On Esperanto

Duolingo's golden owl for Esperanto

Last night I finished the Esperanto tree on Duolingo and got my second golden owl. The first, a few weeks ago, was for French, which I also studied at university, and the third might be for Irish, which intrigues me for being so different to English and the Romance languages.

Here’s that same passage in Esperanto, doubtless with some mistakes, as I’m still only a beginner:

Hieraû vespere, mi finis la esperantan arbon je Duolingo, kaj akiris mian sekondan oran strigon. La unua, antaû iuj semajnoj, estis por franca, kiu mi ankaû studis al universitato, kaj la tria povos esti por irlanda, ke intrigas min pro estas tiel diferenca de angla kaj romancaj lingvoj.*

Duolingo is an addictive way to learn and just to explore languages: in a few hours an English speaker can do the first units in several different European languages. English courses for speakers of a range of other languages, including Chinese and Japanese, are already available, and Duolingo’s first Asian language, Vietnamese, is 84% ready for a beta release. It’s by far the best way I’ve seen to learn a language, and I thoroughly recommend it. Going through the lessons is as potentially therapeutic as Tetris or Solitaire, and far more useful.

Of the many languages I’ve tried through Duolingo, Esperanto gets a special mention because it’s the only language I’ve found that I think is better than English. I’m unfashionably fond of criticizing languages for their flaws:

  • Tonal languages aren’t fit for a role as a global lingua franca because they are too difficult for speakers of non-tonal languages to learn (there is some indication that there is a genetic component to this inability), and they introduce too much complexity into alphabetic writing systems.
  • Thai (and I guess the other languages that use a related script) has a horrible writing system where there are multiple versions of most letters and the letters can be out of order, silent, or change their sound at the end of a word. And there are no spaces between words! Though my personal frustrations with Thai play a part in my opinion, the needless complexity of Thai script even poses difficulties for the local population, which is among the most poorly educated in Asia.
  • English has too large a vocabulary, difficult spelling, and too complicated a grammar.
  • Noun gender in languages like French, Italian, and German is mostly or even entirely pointless. So are noun–adjective agreement and verb conjugation.

Some non-English languages I know at least a bit of do have admirable features, though:

  • Chinese characters, though demanding to learn, retain much of their meaning across the different dialects and languages that use them, and the system of constructing complex characters from radicals is an aid to memory and an additional source of meaning. (They do, though, have the downside of being far less suited to computerization than alphabets are.)
  • Thai and Chinese have a simple and practical grammar that avoids much of the complexity found in European languages, and lacks irritations like noun gender and verb conjugation.
  • Most languages other than English make things easier for learners and native speakers alike by there simply being fewer words to learn.

The brilliant thing about Esperanto is that it consciously improves on other languages. Here are some of the ways it improves on English:

  • There is no verb conjugation.
  • There is one sound per letter, and it is always the same. There are no new sounds formed by letter combinations.
  • The grammar, and the way words are constructed from roots, suffixes and affixes, is extremely predictable. Once you know the basic rules, and if you already have a background in another European language, you can often accurately guess what an Esperanto word or phrase means without having learned it beforehand. Esperanto author Claude Piron puts it this way: “Esperanto relies entirely on innate reflexes [and] differs from all other languages in that you can always trust your natural tendency to generalize patterns.”

Esperanto does have some flaws: it should, arguably, not require noun–adjective agreement (which the Esperanto-derived language Ido does away with). The similarity of the correlatives makes them harder to remember than they might otherwise be. I’m undecided on the accusative case (the –n ending on nouns and adjectives in a sentence’s subject): while an unnecessary complication, it can make deciphering sentences easier, and creates some unusual possibilities for arranging them.

But, overall, Esperanto is easier to learn and get right than English or any other language I’ve seen. It is extremely easy to start speaking and writing once you have the basics, as shown by the way that the Facebook group for Duolingo Esperantists sees people using Esperanto to write to each other even while they’re still in the middle of the course.

As with national and ethnic languages, Esperanto has its own culture and history. That’s a bit of a surprise, given it was only invented in the 1880s. It is associated with internationalist politics, and has given rise to a smallish but still substantial body of original literature. All this adds some interest to learning it.

Like many other people who know Esperanto, I think the world could be a better place if more people knew and used it, especially if it became so widespread that people could learn it instead of English for cross-cultural communication. But I also think it’s worth learning just for the joy of experiencing something so elegant. Check it out on Duolingo for a few minutes: you might get hooked and come to feel the same way.

Further reading

* I had to use û instead of the correct Esperanto accented u above, as WordPress kept converting the character to a question mark.


Also published on Medium.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.

  • About writing the ? correctly, that’s probably a font issue. Changing your blog’s font could maybe solve this…

  • Strangely enough, it doesn’t appear to be a font issue: Maiola, which I’m using here through Typekit, has a glyph for it. In the plain text editor, where I write my WordPress posts, ? actually gets replaced with an ? on save. There’s probably a plugin that’s doing it, or even the theme I’m using—Divi—which makes a lot of changes to the editor. Thanks for the suggestion, though. You’ve reminded me I need to track down this problem.

    Also, am I right in gathering from your avatar that you’re a go player? Me too, though I’m an absolute novice.

  • I do play it, but that’s not what my avatar is from. The avatar is a hacker symbol, a slider from Conway’s Game of Life.

  • Thanks, Joop. I looked it up, which led me onto some other stuff on hacker culture as well. Interesting reading.

  • Lev Lafayette

    There is no verb conjugation.

    Well, easy and consistent conjugation by tense and one which doesn’t vary by person. e.g.,

    Mi finas, mi finis, mi finos
    Vi finas, vi finis, vi finos
    Si finas, si finis, si finos
    Li finas, li finis, li finos
    Ili finas, ili finis, ili finos
    (Will get my Esperanto golden owl in a couple of days)