Esperanto, a Western Language?


If you examine Esperanto from the outside, you’ll be tempted to consider it a Western language. Its pronunciation will remind you of the sounds of Italian and its vocabulary has, to a large extent, a definite Romance flavor. If you have the opportunity to hear a conversation in that language, you will soon notice that “yes” is used just as in English and is pronounced in the same way (but it is written jes). This will seem to confirm the Western nature of the language. If, being more conversant with linguistics and listening more carefully, you perceive a relatively high proportion of Germanic roots, you will conclude that it is indeed a Western language, and that, just as in English, its words are of both Latin and Germanic stock.

If you have studied Greek, you will find it a bit more Eastern than you thought at first. “And” translates as kaj (rhyming with I), which is the exact equivalent of the ancient Greek kai, and plurals are apparently inspired by Homer’s language. In ancient Greek, parallelos ‘a parallel line’ becomes in the plural paralleloi ‘parallel lines’; in Esperanto, the plural of paralelo is paraleloj (rhyming with boy), a very close approximation to the classical Greek pronunciation.

Seeing an Esperanto text may somewhat alter your first impressions. The presence of some consonants with little hooks, the recurrence of the letter j after a vowel at the end of words, groups of letters like kv give it an aspect reminiscent of Slovene or Croatian. If this suggests to you a Slavic influence, you’ll be on the right track. Esperanto was born in Eastern Europe. Its syntax, many grammatical features, a number of phrases and the style of a typical sentence do betray an important Slavic substratum. The same may be said of semantics. While the word plena ‘full’ is taken from Romance languages, its usage is not restricted to the meaning of the French plein or the Portuguese pleno, it covers the same semantic field as the Russian polnyj, which derives from the same old Indo-European root pln. In no Romance language could you speak of a plein dictionnaire, pleno dicionario (literally, ‘full dictionary’),

you’ll use a word like complet, completo and put it after the noun. Plena vortaro, in Esperanto, is a literal rendering of the Russian ‘polnyj slovar’ even in the way ‘dictionary’ is derived from ‘word’ (Russian slovo ‘word’, slovar ‘dictionary’; Esperanto vorto ‘word’, vortaro ‘dictionary’).

Has Esperanto anything in common with Semitic languages? In form, no, in spirit, yes. As in Arabic and Hebrew, Esperanto makes up most of its vocabulary through derivation from invariable roots. True, in Semitic languages, roots are almost always made up of three consonants and derivation is often effected by inserting vowels in between, whereas in Esperanto roots have no predetermined pattern and the only way of deriving a word from a root is to add something either at the beginning or at the end. All the same, the Esperanto version of the Hebrew Bible contains approximately the same number of roots as the original.

In this it is much closer to the latter than translations in Western languages, forced to use numerous words which, unlike their equivalents in Hebrew and Esperanto, have no transparent derivation. 

If, proceeding further towards the Orient, we go over from Arabic to Persian, we leave a language with a complicated grammar and a lot of exceptions to come upon a rather remarkably consistent language. In Arabic, in order to form the plural, you often have to transform the whole interior of the word:  kitab ‘book’ becomes kutub ‘books’. Persian, which has borrowed many words from Arabic, has not kept the latter’s irregular plurals. To form the plural, you add the ending –ha, so that the plural of kitab has not to be memorized separately, it is simply kitabha, ‘books’. Esperanto is characterized by a similar simplicity. You need just a split second to learn how to form the plural of any noun, since you only have to remember that it is done by adding a j, which is always pronounced as the y in boy. What a difference with languages like German, Hausa, Arabic, in which you are practically obliged to learn the plural with every new noun! And even with English, more consistent, but still presenting a number of exceptions: woman, child, foot, mouse, sheep and many other words do not follow the general rule which states that you form the plural by adding an –s.

Most Westerners do not imagine that some languages are so consistent that irregular verbs, exceptions in plural formation or unclear derivation are, for their speakers, unthinkable, something like the aberrant product of a neurotic mind. It is so much more pleasant to do without those inconsistencies and yet to understand one another perfectly! Among such languages are Chinese, Vietnamese and… Esperanto. These three have in common a feature that sets them apart from most languages, especially the Indo-European ones: they are composed of strictly invariable elements which can combine without restriction.

For people who speak such a language, the idea that ‘first’ cannot be derived from ‘one’ as tenth is from ten, seems quite bizarre, as it seems incomprehensible that there is no pattern in the modulations of pronouns, so that you have to learn, besides I, a whole series of words like me, my and mine. In Chinese, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ are, so to say, the adjective form of ‘I’: wo, ‘I’, wode ‘my’, ‘mine’ (compare women ‘we’, womende ‘our’, ‘ours’).

Esperanto derives the corresponding words in the same way. As a result, parallel realities are expressed in both languages by parallel forms, which cannot be said of any Western language. In ‘He takes yours, you take his’, the reciprocity of the gestures appears in the language as well in Chinese (ta na nide, ni na tade) as in Esperanto (li prenas vian, vi prenas lian). In English, while the symmetry is visible, it is not as perfect as in both Chinese and Esperanto:  you cannot form yours from you or his from he, you have to learn those words as separate entities, and what is take in one part of the sentence becomes takes in the other. Units or details to be memorized in order to express oneself correctly are considerably more numerous in Western languages than in Chinese or Esperanto.

In word formation as well Chinese and Esperanto share a similarity of patterns. In English, as in French, you have to learn separately such words as fellow-citizen and coreligionist and you cannot express in one word the concept ‘a person of the same race’ or ‘somebody who speaks the same language’. In Chinese, you have only to know the structure and the basic word. Just as in Esperanto: to form samlandano ‘fellow-citizen’, ‘compatriot’, samreligiano ‘coreligionist’, samklasano ‘school fellow’, ‘kid who is in the same class’, samrasano ‘person of the same race’, samlingvano ‘person with the same mother tongue’, you just have to know the pattern sam—ano and to insert the corresponding root. Similarly, a Chinese who studies English, French or Italian has to memorize as a completely different unit the word foreigner (étranger, straniero). If he learns Esperanto, he has only to translate syllable after syllable (morpheme after morpheme, a linguist would say) the three elements of the word in his mother tongue: waiguoren ‘foreigner’ is made up of wai ‘outside’ (Esperanto: ekster), guo ‘country’ (Esperanto: land) and ren ‘human being’ (corresponding here to the Esperanto ano, a human being who belongs to, who is a member of, who resides in…). ‘Foreigner’ is eksterlandano in Esperanto.

Here is another example. The Chinese who tries to acquire a Western language and wishes to be able to speak accurately of animals has to memorize a whole series of nouns which, in his own language, follow regular patterns. To have learned horse is of no avail if he has to express (or to understand) mare, colt and stallion; similarly, knowing how to say ox does not help him to say cow, calf and bull (to say nothing of beef ,veal and similar words). In Chinese, such words are part of a consistent table. They are respectively ma, muma, xiaoma and gongma (for the horse family), niu, muniu, xiaoniu and gongniu (for the ox family). The system is just as consistent in Esperanto. The relationship is the same between, on the one hand, ĉevalo (ĉ is pronounced as ch) and ĉevalino, ĉevalido, virĉevalo, and, on the other hand, between bovo and bovino, bovido and virbovo.

Those who criticize Esperanto for being too Western overlook two important aspects of the question. First, they neglect to proceed to a linguistic analysis of the language, which is the only way to discover how different it is, in depth, from what it seems to be at first sight: their judgment is purely superficial.  Second, they ignore the fact that some language is necessary if people with different mother tongues have to communicate. In practice, on what language does one fall back when mutual comprehension is needed and Esperanto is not used? On English! Isn’t this one a Western language? As a matter of fact, it has many more Western features than Esperanto, and is much more difficult to learn and use for the large majority of the inhabitants of our planet. No language could put all peoples on an equal footing. But among all those that exist and are being used, Esperanto comes closest to that ideal. After 2000 hours of English (five hours a week for ten school years), the average Japanese and Chinese are incapable of using it in a really operational way. Their clumsiness, as well as their difficulty in producing the relevant sounds, tend to complicate communication or to make them ridiculous, a risk which is, unfairly, spared the native speaker of English, although he is the one who has made no effort towards mutual understanding. After 220 hours of Esperanto, as an average, Eastern Asians can really communicate in that language, a language which is a foreign language for everybody and in which the risk of sounding strange is thus equally distributed.

Whoever wants to play fair and to be objective has to refrain from criticizing Esperanto as long as he has not proceeded to a deep enough analysis of the language and to comparisons with English and the mother tongues of the peoples whose interests he pretends to defend. In a democracy, you are presumed innocent as long as your guilt has not been proven. It would be in accordance with the best Western traditions to apply that principle to Esperanto and to reserve one’s judgment until the evidence has been examined. No serious linguist, journalist or politician would dare pass judgment on Tagalog or Malayalam without having gathered facts on those languages. There is no reason to adopt a different attitude about Esperanto.