Sunday, December 20, 2009

More on the search for an International auxiliary language (IAL)

Esperanto, born in the 1870s, had problems that quickly became obvious. Its inventer, Zamenhof, reluctantly proposed revisions in 1894 that his followers rejected. It's a shame they did: Esperanto might have grown from Old Esperanto to Middle Esperanto to Modern Esperanto in a few decades, and we would all be learning Esperanto in elementary school today.

Esperanto's problems include an alphabet with unique characters and a gendered grammar that, if you're charitable, is quaintly old-fashioned but, if you're blunt, is sexist. I can't imagine it being accepted as an International auxiliary language (IAL) without addressing those flaws.

Alas, Esperantists may have killed all hope of progress for Esperanto in 1905 with a declaration that stated, among other things, that the basis of the language should remain the Fundamento de Esperanto ("Foundation of Esperanto", a group of early works by Zamenhof), which is to be binding forever: nobody has the right to make changes to it.

Esperantists today seem to be divided between Raumists (who promote Esperanto as a language and culture deserving of respect for its own sake) and Finkavists (who promote Zamenhof's dream of Esperanto as the world's IAL).

Because conservatives blocked reform of Esperanto, IAL liberals moved their allegiance to  Ido, a major tweaking of Esperanto that still has advocates. But many Ido supporters moved on to Interlingua, which takes a different approach (see Comparison between Esperanto and Interlingua). From Interlingua's Wikipedia page:
...its vocabulary, grammar and other characteristics are largely derived from natural languages. Interlingua was developed to combine a simple, mostly regular grammar with a vocabulary common to the widest possible range of languages, making it unusually easy to learn, at least for those whose native languages were sources of Interlingua's vocabulary and grammar. Conversely, it is used as a rapid introduction to many natural languages. Interlingua is also unusual for being immediately understandable to hundreds of millions of people who speak a Romance language.
Interlingua would be a great IAL for Europeans, Quebecers, and Central and South Americans, but it's not so useful for Asians, Africans, and English-speakers because it's not as simple as Esperanto, Ido, or Mondlango (the best proposal for an IAL today, IMHO).

Strongly recommended reading: History of Esperanto, a short Wikipedia article that has some charming details about Zaminhof, and a little about Hitler, Stalin, and the Cold War U.S.A. being suspicious of IAL supporters.

A link for Emma: Interlingua and the Man From U.N.C.L.E.

ETA: Robb Kvasnak and His Argument For Esperanto


  1. Tonyo, I have come across Riism.

    And I do appreciate the challenge of finding a balance between language conservatives and language liberals. Right now, I think the Esperanto conservatives went too hard-line in 1905, but I may change my mind when I learn more. I'm a bit tempted to learn Esperanto just to follow articles like yours about how it should evolve.

  2. Remush, doesn't Esperanto use the generic "he"? In order to indicate that you mean a woman, you have to add a special ending, right? Mondlango learned from that pitfall.

    The example I keep seeing mentioned in Esperanto is that father is patro, but mother requires a special ending, patrino, which seems especially sexist to me, based on my limited knowledge of English, Spanish, and French. Wikipedia's article on gender reform in Esperanto tells about specifying feminine nouns, but says, "there is no comparable way to derive the masculine."

    Now, that isn't enough to keep me from deciding to learn Esperanto--I want to try Esperanto or Mondlango or Interlingua soon. But it is a problem in trying to realize Zamerhof's hope.

  3. No disrespect meant, Will, but I think most of these points are mistaken.

    Even Zamenhof didn't consider the 1894 reforms an improvement; he made them under duress from wealthy backers who wanted to tinker with the grammar. Several changes (e.g., fixed word order, removal of the accusative and some participles) would have greatly handicapped the language for literary translation — one of its greatest strengths.

    By having the community ultimately decide on a minimal grammar, Zamenhof wisely avoided the schisms that destroyed almost every moderately successful auxiliary language project before or since. Anthropologist David Jordan has a great article about this (at: ). The Fundamento hasn't prevented the lexicon, the grammar, or the morphology from evolving; it's just a stable, minimal set of rules that remain valid.

    I also don't think the "problems" listed are really problems at all. No matter what alphabet one devises, it will necessarily contain characters that aren't found in someone else's writing system. The roman alphabet was (and still is) the most widely known, and the few accents added by Esperanto don't pose any serious difficulties. Even in the bygone age of typewriters, one could use simple digraphs for the accented letters (ĉ -> ch, ĝ -> gh, etc.) Besides, we're very fond of our dear "hats". They're beautiful and they give a unique character to the orthography.

    The grammar actually isn't gendered; this is a common misconception. While there was a tendency among European speakers in the 19th and early 20th centuries to assume that, say, "kelnero" meant "waiter" and not "waitress", this wasn't part of the grammar. Today, "kelnero" is (rightly) used to mean "waiter or waitress". If one wants to specify gender, one can use adjectives ("vira/ina kelnero") or affixes ("virkelnero/kelnerino").

    One might argue that the few words that necessarily refer to males and females ("frato/patro/filo" etc.) discriminate against females because the female versions require an affix. For example, "frato" is "brother" and "fratino" is sister. To me, this claim seems kind of silly. Why not counterclaim that men are being disenfranchised because only females merit a special suffix? :)

    Some claim that Esperanto is sexist because it has gendered pronouns. But so what? Why should we assume that a feature of the grammar has *any* significant effect on sexist attitudes? Historically speaking, have speakers of languages like Mandarin (which has no gender in its 3rd person singular pronoun) been less sexist than say speakers of languages like English (which has obligatory gender in its pronouns)? I don't think so.

    Ido is an example of what happens when tinkerers don't realize that the minimal gains (if any) derived from subjective "improvements" to a language are vastly outweighed by the damage of "babelization". Witness the numerous early supporters who rapidly jumped ship to some other auxlang... and then again to another, and another, and another... Esperanto is certainly good enough; this fact is proven every day by speakers around the world. It's worth remembering that of the hundreds of languages created over the centuries — many supposedly "superior" to Esperanto — only *one* ever succeeded in making the leap from a project to a real, living language with an enduring community of speakers.

    Finally, the contrast between raŭmistoj and finvenkistoj is a spectrum, not a split. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Like many others, I don't think Esperanto needs a fina venko; it's inherently valuable as a language and culture in and of itself. But I also teach the language and promote it to those who show an interest. Does that make me a raŭmisto or a finvenkisto? Both, really.

  4. Hoss, I agree that Esperanto is a useful language, and Esperantists appear to be great folks, and the raumist/finvenkisto spectrum makes sense.

    But see my new post for someone else's reservations about Esperanto. He makes a point about its alphabet that makes a lot of sense to me: Esperanto can't adopt an alphabet based on the most common keyboard because its founders declared both a language and an alphabet that were not to be tampered with.

  5. P.S. Perhaps the easiest fix, from an outsider's perspective, to Esperanto would be to adopt Mondlango's alphabet.

  6. I'm not sure I see why a "fix" is needed; the alphabet works just fine. If we were having this discussion in the pre-computing era then I might agree that the accents are a significant inconvenience, but in the 21st century all computers handle Unicode. Typing the accents is quite easy: "Eĥoŝanĝo ĉiuĵaŭde." There are all the accented letters, and it took about three seconds to type. :)

    The Mondlango alphabet doesn't cover the same phoneme inventory as Esperanto, so there is no way to use it for representing many Esperanto words. There are no characters for the Esperanto sounds of [x] (ĥ), [ʒ] (ĵ) or [t͡s] (c), for example.

  7. Are those the same sounds that were up for deletion in 1905? Even if they're not, some tweaking of the more common 26 letter alphabet should work. For most people, I suspect, not taking advantage of the common keyboard seems silly.

    And something I didn't address earlier: You joked, "Why not counterclaim that men are being disenfranchised because only females merit a special suffix?" I've made similar jokes about sexist language in English. I sympathize greatly with your position. Nonetheless, gendered language that privileges maleness bothers people, whether the linguistic relativity principle is valid or not.

    I don't mean to sound like I'm demanding that Esperanto change. I completely get why raumists wouldn't want change. But I'd think finkavists would take a more pragmatic approach.

    Though I have quibbles with it, I am very tempted to learn Esperanto. But I've decided any conlang should wait until I'm more comfortable in Spanish.

  8. "Are those the same sounds that were up for deletion in 1905?" No, I don't think so. It may be that someone wanted to get rid of ĥ; the sound has tended to fade over time as the language changes phonetically.

    "Nonetheless, gendered language that privileges maleness bothers people." Sure. But then, lots of silly and irrelevant things bother people. And anyway, Esperanto doesn't privilege maleness!

    The history of language creation shows us that unfortunately there's no accounting for taste. No matter, what, there are going to be a significant number of people who don't like feature X for some reason, who think that if you could just tweak this, or modify that, you'd have the best language ever. Until they change their minds, that is. Which they will.

    There is a gender-neutral pronoun in Esperanto: ĝi. Zamenhof himself encouraged people to use it if they had a problem with the gendered pronouns. So there's already a simple solution there if enough people really want it. But so far, most people haven't felt the need.

    At some point you just have to decide that enough is enough. If the language works, and the criticisms are mostly issues of taste, further tinkering will just doom the language to failure.

  9. > Will : father is patro, but mother requires a special ending.
    Indeed, like other members of the family : brother, uncle, grand father etc...
    > wich seems especially sexist to me.
    To compensate all the next words are showing the female sex:
    damo, matrono, primadono, furio, amazono, nimfo, megero, putino, meretrico, gejŝo, madono, muzo, hejtaro, subreto, almeo, etc...
    A complete explanation can be found in