A Minor Difficulty of Esperanto
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the fifteenth chapter of Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village. You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies. You may not post this material to any site. You are invited to insert links to this site. For any other use, including publication, you must first get permission.
Among the early responses to Zamenhof’s plan for an international language were a number of proposals to change the language. One writer objected to Zamenhof’s word, kaj, which means “and.” (Kaj rhymes with the English word, “my.”) This writer insisted that Zamenhof use the Latin “et” instead. If Zamenhof did so, then the writer promised to learn the new language.
Zamenhof’s comment on this request was that the word kaj was not arbitrarily invented but taken from classical Greek. The reason why Zamenhof rejected “et” was that “et” already had the meaning of “very small” in Esperanto. (In the form –ette, it has this meaning in English in words like “kitchenette” and “dinette.”) Zamenhof could not possibly have changed his plan in order to suit each person’s desires. This was because different individuals had conflicting desires. Zamenhof did the next best thing. After a few years he put the main proposals for reform up to a vote of the Esperanto community. He neither argued for nor against the proposals. He merely said that he would abide by the community’s wishes. The Esperanto community voted to reject the changes.
One of the changes that had been proposed was to do away with the agreement between adjective and noun. In Esperanto, as in English, nouns have a singular form and a plural form. English normally adds –s to form the plural of a noun. Esperanto always adds –j for this purpose.
Here are some examples:
Now let us put the word for “big” in front of each of these nouns. We get:
|granda elefanto||grandaj elefantoj|
|granda aŭtomobilo||grandaj aŭtomobiloj|
|granda planedo||grandaj planedoj|
The Esperanto adjective takes the plural ending –j just as the noun does. The same kind of thing occurs in French as well as many other languages.
English treats adjectives in a simpler way. They never change their form. They stay the same whether they come before singular nouns or whether they come before plural nouns:
|a big elephant||big elephants|
|a big automobile||big automobiles|
|a big planet||big planets|
Here we have a complexity in Esperanto that does not exist in English. It is not a very big complexity. After only a few minutes of practice the students acquire the habit of adding –j to the adjective whenever they adds –j to the noun. Since there are no exceptions to this rule, it is fairly easy to apply.
Is there any justification for this small but real extra learning burden which the student of Esperanto has?
First of all it should be pointed out that English has a little restriction when it comes to adjectives and the nouns which they modify that Esperanto does not. In English we are required to put adjectives in front of the noun. We say, “I voted for an intelligent candidate” but we may not say “I voted for a candidate intelligent.” In Esperanto, because the endings tell us which word is an adjective and which word is a noun, we can place the adjective after the noun for emphasis whenever we like. We can say either “Mi voĉdonis por inteligenta kandidato” or “Mi voĉdonis por kandidato inteligenta.”
Let us now consider the original question and see if we can find any benefit in making adjectives agree with the nouns which they modify. Let us see if there is a reasonable cost-benefit ratio regarding this minor feature of the language.
Claude Piron suggests that there is. His native French, like a great many other languages, has this same kind of agreement between noun and adjective, if not in spoken French, at least in the written form of the language. He claims that this feature, which French shares with Esperanto (as well as a great many other languages), enables these languages to be clear in certain situations where English, lacking this feature, is unclear.
Piron gives this example from his days as a reviser of translations at the World Health Organization:
He could not agree with the amendments to the draft resolution proposed by the delegation of India.
At first glance a native speaker of English has no problem with this sentence. However, as Piron points out, the sentence as written is unclear about what the delegation of India proposed. Did the delegation propose (a) the draft resolution to which someone else offered amendments or did it propose (b) the amendments to the draft resolution? There is a big substantive difference between (a) proposing a resolution and (b) proposing amendments to that resolution. The English sentence is unclear regarding this vital distinction.
No doubt the writer felt that he was being clear when he wrote this sentence. If he had written this sentence in either French or Esperanto, he would have had to be clear because in those sentences the adjective “proposed” would have been singular if it modified “resolution” which is a singular noun, and plural if it modified “amendments” which is a plural noun.
In Esperanto the adjective which corresponds to “proposed” is proponita in the singular and proponitaj in the plural. If what was proposed by the Indian delegation were the amendments (plural) then the word proponitaj (plural) would have been used. If what was proposed by the Indian delegation was the resolution (singular), then proponita (singular) would have been used.
This may seem a bit complex. However, languages are used for many important ends and one of them is fashioning legally binding contracts and treaties. If the language in a contract or a treaty is ambiguous where it could have been clear, serious consequences can result. People and companies can lose considerable sums of money. Nations can wind up with very serious international disputes. In rare cases such disputes could conceivably lead to military action.
The rule that calls for the agreement between noun and adjective is a rule that is simple to learn and simple to apply. Because there are no exceptions to this rule, the extra learning load is very small. The benefit will, on occasion, be extremely valuable. Therefore the cost-benefit ratio is a reasonable one. This may be why the early users of Esperanto voted to keep this feature of the language.
Esperanto is not a perfect language. It cannot be perfect for everyone for it is a language whose structure was decided by a majority vote of the users of the language. Some individuals may approve of a particular feature of the language. Others may not. If we were to decide to wait until a language were devised to suit every single individual’s choice, we would wait forever. Choosing to keep the feature of having agreement between nouns and adjectives was a reasonable choice, as the above analysis shows. Unless we are to invite linguistic chaos by changing every feature that someone objects to, it makes good sense to keep the agreement between nouns and adjectives.