A Still Easier Language?
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the twentieth 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.
Some have suggested that we could devise a plan for a language which would be easier to learn than Esperanto. Here is a list of some of the changes that have been suggested.
* Get rid of the plural ending –j. Chinese gets along nicely without a plural ending.
* Replace the three third person singular pronouns, the words for he, she and it, with a single pronoun that is not gender-specific. Hungarian has this feature.
* Get rid of the Esperanto word for the (la). Russian has no word for the.
* Get rid of the r-sound. This is an exceedingly difficult sound for the more than one billion native speakers of Chinese to pronounce. Many Americans find that they cannot pronounce the trilled r-sound which, according to some authorities, is the only correct r-sound in Esperanto.
* Get rid of the accusative ending –n. Instead make all verbs neither transitive nor intransitive in their bare form. Create a special particle to indicate that a direct object, stated or implied, follows. Verbs will be transitive whenever they are used with that particle. (Hebrew has such a particle. Spanish has such a particle which is used in front of nouns that signify a person.) Create a second particle which indicates that the verb is being used as an intransitive verb. This method would save all the work of learning the transitivity status of each verb.
* Establish a rule making it wrong to use a new root when a reasonable combination of existing roots could do the job. Instead of saying something like “telephone”, for instance, say something like “farspeaktool.” The Germans do this with one of their words for “telephone” Fernsprecher (far-speaker).
No doubt there are many other possible proposals for a language that might be even easier to learn. By introducing simplifications like these, someone could create a plan for a language that could be learned in, say, fifty fewer hours.
It might be asked, why has this not been done?
In fact it probably has been done. Thousands of plans for new languages have been developed and proposed. Some of these plans are for languages that would be more difficult to learn than Esperanto but others, certainly, are for languages which would be easier to learn. However, of all of the thousands of plans for new international languages only Esperanto has come fully alive with an international community, its own extensive literature, a good number of periodicals, and regular gatherings numbering up to thousands of individuals.
Long ago the English philologist J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, pointed out that it was possible to devise a simpler language than Esperanto but not without giving up a great deal of “the individuality, coherence and beauty, which appear in the great natural idioms, and which do appear to a considerable degree (probably as high a degree as is possible in an artificial idiom) in Esperanto….” Tolkien had studied Esperanto’s structure and grammar as a professional linguist and had “read a fair amount written in it.” Tolkien endorsed Esperanto.
Whether a person finds something beautiful or not is a matter of taste. I have listened while two Spanish teachers made fun of the way French sounds. They spoke some French sentences with excellent pronunciation and obvious disdain and then spoke some Spanish with excellent pronunciation and obvious affection. Other individuals believe that French is a very beautiful language. No doubt there are people who disagree with Tolkien’s aesthetic judgment regarding Esperanto.
Similar differences of opinion would no doubt apply to other features of a language besides the way in which it is pronounced. Tolkien, speaking of Esperanto as a whole, gave a high rating to its aesthetic qualities. He said that Esperanto was easy to learn and had fine aesthetic qualities. He admitted that plans for a simpler language had been devised but that that language was “hideous.”
In Esperanto we have a trade-off. It takes a little longer to gain a good working knowledge of Esperanto than it would a hypothetical simpler language but a good deal of aesthetic value is gained thereby. Much in the way of flexibility in word order is gained. Much in the way of being able to place subtle emphasis by taking advantage of this flexibility is gained. In my opinion the cost-benefit ratio is favorable. Of course, in the opinion of some others the cost-benefit ratio is unfavorable.
Aesthetics is not just trimming when it comes to human affairs. It is central to the quality of human life. Whether we speak of music, painting, literature, sports, chess, movies, photography, clothing, science, mathematics, architecture, automobile design and so on, the aesthetic side of our common concerns is of great importance.
Sports reports in the paper talk about “a beautiful play”, “a beautiful catch”, “a beautiful run.” They talk about “winning ugly”, when a team wins a game but has not played beautifully. Brilliancy prizes are given for aesthetically valuable chess games. Mathematicians value elegant solutions to problems. Scientists like Einstein were led to their theories partly because they were beautiful.
Aesthetic value is one of the considerations we take into account in selecting cars, houses, boats, lovers, spouses, solutions to mathematical problems, scientific theories, music, movies and so on. It may very well be one of the considerations we take into account in selecting a language. For at least a considerable number of people the aesthetic value of Esperanto is one of its features which has attracted people to it.
This aesthetic value does not only lie in literary works but also in the ordinary use of the language. The way Esperanto has been constructed permits ordinary users to be creative in making up new words. We saw how this is done in Chapter Ten. Claude Piron has collected a large number of spontaneous words created in ordinary conversations by Esperantists. These coinings took place when people who had different native languages were speaking with one another in international get-togethers. Piron gives a number of examples in his little book in Esperanto, La Bona Lingvo.
Here are a few of them.
A number of Esperantists were in Vienna and had been following some directional signs with arrows on them. They decided to go back. A German among them said, “Ni malsekvu la sagojn.” (p. 42) The closest I can come in English would be, “Let’s unfollow the arrows.” In English this would be unnaturally cute. In Esperanto it is concise, natural and original, a very concise way of saying, “Let’s go in the opposite direction to that shown by the arrows.”
Also in Vienna a Slovene, describing someone, said, “Li similas Orson Welles—Jes, eĉ voĉe.” In English this would be, “He’s like Orson Welles—Yes, even voicely.” Try to put this “voicely” into good English.
A Dutchman remarked in Zagreb “Vortelekti vere estas vortkompari.” These four words mean “To choose words is truly to compare words.” As far as syllables go the two sentences are almost equally long. However, the key element vort (word) comes in a place of emphasis at the beginning of the compound words which are infinitives, vortelekti (to wordchoose) and vortkompari (to wordcompare): “Wordchoose truly is wordcompare.”
In Poitiers, France, a Frenchman remarked about a man who was acting in an avuncular manner to a child, “Ĉu li oĉjas?” We could translate this as “Is he uncle-ing?” However oĉjo is not the word for uncle. Onklo is. Oĉjo is a diminutive form of onklo just as “mommy” is a diminutive form for “mom.” What this three-word question is really getting across is this: “Is this man behaving like a really affectionate, beloved uncle would to the child?”
Of course languages like English and French and the other great national languages are wonderful for getting across nuances of meaning, but they do this in different ways than Esperanto does. English does this by making available an enormous number of synonyms, each of which carries a slightly different nuance. English also does this by making available an enormous number of idiomatic expressions. Esperanto achieves this end by permitting its users to combine any of its word elements to create new words. In English, French and Esperanto those who have mastery over the language can express themselves with great creativity. This, of course, is true for the other languages as well.
And this creativity necessarily involves aesthetic values.
The aesthetic qualities of the language may be what has kept Esperanto alive.
It would be easy to devise a plan for a yet simpler language. However, there is no guarantee that such a language would work in real-life situations. Esperanto has been used by large numbers of people for a century now. It has attracted people to learn it, and people who have learned it have used it in correspondence, in travel, in translating works of literature, in creating new works of literature and in marriages.
Just as a vast number of people are said to love their native language, so a great many Esperantists love their common language. Some of them love it so much that for them Esperanto’s value does not lie in the future when they envision it as being adopted for general international use. It lies in the present moment as the language of a small but flourishing, unique international community