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An Easy Version of English

2024-04-11 19 min read Writing marco

You probably know by now that I know and love Esperanto. There is a lot to love about it: the fascinating history with its plot twists, the way I managed to survive my first Esperanto meeting after three weeks of learning, the travels I did with Esperantists all over Europe, and the amazing people that learn Esperanto - quirky, funny, and often able to converse in a dozen languages.

But lately, I have been concerned. Esperanto had a huge boost with the introduction of the Duolingo Esperanto course a few years ago, but as so often, it was picked up for a few moments and then discarded as a useless hobby. English, we are told, is the International Language, and there is no need for something made up.

I clearly have no need for Esperanto any longer, as I speak English (and four other languages) fluently enough. It’s highly more likely that I would find someone that speaks one of those five languages than Esperanto, so while the idea is great, the actual usefulness on the ground is to be doubted.

Worse (or better) than that, translation tools have gotten so much better that, while they cannot replace native skills and frequently make mistakes, they are good enough to understand each other. Even if I were in a place where nobody speaks any of the five languages I know, my phone can translate to another hundred languages.

Esperanto will survive this, because a lot of people care. There is a sufficiently large body of literature available online to ensure that anyone in the 21st century who wants to know Esperanto, can learn it. But that doesn’t mean that Esperanto will ever be used for its intended purpose, as a universal, neutral bridge language. If everyone learns an easy language, everyone can speak with each other!

Is it true that English has become the de facto international language? Learn English and everyone can speak with each other? In certain parts of the world, it certainly feels like that. Even outside of the already enormous anglosphere, there are corners of the world where English is spoken without a second thought. One of the languages I speak natively is German, and it is surprising to me how much advertising in Germany has become bilingual - half German, half English.

Other parts of the world are less fluent. You can still count on English proficiency with anyone dealing with international travel, though. Also, more and more signs are bilingual, and the other language is invariably English. Airports and train stations show that trend more than other places.

Advantages of English

As a language, English has a lot promoting it from the get-go.

The Alphabet

The probably biggest advantage that English can count on, unrelated to the language itself, is the alphabet. As the full name says, the English alphabet is actually Latin and a merger of Greek and Roman traditions. It is shared by almost all European languages, which also means it’s been exported to all colonies of European countries. That means there are few places on Earth (sadly for them) that have not seen the Latin alphabet. Even in places without extensive colonial presence (like China or Japan), the Latin alphabet became familiar because it’s easy. It only has a few dozen letters, unlike the much more complicated writing systems of Chinese or Japanese, so it can be taught as a first step to literacy. Writing and reading for dummies, if you wish.

Simple Grammar

English in many respects is a contact language, created by the merging (creolisation) of a substrate of Anglish with the French imported from the Norman overlords. This translated into complex vocabulary, but a drastically simplified grammar. Nouns lost gender, verbs lost tenses, and cases were dropped. Oddly, this was the case despite the fact both origin languages had some of those features.

Colonial Empire

A third advantage of English is simply England’s past as a world-spanning colonial power. It is sort of miraculous (again, unless you have been subjected to colonization) how this relatively small island off the coast of Europe managed to cast an empire to the far flung, most remote locations on Earth. In the process, it built entire new civilization (again, destroying others), subjugated empires thousands of years older than itself, and exported its customs, manners, and language as superior tools of the civilized. English was part of the prestige communication system, pushing it into the upper classes of the most diverse places.

Economic Clout

Fourth, English is the language of some of the largest economies in the world, including the by far largest. If you want to sell to these economies, you better offer your products and services in English. Refusing to do so generally means you remain a local producer, and knowledge of English is common enough that you can generally find someone able to translate your services and make you a true global entity.

Lack of Alternatives

In fifth place, I’d cite the lack of alternatives. Of the ten languages with the most speakers, five have very complicated writing systems that take forever to learn (Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, and Urdu) three are essentially like English (Spanish, French, Portuguese), and the last one is Russian, which has very complicated grammar and an uncommon alphabet (Cyrillic).

Notice, in the table above, an interesting fact. English has a total of 1.5 billion speakers (more or less), but only about a quarter of them are native. The rest learns English as a second language. Contrast this to Chinese or Spanish, with factors more native speakers than second language learners. Of the ten languages above, only French manages a similar feat, and for similar reasons as English (colonial empire).

Disadvantages of English

English is also notoriously finicky.


English is an outlier among languages using the Latin alphabet, in that there is no clear correspondence between sounds and letters. That is not universally true, but often the spelling of a word is unrelated to its pronunciation, or at least far from it. As a result, it’s generally impossible to tell the pronunciation of a word from spelling, which means reading English and speaking it are different skills.


English, which started as a contact language, over the course of centuries became isolated, developing with little influence from the outside. The result was a language full of peculiar idioms and a vast vocabulary full of nuance and context-specific meaning. That is wonderful for a literary language, where the complexity of word choice can be extremely expressive, but it’s hard for second language speakers to whom the culture-specific implications of certain words mean nothing.


English is full of contradictions. That’s natural for a natural language that developed as a mix, borrowing influences from all sorts of traditions along the way. But it’s also something that is hard to learn by anything but immersion. To truly speak English, you have to speak it full time. Otherwise, you have to get used to making mistakes, because there are exceptions to virtually all rules.

Subtlety of Sound

While almost all non-native speakers of English have native accents, and while English itself has lots of different accents and dialects, that’s no different than other languages. But what sets English apart (together with French) is a certain proximity of sounds. English doesn’t have many sounds that are hard to pronounce (the exception possibly being th and h), but the ones present are frequently very close to each other.

Sometimes the problem is a distinction that isn’t present in the second language. Russian speakers, for instance, often can’t pronounce the difference between long and short vowels. Their seen sounds a lot to English speakers like sin. Spanish speakers also seem not to hear the difference, as their beach frequently sounds like an insult.


Regardless of the advantages and disadvantages of English on its own, the language is also part of a world view of sorts. I mentioned how English became ubiquitous thanks to colonial expansion. Conversely, some people may feel that using English is further colonizing. English-speaking countries are also generally “Western”, democratic, and socially more liberal than other countries. While you can feel however you do about these adjectives, the fact is that using the language could imply supporting the values.

Advantages of Esperanto

Why is Esperanto easy to learn? Because it was designed that way.


Esperanto uses the Latin alphabet with two interesting tricks: every letter is pronounced exactly the same way in all words, and all words are stressed on the penultimate syllable (the one before the last). With these two, you know how to pronounce every word when you see it spelled. Because there are only 28 letters, there are also only 28 sounds. (Esperanto uses diacritics on six letters.)

More than simplicity of spelling on its own, the rules allow great variation of pronunciation without loss of understanding. There is no distinction between long and short vowels, so “sin” and “seen” would sound the same to an Esperanto speaker. English is notorious for the diphtongization of vowels - “a” often becomes “ey” in English. Esperanto is not phased by that pronunciation.


The rules of Esperanto are incredibly simple. All nouns end in -o, all adjectives in -a, all adverbs in -e. Verbs have only a consistent series of endings. Plurals are always formed by adding -j to a noun.

In addition to that, a series of “correlatives” that regularize words like “who” or “that”, and a series of regular prefixes and affixes that can be used with any word. Instead of having to learn “chicken,” “chick,” “hen,” and “rooster,” in Esperanto you have “koko,” “kokido,” “kokino,” and “virkoko.” That’s enough to know that a puppy is a “hundido,” because a dog is a “hundo” and the suffix -ido made the chicken into a chick.


While Esperanto had a strong bent towards the international, it doesn’t have a linguistic preference. It has its own culture, refined over the more than hundred years it’s been around, but it’s mostly about meetings, conferences, and congresses. Esperantists love tea, love reading, love correcting each other, and so on.

There is no economy underpinning Esperanto. There is no political body pushing for it. There is no class warfare, no religion (except Oomoto), no philosophical school. Esperanto is available to anyone, and everybody with very few exceptions learns it at some point because they want to.

Exceptions to the Above

For each of the items mentioned, there are downsides. For instance, Esperanto is extremely regular (in sound) but forgiving (in pronunciation). It still has a few letters that are hard to pronounce for a lot of people. The grammar is simple, but in particular the accusative case is hard for people to remember.

Enters Toki Pona

A Canadian Esperanto speaker, Sonja Lang, had a brilliant idea: why not create a minimalist language with a tiny amount of sounds, of word roots, and of grammar rules? It would force you to rethink what and how you think. When you want to say, “I’d like an apple,” you’d have to think of a word for apple. Assume there is no word for apple, but there is one for fruit. Do you really want an apple, or is any fruit good enough?

Sonja did the impossible and created a language that you can “learn” in a few hours. There are only less than 200 words in the language, nine clear consonants and five vowels, and the rules of grammar are simple and straightforward.

To get there, Sonja focused. The list of words mostly came from various languages. In its name, you recognize simplified English (“toki” is from “talk”) and Latin (“pona” maps “bona” or “good”, because there is no letter B).

Disadvantages of Toki Pona

I am not going to mention the advantages of Toki Pona, because they are self-evident. In fact, if there were no disadvantages, we’d all be speaking Toki Pona by the next day, it’s that great.

I simply love the idea of this language, because it essentially takes the founding ideas of Esperanto and follows through on all of them. In the process, it both achieves eminent psychological goals and shows the downfall of simplification when followed to its logical conclusion.

Where Toki Pona shines is in forcing people to think about the essential. That’s because the inessential is real work in Toki Pona, and nobody likes doing real work, especially when expressing themselves.

Which is also the downside. People don’t like doing real work, and Toki Pona forces them to. A language with only 14 letters tends to need a lot of them for simple words. And a language with less than 200 root words tends to need a lot of those to form simple sentences.

A lot of the “a lot” goes away in simplification, but if you follow Toki Pona channels, you’ll see that people ask “How do you say?” questions about even the simplest sentences and words. The current front runner on Reddit is a question on how to say “hypocrite,” and you often find people stumped by simple sentences to be translated.

Blending All Approaches

Imagine an English that is simplified. Spelling and grammar allow for no exceptions, words are sounded out as they are pronounced, and the complexity of the vocabulary is reduced. But it’s still English.

There already is a resource that uses simplified, unmodified English. The Basic English Wikipedia is a large body of text that uses simplified English, although it simply limits expression to a subset of the vocabulary without changing anything about the language. Anyone that knows English can read Basic English Wikipedia.

Now imagine taking the Basic English vocabulary and transforming it. Take all the sounds of English and map them, one to one, to letters of the Latin alphabet. Get rid of minor distinctions, since they wouldn’t survive pronunciation by non-native speakers, and remap words based on that.

Change the grammar to remove exceptions and regularize sentence structure and noun/verb forms. Use a system of derivation to get rid of superfluous words.

We are starting to do that already. If you go online, you’ll frequently see “small” spelled as “smol.” Usually, this is done (at this point) to imply immaturity or ignorance, but the concept is clear. A “snake” becomes a “snek,” where the sound quality has been simplified. In Esperanto letters, the English “snake” would be rendered as “snejk” and the modern version simply drops the Y sound.

How To Go About It


A fancy word that essentially means the sounds that the language allows. English is very rich in different sounds, boasting of some 24 different consonants and about the same (depending on counting) vowel sounds. “About the same” refers to the fact that different English dialects and accents have varying pronunciation, and not all sounds are present in all accents (but some additional sounds may be).

English masks the bewildering variety by using a very liberal interpretation of what the Latin alphabet carries, which is of course the main problem of English as an international language. Worse than just the spelling, many of these sounds are hard to impossible to pronounce for speakers of other languages.

One of the languages I am familiar with is Hawaiian, which has a long history of contact with English. For Hawaiian-speakers, a lot of the consonant sounds in English sound harsh and strange, and they mapped them to the only harsh and strange letter they have in Hawaiian, K. You can frequently see that in English words that became Hawaiian, especially place names. The post office of Kamuela comes from Samuel (S to K). “Merry Christmas” became famously “mele kalikimaka,” where R to L and S to K.

Toki Pona, as mentioned, took the same approach, translating B to P.

It needs to be mentioned that this process of mapping sounds should be consistent where possible and should only affect sounds that are problematic. “Problematic” depends on the target language, that of the speaker, so it depends.


Because of my background, I tried using the Nova version of the Esperanto alphabet for this attempt. The letters of this alphabet map one-to-one to sounds, including two letters that are made up of sounds already in the alphabet.

X how to read X
A the vowel in “but” N as in “no”
B as in “bee” O the vowel in “bob”
C TS like in “klutz” P as in “pit”
D as in “deed” Q CH like in “chain”
E the vowel in “debt” R as in “right”
F as in “for” S sharp S like in “rice”
G as in “good” T as in “tea”
H as in “home” U the vowel in “soon”
I the vowel in “lid” V as in “vase”
J as in “journal” X SH as in “shy”
K as in “kick” Y the semi-vowel in “yarn”
M as in “mom” Z as in “zoo”

In this table, as in introduces letters written the same in Esperanto and many English words that contain them. Vowel quality is shifting in English, so the Esperanto (and most languages written in Latin letters) pronunciation is used. A few extra letters, like C and Q and more, need to be explained because their pronunciation does not match other languages.

Notice that this inventory is complete. There cannot be any other sounds in this language but those produced by these letters. In particular, there is no sound for the TH combination, which is usually mapped to D or T (“det” for “that”).


To map any English text to an alphabet with fewer sounds means that some distinctions between words get lost in the mapping. This is addition to English having a relatively large number of homophones.

A simplified language would neither want homophones (even if present in English) nor random collisions, so the mapping has to be performed word by word. Notice that a word with inherently different meanings is not a homophone: “article” in English is both the grammatic particle as well as something that shows up in a newspaper, and a part of a law. Those meanings seem largely unrelated, but they all derive from the same original (Latin) word.

English does not mark word class (unlike Esperanto), and it’s unclear from a word whether it is used as noun, verb, or adjective. “Make” can either be a verb or a noun (the make of a car). Sometimes, words change pronunciation (stress) when they change word class (REcord vs reCORD). What that means for the mapping is unclear. Also, stress of longer words needs to be regularized, or pronunciation becomes unnecessarily hard.


Esperanto derives words like German (and other agglutinating languages) by juxtaposition of roots. That is, words are formed by “smushing” parts together to form a new word. Hegel, the German philosopher, was famously fond of citing words like “Urteil” and “Ursache” to prove the superiority of the language. They are formed by a prefix “ur-,” meaning “original”, and “-teil” (part) and “-sache” (thing). The former means “judgment”, the latter “cause.”

German word derivation is not always so capricious, but it frequently is. A “Zug” is a train, but an “Anzug” is a suit (dress), an “Abzug” is a vent, an “Aufzug” an elevator.

English word derivation is different, mostly, in that roots are not always combined into new words but are frequently placed next to each other. A German Dampfschiff is a steam ship in English. This includes prepositional phrases that are very important to English, like “looking for” which means “search”.

A compromise between the two approaches might be to use a marker to indicate that a sequence of roots is a single word instead of being a simple sequence. A dash is frequently used in English, and we could go for the compromise steam-ship.


The grammar of English is already simple enough. There are two major issues with it, though, and they are related to exceptions in word modification. The forms of verbs change in irregular patterns depending on tense (Ablaut), and the forms of nouns change in the plural.

The latter is easily fixed by getting rid of the exceptions. The plural to goose would be gooses, that of mouse, mouses.

The former, verb declension, is a little trickier, because the forms are more ingrained. The number of verbs with irregular past tenses is legion, and they are very commonly used. Worse, English past participles are used as stand-alone adjectives in the language.

Here, looking at the rules in Esperanto and Toki Pona is helpful. The past tense in Esperanto is formed by changing the present tense vowel -a- to -i-. “I am” is “mi estas” and “I was” is then “mi estis”.

In Toki Pona, where there are no verb forms, the difference between a current and a past action is indicated with an additional phrase, “tenpo pini”, which means “at completed time.”

In Hawaiian Pidgin, a creole language not to be confused with actual Hawaiian, a verb modifier similar to Toki Pona’s is used. Since Hawaiian Pidgins is an English creole, the modifier comes from English. It is the particle “wen,” from somewhere between “went” and “were.” In Hawaiian Pidgin, you might say “I wen cry” for English “I cried.”


All examples are taken from the Simple English Wikipedia.


Fire can be very useful if it is treated carefully. It has always been very important for people to be able to make fire. People need its heat to keep warm on cold days. It is also used to cook meats. Its light helped people see in dark places and scare away predators.

faya ken bi veri uzful if it iz trited kerfuly. It bin bi alweys veri important fo humans to ken meyk faya. Pipel nid warm of it tu stey warm on kold deys. It bi olso uzed tu kuk mits. Layt of it bin help humans si in dark pleyses e sker awey predators

Notice how “fire” is phonetically “faya” and thus spelled such. Meanwhile, past tense forms are created by using the helper word bin (from “been”): bin be means “the past tense of be”. Instead of “people”, the synonym “humans” is used, because people is inherently plural and its singular form is person. The word “and” would map to the same as “end”, so one has to change. It’s usually easier to change the less common word, and “and” is certainly the more common one, but it is in fact so common that shortening it might be of benefit.


Flowers have long been admired and used by humans. Most people think that flowers are beautiful. Many people also love flowers for their fragrances (scents). People enjoy seeing flowers growing in gardens.

flawas long bi layked e uzed bai humans. Most humans tink det flawas bi byutiful. Meni humans also lav flawas koz gud smell of dem

Notice that here, “think” maps to tink and “that” to det. There is no fast rule for the mapping of sounds that are typically English. Also, the pronunciation of “flowers” does not map precisely to flawas.


Geometry is one of the oldest branches of mathematics. Geometry began as the art of surveying of land so that it could be shared fairly between people. The word “geometry” is from a Greek word that means “to measure the land”.

djeometri bi wan of de oldest brenqes of matematik. Djeometri bin begin ez de art of survey of lend for xer ferly betwin humans. De werd “djeometri” bi from a Grik word det min “mejur de lend”

Here, the big surprise is the spelling dj in djeometri. It’s a phonetic spelling that is consistent. The combination DJ is sometimes used in English to spell the sound made here. “Share” is spelled xer, which any English speaker would initially find hard to read.