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Can Esperanto Make a Comeback? (2015) (www.npr.org)
88 points by Books 11 days ago | hide | past | web | 222 comments | favorite





When I tried it just for a few days, I was surprised how easy it was to learn. It was much easier to learn than English. On the other hand so many people already know English vocabulary that just having regular spelling and simple grammar could work. Mark Twain already suggested it:

"A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling: For example, in Year 1 that useless letter 'c' would be dropped to be replased either by 'k' or 's', and likewise 'x' would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which 'c' would be retained would be the 'ch' formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform 'w' spelling, so that 'which' and 'one' would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish 'y' replasing it with 'i' and Iear 4 might fiks the 'g/j' anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez 'c', 'y' and 'x' -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais 'ch', 'sh', and 'th' rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld."


That reminds me of this old joke [1]:

> The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility.

> As part of the negotiations, the British and American government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement. Consequently, they have adopted a five-year phased plan for what will be known as European English (Euro for short). In the first year, "s" will be used instead of the soft "c."

> Sertainly sivil servants will resieve this news with joy. Also the hard "c" will be replased with "k." Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.

> There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the second year, when the troublesome "ph" will be replased by "f." This will make words like "fotograf" 20 persent shorter.

> In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expected to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will encourage the removal of double leters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent "e"s in the languag is disgrasful and they woud go.

> By the fourth year peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing "th" by "z" and "w" by "v." During ze fifz yer, ze unesasary "o" kan be droped from vords containing "ou", and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinatins of leters.

> Und after ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German lik zey vonted in ze first plas.

I never knew it was based on a Mark Twain quote. Then again, Mark Twain's philosophy I didn't hear much of either (I'm from Europe, don't think I learned any American philosophy on high school).

[1] https://alt.jokes.narkive.com/I7hqyPoJ/a-joke-a-plan-for-the...


"fotograf" is precisely how it is spelt in Czech and I am not sure why the English language insists on keeping the ancient-looking "ph" in those words; what the phreaking phuck?

Ancient-looking to you perhaps; but an invention of the Etruscans and Romans (writing the aspirated "p" that they took from Classical Greek as "ph", hence the Romanized name of the letter "phi") and not in fact as ancient as the Phoenician digamma "f" that you are using. (-:

Well, German (among others) does this as well in many cases, and it's otherwise far more phonetic than English in orthography. It's not some unique Anglo insistence, in this case.

> > In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expected to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will encourage the removal of double leters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent "e"s in the languag is disgrasful and they woud go.

"expected" still has a 'c'


Theodore Roosevelt tried to impose simplified spelling on the Government Printing Office. Congress refused to fund any such printing, and TR's innovation took effect.

People make a fuss about irregular verbs or grammar or whatever but what really makes learning languages hard is the very long tail of words you need to know. The grammar is a comparatively very small amount of content.

When we think about how "easy" a language is a lot of it is how likely it is for us to guess from our native language what any given difficult word means -- "geografía" is more obvious to an English speaker than 地理).


Esperanto helps with that by being polysynthetic and allowing you to attach suffixes to extend words (agglutination)

For instance:

good - bon+e (-e makes adverb)

bad - mal+bon+e (mal- is like un-)

very bad - mal+bon+eg+e (-eg- intensifies)

to make bad - mal+bon+ig+i (-ig- makes active, -i makes a verb)

to make worse - pli+mal+bon+ig+i (pli- means more)

you can also string roots together like in German: man+sak+o = hand+bag+noun suffix = purse/handbag.

this, and the familiarity of the roots to Indo-European speakers, makes Esperanto very fast for Europeans to learn. a small number of roots and good grammar gives you a lot of return on your time.


The ability to guess plausible meanings if great for comprehending the words, but for speaking them? I’ve guessed „Spoonen” instead of „Löffel”; “live”, “liver”, “love” translated as the equally homophonic „Leben“, „Leber“, „Liebe“; and Siri regularly fails to know if I am trying to say „höher“ or „Hure“ (only one of the latter words is even in Duolingo).

Well, it's better than nothing, and if you're doing the producing you can simply stick to words you already know and avoid more difficult ones. In many cases you can come up with a plausible guess by applying regular patterns (e.g., -phy to -fia or -gy to -gia going from English to Spanish).

That's part of it, but another way vocabulary can be easy is if it is self-documenting meaning you can figure out the meaning without memorizing it specifically. The Chinese 地理 is literally "Earth Science" (a term also used in English but with a broader meaning of all sciences dealing with the earth including geology and geophysics as well as geography) . Spanish "geografía" means "earth description" but isn't as self-documenting because to recognize this you have to go outside the language to Ancient Greek.

Well in Japanese it's the same word but now you have to know all about Chinese for Japanese words, not to mention learning to write the characters, which is just a big hurdle you don't have to worry about with Western languages. And beyond that, yeah, Spanish words you might need to know about Greek and Latin morphemes but my point is those exact same ones are all over our language already so they're familiar. I already know that "geo-" means "Earth" and "co-" means "together" from my native language.

Yeah, I've always wanted to learn a language, but was frustrated by all the grammar irregularities and other barriers to entry. English has that in spades, but it wasn't a problem as you don't have to worry about that with your first language.

Esperanto was the first language I've made any real progress with. Spanish is considered a fairly easy language for English speakers to learn, but I knew fairly little after 3 years of study in school. I've put in substantially less Esperanto effort, but am far more confident. I actually believe I could become fluent if I continued to focus on it. When someone (even with an accent) speaks, I can understand the sounds and spell the words no problem. It isn't perfect, but I find learning it fun and not frustrating. The community is also vibrant.


It's probable that Esperanto speakers speak more clearly because: a) that's the purpose of speaking the language, and, b) there are few conversations between two fully fluent speakers; even if you are fluent, you can't expect your conversation partner to be.

Spanish does have phonetic spelling, but is also likely to have more elision in every-day speech.

Native speakers know and use what is understood without needing to be said, from non-verbal cues.


I can understand some Esperanto videos where the speaker is extremely fluent and talking very fast. If I could slow down the videos, I could transcribe almost the full thing even if I don't know all the vocabulary. That is impressive to me. There are a lot of languages that just sound like gibberish to me to the point that I can't even make out the sounds that well.

Pretty much every other language has regular spelling, and many have very regular grammar. English is the exception, being a Frankenstein assemblage of languages.

> Pretty much every other language has regular spelling

That may be true for Chinese or Japanese phonetic alphabets (e.g. pinyin, bopomofo, hiragana, katakana, etc.) but literacy demands mastery of characters as well.

Although many characters have phonetic elements, it is essentially impossible to know how to write a word correctly in hanzi/kanji without knowing the component characters.

Among European languages, French seems to have challenging spelling, and there appear to be spelling bees for foreign learners at least. Dutch also seems to have had a spelling/dictation contest until recently.


Fun fact, if you read the last sentence as a german sentence it sounds like english with a german accent.

I was always under the impression that this was the intent and was trying to imply that English was basically bastardized German. Is that not what Twain meant?

No, Twain was satirising the whole ridiculous idea that trying to regularise the spelling of English is a good idea.

English has homonyms and homophones in part because it is always open to taking words from other languages. In fact "We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

Any attempt to force English to be strictly 'pronounced as written' will fail in the future even if it succeeds in the present because someone will import a word from another language that sounds like an existing word or invent a new one unaware that a word of the same pronunciation already exists or just attach a new meaning to an existing word.

See https://wiki.c2.com/?PurityOfEnglish and https://library.conlang.org/blog/?p=116


That argument makes no sense. English is far from alone in borrowing heavily from other languages. Loanwords are one of the most obvious cases of linguistic contact and can be found everywhere throughout the world. There are multiple ways how a language can deal with such loanwords: they can keep the original spelling, making those words an irregular exception to the pronunciation rules, or they can adapt the spelling and pronunciation to the borrowing language, or anything in between. Often it starts as the former and at some point migrates towards the latter.

Meanwhile, there is absolutely no reason why English couldn't in principle have a much more phonetic or regular spelling system, except maybe dialectal variation (which you also do have in other languages with more regularised spelling, though).

Now the larger reason for why a huge spelling reform would fail is because it would be a massive continuity break: people would have to relearn, new spellings would appear totally unnatural, it would mean that past text would at some point start being incomprehensible, etc., so I don't think there is any practical way of getting there.


> There are multiple ways how a language can deal with such loanwords: they can keep the original spelling, making those words an irregular exception to the pronunciation rules...

Isn't that the point? IIRC, English was originally about 50/50 Saxon and French - most of the fancy / unintuitive / rule-breaking words are French loan words (e.g., "rendezvous" & "accomplice" are French, "loan" is old Norse, "word" is old English). The combination happened when Britain spent a while under Norman rule. The commoners were largely Saxon & Norse, the rulers were French. Eventually the languages simply merged, with grammar rules and vocabulary taken from both sides.

I believe the first edition of the Webster dictionary in the 1800s was when the spelling was standardized. At that point, Webster looked at the original language of the words to both define them and figure out a correct spelling.

Edit: additional recollections, formatting.

Edit2: I'm being downvoted?


As a non-native English speaker, the bigger problem to me are not homophones, but homographs that aren't homophones. Or in general, same groupings of letters that are pronounced differently. That aside, there's a bunch of words that have been imported from English to Polish that mess me up (I'm getting tripped by the Polish pronunciation, it bleeds into how I speak the word). Grammar is actually great to learn (same goes for Spanish based on my limited experience with it).

Possible. He learned german and wrote an essay about it. The Awful German Language.

Agree, I would add, make vocals consistent, ‘a’,‘e’,‘i’,’o’,’u’ should only have one sound per each letter for every case, if we need more vocal sounds then use different characters.

The vowels in the English language: bat, bait, bet, beet, bit, bite, bot, boat, but, butte, bout, boil, book, the 'a' in about (/ə/), baht. That's only in my dialect, and not counting r-colored vowels (which are not r-colored in British dialects!).

This list was constructed by building short/long vowel pairs, and then tacking on the weirder vowels afterwards. As you'll notice from the inclusion of the last entry, there is a major dialect issue here. There are four sounds (/æ/, /ɒ/, /ɑ/, /ɔ/) that are usually distributed into three sounds in major dialects, and these arise from short a and short o in written orthography... but which words send their vowels to the different targets varies greatly depending on the dialect. If you pick it according to any one dialect, you're going to get some poor correlation in another dialect.

The other obvious issue is that adding new characters is actually difficult in the modern age. Of the sounds I've dropped in above, I can only type in ə and æ without resorting to copy-paste, and that's only because those are accessible with the Compose key. Telling people that you have to use 10 keys not present on their keyboards to write their language is going to be a hard sell. Again, note that English dropped þ as a letter primarily because it wasn't possible to print with printing presses imported from Germany.


Again, note that English dropped þ as a letter primarily because it wasn't possible to print with printing presses imported from Germany.

Really? That's a super interesting TIL.


Problem with English is that there are a lot of vowels (up to about 20) and the number varies greatly based on dialect. I believe this is an outlier for Indo-European languages.

That happens with Spanish. Most of the time is WYSIWYS (What you see is what you say).

It’s called phonemic orthography: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonemic_orthography

I’m also from a country with such a language, and as a kid I couldn’t understand the concept of spelling bee competitions in American movies, like, what’s even the point?


Thanks, I didn't know it was called that. And yes, I had the same impression about spelling contests

I just love how this gets progressively harder to read!

It’s so hilariously and delightfully like Mark Twain to actually put readers through this and I chuckled once I realized what was going on

Interesting.... as a Portuguese speaker, I'd say that it gets progressively easier to read. Note that portuguese has way more coherent writing than english.

While english was simplified quite a bit in the recent 100+ (probably more) years and is often seen as a "simple" language there are quite many languages which are much more coherent then english.

E.g. recently there had been an article on hacker news about bilingual people which are fine in one language but have a writing-disorder in english. Likely due to it being less coherent.


> E.g. recently there had been an article on hacker news about bilingual people which are fine in one language but have a writing-disorder in english. Likely due to it being less coherent.

Also, there is no equivalent of a "spelling bee" in most other languages. Being able to spell all words is not seen as an exceptional skill in most languages written in the Latin script.


I think you probably mean "consistent" rather than "coherent." Either that or you have a low view of our writers!

I used the term "coherent" because I was referring to what the text called "kohirnt speling".

Fair but saying English writing is incoherent makes it sound like their ideas are all over the place and you can't make heads or tails of it

This is probably what reading the necronomicon must feel like

I know its funny. But coming from a language where words are pronounced as written, English could've been simpler.

I was unironically able to read that but it would probably be better if everyone learned IPA just for fun to use for all languages and see if people find it useful or not. If it's not useful it will die out.

IPA is great for writing down how people speak, but I don't think that's the most important aspect to capture for most writing. An example where this might be useful is the dialogue in Twain's novels, where he would often try to capture the particulars of his characters dialects.

But for most writing the goal is to share meaning, not voice. What would we do for a word like `data`, which has at least 5 different pronunciations that I've heard. Accepting all of them would probably lead to the opposite of the goal. Picking one leads to the same controversy.

Add to that people often aren't aware of their own pronunciation. Personal example is that in my dialect I have the fool/full merger. I wasn't aware of this, I simply heard the language other people spoke as I pronounced it. At university I literally didn't believe people who were telling me that they pronounce those words differently. I just couldn't hear it.


> "A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling: For ex...

That makes no sense, because it is not solving the problem with the English language pronunciation.

To solve pronunciation you have 2 options:

1. Set on 1 pronunciation for any syllable and stick with it. Throw away old pronunciations.

e.g. Arkansas sounds like "are + Kansas"

2. Word by word, re-write it in a way that fits its sound.

e.g. Kansas becomes Kensas and Arkansas becomes Arkanso. Or something like that, I do not get English pronunciation at all.

But, I understand that is not sociable possible. It follows the same logic that using the Imperial system. As we grow old, we like what we know, and we hate that people forces us to learn new things. So, changing how millions communicate would be very difficult.

I see more plausible a come back of Esperanto than to change how English is written or spoken.


Heh.. As somebody who has studied a little Japanese by the end the voice in my head had taken on that of a Japanese person struggling with English..

Shavian sends its regards:

𐑓𐑲𐑯𐑩𐑤𐑦, 𐑢𐑧𐑯, 𐑨𐑓𐑑𐑼 𐑕𐑳𐑥 20 𐑘𐑱𐑮𐑟 𐑝 𐑹𐑔𐑩𐑜𐑮𐑨𐑓𐑦𐑒 𐑤𐑦𐑓𐑹𐑥, 𐑢𐑰 𐑢𐑫𐑛 𐑣𐑨𐑝 𐑩 𐑤𐑪𐑡𐑦𐑒𐑩𐑤, 𐑒𐑴𐑣𐑽𐑩𐑯𐑑 𐑕𐑐𐑧𐑤𐑦𐑙 𐑦𐑯 𐑿𐑕 𐑔𐑮𐑵𐑬𐑑 𐑞 𐑦𐑙𐑤𐑦𐑖-𐑕𐑐𐑰𐑒𐑦𐑙 𐑢𐑻𐑤𐑛.


One second, Mr. Twain.

You're talking about a nation that has been rolling out a sensible system of measurement units for decades. By 2020 it has made its way into engineering schools, but is still nowhere near the daily usage level. Surely the entire language will take a multiple of that. I think we should extend your plan to a few centuries.


For me, what I love most about Esperanto is its unabashed affirmative optimism. The name itself means “one who hopes.” For me it’s a microcosm of competing epistemologies in society.

I’ll be a little casual with definitions here, but if we adopt a rationalist / positivist view of the world, Esperanto is a straightforward solution to a problem. Zamenhof despaired at his multi-ethnic neighbors killing each other. He hypothesized that could be remedied if people were able to speak to each other on equal language footing. It’s not a bad hypothesis. It’s easy to hate “those people” but hard to hate the person whose face you’ve looked into and tried to understand.

We can snipe at Esperanto and apply critical theories of how Esperanto falls short in crucial ways. Those critiques are largely valid! Esperanto is to euro-centric. Esperanto draws too much from romance languages. The need for Esperanto has been supplanted by the global dominance of English. The language was designed by an amateur. Synthetic languages are indulgent in the face the extinction of natural languages.

But I think a lot of the criticisms miss the fact that, around this simpleton, inadequate language designed by an amateur, has coalesced a community infused with something of the “let’s build” optimism that gave rise to the language in the first place.

If I look at society spanning from academia to pop culture right now, we have a hegemony of rhetorically sophisticated criticism. I wouldn’t want to lose the moderating effect of that critique and blunder into starry-eyed utopianism, but I do worry that the volume of critique to “we can do it” optimism is out of balance.

The world needs more Zamenhofs.


Zamenhof’s optimism isn’t as universally admired as you suggest. First of all, the Yugoslav wars stand as bloody proof that even if neighbors can understand each other and speak more or less the same language, they can just find something else to fight over.

Secondly, Zamenhof was still writing from an Enlightenment-era framework that saw language diversity as a problem, something to systematize away. In our modern era, there is a lot of support for preserving indigenous cultures, and some of Zamenhof’s views can be shocking today. Starting in the 1970s the Esperanto movement tried to hitch its wagon to the language-diversity movement, but this attempt has been rather half-hearted, plus World Esperanto Association is obliged by statute to be politically neutral, so it can’t comment on the most common instances of language discrimination (i.e. when a strong centralized state cracks down on the minority peoples within its borders).

I have been out of the Esperanto movement for quite some years now, but among the most active Esperantists who attended the annual European congresses frequently and tried to maintain a social life in the language, Zamenhof was not someone anyone ever thought about much. Those super-idealistic Esperantists who praised Zamenhof and banged on about world peace, were seen as weirdos and a target of mockery.


> Zamenhof’s optimism isn’t as universally admired as you suggest.

Where did I say say his optimism was universally admired? I think I made it clear that I admire his optimism, and think it worthy of admiration :-)

> some of Zamenhof’s views can be shocking today.

That's fine, having admiration for his work and those views of his that I feel have merit don't mean I need to accept absolutely everything the man believed.

> Those super-idealistic Esperantists who praised Zamenhof and banged on about world peace, were seen as weirdos and a target of mockery.

That may well be true, but this feels like an ad-hominem argument: "the cool kids are so over Esperanto and world peace. You want to be cool, don't you?"

You have critiques of Esperanto and maybe even the idealism that I find endearing. That's fine. Those critiques are valid. I still maintain Zamenhof added more to the world than the critics.


> Where did I say say his optimism was universally admired?

My mistake. I wished to say that he isn’t so universally admirable. That is, what you see as constructive in his ideals and aspirations, other people today might find destructive.

> That may well be true, but this feels like an ad-hominem argument

Well, human beings are social animals, so ad hominem arguments are perfectly valid here. If something feels cringe to a large group of people (even to most of those who one would have expected to be sympathetic), then it can fairly be called cringe.

Also, these idealistic, Zamenhof-lauding green-star-flag-waving world-peace types were infamous for often having the least ability to actually converse in Esperanto. They would be visible at congresses, but in a way they were least involved in the actual Esperanto community. You'll also find plenty of arguments that those people actually hold Esperanto back from appealing to outsiders and getting more people involved.


>Secondly, Zamenhof was still writing from an Enlightenment-era framework that saw language diversity as a problem, something to systematize away.

The anarchist philosophy that was responsible for the global spread of Esperanto was far more complex than this and rooted in a rejection of reductive, Darwinist cultural formulations that were coming to prominence at the time. The idea was to preserve local autonomy, while providing a universal medium for exchange, such that communities could develop their own unique cultural systems and permutations thereof, but still have recourse to share them in a mutally beneficial way with others. Esperanto was widely popular in Japan under this rubric, for example:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/23357508

It was likewise suppressed by authoritarian regimes on the left and right for its encouragement of this eclecticism.


> The idea was to preserve local autonomy...

Maybe some early Esperanto disseminators were like this, but Zamenhof himself hoped that Esperanto (or at least something like it) would eventually replace all local languages.


What is so great about having many different languages?

It is sad when cultural heritage is lost because it was written in a language no one speaks anymore. But this problem is caused by having many different languages. In a parallel reality, where the culture spoke the same language as other countries, the cultural heritage would not be lost.

It is sad when a group of people is discriminated or has fewer oportunities, because they cannot use their language. But again, in a parallel reality, where these people didn't grow up speaking a different language, the problem doesn't exist.

If you could magically change the world so that it would have 10× more languages, 10× more scripts, and 10× more USB connector types, would it make the world a better place? If not, then why changing it in the opposite direction wouldn't make it better?

When a language disappears today, it is bad because we lose information, and because the last users of the language have a problem communicating. But if you could magically change the past to replace that language by English centuries ago, there would be no lost information and no suffering users. And if we could agree on a common language today, we would be magically changing the future just like that. (Esperanto gives the additional advantage of being more regular.)


Every now and then comments like this one pop up (or even a bit more frequently than the way that sounds). But it's hard to understand how they get written up and posted. It only makes sense if you assume the author has dozed off halfway through the comment they meant to reply to, woke up, and banged out a response anyway.

I thought so too, but after rereading both comments, he does respond to a rather central point

> has coalesced a community infused with something of the “let’s build” optimism

with

> among the most active Esperantists who attended the annual European congresses (...) Those super-idealistic Esperantists (...) were seen as weirdos

Thus saying that such a community has in fact not coalesced.


Comeback? Has it ever been more than a niche curiosity?

It's more like translation tools will make a comeback. Already have.

They've gotten so good, you don't even need to learn a new language to learn something that's only available in English (or other languages).

Incidentally, this was a major reason I learned English. There was so much more information available back in the early 00's that I just had to do it.

Romanian Internet was... abysmal. Thankfully, I knew Russian, and their Internet activity was far better. Lots of information and software. But that paled in comparison to the English Internet.

At the moment, I find the Chinese Internet very active and interesting, even though translation is pretty poor and sadly, the language is very difficult. Plus, I don't have a real incentive to learn it.

I don't know what part of the culture makes people write and share information, but some countries definitely have less of this activity. Perhaps it's just raw numbers, more people = more content.

With Google Translate and the like, it has become much easier to access all of it, any kind of information, the best content.


> Comeback? Has it ever been more than a niche curiosity?

There was actually a fair amount of momentum behind Esperanto in the 1920s. The League of Nations seriously considered adopting it as their official language of business and was also considering recommending that member states include Esperanto in their educational curricula. The only real opposition was from the French, who wanted to preserve their language as the language of diplomacy, and vetoed these proposals.

But by the late 1930s that momentum had faded away and totalitarian governments (particularly Germany and the Soviet Union) began to suppress Esperanto.


They've gotten so good, you don't even need to learn a new language to learn something that's only available in English

It's a mixed bag really. Japanese is still too foreign for Google Translate to interpret properly outside of common phrases.


I find automatic translation from English to Portuguese very good, but those are not that different from each other. What is the state of automatic translation between two languages that are very far and different from each other like Chinese (a sino-tibetan language) and English (an indo-european language)? I thought that ML and all the recent research on that could close the gap in this regard even for such very distant languages.

I use it everyday, and actually Japanese to English is pretty good in Google translate. Japanese to French was abysmally bad a few years back, but now it became acceptable.

The opposite translations are not bad per-se, but the sentences are always non-natural because all the context and articles that are implicit in Japanese are kept.


> Perhaps it's just raw numbers, more people = more content.

Definitely not that… Some languages with less speakers generate more content than others with more speakers. It's cultural. It's not just Internet, if you look for science fiction novels for example you'll find more in Polish or German than in Portuguese, even though the latter has far more speakers.


Don't expect to learn Scots from the World Wide Web, thanks to the goings on at the Scots language Wikipedia and all of the mirrors and automatic translators that have used it as source material.

The value proposition of Esperanto never made sense to me. If the goal were merely to get everybody speaking the same language to achieve world peace, then the efforts of pragmatists would go towards teaching more people English, since that language is the closest to the finish line. Of course that would be contentious in some political philosophies, it doesn't surprise me that some people drawn to the 'universal language for world peace' idea find the promotion of English unacceptable. However it seems to me these people are relinquishing any hope for success in order to remain principled.

I agree it doesn’t make sense in the context of today, but in 1887 when it was invented, there was no internet, and you couldn’t translate between languages with a computer. The globalization hadn’t happened yet where everyone had to learn English, and learning some easier to use intermediate language made sense as an easy adoption for translating at a time that machine translation was inconceivable.

Think about newspapers as a concept of information dissemination. It would be a lot lower effort to create a single newsletter and distribute it globally than to have a network of translators who can recreate it, redo the layout, and reprint it. Or think about travelers, where your queries are simple and someone could learn a language in a couple of weeks and be a tour guide for travelers from all places.

At this point, English makes far more sense, but I get why they invented Esperanto, and at some point I could carry light conversations in it, though that has faded since it’s fairly useless.


My grandfather had a story from when he was travelling around Europe between the wars: he tried to have a conversation with someone in a youth hostel but they had trouble finding a language they had in common ... until they tried Latin!

As a native English speaker, I don't like English being the world language because I'm at a significant disadvantage because

1. I have zero incentive to learn another language

2. I do not have a secret/family language that I can switch into for strategic purposes

3. It gets watered down for the purposes of internationality to the point that we lose even our productive affixes. We can't even create meaningful names within English anymore. It loses its richness.


I think that the advantages of being a native speaker in the end outweigh the disadvantages. You are exposed to the dominant economic and cultural ecosystems easier and much earlier. You may lack some ability to switch context and reframe things for different cultures, but it's not generally a practical necessity in life.

On the other hand, you may sometimes be harder to understand for non-native speakers, especially if you speak some non-mainstream dialect or pronunciation. (Even standard British, in normal speech, is probably harder for me to process than American: depends on what you've been exposed to.) Coming from some other Latin script language, you'd probably have a better feel for oddities in English pronunciation (like 'thumb', or 'pseudo', etc.) and can easier adapt some more consistent 'euro' way of pronouncing as needed. Sometimes people won't understand you otherwise.


>You are exposed to the dominant economic and cultural ecosystems easier and much earlier.

I don't think that early induction into specific ideologies as something to be described as blanket good. This kind of monolingualism certainly hasn't helped the intellectual life of the average American or its society writ large.


In the big picture perhaps, but I tend to think about the raw economic and having-a-say-in-the-world status of an individual. In that sense, it's statistically better to be at the center and the mainstream. You can luck and hack your way into something from the periphery but it's harder. The wider benefits of cross-pollination is another discussion.

Nothings stops you from learning whatever second language you want.

I think having English as a native language actually gives us a huge advantage: we can travel to a large chunk of the world and have a pretty good chance of being understood. We can work in globally relevant jobs with no language barrier. And so on.


> Nothings stops you from learning whatever second language you want.

You're right, nothing is stopping one from learning a second language; unfortunately not only do most english speakers lack incentive, but also they lack the ability to practice in the way most other languages do. Most of the time when you run into non-native english speakers, they would rather practice their english with you, even when in their country of origin.

Additionally, there's very little lingual diversity in the US as it stands. Sure, there are plenty of spanish speakers, but early education doesn't really focus on teaching spanish with any sort of fluency as a true end-goal.

So situationally it just makes learning a second language that much more difficult. Nonetheless, I do agree with you that there are obviously huge benefits to it; the few that you mention, along with many others.


> Nothings stops you from learning whatever second language you want.

A lack of incentive is what stops most.

> we can travel to a large chunk of the world and have a pretty good chance of being understood. We can work in globally relevant jobs with no language barrier. And so on.

You described the benefit of knowing English, not being a native English speaker.


The advantage of being a native English speaker is that you do not have to waste years of your life learning English as a second language. You could spend the same amount of time learning a different language... but you probably can find a better use for that time.

In the time I spent learning English -- which is still far from perfect, especially in spoken form -- I probably could have learned quantum physics instead. Except, I realistically couldn't have, because good textbooks on this topic do not exist in my language, I wouldn't be able to learn more online, etc.

Now imagine removing an equivalent amount of knowledge from your life -- that is the price you would have to pay for not being a native English speaker.

(The idea of Esperanto as everyone's second language is that instead of some people spending 10+ years learning the common language, and some lucky people spending 0, everyone would spend 2 years instead. Until people would hopefully realize that private languages are useless, and then it would be 0 for everyone.)


> It gets watered down for the purposes of internationality to the point that we lose even our productive affixes.

I have no idea what you're talking about. Nobody in English-speaking countries is changing the way they speak "for the purposes of internationality." And the way a bunch of languages are importing scores of English words wholesale isn't much richer in my view.


There have been studies, and I know this also anecdotally from native speakers, that e.g. "business English", at least in non-English countries, becomes its own, more restrictive variant of English because of the high percentage of non-native speakers. I know that some such native speakers have said that they feel their English got worse after living abroad for a while.

Of course, overall, this is a very slow process. People don't stop applying the rules or simplify vocabulary over night or even within the span of a couple of years, but there is growing evidence in general that the more speakers a language has, the more it tends to simplify structurally, e.g. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.181274


Sure, and materials produced by the government or for wide consumption are written in very simple language. But this is somewhat outside what "typical" native speakers are using.

At the same time you have a major advantage by most of the internet being (language wise) accessible to you from the get to go.

I can just say that if I would have been able to speak english in my teenage years it would have majorly influenced my life in a likely positive but at least more interesting direction. Sadly back then I neither had any reasonable english skills nor was I aware of how much it would help me.

Through I guess by now it has become quite obvious how use-full english is (wrt. IT/CS).


I’m sure that it is better to learn English from a young age, yes. But as it stands currently, you have an advantage over me.

While you might have a slight disadvantage if you ever really needed to talk about someone while they are standing next to you, I personally feel like I have a much bigger disadvantage since English is not my native language.

My English is at a C2 level, and as such I am able to understand and explain complex concepts with ease, however my debating and small talk skills are nowhere nears as good in English as they are in my native language. I find it much harder to convince people using English. I know that the only thing that will make it better is practice, but this takes a lot of time and effort.


Re. Point 2

Move to glasgow if you want to be able to switch into a "different" language


Have you tried Brummie? Non-native speakers often have significant trouble with England's non-RP accents.

Back in the day, French was the dominant language for international communications. As such, France was the only major League of Nations (might have been a different group) power to vote against Esperanto being pushed for international communications at that time. The USA was supportive at the time. Now the tables are turned and native English speakers have a significant advantage on the world stage, so the US and UK would not benefit as much.

In recent years, Esperanto has pushed itself as more of an international auxiliary language. If it's much easier to learn than English, than everyone can continue speaking their national language and use Esperanto as an intermediary language. It's an interesting idea, but I figure we'll just move towards fewer and fewer major languages until only 5-10 are widely spoken (Ex: english, spanish, mandarin, Hindi...etc).


It's because Esperanto is much easier to learn. Teaching everybody English will take thousands of hours of every persons life.

It's about a 10x difference. You can actually learn it with negative time investment if you use it as precursor to learning English:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaedeutic_value_of_Esperant...


I'm not particularly familiar with Esperanto, but I imagine the idea is that it's much easier to learn than English. English is stupidly complicated—not necessarily more-so than other languages, but well above what an intentionally-designed language could achieve.

Esperanto (and all the other intentionally designed languages) are simple and logical only because nobody actually speaks them as a native language. They're consistent because everyone learned them from the same miniscule corpus of available books and the occasional film.

If any of the intentionally designed languages were to actually come into common use, it would immediately be subject to the same kind of regional pronunciation differences, usage drift over time, coining of neologisms and idiomatic phrases, etc. that make real languages so complicated.


Another consequence of almost all Esperanto speakers having learned the language later in life and without spending a lot of time using it, is that a beginner is less likely to get negative feedback like "Lau Zamenhof cu estas malbona frazon." when they make a mistake like translating from their mother tongue too literally. The other person might just blame their lack of understanding on their own limited command of the language.

> If any of the intentionally designed languages were to actually come into common use, it would immediately be subject to the same kind of regional pronunciation differences, usage drift over time, coining of neologisms and idiomatic phrases, etc. that make real languages so complicated.

The drift would probably be much smaller than historically, because now we have the internet and global culture. And the common language would make the world even more connected.

If Esperanto would come into common use tomorrow, Hollywood would start producing movies in Esperanto, and people around the world would be watching them. That would already be a force acting against local drift. If people around you decide to replace X by Y, but 9 out of 10 movies keep using X, the change is less likely to stick.

Neologisms and idioms, I agree, but there is a chance they would spread to other countries.


Updating the ortography once in a while would take care of most of the problems. There are real languages that have successfully made "updates" to reflect the shifts in pronunciation, or the usage of additional sounds (compared to Latin), unlike English.

> "updates" to reflect the shifts in pronunciation,

Which pronunciation will you choose? If you are a prescriptive linguist from Newcastle you will presumably expect everyone to use a short a in 'castle' but someone from the south would use a long a. And which language do you have in mind when you imply that there are languages that are pronounced in the same way by all of its speakers?

Anyway, there is no Academy in charge of English so if you want to get started on spelling reform just go to it. Promote your revised spelling amongst your friends and colleagues. Or should that be: 'Promoat yor rivized speling amongst yor frends and koleegs.'?


> Which pronunciation will you choose? If you are a prescriptive linguist from Newcastle you will presumably expect everyone to use a short a in 'castle' but someone from the south would use a long a.

It occurs to me that in an alternate universe, the answer could be "both spellings are correct", because logically speaking, if both pronunciations are correct, shouldn't the same apply to the written version?

Come to think of it, the idea that a word with many correct pronunciations has only one correct spelling is actually totally weird! Why should writing be more prescriptive than speech?


> And which language do you have in mind when you imply that there are languages that are pronounced in the same way by all of its speakers?

That is not a requirement for updating the orthography or even the spelling. It also wasn't a requirement for introducing the writing system, print, etc. I doubt English has ever been pronounced the same way everywhere and likewise for any other language. Regional differences in spoken language did not stop e.g. Germany from updating its textual representation.

Funnily enough, your example looks perfectly readable to me. I'd guess it would be about as hard to read for English native speakers as Dutch is. It needs a few fixes (rivized -- only the first one should be an i, etc), but something like that would definitely be an improvement over current spelling.


English is stupidly complicated to speak perfectly, but it's stupidly easy to speak badly and still be understood because it's analytic rather than inflectional and relies so much on word order.

It's an easy language to do business in, but a very hard language to sound perfect in. It's also a hard language to read and write.


But English is so broken, from what I see there are consts for spelling where you could create a language with clear rules and no freaking exceptions based on the history of the word. Maybe if you could reform/refactor English to drop the historical stuff and write words exactly how they sound - we would rename this language to not cause confusion or outrage, like a clean refactor.

When you consider that words are essentially the same thing as sinograms (chinese characters), the spelling is not a big deal.

English spelling needs to remain the same because they are primarily visual. Native level English users just scan the general shapes of words and know the meanings in the same way that Chinese users just scan the general gists of the characters.

The nice result is that you can have 10 wildly different English accents / dialects that all use the same spelling. It keeps everyone bound together.

After all, if you went with phonetic spelling, which accent would you choose?


The comparison is generous to Chinese characters. Even the world's worst speller, confronted with an uncommon English word, could make a guess at the spelling that's probably decipherable. If you forget a Chinese character you may not even be able to put the first stroke to paper.

Yes, of course. But that was not the point I was making. Personally I find alphabets to be superior for that reason. But to be fair, I also don't know Chinese!

There's an unbelievable amount of woo and magical thinking floating around this subject. It definitely requires more effort to learn and remember. But yes, point taken.

Forget dialects, why is it possible in English that words sound different while being spelled the same way? Pronunciation is completely unpredictable, you have to know (guess) the etymology of every loanword and remember which of them have the original pronunciation and which of them the butchered one.

Why is scythe spelled with a C?.


In the Early Modern period, "scythe" was actually spelled "sithe". The spelling changed to resemble a (false) classical etymology.[1] A similar thing happened to the words "island", "ache" and "tongue", which were originally spelled "iland", "ake" and "tung".

See also "some" (originally "sum"), "friend" (originally "frend"), "delight" (originally "delite") and "could" (originally "coude").

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythe


Cynthia, cinder, cyrillic... I wonder why scythe is spelled with an S...

Yeah, it’s kind of crazy that we’ve come to pronounce ‘c’ (which often stands for the Greek ‘K’) as ‘s’...

You use the official accent .

There isn't one. English is not imposed by an authority, it is pulled and pushed from all directions by schools, corporations, governments, history, fashion, misunderstanding, other languages, bloody mindedness, and more.

The one used on national UK TV for example and as I said it would be a fork, you don't want to force people to change, though something like Esperanto would cause less outrage then forking english it seems.

I learned Esperanto because it was geeky and super easy to learn, and now I use it almost every day. I've made friends all over the world via the language, and can find people wherever I am to hang out and chat with. It's awesome. In fact, 6 weeks ago I moved from the UK to Spain and so far I've spent about 80% of my time using only Esperanto, with a combination of broken English and Spanish the rest of the time. I wrote a post a while back (that did pretty well here on HN) summing up why I love the language: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18688619

Mi lernis Esperanton pro la nerdeco kaj pro tio, ke ĝi estas tre facile lernebla kaj amuza. 3 jarojn poste kaj mi uzas la lingvon ĉiutage kun amikoj de la tuta mondo. Kie ajn mi troviĝas, preskaŭ ĉiam mi povas trovi amikon (saluton!) kaj vagadi, babili, kaj nur Esperantumi kune. Fakte, antaŭ 6 semajnoj mi transloĝiĝis al hispanio kaj ĝis nun Esperanton mi uzis 80% de la tempo, kaj miksaĵon de la angla kaj mia rompita hispana krom Esperanto la ceteran. Jen artikolo, kiun mi skribis (anglalingve) por klarigi tial, kial mi tre ĝuas la lingvon: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18688619


Esperanto isn't actually that universal. It's very European, using a Latin alphabet, grammar and syntax from romance languages, etc. Its going to be very easy for a Spanish or English or German speaker to pick up, for example. Probably a bit less easy for someone speaking a language on the idno side of indo European, like a hindi speaker, and then progressively harder as you get further and further away from the languages' core influences. Im bilingual between languages from two totally unrelated language families (Indo European and dravidian) - and Esperanto is a lot closer to the former than the latter. I dont know if its even possible to make a language universal between disparate language families.

You're not wrong, but if you're designing a universal language I think Latin script is the only feasible option. You're not helping anyone if you invent an entirely new script that everyone has to learn from scratch, and that doesn't even have extant keyboards. Latin script is the only choice that makes sense -- most people worldwide already have at least some familiarity with it, and it has excellent universal hardware and software support. Nothing else even comes close.

I agree, but for the same reasons shouldn't Esperanto just be English or Spanish? Way more people are familiar with these systems than Esperanto.

Esperanto is much easier to learn.

Not really; maybe for a particularly motivated individual but not on the large scale. You'll have more succeeds teaching English to large numbers of people because more people will be motivated to learn it, because learning English presently had WAY more immediate short-term utility than learning Esperanto.

Have you tried. I wonder if I'm more qualified to judge or are you.

I know three languages, Finnish is my native and I know both Sweden and English. I'm not good at languages and but Esperanto was incredibly easy to learn. The grammar is so simple and logic.

Words are created from 900 roots by just adding affixes or making compounds. This makes learning the vocabulary incredibly easy.


𐑢𐑦𐑔 ·𐑿𐑯𐑦𐑒𐑴𐑛, 𐑞 𐑦𐑯𐑑𐑤𐑴𐑛𐑳𐑒𐑖𐑩𐑯 𐑝 𐑯𐑵 𐑨𐑤𐑓𐑩𐑚𐑧𐑑𐑦𐑒 𐑕𐑦𐑕𐑑𐑩𐑥 𐑐𐑮𐑩𐑟𐑧𐑯𐑑𐑕 𐑯𐑴 𐑕𐑦𐑜𐑯𐑦𐑓𐑦𐑒𐑩𐑯𐑑 𐑑𐑧𐑒𐑯𐑩𐑤𐑪𐑡𐑦𐑒𐑩𐑤 𐑐𐑮𐑪𐑚𐑤𐑩𐑥𐑟, 𐑨𐑟 𐑿 𐑒𐑩𐑯 𐑕𐑰.

(With Unicode, the introduction of new alphabetic writing systems presents no significant technological problems, as you can see.)


Now make that as easy to type on computers and phones as Latin script.

With enough momentum, it will be. For now, it takes effort to set up a keyboard but it is certainly doable across desktops, tablets, and mobile devices.

For maximum irony, you should end your post with at least two emojis. (-:

Let's imagine that there is an auxiliary language that takes 10 words from every language on Earth.

Such a language would in fact be profoundly unfair to speakers of minority languages today because it would deny them access to the largest markets of the world. The English speakers would keep their knowledge and access to global markets while the Finnish speakers would gain 10 words of English. Woopty doo.

So a language that takes words only from the top 5 languages would be better, yes? Because it teaches minority speakers more words from more important languages. But even still, what does that give you if you learn 500 words from each major language and the grammar is a bizarre mash up of totally different languages?

The most "fair" language would be the one that gives the minority language speakers useful and meaningful access to the most influential language family "at a discount". Picking from one family would allow one to distill the grammar and vocabulary, giving the student truly useful and applicable information if they decide to later branch out into natural languages / dialects.

In today's world, the most influential language family is by far Indo-European (for better or worse). And it just so happens that this language family is the easiest to synthesize and join back together, although there's nothing stopping others from trying to make a Semitic auxiliary language or a Sino-Tibetan auxiliary language, etc.


This is incorrect. First, grammatically Esperanto shares much with Asian languages:

http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/europeanorasiat...

It's also generally true that a speaker of an Asian language will have an easier time learning Esperanto than another Asian language.

The Chinese are one of the biggest state supporters of Esperanto. Radio Beijing has Esperanto programs and you can get a degree in it from some Chinese universities.


> Esperanto creates a kind of "level playing field," because it's a second language for almost everyone who speaks it, says Humphrey Tonkin.

It doesn't. It is entirely based on European and Western culture. Language have huge influent on thought process, and it seems that thought process needed for Esperanto is a Western-centric.


> Language have huge influent on thought process, and it seems that thought process needed for Esperanto is a Western-centric

I believe that Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been considered unfounded and a meme for a long time now. It sort of makes sense, but strangely I don't think there is any evidence for such a thing.


There's evidence against strong Sapir-Whorf in the logical-language subculture. They originally wanted people to learn logic by learning Loglan, but today the speakers of Lojban and Toaq are usually either fluent or logical but not both.

The weakest forms of Sapir-Whorf are obviously true, via Zipf's law; being able to shorten long phrases into short nonce words allows for faster communication, which allows for normalization of concepts, in a positive feedback loop. In English, for example, it's no accident that the shortest two words are "a" and "I" and that they are also the most two common ways to refer to things; "u" is on the way there, too!


I agree that it is highly unlikely that language affects what you can or cannot think. But there are some strong differences between European languages and Chinese. Some of the Chinese particles function very different from anything in English. For example `ma` and `ba` can act like a verbal punctuation mark.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_particles


So it is just my own experience, but it actually does affect the way you think somehow.

I speak 4 languages (including 3 fluently that I use everyday) and I very often come across ideas or subtleties that just does not exist in one of those languages. When I started learning Japanese, I clearly remember understanding naturally some concepts in it that just cannot be expressed that precisely in English or French.

One example that I come across often is the word "fluent" that just does not exists in French (there are equivalent translations, but no way to convey the very same idea).

Once you speak if fluently, some words in Japanese have a very deep meaning that just cannot be translated while keeping the same exact meaning, like the words yabai or sugoi (to take very easy examples).

You can even tell that Esperanto is very Western-centric just by looking at it structure anyway. It is written from the left to the right, has spaces between words, the same 3 different sets of characters (caps, non-caps and hand-written) with similar rules, same punctuation...


I didn't know about Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or any argument on it, but what I know is that the flow of information during sentence construction is totally different. You cannot use the same flow in English to construct natural-sounding Japanese sentence, and vice versa. The amount of supplement information alone is different.

A quick example is that my mother tongue doesn't have tense, and I still misuse tense all the time in English when I am careless simply because I am not used to incorporating time information during sentence creation when the time information is not an important information.

It does not necessarily change your cognition or world view, but it does change what information you are actively looking for/collecting.


Hmm, I think it makes a lot of sense that a language would govern your thought patterns. This happens in software, you are limited in what you can create and do by what concepts you can easily express, why wouldn’t this be true for language? I truly want to know because I have heard this many times and believed it, but if there’s no evidence I’d need to reevaluate.

> This happens in software, you are limited in what you can create and do by what concepts you can easily express

Even this is rare in software. For example, I recall reading a blog "Why Python is a Lisp" or something. And it basically destroyed this idea that Lisp was some magical insane language because the author did all the lisp things except they used python.

But yes, in some of the minor claims, I think there's some credence to the idea. But the idea that one language is incapable of understanding concepts in another is unfounded.


I used to think so too but I once did a little thought experiment, and while it seems to be true that language influences our thought patterns, I'm not sure if it necessarily limits them.

Empirically, we are able to think thoughts and feel things that we cannot describe in words. I know I'm able to feel ennui, limerence, or hygge without knowing these words.

I can also perceive things and states without necessarily being able to describe them precisely with single words (but I could probably describe them approximately with many words)

The classic example is that the Inuit have many words for different types of snow -- implicit in this example is that they are able to recognize different types of snow and have codified them into shared symbols (words). But to me, that doesn't mean the rest of us who don't have those words cannot perceive the same if we'd lived in the same environment. Children can tell packing snow from sleet from a dusting even without knowing the words.

There's an industry of people romanticizing certain words in a foreign culture, claiming them to be untranslatable, and then writing books/articles about them. Not all of this is without merit, but I believe that the words themselves aren't so much untranslatable, but that they have no compact representation outside of a certain cultural context.

Words are compressions of meaning, but meaning can be perceived outside of verbal representation, or even language. It seems to me one can look at a picture or taste a meal or listen to instrumental music and perceive and manipulate meaning through no use of language at all.


I think this rationale is largely conflated with the idea that the laguage we speak dictates how we think. As others have mentioned, this is largely considered a falacy nowadays.

The most obvious argument against this is that you can very easily conceive of something but be unable to articulate it. You can _think_ something but be unable to _put it into words_. Given this, it stands to reason that thought =/= language.

Similarly, new words are coined all the time to refer to new and original ideas, these ideas must - if you believe language dictates what we can conceive - be impossible to form.

If you're interested in this subject, I can strongly recommend The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. (It's available on Kindle and there's plently of 2nd hand paperbacks online too.)


> This happens in software, you are limited in what you can create and do by what concepts you can easily express

Because the computer isn't really thinking. It's just mechanically following what the language says. So of course what you can do is limited by what the language can express, because that's all there is.

Human minds don't seem to be the same. They can have ideas without necessarily needing to start with language to build the idea on.

For one thing, we've all experienced having a thought but being unable to think of the word for it. Despite being unable to articulate it, you can look in the dictionary at possible words and tell from their definitions whether they match.

You could say that this is just our brains thinking in terms of that word without being able to recall its concrete form. (The essential meaning of a word and the spelling/sound of it might be handled separately by the brain.) Maybe that's why sometimes, but it's also possible to have a thought and not know that there is a word for it. You might tell a friend about someone who has an annoying habit of rigidly following and enforcing the rules even when that serves no constructive purpose, and your friend might tell you that's called being legalistic.

Still, you could argue that's still language-based thought because all you did was compose together several pieces of language ("rigidly following", "constructive purpose", etc.), and that your new vocabulary word is really just a shorthand for that composition. Maybe that is true for some words, but it can't be true for all of them. If words can only be introduced by reference to language, then there's no way language could have formed in the first place. There must have been a first word.

Another approach is a thought experiment: does a feral child (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child) have thoughts? If a human grows up with no exposure to language, that will have profound effects on them, but I don't think those effects go as far as making it impossible to have thoughts.

Having said all that, do I think that language heavily influences thinking? Definitely. For one thing, exposure (and non-exposure) to certain ideas has a big influence on thinking. Words convey ideas, and when you learn a word, you learn its idea. It may also be true that ideas are easier to think about (internally) if they have a corresponding word. And it's certainly easier to discuss ideas if there are words for them, so those ideas will be discussed more often.


Esperanto is like the "Soylent" of languages. Some folks like the idea of it, some might even use it, but no one _actually_ likes esperanto (OK, except the 1000 "native" speakers the article refers to).

There's something profoundly unappealing in a hard-to-define subjective sense about engineering a language for humans to communicate with.

There's plenty of languages in existence that already "just work". What's wrong with English, Spanish and French? One could argue that English has already taken on the role that Esperanto was supposed to have. In the colonial past that might have been French or Spanish. In the distant future an Asian language could become a lingua franca? Or perhaps more radically, effective machine translation could render such efforts unnecessary?

Yes, there's annoying things about real languages. There's inconsistent grammar in English, "Passe Compose" tense in French, one could list hundreds of pain points for every language. But none of these things actually prevent someone from the practical usage of a language and being conversant in the language. Why do we need to make-up another language with iron-clad consistency? It's just not necessary.


I can understand French and German. I will never be able to speak French without offending the ears of natives. German I might do better in with another 10 years, that will be about 20 years of being an annoying drain on the culture.. A bit like a second childhood.

In Esperanto, it's about 3 months to get to not terrible for native speakers (yes there are native speakers) and a year or two to be quite good, maybe as annoying as your typical undergraduate to the top level of translators, authors, etc.


> Some folks like the idea of it, some might even use it, but no one _actually_ likes esperanto

I do. And I know a few others who do.

I mean, my preferred choice is to use my native language. Esperanto comes second. English third. But of course, the choice of language is usually determined by the intended audience.

The reason Esperanto comes second despite being used less than English is that it feels "more natural". This is probably hard to explain and hard to believe if you don't have a personal experience, but it is so. The high regularity has a psychological impact. I usually don't notice irregularities in my native language, because I am used to them so much. But in a foreign language, any irregularity is a mental reminder than I am not speaking my native language. Esperanto has more regularity, therefore fewer reminders of being foreign.


Sure, but why do we have to use a character set that can only cleanly represent sounds made by the Romans of 2500 years ago?

Same reason Americans use Phillips head screws instead of something sensible like square drive. Network effects. It may not be ideal but you can get by with it, and most other people are using it as well. Some might look north wistfully, but most around them continue using what they know.

And keep in mind, switching to square drive would be easy. Screwdriver sets already come with square drive bits, and hardware stores sell square drive fasteners. Robertson's patents expired generations ago. If America can't drop Phillips head screws, do you really think there is any chance for replacing the Latin alphabet? Let's get real.


Well, I suppose the printing press has a way of blocking progress. Some languages did manage to update their orthography more recently though, e.g. Lithuanian.

If you look at the former Soviet Union (CIS), you can see a shift away from Russian Cyrillic, so I suppose given enough political incentive, such changes are in fact possible.


I’m going to be pedantic here, but Phillips head screws serve a purpose - they limit torque by allowing the driver to cam out. They’re almost always improperly used, but my point stands :)

Torx is far superior to square drive, too...


Cam-out seems like an ex post facto justification to me. Henry Ford would have picked Robertson if not for the licensing trouble. Robertson's lack of a cam-out 'feature' wasn't the reason.

Agreed, and that's what I meant by "almost always improperly used". Phillips is great for use in plastics in many cases, but they were popular long before that became an issue.

Personally my drive of choice is Torx - they're six-sided so they're easier to align the driver, they have excellent torque transfer, they're hard to "wallow out", and the drivers are relatively inexpensive to manufacture. Beyond that, hex ("Allen") head are good for smaller fasteners where the "wings" on a Torx driver are so small they're fragile, Phillips is good for applications where you don't want it to be easy to over-torque, and plain old "flat head" is very well-suited for dirty environments where grease and debris may end up coating the head. I'd certainly not want Torx heads on the bolts under my Jeep, for instance, because they're a pain to clean out. I can clean out a flat head with the corner of the driver and be able to use it effectively, which is practical unique to that design and very important for those applications.

I have nothing against Robertson. They're as good as anything for 90%+ of applications, it's just that they're uncommon enough where I am that it doesn't make sense to use them.


We use the "character set" our parents and our culture gave us. It does the job as well as any other character set, because language is not merely a tool, like a set of bits for your screwdriver. It's a part of your identity and your place in the world.

You can, of course, pick up other languages and with effort use them either skillfully, or just pragmatically. But no one will ever feel that Esperanto is "their" language. It will always be either a curiosity or, at best, a utilitarian tool (and even then only if it ever becomes wildly successful).


I don't feel English is "my" language, either. It's a language I use, more than my native one, even... but that doesn't necessarily mean I think it's perfect. The point is that its textual representation is lossy.

"Esperanto Is Not Dead: Can The Universal Language Make A Comeback?"

I'm not trying to be that guy but, looking at the title for this piece I'm thinking: Esperanto is dead and, it is not a universal language.

"... Humphrey Tonkin, an English professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He taught himself Esperanto at age 14, and then used it to travel across Eastern Europe and beyond."

I feel like this needs some clarification.


There is an active Esperanto couch serving community. Free room and board to those who speak the language.

This service is called "Pasporta Servo" for those interested

“Couch surfing”

Most informative thing I have read about Esperanto is http://jbr.me.uk/ranto/index.html

> Here in Scotland I've met more Klingon speakers than Esperantists!

I wonder how many of those "Klingon speakers" can actually have a ten-minute dialog on a random topic.

The remainder of the article can be summarized as "Esperanto is not perfect" which I fully agree with. And it has a lot of irregularities, too! But still, ten or hundred times less than an average natural language. Which makes it so easy to learn.


I gave it a go several years ago out of curiosity. Knowing 1 Germanic language(English), 1 Romance language(Spanish) and 1 Slavic(Bulgarian), I found it brutally easy. For the most part, I could understand the average conversation out of the box with ease. One thing that came to my mind is that it could be a huge win for nlp purposes: With such simple, yet incredibly strict rules, you'd be able to make an incredibly fast and efficient tokenizers, parsers and extracting all sorts of information with nearly 100% accuracy(if not 100 - as far as I know the language has no exceptions in any shape or form). Real shame it didn't gain any considerable popularity.

I tried it too, but eventually walked away from the endeavor. I found you really have to learn to think the "Esperanto way" of saying things. That's the tricky part. At least, if I tried to communicate a more complex thought other than a general conversation, it wouldn't really be understood by the community, or at least be understandable, but just incorrect.

To overcome this, I think I would have next had to emerge myself into more complex texts. For example, I had 1984 to read, but just never got round to it.

The other thing was this personal relationship building thing the community embraces. I really am a loner so am not really into their general ideology. It really freaked me out when they wanted to meet me when visiting my town, or worse still, stay with me! That's the thing that actually really turned me off and made me ditch the whole idea.

I've played with various languages over the years, including conlangs, and actually found Swedish to be my favorite. There are some hard parts, like the declensions of definite, indefinite, plural with its genders, but practicing general conversation with my wife (who is a native Finnish speaker with Swedish as a second language), found we could communicate simply, quite well. It just felt more natural and fluent. The way you literally say things translate quite well to English, so I can still think in English --if that makes any sense.


That's another thing I've noticed: having used all the languages I speak as primary for extended periods of time, it seems that I can entirely switch my way of thinking into either one. That is, my thoughts can operate with either one of the three and I switch between them depending on the context. Which is extremely convenient but comes with a drawback - I'm quite possibly the worst interpreter out there: ask me to translate a sentence with more than one verb and you get gibberish at best. Unless it's written down and I have the time to process it.

The Esperanto word formation rules can collide, causing ambiguities http://jbr.me.uk/ranto/hh.html

FYI: The HTTPS cert for this domain expired.

Diplomacy, Science and maybe Aviation. I believe that the entire world would benefit if Esperanto were adopted as lingua franca in these three fields, especially in Science.

It's hard for the members of the "linguistic status quo" to realize the huge amount of contributions which are not made, how huge is the amount of super intelligent and talented people who don't take part in the game simply because they don't have the resources and the access needed to become proficient at English.


Recently someone said to me that the EU really needs a common language - just like how English is spoken across most USA states. But none of the current European languages would be acceptable across the EU.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but now I wonder if Esperanto could fill that role?



Now that the UK has left you can assume that the main working language of the institutions is Irish English, with the Irish parts rarely used.

I think English already does fill that role.

Regardless of what you think about the idea of an artificial international auxiliary language, Esperanto is very poorly designed as a language. Sure, it's easy to learn, because it has a small vocabulary and is very regular. But it's like a programming language designed by an amateur: full of bells and whistles and useless stuff that the designer thought would be cool, without regard to the actual challenges faced by language users. Let me explain a few ways that Esperanto is messed up.

One issue is that it's hard to pronounce. Not from the perspective of an English speaker or a speaker of another European language, but from a global perspective. The problem is that it has a lot of complex consonant clusters (sequences of consonants jammed together without vowels in between) which are fine for someone coming from Polish (as Zamenhof, Esperanto's creator, was) but which are nightmarish for people coming from languages that don't have these clusters. Consider for example Chinese, which has no consonant clusters at all. Consider the closest Chinese approximation to the Russian city name "Vladivostok": 符拉迪沃斯托克 fuladiwosituoke (note also that there's no /v/ in Chinese nor many other languages, despite /v/ being very important in Esperanto). A Chinese speaker is not going to find Esperanto easy to produce, with all kinds of Slavic-esque words beginning with kv- such as basic words like kvam (how). Esperanto also has a number of distinctions between sounds which will be lost by speakers of most languages. For example the difference between horo (clock) and hxoro (chorus), involving a distinction between /h/ and /x/ that most languages do not make. Basically Zamenhof was coming from Polish and he did succeed in making Esperanto's phonology simpler than Polish, but it's still very complex from a global perspective. An international auxiliary language should be easy to pronounce.

Relatedly, Zamenhof made up some new diacritics to spell these crazy sounds that he shouldn't have included in the language to begin with. ĉ spells "ch" in Esperanto and in no other language. If you want your language to catch on, why would you give it diacritics that no other language has, which people will have trouble typesetting and typing? Since Esperantists can rarely type ĉ and related glyphs, they end up typing cx, sx, jx, gx, etc. instead. Why not just ch or sh? Why not just ditch these sounds altogether?

There are lots of other issues. The verb endings -as, -is, -us for present, past, and future tense end up sounding very similar to each other in fast speech (and the idea of making a tense distinction by changing the form of the verb is very European to begin with). The accusative endings -n are so confusing that (so I hear) the native Esperanto speakers have dropped this feature of the language. There is grammatical gender in the pronouns, and adjectives must agree in number and case with nouns.

So to conclude the rant, ironically, if Esperanto ever does take over as an auxiliary language, it will be solely because it has the largest community of all the auxiliary languages, not because it is a good language. In other words, the same way that a normal language takes over. I guess it bugs me that it could have been done much better. It gives a bad name to constructed languages. Interlingua and Ido are big improvements, and you can also check out Lojban for a much more radical non-Eurocentric approach.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interlingua https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ido https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lojban


All valid criticisms but especially the accusative critique misses that the language has unique features, such as the possibility to change word order pretty much freely, so you can stress different parts of the sentence.

I am actively learnkgn Esperanto and find it deeply enjoyable - I speak English, German and French (mostly) fluently and have dabbled in Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Malayalam, Mandarin and a tiny bit of Lojban. None of them have given me this sense of joy while learning vocabulary or practising as its really just a matter of 'recognising' a word - usually from your own native language and sometimes from others.

I'd dare to say this is the key feature of Esperanto: its incredibly pleasant and beginner friendly.

As to Lojban, I was incredibly motivated but just had to give up after a few weeks. Its like Latin or Sanskrit, a mostly theoretical written language with overly stingent rules. Lojban words can be used as verbs or nouns, but when used as verbs they have a strict fixed order where subject and objects go that you simply have to learn by heart. All words are 'averaged' from the most common languages and follow a common scheme - so pretty much none of them are recognisable to anyone. As such just a horror to learn.

That said I still admire the effort. Learning different languages opens wide horizons and completely new conceptual worlds and anyone who doesn't try at least to learn a second language really misses out even on understanding their own language better.


To me this is sort of the principles vs pragmatism problem. Would it be better if everyone spoke Esperanto? Sure. It's also true that you generate a lot more good in terms of economic opportunity for every dollar spent educating the underprivileged in English than you would trying to expand the reach of Esperanto.

Heard that Esperanto is a good off ramp for learning other languages since they borrow basic elements from each language, but I haven't tried myself.

If Esperanto were ever adapted in significant numbers it would develop irregular forms and all the other quirks that make natural languages difficult to learn.

Maybe after a couple of centuries. Languages don't change that fast, especially after the introduction of the printing press and formal language education in schools.

You can read 200 year old texts without problems. Shakespeare is close to five hundred years old and you can still understand it with a little effort.


It seems like it would be exactly analogous to the formation of pidgins, which takes one generation, not centuries. Also, if I think back to high school I would challenge the idea that every speaker of modern English has "no problems" reading 200-year-old texts.

People have been learning foreign languages in school without developing a pidgin for a long time now. Pidgin formation seems much more likely if the language acquisition is not as part of formal training, but from an informal need to communicate like for trade.

Because foreign languages have a community of native speakers whose way of speaking is ultimately authoritative.

But often you're not missing meaning but simply context. Shakespeare is not hard per se due to the language but because its based in a world that is alien to you.

Not if it were only ever a second language, learned in classrooms and nowhere else.

Think modern Latin: It's not evolving anymore. It's adding words, but its grammar is unchanging.


But in the medieval period, when Latin was actually used as a lingua franca in just the way you suggest, it continued evolving, not just in vocabulary, but also in grammar and pronunciation, to the point where Latin users from different countries struggled to understand each other. If Latin today is really unchanging it's probably because there are few people who aren't classics scholars or in the Vatican who actually produce anything in it.

> If Latin today is really unchanging it's probably because there are few people who aren't classics scholars or in the Vatican who actually produce anything in it.

That's probably a big factor. Maybe Esperanto would achieve similar stability if it were only used by ISO working groups or in other official environments. But if that happens, it ought to come under fire for its Eurocentrism, its sexism, and its general quirkiness, all of which it has been able to skate on because it's never been taken seriously before.


Learning/speaking Toki Pona has all the fun of Esperanto with none of the costs. Seriously enjoyable.

And, of course, English is the de facto lingua franca.


What's wrong with the king's English?

Esperanto is much easier to learn, provided you already know latin or Cyrillic alphabet.

I heard it was very eurocentric. Are there more global alternatives?

There are others under development like Pandunia[0] or Globasa[1].

[0] https://pandunia.info/engli/index.html

[1] https://www.globasa.net/


> I heard it was very eurocentric.

It is.

> Are there more global alternatives?

If you refuse to count English, no, none.


I have a mother, not a fatheress. (Esperanto speakers got the joke)

I don't see any young people choosing to learn a language which has such problems with gender - when a learner has to deal with this in the first lesson.

Assuming male as the default seems to me to be increasingly evolving out of natural languages. Agreeing a reform among Esperanto-speakers seems impossible, given that many are attached to its historical roots.


It is obvious Zamenhof artificially selected the vocabulary to equate grammatical and natural genders. This artificial selection also applied to all words being positive by default: to say bad, you need to say ungood instead.

Yes - "implicit assocation tests" for cognitive bias work on exactly this principle: identifying when 'male' follows the same process as 'good'.

There have been efforts to fix this over the years, but this is indeed a problem with the way that the language was designed.

Esperanto has chosen all words to be masculine positive by default, they could have introduced a feminine-only word like French does though, such as mino.

Esperanto didn't choose anything, it being a language not a person. Zamenhof made a choice, but even he considered the alternatives back in the 1880s, albeit that he decided in the end that a balanced gender mechanism that had the masculine as a marked form was too foreign a concept to speakers of existing languages with unmarked and marked masculines, such as English.

In the more than a century and a quarter since, there have been efforts to fix this, as I said. Several of them are over four decades old at this point.

Use of the prefix "ge-" in the singular (giving "patro" for father, "patrino" for mother, and "gepatro" for parent of unspecified gender) goes back to the 1980s. This has in the decades since even that become mainstream enough that in the last 10 to 15 years "gepatro" is now in Esperanto dictionaries such as Wells's 2010 dictionary. Indeed, it made it into the Plena Ilustrita Vortaro by 2002.

* https://vortaro.net#gepatro_kd

The infix "-iĉ-" was another product of the 1970s/1980s. This gives "patro" for parent of unspecified gender, "patriĉo" for father, and "patrino" for mother. It's less mainstream than singular "ge-", but it was popular enough that Jorge Camacho used it in 1991. It's a more logical and consistent system than singular "ge-", but I suspect that resistance to it is partly rooted in the fact that the L1 languages of "Esperantistoj" do not in the majority have unmarked gender-neutrals and marked masculines for similar words. The claim is that it reinterprets a large corpus of existing past Esperanto works, but a counter to that claim is that similar things are currently happening with words like "actor" in English without similar objections.

And, finally, Ido reformed this all the way back in 1907. It went the marked masculine route (of Esperanto's "-iĉ-") with the infix "-ul-".


English is the universal language.

*In many places.

For some it might be surprising to find just how many people don't speak English.


What an excellent example of Betteridge's Law.

No thanks. Would rather learn Latin, which is a real language.

Lol English is the new Esperanto!

Esperanto sounds and feels too Spanish. If you prefer to replace English supremacy with Spanish-ish supremacy, be my guest.

Esperanto deserves to die, honestly. Romance language speakers don't need another language in their family (and Esperanto is a romance language - I don't see any Germanic or Slavic in there). It's just not very useful. I actually at one point started to see if I could fuse Germanic, Romance and Slavic into a mutt language, but I didn't get very far: http://tormodhellen.com/muttlang.html

But honestly, even if you add more language families into the mix getting a language established without any government backing is going to be extremely hard, if not impossible.


> Esperanto is a romance language - I don't see any Germanic or Slavic in there

There are loads of Esperanto nouns and verbs based on Germanic (mainly based on German, the main Germanic language L.L. Zamenhof knew and a prestigious language for intellectual communication in Eastern Europe at the time, but also a few English roots). With regard to Slavic, the question particle was taken from Polish and I have always assumed that the inflexion of participles was copied from Russian.




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