Quirks and Clunks in Esperanto

While there have been many attempts to restore the international intelligentsia’s lost lingua franca [Latin] only one has ever gained any lasting traction — the Internacia Lingvo – dubbed Esperanto after Zamenhof’s pen name, “Doktoro Esperanto” (Doctor Hopeful).  As international auxiliary languages go, Esperanto’s mostly Romance lexicon makes it fairly decipherable to anyone, whose own language is infused with Latin or Romance, its artificiality makes it more neutral than any national language, and its simplified grammar makes it easier to learn than any national language as well.

Like any constructed language, Esperanto has its shortcomings.  When viewed without the utopian idealism of its marketing (Esperanto is the language of peace!  Of international brotherhood!  Of humanitarianism!), the nuts and bolts of the project itself have struck many a critic as a promising if quirky first draft of a language — which is why so many hobbyists continue to make “improved” Esperantos even today.  Including me.

Still, for all the issues I myself have with the language — its dependence on convention for the meaning of derived words, its clunky method of indicating gender, the needless obscurity of some its lexicon, et al. — Esperanto was nevertheless my first love in the world of constructed languages (well, second, strictly speaking; I did first know my way around tengwar tables – J R R Tolkien)

How Esperanto Works

One of the cornerstone ideas behind Esperanto is that one needn’t have a separate word for every possible noun, verb, and adjective in human language, but can build an infinite number of words from just a small number of roots and affixes, mixing and matching them like Lego bricks.

I have illustrated this very clearly from the root bel- (“beautiful”) elsewhere.  Please consult that reference if you are unfamiliar with how Esperanto works.  The Lego-ness of the language is such that the derivational affixes themselves (the yellow prefix and green suffix bricks in my example above) are often used as separate words, much like “ism” is in English.  

This makes word-building on the fly a fairly simple matter — but not always a simple as it seems.  For example, consider the root paf- (“shoot”).  One would surmise from this that -o names the action, -ad- prolongs the action, and -il- names the instrument.  But now look at klab- (“bludgeon” or “club”).

Why does klabo name the instrument, you might ask, and not klabilo?  If klabado indicates prolonged or repeated action, what’s the suffix for a single strike with a klabo?

The reason for the different treatment of paf- and klab- is that klab- is by default a noun root referring to the instrument, whereas paf- is by default a verb root referring to the action.  One can make klab- into a verb by changing -o to -i, but one can’t make the action of klabi into a verbal noun by changing the -i back to -o.  The  action you have just carried out is not reversible!  One must preserve the “verbness” given in the first change by adding a verbal suffix.

The suffix -ad-, which indicates repetitive action, is the only such suffix available in Esperanto.  For a single stroke of a klabo, one must make a compound word like klabofrapo “a club-strike”.  (Someone once proposed -im- to indicate a single action, as in martelimo “a hammer strike”, but that seems to have never caught on.)

In Esperanto class matters!

The importance of knowing to which grammatical class a root belongs applies to all words in Esperanto, not just the odd one here and there.  Unfortunately, a root’s grammatical class is rarely obvious.  For that, the novice will need a dictionary before the mixing and matching can really begin.  One could add to this comment that just as in Irish one must attentively learn the plural for each noun or as in French and German one must learn the gender of a noun along with the noun itself, so in Esperanto one must learn the ‘basic’ nature of a root – noun, verb or adjective – when learning an Esperanto word.   And if the ‘basic’ root / idea is a verb, one needs to learn whether it is transitive, i.e. expects an object, or intransitive, i.e. is complete in itself.  Some verbs of course are both.

The author of the above criticism of Esperanto (who avoids naming himself) delivers a fairly detailed summary of Esperanto grammar in subsequent pages.  He includes some further points that are often discussed such as gender and word compounds.  His summary merits study.