Where English is an Easy Language too
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the seventh 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.
English is relatively simple
National languages are often difficult in some ways but easy in others. Chinese is a very difficult language to learn how to read and write but, on the other hand, it has no irregular verbs. This makes it very easy in that respect. When Chinese start studying English, they are surprised to discover the illogical and inconsistent ways in which English verbs are constructed. If you say, “I laugh / I laughed” and “I learn / I learned”, why can’t you say, “I teach / I teached” and “I run / I runned”? The teacher has to tell them, “No, it doesn’t make any sense. However, that’s the way it is. That is the way the language developed, and that is the way you have to learn it, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.”
Yet, compared with the grammar of other foreign languages which are commonly studied in America and Europe, the grammar of English is relatively simple. In fact it was this relative simplicity of English grammar which inspired the sixteen-year old Zamenhof to create an even simpler grammar for the language he was planning.
Freedom from Genders
Swahili is a relatively simple language. It is phonetic. It does not have irregular verbs. However, nouns are distributed throughout six genders. (The word “gender” simply means a certain grammatical class of a noun. In grammar it can but does not have to refer to sex. It can refer to dangerous things or flat things or animals or any other kinds of thing.) Swahili is not the champion language in regard to the number of genders. The Kivunjo language of Tanzania which, like Swahili, belongs to the Bantu family of languages, has sixteen genders.
When people study Swahili or Kivunjo, every time they learn a noun, they have to memorize that noun’s gender. Every time students of Swahili want to put a noun in the plural, they have to recall which of the six genders it belongs to, recall the method which that gender utilizes to form the plural, and apply that particular method and not one of the others. In order to speak Swahili correctly and fluently this knowledge must come not after taking a few seconds to think about it but instantaneously, reflexively.
Someone speaking German has to do the same thing, but with three genders. Someone speaking Spanish or French has to do the same thing, but with two genders.
Even in the case of a language with two genders, learning the gender of each noun and applying it correctly is a very complex process. In French (or Spanish or German or Latin or many other languages as well) every time you learn a new noun, you have to learn its gender. When you want to use the word “the” or “a” in front of it, you have to choose the form of “the” or “a” that corresponds to the gender of that particular noun. “A door”, which is feminine, is “une porte” but “a wall”, which is masculine, is “un mur.” “The door” is “la porte” but “the wall” is “le mur.”
You cannot depend on logic to tell if a French noun is masculine or feminine. “A man” (un homme) is masculine and “a woman” (une femme) is feminine. However, “a beard” (une barbe) is feminine and “breasts” (seins) is masculine. You have to take a little bit of time to learn the gender of each of the thousand or thousands of nouns you have to know to speak the language. This adds up to more hours of work. And even you learn the gender of a great many nouns, if you do not have occasion to use certain nouns for a long period of time, you may find that you have forgotten what you once knew.
If you use an adjective to go along with the noun, you have to remember if that adjective has just (a) one form that goes with both masculine and feminine nouns or (b) a masculine form that goes along with masculine nouns and a feminine form that goes along with feminine nouns. The French word for “green” has two forms, vert that goes along with masculine nouns and verte that goes along with feminine nouns, but the French word for “red” has just one form, rouge, which goes with both masculine and feminine nouns.
It is amusing to note that the French adjectives that mean “masculine” and “feminine” each have two forms, one that goes along with masculine nouns and one that goes along with feminine nouns. However, the oddities involving gender in French get weirder than this. There are a few French nouns which are masculine in the singular but feminine in the plural, and there is one, gens (people), which has only a plural form but which is sometimes masculine, and sometimes feminine, according to a special set of rules.
If an adjective follows gens, the adjective (and consequently, gens) is masculine, but if the adjective comes in front of gens, then the adjective (and, consequently, gens) is feminine unless that adjective happens to end with a silent e in its masculine form, in which case gens once again is masculine.
Gens is an extreme case but it illustrates the utter lack of logic when it comes to the gender classification of the overwhelming majority of French nouns and adjectives.
Compare this with English. There are no genders to learn. Every English noun takes the definite article “the” without exception. It takes the indefinite article “a” (or “an” in front of a vowel sound). Adjectives come in one form. All you have to learn is the adjective. You do not have to learn a different form for use with certain nouns and another form for use with other nouns.
Zamenhof used a very simple system in Esperanto. He provided just one form for the definite article. La and only la means “the.” There is no indefinite article, no counterpart to the English words “a” and “an.” (One function of these little words is to show that the following word is a noun. Esperanto uses the o-ending that nouns take to do that job.) Only a language like Russian is simpler when it comes to the article. Russian gets along without articles, just as Chinese gets along without a mandatory plural form for nouns.
Esperanto adjectives do not change according to gender because, as in English, Esperanto nouns and adjectives do not come in different genders.
The learning burden when it comes to French genders amounts to hundreds of hours of extra work. The problem of genders in French provides a great many opportunities for making mistakes, opportunities for error which simply do not exist in either English or Esperanto.
The Simplicity of the Verbs
Another thing that struck Zamenhof about English was the relative simplicity of the verbs. The linguist Daniel Pinker points out that “in modern Italian and Spanish every verb has about fifty forms; in classical Greek, three hundred and fifty; in Turkish, two million!”
Compared with these languages, learning the English verb is a cinch. For instance, the French verb is so complicated that publishers put out useful books like Christopher Kendris’s Dictionary of 501 French Verbs Fully Conjugated in All the Tenses. Kendris devotes one full page to each verb.
The verb “parler” means “to speak, to talk.” Here are some of the forms it takes:
Forms (for first through third persons singular and first through third persons plural)
parle, parles, parle, parlons, parler, parlent
parlais, parlais, parlait, parlions, parliez, parlaient
parlai, parlas, parla, parlâmes, parlâtes, parlèrent
parlerai, parleras, parlera, parlerons, parlerez, parleront
parlerais, parlerais, parlerait, parlerions, parleriez, parleraient
parle, parles, parle, parlions, parliez, parlent
parlasse, parlasses, parlât, parlassions, parlassiez, parlassent
second person singular: parle; first and second persons plural: parlons, parlez
This chart shows a few dozen different forms of parler. Sometimes the same form has a few different uses. For instance parle is used for the first and third persons singular of the present indicative as well as the first and third persons singular of the present subjunctive as well as the second person singular of the imperative.
Some of these forms are rarely used and are mainly found in earlier literature. In addition to these listed forms, there are a number of compound forms, using the auxiliary verb avoir. Many of these are very common.
The French verb parler is complicated. It takes much more time to master the conjugation of parler than it takes to master the conjugation of all the Esperanto verbs put together. The majority of the French verbs which end in –er are conjugated exactly like parler, so that once this verb has been mastered the knowledge acquired can be applied to a whole set of verbs. The –er verbs are said to be verbs of the first conjugation.
Similarly, many verbs that end in ‑ir follow the pattern of the verb finir (“to end, to finish”). These verbs are said to be verbs of the second conjugation. Many verbs that end in ‑re follow the pattern of rendre (“to give back”), and this pattern, the pattern of the third conjugation, also must be learned separately.
Unfortunately a great many French verbs are irregular. They vary from the normal pattern to a greater or lesser degree. These variations must be learned individually. The irregular verbs include many of the most common verbs in the language such as the verbs for to be, to have, to make / to do, to go, to laugh, to drink and to be quiet.
Mastering the French verb requires an enormous amount of study. Many students who have spent years studying French never fully master the French verb.
In comparison, the English verb is easy. Many English verbs only have four forms such as “laugh, laughs, laughed, laughing” and “hope, hopes, hoped, hoping.”
There are a few hundred irregular verbs in English. They are called “strong verbs.” The regular verbs, such as to laugh and to hope, are called “weak verbs.” English irregular verbs must be learned individually. The most complicated of them is the verb “to be” which has these forms: be, am, art, is, are, was, wert, were, been, being. However, there is no other verb in English which rivals “to be” in complexity, and any French verb makes “to be” seem very simple in comparison.
The difficulty with the few hundred English irregular verbs is limited mainly to the past tense. Regular verbs add ‑ed to form the past tense (“I learn / I learned”). They use the same form as the past tense to form the past participle (“I have learned”). There are some minor variations that deal with spelling changes as in “I study / I studied / I have studied” where the final y does not become yed but ied.
The irregular or strong verbs make changes inside the verb itself in order to form the past tense and the past participle. Each of these changes must be learned individually. They follow no regular pattern. Here are a number of them:
If the pattern of “drink / drank / drunk” were always followed we would have “think / thank / thunk”, which sounds barbaric or ridiculous to English speakers. No one proposes changing this. However, this feature of the language creates a definite learning burden which in English can be measured in terms of a dozen or so hours (rather than hundreds of hours, as in the case of French.)
Zamenhof appreciated the relative simplicity of the English verb. In designing his plan for an international language, he improved upon it considerably. He created one simple pattern which every verb in the entire language follows perfectly. That pattern can easily be mastered in one or two hours. (Mastering a pattern does not mean merely learning it but learning it so well that you use it instinctively.)
One rule that Zamenhof followed in creating his plan for Esperanto was that no word and no part of a word would ever change inside itself. There would be no words such as “mouse / mice” or “sit / sat.” Words in Esperanto take endings. They take prefixes and suffixes. They can be combined to form compound words, like the English words “houseboat” and “boathouse.” However, words always stay the same inside of themselves. (There are two trivial exceptions which are dealt with in the next chapter.)
Following this rule, Zamenhof created the different forms of his simple verbs by adding just six endings. Here they are in the Esperanto verbs esti (“to be”) and pensi (“to think”) along with their English counterparts:
am, art, is, are
was, wert, were
will be / shall be
will think / shall think
Part of Speech
someone who is loving
someone who loved
someone who is going to love
someone who is loved
someone who was loved
someone who is going to be loved
tiu amanta viro
that loving man
tiu aminta viro
that man who was loving
tiu amonta viro
that man who is going to be loving
tiu amata viro
that man who is loved
tiu amita viro
that man who was loved
tiu amota viro
that man who is going to be loved
having loved, having been loving
about to love
having been loved
about to be loved
The following sentences show how these participles work in action. Notice how one Esperanto participle can be the equivalent of an entire English clause. This is a particularly elegant feature of the language.
Tiu aminta viro nun malamegis ŝin.
That man who had been loving now detested her.
Ni mortontoj salutas vin!.
We who are about to die salute you
Oni enterigis la mortigitan prezidenton Kennedy en Virginia.
They buried the slain president Kennedy in Virginia
Amonte, ŝi subite dum momento vidis lin kiel li vere estis.
About to love, she suddenly, for a moment, saw him as he really was.
When Esperanto requires the student to put in some effort studying something, it is never to master irregularities. Rather, it is to make possible a more precise or more economical way of expressing an idea.
Because all Esperanto verbs follow just one pattern, students of Esperanto can learn that pattern once and for all and apply it to every verb in the language with 100% confidence. They can trust that pattern. They never have to worry about whether they can apply a pattern that they have learned in a new situation. In English, French and most other national languages students always have to consider whether an individual word follows a regular rule that has already been learned or is one of a whole host of exceptions.
So we see that there are many areas where English is very difficult to learn, such as in spelling. In those areas Esperanto is very easy to learn. There are areas in which English is very easy to learn, such as in not having genders. In those areas too, Esperanto is very easy to learn. There are yet other areas in which English is comparatively easy to learn, such as the conjugation of verbs. In those areas too, Esperanto is very easy to learn.
 The emphasis or stress in Esperanto always falls on the last syllable but one. So the bold type here shows also where the stress falls. Unstressed Esperanto vowels should not be reduced to ‘uh’ as they are in English and Irish, but given their full musical value.