Esperanto (1887) by L. L. Zamenhof

A Critique

1. History

The international auxiliary language Esperanto was invented by a Polish eye-specialist, Dr. Lazarus Ludovic Zamenhof, and first appeared in 1887. Zamenhof first became interested in the idea of a planned international language in his schooldays, after rejecting Latin as too difficult to master. He wanted a neutral language to bring together the Russian, Polish, German and Jewish sections of the area he lived in, as he felt that the mutual hatred between these peoples was increased by the lack of a common means of communication. At first his language went by the name "Lingvo Internacia de la Doktoro Esperanto", but this was soon shortened to just Esperanto, a word in the language itself meaning "one who hopes".

At the time of its release, Esperanto was in competition with the language Volapük of Father J. M. Schleyer, which already had many thousands of adherents. Before long, however, Esperanto was widely held to be a very significant improvement on the previous scheme, and began to supersede it as the most widely spoken auxiliary language. Because of the constraints of its orthography, Volapük had taken words from the European languages, many from English, only to then mutilate them to such an extent that they became unrecognisable; for example, Italy became Täl and academy became kadem. The grammar of Esperanto was much simpler, and the overall effect was an easier and more appealing language. No wonder then that very soon Volapük became little more than a memory to the artificial language movement.

Esperanto found adherents first in Russia, and later in Germany; grammars and dictionaries were soon available in many languages, and the first journal, La Esperantisto, appeared in September 1889. In 1896, after his language had been used and tested extensively, Zamenhof decided that it should be submitted to a committee of scientists. Two years earlier he had proposed a comprehensive scheme of reform, but it was connected with other ideas of a more unusual nature, and the conservatives within the small group of Esperantists carried the day, as they did on later occasions.

Nowadays Esperanto still enjoys by far the widest support of any IAL, but whether this success is based on linguistic superiority is open to some doubt. It is more likely that other factors such as propaganda and organization by the various national and international Esperanto societies have secured its relative success. A very large number of works have been published in Esperanto, and the number of speakers is today estimated at between 50,000 and several million, although very accurate numbers are hard to obtain for either, and the number of speakers is more likely to be towards the lower end of that range.

2. Alphabet and Pronunciation

The Esperanto alphabet has 28 letters, consisting of 5 vowels, 22 consonants and one semi-consonant. The vowels are a pronounced as in father, e as in veil, i as in machine, o as in most and u as in rule. The consonants are b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, z along with the 5 special accented consonants c^, g^, h^, j^, s^ (where the accent would normally be placed directly above the letter) with the sounds in chip, gem, loch, pleasure and shoe respectively. The unaccented consonants are sounded as in English except c as in bits, g as in gold, h as in home, j as in yes, r trilled, and s as in sad.

The semi-vowel is u with a slightly different accent mark (which it is not possible to reproduce here, but which will be replaced by ~ in what follows). It is found in the diphthongs au~ and eu~ and has the sound of English w. The sounds are merged and not pronounced separately, as with the j-diphthongs aj as in sky, ej as in day, oj as in boy, and uj roughly as in gooey.

The stress falls on the syllable before the last one, with diphthongs counting as one syllable.

3. Grammar

The definite article is la for all genders and numbers. There is no indefinite article.
The noun in the singular ends in -o, and a -j is added for the plural.
The personal pronouns are mi, vi, li, s^i, g^i in the singular, ni, vi, ili in the plural, along with the universal pronoun oni and reflexive pronoun si.
The personal possessive pronouns are formed by adding the adjective ending -a to the personal pronouns.
The verb in the infinitive ends in -i. To form the past, present and future tenses the -i is removed and replaced by -is, -as, -os respectively. The conditional is formed with -us, and the imperative, optative and hortative with -u.
The passive voice is formed with the verb esti = to be, followed by one of the passive participles which end -ita, -ata, -ota (past, present, future). For the active voice the participles end in -inta, -anta, -onta respectively.
Adjectives end in -a, and must agree in case and number with the noun they qualify (endings -j, -n).
Adverbs end in -e, and an adverb may be formed from any adjective by replacing -a with -e.
The first ten cardinal numbers are unu, du, tri, kvar, kvin, ses, sep, ok, nau~, dek with cent = 100 and mil = 1000. All other numbers are formed decimally as shown by ducent-tridek-ses = 236. Ordinals are formed by adding -a to cardinals.
The degrees of comparison are pli, plej positive and malpli, malplej negative.
The accusative is formed by addition of the ending -n. Its three uses are:
  1. To indicate the direct object;
  2. To replace an omitted preposition, particularly with complements indicating the date, duration, measure or price;
  3. To indicate movement or direction towards if the preposition does not clearly express this.
Prepositions are followed in all other cases by the nominative.
Questions begin with c^u or some other question word.
There is no fixed word order, but the usual order is subject-verb-object. The adjective may precede or follow the noun. The preposition always precedes the noun.
There is a table of 45 correlative words. They are regularly formed from 5 beginnings and 9 endings. They include question words, pronouns and adverbs. The beginnings are ki-, ti-, i-, c^i-, neni- for question, demonstrative (that), indefinite (some), every, no resp., and the endings are -a, -al, -am, -e, -el, -es, -o, -om, -u for kind, reason, time, place, manner, possession, thing, quantity, individual. They are fitted together so that for example neniam means "at no time, never". The sense "any" is indicated by i- ajn, e.g. iu ajn = anyone. The sense of proximity, of "this" rather than "that", is indicated by c^i ti-, e.g. c^i tiu = this one.
International words which most languages have adopted are admitted into Esperanto with the proviso that they conform to its orthography. However, it is best to take only the minimum of roots and to form all derivatives by the rules of Esperanto's grammar.

4. Derivation and Affixes

Esperanto uses both direct and indirect derivation. For direct derivation we may add any grammatical termination to any root, with all terminations and roots being invariant and monosignificant in both form and meaning. In order to know whether or not to use direct or indirect derivation in a particular case, we must know the grammatical classification of the root. For example, we may add -a to a personal noun-root to obtain the related adjective, but we must add -ulo to an adjective-root to obtain a "person characterised by" this root; simply adding -o would result in "the property of being" what is indicated by the root. For example, from the adjective bona = good, we may form bonulo, a good person, but bono = "the good."
For indirect derivation Esperanto uses 38 affixes, consisting of 8 prefixes and 30 suffixes. The suffixes include 3 numerical suffixes. In addition, prepositions may be used as prefixes.
Some affixes are familiar, such as eks-, re-, -ism for Eng. ex-, re-, -ism. Others, however, are less so, such as mal- to indicate the opposite of a concept, which appears with a different meaning in some European languages. There is an indefinite suffix -um- with no fixed meaning: words containing it are to be looked up, and it may not be used ad hoc.
The suffix -uj- for container, is also used for lands and countries, but because of possible racist connotations ("container for the French" etc.), -i- (probably inspired by Ido) is also now used. Masculine suffixes have been invented by users to complement the feminine suffix -in-, examples being -ic^- and -ab-; the prefix vir- was used by the early Esperantists, and remains official.
Suffixes may be used as independent words, e.g. ujo = container, and ne = no, jes = yes form the verbs nei, jesi = to negate, affirm.
The suffixes -eg-, -et- for largeness and smallness resp. differ from the adjectives granda, malgranda in that the former change the meaning of the root, rather than simply denoting size (e.g. urbego, urbeto = city, village).

5. Vocabulary

The Esperanto vocabulary is taken from the main European languages, in particular English, German, the Romance languages, Russian and Polish, and from Latin in many cases where no sufficiently international form was available. Many internationally known words were adopted, including scientific terms. Zamenhof also used many words of purely Germanic origin. The basic minimality of roots is greatly extended by the use of the various affixes and endings: the extensive use of the prefix mal- alone increases the size of the vocabulary by a few hundred words.

6. Sample Text

Because of the difficulty of representing the special characters on the Internet, the text is given first using the common Internet convention of placing an x immediately after the accented letter, second using the h-convention advocated by Zamenhof himself, and third using the convention of placing a ^ immediately after the accented letter. In the first text the u accent is also represented by a following x, in the second this accent is omitted altogether, as advised by Zamenhof, and in the third by a following ~. Note that it may be possible in future to represent this text in other ways, e.g. a Latin-3 font (requiring special software of the reader), and graphical solutions.


Estas problemo kiu estas kun la homaro jam dum miloj da jaroj, kaj kiu cxiam estis obstaklo al paco kaj kompreno inter popoloj. Gxi kutime nomigxis la "Lingvo-Problemo". Ekzemple, la plejparto de la cxefaj lingvoj de Euxropo estas reciproke nekompreneblaj, kaj tio implicas ke la Euxropa Unio devas elspezi grandajn sumojn da mono por tradukado. Fakte, estas ecx duopoj de Euxropaj lingvoj por kiuj la E.U. ne povas trovi kapablan tradukiston.

Unu solvo por cxi tiu problemo kiu estis sugestita estas uzi existantan lingvon naturan por komunikado internacia. Sed naturaj lingvoj estas malfacile lerneblaj pro iliaj multaj neregulajxoj, kaj la uzado de nacia lingvo ankaux donus kaj politikan kaj lingvan avantagxon al la nacio aux nacioj kiuj uzas gxin. Pro cxi tiuj kauxzoj, multaj novaj lingvoj estis konstruitaj por servi kiel mondlingvoj. Ili estas simplaj kaj facile lerneblaj, kaj politike neuxtralaj; ili estas la komuna proprajxo de la tuta homaro.


Estas problemo kiu estas kun la homaro jam dum miloj da jaroj, kaj kiu chiam estis obstaklo al paco kaj kompreno inter popoloj. Ghi kutime nomighis la "Lingvo-Problemo". Ekzemple, la plejparto de la chefaj lingvoj de Europo estas reciproke nekompreneblaj, kaj tio implicas ke la Europa Unio devas elspezi grandajn sumojn da mono por tradukado. Fakte, estas ech duopoj de Europaj lingvoj por kiuj la E.U. ne povas trovi kapablan tradukiston.

Unu solvo por chi tiu problemo kiu estis sugestita estas uzi existantan lingvon naturan por komunikado internacia. Sed naturaj lingvoj estas malfacile lerneblaj pro iliaj multaj neregulajhoj, kaj la uzado de nacia lingvo ankau donus kaj politikan kaj lingvan avantaghon al la nacio au nacioj kiuj uzas ghin. Pro chi tiuj kauzoj, multaj novaj lingvoj estis konstruitaj por servi kiel mondlingvoj. Ili estas simplaj kaj facile lerneblaj, kaj politike neutralaj; ili estas la komuna proprajho de la tuta homaro.

Following-^ convention:

Estas problemo kiu estas kun la homaro jam dum miloj da jaroj, kaj kiu c^iam estis obstaklo al paco kaj kompreno inter popoloj. G^i kutime nomig^is la "Lingvo-Problemo". Ekzemple, la plejparto de la c^efaj lingvoj de Europo estas reciproke nekompreneblaj, kaj tio implicas ke la Eu~ropa Unio devas elspezi grandajn sumojn da mono por tradukado. Fakte, estas ec^ duopoj de Eu~ropaj lingvoj por kiuj la E.U. ne povas trovi kapablan tradukiston.

Unu solvo por c^i tiu problemo kiu estis sugestita estas uzi existantan lingvon naturan por komunikado internacia. Sed naturaj lingvoj estas malfacile lerneblaj pro iliaj multaj neregulaj^oj, kaj la uzado de nacia lingvo ankau donus kaj politikan kaj lingvan avantag^on al la nacio au nacioj kiuj uzas g^in. Pro c^i tiuj kauzoj, multaj novaj lingvoj estis konstruitaj por servi kiel mondlingvoj. Ili estas simplaj kaj facile lerneblaj, kaj politike neu~tralaj; ili estas la komuna propraj^o de la tuta homaro.

7. Commentary

Esperanto was without doubt a seminal development in the history of IALs, there being no doubt as to its superiority over the earlier Volapük. It also has established by far the largest following of any proposed scheme. And yet over years it has attracted persistent criticism from many of those who have studied it. We of course leave aside the acceptability of the idea of Esperanto, for that is synonymous in the mind of the public with the idea of an IAL in general. We will focus instead on linguistic criticisms of the language.

Esperanto is essentially an autonomistic system, and since it takes its vocabulary for the most part from existing languages, it is therefore also an a posteriori scheme. It has a relatively simple and regular conjugation, is almost completely phonetic, and parts of speech are marked with regular word-endings; all these features are widely recognised as being desirable in an IAL. The boldest of Zamenhof's innovations, however, has proved much less popular. In order to achieve complete phoneticity, Zamenhof created 6 special accented letters, listed above. These letters are not used in this way in any existing language. The circumflex is an inversion of the Czech accent, but follows its usage to only a small extent. There is no regular phonetic relationship between the accented and unaccented letter, which detracts from the otherwise phonetic character of the language. The biggest problem with the special letters, however, is that they have never been available to most printers, and nowadays on most computer systems. Some advances are being made (the accented letters are included in the international Latin-3 font and in Unicode), but the problem is still essentially unresolved. Zamenhof advocated using a following h to replace the accent where it could not be reproduced, but this is hardly a satisfactory solution. One advantage of the accents was that Zamenhof was able to use g^ for words which were spelt with a g in many languages and pronounced with the soft g sound or similar in others languages (e.g. g^ardeno, E garden, F jardin, I giardino). It should also be noted that many Esperantists are attached to the special characters, preferring them to the digraphs sh, ch that have subsequently been admitted in Ido and Novial. The guttural sound of h^ has been criticized as too difficult for too many people. The unaccented c with its "ts" sound is hard for some people word-initially and is perhaps too close to the sound of s (this has been retained in Ido).

The arbitrary character of many aspects of Esperanto has also brought criticism. The table of correlative words is almost entirely a priori, and some people have preferred replacing it with a more natural and recognizable set of words. Many of the suggestions made for these have since been adopted in Ido. The many -oj and -aj diphthongs in the plural are to many heavy and unnatural, the -j being used to mark the plural in no existing language. Zamenhof uses ks for hard x, but kz for the soft sound in example (after the example of the Russian), the latter being etymologically and phonetically unjustifiable. Many words are built from a number of smaller elements where it would certainly be better to adopt a more natural form, e.g. hospital = mal-san-ul-ej-o, literally "place for people who are the opposite of well". The free use of affixes as full words also introduces an unnatural element into the language, as does the formation of verbs from prepositions and the words ne, jes. Heavy use is made of the prefix mal- which denotes opposite. The choice of this is unfortunate, since it has a different meaning ("bad, badly") in many important languages. In fact, the prefix mal- finds as support just four French words, according to Dyer (see References); this is as opposed to the high international currency of des- for the same purpose, as subsequently adopted in Ido and Novial. The use of mal- is very much overdone, with mal-bona, mal-dekstra for "bad" and "left", where proper forms for those important words would be desirable. A value judgement would seem to be needed to decide which form to adopt and which one should be formed with mal-. In the case of left/right, for example, the choice is quite arbitrary. Esperanto is further inconsistent in allowing natural forms as part of larger words, e.g. mikr- in mikroskopo.

There are grammatical rules in Esperanto which are of debatable value. The compulsory agreement between adjective and noun adds nothing to the clarity of the language. The compulsory accusative is also very largely unnecessary; later schemes have retained it only in inversion of the normal subject-verb-object word order, and in Novial its use is avoided almost completely in practice (in the journal Novialiste). There are also problems with the use of the accusative in situations which are unpredictable on the basis of existing languages (see Grammar).

To indicate gender, Zamenhof chose to make the root words masculine and derive the feminine equivalents using a special suffix. The feeling has grown over the years among users that this is a rather unequal treatment of the two sexes. This problem was remedied in Ido, where almost all roots are neutral and the masculine suffix -ul- is used. The Esperanto movement has never seen fit to address this objection officially (it would say that it is prevented from doing so by the sanctity of Zamenhof's Fundamento), and so at least two ad hoc masculine suffixes have been coined by users in practice. This, however, does not solve the problem that the roots still essentially have masculine significations.

The vocabulary is sometimes found wanting because Esperanto words composed of more than one element can end up resembling words common to many of its source languages, for instance for-esto means not "forest" but "the state of being absent or away". The efforts of Zamenhof in restricting the number of adopted roots has led to some roots being stretched to cover meanings not justified by their principal meaning, e.g. frukto-dona means "fruit-giving" but also "fertile" (a piece of ground may be fertile and yet never be used to produce fruit). Later schemes have adopted more roots to retain the true monosignificance of all roots as far as is practicable.

To conclude, Esperanto has a lot to offer the eventual IAL. Many of the ideas it introduced are basically good, and have been adopted in later schemes, most noticably the wealth of reform projects that have emerged over the years, of which Ido is the best known. But on the whole the system leaves quite a lot to be desired, especially when one considers its use in more serious and precise spheres of endeavour. Henry Jacob concluded that "Esperanto cannot be considered the solution of the problem of communication", and I would not deviate from that view. But Esperantists should take heart from the fact that his other statement, "it will have much to contribute to the final form of the planned language", remains equally valid. It seems safe to say that the eventually-adopted Interlanguage should not be too radically different from the one they currently use.


A Planned Auxiliary Language, Henry Jacob, Dennis Dobson 1947.
An International Language, Otto Jespersen, George Allen & Unwin 1928.
The Artificial Language Movement, Andrew Large, 1985.
The problem of an international auxiliary language and its solution in Ido, Luther H. Dyer, 1923.
Novialiste, Novial journal, Stockholm (Per Ahlberg) 1934-39.

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© by James Chandler 1-Dec-97.