An Offense of Esperanto

Note: This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. If you don’t know the IPA, I highly recommend learning it; Once you do, you can pretty much pronounce anything. For the purposes of reading this article, here’s a brief rundown:
Forward slashes / / denote IPA, double quotes “ ” denote English text, and angle brackets ⟨ ⟩ denote foreign text (e.g. “when”, ⟨cuándo⟩, /ˈkwan.do/). Most consonants are the same as they are in English, except /x/, which is like a harsh /h/ sound (Spanish ⟨ j⟩), and /j/, which is English “y”. /ʃ/ is “sh”ˌ /ʒ/ is the “s” in “usual” (French ⟨ j⟩), /t͡ʃ/ is “ch”, and /d͡ʒ/ is “j”.
The vowels /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/ are as in Spanish, Latin, or Japanese. /y/ is a weird “ew” sound (French ⟨u⟩), /æ/ is “a” as in “cat”, and /ə/ is “u” as in “cut”. /˥/, /˧˥,/ /˧˩˦/, and / ˥˩/ are tone contours; they apply to the previous syllable. Pretend anything else is whatever letter it looks closest to and ignore anything that doesn’t look like a letter, and you should be good to go.

Once upon a time, there was a little Jewish boy with a dream. He lived in the city of Białystok in eastern Poland. ‘Twas a town of many tongues—Polish, German, Russian, Hebrew—as a result, most of its inhabitants could not understand one another.

Misunderstanding bred mistrust, and mistrust bred fear. What are those Germans saying? Are those Russians talking about us? Everywhere he looked, this boy saw people speaking in strange languages, casting hostile looks at their fellow Białystokians.

And so he dreamed. He dreamed of a world where Poles saw neither Russians, nor Germans, nor Jews, but fellow humans. A world where information could flow freely regardless of the origins and nationalities of the interlocutors. Where all the world shared one tongue that would bring humanity together as one race.

That boy was named Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, and he went on to construct a language that sucked in almost every way. That language was Esperanto: The International Language.

Esperanto, first published in 1887, was one of the first constructed auxiliary languages (henceforth “auxlangs”). Designed to be neutral and easy to learn for people of diverse backgrounds, Esperanto was intended by Zamenhof to become the International Auxiliary Language (henceforth “IAL”), a globally agreed-upon human language for all international communication.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not a complete failure and is not a dead language. Far from it. With millions of speakers, hundreds of thousands of Vikipedio articles, and a place in Google Translate, Esperanto is the closest auxlang by a huge margin to attaining worldwide acceptance, and that bothers me.

Don’t get me wrong; I hold Zamenhof in high esteem. He was highly educated, knew a dozen languages, and had a wonderful vision for the future. While I don’t agree with his belief that Esperanto was the solution to war, I do think he was onto something with that IAL idea. He was not the first person to have it, to be sure. Jean-François Sudre released Sol-Re-Sol: The Musical Language back in 1827, though it never caught on, and Johann Martin Schleyer constructed Volapük: The Father of all Auxlangs in 1879, though Esperanto largely overtook its user base when it came out a decade later.

No, my qualm with Zamenhof is that for all his intelligence and drive, he was incapable of creating a good auxlang. He was just one person, with no background in formal linguistics or any languages that weren’t Indo-European. The result is a language of good intentions and immense relative success riddled with obnoxious flaws that are far too easy to spot from 2018.

Many argue that Esperanto is good enough and that we should stick with it, given how successful it is. While its acceptance in the international (read: mostly Western) community is remarkable for what it is, it’s still not that successful; only a few million people speak it. It’s not yet far enough for that to outweigh its numerous flaws. Because believe me, does this language have flaws. Enough that I believe we should drop Esperanto for a better-constructed auxlang now, before it gets any more influential, and push that new language to international acceptance.

The first problem with Esperanto is its phonology. The average natural language has 31 distinct sounds, so it may seem like Esperanto’s inventory of 28 is a good size. The problem with such thinking is that the set of sounds that appear in natural languages is extremely diverse.

There are a few phonemes that are quite common cross-linguistically, but most phonemes only occur in a tiny minority of languages. In practice, only about 0.5% of monolingual humans (and that only using a liberal interpretation of Ukranian phonology) can actually pronounce Esperanto words without needing to learn some new sounds—a non-trivial task.

Anglophones are fairly well-off, needing only to learn how to say /t͡s/ and /x/, neither of which is very hard. If a Mandarin sinophone wants to speak Esperanto, though, they need to learn how to make all nine of /b/, /d/, /g/, /d͡ʒ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/, /h/, and /r/. That’s nearly a third of the letters in Esperanto that members of the world’s largest linguistic demographic can’t say.

This seems even stranger when one notes that, because Esperanto words are so long and so few, several of the letters don’t even really get used. /ʒ/ never contrasts with /d͡ʒ/, /z/ never contrasts with /s/, /t͡s/ never contrasts with /s/, /x/ rarely contrasts with /h/, and /ʃ/ rarely contrasts with /t͡ʃ/.
Yet with all the letters it does have, it omits some of the most common ones. Esperanto has no /w/, for instance, replacing all /w/s in its source words with /v/s. Thus, the word “four”, derived from Italian /kwat.tro/, is /kvar/, which seems to imply that Zamenhof thought /kvar/ was easier to say than /kwar/. This is all exacerbated by the pointlessly difficult onset clusters Zamenhof allowed, such as /ʃr-/, /st͡s-/, /kn-/, and the aforementioned /kv-/.

Grammatically speaking, Esperanto is solidly mediocre. It is far simpler and more regular than a natural language, to be sure, but far more complex than it has any need to be. Verbs inflect for tense and mood, while nouns inflect for number and case, and adjectives inflect for number and case in agreement with their nouns. On the bright side, words don’t inflect for aspect, person, or gender, so this is certainly a step up from Spanish. That’s a low bar, though; the level of inflection that Zamenhof left in is completely unnecessary and adds more rules to learn and keep track of. A good auxlang wouldn’t inflect anything at all and would use adpositions to alter meaning where necessary. At the very least, the inflections should be optional.

Other than that, it’s just pretty generic as far as European grammars go. Nouns are either singular or plural. Definite noun phrases must be preceded by the definite article. The object follows the verb, which follows the subject. Nouns in intransitive sentences always act as subjects. None of these features are necessarily bad, but the fact that all of them are the same as in the majority of European languages suggests that they were chosen not for quality, but for their prominence in the narrow set of languages Zamenhof knew. Considering the vast grammatical possibilities outside of European languages, these grammatical features make Esperanto look ill-thought-through and culturally biased.

The vocabulary is where Esperanto really sucks. First, there’s the eurocentrism. All of Esperanto’s words are taken from European languages, primarily English, French, German, Italian, and Yiddish. As you may notice, most people don’t speak any of those languages.

Some Esperantists will be quick to point out that there are words from outside Europe, for example from Japanese, due to natural loanwords. If a word is loaned from Japanese to English, that word can then be drawn from English into Esperanto.

Let’s test that theory: Japanese people call their own country ⟨日本⟩, /ni.hoɴ/. This is related by meaning and spelling to Old Wu Chinese ⟨日本⟩, /t͡ʃ i.paŋ/, which is related by pronunciation to English ⟨Japan⟩, /d͡ʒə.ˈpæn/, which is related by spelling to hypothetical Latin ⟨Japan⟩, /ˈja.pan/, which is whence we get Esperanto ⟨Japanio⟩, /ja.pa.ˈni.o/. It is indeed derived from a Japanese word. You may notice, however, that /ja.pa.ˈni.o/ has literally nothing in common with /ni.hoɴ/. I wish I could say this is an isolated case, but alas. Germany, which calls itself /doy̑t͡ʃ.lant/, is called /ger.ma.ˈni.o/. China, which calls itself /ʈ͡ʂuŋ˥.kwə˧˥/, is called /ˈt͡ʃ i.no/. Even the United States of America, which calls itself /ju.ˈnɑɪ̯.tɪd steɪ̯ ts/, /ə.ˈmɛ.rɪ.kə/, or /ju ɛs eɪ̯/, is called /u.so.no/. Whence in Davy Jones’s Locker did he get ⟨Usono⟩‽

Then, there’s the sexism. The word for “man” in Esperanto is ⟨viro⟩. The word for “woman”, ⟨virino⟩. “Boy” is ⟨knabo⟩, and “girl” is ⟨knabino⟩, “masculine friend” is ⟨amiko⟩, and “feminine friend” is ⟨amikino⟩. The rule for words that describe people in Esperanto is as such: they are masculine by default and become feminine by inserting the suffix ⟨-in⟩ before the final ⟨-o⟩.

It’s like that thing where overzealous feminists sometimes say that “female” is sexist because it’s a compound of “male”—they actually have separate etymologies, so any perceived sexism is coincidental—except that in Esperanto, ⟨virino⟩ really is a compound of ⟨viro⟩, so the language is inherently sexist.
To be fair, for words like ⟨amik(in)o⟩, most Esperantists agree that it’s not strictly necessary to inflect for gender if it’s not relevant to the conversation. In that case, it’s recommended that you just use the default, masculine form. ⟨-in⟩ then serves to emphasise the femininity of the friend, and if you want to emphasise their masculinity—wait, why would you want to do that? Isn’t it just safe to assume that every human is a man until specified otherwise?

Beyond that, Esperanto uses English’s pronoun system, including the separate words for “it”, “she”, and “he”. Modern developments in the definition of gender aside, this is just an unnecessary number of words for a language that strives to be easy to learn. There’s no reason for pronouns to inflect for gender. If you need specificity in the third person, just don’t use a pronoun. That’s not what those are for.

Overall, these pronouns highlight the biggest systematic problem with Esperanto: so much of it just isn’t well thought through. As smart as Zamenhof was, he was just one person. He created a language riddled with issues that would have been so easy to spot and fix with a second person looking over it, which add up to make Esperanto nigh unpalatable.

If we are going to go through the effort of installing an IAL, shouldn’t we take the time to do it right rather than sticking to this one hot mess that has managed to gain popularity against all odds? After all, once we have an IAL, we’ll never be able to convince the world to switch to another one.

So what is the solution? Esperanto does have competitors, but most of them are as or more problematic than it is. Interlingua: The IALA’s Choice and Ido: Esperan2 are the main ones.

Interlingua is a naturalistic auxlang that seeks to combine all European languages in a fashion that makes it “unusually easy to learn [for people who already speak European languages, which is everyone who matters]”. Like many natural European languages, it has an irregular case system, but only in the pronouns and a letter ⟨h⟩ that appears in many words but never makes a sound. Apparently, it occurred to none of the creators of Interlingua that natural languages are stupid and that the whole point of Esperanto was to be easy to learn for everyone.

Ido, on the other hand, is a reform of Esperanto that fixes some minor issues but ignores or creates other ones. For instance, they added pan-gender third-person pronouns but also left in the masculine, feminine, and neuter ones, so that people have to learn four singular third-person pronouns. Worse, they scrapped Esperanto’s one-symbol-per-phoneme-one-phoneme-per-symbol writing system by reintroducing the letter ⟨x⟩ for /ks/ and the digraph ⟨qu⟩ for /kw/. Apparently, it occurred to none of the creators of Ido that the letter ⟨x⟩ is stupid and is, in fact, one of the most common complaints about English after the spelling exceptions and gendered pronouns.

Beyond those two, there are uncountably many other auxlangs, though most, such as Novial: The New IAL and Interlingue: Not To Be Confused With Interlingua are Eurocentric, poorly constructed, and generic. Two popular languages that stand out are Lojban: The Logical Language and Toki Pona: The Language of Good. Both have many virtues, but neither is specifically designed for international communication, leaving them ill-suited as IALs.

One must start looking at really obscure languages like Elefen: La Lingua Franca Nova, Kotava: The Language of One and All, and Neo Patwa: The New World Pidgin before finding anything resembling quality. Most of the people who make good auxlangs don’t care to promote them, leaving them to struggle and die, while those who have the time and resources to promote their auxlangs never seem to make good ones.

The generic poorly-made auxlangs saturate the internet, and the few people who care enough to go hunting for good ones are divided among the hundreds of alternatives.

The solution then is simple. There are two ways to resolve competing standards. Either a unifying force could choose a good one and convince everyone else to stick with it (there was an International Auxiliary Language Association assembled for this very purpose, but they chose Interlingua, so they’re obviously compromised), or everyone could just learn all of them. If enough people learn enough auxlangs, both good and popular, then one is bound to eventually reach the majority of humans and emerge as the people’s choice. In that spirit, here are my recommendations for with which auxlangs you should start.

Neo Patwa is a gem. It’s a little on the minimalistic side, but nearly perfect in most other ways. Despite all I’ve said about it, you should probably also consider Esperanto. Its popularity in the realm of auxlangs cannot be overstated, and knowing it might even turn out to be a useful skill in coming decades. After that, I recommend Toki Pona, which only has 120 words and about a dozen grammar rules. It’s far too ambiguous and simplistic to be an effective IAL, but it’s fairly popular and so easy to learn that if you’re studying auxlangs already, you might as well check that one off.
If you hunger for more after that, look at Elefen, which is a perfect execution of the generic eurocentric auxlang, or Kotava, which is pretty decent despite its massive vocabulary. You might even check out Lawnsosliel, my language, once I finish constructing it (I have a really cool pronoun system, guys). Go crazy! And if you actually plan on learning any of these, you should totally hit me up so that we can study together.

The most important thing, as always, is to be informed, and not to take the first international language offered to you. If we all work together, we can make that little Jewish boy’s international language die once and for all. Restu ebenaj, kamaradoj.

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