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Esperanto

Esperanto is a constructed language, first designed by L.L. Zamenhof in 1887, intended to serve as an international auxiliary language. It features an extremely simple and regular grammar, with a vocabulary largely derived from combining word roots and affixes so learners would have less to memorise. It is the most widely-spoken conlang in the world, with an estimated one million people able to speak it to some degree.

I first came across Esperanto when I was in year 7, and was immediately attracted to its internationalist values. I liked the idea of a simple, neutral language that could serve as a universal second language. Unsurprisingly, Esperanto has historically been popular among many parts of the internationalist Left, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, with speakers facing repression under dictatorial regimes like Hitler’s or Stalin’s that wanted to drum up nationalist hatred among their own population against their neighbours’.

I still really like the idea of Esperanto, even though I think Esperanto itself has numerous flaws. These include:

  • Esperanto’s bad approach to gender. Traditionally, Esperanto nouns for people were presumed to be masculine by default, with an extra suffix being required to make it feminine. For example, doktoro would be presumed to be a male doctor, with doktorino being required to refer to a female doctor. In modern times this is less the case; most Esperantists would consider doktoro to not specify gender any more. However, there are still some words (especially family words like patro, avo, onklo, frato, as well as knabo “boy” and viro “man”) which are inherently masculine, with the feminine counterparts being derived from the masculine root. Esperanto also lacks a gender-neutral singular 3rd person pronoun, with the traditional response being, “Just use ĝi ‘it’.” There are, however, contemporary Esperantists who insist on using a gender-neutral Esperanto; see that page for more details.
  • Esperanto’s overuse of the prefix mal- to derive even pairs of very, very common antonyms. For example, you get pairs like fermi/malfermi (close/unclose), dekstra/maldekstra (right/unright) or supre/malsupre (up/un-up). High-frequency words like these are going to be learned quickly through repeated exposure anyway; just add them, c’mon. (Worth noting that some of them have been added in the poetic register, but not in general.)
  • Esperanto’s idiosyncratic use of affixes to derived words whose meanings are not strictly guessable from the combination of root + affix. For example vortaro (lit. “collection of words”) meaning “dictionary” or lernejo (lit. “learning place”) meaning “school” specifically, rather than places of learning in general.
  • The lack of any distinction between singular and plural “you”. This is a flaw in English that English speakers are constantly devising new means of rectifying; it’s certainly not ideal in a planned language.
  • Because all the pronouns end in -i, some of them sound really similar to each other (especially mi “I” and ni “we”). This causes confusion, so is also not ideal.
  • Esperanto has some difficult consonant clusters, like word-initial kn-, kv- and sc- [sts]. These are not common cross-linguistically, and sc- in particular always forces a noticeable slow down in speech. I don’t like them.
  • Esperanto’s accented letters, while they don’t pose any problem when reading, are not easy to type on many operating systems (like macOS for example). Also, some fonts still struggle to display them. It’s hard to argue with Ido’s simplicity in just using digraphs instead of accented characters, but if Esperanto even used accents that were used in a natural language and therefore had widespread support, that’d be an improvement. (Of course, the reason Zamenhof devised unique accents is that he thought it was “not neutral” to pick any natural language to borrow accents from, but it’s not like Esperanto’s vocab is truly “neutral” either so come on…)

Some other things that some people criticise, that I personally am not so fussed about, include the existence of the accusative case, compulsory noun-adjective agreement, and the existence of a relatively complex verbal inflection system (once you include all the participles).

At any rate, I personally prefer the “reformed Esperanto” Ido, which fixes nearly all of the above (just not the verb inflections). Esperanto having about three orders of magnitude more speakers, though, means it has more resources which makes it easier to learn. For example, I first studied Esperanto on the website Lernu!(external link); these days there is also a Duolingo course which is well-regarded.

Esperanto is sometimes referenced in pop culture, too. For example, early seasons of the TV show Red Dwarf included signage on the ship in Esperanto, and had the character Rimmer trying to learn it, in order to add to the ship’s depiction as an international operation.

Did you know? I’ve posted other content tagged ‘Esperanto’! If you want to see what else I’ve written on this topic, you can do so here.