Just to test this idea with reference to modern languages, I thought I would start with (supposedly) the most simple widely spoken language in the world – albeit a constructed one.
So, what do we need to know about Esperanto?
Esperanto adheres to the strict rule that each letter has the same pronunciation, regardless of position. It is seriously dubious whether this can strictly be achieved, but nevertheless it does make Esperanto easier to read (and write) than most natural languages.
Esperanto’s rhythm varies depending on the native language of the speaker; some suggest that it should sound something like Italian.
For most learners, Esperanto’s accented letters (the most common of which are usually in fact written <cx>, <gx>, <jx> and <sx> and pronounced respectively as ‘church’, ‘geography’, ‘pleasure’, ‘shop’) are the trickiest to distinguish and use. Also, <c> can catch out most learners, pronounced as if <ts> (in violation of the supposed ‘one letter, one sound’ rule). English speakers also need to note that, from their point of view, <j> is pronounced as if <y>.
The language has a Standard form based on the work of its founder, L. L. Zamenhof, and his work known as the Fundamento published in 1887.
An Academy in effect protects this Standard and applies it to new words (and technology) as required. In practice, some grammatical variation within the ‘Standard’ is permitted.
There is a tendency in Esperanto to reinforce positive responses to “yes/no questions”:
- Cxu vi vidis tion? – Jes, gxiuste!
- ‘Do you see that?’ – ‘Yes!’
Esperanto’s vocabulary is mainly Romance (usually directly from Latin, e.g. pluvi ‘to rain’, vidi ‘to see’; or French, e.g. grava ‘important’, preskau ‘almost’; but occasionally also from other languages such as Spanish almenau ‘at least’, Italian ankau ‘also’ or just general granda ‘big’), with a significant minority from Germanic (from English, e.g. jes ‘yes’, birdo ‘bird’; or German, e.g. tago ‘day’, lau ‘according to’) and some also from Slavic (po ‘at a rate of’, prava ‘true, right’). There is even the odd extra (e.g. kaj ‘and’ from Ancient Greek).
- 1 unu; 2 du; 3 tri; 4 kvar; 5 kvin; 6 ses; 7 sep; 8 ok; 9 nau; 10 dek;
- 11 dek unu; 12 dek du; 16 dek ses; 17 dek sep; 20 dudek; 21 dudek unu;
- 100 cent; 1000 mil; 456789 kvarcent kvindek ses mil sepcent okdek nau.
Esperanto has an innovative (but at first sight unfamiliar) list of ‘correlatives’ which serve most pronoun uses; it also has personal pronouns in a specific class of their own.
Key personal pronouns in Esperanto:
- singular mi, vi, li/sxi/gxi; plural ni, vi, ili; indefinite oni
This indefinite is widely used to avoid the passive:
- Oni diras, ke sxi estos tie – ‘It is said that she will be there’
Vocabulary is often built up through a series of meaningful affixes – for example arbo ‘tree’ plus -ar- ‘collection’ gives arbaro ‘forest’.
Nouns are marked by the ending -o; this is amended to -oj for the plural. They can also be in the “accusative” case (when used as objects or to mark motion towards), marked -n.
Verbs are marked for one of three tenses or two moods but not both (“conditional” is generally regarded as a mood rather than a tense in Esperanto, although it does not matter). All verbs in the present are marked -as, past -is, future -os, conditional -us and subjunctive -u. Unlike modern Romance and Germanic languages, tense is relative (i.e. if referring to a future event in the past, use the future).
Esperanto also allows zero subject in certain circumstances (where English typically requires a “dummy subject” such as ‘it’ or ‘there’):
- pluvas multe ‘it is raining a lot’
- estas tri arboj tie ‘there are three trees there’
Adjectives are marked by the ending -a and agree with their noun, typically appearing after it, although this is stylistic (arbaro granda ‘big forest’; en arbarojn grandajn ‘into the big forests’). However, words which must appear before the noun, notably the article la ‘the’ and numbers, do not agree (en la tri arbarojn grandajn ‘into the three big forests’). Adverbs are marked by the ending -e; notably, they tend to be used with the verb ‘to be’ (similarly to Slavic languages, but not Romance or Germanic): Estas klare ke mi vidis arbaron grandan ‘It is clear that I saw a big forest’.
In modern Esperanto, adjectives and adverbs can be turned directly into verbs in preference to using the “copula” (esti ‘to be’):
- Estas grave ke vi ne vidis tion / Gravas ke vi ne vidis tion ‘It matters that you did not see that’
- Vi laudire estas prava / Vi laudire pravas ‘Apparently you are right’
Exactly when this is deemed “allowable” varies according to usage and style.
The only article is la. The article may be omitted, and must be if it has an indefinite meaning (similar to English ‘a/an’).
Prepositions have very strict meanings which (in theory at least) must not be breached. There is a spare preposition je for when the meaning is unclear.
Key prepositions: case prepositions are de, al, kun; other prepositions include por, en.
Note the accusative is used with motion towards, except with case prepositions:
- Mi estas en la arbaro ‘I am in the forest’
- Mi iras al la arbaro ‘I go to the forest’
- Mi iras en la arbaron ‘I go into the forest’
In modern usage, je is often abandoned and prepositions are increasingly used in line with English:
- je 1887 / en 1887 ‘in 1887’
- je la mila fojo / por la mila fojo ‘for the thousandth time’
Word order is generally SVO; but the passive is generally avoided, which can give different word orders (Mi vidis arbaron grandan ‘I saw a big forest’; Arbaron grandan mi vidis ‘A big forest was seen by me’).
Esperanto is deceptively Romance-looking. In fact, its phonology and some of its characteristics (notably the question particle cxu required for “yes/no questions”) are markedly Slavic, a product of its geographical origin.
Adverbs and word-building are a key feature of the language, particularly when combined: mia ‘my’ + opinio ‘opinion’ = miaopinie ‘in my opinion’; plena ‘full, complete’ + Esperanto = plenesperante ‘completely in Esperanto’; kontrau ‘against, opposing’ + flanko ‘side’ = kontrauflanke ‘on the other side’.
Let us now move on to the natural modern national languages (at last!)
We will go through the Romance ones to start with, starting with Italian (for reasons to be discussed).
Patro nia, kiu estas en la cxielo, Via nomo estu sanktigita. Venu Via regno, plenumigxu Via volo, kiel en la cxielo, tiel ankau sur la tero. Nian panon cxiutagan donu al ni hodiau. Kaj pardonu al ni niajn sxuldojn, kiel ankau ni pardonas al niaj sxuldantoj. Kaj ne konduku nin en tenton, sed liberigu nin de la malbono.