Claude Piron

Why not to learn Esperanto

J. B. Rye's misrepresentation of Zamenhof's language

J. B. Rye's pages about Esperanto ( have changed since 2004, but they manifest the same biased, subjective misunderstanding of the language. It would be boring and pointless to analyze every single criticism. Persons who are a priori against Esperanto will undoubtedly find confirmations of their ideas and are unlikely to check them against reality, and people who enjoy Esperanto won't be dissuaded by his negativism: they know by experience that he's wrong.

As in the previous version of his text, he fails to propose an alternative other than English and to compare Esperanto to its competitors as means of international communication. Apart from that, his main fault is that, instead of analyzing the language as it is actually being used, as a competent linguist would do, he concentrates on theoretical points of grammar. All languages can be criticized as J. B. Rye does. But what would be the point? Such a critical analysis of Russian, Hausa or English, detail by small detail, would require a number of pages that challenges our imagination. Indeed, compared to these, Esperanto is practically perfect.

The problem, with J. B. Rye's dissection, is that he doesn't dissect a real body, but a dummy he acquired we don't know where. If he had acted as a linguistic researcher, analyzing published texts or private letters as well as recorded samples of conversation, of formal discussion, and of radio programs, he 'd have an idea of what Esperanto actually is. Failing to do so, he misses Esperanto's main feature : the fact that the language consists of invariable morphemes that combine freely.

It would be too long to engage in an exhaustive analysis of his fallacious presentation of the language. A few representative examples will be sufficient to convince the good faith reader that the author of "Why not to learn Esperanto" is not familiar with the language and is thus incompetent to discuss it.

E 3

In E 3, J. B. Rye says: "Who needs all these special affixes? Isn't the two word expression 'make white' adequate?" If he was familiar with Esperanto, he'd know that affixes are words in Esperanto (unlike in Indo-European languages), so that blankigi is just a different way of saying igi blanka 'make white'. In Zamenhof's terminology, blankigi was a two word expression. (1) Anyway, there are many good reasons for having two formulations, most of them relating to style. The more expressions are available for a given thought, the more flexible, elegant, aesthetic your style, since you can choose the best one among several. The possibility of varying rhythms is important in poetry, in songs, but also in prose (especially in speeches) if you want your text to have an impact. On the stylistic importance of such variety, see "Espéranto - Le point de vue d'un écrivain".

Another advantage is that, like any other Esperanto word, the -ig- morpheme can be used in all grammatical functions, what J. B. Rye would call "parts of speech", a phrase that doesn't make sense about Esperanto, since the variation of the endings -i, -o, -a, -e, etc., is a grammatical, not a lexical, feature, something akin to declensions in Latin or Russian. It is useful to be able to express the idea as an adverb: la guto agis blankige al la haŭto 'the drop had a whitening effect on the skin", or as a noun: la blankigo de la muro 'the whitening of the wall'. In legal texts and in titles it's often useful to be able to opt for a substantival formulation. Moreover, the suffix can be useful in translation. Igi blanka is a less accurate translation of French blanchir than blankigi.

What is evidence of J. B. Rye's bias in this case is that he ignores that anybody with a smattering of Esperanto has no effort to make, in contrast with what happens in IE languages, to derive blankigi, blankigo, blankige from blanka. Igi is a very productive morpheme. It multiplies the vocabulary by simple reflex. In Esperanto, you don't have to learn separately words like 'rejuvenate', 'cure', 'enable' (rejunigi, resanigi, ebligi), they form themselves automatically, once the pattern has been assimilated, at the very second the thought comes to mind, and so do many words with no equivalent in most languages, like revirigi 'restore manhood', reknabigi 'give back a boy's soul', 'give back the possibility to feel a boy, to behave like a boy'. This automatic application of patterns is extremely important, insofar as speaking fluently means expressing oneself by reflexes, without having to scan the mind in search of the right word or the right form. Another way of expressing that would be to say that the Esperanto vocabulary is acquired by multiplication, rather than by addition as in English or French. Blanchir or whiten have to be added to the already acquired vocabulary. Blankigi is just a particular result of the multiplying effect of the morpheme -igi, which can modulate any root. If J. B. Rye hasn't understood that, he is incompetent to judge the language.

He is also deceived by the grammatical terminology he uses. True, he's forgivable, since he shares this shortcoming with most people who deal with Esperanto, including a large majority of European and American Esperanto speakers and teachers. Most haven't noticed that the conventional terminology, born as it is from IE languages, is totally unadapted (2) to Esperanto, a language so differently structured from flexional languages. So he sees problems that don't exist. When, speaking of suffixes, he says "Why are there none meaning 'full' ? ", he's taken in by his distinction between word and suffix, that doesn't exist in real Esperanto. Plena is used as a suffix in hundreds of common words: amplena, florplena, lumplena, zorgoplene, etc.

E 4

When he speaks of "Esperanto's pseudo-agglutinative system of affix-accretion (copied from Volapük)", he again manifests his incompetence. Zamenhof learned of Volapük's existence after Esperanto had been composed and, I think, published. Nothing, in Esperanto, is taken from Volapük. Any serious specialist of interlinguistics knows that.

F 3

"Language learners want to be able to communicate with as little rote learning of vocabulary as possible.  English is rather good at this (...). Basic English cut its essential vocabulary to 850 words", says our critic. Let's not discuss the fact that the 850 words of Basic English do not enable you to say, for instance, "Waiter, a tomato salad!". But what is amazing is that Mr Rye appears not to know that people whose mother tongue is other than English have to learn by rote probably twice as many words as what they need in order to get along in an average language, and something like ten times as many as what is necessary to express everything in Esperanto.

Esperanto's basic vocabulary, unlike the basic vocabulary of English (as in Basic English or Nerrière's Globish) is a source of many thousands of words, because the right to combine elements is unlimited, or, to put it otherwise, because of the multiplying effect of many morphemes. The first level of the youth magazine Kontakto uses less than Ogden's 850 words: only 520 lexical elements. Since these include a hundred of vocabulary-enriching words, like igi, (words the Chinese call "empty words"), the list contains only something like 430 semantemes ("full words" in Chinese parlance). But when you read the short stories and the articles written with this limited vocabulary, you don't notice that the author was restricted in his choice of words. Esperanto enables him to be lively, expressive, fun, with a very small lexical basis, precisely because nothing restricts what French speaking mathematicians call the combinatoire (do you say "combinatory"?).

In Esperanto, most roots give birth to dozens of words, easy to form, or forming themselves automatically, by simple reflex, since the patterns are regular, whereas in English, you have to learn a new word for each new concept. Where in Esperanto you make up the adjective with a simple - a, in English you have to learn it by rote, and English differs from most other languages in that very often no similarity of form helps your memory. You don't derive lunar from moon, annual from year, rural from country, urban from city, avuncular from uncle (Esperanto: luna < luno; jara < jaro; kampara < kamparo; urba < urbo; onkla < onklo). And the same problem confronts the learner in other aspects of what is, in most languages, derivation: you don't form dentist from tooth, fraternize from brother or stallion from horse. Rye's statement in this respect is flabbergasting. How can one compare two languages and reach a conclusion so much at odds with reality?

G 2

In G 2 we have another good example of his failure to understand the functioning of the language he criticizes. He says: "Where English uses adjectives like <angry>, Yoruba relies on verbs like <binu> 'be-angry'." If this is an argument not to learn Esperanto, it won't have any effect on honest people who check before deciding, since it is completely off the mark. Esperanto doesn't have adjectives and verbs. It has roots that can be used in adjectival, adverbial, substantival or verbal function, which is quite different. His example would be particularly dumbfounding if we imagined that he has some knowledge of the subject he's discussing, since the concept 'angry' is precisely one which is as often expressed in Esperanto by a verbal form (koleri) as by an adjectival one (kolera). And this dates back to the very beginning of the language. Just check in the standard dictionary Plena Ilustrita Vortaro (Paris: SAT, 2002, p. 571). It gives quotations from Zamenhof: vi povas koleri kontrau li 'you can be angry at him', or rather, since the verbal function differs from the adjectival one: 'you can anger (out) at him", and esti kolera kontrau iu 'to be angry at somebody'.


There would be no point in heaping up examples. The only conclusion possible is that J. B. Rye is not familiar with the language he discusses. He has failed to comprehend its basic feature, and this vitiates his whole approach, even if part of his criticism is valid and sensible. Whether this part is relevant in practice for people who want the best, the most practical, the most cost effective means of intercultural communication presently available is another question, that won't be treated here. What is important is that J. B. Rye's view of Esperanto is constricted by his tunnel vision. He is so ensconced in his "parts of speech" tunnel that he doesn't see the whole landscape.

People with an objective or scientific approach to life will find it a pity that such calumnies can be spread with impunity. But this has been going on since the very appearance of the language on the public scene. (3) Fortunately, it has not prevented Esperanto to develop serenely and give joy to millions of people.

1. At other times he'd have considered it a three word expression : blank'ig'i.
2. Does the word exist? It's irritating never to feel secure in English even for the simplest concepts, even after years and years of study and practice. The doubt I just experienced, which would be impossible in Esperanto, is one of the reasons why I'm sure the latter meets better than English the requirements of an international language. A feeling of security in expressing oneself is an important asset in intercultural communication, at least if we want it to be democratic.
3. The reasons for this negative attitude are complex and belong to several fields. The reader who is interested in the psychological ones will find the results of a research on that aspect in "Psychological Reactions To Esperanto".