LINGUIST List 4.900

Sun 31 Oct 1993

Sum: Esperanto

Editor for this issue: <>


  • Adam Elga, Esperanto Q response summary
  • Jacques Guy, Esperanto and easy and difficult languages
  • , Esperanto native speakers
  • , 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 (

    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.

    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

    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.