Romanizing Esperanto / Romigi Esperanton

When you grow up bilingual, you don’t feel 100% comfortable in either language. The things you say tend to sound odd to most people around you, at least some of the time. You tend to use expressions from the other language, or have a preference for words in one that are shared with the other.

Thinking that learning a third language would make things right, I started learning Esperanto. The original goal was never accomplished, as is turns out there are about as many people full of scorn for my Esperanto as there are for my Italian or German (or English). But I loved the language, and still love it.

Today’s topic, though, is not Esperanto in general. I’ll talk about a problem that has stuck with Esperanto since inception: it’s unusual alphabet. You see, Dr. Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, thought it imperative that reading and writing Esperanto had to be easy to do (probably scared by the example of English orthography). So each sound in Esperanto corresponds more or less exactly to one letter in its alphabet.

While he thought that some letters, like X, Y, or Q, had no real use in a decent language, he added a bunch of letters with a little “hat” (a circumflex accent) on top. Thus, the letter S is pronounced like a strong sibilant “s” (like in English, “supper”). The letter Ŝ, on the other hand (the S with a hat), is pronounced like in English “ship.” For instance, the Esperanto word for “ship” is – what a surprise – ŝipo. (All Esperanto nouns have to end in -o.)

The letter pairs with and without hat were:

  • c and ĉ (think English “tsar” and “chop”)
  • g and ĝ (pronounced like English “gut” and “jet”)
  • j and ĵ (English “yay” and “journal”)
  • h and ĥ ( the former like “hat,” the latter with no equivalent)
  • s and ŝ (“sell” and “ship”)
  • u and ŭ (well, this one doesn’t have a hat but a half moon, just to make it harder; they also sound pretty much the same as English “oo” and “who”)

Back in the day (the late 1880s), the fact you had to find an Esperanto-friendly printer to publish something was not much of a big deal. Esperanto enthusiasts had enough printing houses to choose from, and publishing was something only few people could afford. 

For the rest of “us,” the Esperanto letters were not a problem, since everybody wrote longhand. (I know, right?) Didn’t matter when you sat down at your desk with a feathery quill, dipping into the ink pot and dripping on the parchment, whether you’d add a little hat on top of a letter or not.

Nowadays, as usual, things are more complicated. “Nobody” writes Esperanto in longhand anymore. Support for Esperanto is available on many computer systems (including my favorite, Linux) and on the Web. But keyboards with Esperanto letters are few and far between. Plus, someone who doesn’t speak Esperanto has no idea how to pronounce those letters.

Which is where this idea came from: take the letters of the Latin (English) alphabet and Romanize the Esperanto alphabet. Esperanto is missing the 4 letters Q, W, X, Y. We need to accommodate 6 letters. But at the same time, one of the Esperanto letters is very rarely used, mostly because few people know how to pronounce Ĥ (it’s a guttural H, like they use them in Slavic and some Germanic languages). If we can find an additional letter AND reassign all the English alphabet letters, we have a new Romanization of Esperanto.

I suggest using the values from the Chinese Romanization. They are somewhat odd, but enough people have gotten used to them (especially in English-speaking countries) that they should shock nobody. Reassigning the values we get from those, reassigning some Esperanto letters that confuse, and finding a new symbol is all it takes to write Esperanto with the English alphabet.

Let’s start with the big list, the letters that don’t change. Of course, this doesn’t include any letter with a hat. Also, the fact a letter doesn’t change doesn’t mean it is pronounced like in English. The old Esperanto pronunciation is kept. This list is:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P R S T U V Z

This leaves us with the letters:

J Q W X Y

Now, interestingly in the Romanization of Chinese, the letters J Q and X have a unique pronunciation that matches three of the Esperanto letters we have to assign: J is ĝ (like in Beijing); Q is ĉ like in Qing (the dynasty); X is ĵ (like in Xi`an).

We have Y, which matches to a tee the pronunciation of Esperanto j (which we repurposed as the old ĝ); we have W, which is an almost perfect replacement for the Esperanto ŭ.

The one letter we don’t have is ŝ, which is an important letter. Since we ran out of alphabet letters, we need a readily available symbol. On the keyboard, the one that is almost always available and looks the most like a letter S is (ta-dah!) the dollar sign, $. The main issue with this assignment is that $ looks like a capital S, not a lowercase. In addition, it’s usually not available on standard smartphone letter keyboards. Maybe we want to use a period instead. Since it’s only one letter that needs replacement, though, it doesn’t really matter what you use: any symbol will do.

So, if we summarize:

OLD ESPERANTO ALPHABET

A B C Ĉ D E F G Ĝ H Ĥ I J Ĵ K L M N O P R S Ŝ T U Ŭ Z

NEW ESPERANTO ALPHABET

A B C Q D E F G J H – I Y X K L M N O P R S $ T U W Z

And a sample sentence that contains all letters would turn from:

Laŭ Ludoviko Zamenhof bongustas freŝa ĉina manĝaĵo kun spicoj.

to:

Law Ludoviko Zamenhof bongustas fre$a qina manjaxo kun spicoy

(Both mean, “according to Ludwig Zamenhof, fresh Chinese food with spices tastes good”)

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