|Justin B Rye 1993–2013|
Learn Not to Speak Esperanto has moved into this ToC-ified subdirectory to allow more room for appendices. Rather than maintain the latest revisions on both editions I've reduced its original location to a redirector.
(Latest changes asterisked)
|A: OVERVIEW||N: FAQ|
|B: PHONEMES||O: SEXISM|
|C: ORTHOGRAPHY*||P: VOCABULARY|
|D: PHONOTACTICS||Q: PASSIVES|
|E: DERIVATION||R: CASE|
|F: LEXICON||S: POLITICS|
|G: CONSTITUENCY||T: GROUNDPLANS|
|H: VERBS||U: ROOT-CLASSES|
|I: NOUNS||V: GOOFOMETER|
|J: PRONOUNS||W: MISSHAPES|
|K: ADJECTIVES||X: COMPARABLES|
|L: ADVERBS||Y: FUNDAMENTO|
|M: SYNTAX||Z: MAILBOX|
Esperanto was invented in 1887 by an oculist from Białystok,
Dr Ludwig L Zamenhof (AKA
Doctor Hopeful, hence the
name). Even its proponents estimate there to be barely a
million Esperanto speakers in the world (largely Central/Eastern
Europe); compare Albanian with about eight million, Mandarin
Chinese with 1000 million, and English with (depending how you
count) 500 to 1800 million. Even Klingon appears to be
outselling Esperanto round here.
Most people I know despise Esperanto, but largely for daft
Everyone speaks English nowadays
It sounds a bit foreign,
It has no cultural
identity of its own, etc. I, on the other hand, dislike
it for being:
reformswhose inventors argue amongst themselves!
So the result of Zamenhof's labours is that it's inconceivable
that any artificial
Interlang, however good, could
An optimally designed world auxiliary language would be
My contention is that Esperanto contrariwise is
It looks like some sort of wind-up-toy Czech/Italian pidgin. And if there's one part of this world that doesn't need a local pidgin, it's Europe, which not only has (at a guess) the world's highest concentration of professional polyglots, but is also the home of the current de facto global lingua franca: English.
If Esperanto vanished from existence, nothing of value would be lost; the world shows no sign of wanting to learn a constructed international auxiliary language. Maybe someday that'll change – but if it does, we'll have no shortage of candidates to choose from, since Esperanto has any number of better designed but less well known competitors. (They may have fewer existing speakers, but the difference is dwarfed by the billions they'd need to gain to be accounted a success.) Or the UN could hire a linguist or two and get a language purpose-built, the way Hollywood now routinely does for fantasy movies!
I'm following linguistics convention by using <angle
brackets> to mark words spelled in the conventional
orthography, as opposed to /slant/ brackets for phonemic
analyses and [square] ones for phonetics (and I'm now
using proper Unicode for IPA symbols; non-linguists can read
anything that's unclear as
some strange noise).
Esperanto also uses some unusual characters: circumflexed
consonants and a breve-marked vowel (<ĉ, ĝ, ĥ,
ĵ, ŝ, ŭ>). For example, the Esperanto
for (accusative case)
CHEER-COW-AH-ZHOYN. However, there's an
officially accepted way of avoiding these hard-to-type Unicode
glyphs, so most of the time that's the standard I'll be adopting.
clarity criterion strikes some readers as unfair in its
apparent assumption that the rotten self-teaching texts I've been
exposed to are all the Esperanto grammar there is… so just
take my rhetorical questions as attempts to hint that there are
language-design questions that Zamenhof showed no sign of
recognising, and which his successors prefer not to
mention. Modern Esperantists acknowledge no Standards
Maintenance Authority; so on the one hand directed fundamental
reforms are impossible, and on the other dialects inevitably
confuse the issue. And please bear in mind that my critique
is aimed at Esperanto's pretensions as a global auxiliary
language; if you're a hobbyist polyglot looking for a seventh
European language to learn, feel free to waste your spare time on
Phonemes are the mutually distinct sound elements which a
particular language recognises as fundamental building blocks for
word-making. English – my dialect,
anyway – has 19 vowels (mostly diphthongs), and 24
consonants (including the two affricates /dʒ,
tʃ/, usually spelt <j, ch>). For more
details see my Phonemic Transcription
Natural languages have rules determining what sounds are accepted as forms of what phoneme. For instance, in English /t/ may be an aspirated alveolar plosive, a glottal stop, or even a tap; in Spanish that tap is heard as an R‑sound and /t/ is usually an unaspirated dental plosive. Esperanto speakers show no agreement about whether it even has such rules. (And the ones writing to me seem particularly unwilling to agree on whether inter-word glottal stops are compulsory, optional, or prohibited.)
First, why is the inventory so irregular? There's no single-phoneme /dz/, so why is /ts/ necessary? Why /oi/ but not /ou/? And second, why does it need so many consonant phonemes, when plenty of languages get by with far fewer? For example:
/ m p β f n t ð s l ɾ r ɲ tʃ j k ɣ h /
/ m b p w n d t r z s j g k h /
/ m p w n l k h ʔ /
/ p β t ɾ k ɣ /
Compare the Esperanto inventory with the following:
The only phonemes Zamenhof left out of Esperanto are the ones
that are hard to recognise as such – the
(palatalised) consonants, nasal vowels, and /dz/!
And note that I say Eastern Polish; this isn't just his
natural Slavonic bias, it's the Białystok dialect!
Complaints about the ugly strings of affricates etcetera are always brushed off as a matter of taste. But surveys say distinctions like /v/-versus-/w/, /ts/-versus-/tʃ/, /z/-versus-/ʒ/, /h/-versus-/x/ are statistically rare, so it's the people who find Esperanto's sounds strange and awkward who are being objective!
This crazed inventory is a splendid demonstration of Dr Z's linguistic incompetence; he couldn't see past the spelling rules of the first language he learned to write with the Roman alphabet!
grapheme is a contrastive unit in a spelling
system. Not surprisingly, Esperanto spelling is much better
than English (in which <gh> is famously
unruly – see my own Spelling
Reform page); it can even be charted in a strict one-to-one
correspondence with its phonemic inventory:
But not content with being phonemic (one phoneme: one grapheme), Esperanto also claims to be phonetic (one sound: one letter), which is (a) pointless and (b) infeasible.
Does Esperanto allow any variation in its sounds?
Are we to believe that the <N> in
rope) is acoustically and
articulatorily identical to the one in <fingro>
finger)? If so, Esperanto must be damned tricky to
pronounce. Or do Esperanto <L>s vary subtly like
the ones in <athletes' schools>, and its
<T>s like those in <too strict>?
What rules govern (e.g.) strings of voiced and unvoiced sounds,
like the <kv> in <kvar> (
the <kz> in <ekzisti> (
exist)? And is the word <naŭa>
ninth pronounced /naw a/ or
The system is bizarrely irregular. Why is there a semivowel grapheme U‑breve but no I‑breve? (Clue: compare Belorussian!) Why S‑circumflex but no Z‑circumflex? Why is the affricate G‑circumflex paired up not with K‑circumflex but with C‑circumflex? Why is the velar fricative H‑circumflex dressed up as a form of the glottal approximant H? And above all, why distinguish between <ˆ> and <˘> diacritics like this?
Writing <c, oj, eŭ, ŝ> in preference to, say, <ts, oy, ew, x> is a blatant display of parochial spelling traditions. Most of the world's typewriters had a W key; very few had one for Ŭ. And as for Ĉ/Ĝ/Ĥ/Ĵ/Ŝ keys… accents over consonants (like Ť/Ć/Ż) are a common feature of the writing systems of the area from the Baltic to the Balkans; Zamenhof's idea of internationalism was to avoid those particular diacritics in favour of one normally found over vowels in Romance languages. The result was a set of hybrid accented characters that suited everybody equally badly.
The problems with these diacritics were obvious enough to force a concession: we are permitted to resort to the digraphs <ch>, <sh>, <jh>, <hh>(!?), plus unadorned <u> – hence <chirkauajhojn>. Many Esperantists advocate other ASCIIifications such as <cxirkauxajxojn>, but I'll stick with the less offputting version.
Just to show how easy it is, here is an alternative system with no diacritics (all compound phonemes become compound graphemes):
Thus <ĉirkaŭaĵojn> becomes <txirkawajoyn>. (I've heard from a good few independent inventors of schemes like this – it's a no-brainer.) But I could hardly stop there; the nearest half-way sane version is <kirkuajo>!
Phonotactics is the system of rules governing what sequences of
sounds are permitted. In English, for instance,
/həŋ, viʒnz, streŋθs/ occur
/ŋəh, ʒnzvi, stle/ are illegal.
The only hints we get about Esperanto phonotactics are bland
reassurances about how euphonious it all is. There clearly
are restrictions: Esperanto has plenty of words like
<shtrumpo, knabchjo, postscio> (
hindsight) but none like <snouz, uahda,
gvbrdgvnit> (cf. English
you tear us to pieces). The extra
/o/ sound in compounds like
optional, but leaving such issues to Esperantists'
native-language prejudices results in coinages like
I'm not making this up…
In this context, simplicity means learnable rules for building
speakable words. A good proportion of the world's
population find any syllable more complex than
vowel hard to pronounce, which limits things unreasonably.
Zamenhof's efforts to disguise Esperanto as Italian by adding final vowels are miserably inadequate. Italian uses closed syllables sparingly (chiefly ending in /r, l, n/); Esperanto loves them. Italian allows few strings of consonants (mainly things like /bl, gr, sp/ and doubled letters); Esperanto permits many. And the rigid penult-stress rule may be like Italian, but it's even more like Polish.
The whole problem is that Zamenhof mistook his own prejudices
Appendix Y) for a globally accepted
standard of phonotactic elegance. There is no such
standard; Italian is full of tongue-twisters to Japanese-speakers
post-war), and vice
lines). Even consonant + vowel languages have words like
<'aueue>, Tahitian for
It's pathetic! Zamenhof didn't just give his brainchild a bad phonotactic system; he failed to recognise it needed any! How can it claim to be naturally euphonious when it has no regulations about euphony?
Zamenhof put a lot of work into creating a range of uniformly
applicable prefixes and suffixes, such as
to have done) and <‐igh‐>
do intransitively) – as in
(something)/whiten (= go pale). Nonetheless, his original
ideas required several amendments before they were usable, and they
still look rotten to me.
These affixes are often baffling. In
container. But it also occurs in <Svedujo>,
Swedish ghetto) and
apple tree (not
barrel). Modern Esperantists just say <Svedlando,
pomarbo>. Then there's <sendajho>,
transmission, in which <‐ajh‐> is
concrete (?) expression of; yet this is arbitrarily
extended to form <majstrajho>,
Who needs all these special affixes? Isn't the
make white adequate? Don't tell
me we need complex affixing rules to produce indefinably subtle
poetic shades of meaning; Chinese has no such rules, but is
renowned for its nuanced poetry. Besides, if we need affixes
like <ek‐> (
ancient), why are there none
-ward? We can
invent new ones, I suppose; but what determines which are prefixes
and which are suffixes?
Different languages have very different approaches to building words
(see Appendix T on morphological
groundplans). Esperanto's system of chaining together strings
of invariable affixes uses the same pseudo-agglutinative groundplan
spearheaded by Volapük (see
Appendix X), which is at least more
straightforward than alternatives like the Hebrew/Arabic system of
triliteral roots. If there's a problem, it's that Dr Zamenhof
seems strangely biassed against any of the range of possible
affix forms spread across the globe by the
languages. Compare the prevalence of the abstract noun
endings <‐ia, ‐ity, ‐(t)ion> with
Esperanto's use of <‐eco>. Those
<‐ion> words Esperanto does condescend to admit
have to hide their family resemblance; thus <regiono>,
region but <nacio>,
Clockwork morphology can produce some amusing quirks:
ubiquitous (pl.); <majstrskribisto>,
a spade; <truanta>,
And then there are ambiguities such as <kataro> =
catarrh versus <kataro> =
cats – there are so many of these I've given them
their own appendix.
Strangest of all, though, is the prefix <mal->, a
meaning-reverser like Newspeak
un-. The only word
bad is <malbona>;
<maldekstra> and so on. It's an imaginative
vocabulary shortcut, but it's inconsistent (
be <malnorda>), gratingly artificial
not bad?) and misleading
Esperanto has a special suffix to mark
feminine (or to be
more accurate, female) nouns: <‐in‐> (from
German; in Romance languages that's a diminutive). But this
has no equivalent
masculine marker – being male
is just taken to be the default! See
Appendix O on Sexism.
Esperanto is notable among auxiliary language schemes for having
possessed a well stocked dictionary from the start, made up from
words out of an assortment of European languages. Then
again it also had notably warped selection criteria, taking
rucksack) from Danish
<tornister>; <nepre> (
from Russian <nepremenno>… and so on, to form a
peculiar stew of words picked for their familiarity to
In this case I'll take
clarity to mean having an adequate
stock of technical, poetic, and everyday words to be generally
usable. Zamenhof was if anything overzealous in this
department, stuffing his
basic wordlists with trivial
distinctions such as <kiso>
a noisy kiss, and so
on; who asked for these?
This is the inverse problem, overlooked by Zamenhof.
Language learners want to be able to start communicating with as
little rote learning of vocabulary as possible.
English is rather good at this, as it is rich in
metonyms – coverterms like
clothes, usable as stand-ins for more specialised terms
sou'wester as well as in
self-explanatory compound words like
Basic English cut its essential
vocabulary to 850 words; any language designed from the ground up
with lexical efficiency in mind could in principle do much
Vocabulary is a relatively superficial, transient aspect of a language compared to things like syntax (speaking Pig Latin doesn't make you a polyglot); but it's the first and often the last feature of a foreign tongue that people notice, so padding out your Warsaw-centric auxiliary language with Romance dictionary entries can be an effective way of making it seem international. Instead of this random European stew, a real world auxlang would get as much use as possible out of the two most truly global word sources:
(It would be even more international to accept globally recognised Chinese or Hindi words too, if only there were any… Arabic, maybe. Or see Appendix P for some cases where there were better solutions available in Latin and Greek.)
Many Esperanto borrowings are clumsily based on spellings:
KEH, though with a palatalised
POON-NYOE); cf. Spanish <puño>
Apart from anything else, where would Esperanto be if any of these languages changed their spelling systems?
Esperantised placenames frequently look as if they've been transliterated into Cyrillic and then back without regard for pronunciation: Washington becomes <Vaŝingtono>, Jamaica becomes <Jamajko>, Guinea becomes <Gvineo>, and so on…
Esperanto goes way over the top in marking what part of speech each word is, via its neat but somehow risible final vowel system:
alive/vital(plus case and number concord)
vitally(even some adverbs take <‐n>)
to live(but finite verbs end in <‐s>)
(a) life(inflecting for case and number)
This grand scheme is based on the idea that every verb has one associated (equally basic) noun, adjective, and so on – an idea with an attractive air of symmetry and logic, but one that turns out to be fatally flawed; see Appendix U for details of the root-classes fiasco.
Non-linguists rarely understand that grammatical categories like
Preposition are based not on universal
logical principles but on pragmatically constructed conventions in
a given language – for instance, where English uses
adjectives like <angry>, Yoruba relies on verbs like
Noun is essentially universal, but Zamenhof can't take its
application for granted; what do the words
gravity, day, waterfall, Esperanto have in common besides the
Nouns? (Ignore the propagandists
who still claim that Esperanto
roots are categoryless
semantic primitives; the official grammars from the Academy of
There are hordes of unnecessary exceptions and
irregularities. Numerals, prepositions,
correlatives, conjunctions, modifiers, articles, and so on
are all exempt; pronouns even form their own breakaway faction,
consistently ending in <‐i> rather than
<‐o> and inflecting for case but not for number.
Esperanto's word-classes are based on the traditions of classical Latin and Greek grammars, and a poor fit for many of the languages of Europe, let alone Chinese. Hungarians won't be used to prepositions; Germans have to learn that adverbs aren't the same as plain adjectives; and Slavs have to cope with articles…
Shoehorning words into this system can mangle them horribly.
by marriage, bilious, repentant, ancient
divinely, contrariwise, obediently, again
to cry out, to mine, to try, to know
a reading, money, a plague, an arrow
flow! enjoy! shake! teach!
Esperanto is oddly happy to sacrifice recognisability in stem
Asia becomes <Azio>,
voice (Latin/Italian <voce>) becomes
<kofi/café>) becomes <kafo>,
etc. If only there were fewer constituent classes to
distinguish, maybe some nouns could end in <‐a>
or <‐e>… which would also make the rhymes
in Esperanto poetry more interesting!
For details of how Esperanto verbs and participles work, see
Appendix Y; it's designed to look
vaguely latinate, but with its past, present, future, and
tenses and its inflecting
participles it again most resembles a tidied-up version of
Zamenhof takes categories such as Infinitive, Participle, and
Subjunctive on faith as universal concepts. Note
particularly his failure to define the subtle differences between
simple tenses (
I saw, <mi vidis>) and compound
I have seen, <mi estas
vidinta> – more literally
having-seen)… an especially vexing question when passive
verbs are always formed as compounds (
I was/have been seen,
<mi estas vidita>).
It should be apparent to anglophones that special suffixes for
infinitives, future tenses, and subjunctives are a redundant
complication. It may be less obvious that English is itself
over-complex in some ways, with its passive voice (
regarded as a foundation, <ili estas rigardataj kiel
fundamento>), vestigial subject-agreement (
are, it is – wisely dropped in
Esperanto), and obligatory tense marking even where the context
makes it obvious (
I was born in 1967) or nonsensical
time is a dimension – cf. my guide to SF
Chronophysics). None of
this is necessary; future tense for example can be shown with
auxiliary verbs (
will), adverbs (
soon), or if you
insist, optional affixes.
One feature of verbs is present in almost all human languages,
though trivialised in traditional Latin-based school grammars:
aspect, the distinction between Perfective (roughly, the
single event or act) and Imperfective (
ongoing state or
behaviour). Esperanto's rules barely allow for aspect
marking, relying on an unreliable suffix (<‐ad>
gerund) and arguable
applications of participles (e.g. <estas fermata>,
which some translate as
is presently closed and some as
is being closed). Left with no official system,
Esperantists just stuck to their mother-tongue habits, giving most
modern dialects a (further) heavy Slavic influence.
The actual forms of these inflections
(<‐os>? <‐inta>?) are
unconvincing. Worst of all is <‐u>, the
imperative. Most languages, for obvious reasons, arrange it
so that commands can be given via the most basic verbal
available, not a special, uniquely inflected form!
Zamenhof also adopts a Slavic approach to tenses in quoted
speech: where English reports
we are! either directly as
they said `We are!' or indirectly as
that they were, Esperantists and Slavs have to say (in
they said that they are (tenses direct, everything
else indirect). There are some fairly knotty problems being
ignored in Esperanto's use of reflexive pronouns and an
active/passive distinction, too; for more details on this see
Esperanto nouns inflect both for number and for case; i.e., more
than is considered necessary in most European languages.
Compare the English sentence
yesterday you hit the three white
sheep (case, tense, and number left to word-order and context)
with the Esperanto version: <hierau vi frapis la tri
blankajn shafojn> (case, tense, and number
redundantly expressed by suffixes).
Esperantists never attempt to explain what cases or plurals are
for. The former is extremely tricky; but even the
latter is hardly cut-and-dried. Why are
seconds, one point zero seconds plural?
Indeed, what's the point of pluralising
seconds? Why are
rice, wheat singular,
nuts, oats are plural?
Obligatory inflections are a bad idea. Couldn't Esperanto emulate Japanese, which essentially does without plurals (one ninja, two ninja…), or Tagalog, which marks number only if it seems relevant (using a separate regular plural-marker word)?
The same applies to case (if not more so). The Esperanto
<‐n> suffix is not only compulsory on verb
objects, but appears on time expressions, directional adverbs,
complements, and goals of motion – hence
<Lundon rajdu chevalon norden dek
mejlojn en Londonon!>,
On Monday, ride a
horse northward ten miles into London!. And yet…
some kinds of noun phrase (infinitives, numerals,
people = <multe da homoj>, etc.)
can't be marked for case, and they seem to get along
perfectly happily without.
Languages disagree not only on how to indicate which of a
sentence's components is the subject (Russian gives nouns
fusional endings, Japanese has particles after noun phrases,
Swahili uses verb marking, and Chinese relies on word order), but
even on how to define this notion of
Appendix R. For now I'll point out
that the informal English phrase
It's me! may make poor
Latin, but it's fine Turkish.
Why <‐j>? It might be recognisable to the
Italians (one percent of the world's population) who use
<‐i> as a regular plural marker, or even the
Slavs (five percent) who use <‐и>; but
compare <‐s>, used throughout Central/Western
Europe (Spain, Germany, France, the UK…) and their
colonies: forty percent of the human race! Meanwhile,
<‐n> as an object marker seems to be based on
one piece of German morphology; <‐m> might have
been better. And come to think of it, did Zamenhof ever
explicitly forbid the suffixing order
<shafonj>, or is this left to
If nouns were formed from participles regularly, the word for
one currently hoping – and for the
language – would be <esperantulo> (though
that tense-marking's a century out of date now anyway). For
more on <‐n> after prepositions, see L2. Incidentally, I get a lot of complaints
from Esperantists who imagine it's inconsistent to want both
expressive clarity and grammatical simplicity; apparently they
can't imagine distinguishing (e.g.) singular from plural without
there being special extra rules to make number-agreement a
compulsory part of the morphological system…
See Appendix Y for Esperanto's
selection of pronouns. The system should be familiar to
anglophones, with its single word for
inclusive or exclusive), single word for
familiar singular or polite plural), and compulsory distinction
in the singular (only) between
Few languages distinguish as we do between
a/some fish and
the fish, and explaining the point of this distinction is
well nigh impossible. Consider also the unpredictable (to
English-speakers) way that Esperanto <la> occurs in
ten past one, <dek minutoj post la
God bless you, <la dio benu
bird migration is remarkable,
<la birdmigrado estas mirinda>.
Couldn't Esperanto do without articles, and treat pronouns and so
on as regular nouns? Or if the pronouns really need their own
system, complete with
possessive adjectives <mia,
my, his) etc., why does the interrogative
pronoun have to mess things up with <kia> =
sort, <kies> =
whose (a Lithuanian-style
Esperanto's words for
who, what are <kiu, kio>,
which act both as question words and as relative
pronouns – a trademark misfeature of the European
languages that's responsible for such unnecessary ambiguities as
Did you ask the man who did it? Compare, say,
Hindi, where question-words begin with <k‐> but
their relative-clause equivalents have <j‐>.
Notice that <kiu, kio> aren't listed among the
pronouns; instead they're in a separate irregular subfamily, the
so-called correlatives. These are words for a mixed bag of
every-thing, what-kind, no-where, some-time,
that-many; they naturally form a table with columns like
every- (= <chi‐>) and rows like
-where (= <‐e>), intersecting at
every-where (= <chie>). But the grid has
no columns for
else-(where), any-(way), or
this-(time), and no rows for
(which)-direction; such coinages require
arbitrary botch-ups, so triplets like
when, then, now become
<ki‐am, ti‐am, nun>. A more open
system (where e.g.
anything is simply
would make the whole table unnecessary.
These word-forms may not display much regularity, in the sense of
behaving like normal nouns, but they do score highly for
uniformity, in the sense of
did you say <li estas>,
<ni estos>, or <mi estus>?
Esperanto adjectives end in a superficially latinate <‐a>, then add inflections to agree with the noun they modify. If there's any logic behind this, wouldn't it imply you need to put similar markers on <la>? That's how things work in the natural languages Zamenhof was copying here: if agreement belongs anywhere, it's on articles.
What kinds of word go in this things-ending-in-<a>
Third, but not
any kind of, but not
one's, but not
whose… if only Zamenhof had
ever heard of determiners, a lexical class covering things
like articles, pronouns, and correlatives, maybe the categories
wouldn't have ended up such a mess.
Above all, why oh why did Zamenhof give his
international language obligatory case-and-number concord?
The Esperanto for
the houses are new is <la
domoj estas novaj> – which is on
the fussy end of the scale even by European standards.
Compare French <les maisons sont
nouvelles>, where the
plural agreement is
silent; German <die Häuser sind neu>,
where the predicate shows no concord; or Russian
<doma novi>, which while it does have
agreement at least compensates by letting you leave out the
verb. Even Volapük didn't get it this wrong –
<doms binom nulik>!
English may depend on an
Adjective to say
houses, but many languages go about things differently.
Arabic uses appositional nominals (
the-houses); Japanese prefers things that morphosyntacticians
analyse as stative verbs (
basic number-terms <tri, trio, tria>
three, threesome, third) are a crowded jumble, making a
mockery of the regular root/noun/adjective pattern they imitate
(note for instance that both <tri> and
<tria> can occur as either argument or
modifier). Knock-on effects include the baroque selection of
number-related suffixes needed for <trioble,
trifoje, triope> (
triply, three times, in
Why, other than because of European tradition, do we need a
one-word label for 10³ (
thousand = <mil>
ten hundred) but not for 10⁴
myriad) or 10⁵ (
lakh); and a label for
million = <miliono>) but not for
crore) or 10⁸ (a Japanese
oku)? If Esperanto was built around the S.I. system of
prefixes this might make sense, but there's no sign Zamenhof ever
kilo- etc. Indeed, <pico> is the
Esperanto for pizza!
These categories are less reliable than most people assume.
Latin may have had distinct
Prepositions, but Vietnamese uses neither (it just needs
flexible adjectives and verbs); even many English words
except) are hard to pigeonhole. Yes,
most adverbs are simply verb modifiers like
fast; but this
hardly covers cases like
Esperanto's <‐n> ending simply replaces some prepositions, modifies the meanings of others, and never associates with the rest. Zamenhof didn't just mix these prepositional functions confusingly into his case system, he also made them officially vague – see Appendix Y!
Esperanto grammar favours a proliferation of adverbs.
whistling, I left is not allowed to be
a mere adjective <fajfanta> describing the
subject – no, it's got to be
<fajfante mi foriris>. Worse yet,
Esperanto weather phrases like
it's warm today involve no
nouns at all, so they can't have adjectives either: <hodiau
estas varme> (
today there is warmly)!
Some Esperantists tell me that construction is deprecated in favour
of <varmas> (
is-warm), but if so then the
news is taking a long time to reach the coursebooks.
Many languages go without the category
Adverb, making do
with adjectives and phrasal expressions (
at speed). What might seem more
surprising to Europeans is how few languages have the category
Preposition. Where Yiddish expresses the phrase
jump onto a box via a preposition (slightly assisted by
casemarking), Vietnamese uses modified verbs (
box); Finnish has hyper-specialised cases (
box in the allative!); and Panjabi goes for
jump box onto).
These words are a strange mix. Prepositions can end in
consonant clusters (like all Esperanto roots, but without the
usual disguise of a tacked-on vowel), leading to sequences like
Christmas. On the other hand there are twenty-odd random
adverby particles and things that form a sort of semi-developed
word-class with the distinctive ending <‐au>
(<ambau, kontrau, preskau> =
English prepositions are a bit un-European in their willingness
to appear with no following
object noun (cf. our
Appendix Q). This blurs the line
I walked along the road) and
I walked along), and allows English to form
phrases outlawed by Esperanto grammar (e.g.
that's the road I
Zamenhof's efforts to explain the rules of Esperanto grammar (see Appendix Y) focussed almost exclusively on derivational and inflectional morphology (i.e. word-building and word-endings). The nearest they get to syntax is implicit word-order rules. Unsurprisingly, Esperanto's phrase structure rules and so on turn out to be hardly distinguishable from the ones Zamenhof grew up with – they're pretty good simple ones, but it's sheer blind luck…
We know sentences are usually Subject–Verb–Object,
possessives go Property–Of–Owner, and adjective phrases
are Adjective–Noun; but that's about all we learn.
Esperantists boast of the way the final vowels make individual
nouns readily identifiable; what they fail to mention is that
free word order turns all the higher structure of noun
phrases, subclauses, and so on into a matter of guesswork.
Many languages, especially in Europe, have sets of sentences
related via order-shuffling rules (
transformations) such as
I am reading it → am I reading
it?. That's one Esperanto doesn't share; it's <mi
legas ghin → chu mi legas ghin?>. This just makes
it more baffling that it does insist on correlative
extraction: when the question is
I am reading what?
(<mi legas kion?>), Esperanto forbids that
simple word order just as English does – question words
who, where, why have to move to the start of their
what am I reading? (<kion
Some of Esperanto's word-order conventions are no more than
optional defaults; others (although taken for granted in
grammars) are unbreakable.
Yesterday you hit the three
white sheep may legally become <la tri shafojn
blankajn vi frapis hierau>, but it's never <blankajn
la vi hierau tri frapis shafojn>! Even the dislocation
only English allows in
I only ate one is forbidden
for <nur>. The following
rules demonstrate classically European default assumptions:
the new houseis never <nova domo la>
on a tableis never <tablo sur>
to want to try to startis never <komenci peni voli>.
Excess inflections such as case might at least lead to extra
flexibility in word order; and Esperantists consider this an aid
to stylistic elegance. But wouldn't it be easier as well as
more flexible to use
topic-marker particles to assign
emphasis? Instead, Tibetan-speaking learners of Esperanto
(with no guide to what stylistic effects are produced by what
order-shift) have to learn to treat word order as essentially
The question-forming particle <chu> is a neat idea (though maybe a bit redundant, when interrogative intonation or punctuation will do – you agree?). But its form is copied from its source, the Polish <czy> (or Ukrainian <chi> or even Belorussian <ci>), rather than resembling the question words like <kio>.