Chapter Eight
The Cost-Benefit Ratio

Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft.  Here is the eighth 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. 

There are many other ways in which Esperanto grammar is easier than that of various national languages. Some of these ways in which Esperanto is easier have to do with the ways that people use language to express respect or familiarity.

Many Verbs Instead of One

When two Japanese individuals meet, they have to quickly determine whether they are on the same social level or whether one of them is on a higher social level than the other.  Exchanging business cards is a serious matter in Japan because it is an effective way to make this determination.

Once Japanese have determined their relative social status they choose different verbs in order to show respect or familiarity.  When an employer speaks to a servant the employer will use one Japanese verb meaning “to see” while the servant will use a different verb that means “to see.”  The second verb is used when the speaker wishes to show respect to someone of higher status.  There may be three or four different verbs which all have the same meaning but which carry additional tones of various degrees of respect or familiarity.

The American Nobel-Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman had an interesting experience with this feature of the language when he tried to learn a little Japanese while working at the Yukawa Institute in Kyoto.  Feynman asked his Japanese counterparts to translate two sentences into their language.  The sentences were: “I solve the Dirac Equation” and “Would you solve the Dirac Equation?”  From their translations he learned that he would have to use a different verb for “solve” in each sentence, a verb that showed some humility in “I solve the Dirac Equation” and a verb that showed greater respect in “Would you solve the Dirac Equation?”

When Feynman realized that he would have to learn a number of Japanese verbs for each English verb and master the appropriate usage of each he decided that Japanese was not the language for him, and he gave up his attempts to learn it.  The Korean language has a similar system but is even more complex.

In English we show various degrees of respect or familiarity or contempt by our choice of vocabulary.  The following sentences are all used in order to communicate the idea that the other person should make way:

“Excuse me, sir.”

“Pardon me.”

“Move aside, please.”

“Move aside!”

“Get out of the way!”

Although these sentences are all used to communicate the same desire they are quite different from each other in terms of the amount of respect that they show.  Because the Japanese verbs convey different degrees of respect, the Japanese can show respect or lack thereof when they say something like,  “Do you see that?”  Theirs is a very subtle and nuanced system.

Such a system is very useful for showing respect or familiarity.  However, it does make a language more difficult to learn and it would be out of place in an easy-to-learn international language. 

Many You‘s

Another way of showing respect or familiarity is by the choice in some languages of the correct word for the idea of you.

The French have two words for you when speaking to one individual.  They use tu when speaking to children and to people they are close to and when speaking with people who are inferior.  Vous is more formal.  In the Maigret murder mysteries of George Simenon, when the detective, Maigret, starts questioning a suspect he uses vous.  Once he has established that the suspect is guilty, he switches to the tu form.  Now that he has identified the person being interrogated as a criminal, Maigret no longer accords him the respect of vous.

The French system of you is very crude compared to the system used in Indonesian.  In Indonesian, which is otherwise an extremely simple language to learn, the concept which is expressed by the word “you” in English is extraordinarily complex.  For example, certain words are used for “you” when speaking to children, others when speaking to superiors, others for speaking to someone you do not know, others for speaking to people you know a little bit.  You use different words for “you” depending on the sex of the person being addressed, their age, their social status and the degree of respect that you wish to show to them.

The “you” system of Indonesian is highly complex and very subtle and conveys far more shades of meaning than the simple “you” of English or “vi” of Esperanto.  However, to introduce this system in a language which is intended for use as an easy-to-learn international language would be just as counterproductive as it would be to introduce a spelling system as complex as that of English or a system of verb conjugation as complex as that of French.


In Russian there is a large number of variations that can be made on a person’s name in order to show the degree of closeness that the speaker feels.  Take the common Russian name “Maria” for instance:

1. “Maria” is a full, official name.

2. One way of creating a shorter form of it is to change it to “Masha.”  “Masha” is a nickname.  We do something like this in English when we move from “Donald” to “Don” or “Joseph” to “Joe.”

3. A further step is taken when the name is changed to “Mashka.”  This indicates familiarity.  It may or may not indicate friendliness.  It may indicate a touch of vulgarity.  Whether it indicates vulgarity or goes along with friendship will be determined by the context of the relationship in which it is used.  (In the days of serfdom this was the form used by a master speaking to a serf.)

4. A yet further step is taken when the name becomes “Mashenka.”  This definitely shows affection.  It would be used when talking to someone like a child who is considered to be little and nice and someone the speaker might feel tender towards.  A similar form of an ending can be used to refer to a cat in an endearing way.

Parallel to these last three forms are three other forms which are their precise equivalents:

2. Manya = Masha

3. Manka = Mashka

4. Manyechka = Mashenka.

There are similar variations with the other names in the language.  One interesting feature of Russian is that some of these endearing diminutives can be attached to features of the physical world like flowers or trees or the sun.  Thus, by using diminutives, Russian speakers can portray a range of feelings and attitudes towards even inanimate objects.  Just by using a diminutive a speaker of Russian can convey feelings of tenderness or affection or love towards a feature of the natural world such as the rain or the sun.

Russian is a much richer and more expressive language because it has this feature.  However, for the foreign student of the language, this feature provides an extra learning burden.  Such an elaborate system has no place in an easy-to-learn international language.

Nonetheless, if a planned international language has no way to express nuances of feeling then it will be more like a soulless code than like a real language.

Zamenhof compromised by introducing just two affectionate endings in Esperanto, one that is applied to males and the other to females.

In Esperanto, if it is a male we are speaking about, we simply take the first part of his name or the word that refers to him and add the ending “ĉjo ;  if a female we add the ending “njo.  “Grandfather” is avo and “grandpa” is avĉjo. For “grandmother” and “grandma” the forms are avino and avinjo.  These two ways of creating endearing diminutives are applied universally, but, normally, only to people and pets.  (With these two endings we may sometimes shorten a little word.  Patro means “father” and paĉjo means “dad” or “daddy”.  Only when we use these two diminutive endings may we change the root of a word by shortening it.)

In English we get the same effect but not in a systematic way with such terms as “father”, “dad”, “daddy”, “pop” and “pa” and “mother”, “mom”, “mommy”, and “ma.”  We do it with certain names but not others. “Kent” does not change but for “James” we also have “Jim” and “Jimmy.”  For each name or word the different forms must be learned separately, another little extra learning chore.

The Russian system of diminutives and the Indonesian system of expressing the idea of “you” are easily absorbed by native speakers and do not create any overwhelming problem for them.  An international language is meant to be learned by adolescents and adults as well as by children.  It should be a learner-friendly language.  If some possibilities which are realized in one language or another are lost because they would require far too much time to learn, that is inevitable.  A language which contained all of the special ways of expressing the subtleties of all of the world’s thousands of languages would be so fantastically intricate that it would be unlearnable.

In considering a language for purposes of international communication it is useful to examine its features according to an estimate of their cost-benefit ratios.  It is useful to determine how much extra work it takes to master a certain feature, and how much users of that language benefit from mastering that feature.

Mastering English spelling requires an enormous amount of time and energy.  The cost is large.  Mastering Esperanto spelling is a very simple task.  The cost is small.  The benefit in both cases (being able to spell correctly) is equal.  Thus, when it comes to spelling, there is a much more favorable cost-benefit ratio in Esperanto than in English.

Mastering the Indonesian system of you involves a very large cost.  Mastering the Esperanto system where, as in modern English, there is just one word for “you”, incurs a tiny cost.  The benefit in Indonesian is greater than in English or Esperanto because many fine shades of meaning can be indicated by the choice of the appropriate you.  However, this benefit is in no way proportionate to the cost involved.  In those cases where it is important to indicate the sex of the person addressed or the age or one’s attitude, there are other means available, including one’s tone of voice.

Let us look at some other features of Esperanto and this time compare them with English according to their cost-benefit ratio.  First let us take a look at the number system.

Easier Numbers

Here are the first ten numbers in English and in Esperanto

one  1 unu
two  2 du
three  3 tri
four  4 kvar
five  5 kvin
six  6 ses
seven  7 sep
eight  8 ok
nine  9 naŭ­
ten 10 dek

So far the numbers are equally easy to learn.  But now English becomes a little more difficult:

eleven 11 dek unu
twelve 12 dek du
thirteen 13 dek tri
fourteen 14 dek kvar
fifteen 15 dek kvin
sixteen 16 dek ses
seventeen 17 dek sep
eighteen 18 dek ok
nineteen 19 dek naŭ­
twenty 20 dudek

Whereas English institutes a regularity with thirteen, where each word up to “twenty” ends in “teen, Esperanto starts a regular pattern two numbers earlier, where each word begins with dek (ten).  The English words for “13” and “15” are not formed according to the rule that governs “14” and “16 through 19”.  That rule is to write the word for the second digit and follow it with the ending teen. For “13” the student cannot use the logical and consistent form threeteen and for “15” the student cannot use the logical and consistent form fiveteen.  In Esperanto the student can always rely on the logical and consistent form.  This dispenses with another extra learning load.  Because there are so many tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of tiny extra learning loads in English compared to Esperanto, as a foreign language, English is incredibly more difficult to master than Esperanto as a second language.

Let us now count by tens to one hundred in both languages:

ten  10 dek
twenty  20 dudek
thirty  30 tridek
forty  40 kvardek
fifty  50 kvindek
sixty  60 sesdek
seventy  70 sepdek
eighty  80 okdek
ninety  90 naŭdek
one hundred 100 cent

Notice that all of the Esperanto numbers past ten up to one hundred are composed by arranging the numbers from one to ten, “unu” to “dek” in different ways.  There is no need to learn how to spell new forms such as “forty” in which “four” has been shortened to for or “fifty” in which “five” has been turned into fif.

Even in learning how to say and spell the numbers Esperanto is definitely easier than English and much easier than the more complex French system in which, for instance, the number 96 is quatre vingts seize which literally means “four twenties sixteen.”

Easier Pronouns

There are similar advantages in learning Esperanto when it comes to learning pronouns.  Of course the pronouns in English are simpler than those in Indonesian.  But the pronouns in Esperanto are easier yet.


English Pronouns

Subject Possessive Direct Object Indirect Object
I my me me
you your you you
he his him him
she her her her
it its it it
we our us us
they their them them

In English the direct object pronouns and the indirect object pronouns are the same.

There is no rule that enables the foreign student of English to automatically go from I to my to me or from my to your to his.  Each of these items has to be learned individually.  On the other hand, in Esperanto there are regular patterns which easily enable the student to go from mi to mia to mi and from mia to via to lia, as the following chart shows.


Esperanto Pronouns

Subject Possessive Direct Object Indirect Object  (after preposition)
mi mia mi mi
vi via vin vi
li lia lin lln
ŝi ŝia ŝin ŝi
ĝi ĝia ĝin ĝi
ni nia nin ni
ili ilia ilin ili

In Esperanto the subject pronouns and the indirect object pronouns are the same . [1]  

In these Esperanto pronouns we find a number of regularities which make them easier to learn:

All subject pronouns and indirect object pronouns end in -i.

All possessive pronouns take the ending -a.

All the direct object pronouns take the ending -n.

Here again there is a distinct though small advantage in the cost-benefit ratio for Esperanto.

Because of the simple rules and the lack of exceptions, a student who wants to form a possessive pronoun adds –to the subject pronoun. (My dog = mia hundo.)

Because of the simple rules and the lack of exceptions, a student who wants to form a direct object pronoun adds –to the subject pronoun. (I see her = Mi vidas ŝin.)

A student who wants to use an indirect object pronoun simply uses the subject pronoun to do this job. (I am going to her now = Mi iras al ŝi nun.)

When you add this quite small learning advantage to all the other small and large matters in which Esperanto lets you use logic instead of rote memory, it adds up to a very big total advantage over other languages such as French or English or German or Japanese.

Easier Plurals

Another such advantage is found in the area of forming plurals.

Chinese is the simplest language when it comes to forming plurals.  Chinese has no separate plural form. When speakers of Chinese say the equivalent of “three dog”, Chinese listeners do not need a special plural form to inform them that what is being spoken of here is more than one.

Esperanto plurals are not that simple, but they are very simple.  In Esperanto all nouns take the ending -o. Here are some Esperanto nouns which are cognates of English nouns with the number one (unu) in front of each:

unu elefanto

unu piano

unu suno

unu birdo

unu nesto

The plural in Esperanto is always formed by adding -j to the -o ending, so the plurals are (with the word for “two”, du, in front of each):

du elefantoj

du pianoj

du sunoj

du birdoj

du nestoj

The ending -oj is pronounced like the English “oy” in “boy.”

Please see if you can apply this rule and form the plural of the following nouns by simply adding the letter j to each noun.

unu tago                           du _______.

unu policano                    du _______.

unu muso                         du _______.

unu infano                        du _______.

unu cervo                          du _______.

Even though you do not know Esperanto you can perform this exercise effortlessly.  You would be able to do so no matter which nouns were given.  You simply copy the noun and add –to it and you are always right.  In Esperanto you can trust your thinking powers, the power of your mind to take a single rule and apply it consistently in an enormous number of cases.

Foreign students of English are not so lucky.  When people learn English as a foreign language they learn not to trust their instincts but to always “check it out.”  They do learn a simple rule in English, the rule that says that you form the plural by adding -s.  They learn that they should sometimes pronounce this s with an s-sound as in “lamps” and sometimes with a z-sound, as in “cards.”   Right away there is a little problem, a pronunciation problem.  When should you use the s-sound and when the z-sound?   This is not a problem for the native speaker, but it is an actual little problem for the non-native speaker.

Sometimes you do not add -s but -es, as in “boxes.”  The foreign student has to learn when this applies and when it does not apply.

Then the foreign student has to learn a small number of exceptions where you do not add -s at all.

Once again the student of English learns a pattern and then discovers that this pattern can only be trusted sometimes.  Here are the English words that correspond to the Esperanto words which I asked you to give the plurals of earlier.  How many of these could be figured out by a non-English speaker who was given the basic rules of forming plurals in English?






Suppose that foreign students of English remembers the rule, “to form the plural, add -s.”  Suppose that they carry it out with these five items.  They will score 20%.  Only days is correct.  Policemans, mouses, childs and deers are wrong.  The irregular plurals policemenmicechildren and deer must be memorized individually.  Look at the full chart:

English singular English plural Esperanto singular Esperanto plural
day days tago tagoj
policeman policemans policemen policano policanoj
 mouse mouses mice muso musoj
child childs children infano infanoj
deer deers deer cervo cervoj

There are other complexities too because there are some English words which come only in the plural even though the concept may be singular such as “trousers”, “pliers” and “cattle.”  To put these in the singular, special expressions must be learned such as “a pair of trousers” and “a head of cattle.”  This adds another tiny extra learning burden, but all those tens or hundreds of thousands of tiny extra learning burdens add up to a huge learning load.  For native speakers this learning load is not terrible because English is the language that they use all of the time but for the foreign student who learns English for only occasional use as an international language the extra learning load is not particularly welcome.

Some people have objected to Esperanto saying that all this easy-to-learn patterning makes Esperanto not a natural language but, on the contrary, an artificial language.

In one sense they are right.  Nobody sat down and made a plan for English.  It just developed.  Someone did deliberately spend years developing a plan for Esperanto.  So in the sense that the plan for Esperanto was man-made, Esperanto is an artificial language.

In another way Esperanto is much more natural than English.  We learn things more naturally when they follow a recognizable pattern.  Esperanto is rich in such patterns which are without exceptions.  English is filled with exceptions to its rules, and having to learn thousands of such exceptions feels somewhat artificial to most of us.  Foreign students of English (or French, or German or Russian etc.) have to be always on guard for the exceptions to the rules.  Students of Esperanto can simply follow the rules and know that when they do so they are speaking correctly.  This enables them to speak the language fluently and naturally after only a year or two of study.

[1] The criticism that the sound ‘ee’ ending every pronoun may lead to confusion in the spoken language is justified.  The need for clear enunciation and an awareness of possible misunderstanding needs to be borne in mind.

Chapter 9    Real Life Experiences with Esperanto