LINGUIST List 4.900

Sun 31 Oct 1993

Sum: Esperanto

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Adam Elga, Esperanto Q response summary
  2. Jacques Guy, Esperanto and easy and difficult languages
  3. , Esperanto native speakers
  4. , Esperanto native speakers

Message 1: Esperanto Q response summary

Date: Fri, 29 Oct 1993 19:53:59 Esperanto Q response summary
From: Adam Elga <adamephoenix.Princeton.EDU>
Subject: Esperanto Q response summary

** Thanks
Many thanks to Edmund Grimley-Evans, David Powers, Bob LeChevalier, Rachael
Vaughan and Ron Smyth for their responses in Volumes 4-883 and 4-889. I am
also grateful to Derk Ederveen, Sharon L. Shelly, Stavros Macrakis, Steve
Seegmiller, Willem-Olaf Huijsen, and Zev bar-Lev for responding directly to
me. I will attempt to summarize their responses below. None of them
answered No to any of the questions.

** Is Esperanto really easier to learn for people whose native languages
are very different from English?
 Derk Ederveen: "there have been studies that show that Esperanto is much
easier to learn than English or French by for example Japanese."
 Wolf Huijsen: "Since script, morphology and syntax are extremely simple
compared to other languages, (second) language acquisition of Esperanto
is undoubtedly easier."
 Zev bar-Lev: "esperanto is easier to learn (and acquire), quite apart
from its closeness to english (also a factor)."

** Can there be a native speaker of Esperanto?
 Derk Ederveen: "Yes, why not? I've met quite a few myself."
 Steve Seegmiller: "I went to grad. school with a man ... who spoke
Esperanto as his first language."

** Comments
 Stavros Macrakis: According to Henry Sweet's article on universal
languages in the 1910 ed. of Encyclopedia Brittanica, Esperanto "had been
conceived by someone with no knowledge of linguistics, and therefore (for
instance) contained sounds which were uncommon... [Esperanto is] heavily
biased not just to Europeans, but to Romance and Germanic speakers."

If anyone is interested in more detailed replies and references, please
don't hesitate to send me a note and I will send them to you.

 - Adam Elga (
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Message 2: Esperanto and easy and difficult languages

Date: Fri, 29 Oct 1993 11:35:07 Esperanto and easy and difficult languages
From: Jacques Guy <>
Subject: Esperanto and easy and difficult languages

> From: Ron Smyth <>
> The issue of language complexity ('all languages are equal') is rasied
> in every introductory linguistics course. Is there any hard evidence either
> way? What are the criteria? My guess is that we're talking about
> inflectional morphology here, but surely other things count too (syllable
> complexity, tone, word order variation, the number of marked vs. unmarked
> forms etc...). Is there a way to address this issue?
The evidence, I should say, is in the eating of the pudding. I'll always
remember Don Laycock (ANU, Canberra) coming back from fieldwork in
Choiseul I think it was and enthusing about "how easy those Austronesian
languages are!". Of course, for years he'd been specializing in
Non-Austronesian (i.e. Papuan) language of PNG.

One of the easiest languages I have encountered is Tolomako, spoken
in Espiritu Santo (Vanuatu). Everything in it is easy, phonology,
morphology, syntax. Eleven consonants, five vowels, no consonant
clusters, no closed syllables, and the only morphological irregularity
I can think of is the all-purpose preposition "ne" becoming "ni"
before articles i, mo and te. No tenses, no aspects, only two moods
which apply to nouns and numerals as well as to verbs. The next door
neighbour, Sakao, quite closely related to Tolomako (around 50%
cognates), is another story, so much so that European Presbyterian
missionaries of Hog Harbour never managed to learn it properly,
and used instead a pidginized form in conversation (in printed
form, i.e. Gospels and hymnals, they appear to have recorded,
very inaccurately, a sort of baby-talk, probably given them
by informants who knew enough English or Bichelamar). The Catholic
missionaries of Port-Olry had an easier task: both languages are
spoken there, and they stuck to the (far) easier Tolomako.

How is that?

The southern dialect of Sakao is characterized by the loss of
almost all unstressed vowels, the innovation of an 11-vowel system,
long and short consonants, holophrastic verb phrases, seven
degrees of deixis... need I list more? The northern dialect
has an even more difficult phonology: the epenthetic vowels which
in the southern dialect occur occasionally to break up consonant
clusters (and in baby talk) are on the way to becoming phonemic,
but the emerging system is... a bit difficult to grasp to say the
least (it's even added a twelfth vowel, and two diphthongs).

That makes Sakao far more difficult to acquire than Tolomako
at all levels: phonological, morphological, and, given its propensity
for holophrastic verb phrases, syntactic. Yet, it is still far easier
than Russian or French.
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Message 3: Esperanto native speakers

Date: Fri, 29 Oct 1993 11:24:01 Esperanto native speakers
From: <>
Subject: Esperanto native speakers

Do only languages with well-known works of literature (like Faust, Bhagavadgita
or Edith Piaf) have native speakers (as Rachael Vaughan seems to imply)?
That strikes me as an extremely narrow view of a native speaker. Of course,
while growing up a child has to develop a cultural identity as well as
to acquire one or more languages, and the language may play an important
part in developing that identity. But just like you can develop this identity
without having a separate language (e.g. a Jewish identity in the United States,
or a Christian identity in Lebanon), you can acquire a native language that
is more or less restricted to your home -- after all, you also develop a
family identity, which may be defined, among other things, by the language.
 Incidentally, Edith Piaf is much better known than Faust among speakers of
German, and Bhagavadgita will perhaps soon overtake Faust.

Martin Haspelmath, Free University of Berlin
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Message 4: Esperanto native speakers

Date: Fri, 29 Oct 1993 15:59:02 Esperanto native speakers
From: <>
Subject: Esperanto native speakers

> Children learning Esperanto from parents who insist on limiting
> their interaction (at least in front of the children), to one which
> passes through a restricted, artificial language with consequently
> no attached culture, are in a bizarre situation. Their environment is
> linguistically restricted and culturally a vaccuum.

This really is prejudice!

(1) The expression "insist on limiting" is unwarranted. It is
frequently the case that Esperanto is the only common language of the
parents of native Esperanto speaking children. Even if after a number
of years both parents end up learning the language of the locality
where they are living, in the same period they will have become so
accustomed to communicating in Esperanto that to use any other language
would seem highly "artificial", from their point of view. This
phenomenon, of a particular language being linked to a relationship, is
well known, I think, and I have personal experience of it.

(2) What is the justification for the expression "restricted,
artificial language"? Whether you call Esperanto, or any other human
language, "natural" or "artificial" is purely a matter of definition,
as all human languages are created by humans, who are themselves part
of nature. What however is the the justification for the adjective
"restricted"? (A language X is said to be "restricted" if and only if
... what?)

A generally valid point is the following. If persons P and Q are
communicating in language L with attached culture C, the quality of the
communication can only depend on P's and Q's knowledge of the language
L and of the culture C. The fact that L has a word W that neither P and
Q know about can hardly be relevant. Neither can the fact that C has
some wonderful poetry and drama that neither P nor Q has ever read or
seen performed.

(3) How is one to justify the claim that Esperanto has "no attached
culture"? There is original poetry in Esperanto. There are original
novels in Esperanto. There is pop music in Esperanto. No doubt it is
possible to manipulate the definition of "culture" so that none of this
counts, but in order to get the definition right one would have to
spend quite a lot of time finding out about Esperanto culture first, so
as to be able to discount it with appropriate cunning subclauses in the
definition. It's much easier to use the argument that "Because I know
nothing whatsoever about Esperanto culture/literature/etc, therefore
there isn't any", which satisfies most people, apparently. Strangely
the same argument is less frequently applied to Hebrew and Indonesian.

> You may argue that there IS an Esperanto culture,
> but no-one can claim that Esperanto literature contains anything
> equivalent to, for example, Faust, the Bhagavad Ghita, the songs
> of Edith Piaf, Lynton Kwesi Johnson's beat poetry etc.

Thai literature probably doesn't either. On the other hand I haven't
read/heard any of the given examples in English, and yet I don't feel
that this ignorance on my part is "linguistically restricting" me or
"limiting my interaction" unduely. The first two have been translated
into Esperanto, I think. I haven't read them in Esperanto either, but
if I had any children this would probably not restrict my communcation
with them in Esperanto to any appreciable extent. I may already have
read more poetry and prose in Esperanto than the average native speaker
of English does in his or her entire life, so I don't think of myself
as being badly out of touch with Esperanto culture.

> Children learning the language of one parent, in the culture of
> the other, as is often the case with children of my British
> colleagues living in France and married to a French native
> speaker, may have problems. If their interaction is limited to
> one other speaker (the 'foreign' parent), their language acquisition
> remains limited. They may be fluent in only one register, use a
> restricted vocabulary, end up speaking franglais, etc. They eventually
> become weighted toward the host-culture language, becoming 'French'
> by identity unless they return to an anglophone culture for regular
> 'boosters'.

This is very true and relevant. Children who learn Esperanto only by
speaking it with their parents are likely to end up with a knowledge of
Esperanto that is limited in various ways. (Though I still think that
it would be pure sophistry to claim that such speakers are not native
speakers.) That is why such parents are highly advised to ensure that
their children have a plentiful supply of literature in Esperanto and
to bring them into contact with other Esperanto speakers whenever
possible. They can either invite Esperanto speaking friends to visit
them, or they can travel themselves to international meetings. There
are even arrangements specifically for Esperanto speaking families
advertised in the Esperanto press, so there seems to be already an
awareness in the Esperanto community of the problems aluded to above.

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