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Where Esperanto got it wrong

Esperanto is the worlds's most popular artificial IAL; its lasting popularity is certainly a testimony of its usability. Volapük was first received with enthusiasm, but died a few years later because it turned out to be too clumsy and difficult to learn; the 'philosophical' languages of the 17th century never came to life at all. Clearly, Esperanto is superior to those early attempts at an IAL.

But on the other hand, the success of Esperanto did not end the debate; in fact, more new auxlangs were proposed after Esperanto than before. Obviously, the reason for this is that many authors considered Esperanto inappropriate for the purpose of an IAL, or at least found flaws in it to improve on. In fact, there can be found a number of features that are at least questionable.



Esperanto uses more consonants than it should. The velar fricative spelled ĥ is absent from many languages and better avoided in an auxlang. Most later auxlangs don't have it, and there is a strong tendency among Esperantists to change it to k in those words that contain it (e.g. ĥemio 'chemistry' > kemio). Esperanto also has quite a few sibilants: alveolar and postalveolar, affricate and simple fricative, voiceless and voiced. This plenitude of sibilants is reminiscent of Slavic languages and poses difficulties to many learners. Many languages, for instance, do not distinguish between [dʒ] (Engl. j, Esp. ĝ) and [ʒ] (French j, Esp. ĵ). Germans are likely to mispronounce s as [z]; in some other languages, there is no distinction between [ʃ] (Esp. ŝ) and [s] (Esp. s). The optimal number of sibilants in an IAL is one - only /s/ and nothing else. Most later auxlangs indeed use smaller and simpler consonant inventories than Esperanto.


This plenitude of consonants led to a problem with the orthography. The Roman alphabet simply doesn't have enough letters to spell them all, at least not when one tries to avoid absurd letter values. Thus, Esperanto uses diacritical marks on consonant letters. These diacritical marks cause trouble with computers and printers, which could have been avoided with a smaller consonant inventory (or by introducing digraphs such as sh and ch - which have become common practice among Esperantists), and are indeed avoided in most later auxlangs.


Word formation

The highly productive derivational morphology of Esperanto is a good feature, as it allows for forming words in situ. However, it is sometimes overused. Many words are derived with the prefix mal- from their antonyms, e.g. malbona 'bad', mallumo 'darkness'. Other examples where derivation got out of hand are the oft-cited pafilego 'large shooting device = cannon' and malsanulejo 'unhealthy person place = hospital'. Here, Esperanto is quite much like a philosophical language, despite the unworkability of the latter. It is hardly surprising that many Esperantists use the less systematic but internationally understood words kanono and hospitalo instead. For a particularly bad case, see the next subsection.

Gender issues

In Esperanto, the default form of nouns referring to persons is also the male form, and the female form can be formed with the affix -in, e.g. doktoro 'doctor', doktorino 'doctress'. Thus, gender neutrality is violated. This is taken to extremes with forms such as patrino 'mother' = 'female father'! The fact that the female forms resemble Romance diminutives in -ino only makes things worse. In Ido, an attempt was made to remedy this by introducing the suffix -ul for male forms, and some Esperantists have adopted it, but this is rather clumsy, and the feminine suffix is still -in, thus the female forms still look like diminutives. A more elegant solution was found in Novial, where gender is indicated by the final vowel (-e: neutral, -o: male, -a: female).

The accusative case

The accusative case of Esperanto is certainly one of the language's most superfluous features. Zamenhof obviously intended the word order in his language to be free, such that subject and object could switch places, as in the sentence homon mordas hundo. Who says that an IAL needs to allow such things? With a fixed word order, the accusative case becomes unnecessary. In Ido, it is facultative, used only when the word order is reversed; most later IALs don't have it at all, and do not allow inverse word order.

So, why did Esperanto fail?

Esperanto may be the most popular artificial IAL, but face it: it did not become a world language, let alone the world language. So why did it not reach its goal? Many auxlangers claim that it failed to catch on due to the design flaws listed above. But if that was the case, why did later, better designs fall even shorter? Why was it not superseded by Ido, Occidental, Novial or Interlingua, just as it superseded Volapük itself?

The point is that the weak spots of Esperanto are not as bad as to render the language impractical, unlike Volapük which was so badly designed that it could not satisfy the needs of the auxlang community. While several improvements of Esperanto's design could be made (and have been made), it is still by and large appropriate to its purpose and easier to learn and use than most natural languages.

I think the reason for Esperanto's failure lies, ironically, in the simple fact that it is artificial. Languages such as English, French or Spanish are the national languages of several important countries, are already spoken by millions of people, and have a rich cultural heritage. Esperanto is a language with no country and very little history. It (or any other artificial IAL) could only become the language of the world if it was prescribed as such by an international convention that would establish such measures as installing it as a mandatory subject in schools worldwide, requiring that all intergovernmental treaties are worded in it, etc. This, alas, is unlikely to ever happen, and in the meantime, English, despite its "weaknesses" such as the complex orthography, the difficult "th"-sounds and the irregular verbs, has established itself as a world language to such a degree that the contest can be considered resolved.

© 2007-2008 Jörg Rhiemeier
Last update: 2008-07-14