Claude Piron

Linguistes : ignorance ignorée

Les questions et les réponses

1. Quand j'ai soumis le texte de l'article aux linguistes qui avaient répondu aux questions, je leur ai demandé s'ils voulaient être nommément cités. Un seul ayant répondu que cela lui convenait, j'ai estimé que la plupart préféraient rester anonymes. Telle est la raison pour laquelle les noms des linguistes ne figurent pas ci-dessous, ni dans le texte de l'article.
2. Il s'agit ici d'un "copié-collé". L'orthographe et la grammaire sont donc celles des auteurs. Le seul changement a consisté à remplacer le nom d'un linguiste par ses initiales lorsqu'il était cité par un collègue.

Question 1:

Many people say that Esperanto is an easy language to learn and that this is one of the main advantages of learning it.

I'm wondering about a couple of things.

Obviously it is going to be easier for people who speak languages with simillar grammar/vocab , so it automatically favours those speaking Germanic and Romance languages. But the fact that it is competely regular should make it easier. For someone who only speaks Japanese, for example, to learn Esperanto would be easier than learning English.

I'm wondering though about the pronunciation. To me the pronunciation of Esperanto is quite difficult and doesn't really roll off the tongue in the way that the other languages I've tried to learn do. It seems to me as though simplicity of grammar takes precedence over ease of pronounciation in this language. And maybe in terms of pronunciation, languages that have evolved over time by speakers, might be easier (even if more complex grammatically).

Just wondering what your opinions are.

I'm also interested to find out about change in Esperanto. How do Esperantists deal with creating new vocab (I've heard that borrowing from other languages is a strict no-no with some), and how do they deal with phonological change?

Replies :

1.1. Well, I personally regard Esperanto as an almost total waste of time for almost all conceivable purposes. As to the pronunciation, since there arent any ''real'' native speakers, it tends to be pronounced with the phonetic patterns of the native language of the people speaking it. So while unstressed vowels arent supposed to be collapsed into [a] or [ə], in fact when Esperanto comes out of an English, German, or Russian mouth, those vowels tend to become neutralized. So 'parlas Esperanton'' tends to become [parləs espərantən], whether Dr. Zammenhof and the current High Priest - Esperanto-Evangelists want them to or not. And whether stop consonants are aspirated or not, and whether [t} for instance tends to get palatalized or not is going to depend largely on what happens in the speaker's native language. And while those things can be kept to a minimum as long as most Esperantians are conscious of their speech, if it were to get really many speakers using it a lot, these things would become nonconscious and totally out of anybody's control.

Suggest your Japanese friends think of Esperantism as a kind of Messianic or pan-European nativistic movement and study it as a quasi religion but learn English, French, Chinese or the like as a viable second language.

1.2. Hi,
Although I quite agree with my colleague F., I just want to point out that the whole notion of ''difficulty'' is highly controversial. ''Difficulty'' is a psychological issue not a linguistic one, even though linguists have mistakenly (in my opinion) used the term abusively. Generally, linguists have considered ''linguistic distance'' between the learner's L1 and the L2 being learned as a source of difficulty. Problem is of course that linguistic distance is difficult to define unambiguously and secondly that no one has ever shown how such a ''distance'' (once it has been defined) can be psychologically linked to the concept of ''difficult'' (to learn? to use? to learn AND use? to remember?).
Hope this helps!

1.3.What's your goal in learning another language? If it is to say you have learned one in record time, you could learn Esperanto and it might be faster, as Professor F. suggests, because there is no community of speakers to determine how accurately you've learned it, nor how creative or fluent you are. ''Easy to learn'' is one criterion, and as Professor P. suggests, ''easy to recall'', ''easy to read'', ''easy to use'' are several others. If you want to learn a language to allow you to travel or live, then learn a language that is used in the region where you'd like to travel. If you enjoy the sound of some language learn that one. If you want to read the literature in the original, learn the language of your favorite authors. And so on...

1.4. I think you'd find a lot of information relevant to your questions by reading The Esperanto Book, by Don Harlow, which is available online. You can find it by a Google search. If you have trouble, type ''constructed languages auxiliary languages'' in the search box and follow the links. A number of the larger conlang/auxlang sites have a link to the Harlow book.

Question 2:

Is Esperanto considered a natural language, assuming there are children who acquiered her as a mother tongue?


2.1. It can't be considered a natural language, since its construction by Zamenhof is a matter of historical fact. There have been a few examples of children who learned Esperanto as their first language because it was the only language their parents had in common, but that in itself is not sufficient to make it a natural language.

2.2. Esperanto is a natural language, even though it originated as an artificially constructed language in late 19th c. Poland. According to the Ethnologue (, it is used by about 2,000,000 people, mostly in Europe, and is spoken natively by somewhere between 200 and 2000.

2.3. Esperanto would normally be regarded as a clear case of an artificial, not-natural language, because it was invented rather than evolving through natural processes. You ask an interesting question: if sufficiently many individuals were brought up with Esperanto as their first language, so that they formed a speech community, would we eventually cease to think of Esperanto as belonging to a separate category from natural languages? It is a hypothetical question, I believe; there are said to be some individuals who are children of Esperantist couples and raised using Esperanto as their first language, but these are surely so few that there has not been a practical possibility for them to form an ordinary speech community. If that were to happen, we might want to find ourselves thinking of the language of such a community as a natural language -- but I suspect also that it would start deviating in one way or another from the pure language defined by Dr Zamenhof.

2.4. If it is true that there exist people who have Esperanto as their genuine mother tongue, and not just as an auxiliary to another language, then, yes, the Esperanto spoken by these infortunates must be counted as a natural language -- but not the Esperanto spoken by other prople.

I will not try to conceal my contempt for the basket cases who teach their unfortunate children Esperanto as their first language. Why not Klingon?

2.5. I do not regard Esperanto as a natural language, but as a fabricated one. It has some characteristics that I think unlikely to have developed in that way had it not have been artificially fabricated by a person with an agenda but a limited understanding of how languages work. A linguist knowing nothing of the historical particulars of its fabrication would conclude in about 15 minutes that it is a strange aberrant Romance language with some odd loanwords. For instance, the word for 'and' is kai, taken from Greek. But there is almost nothing else in Esperanto that is Balkan Eastern Romance (i.e. characteristic of Dalmatian or Rumanian). That alone would have made me suspicious of the authenticity of Esperanto.

It is an interesting question though. How many native speakers must a fabricated human language have before in ''naturalizes''? We dont know, but as my colleague Dr. S. suggests, the controlling factor here is probably that of whether there is a regularly conversing -- not emailing -- conversing community. The ''native speakers'' of Esperanto are going to have for the most part grown up with parents who are not native speakers and consquently there will be a German Esperanto, French Esperanto, and so forth. So native Esperantists with German and English speaking parents will have aspirate voiceless stops, and those with French speaking parents will have unaspirated voiceless stops. What did the original Esperanto have? We dont know. Dr. Zammenhof didnt know languages could differ in that way so he didnt bother to tell us.

So, no, even in the case of most native speakers, Esperanto is not a natural language. Note also, that it is perhaps important to ask how many of those alleged native speakers also grow up fluent in the national language of their country. My bet is nearly all. So how many really truly native speakers of Esperanto really exist?

Question 3:

I've seen how esperanto is to be a "universal language" by being simple and having non-irregular verbs and such alongside with word formations of identicle base roots and such to create words of the same idea. it seems simple enough, but i am more than sure that esperanto has (or has had) several negativities being that it's an artificial language afterall. what downsides does esperanto have?

Replies :

3.1. The major difficulty with proposing Esperanto as a universal language is that it is based exclusively on the Indo-European language family, especially the Romance languages. To a native speaker of Chinese or Swahili or Navajo, Esperanto is no more "universal" than English is. A minor difficulty: Esperanto has diacritics ("accent" marks of various kinds) that
make it somewhat cumbersome to keyboard, and that would slow things down; the current solution of the problem -- inserting an "x" for the accent when keyboarding -- is almost as cumbersome, and very awkward.

3.2. Chomksy's "linguist from Mars" would conclude in about ten minutes that Esperanto is an unusual Romance language, possibly a Romance pidgin. They wouldnt conclude it is a Romance creole because there arent any native speakers (Oh, you may find three.). Thus everyone who speaks it speaks with a foreign accent and there are no native speakers whom we can turn to for issues about whether some utterances are grammatical. We dont know whether it has aspirate or unaspirate stops since Dr. Zammenhof, its fabricator, didnt tell us. Thus it will and does take on the phonological characteristics of the native language of a given speaker. Even when it has nonRomance words, they are virtually all from some other European language. And Indoeuropean to boot. It is Subject Verb Object which means it is easier for someone whose native language is SVO or VSO to learn than for someone whose native language is SOV or some other order. It's deictic (or demonstrative system) works like European languages'; native speakers of some subsaharan African languages will then have a more difficult time. It has a base ten number system, thus discrimminating against Maya, Ainu, and Welshmen all of whom have base twenty number systems. And so on...

Esperanto was touted as "linguistically and culturally neutral". That was a silly Eurocentric touting even for people who didnt know how very different languages can be and are. They might at least have borrowed the definite and indefinite object verb conjugations from Hungarian. Or gotten rid of all agreement and case affixes (Esperanto has a direct object case suffix.) and made it like Chinese languages. Moreover it has relatively few speakers and my impression is that they tend to be either gathered in a few enclaves where they mostly talk to each other or else are extremely isolated.

3.3. Aside from the fact that it is strongly Euro-centric, Esperanto's main disadvantage is that it has few, if any, native speakers. It and languages like it illustrate the fallacy of assuming that a language is something that one, anyone, can consciously design. Language, in the wild, is mostly tacit knowledge resulting from the operation of mostly unconscious mental processes. Language is an instinct, not an artifact. One might go further and argue that "universal languages" tend to further inclusiveness and mutual understanding--and that inclusiveness and mutual understanding are not all they are cracked up to be. Again in the wild, language can serve to obfuscate and exclude--which might not always be the bad things we take them to be.

3.4. Structurally, Esperanto is a rather typical European language, apart from its lack of irregularities and grammatical gender. It is therefore fairly easy for a speaker of a typical European language to learn, but not necessarily any easier than any other European language for a speaker of a non-European language.

Otherwise, the big drawback of Esperanto is its lack of a community of native speakers, or indeed its lack of a community of speakers at all. Consequently, it isn't really a living language, and it accordingly lacks the richness and vibrancy of a living language, the variety and the elaboration of function.

It also has a rather monotonous vocabulary, since a single stem is typically used to derive a whole host of words of related meaning. While English, for example, has wholly distinct words for, say, 'learn', 'student', 'teacher' and 'school', Esperanto derives words for all or most of these senses from a single stem -- rather as if we were to use 'learn', 'learner', 'learnist' and 'learnery'. Tedious.

3.5. If there were ever to be an artificial universal language, I think Esperanto would have been a very good one to choose: as someone with a fair knowledge of it, without being in any sense a partisan supporter, I don't see major failings to it. Probably the most unwise feature, in hindsight, is that its alphabet uses several special letters (consonants with circumflex accents, that don't exist in any other language), which made for problems even with old-fashioned typewriter technology and are even less compatible with typical present-day word-processing.

The real reason for the language not to have taken off further than it did is precisely that it is artificial. What decides whether a language is widely learned and used has much more in practice to do with political and social considerations about its existing use than with abstract factors such as how simple it is; so, since Esperanto was not associated with politically-influential currents, it did not get very far.

Nowadays some people might argue that it is not as "international" as claimed because its vocabulary is "Eurocentric", being based on roots of various European languages but not at all on Asian or African languages, for instance. On the other hand, it is only European languages of which people in distant parts of the world tend to encounter a smattering, so for practical purposes this is probably quite a sensible feature even though it might not seem thoroughly "international".

Question 4:

I am amazed at what I read about Esperanto. Learning a foreign language is very useful, but unfortunately it is so time consuming. First I'd like to ask linguists how many hours it really takes to learn a foreign language like Japanese, Russian or Hungarian? If you want to travel to only one country or get to know only one culture, you may learn one foreign language, but what if you are interested in several countries? You need an international language, but English is too hard to be an international language. I have travelled to many countries like Hungary, Finnland, Denmark, Russia, Iceland and everywhere my stay was made extremely pleasant thanks to people who speak Esperanto. I was able to discuss lots and lots of things with them in Esperanto which I never would have been able to do in Russian for example. On the Internet you certainly can find many reports about people writing about their trips and how useful the knowledge of Esperanto was for them. Esperanto is a beautiful language that really works very well, so what do linguists really have against Esperanto? When I speak to Esperantists, and I have spoken to hundreds of them, they all say how beneficial it was for them, how useful, how it helped them get to know other cultures, how pleased they are that they were finally able to master another language, etc. And I certainly don't speak only about European Esperantists. I have recently met a Japanese one and he explained how useful learning Esperanto was for him. For a Japanese it might be a bit harder to learn Esperanto than for a French person, but if the alternative is to learn English, then Japanese people would much rather learn Esperanto. The pronunciation of Esperanto is so much easier as the one in English as you don't have to be able to distinguish between 20 vowel sounds like in English, so if you get a vowel slightly wrong it doesn't matter.


4.1. Your question covers alot of ground. lst: English is the international language for many millions simply because commerce and politics drive education in many countries toward that means. 2nd: it takes years study to become fluent in one foreign language if that is a parttime pursuit; otherwise, dozens of languages are offered in 8 week intensive courses which would take one to the level I believe you outline for travel. Lastly, you will hopefully agree, there is a pleasure in mastering even a minuscule amount of a foreign language realized when you use it and the native speaker understands you-at that moment you are inside his or her culture.

4.2. Linguists aren't necessarily against Esperanto in principle; indeed, one of the founding members of the Linguistic Society of America, Alice Vanderbilt, was a strong supporter of international languages. From a theoretical point of view, however, languages that are geographically separated tend to diverge; furthermore, an international language will be influenced by the linguistic company it keeps, so Indian English is different from Hawaiian English is different from Singapore English. Keeping a language, even an artificial one, from changing is like herding cats. So if you look back 1000-2000 years ago, you had Latin on the
one hand, which morphed naturally into the Romance languages (which to speakers are not mutually intelligible), and on the other hand you did have Church Latin (which sounds like Italian) as a lingua franca among educated people, but not that many.

Practically speaking, the support of an international language, whether it be Esperanto, English, or Chinese, is a political statement, and considerations of its adoption belong to the area of language planning, a subfield of sociolinguistics. According to, there are approximately 2,000,000 people who can speak Esperanto; there are probably a billion people who can speak English to the same degree and 2 billion speakers of Chinese. Now, suppose you're a government making decisions about what language[s] to teach in the schools. How many college physics textbooks are available in Esperanto vs. English or Chinese? How useful will Esperanto be for a Slovenian tourist wishing to visit Canada?

Another consideration is that, despite your anecdote about the Japanese Esperantist, Esperanto is based exclusively on European languages. The question of ease of acquisition is one thing, but an Asian government might object to adopting a language that could easily be viewed as "colonial". One could make a cogent argument that Chinese should be the international language, since the writing system does not depend on pronunciation.

And I can't tell you how many times people have suggested to me that American Sign Language should be an international language, based on the erroneous assumption that sign languages are iconic and universal.

4.3. If your only global contact is travel abroad, then Esperanto may indeed be the perfect language to learn. I can see that it has worked well for you.

But for other purposes, you may need to learn other languages. For instance, if a Japanese business exectutive wants to travel to the U.S. to speak with potential clients, he or she MUST know English. One can be certain that a U.S. business executive will be fluent in English, but very few of them will have learned Esperanto (many have barely taken two years of high school Spanish).

The same is true for anyne focusing on a specific country or region. If I want to do business in Tokyo, it would be more beneficial for me to learn Japanese because I can assume many people there speak Japanese.

I would note that the benefits for learning about other cultures, beauty and communication apply to any language.

However, I am glad to hear that the Esperanto community is vital enough to allow you to travel around the world and communicate.

4.4. If I've understood you correctly, your question is ''What do linguists really have against Esperanto?'' And my answer would be that they don't have anything in particular against Esperanto, although most aren't interested in _studying_ Esperanto. I don't think anyone disputes the usefulness of Esperanto for travelers; wearing the green star often simplifies matters enormously.

What linguists object to is the claims made by many (perhaps all) Esperantists that Esperanto is truly an ''international'' language and that it is free of all the political baggage that is associated with natural languages such as English and Spanish and Chinese. To be truly international, a language should have features from at least a majority of the human language families; Esperanto fails that test, because it is based entirely on the Indo-European language family. And because the Indo-European language family includes the languages of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations, it does carry connotations of imperialism for someone who speaks Cherokee or Yoruba or Aymara or Thai or any one of hundreds of other non-IE languages. If the peoples who speak those languages were allowed to choose a language to serve as an international language, it's not likely that they would choose a language like Esperanto. This is of course a political problem rather than a linguistic one, but it is a source of constant confusion. Zamenhof was quite clear about his sources -- basically English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian, plus a few odds and ends. This is true not only for the vocabulary but also for the grammar. It's not accurate to call a language based on so limited a sample of the 5000 to 6000 languages of the world ''international.'' I suspect that what you have read as linguists' objections to Esperanto itself is instead objections to the careless statements that are so frequently made about Esperanto.

4.5. I join my colleagues, in particular with Professor E., and and this. It is not that linguists are "against" Esperanto. To the true believers in the Esperantist Movement, the typical attitude of linguists is much worse -- we are indifferent to it . Many of the reasons are given by my colleagues. But the chief reason is that Linguistics is not about speaking a lot of languages. Most people who speak several languages are not linguists and many foreign language majors dont do very well in linguistics. Linguistics is about the form and structure of natural human languages and how they work. Most of the reasons you give for learning Esperanto are not linguistic at all -- they are social, political, and adventurist~tourist. Nothing wrong with these reasons--but they are not what Linguistics is about and not normally what linguists study.

We know that it takes a long time for "adults", i.e. 13 or so and up--to learn a foreign language, especially in a typical school subject situation. But you neglected to tell us a) how well you actually speak Esperanto and b) how long and under what conditions you acquired it. Without knowing that, we really cant evaluate your claim. Esperanto is a fabricated, contrived language largely spoken in fabricated, or contrived -- or if that's too strong -- at learst rather highly controlled contexts. If there ever are enough speakers around the world so that it becomes used in speech communities of appreciable size and extent for ordinary life, then some groups will start dropping word final nasals -- and there goes the accusative case. Others will start dropping final unstressed syllables -- others will start changing voiced intervocalic stops to continuants, others will...... and Esperanto will become as dialectally diverse as other real languages become.

As Dr. E. points out -- what linguists are against is the wild, unfounded, uninformed claims made about Esperanto as a language by its High Priests and True Believers, most of whom are rather naive about the range of variation in human languages and the depth of "knowledge", largely nonconscious knowledge, envolved in truly "knowing a language". Esperanto grammars often do not tell us things that we really need to know if we are going to describe a language precisely and if we are to speak it as a native. I'll give you one example:

Under what conditions can subject or objects be deleted, or absent from a sentence? In the Esperanto equivalent of

Jill kicked the ball and rolled down the hill.

what or who was it that rolled down the hill? In English it's Jack, and I presume it is in Esperanto too. But in some languages it is the ball. Now, which is it in Esperanto? Grammars typically dont tell us. Normally we would check with a native speaker. But there are few or no native speakers of Esperanto whose parents and grandparents were also native speakers of Esperanto uncontaminated by fluency in some other language gained in childhood. So there is no one to ask.

4.6. I don't know what you have read about Esperanto. I am an academic linguist, and I find Esperanto quite interesting; I spent some time learning it, years ago. If you feel it does not receive enough attention from academics, I would only say that scientific linguists are inevitably concerned chiefly with naturally-occurring languages rather than with artificial systems; I think it is quite proper that languages like Esperanto should receive only minority attention. But in Britain for instance one university (Liverpool) has an academic post devoted to Esperanto -- I invited its holder to come and speak about the language at my own university, around the time of the centenary in the 1980s; and another very distinguished academic at the University of London compiled a standard Esperanto dictionary and has been active in the movement in other ways.

I am a little surprised at how many Esperantists you have encountered in your travels, I must admit! But no doubt you find your way to the ones who exist via the movement.