I am not Esperanto guru, in fact I do not even speak Esperanto; this article is therefore not meant to teach any Esperanto. I would rather share concepts and idea behind. For a long time Esperanto for me had been nothing more “an attempt to create an universal language”, a curiosity, . Then a day I got to know a person who is an expert and decided to learn a bit more…
Since,as mentioned, I am not an expert if you think something is incorrect, wrong or ever please feel free to comment!
Esperanto (“one with hope” in Esperanto) has been developed by the Polish ophthalmologist Ludwik Zamenhof toward the end of 19th century. He got an interest in developing an international language during his youth: Poland then hosted a number of ethnic minorities, each with its own language and mostly opposing each other. Zamenhof came to the conclusion that language diversity was the barrier causing most of the world and regional conflicts; he conceived the idea of a new international language that should complement existing ethnic language and consequently facilitate relationship between peopleHaving judged Latin and ancient Greek too difficult and archaic to fit the needs of modern world he embarked on the creation of a brand new language that gained popularity soon after its introduction.
Ideas rarely emerge form nothing. The quest for a universal, logical language had begun much earlier. Among of the fathers of this concept were philosophers W.G. Leibniz, Renee Descartes, Immanuel Kant.
Esperanto is probably the most used international language but not the only one. Other efforts followed such as “Latino sine flexion” (Latin without declensions) by mathematician Giuseppe Peano.
Esperanto as a neutral language
A planned language such as Esperanto is neutral: there are no native speakers, it’s a secondary, auxiliary language for everybody. In the 50s United Nation actually recommended Esperanto as official language.
Switzerland has 4 official languages: German, French, Italian and Rumantsch. Majority of Swiss people are germanophone; however adopting German as the official language of the country would impose the German culture and heritage to people with a different tradition. The same can be said for Canada, Belgium and many other countries. European Union ended up having tens of official languages.
Even in ancient times it existed the idea of lingua franca, a common language used mainly for commercial purposes between different ethnic groups. In ancient Roman Empire it was Latin or Greek; later in the colonial era English, French, Spanish, Dutch , Portuguese. However in all these cases was a language imposed by the dominating-power over its subjects, a language that did not allow to communicate on an equality base.
Esperanto: a language easy to learn
A planned language can be built in a way that is easy to learn. Academic studies showed that learning Esperanto is at least 10 times easier than other languages: 10 times mean that an average Esperanto student in 5 hours study reaches the level that a student of a natural languages achieves in 50 hours .
Esperanto turned out to be also propaedeutic for learning natural languages (see Paderborn method). An Esperanto speaker has much more facility to learn other languages.
Natural versus planned language
Natural and planned languages follow opposite trajectories in the development of a grammar.
- natural languages such as English, German, French originated by older languages such as Latin or Ancient Greek and have been evolving for centuries. Mostly the current version of these languages were attempts to merge regional languages and dialects. The work of scholars in defining a grammar consists in extrapolating recurring patterns from an existing language written and spoken base. The resulting rules are complex, redundant and should accommodate a large number of exception.
- planned languages like Esperanto are designed form scratch, from a blank sheet of paper, their development can follow a logical plan. Grammar rules are defined first: the language is derived form it. As a result rules can be minimal, simple and without exceptions.
To better clarify this concept we can focus on the principal elements of a language:
- Spelling and pronunciation
Spelling and pronunciation
A language should ideally possess a simple set of rules that bind written and spoken language: if we read a text we can automatically deduce how it should be pronounced; vice-versa if we hear a speech we can automatically write it down.
Unfortunately this is not the case for English, French, almost all natural languages with rare exceptions. Dictionary usually provides the word phonetic representation in the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA), like.
IPA representation allows to pronounce correctly word as long as we know IPA; however the transcription of a written word into IPA rarely follows fixed rules.
In Esperanto the intermediate passage through IPA is by-passed by an alphabet where each letter correspondence to a sound. As an example there are 2 letters for the English letter G: G and Ĝ,
- G is the hard G as in the English word game
- Ĝ us the soft G as in the English word giant
When learning a new language on of the major hurdle is the vocabulary. How many words you need to know? According to a BBC article:
- 800 lemmas (family words) for day-to-day settings
- 3000 lemmas to understand dialogues in film
- 8000–9000 lemmas for novels, news-papers
lemma is a root word and all its inflections: noun, adjective, verb, ,.. (hero, heroic, heroism)
The student is thus confronted with 2 problems: learning enough root words and then rules to derive its inflections.
Learning a root word
Zamenhof lived between the 19th and he 20the century, at that time the concept of internationalization involves mainly Western world countries speaking Indo-European languages: languages derived directly from Latin or which preserve Latin/Greek roots (neo-Latin, Germanic, Slavic). Picking words from this language base ensures that vocabulary is not completely unfamiliar to the learner. Example:
to work <-> labori
Clearly a limit of Esperanto is that nowaday it does not incorporate non-European languages such as Chinese or Arabic.
Inflection of a root word
Natural languages usually do not have fixed rules for the inflection of a word. Let’s consider antonyms (contraries). Most of the time English uses the prefix un- :
fair -> un-fair, fold -> un-fold
However this is not a general rule; sometimes other prefix are used :
correct -> in-correct, honest -> dis-honest
or even 2 different roots are used:
good -> bad, tall -> short
Mostly we lack a rule, or at least simple rules, to determine which prefix to use and, in any case we should admit exceptions.
Esperanto resolves the problem by always the prefix mal- (from French : honnête -> mal-honnête):
alta (tall) <-> mal-alta (not tall, short)
Regarding inflections Esperanto provides fixed rules:
As previously mentioned grammar rules of natural languages are mostly complex, redundant and admit exceptions. Let’s see an example in English verbs. The paradigm of a verb (i.e. present tense, past tense and past participle), is formed with the suffix -ed.
However there are quite a number of irregular verbs:
forget -> forgot -> forgotten
I forgetted my keys
clearly contains a mistake. It might sound bad because we are used to the correct (irregular) form. However the mistake does not prevent phrase comprehension; it is quite clear we refer to an event of the past. In other word there is no reason for exception to exist but for the need to accommodate a previously existing irregular form.
Moving to verb declension, the singular of third person in present tense adds a -(e)s suffix:
She drink-s a coffee
As long as we provide the subject of a phrase ( she in this case) the -s suffix or, more in general, the declension itself becomes redundant since it does not bring any additional informational content.
Esperanto eliminates declension by making subject compulsory and by avoiding irregular forms. The full paradigm of all verbs in Esperanto is:
From the dissertation above it should be clear why planned logical languages always fascinated mathematicians and logicians. Humans developed languages to communicate with each other, to transfer a content that can be informational, emotional or others. A natural evolution of a language brings inevitably the burden of complexity and non-standardization. A planned language, on the other hand, can focus on the minimum communication kernel sufficient to transfer the content.
One example is the field of Natural Language Processing (NLP). In the field of computing it means programming a computer to understand a written text or speech in a natural language (English, French, German) and possibly translate it in another language. Studies began in the 1950s (most people knows the famous Turing test). The history of NLP is a long and complex topic; for our purpose let’s simply say that the initial approach was rule-based: e.g. the machine was supplied an hard set of rules with which analyze a text; in a period where limited computing power was available, this was probably the only possible method .
The revolution in NLP occurred with the advent of statistical/machine-learning procedure: machine is not given an hard set of rules any longer but it derives by itself the rules from a large corpus of documents and keeps learning; rules of a language are really difficult to code and the best approach is let computers figure them out. Most notable examples are Google Translate and DeepL which continuously learn as users feed in new texts to be translated.
Planned language and literature
It might seem that a scientific language like Esperanto lacks all complexities ad nuances that are the very essence of literature, it is impossible to render a Shakespeare’s drama in Esperanto.
Surprisingly Esperanto has its own literature, even if is not obviously as large as the English one. Esperanto in fact provides creativity: in many languages you are normally not allowed to create new words. Neologisms are always regarded with disdain and it takes along period of time before they are officially incorporated in the dictionary.
In Esperanto there are no rule to prevent the creation of new word as long as the few grammar rules are respected. If during a conversation we feel to lack a word to express our concept, we can simply create our own word, for instance by transforming a noun into an adjective, or by creating word by composition of other terms.
My article is not some sort of “Esperanto for dummies”: its aim is not even to teach the basis of the language but rather to present the concepts behind and, why not, motivate people to dig further.
Originally published at http://mauri63blog.wordpress.com on May 18, 2017.