An open letter to Gaston Dorren, the author of “Lingo”

A book called Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe has recently been published. Chapter 51 is titled “The no-hoper: Esperanto”. As has already been reported, it has received some flak from Esperantists.

Here is my open letter to its author, Gaston Dorren:

Dear Mr Dorren,

I know you have received a number of messages by disgruntled Esperantists about chapter 51 of your book, ‘Lingo’, and probably the last thing you want now is another one. However, while I am a (sometimes) speaker of Esperanto, and while I do have issues with that chapter, I hope that you will find my points reasonable and worth considering.

You list a series of reasons why Esperanto is much more complex than it needs to be, particularly for Anglophones, and therefore, why it has failed to catch on as the universal language.

1. Cases.

There are only two cases in Esperanto (German has four). English and French do have cases, with pronouns (e.g. “I love her.” “She loves me.”). Esperanto just applies them consistently.

Having these two cases allows Esperanto to have a more liberal word order and less accidental ambiguity. E.g. In English we might say “He received him as a prince,” leaving it unclear whether “as a prince” relates to the subject or object. However in Esperanto we can differentiate between the two: “Li akceptis lin kiel princo” (He received him as a prince would receive him), or “Li akceptis lin kiel princon” (He received him as he would receive a prince).

But, yes, remembering to add “-n” for the object of a sentence is probably the one aspect of Esperanto that gives native English speakers the most trouble. But it is far from insurmountable.

2. Adjectival agreement: e.g. “bela knabino” (beautiful girl) becomes “belaj knabinoj” (beautiful girls).

Adjectival agreement is not really all that ‘odd‘. I believe French, Spanish, Hungarian and Swahili have it too, and it is applied in these languages in a much more complex way than in Esperanto. Again, it allows Esperanto a more liberal word order and less accidental ambiguity.

You then write ‘the article [la] remains unchanged [for plural]… As far as I’m aware, not a single European language does likewise.’ Doesn’t this contradict your call for simplicity, and specifically your criticism of Esperanto’s adjectival agreement?

3. Participles: ‘In natural European languages, participles tend to come in two varieties: an active… and a passive… Esperanto verbs have six…’

Yes, this is true. However, most of these forms are not used in practice. In fact, participles in general are not used as much in Esperanto as in English. E.g., a literal translation of “I was talking,” is “Mi estis parolanta.” But most Esperanto speakers would simply say “Mi parolis,” which can also be translated as “I spoke.”

I note that you write ‘The Esperanto verb has some nasty tricks up its sleeve.‘ Yet the only example you give is the one above, about participles.

4. Embedded tenses: ‘Rather than “She wrote that she would return,” the Esperanto equivalent translates as “She wrote that she will return” – unremarkable to Eastern Europeans but anomalous to Western ears.’

Exactly, unremarkable. And much more logical and easy to remember when you think about it. Esperanto just makes no distinction between indirect and direct speech, whereas English does.

5. Difficult sounds: ‘[Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto] should have limited consonants to the dozen or so that people all over the world can pronounce, while discarding consonant clusters altogether.’

If a language were to limit itself to around a dozen consonants, and no consonant clusters, it would severely limit its ability to assimilate words from other languages, and so make them more recognisable. Volapük, a predecessor of Esperanto, had a relatively restricted phonology, and thus many borrowed words became unrecognisably distorted. E.g. “pük” (language), which was apparently derived from the English word “speak”.

6. Adverbs: ‘German elegantly substitutes adjectives for them.’

The ability to distinguish between an adverb and an adjective, when combined with liberal word order, allows you to say, e.g., “Knabo rapida kuras” (A quick boy runs) or “Knabo rapide kuras” (A boy runs quickly).

7. Gendered pronouns: ‘Hungarian manages perfectly well with only one word for “she”, “he” and “it”.‘

The Esperanto word for “it” is “ĝi”. Although Esperanto speakers don’t normally use “ĝi” for people, the taboo is much less against this than for using “it” for people in English.

I hope I have adequately refuted, or at least challenged, your arguments that Esperanto is unnecessarily complex and/or difficult to learn. However, on page 242 you also make some very surprisingly subjective statements about the language:
– ‘For speakers of French, Italian and Spanish, “la viro” sounds plain wrong.‘
– ‘“knabino” looks masculine…’
– ‘“knabinoj” is a word hardly compatible with anything of beauty…’
These expressions of personal opinion do nothing to strengthen your argument. Similar subjective criticisms were made against Esperanto as early as 1907, mainly by speakers of French. These critics wanted Esperanto to become more ‘naturalistic’ (i.e. similar to Romance languages) at the expense of consistency and ease of learning. The result was a series of now largely forgotten breakaway languages.

Your basic premise seems to be that Esperanto has failed to be universally taught and accepted because of its unnecessary complexity. And, as a corollary, that English is the de facto world language because it is ‘learner friendly’. Both of these claims are false: Resistance to Esperanto does not occur because it should be, say, six times faster to learn than an average ‘natural’ language rather than just five times faster. And the reason why the teaching of English is currently so widespread is not because it has no cases (excluding pronouns), no adjectival agreement and only two participial forms. Unfortunately the expansion or otherwise of languages has more to do with power – both political and economic – than factors such as learner-friendliness or philosophical ideals.

Regarding the hopefulness or otherwise of Esperanto speakers, I don’t personally know of anyone who seriously believes that Esperanto will become the universal auxiliary language in his or her lifetime. But seeing the language in action as I have, such as at a major international conference, is a powerful demonstration that there is still some cause for hope. As has been said many times, in many contexts, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Jonathan Cooper

UPDATE: 9 January 2015

Gaston Dorren’s reply follows. (For some reason, this website doesn’t allow comments to be left on blog posts, only pages. So, until I can work out how to safely fix that, I have just copied it from a document that the author has sent me.)

Dear Mr Cooper,

Thank you for doing me the honour of posting an open letter in response to my thoughts about Esperanto, which I realise are somewhat provocative. Allow me to review your points one by one.

1. Cases
We seem to agree here: learning two cases is far from insurmountable, but it is something that gives native speakers of English (as well as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish and many other languages) trouble. In my experience, speakers of these languages tend to find case at first bewildering and then permanently annoying. Apparently, they don’t find it easy to transfer their intuitive understanding of pronominal cases to nouns and adjectives.
By the way, even caseless languages can still have a ‘liberal word order’, as Dutch illustrates. And while case can certainly avoid ambiguity, I think it is a high cost compared to the occasional benefit.

2. Adjectival agreement
I do not claim that adjectival agreement is at all odd. Actually, I can’t offhand think of any Indo-European language other than English that does not have it, so this aspect of Esperanto grammar should be manageable (though I’m not convinced it’s really necessary). What I do find odd is that the article la is an exception to the rule that nouns, adjectives and determiners are inflected for number (-j) and case (-n). It would be more intuitive to have laj belaj knabinoj as the plural la bela knabino. I’m sure one gets used to this pretty soon, but an exception in a language largely free of exceptions is surprising.

3. Participles
Your observation that most of these six forms are not used in practice seems to bear out my suspicion that six participles are more than most speakers can comfortably handle. In response to your observation that I give only one example to substantiate my claim that ‘The Esperanto verb has some nasty tricks up its sleeve’, I can only plead guilty. There used to be another example: the jussive mood. Unfortunately, the editor considered it too arcane. That is exactly how I felt about it, but that to my mind, this very arcaneness made it a good case in point.

4. Embedded tenses
We seem largely to agree here. I’m not sure if logic has anything to do with it, but undoubtedly the rule is easy to remember. Whether it is also easy to apply, I couldn’t tell.

5. Difficult sounds
This is a tough issue. I appreciate your point about Volapük. Admittedly, my suggestion to give Esperanto as few phonemes as possible is too radical, as it would have led to vocabulary being harder to learn, at least for speakers of most European languages.
Having said that, I still think that Zamenhof, on the other hand, has erred on the side of phonological complexity. I’m pretty sure that many Spaniards have cursed his decision to include initial clusters such as sp- (they can’t help saying ‘esp-’ – thank goodness the language is not called Speranto, as Italians would expect) and that many French, Italian and Spanish Esperantists have despaired over the difference between h and ĥ.
Perhaps there was no way for the great man to solve this problem in a way satisfactory to all. Between Scylla and Charybdis, there was just no water left to sail.

6. Adverbs
Your point is obviously correct, but why should liberal word order be so important? In very general terms, word order and inflection are two ways to clarify sentence structure, but even inflected languages tend to gravitate toward one basic word order; the alternative word orders are then more marked varieties, emphasising this or that part of the statement. Zamenhof chose to make Esperanto a more inflected language than strictly necessary. As with case, adverbial endings make the language freer, but also more difficult to learn. I should have thought that keeping it simple must be the top priority.

7. Gendered pronouns
Here, I’m afraid your counterargument does not convince me. ‘Less of a taboo’ suggests that the use of ĝi is still considered inelegant or impolite or otherwise not done. However, I do appreciate that most languages do make the distinction. Also, in Zamenhof’s pre-feminist days, the need for an gender-neutral pronoun must have been less acute than it is in our time.

As for my ‘surprisingly subjective statements about the language’: you’re perfectly right. But as they are very obviously subjective, I hope the reader understands that I’m just having a bit of fun with Esperanto here. If you have read the rest of the book (which is after all this chapter’s natural habitat, the context needed to understand it properly) you will know that I’m taking the mickey out of many languages, including French, English, Italian and my native Dutch.

If there is one thing that I regret about the chapter, it is that I’ve overstated the role of Esperanto’s intricacies – which are comparatively few, of course – in its failure to become an auxiliary world language. Again, we agree here: political and economic power are the main determining factors (and I would add sociolinguistics). I do not, by the way, claim that English is ‘learner-friendly’, but only that it is the most learner-friendly among those that Zamenhof was familiar with. See chapter 60 for more about the horrors of the current world language.

Finally, I very much appreciate your realistic outlook regarding the prospects of Esperanto in the coming decades. At least one dedicated Esperantist who has recently bombarded me and even my publisher with her protests was convinced that most of the speakers are hopeful about Esperanto’s future.

Thank you for this stimulating exchange of ideas.

With very best wishes,
Gaston Dorren

Posted in Esperanto.


  1. The difference is: 1,7 million human beings are learning Esperanto at present, 850 million English – most of them at the simplified level of Globish. A relationship of 1 : 500. So, which one of the two idioms is more important? Sincere, FR

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