is a misnomer.  In classical grammars the term traditionally referred to words that are commonly used in pairs, like both X and Y or neither X nor Y (to “correlate” X and Y).  Where we’d say “as X as Y”, Latin had a correlative pair tam X quam Y, and it was equivalents to those words – along with a whole bunch of indirectly associated others – that Zamenhof chose to label as korelativoj.  An alternative term used by some modern Esperantists is tabelvortoj = “tablewords”, for understandable reasons:

ĉia
“every kind”
ia
“some kind”
kia
“what kind”
nenia
“no kind”
tia
“that kind”
ĉial
“for every reason”
ial
“for some reason”
kial
“why”
nenial
“for no reason”
tial
“therefore”
ĉiam
“always”
iam
“some time”
kiam
“when”
neniam
“never”
tiam
“then”
ĉie
“everywhere”
ie
“somewhere”
kie
“where”
nenie
“nowhere”
tie
“there”
ĉiel
“every way”
iel
“somehow”
kiel
“how”
neniel
“no way”
tiel
“thus”
ĉies
“everyone’s”
ies
“someone’s”
kies
“whose”
nenies
“no‐one’s”
ties
“that person’s”
ĉio
“everything”
io
“something”
kio
“what”
nenio
“nothing”
tio
“that”
ĉiom
“all”
iom
“some”
kiom
“how much”
neniom
“none”
tiom
“that much”
ĉiu
“everyone”
iu
“someone”
kiu
“who”
neniu
“no‐one”
tiu
“that one”

Similar schemes occur in some natural languages – Japanese, for instance, has one with four columns and six rows where “that direction” is sochira, “that place, there” is soko, and “that one” is sore – but they occur rarely enough that I’ve seen it suggested that languages might even be avoiding them for practical reasons: the more similar your question‐words sound, the more likely they are to get muddled.  As it is, the generally recommended approach to learning these Esperanto words is to ignore the table and simply memorise each one as an independent vocabulary item.  Mind you, knowing Russian helps when it comes to learning the pattern kiel/neniel/tiel = kak/nikak/tak.

These words may form a regular table, but they clash wildly with the standard rules of Esperanto morphology:

  • Yes, it looks as if they’re constructed by combining prefixes and suffixes, but no, those don’t exist as official derivational morphemes – for a start, if they did then the examples mentioned in the Fundamento ought to contain extra “small lines”.  The word ia isn’t a root I‑ plus the adjective suffix ‑Aie isn’t the corresponding adverb, io isn’t the noun, and iu definitely isn’t an imperative verb!
  • Nonetheless, apart from that last type they all take inflections as if they really were members of the word‐classes they mimic.  This even applies to ie, which inflects for case in the crazy way Esperanto adverbs do: ien = “towards somewhere”.
  • The ‐es ending, which looks as if it should be a fifth verb inflection alongside ‑as/‐is/‐os/‐us, is in fact a freakish genitive case reserved for the use of particular demonstrative pronouns.  “My feet” is miaj piedoj, “one’s feet” is oniaj piedoj, and the reflexive “his/her/its/their own feet” is siaj piedoj; but “someone’s feet” is ies piedoj, and the only way of saying “something’s feet” is to fall back on la piedoj de io!
  • The words ending in the noun suffix ‑O mystifyingly inflect like nouns for case but not number, so there’s no tioj = “those (things)”; and even though the pronouns tio and tiu are distinguished by whether they refer to things or people, tio can’t occur as a determiner (before a noun, as in “that book”), so tiu covers both senses (it’s tiu libro).
  • The words ending in ‑om are used not only as adverbs but also as the basis for noun phrases (e.g. neniom da tempo = “no time”), which can occur as direct objects but can’t be inflected as such.
  • The ĉiu row is another batch of irregular pronouns; but unlike the ones disguised as nouns in the ĉio row, these ones inflect like nouns to give tongue‐twister forms like tiujn = “those (obj.)”.  This raises the question: if pronouns can pluralise regularly by adding ‑J, why did we need to learn a separate third‐person‐plural pronoun ili?

English has just a rudimentary “table” for words like where/here/there, whither/hither/thither, whence/hence/thence… but you may now be noticing that while “there” and “whither” have one‐word Esperanto equivalents (tie, kien), “hence” doesn’t fit on any row or column of the table.  Many languages have a systematic three‐way distinction between proximal “this”, medial “that”, and distal “yonder” (e.g. Japanese ko‐/so‐/a‑), but in Esperanto there’s only a ti‑ column; you have to add the particle ĉi to get proximal forms like ĉi tiuj = “these people”, ĉi tie = “here”.  (Except that for some reason the proximal form of tiam = “then” gets an irregular coinage of its own: nun = “now”).  The obvious approach to fixing this would be to promote the particle to the status of column‐prefix, but no, the ĉie slot is already occupied!  And a similar arbitrary one‐off particle is used to stand in for an “any‐” column: iu ajn = “anyone”.

It may be less apparent to speakers of European languages that another thing is missing: a column for relative pronouns (as in WHAT it is) as opposed to interrogative pronouns (as in WHAT is it?).  Compare, say, Hindi, where question‐words systematically begin with K just as in Esperanto, but their relative‐clause equivalents have J.  Mind you, given that its regular interrogative particle is ĉu, it’s surprising that Esperanto forms all its other question‐words with initial KI – especially when that sequence of sounds is otherwise quite rare in Esperanto roots, occurring (for instance) less than a tenth as often as KO.  Zamenhof’s tendency to avoid KI is the flipside of his ingrained bias against CU; in the Slavic languages, K historically softened to C before I.

Other things that are conspicuous by their absence include for instance rows for “how often?” and “by what means?” or columns for “the same place” and “elsewhere”.  Esperantists have been known to improvise workarounds for some of these, but coinages like alie = “elsewhere” are officially forbidden, since there’s no orthodox compounding process here that could legally be extended; ali‑e is just the adverb “otherwise”.  The only solution is to coin substitute expressions made up via the standard derivational mechanisms: kelk‐foj‑e = “sometimes”, ali‐lok‑e = “elsewhere”, and so on.  Esperanto does after all have regular morphemes covering the functions of most of these rows – in some cases redundantly, with both an “affix” and a plain root.  But once this option is on the table (so to speak) it becomes obvious that all the so‐called “correlatives” could have been formed out of an open set of freestanding words meaning “this/that/every…” plus another set meaning “place/thing/kind…”, combining as needed to form expressions like “every thing”, “some place”, and so on.

Ranto Appendix – V

LEFTOVERS

Esperanto has about twenty dictionary entries ending in ‑AŬ, which form a sort of slapdash word class:

  • adiaŭ = “goodbye” (formulaic interjection)
  • almenaŭ = “at least” (adverb/modifier)
  • ambaŭ = “both” (determiner/modifier)
  • ankaŭ = “also/moreover” (adverb/modifier)
  • ankoraŭ = “still” (adverb)
  • anstataŭ = “instead of” (preposition)
  • antaŭ = “before/in front of” (preposition)
  • apenaŭ = “barely/scarcely” (adverb/conjunction/modifier)
  •  = “or” (coordinating conjunction)
  • baldaŭ = “soon” (adverb)
  • ĉirkaŭ = “around” (adverb/preposition)
  • hieraŭ = “yesterday” (adverb/pronoun)
  • hodiaŭ = “today” (adverb/pronoun)
  • kontraŭ = “against/in return for/opposite” (preposition)
  • kvazaŭ = “as if” (adverb/conjunction)
  • laŭ = “according to/along” (preposition)
  • malgraŭ = “despite/notwithstanding” (preposition)
  • morgaŭ = “tomorrow” (adverb/pronoun)
  • naŭ = “nine” (regular number)
  • preskaŭ = “almost/nearly” (adverb/modifier)

(Yes, as far as I’m concerned almost in almost ninety is a degree modifier; both in both feet is a quantifying determiner; and tomorrow in until tomorrow is a temporal deictic pronoun.  If you disagree, that’s fine; go ahead and believe that all words are adverbs, or whatever your theory is – you don’t need to write and tell me about it.)

A few of these words, most obviously , are only on the list due to ending in the same letters by coincidence – whatever that means in a designed language.  On the other hand the list can also be extended by coinages like antaŭhieraŭ = “the day before yesterday”, kajaŭ = “and/or”, and malantaŭ = “behind”, not to mention the jokey back‐formation graŭ = “due to”.

Unlike the family of “regular” pronouns that all end in ‑I but nonetheless count as bare roots, Zamenhof didn’t cover this one in the Fundamento’s sixteen rules.  However, he did confirm elsewhere that he thought of the ‑AŬ as an added ending: the roots are really adi‑almen‑amb‑, and so forth (though the temporal/spatial preposition ant‑ collides awkwardly with the present progressive participle morpheme ‑ant).  We even have his permission to replace the ending with an apostrophe, if we think malgr’ sounds more euphonious!

The problem with this word‐class is that its members have no unifying property other than having been dumped in the same wastebasket; some of them could have been created as orthodox adverbs ending in ‑E, while most of the others might as well have been bare roots like the rest of the language’s prepositions, conjunctions, and miscellaneous odds and ends.  The whole thing is just an inadequately considered first draft of something Zamenhof never quite got round to either turning into a consistent feature of the language or tidying away – compare the vestigial ‑es genitive case, which he mostly discarded but which left traces on the “correlatives”.  Considering almost half of the words on the list above begin with A‑, it’s easy to suspect that he gradually lost confidence in the idea as he was compiling his way through his dictionary.

Tacking word‐class markers onto any of these words can produce a regular adjective, verb, or whatever, capable of taking further affixes of its own.  Such derivatives have one feature otherwise rare in Esperanto: a syllable‐initial Ŭ, as in anta ŬU lo, kontra ŬA ĵoj, la ŬON ta = “a predecessor, setbacks, about to conform”.  Or are we supposed to be dividing the syllables after the Ŭ to give antaŭ ʾU lo, kontraŭ ʾA ĵoj, laŭ ʾON ta?  That would be odd behaviour if it was true that  is just a normal vowel‐plus‐consonant sequence – but then again if that was the case, why would Zamenhof have treated the ‑AŬ ending as parallel to all the other word‐class markers that are single vowel sounds?

Ranto Appendix – W

ONOMASTICS

  Dr L. L. Zamenhof didn’t name his brainchild Esperanto.  People called it that because of the pseudonym he published it under: la Doktoro Esperanto, “Doctor Hopeful”.  There are a number of odd things about this phrase, but I’m not setting out to claim that there’s anything unusually terrible about it.  Quite the opposite – I’m picking it as an arbitrary high‐profile testcase, to demonstrate the standard of workmanship to be expected from the whole language.
  • The reason there’s a definite article la on the front of the phrase is that this is a context where speakers of French or German habitually use one.  If you ask French speakers why that is, you’re liable to be fed a lot of traditional nonsense about it being logically necessary when the phrase refers to one particular individually identifiable doctor; but English gets by perfectly well on the alternative theory that this sort of context makes definiteness markers redundant.  The true reason many European languages use articles so heavily is that they also serve to carry grammatical agreement for things like gender and number that may otherwise not be clearly signposted.  Esperanto copies this habit but leaves out the morphological traits that motivated it.
  • Why did Zamenhof feel it necessary to flaunt his irrelevant status as a practicing (male) eye‐doctor, anyway?  An avowedly optimistic medical practitioner sounds like bad news: doctors are expected to err on the side of precaution, not just ignore the symptoms and knock on wood!
  • Notice that although the word is always translated with the adjective “hopeful” it doesn’t end in an ‑A; instead Esperanto is a second noun describing the doctor (in a grammatical construction that’s known as apposition).  Hang on, though; if nouns are allowed to modify one another like that, why does the language have any need for the distinct lexical category of adjectives?
  • Esperanto’s emotional vocabulary demonstrates how unpredictable its derivational system is unless you happen to know how the roots behave in the languages they came from.  Fear is timo; if you cause me to experience fear, that’s mi timas vin.  Disgust is naŭzo; if you cause me to experience disgust, it’s the other way around, vi naŭzas min.  And hope is espero, but in this case evoking the emotion requires a causative suffix: vi esperigas min.
  • The word Esperanto demonstrates a flaw in the derivational morphology of participles.  If they were fully regular, the word would mean “a currently in progress outbreak of hope”, and Zamenhof’s pen name would have been la Doktoro Esperantulo!
  • Except that Dr Zamenhof died a century ago, at which point he stopped being esperANTa and became esperINTa, “having‐hoped”.  He would have been wiser to keep the tense‐markers out of it in the first place and claim merely to be esperEMa, “hope‐prone”.
  • His followers immediately made matters worse by claiming to be esperantistoj.  The word isto is in the dictionary as “a professional”, and when used as a suffix it was supposed to indicate a vocation – hobbyist eyeball‐collectors aren’t entitled to call themselves okulistoj!  The word for “Esperanto enthusiasts” ought to be esperantANoj.
 
Ranto Appendix – X

COMPARABLES

Propagandists for Esperanto seldom turn out to be well informed about the ordinary languages of the world (especially outside Europe).  That’s always a pity, but there are some particular cases that I wish my correspondents would read up on instead of launching straight into spiels about the unique greatness of Esperanto.

  1. There was one man in the nineteenth century who was inspired with the original brainwave of constructing an artificial international auxiliary language using a regular, supposedly simple grammar, a macaronic lexicon, and a pseudo‐agglutinative morphological groundplan.  Some people thought this was brilliant, and started evangelising to persuade everybody in the world to learn it.  They met with little success; it struck the few members of the wider public who noticed it as laughable.  But its supporters rejected any suggestion that they were backing the wrong scheme.

    Yes, I’m talking about Volapük, created in 1879 by the Reverend J. M. Schleyer.  Well, in fact there were even earlier attempts; Volapük was just the first to collect any speakers (claiming nearly a million at the height of its popularity), so it’s still remembered… as the only prominent competitor to Esperanto that I would be prepared to agree is a worse design.  When the auxiliary language movement abandoned it there was a surge in membership – demonstrating that there’s nothing wrong with changing horses in midstream when the one you’re flogging is dead.  And since then, any number of more sophisticated designs have become available.  You aren’t using a computer built from Charles Babbage’s blueprints, so why would you want a nineteenth‐century prototype auxiliary language?

  2. Only one of the languages Zamenhof knew went during his lifetime from being a dead tongue artificially taught from grammar books to being a genuinely living one, with what became a millions‐strong community of speakers using it as their everyday medium of communication.  This singular success story was due largely to the work of one individual language‐planning fanatic born in a Tsarist Russian province in the 1850s.

    I am of course referring to Hebrew.  Before it was resurrected through the efforts of Eliezer Ben‐Yehuda, it had spent 2000 years as the common tongue of the polyglot Jewish diaspora, working quite adequately as an international auxiliary language even though it was stone dead (with no mother‐tongue speaker community).  Mind you, the Zionists themselves were more fluent in European languages like German, so the Hebrew they brought up their children in was a rather westernised version.

  3. Millions of people in the world today use as their primary medium of communication something that started as a constructed language, deliberately developed within the last couple of hundred years.  Indeed, the most successful such creation is bigger than most “natural” languages, showing that an “artificial” origin is no handicap as long as people have a solid practical reason for adopting it.

    Yes, I’m talking about Chinese Sign Language.  It may have been fully developed only in the late 1950s, but don’t make the mistake of thinking sign languages for the deaf are somehow not real languages!  CSL has a flexible, powerful grammar, a well stocked vocabulary, and a community of native speakers several million strong.  Runners‐up include BrazilianIndo‐Pakistani, and American Sign Language.

  4. Sometimes it’s argued that the big problem with adopting an existing language as an international auxiliary is that nobody wants to be a “second‐class citizen” speaker.  But if that’s really the objection to World English, how about an alternative that’s about as close as you can get to English in its core syntax and vocabulary, though with, for instance, a simpler inventory of vowel distinctions (barely half as many as my own native dialect)?  One whose speakers are never going to be in a position to mock you for having a non‐prestige accent, failing to use “proper grammar”, or forgetting some absurd spelling rule?

    Naturally, I’m referring to Scots.  It’s just like English, but those nasty Americans don’t speak it, and it has no official “standard” form, either spoken or written!  Or you could pick a creole with a handful of speakers and a flavour of the Pacific, like Pitcairnese.  Yet such options have never attracted any interest, because outside their local region nobody ever needs to learn them, and most of the world’s population will never learn a language unless it’s necessary.

Ranto Appendix – Y

GOOFOMETER

Which of Zamenhof’s mistakes was stupidest?  A lot of his decisions were clearly the result of forgivable ignorance – he was after all working before linguistics as a science really existed.  The inconsistent possessives; the phonemic inventory; the word patrino… there are plenty of mistakes to choose from.  But when it comes to picking the stupidest, it’s not a very hard decision.  Two of the leading candidates as I see it are as follows:

  • Compulsory case‐marking

    Rigardu la vortfinaĵoN = “Look at the word ending”

    Now, the various “design philosophies” for invented languages each have their advantages and disadvantages.  The problem with trying to design a “simple” grammar is that when for instance you shrink a language’s system of case‐marking endings, it becomes harder to tell who’s doing things to who(m).  Usually context makes it obvious, but otherwise some other part of the grammar has to do the work of distinguishing between agent and patient – some of the complexity has moved from the noun morphology to somewhere else, like a lump in the carpet.

    Those defending the Esperanto case system take it as axiomatic that case‐endings are an effective way to free up word order, but as it turns out, statistical surveys of natural languages show a correlation going the other way!  Noun‐case systems are a “dependent‐marking” trait, associated with relatively fixed subject/object ordering – the grammatical systems with the least restrictive order rules are strongly “head‐marking”.  That is, they put agreement markers on the verb to show that (for instance) the subject is first person singular and the object is masculine plural.  This means it doesn’t matter what order the verb’s arguments go in, and they can often be left out; but Zamenhof eliminated all traces of this mechanism from Esperanto.

    And the lumpy‐carpet effect certainly needn’t stop us improving the carpet’s overall evenness.  In the case of case, it isn’t necessary for nouns’ syntactic roles to be shown by their endings – a constructed language is free to follow the example of the languages that have no affixing at all.  It would be perfectly workable to mark case with a system of prepositions instead – or not to; again, it’s an optional extra.  But word order isn’t an optional extra, it’s a universal; all sentences necessarily have a word order, and all natural languages make some use of reshuffles to distinguish possible meanings.  Esperanto might as well own up to having a rule that by default the order is Subject–Verb–Object.  And once that’s established, who needs a compulsory ‑N ending?

  • Compulsory agreement on adjectives

    La vortfinaĵoJ estas komplikaJ = “The word endings are complicated”

    English‐speakers are of course always accused of native‐language bias when they complain about this feature, but it’s an objective fact that Esperanto takes its ubiquitous adjective concord to an extreme uncommon in natural languages and almost unheard‐of in designed languages.  It’s all very well to allow speakers to use adjective‐agreement if that’s how they’re accustomed to keeping track of which adjective goes with which noun; but forcing the rule on everybody, even in the vast majority of contexts where there’s no ambiguity to be resolved, puts an extra barrier in the path of billions of potential Esperantists.  Zamenhof himself recognised this too late, describing adjective concord in 1894 as “superfluous ballast”.

However, since these two stupid mistakes interact, we have a single clear front runner:

  • Compulsory case‐marking agreement on adjectives

    Rigardu la komplikajN vortfinaĵojn! = “Look at the complicated word endings!”

As usual I welcome feedback: any dissenters with alternative candidates for Zamenhof’s Single Stupidest Mistake should check out my mailbox.