Chapter 17
Two Ways to Form New Words

Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft.  Here is the seventeenth 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. 

As we have seen, Zamenhof originally presented a vocabulary of about 1000 words as part of his plan for the language.  He derived almost all of these words from major European languages. Unlike the authors of a number of other language projects, Zamenhof did not maintain any right to keep tight control over his creation.  He did not arrogate to himself the right to decide which new words might enter the language and which words should be kept out of it.  His idea was that the community of users would decide which proposed new words would be adopted and which would not.  Those proposed new words which speakers and writers of Esperanto introduced and kept on using would take root in the language and become part of its regular vocabulary.  The proposed new words which they did not continue to use would simply fall away.  This is precisely the same process which goes on in other living languages.

Esperantists, starting with their base of about 1000 morphemes, needed to create a large number of new words.  Zamenhof provided two ways of doing this. 

The Method of Combining Already-Existing Morphemes

One method was to combine morphemes (“little words”) which already existed in the language.  We have already seen some examples, but here are some more.

1.  Plibonigi (four morphemes)

pli = more
bon = good
ig = make
i = [infinitive marker, like “to” in “to be”]
“Plibonigi” means to make something better, to improve (something else).  Change the “–ig” (make) to “–iĝ” (becomes) and you have “pliboniĝi” which means to become better (to just improve).  English uses the word “improve” for both of these ideas. 2.  Samseksamanto (five morphemes)
sam = same
seks = sex
am = love
ant = one who
o = [noun marker]

“Samseksamanto” means someone who loves the same sex.  The English word is “homosexual.”  Change the “sam” to “ali” (which means “other”) and you have “aliseksamanto” which means someone who loves the other sex.  The English word is “heterosexual.”  English has borrowed two Greek morphemes.

3.  Nevidebla (four morphemes)

ne = not
vid = see
ebl = possible
a = [adjective marker]

“Nevidebla” is an adjective that means “not possible to see.”  The English word is “invisible”.  English has borrowed three Latin morphemes.

There are many Esperantists who prefer this method because they can create new words, which are easy to understand even by those people, who do not know any of the source languages for most Esperanto vocabulary (Latin, French, English, German etc.)  Many Chinese Esperantists like this method because when they already know the components of the new word from earlier study, it makes it very easy for them to learn the new word.  (This is a favored way of forming new words in the Chinese language.  For instance, the Chinese word for “robot” is made up out of their words for “machine” and “man.”)  The great advantage of this system is that newcomers to Esperanto who are not speakers or students of a European language have to learn only about 2,000 morphemes, which are derived from European languages and which sound strange to them.  From these basic morphemes that can be learned in a hundred hours or so, they can then derive tens of thousands of highly useful words.

The Method of Importing New Roots From European Languages

The second method, which Zamenhof also used extensively, was to import whole words from European languages.  One of Zamenhof’s sixteen basic rules for the language provided for this.  It said that words that have come into common international use may be used in Esperanto.  The only requirement is that the word be adapted to the system of spelling used in Esperanto.  Because of this, Esperanto has added to its vocabulary a large number of words that are similar to the words used in English and the Romance languages, words such as astronaŭtoaŭtomobilotelefonospacŝipomadrigalopiramido and highly technical terms that would normally be known only to experts such as heterodinodolikocefalarinoskopo and hematologio. Each time an entirely new word, unrelated to the basic morphemes, is brought in, a tiny extra learning burden is imposed.  Let us take as an example the English word, “hematology.”  Here are the current forms of this word in a few European languages and in Esperanto:
ENGLISH (American) hematology
ENGLISH (British) haematology
SPANISH hematología
FRENCH hématologie
ESPERANTO hematologio

Here we have five forms of the same word, all borrowing two morphemes from Greek.  No doubt similar forms exist in a very large number of other European tongues.  Speakers of one of these languages who have already learned this term in their own language will immediately recognize it in Esperanto.  Likewise, if they first learn it in Esperanto, they will then easily recognize it in their native tongue.

The situation is quite different when it comes to someone, whose native language has an entirely different indigenous word for this concept.  Let us suppose that the Chinese have their own term for this concept.  Then the fact that speakers of Chinese know their own language’s word will not help them at all with the Esperanto word.  Likewise, their knowing the Esperanto word will not help them at all with the Chinese word.  The Chinese have to learn two entirely different terms for the same concept, one in Esperanto and one in their native language, whereas speakers of one of the European languages in which the term already exists, whichever language they first learn it in will easily learn the word in the second language.  This adds up to a very tiny advantage for the European language speaker, when it is a matter of one word.  However, when the same kind of situation repeats itself hundreds or even thousands of times, it makes it significantly easier for a European or American to learn Esperanto than for a Chinese or a Korean or an Indonesian.

From the point of view of those Esperantists who prefer to form words out of already existing, commonly understood morphemes, “hematologio” was a poor choice.  They would have preferred a word like:

4.  Sangoscienco (three morphemes from Esperanto)

sang = blood
scienc = science
o = [noun marker]

“Sangoscienco” means “the science that studies blood”, which is what hematology is.

Sangoscienco would not only have been easy for, say, Chinese Esperantists to understand.  It also would have been easy for those Americans and Europeans who were not already familiar with “hematology.”  Even a very young student of Esperanto could easily understand this word.

This brings us to one of the funny facts about language.  Language exists so that people can understand each other.  It exists to convey meanings from one person to another.  However, people also use language to convey their meaning to certain people while hiding it from other people.  This is why minority groups and young people and people in certain lines of work develop their own special vocabularies, so that they can understand each other, while outsiders who happen to overhear them cannot.

Our ancestors lived in tribes.  Each tribe had its own language, its own way of speaking.  This made it very easy for people to identify someone either as a member of their tribe or as members of other tribes.  Since there was often great loyalty in a tribe and great enmity between tribes, being a native speaker of a tribe’s language, being able to speak the language naturally and correctly, provided a kind of instant identification which, in times of enmity between tribes, might be a matter of life and death.

An interesting illustration of this is found in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Judges.  The Gileadites defeat the Ephraimites.  When individual Ephraimites try to escape across the Jordan, the Gileadites intercept them to kill them.  When an Ephraimite claims that he is not an Ephraimite he is told to pronounce the word “shibboleth”, which means “the flood of a stream”.  Because in their dialect the word is pronounced “sibboleth” their pronunciation gives them away and they are killed.  The Book of Judges says, “…and there fell at that time of Ephraim forty and two thousand.”

Today this basic tribal instinct manifests itself in a variety of ways.  Urban gangs have their own special colors and customs to identify members.  Sometimes these gangs, like many tribes and many nations, engage in violent conflict.

In a less lethal way this tribal instinct manifests itself in the behavior of sports fans, who may cheer their team and boo the other team.  In extreme cases fans may become violent and riot and even kill after a contest, either after their team wins or loses.

In part Zamenhof created Esperanto in order to help people overcome this natural instinct of tribalism.  However, in a very small way, tribalism manifests itself even in Esperanto in the use of technical terms like “hematologio”, which experts normally know and non-experts normally do not.  It helps divide Esperantists, as it helps divide speakers of other languages, into different groupings of experts and non-experts.  Experts can discuss matters using their technical vocabularies and not be easily understood by non-experts.  They can use their knowledge of specialized vocabularies to intimidate non-experts.

Naturally there are some new and very subtle ideas which cannot easily be conveyed by putting together simple, commonly known morphemes.  However there are a great many technical ideas which could very easily be expressed in this way.  Here is another example:

The English word “hemicrania” and the Esperanto word “hemikranio” simply mean a headache on one side of the head.  Someone who knows that “hemi” is a Greek root meaning “half” and that “cranium” or “kranio” means “skull” has a clue to the meaning of the word.  However, Esperanto already had a common word meaning “half”: duono.  Proponents of a simple (but not simplistic) vocabulary wonder why Esperanto needed a second, less common word for “half”, hemi, to use in expert language?

Proponents of keeping the vocabulary of Esperanto easily understood even by new Esperantists who do not know one of the source languages would prefer a term like “unuflanka kapdoloro”.  “Unu” means one, “flank” means side, “kap” means head, and “doloro” means pain.  This term has the advantage of being instantly understood.  “Hemikranio” has the advantage of being more concise and of already being known to most experts in their native languages.

Sometimes these words which Zamenhof and others chose to adopt wholesale from ancient and modern European tongues are really puzzling to Asians.  For example, the Esperanto word for “September” is septembro.  This has a root “sept” which, like the Esperanto word “sep”, means seven.  But September is the ninth month.  The reason for its name is that the ancient Roman calendar began in March and so September originally was the seventh month.  (October, November and December (oktobro, novembro and decembro in Esperanto) were the eighth, ninth and tenth months, as their names indicate.

Why should a Chinese or an Indonesian or a Korean have to be puzzled about this kind of a weird terminology that only makes sense when one understands the history of the names of the months in the Latin language?  One Chinese Esperantist suggested that it would be far easier to simply (and correctly) number all the months just as we number the days of the month.  How much more complex it would be if, for example, each of the thirty days of April had their own individual unique names!  How much simpler it would be if the months of the year and the days of the week were numbered rather than assigned discrete names which must be learned individually!  How much more suitable that would be for an international language which is supposed to be very easy to learn!  (Such a system is found for the days of the week in Hebrew, except for the Sabbath which has its own name.  Sunday is “day one”, Monday is “day two” and so on.

Perhaps had Zamenhof thought of and introduced such a system, his language would not have been as readily accepted by Europeans and would not have become the only planned international language that has become a widespread living tongue.  Certainly at this late date Esperantists are not going to accept this kind of change in their language.  When it comes to the days of the week and the months of the year we are stuck with these special words that provide a special little learning chore for most of the people of the world.  Proponents of an easily learned non-simplistic Esperanto vocabulary maintain that it is not necessary to keep adding that kind of learning chore when it comes to creating new words.

In the living language of Esperanto today new words are formed both by importing whole complex words from the source languages (usually English and French) and by creating new words out of common, easily understood morphemes.  A great many words have taken root in the language in pretty much the same form as they existed in the source language.  Other words have become common that are formed out of morphemes which every Esperanto speaker learns early on. Sometimes these words exist side-by-side like the words for computer software, softvaro and programaro.  (The ending –ar means “a group of.”)  Most Esperantists see no difficulty in this situation.  They use whatever term has become most common.  However, if they are stuck for a word, they can always combine commonly known morphemes to create an easily understood new coinage.

Here are a few more examples of how words are created out of commonly understood morphemes:

5.  Rajtprotektisto (“ombudsman” in English) 

rajt = right
protekt = protect
ist = a person who does something (like a bicyclist) or who believes or supports something (like a socialist)
o = [noun marker]
“Rajtprotektisto” means a professional person who protects someone’s rights, which is what an ombudsman is. 6.  Ĉioscia (“omniscient” in English)
ĉio = everything
sci = know
a = [adjective marker]

“Ĉioscia” means “knows-everything”, which is what being omniscient is.

7.   Neesprimebla (“ineffable” in English)

ne = not
esprim = express
ebl = possible
a = [adjective marker]

“Neesprimebla” means that which it is “not possible to express, which is what being ineffable is.

The Question of Precision

The ability to create or improvise new words when they are needed is one of the most valuable attributes of Esperanto.  Whenever the basic vocabulary does not provide Esperantists with a way of expressing an idea, a method for creating just the right new word is readily available.

One of the interesting things about languages is that just about any one of them is likely to have more precise terms in some particular cases than another language happens to have.  English is more precise when it comes to liking and loving than French is.  Whereas English has the two words, “like” and “love”, French makes do with one, “aimer.”  On the other hand, where English has the one word “love”, classical Greek has three words that distinguish between different kinds of love, physical love, brotherly love, and love that is unselfish, such as a mother’s love ideally is.

So sometimes one language has more precise terms and sometimes another language has more precise terms.  For example, English has a more precise term in “injunction” than Esperanto does.  The word “injunction” in English usually has the specific meaning of an order from a court.  Esperanto uses the same word “ordono” as it uses for any other kind of command.  On the other hand, Esperanto has a more precise term in “servico” which means “service” in the sense of “a silver tea service.”  It uses “servo” to mean a service that someone performs for someone else.

We can also note special kinds of precision which both English and Esperanto lack but which other languages have.

In the national language of Papua New Guinea, which is called either Neo-Melanesian or, none too accurately, “pidgin English”, there are two words “yumi” and “mipela” which roughly mean “we.”  Here Neo-Melanesian is more precise than either Standard English or Esperanto.  “Yumi” means “I and you, the person with whom I am talking” whereas “mipela” means “I plus one or more other people, but not you.”  Jared Diamond has spent months in Papua New Guinea, speaking Neo-Melanesian.  After he comes back to his English-speaking society and starts speaking Standard English again he finds himself wondering, when his interlocutor uses “we”, whether or not he is included in that “we.”

If you compare just about any two languages, one will be more specific when it comes to having words that denote certain concepts and the other will be more specific when it comes to having words that denote other concepts.  That is just the way languages are.

Suppose we decide to create a perfect language and by “a perfect language” we mean one which has a specific individual word for each possible concept.  Since the number of possible concepts is infinite, our “perfect” language will have to have an infinite number of words.  Its vocabulary will be so huge that only God could learn it.

Sometimes people like to brag about a language’s having an enormous vocabulary as though that were an advantage.  The authors of The Story of English suggest that English has 1,000,000 words. Obviously no one could learn all of these words.  Suppose that it takes three minutes to learn a new word and fix it firmly in your mind.  Then it would take some 3,333,333 minutes to learn these words or 55,555 hours or 6,944 eight hour workdays or about 30 years worth of workdays doing nothing else besides learning these 1,000,000 words.

For a national language the enormous English vocabulary is a great treasure.  However, when English is asked to serve as an easy-to-learn international auxiliary language, this treasure becomes an embarras de richesses.  The trick with planning an easily learnable international language would be to enable the learner to use, say, 2000 basic morphemes to express a very wide range of concepts.  Students of Esperanto do this.

The 2,000 basic morphemes can be learned in a reasonable amount of time.  Taking our earlier estimate that it takes three minutes to learn a morpheme, it would take 6,000 minutes to learn these little words or 100 hours.  Even if it took twice as long, these morphemes could be mastered in a school year.

An international language that can be learned in a reasonable amount of time has to have a large enough vocabulary to express all of the ideas that individuals would want to be able to express in their own language but not so enormous a vocabulary that it would take many years of diligent study for students to even begin to master it.  The right balance has to be found between great precision which demands an enormous, unwieldy vocabulary, and easy learning which may limit the ability of a language to express ideas.  The method of freely combining morphemes to create new, immediately understood words, which Zamenhof introduced, solves this problem.  By learning a limited number of morphemes and learning how to combine them to create new, easily-understood words, students of Esperanto can both have their cake and eat it too. 

Chapter 18    Two More Difficulties of Esperanto