When people ask me why I speak Esperanto, my answer is simple; it’s really easy. I’ve always had difficulties learning languages and Esperanto is the only language I’ve ever succeeded in learning. The arbitrary pronunciation, random grammar rules, infuriating irregularities, endless exceptions that had to be memorised, silent letters, obscure tenses and half a dozen other rules in every language, drove me mad. I spent countless frustrating hours trying to decipher these Byzantine codes, usually without success. I would complain to my teacher (and anyone who would listen) about how these rules were unnecessary and added nothing to the language, couldn’t someone just remove the irregularities?
Well, it turned out that someone did. Esperanto is like a language designed by a frustrated student before an exam. It’s very simple, completely easy and has none of the irregularities that has exasperated anyone who has ever tried to learn a language. Let me give five examples.
- Completely Regular Verbs
Have you ever noticed that the verb ‘to be’ is completely random? I mean, what is the connection between the words: am, are, is? There’s no common thread and it just has to be learnt off. In fact almost every language I’m aware of has an irregular conjugation of the verb, which is strange because it’s the most common and crucial verb in the language. In Esperanto, it (and all other verbs) don’t change, so it’s mi estas, vi estas, li estas.
While the future tense in English makes some sense (add ‘will’ before a verb) the past is chaotic. There is a rule for the past tense (add –ed) but it’s ignored as often as it’s applied. There are countless exceptions and irregular verbs that simply have to be learned off. I pity the poor learner trying to find a connection between go and went, run and ran, buy and bought or seek and sought. Esperanto avoids all that misery by making the rule as simple as possible. All past tense verbs end in –is, all present in –as and all future in –os. There are no groups of verbs with their own sets of rules or exceptions, the rule applies to all verbs the same.
So all I have to do is tell you a verb and you straight away know all its conjugations (what other language can do that?). So ‘I was’ is Mi estis, ‘I am’ Mi estas and ‘I will be’ Mi estos. If I just say the verb ‘to go’ is iri, you don’t need to check to know that it’s iris, iras, iros. That was easy, wasn’t it?
- Pronounce exactly as you spell
Let’s be honest, the spelling of English is a mess. Words have only a vague resemblance to their pronunciation and there are countless exceptions, silent letters and similar words being pronounced or spelt completely different. Then there are the words spelt the same but pronounced differently or two words that are spelt the same but with very different meanings. Plus there are a huge number of words rarely used anymore or only in a formal situation or with certain connotations that is incredibly difficult for a learner to figure out.
I used to work in an office and one of my tasks was to call clients to discuss their account. The most difficult part of the job was trying to figure out how to pronounce the name. If it was a common name, I knew by experience, but for new names I would just have to guess. This is also a problem when reading books, which if made into a film always cause surprise (that’s how you pronounce it!?). There’s no regular rule for how letters are pronounced or where to stress the words, so it has to be taken on a case by case basis.
In the one word ‘circle’ the letter c is pronounced two completely different ways. Jail and gaol are pronounced the same way as are there, their and they’re. How is it that ate and eight are pronounced the same? The words ending in –ough have a wide range of pronunciations, compare cough, tough, dough, through, though, thorough. There are many words were pronouncing it as it’s spelt would make you look ridiculous, like knight, debt and psychology. There is even a famous poem (appropriately entitled The Chaos) about the strangeness of English spelling and pronunciation that begins:
Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
In Esperanto you spell exactly as you speak and pronounce exactly as it’s written. All letters have only one sound and all sounds have only one letter. What you see is what you get.
English numbers don’t look the worst at first glance. There is some semblance of a system with the -teen (thirteen, fourteen) and –ty (thirty, forty) although the spelling does change for some words. However, there is a major problem as these numbers are pronounced very much alike. I used to work in a petrol station where my job was to put petrol into the cars and take money from the clients. However, one thing that caused a huge amount of problem is that fifteen and fifty sound incredibly similar. On one occasion after putting €50 into the car, a customer claimed that she had said €15 and that was all the money she had, so the difference had to come from my wages.
Esperanto numbers are as easy as can be. The numbers 0-10 all have only one syllable and are no more than four letters long (most are only three). The higher numbers are constructed so easily that even a child could quickly figure them out. Numbers from 11-19 just have the number ten before them so twelve is literally ten-two (dek-du), thirteen is ten-three (dek-tri) and so on. Twenty is two-ten (du-dek), thirty is three-ten (tri-dek) and so on. Just knowing the first ten digits allows you to easily count to 99. Fifty-eight is five-ten-eight (kvindek ok), seventy four is seven-ten-four (sepdek kvar).
Research suggests that languages with simple and logical numerical systems (like Chinese) makes it easier for children to learn maths. They might even learn it faster than children who speak languages with more a complicated and less intuitive system. So while there have been no studies on Esperanto, it’s possible that the language makes counting much easier.
- Easy to make new words
One of the things I love the most about Esperanto is how easy it is to make new words. Esperanto is like Lego, you take different pieces and stick them together to make new words. The use of affixes greatly reduces the number of words you have to learn and makes it much easier to express yourself. For example, with just the word for pig (porko) I can create a dozen words in Esperanto; porkino (sow), porkido (piglet), porkejo (pig sty), porkaro (herd of pigs), porkaĵo (pork), porkego (huge pig), porketo (tiny pig), porkaĉo (horrible pig), porkulo (a person who acts like a pig), porkeco (piggishness). As you can see there is no easy way of learning the English words, they just have to be memorised, but the Esperanto words follow a logic that applies to all animals (if I told you the word for dog or horse, you could straight away create another dozen words as above). It’s a common question in quizzes to ask what is the word for a female animal or an infant or a herd of animals, because the English words are so random that even natives have trouble with them.
This flexibility makes word plays much easier and turns speaking the language into something of a game. You can combine affixes to create all sorts unusual words. For example when I was learning Esperanto, I forgot the word for umbrella, so I created my own word malpluvilo. I took the prefix for opposite (mal), the word rain (pluv) and the suffix for tool (il), to create an un-rain-tool, which while not being the most poetic, was understandable. A friend once called the toilet a maltrinkejo (a place where you do the opposite of drinking).
The plurals in English are another source of difficulty for learners. The core principle of adding an –s to the end of every word is sound, it’s the exceptions that cause problems. Some words just don’t have a plural like fish and sheep, while others have a plural that must be learned off by heart, like mouse – mice and tooth, teeth. There are even some plurals that cause native speakers difficulty, I refuse to accept that the plural of dice is die and stadium is stadia.
Esperanto takes one look at these difficulties and says ‘why bother?’ Why make extra work for yourself why you don’t have to? So instead, all plurals in Esperanto are made by adding –j (pronounced like a y) to end of a word. Lesson over.
The funny thing is that English is by no means the worst language and avoids the difficulties common in other languages like gendered nouns (is my chair a male or female?) and grammatical cases (if you don’t know what these are, consider yourself lucky). Yet these five examples show how much easier and logical Esperanto is. All the complexities that take hours and hours to learn in English take about five minutes in Esperanto. If people have to learn a second language to communicate internationally, why not make it as easy as possible?