Esperanto as an international language

From Academic Kids


There is a continuing debate on whether Esperanto is an ideal solution for an international auxiliary language. This page collects some of the more common criticisms of Esperanto, along with counter-arguments advanced by its supporters.


Common criticisms


Esperanto is often accused of being too Euro-centric and lacking the neutrality which many, including its creator Lazar Zamenhof, recognised as being essential to a world language. This is most often noted in regards to the vocabulary, but applies equally to the orthography, phonology, grammar, and semantics, all of which are thoroughly European. The vocabulary, for example, is about two-thirds Romance and one-third Germanic; the syntax is Romance; and the phonology and semantics are Slavic. Critics argue that a truly neutral language would draw its vocabulary from a much wider variety of languages, so as not to give unfair advantage to speakers of any of them. Although a truly representative sampling of the world's 5000+ languages would be unworkable, a derivation from, say, the Romance, Semitic, Indic, Bantu, and Chinese languages would strike many as being more fair than the current situation.

The most common defense against this objection is that Esperanto's agglutinative morphology makes its grammar closer to many non-European agglutinative languages (e.g. the Turkic and Bantu languages). (An agglutinative morphology means not just that complex concepts are expressed by adding multiple affixes to word roots, but that its grammatical inflections work in the same way.)

Critics reply that the type of morphology used is only a minor part of what makes up a language, and that in all other aspects Esperanto is biased towards the European languages.

There is, however, a more substantial defense, at least in terms of the vocabulary and orthography. It is remarkable that, despite the fact that Zamenhof was an ardent supporter of the Russian language and also had a good knowledge of Hebrew, there is practically no Slavic or Semitic vocabulary in Esperanto. His approach was that, while these languages might help people from the Russian Empire or the Middle East, they would only hinder the accessibility of Esperanto to the rest of the world. The Romance and Germanic languages, on the other hand, were (and are) studied by students all over the world, and so their vocabulary would do the most to make Esperanto easiest to learn for the largest number of people. The same philosophy applies to other groups: while people speaking languages belonging to or influenced by the Bantu, Indic, and Chinese families will have likely been exposed to a Romance or Germanic language at school, before coming across Esperanto, the reverse is not true. With a "universal" vocabulary, nearly everyone would recognize only a small portion of Esperanto and find the vast majority alien; while with a Romance-Germanic vocabulary, most people around the world with a school education would find the majority of the vocabulary familiar. Zamenhof's primary concern was ease of acquisition rather than theoretical equality.

This approach also leads to the opposite criticism, that Esperanto isn't European enough, or at least Western European enough. For example, the regular morphology and extensive use of affixes to build vocabulary from a small number of root words makes the language much easier to learn for the non-European, but trips up Europeans. One example is the word registaro for "government". This is regularly derived from the verb "to rule", and so is easy to learn for non-Europeans, but at first sight is unrecognizable to European-language speakers.

The writing system can be defended the same way. Although people have criticized the Latin alphabet as being Eurocentric, it is the most widespread script in the world, and no one has actually proposed anything more universal. Also, the orthography dispenses with Western European norms in favor of regularity, which non-Europeans generally find more important.

The syntax is harder to defend. The obligatory use of verbal tense, for example, is seen as an unnecessary complication for many who speak a language without grammatical tense, such as Chinese, and the case and adjectival agreement systems are widely condemned. However, even here there is some flexibility. For example, the European pattern of describing something with esti ("to be") plus an adjective is being replaced by a verbal pattern of the East Asian type, so that is it becoming increasingly common to see li sanas for li estas sana (he is well).


On the other hand, speakers of European languages often complain that the orthography and endings in Esperanto can be significantly different from their etymological cognates in European words, more so than in some competing artificial languages. For example: English quarter, Italian quarto, Interlingua quarto, Esperanto kvarono; also English/French pollution, Interlingua pollution, Esperanto poluado (Esperanto polucio is a false friend meaning "involuntary ejaculation").

According to these critics, given that Esperanto lacks the neutrality to be a world language, it should at least aim to be a European common language, and therefore its lexicon should be some sort of average or consensus of all European lexicons, and ditto for the spellings. Defenders reply that doing so would have resulted in an irregular spelling system, which would have been worse. To illustrate, compare English with Esperanto:

one halfduono
one twentieth dudekono
four kvar
forty kvardek
a quarter kvarono
one fortieth kvardekono

Esperanto has no culture

This criticism is leveled by people who wish to learn a foreign language to gain access to or insight into another culture. Defenders of Esperanto claim that Esperanto has indeed developed a culture during its more than a century long existence. Thus Esperanto is used nowadays to access an international culture of original as well as translated literature in Esperanto, Esperanto music and Esperanto drama. The Esperanto-community has a certain set of shared background knowledge, which is a distinctive feature of a cultural community. To some extend there are also shared traditions, like the Zamenhof Day, and shared behaviour patterns, like avoiding the usage of one's national language at Esperanto meetings unless there is good reasons for its use.

Critics still argue that these don't add up to what is itended by the word "culture" when talking about the culture of certain ethnic groups. Thus there is no Esperanto clothing or Esperanto cuisine.

A very different defense is that it is precisely the point of Esperanto not to have a culture, since it is supposed to be a neutral auxiliary language. In fact, the lack of a fixed culture is one of the things that makes Esperanto so much easier to learn and to use than natural languages; in an ethnic language like English or Chinese the student has to learn innumerable arbitrary expressions. It's not enough to learn the grammar; many perfectly grammatical expressions are unacceptable because people "just don't say that". In Esperanto, such considerations are much less important. You can say what you'd say in your native tongue, and Esperantists from other language backgrounds aren't likely to notice the difference. Don Harlow has noted that the difference in language only becomes apparent when translating into an ethnic language: Novels written by English and Polish authors, for example, are equally easy to read for both English and Polish speakers. However, the English author's work will translate easily into English, while the Polish author's work will prove much more difficult to translate. That is, Esperanto can accommodate either language more easily than they can accommodate each other, and this is partially due to the lack of a culturally fixed way of speaking.

Critics see a dilemma between these two possible defenses, since if Esperanto does have a culture, as many defenders claim, then the second argument becomes invalid. A common response is that Esperanto culture is an inter-culture, bringing together people from different cultures in a framework, which has some properties of a culture, while being culturally neutral in other aspects.

Difficulty in achieving fluency

Some key persons within the Esperanto movement have lamented how few learners of the language progress to a high level of fluency. Notably, the author Julio Baghy critiqued mediocre Esperantists in his ironic poem "Estas mi Esperantisto" (I am an Esperantist). Also, author Kazimierz Bein, while attending a conference at which it was generally agreed that everyone should learn Esperanto, remarked that the first who ought to learn it were the Esperantists themselves.

Defenders recognize that the problem may be "overmarketing". Esperanto is often presented as "easy to learn," which many students misunderstand as "can be learned without any effort". Learning Esperanto is indeed easy, but only compared to learning a new natural language. The grammar (fundamento) can be learned in less than one hour, the basic vocabulary (by English-speaking people) in 2 hours, and the pronunciation and spelling in half an hour. In theory, the student has now a vocabulary equivalent to 7000 words in English because he can build new words combining the 1000 roots he knows. However, fluent speaking requires skills that are not really identified and taught. In spite of its systematic grammar, Esperanto, like any other language, can be learned only through lots of practice and memorization. Many students get disappointed when they realize that the last hurdle is much harder to overcome, and give up. So, defenders say, the problem is not peculiar to Esperanto, but a general hurdle that any international language, natural or artificial, has to face; and Esperanto is in fact better than average in this regard.

Defenders of Esperanto may fall into different camps; some may accept the general issues presented by critics, but still believe that Esperanto can be a good research tool, perhaps for identifying the real difficulties in speaking a foreign language which are not due to irregular spelling, morphology, or syntax.

Special characters

While Esperanto is written in the Latin alphabet, it uses six modified letters (ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ, ŭ) not found in other languages or the ISO Latin-1 character set, which have caused problems with typesetting. Critics have argued that the philosophy of one character – one sound is not important enough for the new characters, and for many this is Esperanto's prime fault. Zamenhof recommended the use of the digraphs "ch", "gh", "hh", "jh", "sh", and "u" when reproducing the accented letters proves difficult, but in practice the superscripts were often added in by hand after typing a document.

With the recent advent of computer fonts and especially Unicode support, however, the problem has largely been resolved. Today digraphs have been relegated to email and chatrooms, with either Zamenhof's system or a more computer-friendly set of digraphs in "x" being used.

Sexism in Esperanto grammar

Esperanto is accused of being inherently sexist, because the generic form of nouns is the same as the male form and different from the female form. E.g., doktoro = "doctor (male or unspecified sex)", doktorino = "female doctor"; also doktoroj = "doctors (male, mixed male/female, or unspecified sex)", doktorinoj = "female doctors". (This use of -in to form the feminine of nouns is reminiscent of German, e.g. Maler, Malerin = "painter".) Likewise for pronouns: as in English, li ("he") may be generic, whereas ŝi ("she") is always female.

To some critics, this aspect of the language makes the implication that masculinity is some kind of default, and femininity is an exception. The feature is particularly irksome to English speakers, since the corresponding suffix -ess is much less used in that language.

Defenders reply that this asymmetric treatment of male and female is not a feature of Esperanto, but only a general feature of most European languages. In each Romance language, for instance, grammatical genders are assigned to all nouns — even to unsexed objects, or in opposition the biological sex (as authorité = "authority" in French, guardia = "policeman" in Italian, and virilidad = "masculinity" in Spanish, which all have feminine gender). In fact, given the arbitrary assignment of grammatical gender, Romance and German speakers generally do not make the sexist assumptions claimed by the critics. Viewed in this broader context, argue the Esperantists, "sexist language" is shown to be a matter of cultural assumptions and interpretations by the speakers, not of the language per se.

Moreover, since Esperanto does not inflect adjectives for gender (as most of those languages do) it is in fact an "unsexed" (technically, gender-less) language. Indeed, it has become acceptable in Esperanto to use doktoro even to refer to a female doctor, a custom that is compatible with the standard grammar. Thus doktorino only needs to be used to emphasize femaleness; and some have even proposed the use of virdoktoro (literally "male-doctor") when one wants to emphasize maleness. As for the pronouns ŝi and li, one can replace them by the neutral tiu ("that one") — which, unlike English "that", can be used for people, too. The alternative ŝ/li is also used, but it has the same problems as "s/he" in English (except that it is easier to pronounce).

Esperanto has failed

Esperanto has not lived up to the hopes of its creator, who dreamed of it becoming a universal second language. Many critics say that one's time would be better spent learning English or another natural language that brings significant benefits.

Most Esperantists concede that the language has little chance of ever competing with English. However, most people today learn it for other reasons. For example, many Esperantists have tried learning a natural language for years without success, but find that they can correspond in Esperanto, read its literature, and travel abroad using programs such as Pasporta Servo that cater to Esperanto speakers, and in addition enjoy the fact that many of the people they meet have similarly internationalist views of the world.

Others advocate the propedeutic value of Esperanto, noting that a elementary-school pupil learning Esperanto in the classroom for 15 minutes a day will be able to correspond with penpals abroad by the end of the year, and argue that such a positive experience will make it more likely for the child to go on to learn, and to be successful at, other languages later in life. It's also been repeatedly demonstrated that high-school students who study Esperanto for one year and then go on to three years of a natural language, whether French or Japanese, will speak that language substantially better than students who spend all four years learning it. Thus the improved access to more widely spoken natural languages more than makes up for the time spent learning Esperanto.

Other planned languages

Some of the other planned languages that have emerged in the twentieth century have attempted to address criticisms of Esperanto. Yet despite addressing critics' main objections to Esperanto, no other constructed language has approached the number of Esperanto speakers or its extensive body of literature. Some of these other languages are quite different from Esperanto, while other languages, like Ido, are based on Esperanto, and enjoyed a period of popularity in the early 1900s. More recent spinoffs from Esperanto include the modified form Riismo which seeks to eliminate sexual inequality from the language. Other alternative languages include Idiom Neutral, Occidental, Novial, and Interlingua; some languages not originally intended as international auxiliary languages are also sometimes suggested, such as Lojban. Because Esperanto is the most well-known of constructed languages, many who have been interested were unaware of these other languages, but the Internet offers information about these languages as well.

See also


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