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What Auxiliary Language Should You Learn and Why

2015-01-09 9 min read Musings marco

As you may know, among the many languages I speak there is Esperanto. When the average American hears the name, the reaction is probably either Huh? for those that never heard about it, or the general notion of a failed project for those who have.

Also, in general, you’ll find that those that have an active opinion will say that nobody needs a made-up language as a form of communication any longer, since everybody speaks English. Those that do not speak English should just learn it!

So, let me back up and talk for a moment about the two reasons auxiliary languages (like Esperanto) were created. One is that they are nobody’s language – they don’t belong to a particular nation or group. As a result, they remove the inherent superiority of the group that owns the language (i.e. is native in it).

The far more important reason, though, is that auxiliary languages are generally easier to learn. They certainly were designed to be easier, and they generally use regularity and predictability to ensure that you’ll know what they mean.

Each auxiliary language has a slightly or largely different approach to ease of learning and understanding. Some focus on being understandable to a complete novice, others on being easy to parse for people that have had an introduction. Some focus on being easy to learn for a speaker of a particular language or groups of languages; others focus on being fair to everybody.

Constructed languages also bring in the biases of the time and culture that gave birth to them. Some of them are gender-neutral; some of them not. Some of them start with a translation of the Bible, some don’t.

Finally, some have large numbers of speakers, while some are actively used only by small numbers.

The behemoth-let of auxiliary languages is currently Esperanto. Its number of speakers is relatively small (somewhere in the single millions), but it is still orders of magnitudes larger than any other auxiliary language. So, if you want to make friends, you better learn Esperanto!

The language has several undoubted flaws, and many more things that some people dislike, that others find totally fine. One such flaw is that Esperanto assumes every word that relates to gendered objects (people and animals, mostly) is masculine. If you want to have the feminine version, you append a suffix (“-in”). Patro, for instance, means father. Mother, then, is patrino.

Esperanto’s not-really flaws are many, as people have different expectations as to what constitutes a good language. For instance, many speakers of Romance languages dislike the existence of a universal antonym prefix (a prefix that reverses the meaning of the root that follows). In Esperanto, longa means (you guessed it!) “long”. “Short” is mallonga, made up of mal- and longa. If “right” is dekstra, then left is obviously maldekstra.

There are two objections: one that many languages use the same root for the opposite, like “sinister” for left, so it makes no sense to create a new word. The other is that the prefix itself, mal- has negative connotations in many (Romance) languages.

In those two objections, you note the biases of the speaker: one is to project ease of learning for oneself (“But all the languages I speak already use a different word!”) onto ease of learning in general; the other is to project meaning from your own language into the newly learned one. Both biases, it should be noted, are almost infinitely stupid. Sadly, they run deep and have left some detritus in Esperanto, too.

Esperanto also has some features that came into the language for all the wrong reasons. For instance, the inventor of Esperanto (Doctor Zamenhof) thought that it was fundamentally important to show that the language could be used for poetry. As a result, there are features that allow you to change word order, reduce the number of syllables in words, etc.

Some of these features are relatively harmless (like the optional elision of the final -o in nouns, meant to generate words stressed on the last syllable). They are all overshadowed by the decision to use the accusative, which is horrendously confusing to the learner from languages without declension. Frankly, I am of mixed opinion about the accusative: it causes me no problem (since it’s a feature of German, in which I am native), but I could see how it’s pretty useless.

For the rest, people get hung up on trivialities. For instance, many people are turned off by the fact Esperanto uses Greek kaj instead of Latin et for “and.” That’s not really something that turns out to be a problem in the real world, as you know the word and use it fluently within an hour of learning the language.

Still, the language irks so much that dozens of projects have sprung up to replace or reform Esperanto. One particularly important project of the kind is Ido, which came about shortly after Esperanto itself. It is sufficiently different that it’s not just a reform but a completely new language, but it’s similar enough that Ido-speakers and Esperanto-speakers are like Italians and Spaniards: we can understand each other if we speak slowly and if we want to.

Ido show very clearly what is going on in the auxiliary language world: it was started as a project to get rid of all the perceived deficiencies of Esperanto: its accusative is strictly optional; its plural does not require a final -j, an admittedly cludgey solution; it uses et instead of kaj; it doesn’t require adjectives and nouns to agree in number and case; it replaces the antonimic prefix mal- with des-; it also uses antonimic roots (like sinistr-).

But Ido never took off. In fact, what happened is that as soon as Ido was started, it split into a plethora of reform groups, all disagreeing on some minor or major feature. The problem haunts Esperanto reform languages (there are many of them) to this day: the people that want the perfect language are sadly not the most social. Those that want to have fun learn a language that is imperfect, but that is spoken by relatively many. The perfectionists may be right and their language superior, but the advantage of learning Ido is so minor compared to Esperanto, it disappears faced the different size in speakerships.

There are, though, other projects that have more or less rejected Esperanto’s approach to auxiliary language. The most famous one is probably Interlingua, which is in essence a cleaned-up Latin. The history of Interlingua is interesting: there was an International Auxiliary Language Association tasked with finding the best international auxiliary language. While it was widely expected at the time it would pick Esperanto (or a derivative), it ended up creating its own language (something computer people are familiar with – the team that decides no database is good enough and writes their own).

Interlingua is not as regular as Esperanto or Ido. In fact, it is quite irregular, because it wants to be more like Latin. The result is a language that is very familiar to anyone who speaks Latin (???) but is really hard to learn (and for no good reason) for anyone who doesn’t.

What about Esperanto reform projects? You know what, I think that’s the approach that works best: stay within the language because it’s good enough, and change the things that don’t work, if possible on an optional basis. For instance, you could start doing what American English has been doing: letting people make mistakes. American English frequently lets people spell things in a way that was considered incorrect, simply because that’s what they do anyway.

In that sense, it would be perfectly fine to drop the accusative, at least where it is clear what’s meant. If “I love you” is mi amas vin in Esperanto, you could easily drop the -n in vin because it’s obvious that’s what one means. The same is true for the agreement of noun and adjective: mi manĝas multajn karotojn (“I eat many carrots”) could easily become mi manĝas multa karotoj. It’s not confusing, and that’s the main thing that grammar rules should do: avoid confusion.

“But!” you might add, “You didn’t even tell us why anyone should learn Esperanto and not just learn English!”

You are right. And here is the reason: while to you English is absolutely easy to learn, it’s because you are native in it. It actually takes a very long time to learn the language, especially because of some features of it that are endearing to the native speaker, but absolutely maddening to a non-native:

  • English spelling is atrocious: similarly spelled words can be pronounced differently; similarly pronounced words can be spelled completely differently; heck, even identically spelled words can be pronounced differently according to their role in a sentence (“You tear my heart apart and a tear drips down my cheek”)
  • Thanks to its Germanic/Romance origin, English has an astounding number of word roots and an eclectic approach to compound word; that makes it really confusing for a learner, who has to learn completely different roots for (virtually) the same thing and is faced with the possibility that a word doesn’t match a root but is a compound.
  • English prepositions are absolutely arbitrary in much of their use. You are on an island but in a country (it is different if I say I am “on Hawaii” and “in Hawaii”); to get at and to get on with have nothing really to do with getting, etc.
  • English can confuse because it isn’t clear what part of the speech a word belongs to. My favorite example is the old story of the computer that (allegedly) translated the saying, “Time flies like an arrow” as if it was structured like “Fruit flies like a banana.”
  • English words tend to be short and pronunciation muddled. As a result, words can sound very similar: I always try to add FIFTY dollars to my Starbucks card, but the barista often hears FIFTEEN.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love English. I spent fifteen years trying to get good at it, and I think I made decent progress. But I will grant you that the deficiencies listed above are real. While even a moderate accent makes it hard for a speaker of English to understand a non-native speaker, I have never had that problem in Esperanto. Both the smaller size of the vocabulary and the smaller number of sounds ensure that there is much less opportunity to get confused.

What about the opposite approach? Let’s reform English, make it easier to spell, make it clearer in its pronunciation, let’s drop some words that are rarely used, and let’s make some features optional.

Why, then you have text speak! TI @ 4 4 U?