Which International Auxilliary Language (IAL) should you
I'm going to take a risk here. I'm going to risk telling you
about the fact there there exists not just one "international
language", but several, developed by different groups of
people. By telling you this, I risk making you feel
uncomfortable about deciding which language to learn. "After
all", you might naturally think to yourself, "if I learn one of them, I
won't be able to understand what is written in the others". I
also risk making you mock the very idea of an international second
language for everyone. After all, what's the point of
everyone learning an "international language" if everyone learns a
However, I want to calm your fears. First of all, as I will
try to explain, it appears that out of all the constructed languages,
only two of them are serious contenders for the title of "THE
international language". Secondly, all noteworthy
"international language" projects have chosen word roots from the
European family of languages. Some projects have been biased
toward similarity to Latin, others toward English, but for the most
part, vocabulary has been chosen according to this principal:
"The best international language is the
easiest language for the greatest number of people"
This is a bit vague, but you get the idea: It's better to choose a root
that half a billion people know than one known to a mere hundred
million. This principal naturally leads to arguments such
1. Latin is a poor choice for root selection because it is a dead
language. Simply picking latin word roots, without any regard
for modern languages, makes an IAL unnecessarily difficult.
This seems obvious to me, but since there have been several Latin-based
projects, it is obviously not obvious to everyone.
2. English is an extremely popular language, but if you choose roots
from English while ignoring other languages, you'll end up with a huge
number of words that are completely unrecognizable by those who don't
speak it. Choosing English roots means you'll have words
recognizable by up to four hundred million people (well, I don't know
the exact numbers); but in many cases, it is possible to find roots
that closer to a billion can recognise.
There are certainly advantages of biasing root selection toward
English; but making the language easy "for the greatest number" is not
one of them.
Now, in truth, choosing roots is a difficult process booby-trapped at
every turn with pitfalls, so let's talk about it no more.
The point I want to make is that most IAL projects end up choosing very
similar collections of word roots, because they all choose their roots
according to similar criteria. This happy fact means that if
you learn one IAL, it is much easier to learn a second. So if
you go to the trouble of learning one IAL, and if that IAL should end
up in the wastebasket of history, don't feel too bad: you can migrate
to another using, let's say, half the time it took to learn the
first. Ido and Esperanto are particularly similar, since Ido
is the "offspring" of Esperanto.
What languages are there?
As an amateur writer, I tend to take the liberty of writing about my
subject before thoroughly learning about it. So I don't know
very much about most of the constructed languages, and have learned a
significant amount about only three languages: Esperanto, Ido, and
Novial. It looks to me like Novial might be the best of the
three, except that it was designed by only one person and has been
learned by very, very few people and hence is not fully developed.
If you want a fairly detailed overview and history of IALs, go here.
I will now summarize some keys points about the modern IALs that are
generally considered noteworthy. Presumably there have been
more IAL projects since the 1950's, but for whatever reason, they
rarely get any attention.
- Esperanto (1887)
- in Esperanto, the name means "Hoper", i.e. "One who
hopes". The pronounciation in Esperanto is approximately
- Originally developed by one man, Mr. L.L. Zamenhof, over
period of at least 10 years. As originally published, it was
a very simple language with only 16 stated rules and Once
published, it was further refined by groups of speakers who introduced
new words and solidified the grammar rules.
- Of all IALs, Esperanto is the most widely known and used,
having up to 3 million speakers (though I expect most of them are not
fluent). Obviously there's a lot of room for IALs to grow in
popularity; to me, this means there is hope that a better IAL will take
the throne someday.
- Fairly easy to learn, but laden with difficulties such as
- Plural adjectives (One red potato, Two
- The mandatory accusative, in which the
object (aka complement) of a sentence ends with -n. This lets
you put the subject, object, and verb of a sentence in any
order. It's great in theory, allowing one to use the same
word-order as one's mother toungue, whatever that might be.
Unfortunately, in practice, it's really hard to learn to use it
fluently. Also, it's often hard to add the -n to proper names
such as Paris, David, etc. (If you want to do that, you
normally have to "Esperantize" the word, and so Esperanto has its own
names for things: Parizo, Davido, Nov-Jorko (New York), etc.
You don't have to do that, but without the -n, a sentence can be more
difficult to understand.)
- Unpredictable word derivation across
parts of speech: the meaning of a verb generally must be learned
separately from the meaning of its noun because the relationship
between them is unpredictable (although, on the plus side for English
speakers, the relationship is often the same as in English.
But don't count on it.)
- Unpredictable transitivity
- A great many "single-word idioms":
words composed of multiple roots that mean something different than you
might expect. Luckily, there are very few multiple-word
- Less "precise" than Ido; i.e. it is
often difficult to precisely convey what you want to say.
- Too long: Esperanto usually requires more syllables
English, and sometimes much more. In particular, some of the
most frequently-used words that are one syllable in English are two,
three or even four syllables in Esperanto. While all IALs
tend to be longer than English, Esperanto would probably win first
- Latino sine Flexione (1903)
- A highly simplified version of Latin. It looks
like the Latin-speakers didn't like it because it "bastardized" their
language, while everyone else didn't like it because they weren't
interested in Latin.
- Apparently got a name change to "Interlingua" at some
point, but we don't call it that because there is a language from 1951
with the same name.
- Ido (1907)
- The name means "offspring" in both Ido and
Esperanto. Pronounced "EE-doh".
- Ido is a completely overhauled revision of
Esperanto. It is different enough to be called a different
language, but they do share a lot of word roots and affixes.
Ido's developers did not try very much to keep the same word roots as
Esperanto; instead they did a somewhat extensive study of all the
European languages to find the "best" root in each case.
Nevertheless, many roots are identical in the two languages.
- Ido has a richer set of affixes (prefixes and suffixes)
which allows one to better express oneself.
- It seems to me that Ido has a more European bias than
Esperanto, because it generally prefers to import a brand new root for
a concept rather than to make a word from existing roots. For
example, the Ido translation of "forest" is "foresto"; in Esperanto we
say instead "arbaro", meaning "group of trees". In this way,
Ido is easier than Esperanto for those that know a "European" language
(especially a Romance language like French), while Esperanto is easier
for everybody else.
- The word choices for question words (how, what, etc.) and
pronouns (he, she, etc.) is more chaotic than in Esperanto and totally
baffling to me as an English-speaker. Apparently these words
were chosen to match some language other than English.
Esperanto, on the other hand, has "regular" pronouns and question words
(pronouns consistently end in 'i' and all question words start with
"ki" except one.) Oh, and here's something annoying: Ido has
two-syllable pronouns for "he" and "she".
- The increased number of roots, and the less vagueness in
word definitions, gives Ido more precision than Esperanto.
Thus Ido is better for technical writing (except that, owing to its few
speakers, I suspect modern computer and other lexicon might be missing
- Occidental (1922)
- The name means "western". The name was later
changed to "Interlingue" but this causes confusion with the two
languages called "Interlingua".
- Occidental was the first of the "naturalistic" planned
languages, which attempted to match the spelling of internationally
known words as much as possible, while still avoiding the
irregularities of the natural languages. Perhaps, if you knew
enough European languages, you might comprehend Occidental texts
without studying it at all.
- Novial (1928, 1930)
- The name is an acronym for NOVi Internationali Auxiliari
Lingue (New International Auxiliary Language)
- Novial is carefully designed to look "naturalistic", like
Occidental, while keeping all the advantages of Ido and Esperanto such
as regularity, flexibility, and ease of learning.
- The phonetics of Novial are easier than Ido and
it banishes the letters "z" and "c" (except in "ch"); the difference
between "z" and "s" is difficult for some to grasp, such as the Dutch,
so in Novial, you can pronounce "s" as "s" or "z" according to
taste. In Ido and Esperanto, the "c" is pronounced "ts" as
"tsar" and "hats", and is somewhat difficult for English speakers,
among others. Instead, "c" is replaced with "s" or "k" on a
- The pronouns are the same as the nouns in how they
gender and number. Novial is the only language I know of that
unites nouns and pronouns this way.
- It's an interesting language and I'm a fan.
Of these languages, I think that if any IAL ever becomes truly popular
in the world, it will most likely be Ido or Esperanto. The
main reason for this is that Esperanto has more adherents than all
other IALs combined, and hence most IAL propaganda (you know, the kind
of propaganda which promotes good ideas, not the Nazi kind) promotes
Esperanto. Ido's advantage, then, is its similarity to
- Interlingua (1951)
- This is the only language to be created by a group headed
by someone, Alexander Gode, who didn't actually like the idea of a
universal second language for everyone. Instead, it was
intended for the scientific community. Apparently.
I think he and his team were paid to make it.
- Interlingua is the height of naturalistic design, and
prizes above all else resemblance to European languages. It
is easy to learn to read for those who know a European language,
especially a "Romance" toungue. However, it is the most
difficult constructed language to learn to write because it is highly
irregular and has a bunch of unneccessary, complicated rules.
- Interlingua is a written language only. It has
no phonetic rules. Rather, you're just supposed to pronounce
it however you think it oughtta be.
- Tends to encourage those who are learning or have learned Esperanto
to learn Ido in addition, or instead. Some of those who do
that will "defect" to Ido.
- Allows one to consider Ido as a path to learning
Esperanto. Since Ido has easier grammar than Esperanto
(mainly, no plural adjectives and few mandatory accusatives), one can
learn it first without worrying as much about grammar, and thereby
acquire a knowledge of the international word roots in Ido and the
affixes (prefixes and suffixes) that are common to both Esperanto and
Ido. Having learned the vocabulary of Ido, one can then focus
on the grammar of Esperanto without worrying as much about
vocabulary. In this way, one can learn both Esperanto and Ido
in not much more time than one needs to learn just one of
them. Mind you, even when the vocabulary matches, you'll need
to learn about the extra inconsistencies in Esperanto.
Learn Ido or Esperanto.
Or at least spread the IAL idea. As I've outlined before, language barriers are very
expensive (in terms of time and money), and I believe that language
barriers are a large cause of inequality in the world.
Therefore, to eliminate language barriers would make the world a much
If the number of speakers of IALs reaches a certain
critical mass, then interest in it will explode. It's
called the network effect. Consider the telephone.
If only fifty people in a city of 100,000 has a telephone, then the
remaining 95,950 people have little interest in getting one because
they won't be able to call much of anyone. That's the state
that Esperanto is in right now. But as the number of
telephones increases, the interest in them increases as a result, until
eventually they're flying off the shelves. Pretty soon
virtually everyone has a telephone. The usefulness of a
telephone increases almost quadratically with the number of people who
have one, and so it is with IALs.
But someone has to buy those first telephones and spend the money
needed to install the equipment. It was necessary that some
people did this, otherwise telephones could never become
popular. For the early adopters, they were largely spending
more than they got back in value from their equipment. But
those early adopters were what made possible the expansion of the
telephone until it was in every household.
Likewise, the IAL movement needs pioneers, and every new speaker helps
a little bit. It may seem like you're spending more time than
the benefits justify. But if you live long enough to see the
day when your IAL is ubiquitous, you'll have to concede that it was
So which to learn? Ido or Esperanto?
Disadvantages of both Ido and Esperanto
Problems of Esperanto (where Ido improves)
"Natural" days: they could have numbered the months and the
days-of-the-week, thus making their names easy for everyone, but
NOOOOO. Instead they give a special name to each one to
please their irrational love for "naturalness" over ease of learning.
The weekday names are generally incomprehensible to English speakers,
although at least in Ido you'll immediately recognize "saturdio" and
"sundio". Even English is better, in that every weekday ends
in "day" so that a learner can immediately tell that an unknown word
refers to some kind of day. No such luck in Ido or
Esperanto. Likewise, the words for "yesterday", "today" and
"tomorrow" could have been written logically as compound words meaning
"day before this", "this day" and "day after this", which everyone
would have readily understood, but instead they chose special words not
found in English.
- The month names look more like the English, but you'll have to learn
some small differences. Some examples: januaro = January,
marto = March, junio = June, Ido agosto = August (but Augusto in
Esperanto), decembro = December.
- Numbers are too damn long. Who in English would read "1967"
as "One thousand nine hundred sixty-seven"? Almost no one,
'cause it's just too long. Yet that's what we're expected to
do in Ido and Esperanto. In Esperanto it's
"Thousand nine hundred six-ten seven", while in Ido it's even worse:
"Thousand AND nine-a-hundred AND six-a-ten AND seven". Absolutely
rediculous! They should have developed a system that was quicker,
especially for large numbers but also for small ones.
Unfortunately, Esperanto was hindered by its quest for simplicity, and
Ido by its quest for "naturalness", which IMO is quite overrated and
besides, is there really any natural language in which "1967" is eleven
- Some ambiguities that do not exist in English. For example,
"port-" means both wear and carry, so if I say "I 'port' a shirt", you
can't tell whether I'm wearing a shirt or just carrying it, although
listeners will normally assume the former meaning.
- No numberless nouns: If you want to refer to something but don't know
whether it is one or more than one, you have to guess, or (if writing)
say something like "thing(s)".
Problems of Ido (compared to Esperanto)
Inconsistent relation between meanings of verb, adjective, noun forms
- No word root for "should" or "ought to". Instead
Esperantists have an idiom for "should", "devus", which literally means
"would have to".
- Too many "single-word idioms", compound words whose meanings are
different than suggested by their component parts. Examples
include "eniro", literally "in-go" which means--can you
guess?--"access" (or perhaps it means only "access to an entrance"--but
my dictionary sucks.) If we had to use a compound word for
this, something like "enirpovo", "ability to go in", would have been
better. Then there's "aligxilo", literally "to-become-tool"
which I, as an Esperantist, would interpret it to mean "tool for
getting somewhere". But in fact, it means "application
form". "Kompreneble" ("understandably") apparently means "Of
course", but in that case, how does one distinguish between the
different ideas "understandably" and "of course"? Now, some
of these idioms are actually comfortable to Englishmen. For
example, "Cxiukaze", literally "in every case", actually means the same
thing as the similar English idiom "in any case": i.e. it's a way to
signal "getting the discussion back on track" or "changing the subject".
- Someone wrote some more thoughts here:
- Long "is". In English, the word "is" often uses zero
syllables, as in "It's good". The Esperanto "is", "estas", is
two syllables, which annoys me to death. Ido's "is", "esas",
is also two syllables but there's a special exception for this word:
You can shorten it to "es" if you want (which I always do.)
Extra long numbers.
- Ido has many changes with respect to Esperanto that seem to offer no
benefit, especially to an English-speaker. For example,
Esperanto "sav-", meaning "save", is immediately recognisable to
Englishmen, whereas Ido "sav-" means "know" while "spar-" means
"save". Somebody should have told them: if it ain't broke,
don't fix it. But what do I know? Perhaps in every
other language "sav" means "know".
- Overeager acquisition of roots: Whereas the original Esperanto design
had 900 roots (eventually ballooning to 9000, and that's just the
official ones), Ido started with a full 9000. Notably, Ido
shuns word formation by opposites. When it comes to very
common words like "bad" and "small" and "less", I do agree that a
language should have individual, short roots rather than forming these
concepts from opposites, as Esperanto does: The words "malbona",
"malgranda", and "malpli", meaning "opposite of good", "opposite of
large", and "opposite of more", are too long. However, for
less common (albeit not uncommon) pairs, such as friend/enemy,
healthy/ill, same/different, and winter/summer, IMO it would be better
to use "opposite of friend", "opposite of summer", etc, so that the
learner need not learn so many roots. Mind you, the opposite
prefix should not be used if the resulting word is really
long. Anyway, unfortunately, Ido seems to avoid using its
opposite prefix like the plague. And there's synonyms, like
"bonega" (very good) and "ecelanta" (excellent).
- Ido does not have a non-number-specific form of the term
"you". You must say "you" singular or "you" plural, which is
a bit annoying to learn and a bit problematic if you are writing and
don't know to how many people you're speaking (though generally one
assumes one.) Worse, there is a singular and plural form of
"who", and of course, one often doesn't know how many people are
involved until one hears the answer; however, I think it's normal to
default to the singular "who".