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.
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.
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.)