expressiveness of Esperanto

Posted in Random thoughts at 11:14 am by ducky

Every once in a while I will see people who don’t speak Esperanto comment on how, since it is not a natural language, it is not as expressive.

With all due respect, I don’t think those people know what they are talking about. I have studied five natural languages (French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish) and in my opinion, Esperanto is more expressive than any of them.

  • In Esperanto, not only are there very few (sixteen) formal rules, but also very few informal rules. For example, there is no formal rule saying whether you have to put adjectives before the noun or after. You could imagine that a social convention would evolve to put them one place or another, but in fact there is not. It is perfectly okay to put the words pretty much wherever you want them. It’s even rather seen as creative to do non-standard things while staying inside the rules! This means that there are very few things that you are not allowed to say, so the universe of things that you can say is bigger.
  • Verbing nouns is discouraged in English. In Esperanto, it is totally fine to verb nouns. (In fact, words have no part of speech until you put an ending on them, so it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about changing the part of speech.)
  • Esperanto allows compound words, meaning you can stick something like “zoo” and “keeper” to make “zookeeper”. This is different from French, where you are not allowed to smush words together; you have to say “the keeper of the zoo”.
  • Esperanto has a rich set of affixes that can get tossed into the mix, too.
    • In English, there are some words that end in “ery” to mean “place of” (bakery, penitentiary, tannery), but you can’t put that ending on most words. Carwashery, punishmentery, shoery, miseryery, jogery, and sleepery are all words that are not legal (and in fact look laughable) in English, but whose Esperanto equivalents would look and sound just fine.
    • The “mal” prefix (meaning “opposite”) is particularly useful for nuance. It allows you to easily distinguish between neutral negation (using the word for not, “ne”) and a more active negation using “mal”. In English, you can say “I don’t like X” or “I dislike X”, but both carry the connotation that you dislike X. In Esperanto, “mi ne ŝhatas” is distinctly different from “mi malŝatas”. “Mi ne ŝatas X” means that I am neutral about it: I don’t like it, I don’t dislike it. “Mi malŝatas X” means that I dislike it, which you could translate as “I hate X”, but that would be too strong. To express hatred, you would put the enlarging suffix on it: “me malŝategas X.”

      There are words in English for the opposite of liking (dislike or hate), but there are not opposites for most words. For example, there is no word for the opposite of sitting. You might wish to distinguish between a neutral not-sitting (I happen to be standing, lying, walking, whatever, not that important) and anti-sitting (I am actively avoiding sitting, perhaps because my bottom is sore). In English, you can get the idea across, but it is convoluted. In Esperanto, you can express the difference easily with “mal” and “ne”.

There is another, completely different form of expressiveness where Esperanto totally excels: the ability to learn the language well enough to express yourself in it. In some sense, it doesn’t matter how expressive some constructs of a language are if you can’t master those constructs. After seven semesters equivalent of college French, I wasn’t able to express myself as well as a 9 year old native speaker. In Esperanto, you can get fluent much, much faster. (In natural languages, you spend an enormous amount of effort learning the things you are not allowed to say. In Esperanto, zero.)

The only thing that I can see as a “problem” is that it might be harder to be ambiguous in Esperanto. In English, because the structure of the language makes nuance more cumbersome to express, it is perhaps easier to be ambiguous. (Does “I don’t like it” mean dislike or neutrality?) I see this as a feature in Esperanto, not a bug: I would rather have to put effort into being ambiguous and have clarity be easy than the reverse.

I will admit that Esperanto is pretty useless from a tourist perspective, but it is absolutely fantastic from a pedagogical perspective — much like LISP. The chances of being able to get a job programming in LISP are only slightly higher than your chance of being able to order in Esperanto in a restaurant, but learning either will help you understand languages in that domain (computer or human) much better than learning most other languages in that domain.

Also note that studying a natural language is pretty worthless from anything but a tourist perspective. Nobody in France speaks Beginning French.

Disclaimer: I haven’t spoken much Esperanto in 30 years. This post is based on my memories of a summer of Esperanto when I was 12, including a week at an Esperanto summer camp.


  1. mankso said,

    January 13, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    >It is perfectly okay to put the words pretty much wherever you want them.

    That is rather an exaggeration! Two examples: attributive adjectives obviously have to be next to (before or after, but are usually found before in normal language) the nouns they agree with, and adverbs should immediately precede whatever they modify. [Just check your copy of Plena Vortaro, or its later versions, under the headwords ‘ankau’ or ‘ne’ where the ‘Rimarko’ clearly states this – many speakers fail to observe this, especially with ‘ankau’, leading to wrong emphases].

    I have reservations about your use of the term ‘natural’ language. This implies that Esperanto is an ‘unnatural’ one. Surely it would have been better to use ‘ethnic’ versus ‘non-ethnic’ here?

    And since it is the most frequently misunderstood point about Esperanto, it might be a good idea to state that its purpose is ‘universal bilingualism’ [i.e. YOUR language + Esperanto for all], and not ‘one languagwe for the world’ as many people wrongly suppose. Other cogent reasons for investigating Esperanto can be found in the one-page Prague Manifesto: http://lingvo.org/xx/2/3

    It seems that your teenage involvement with Esperanto whetted your later appetite for languages. Correct? That is one of the selling points of the British Springboard to Languages program: http://www.springboard2languages.org/home.htm

  2. ducky said,

    January 13, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    Ah, interesting. I had not noticed any social convention on word ordering.

    As for “natural language”, I believe that was the term used to distinguish from constructed languages that was commonly used in the 70s. (“Constructed” was used instead of “artificial”.)

    Maybe “ethnic” is what is used today, but it sure sounds odd to my ears. It makes me bring up an image of “ethnic cleansing”, which I know has nothing to do with Esperanto, but it still calls it to mind. However, I understand that I don’t get to choose what terms to use. 😉

    My family had an interest in languages, period. I think that I would have been interested in languages regardless of any involvement with Esperanto. I do believe that it made further learning much easier (especially for Italian and Spanish). One time, in fact, I got email from my father that kept switching languages. I did fine with the French and German but then when he switched into Esperanto it got really hard for me. (“Boy, my Esperanto sure is rusty!”) It wasn’t until I got to the next paragraph that I realized that the “Esperanto” paragraph was actually Italian (which I had not yet studied)!

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