Esperanto 2.0

My piece a month ago on Esperanto raised a debate among some correspondents about whether Esperanto would have a better chance of attaining its original aim of becoming a universal global language if its imperfections were ironed out.

To be clear, the pracelo (‘original goal’) was that Esperanto would become the lingvo internacia. In 2016, this probably is not as clearly understood as it was in 1887; the idea was that the lingvo internacia would stand along side everyone’s lingvo nacia. In other words, national languages would continue to be used within national boundaries, but to communicate across them people would use the lingvo internacia (“inter” meaning precisely what it says).

As one correspondent noted, the problem is the “network effect”. In theory, if even only 10% of the population of every country in Europe and North America were to learn Esperanto, it would become very useful indeed. If you were on a train anywhere from Stockholm to Seattle or Vancouver to Vladivostok, the chances would be that there would be someone in your carriage (never mind the whole train) who spoke both the local lingvo nacia and the lingvo internacia, putting you just one person away from being to communicate with almost everyone.

This objective is so obviously desirable to many people, that many have reached the conclusion that it is Esperanto itself which is to blame. It appears intuitive that if there were a decent “international language” of this type, people would take the time to learn it – not least because that period of time would not be very long, given the language would be designed to be simple, regular and easy to learn.

This logic is compelling, but it is flawed. There are many problems with it, but two obvious ones stand out. The first is that in fact people would not necessarily take the time to learn it, because no matter how simply and regularly it was constructed, it would still take time and effort to attain fluency (that is the nature of human language). The second is quite simply that there already is a lingvo internacia – English. It is already the case that if you are on a train anywhere in Europe or North America, the chances are high that someone on that train, and almost certainly in your carriage, will speak both the local language and English.

This second is, of course, the real issue. Pracelistoj (Esperantists determined to attain the language’s original goal) counter that Esperanto is easier to learn than English because of its simpler structure (but actually that is not true, because structure is not the only issue), or that Esperanto is better because it is neutrala (but actually nothing is neutral, and ultimately if I just want help on a train to work out whether I need to get out at the next stop, I do not care whether my communication is particularly “neutral”).

On top of this, as I argued a month ago, my own view is that the reason Esperanto has succeeded (given that the pracelo is simply unattainable but Esperanto is vastly better known and more widely used than any other constructed language) is that it is imperfect. The imperfections themselves are causes of debate, and debate creates interest and exposure. The result can be sensational.

[Readers in the Belfast area will love the colloquial translation in the above link of “How are you?” as Kio pri vi, literally “What about you?” – it turns out we speak the Universal Dialect…!!]

Due to the above mentioned flawed logic, reform of Esperanto is a hot topic. What is interesting about this is that it means debates about Esperanto usage are as hotly contested (and, er, hypocritical) as with any natural language. The language is based on the Fundamento, 16 rules and other notes published by Zamenhof in 1887 and confirmed by the Declaration of Boulogne in 1905. Interestingly, however, even the Fundamento was itself a reform of an earlier version Zamenhof wrote out but did not publish in 1878; and Zamenhof himself proposed notable revisions in 1894 which were rejected at Boulogne. Boulogne therefore saw the Fundamento become something of a sacred text among some Esperantists, with any deviation at all frowned upon by many.  This in itself caused some breakways, notably Ido shortly after Boulogne (literally “Derived From”, backed by those who supported the 1894 reforms and others) and Novial (an adaptation designed by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen).

The problem has always been that not only are reforms frowned upon by many (who argue that they may interfere with the absolute clarity of the existing language in use), but also that those making them tend to go too far, with the result that they break as much as they fix. In any case, what is the point of learning a language, if someone just comes along and changes it every few years? This is to leave aside the point, as noted above, that even a successful reform would not move Esperanto any nearer the pracelo, because that is unattainable regardless.

However, reform is necessary because languages do change. Reform, however, must seek to reflect the principles of the language, not change them.

For the sake of a bit of fun, here are the reforms I would make if, for some bizarre reason, I were given the opportunity (in detail here):

  • abolition of accented letters and adherence to ‘one letter, one sound’ – there are various ways to do this, but one is to merge <c>, <s> and <z> as <s>, thus leaving <c> and <z> free to represent the sounds of currently accented letters;
  • tidying up of the -au ending for use only on coordinating and interrogative particles (so krom becomes kromau; cu[cxu] becomes cau; etc) with removal of other words possessing it or appropriate amendment (e.g. hodiau is an adverb, so either replaced by tiutage or amended to hodiecxirkau and kontrau are prepositions, so perhaps cirkum and konter; etc);
  • replacement of the (“imperative”) verbal ending -u by -es (to align with all the other verbal endings), with consequent simplification of correlatives by abolition of those ending -es (if al ciu[cxiu] is good enough, there is no reason de ciu should not be); and
  • adoption then of -u for personal pronouns (whose endings currently clash bizarrely with the infinitive), perhaps with consequent plural regularization and reduction – these could be simply mu, vu, lu/cu/zu, muj, vuj, zuj (with perhaps indefinite onu and reflexive su) and adjectival forms still adding -a/aj.

This way, we have actually reformed the language to bring it more into line with founding principles – a simpler spelling system with “one sound, one letter”, and a simpler system of grammatical endings (so that post-vowel -s always marks a main verb; post-consonant -u always marks a pronoun; and -au always marks a particle).

Let us say I also got a little more adventurous and could add another couple:

  • consequent tidying up of numbers, to be single syllable, more easily pronounced, and not liable to confusion with other word classes or each other, to un, du, tri, fir, cin, heks, sep, ok, non, dek (with unu reserved effectively for use as a quantifying pronoun);
  • in line with the above preferable rejection of consonantal clusters, simplification of the verb ‘to be’ to esi or even, to reflect that modern pronunciation often in practice drops the initial e-, just si – thus mu (e)sas ‘I am’; zuj (e)ses ‘they should be’; etc.

Of course, most of these reforms reflect the 1894 reforms or aspects of Ido or Novial, but the key is to stop digging once you have done the basics. I would be tempted, for example, to:

  • switch around the correlatives ending -o with those ending -u;
  • remove the letter <h>;
  • take out a few syllables in widely used vocabulary items (e.g. statau not anstatauparteni not aparteni; ci for sciinio/niu/niom etc. not nenio/neniu/neniom etc.);
  • formal addition of aliu, aliam etc to the list of correlatives;
  • remove consonantal clusters altogether (unknown in numerous major languages, from Japanese to Malay-Indonesian);
  • change kun to kon in line with the common prefix (thus konveno, koniri alongside konstrui, konfesi);
  • change kaj to ed aligned with sed;
  • allow two objects on the assumption that the first is indirect (mu donas vun leteron ‘I give you a letter’);
  • abolish the article la outright; and
  • reduce the number of prepositions (merging de/da/elpro/por etc.)

However, in reality I would not advocate these. The issue is, the more changes you make, the more you have to make, as we can see from one example I deliberately added above:

  • I had already changed the subjunctive-imperative ending, by perfectly reasonable analogy with other verb endings, to -es;
  • I then changed the verb ‘to be’, initially in line with Ido (which went from esti to esi) and then genuinely to reflect the fact that many users omit the initial e- in speech (so from esi to si);
  • that then gave the subjunctive-imperative verb form ses;
  • but ses is, of course, already in use as the number ‘six’, so that then had to be replaced;
  • it is conventional for vocabulary to be drawn from somewhere, so I make out I am deliberately differentiating from sep ‘seven’ (not an unreasonable thing to do, but if you started down that line across the language you would never stop) by borrowing heks from Greek;
  • now I have just borrowed a word with a consonantal cluster at the end, defeating one of the points of the reform, so I have to make out that is fine because the word won’t take a suffix (even though actually it may be a prefix, but don’t tell anyone…)
  • … phew, I might just have escaped this time, but let’s not risk it again, eh?!

So no, in fact I would leave the numbers (except non ‘nine’) alone! I think I would probably also have to leave esti (though I might at least suggest sti, in line with the actual pronunciation which some research has found to be a common adaptation among native speakers).

Therefore, there is only so far you can take people and only so far you can go without losing the spirit of the original language or causing further complications – a reality in any language, artificial or natural!

Tial stus la zojo de Esperanto 2.0…

Such would be the joy of Esperanto 2.0…


4 thoughts on “Esperanto 2.0

  1. irvdel says:

    Reform in Esperanto is such a slippery slope! Esperanto could be slightly better, but stability is key. I am pro-reform, but any reform should be really really minimal.

    Some concerns have already fixed themselves. For “to be” – ĝi estas bona / ĝi ‘stas bona / ĝi bonas – are all correct already, so no need for reform here I think.

    Substantivo can become substantiv’ – la can become l’ – and hodiaŭe usually becomes hodiaŭ. At least that’s how I perceive it.

    As for the numbers, naŭ (Welsh) is fun 🙂 The endings for huge numbers -ilion and -iliard are different from English and others, but they are regular and do work.

    I like the accented letters and note they are now widely supported in technology (Unicode and fonts). But typing them still seems to be a problem for some reason. For sure ĥ will leave the language, and it’s possible if the keyboard problem persists then ĉ ĝ ĵ ŝ ŭ will become cx gx jx sx w. The € symbol faced the same issue.

  2. aulitinblog says:

    Reblogged this on Aleksejo Ulitin and commented:
    Tre interese

  3. aulitinblog says:

    I think reform should be inconspicuous. if you say “hodie” instead of “hodiau”, no one except grammar-nazis will not notice the problem. You simply use the new version and you understand – and this option is fixed.But if you use “tiutage” it will cause misunderstanding – and It sounds ugly. cxirkau and kontrau – also can be used as an adverb – cxirke and kontre – the result will be the same. also you can change change kun to kon. but the word “zojo” I associate with the Greek word for life – ζωή

  4. aulitinblog says:

    Sed mi pensas ke reformo devus esti diskreta. Se vi diras “hodie” anstate “hodiaŭ”, neniu krom gramatiko-nazioj ne rimarkos la problemon. Vi simple uzi la novan version kaj vi komprenos – kaj tiu versio estas .Sed se vi uzas “tiutage” ĝi kaŭzos miskomprenon – kaj ĝi sonas malbela. cxirkau kaj kontrau – ankaŭ povas esti uzata kiel adverbo – cxirke kaj kontre – la rezulto estos la sama. Ankaŭ vi povas ŝanĝi Kun al Kon. sed la vorto “zojo” mi asocias kun la greka vorto por vivo – ζωή

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