|Justin B Rye 2003–2010|
Which of Zamenhof's mistakes was stupidest? A lot of his decisions were clearly the result of forgivable ignorance – he was after all working before linguistics as a science really existed. The phonology; the word-classes; the relative pronouns… there are plenty of mistakes to choose from. But when it comes to picking the stupidest, it's not a very hard decision. Two of the leading candidates as I see it are as follows:
<Rigardu la vortfinajhon>
Now, the various
design philosophies for invented
languages each have their advantages and disadvantages.
The problem with trying to design a
simple grammar is
that when for instance you shrink a language's system of
case-marking endings, it becomes harder to tell who's doing
things to who(m). Usually context makes it obvious, but
otherwise some other part of the grammar has to do the work of
distinguishing between agent and patient – some of the
complexity has moved from the noun morphology to somewhere else,
like a lump in the carpet.
Those defending the Esperanto case system take it as axiomatic
that accusative endings are an effective way to free up
word-order, but as it turns out, statistical surveys of natural
languages show a correlation going the other way!
Noun-case systems are a
associated with relatively strict word-order – the
grammatical systems with the least restrictive order rules are
head-marking. That is, they show
subject-agreement on the verb, a mechanism Zamenhof jettisoned
entirely from Esperanto.
And the lumpy-carpet effect certainly needn't stop us improving the carpet's overall evenness. In the case of case, it isn't necessary for nouns' syntactic roles to be shown by their endings – a constructed language is free to follow the example of the languages that have no affixing at all. It would be perfectly workable to mark case with a system of prepositions instead – or not to; again, it's an optional extra. But word-order isn't an optional extra, it's a universal; all sentences necessarily have a word order, and all languages make some use of reshuffles to distinguish possible meanings. Esperanto might as well own up to having a rule that by default the order is subject-verb-object. And once that's established, who needs a compulsory <-n> ending?
<La vortfinajhoj estas komplikaj>
The word-endings are complicated
English-speakers are of course always accused of
native-language bias when they complain about this feature, but
it's an objective fact that Esperanto takes its ubiquitous
adjective concord to an extreme uncommon in natural languages
and almost unheard-of in designed languages (see
K3). It's all very well to
allow speakers to use adjective-agreement if that's how
they're accustomed to keeping track of which adjective goes
with which noun; but forcing the rule on everybody, even in the
vast majority of contexts where there's no ambiguity to be
resolved, puts an extra barrier in the path of billions of
potential Esperantists. Zamenhof himself recognised this
too late, describing adjective concord in 1894 as
However, since these two stupid mistakes interact, we have a single clear front runner:
<Rigardu la komplikajn vortfinajhojn!>
Look at the complicated word-endings!
As usual I welcome feedback: any dissenters with alternative candidates for Zamenhof's Single Stupidest Mistake should check out my mailbox.