Esperanto – more complex than Afrikaans?

Mi ankau plenesperante skribos venontsemajne!

Two weeks ago I wrote a piece in (and about) Esperanto, to which some correspondents responded by making the “marginal gains” point. People generally do not learn Esperanto because even though the time taken to learn it may be shorter (because it is simpler), the gain for doing so is extremely limited given the relative lack of speakers (even optimistic estimates suggest this is no more than 2 million worldwide – the same as Slovene or Latvian).

That does bring us to another issue: it is taken as read that Esperanto is easy to learn because its structure is simple. Yet, in fact, much of what determines how easy a language is to learn has nothing to do with its structure. Motivation is the real primary determinant; and, of course, if you don’t really have anyone to talk to, your motivation will in practice be limited.

Even then, there remains the assumption that Esperanto is “simple”, and thus easy to learn. The structure is so remarkably regular that there is surely no “natural” language, with all the complications that come with “nature”, to challenge it in that regard. Not even Afrikaans, for example.

Well, let us have a look. Esperanto, of course, is gloriously regular:

  • Ni ordonas ‘We order’
  • Ni ordonis ‘We ordered’
  • Ni ordonos ‘We will order’
  • Ni ordonus ‘We would order’

The ending determines the tense or mood. This could not be easier! Let us have a look at Afrikaans:

  • Ons bestel ‘We order’
  • Ons het bestel ‘We ordered’
  • Ons sal bestel ‘We will order’
  • Ons sou bestel ‘We would order’

The word before the verb determines the tense or mood. So, okay, Afrikaans is pretty easy, but… oh, there’s more…?

  • Ons kan bestel ‘We can order’
  • Ons moet bestel ‘We must order’
  • Ons wil bestel ‘We want to order’

… so surely Esperanto has stuff for this too? Well, yes, but…

  • Ni povas ordoni ‘We can order’
  • Ni devas ordoni ‘We must order’
  • Ni volas ordoni ‘We want to order’

… ahem, if anything Esperanto is the more complex of the two here. Afrikaans allows mood, up to and including ideas such as possibility, obligation and volition, to be expressed through one short word before the verb. Esperanto switches for those things to a structure involving another verb plus an infinitive. Neither is complex, but Esperanto is certainly not the clear winner.

Still, things remain regular in Esperanto even if we are the ones being ordered:

  • Ni ordonas ilin ‘We order them’
  • Ili ordonas nin ‘They order us’

That is nice and straightforward – the object simply adds -n. Could not be easier. Well, except if you didn’t have to add anything at all, perhaps…

  • Ons bestel hulle ‘We order them’
  • Hulle bestel ons ‘They order us’

Would you look at that? Afrikaans manages perfectly well without adding anything, relying solely on word order even with personal pronouns (just as most European languages do with general nouns).

Still, Esperanto is really clever because it is so easy simply to turn that personal pronoun into an adjective:

  • Nia amiko ordonas ‘Our friend orders’

Superb. Just add -a. Could not be easier. Well, except if you didn’t have to add anything at all again, but surely…

  • Ons vriend bestel ‘Our friend orders’

… that’s ridiculous! Afrikaans still does not amend the word ons at all! The word ons in Afrikaans carries the full range of meanings covered in English by ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ and even in Esperanto by ni, nin and nia.

Actually, Esperanto even has a fourth form that English lacks:

  • Ili ordonas nian amikon ‘They order our friend’

Afrikaans is still quite content with the same one:

  • Hulle bestel ons vriend ‘They order our friend’

Indeed, Esperanto has fully six forms here:

  • Niaj amikoj ordonos ‘Our friends will order’
  • Ili povas niajn amikojn ordoni ‘They can order our friends’

Afrikaans still manages with just one for all of this. Note well also that the verb form in Afrikaans has not changed once either (versus five different endings in Esperanto) – just a word in front determines everything:

  • Ons vriende sal bestel ‘Our friends will order’
  • Hulle kan ons vriende bestel ‘They can order our friends’

So, forgesu Esperanton ‘forget Esperanto’! 

Afrikaans for Internasionale Taal ‘International Language’ immediately!

It is not quite that straightforward, of course. Ons is the only personal pronoun which does not change form at all in Afrikaans (although none has more than two forms); the above word order, including bestel appearing after any object except in the present tense, must be strictly observed (whereas it is optional in Esperanto). Most verbs in Afrikaans in fact add ge- after het (Ons maak ‘We make’; Ons het gemaak ‘We made’) and wees ‘to be’ is markedly irregular. Most notably of all, Afrikaans has a fairly complex double negative (Ons het nie gemaak nie ‘We did not make’), varying adjectival forms, and three main plural forms which simply have to be learned with each item of vocabulary.

For all that, however, Afrikaans is not hugely less structurally simple than Esperanto. Even if we accept that, overall, Afrikaans is marginally more complex, it is beyond doubt that Esperanto could be still simpler – for example, as shown above, it exhibits variation in personal pronoun forms and verb forms which Afrikaans seems to manage perfectly well without. (For reference, Esperanto also differentiates between adjectives and adverbs; at least in the case of predicate adjectives, most Germanic languages including Afrikaans get by without such a distinction.)

Let us then consider that Afrikaans is a national language in a regional economic power (and in some neighbouring states); Esperanto is not. Afrikaans has ten times as many speakers as Esperanto; and of these, a third are native (only a handful of Esperanto’s are). Afrikaans is in widespread use in government, in sport, in administration, in business; Esperanto has much more limited reach in such areas. It is true that if you are travelling in general Esperanto will probably be marginally more likely to be understood than Afrikaans, but even that is debatable (given Afrikaans’ direct proximity to Dutch and even German). So, given Afrikaans is barely more complex structurally, what about those “marginal gains”? There is little doubt which is the winner.

Given that this “marginal gain” in favour of Afrikaans also means the average learner will be more motivated to learn it than Esperanto, and that there is a location where someone can go to be exposed to Afrikaans (to hear Afrikaans on the radio; to see Afrikaans on public signage; to have access to it everywhere from in newspapers to on the side of milk cartons), Afrikaans is surely the “easier” language to learn overall.

It depends on the user of course – some may still find Afrikaans hard to tolerate as the language of Apartheid, whereas others may be drawn to Esperanto precisely because it plays to boneco homara (‘mankind’s goodness’). Online courses seem easier to come by in Esperanto than Afrikaans. However, the case that Esperanto is innately “easy” (especially if the objective is near fluency), when considering the whole range of issues involved in learning a language including motivation and exposure, is nothing like as clear as some of its advocates would have us believe.

It is worth being absolutely clear that, taking exposure and motivation into account, English is in fact vastly easier to learn – to any level beyond basic – than Esperanto. I fear Esperantists who deny this obvious fact are missing the whole picture.

Or what about both?! Ni povas kompreneble ambau lerni, se iu nin volas instrui… Ons kan natuurlik beide leer, as iemand ons wil leer… (wait, the same word again in Afrikaans?!!)

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2 thoughts on “Esperanto – more complex than Afrikaans?

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    I hope you won’t mind my disagreeing with the view that “the gain for doing so (I.e. learning Esperanto) is extremely limited given the relative lack of speakers”. My experience is that there are enough speakers to make learning the language well worthwhile.

    Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala, Yerevan and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down and in Armenia when it was a Soviet republic, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

    Esperanto speakers are highly organised. It would be a lot harder to find a Slovene speaker in Berlin or Naples than it would be to find an Esperanto speaker. There is a Jarlibro (Yearbook) published annually giving access to a network of local representatives. These people scattered all over the world and act as ‘consuls’, providing help and information, and passing on the visitor from another country to his/her contacts. When I’m travelling for work or on a family holiday, I usually contact a local representative in advance, to arrange a meeting. In Trieste I was invited to the local Esperanto society, and then to stay at a family home (where no English is spoken) in the hills outside the town.

    There is an Esperanto badge (when I remember to wear it) which sometimes gives unplanned contacts. I don’t think I’ve had more than half a dozen such chance encounters, where I see a badge or someone sees mine. For example, I have come across Esperanto speakers on the metro in Paris and the London underground, and I remember meeting a Norwegian at Vienna airport, when both of us had time on our hands.

    I sing in a Welsh male voice choir, and I have used Esperanto on our choir visits overseas. Twenty minutes after arriving in Prague, for example, I was outside the hotel having a beer with local people.

    Esperanto may not be perfect, but I’ve used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job.

  2. […] regions (notably in Namibia), including by a plurality of the population in some western provinces, Afrikaans is an extraordinary linguistic phenomenon because it provides a clear view of what would have […]

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