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If you’re going to slag off Esperanto, do your homework.

I've just bought a book about languages. I got the Kindle version, because it was a lot cheaper than the hardback version.

It's called "Lingo: A Language Spotters' Guide to Europe" by a journalist called Gaston Dorren, who lives in the Netherlands.

Dorren has managed to squeeze 60 chapters into his little book - I'll bet you didn't realise there was that much to write about European languages, did you? No, nor me.

Chapter 51 bears the witty (NOT) title: "The no-hoper" and is about Esperanto.

What's Esperanto? (I hear you cry)

Esperanto is a constructed, or planned, language. It was first published in 1887 by a young Dr Zamenhof. He had to use a pseudonym (pen name) because he was worried that his ophthalmologist practice might suffer if people didn't take very kindly to the language he'd devised. He chose the name "Doktoro Esperanto" because it means "someone who hopes" - and that was his whole reason for inventing the language. He hoped it would build bridges between people from different linguistic communities. After a while, people transferred the name from the language's creator to the language itself.

Anyway, Esperanto has survived very well over the years, in spite of persecution at the hands of the likes of Hitler and Stalin. Those considerate gentlemen made the common mistake of confusing the language with the purposes for which people used it. Just because a fascist dictator speaks German doesn't mean German is a fascist language, right?

I first came across Esperanto when I was a teenager, browsing through the languages section in my local library, simply because I'd developed a fascination with counting in different languages. I started at "A" (Afrikaans, Arabic, etc) and was doing well until I reached "E". There was this book in a blue and yellow dust jacket, the familiar livery of the "Teach Yourself" series at the time. It was "Teach Yourself Esperanto".

What? Esperanto? Never heard of it.​ But I picked up the book, turned to page 19 and found the list of numbers.

One to ten were fairly predictable, but for some reason absolutely fascinating. And then I discovered that you didn't have to learn any new words to be able to count up to 100. But then again, why should you? You don't need any more new digits other than zero to nine, do you? So why should you need extra words for "eleven", "twelve", etc.? That made perfect sense to me.

The upshot was that I took the book home, kept renewing it, and eventually finished learning the basics of Esperanto in only THREE MONTHS! Yes - you read that right. Three months was all it took. Not long after that I got my first couple of pen-pals, and then I took a Diploma exam from the British Esperanto Association (as it was called in those days). And I got a distinction!!! Wa-hey! Do that in any other language, I defy you.

I've been an Esperantist for a very long time. I used to edit a magazine for young people, called "Kial Ne?" (= Why Not?) and even invented a cartoon character called "Superzam" (which featured a mild-mannered professor who ripped his shirt off to become a superhero fighting linguistic injustice).

The cartoons weren't all that good, but that wasn't the point. I was using Esperanto to do things other than talk about Esperanto.

So, to cut to the present ... I've started tutoring distance students on a Free Taster Course​ in Esperanto, and some of them have made fantastic progress. One gentleman even wrote his own book of poems after only a few months of study.

It really can be that easy.

So, imagine my disbelief when I read Chapter 51 in this chap Dorren's new book. He actually says this:

"... it’s a language whose difficulties might make an English speaker wonder what on earth its inventor was thinking of when he devised it.​"

"Difficulties"? What's he talking about?

It perhaps comes as a surprise to be told that Esperanto is difficult. After all, wasn’t it designed in the hope that it would become a practical, easy-to-learn means of communication in a world in which technological advances were bringing nations ever closer together? Wasn’t that the reason for its name, which roughly translates as ‘hopeful’?

Dorren - with chip firmly on shoulder - then embarks on a little flight of fancy, comparing Esperanto to English. His reason? He says that, among the many languages that Zamenhof was familiar with was English, which Dorren describes as "learner-friendly" (I'll come back to that).

I can see his point. After all, everyone speaks English, don't they? Don't they?

Anyway, Dorren's first little rant concerns something which many language learners will be aware of:

What makes Esperanto such a challenge for Anglophones? First of all, it has a case system. When a man does something in Esperanto, he is a viro: la viro vidas hundon, ‘the man sees a dog’. But when the roles are reversed, he turns into a viron: la hundo vidas viron, ‘the dog sees a man’. (The dog, you will notice, undergoes the same transformation.)

The trouble is, this isn't really a "case system" at all. It's simply a way of making it absolutely clear which word is the subject of the verb, and which is the direct object. Old-fashioned grammarians, who based their classification of the "parts of speech" on good old Latin, would call these the "nominative" and the  "accusative" cases. What Dorren fails to appreciate is the flexibility that this simple extra -N gives the language.

Take, for example, the sentence "We're painting the roses red". (You may recognise that from Walt Disney's "Alice in Wonderland", when the playing cards are slapping red paint on the white roses, but I digress ...) In English, you have to use word order to make this sentence. It totally changes the meaning if you swap "roses" and "red" - "We're painting the red roses". In the first one, the roses are not red to begin with, whereas they are in the second example.

In Esperanto, you can do this by judicious use of the -N ending. Let's take my second example, which would be "Ni farbas la rozojn ruĝajn" - you'll notice that both the noun "rozoj" and the adjective "ruĝaj" have an -N on the end, because the rule is that adjectives should "agree" with their associated noun. However, by leaving off the -N on "ruĝaj", we create what's known as the "predicative": "Ni farbas la rozojn ruĝaj"

And in any case (pardon the pun), English DOES have the remnants of an old case system, nowadays only noticeable on the pronouns, and even then it's not all of them. Here's an example:

"I see the dog. The dog sees me."

​Hard to spot, isn't it? We use "I" when it's the grammatical subject, and "me" when I need the direct object. And, while we're on the subject (again, no pun intended), how is a learner supposed to connect the visually and phonologically different "I" and "me"? Or "we" and "us". Or "she" and "her". At least Esperanto makes these relationships clear: "mi" and "min", "ni" and "nin" and "ŝi" and "ŝin". How's that for "learner-friendly"?

A little further down the page, Dorren says:

... for speakers of French, Italian and Spanish, la viro sounds plain wrong. Il viro or el viro would be OK – but la viro? Why the sex change?)

There are no surgical procedures here, Mr Dorren. Esperanto does not divide its vocabulary up into grammatical genders - masculine, feminine and/or neuter. Why should it? English doesn't, does it? Anyway, "il" in Esperanto is a suffix meaning "tool, utensil, implement" - as in "skribilo", which can mean a pen, a pencil or even a stylus. And "el" means "out of" as in "eliri" (to exit). So we'll stick with "la", thank you very much.

Esperanto does odd things to adjectives. ‘The beautiful girl’, for example, is la bela knabino (again, this is odd in itself – knabino looks masculine), but when there are two girls an ending is slapped not only onto the girls – turning them into knabinoj, a word hardly compatible with anything of beauty – but also onto their attribute: belaj. And stranger still, the article remains unchanged: la belaj knabinoj ‘the beautiful girls’. As far as I’m aware, not a single European language does likewise.

Purely a subjective knee-jerk reaction, Mr Dorren. Why should knabino look particularly masculine? Because it ends in -O? By that logic, my two very feminine Japanese friends Yukiko and Fujiko ought to be very offended.

And lots of languages make the adjective agree with the noun. It's just that they take the insanity further and insist that the definite article should change too. Total nonsense! In your precious English, Mr Dorren, we make do with the one word "the".

Then there are the verbs. In the early chapters of Esperanto Without Tears, Zamenhof seems to have done a great job with them. They’re regular, they’re simple – they appear to be a breeze. But once you advance beyond the basics, it turns out that the Esperanto verb has some nasty tricks up its sleeve, and the participles are possibly the worst of them. In natural European languages, participles tend to come in two varieties: an active, such as seeing, and a passive, such as seen. Esperanto verbs have six – three in the passive, three in the active. Thus ‘giving a talk’ is expressed as parolonta, parolanta or parolinta, depending on whether the talking is still to be done, is in progress or has finished.

Firstly, don't make it look as if Zamenhof wrote "Esperanto Without Tears". Very misleading.

Secondly, the verbs ARE regular, and simple, and above all, consistent. The key is to associate one letter with each of the "tenses" - -A- shows the present, -I- shows the past, and -O- shows the future. This is as true for the simple tenses (mi parolas Esperanton = I speak Esperanto; mi parolis Esperanton = I spoke Esperanto; mi parolos Esperanton = I'll speak Esperanto) as it is for the participles.

And if you're going to criticise something, at least do your homework first. "Giving a talk" is not the same thing as "speaking". But to take up your point about the plethora of participles (nice alliteration, eh?) - it's actually very useful to say "mi estis parolonta" = I was about to speak; or "mi estos parolinta" = I shall have spoken and such like.

By the way, are you aware that the two participles found in English (e.g. seeing and seen) can cause tremendous misunderstandings? You don't know this, because I haven't told you, but I spent 10 years in Burma teaching English to some very high fliers, very intelligent and dedicated people, like doctors, dentists, architects, and so on. Almost invariably, they would get these two round their necks.

Just think about it for a moment. They're told that "interesting" is active, and "interested" is passive. So far so good. They think about their interest in learning English. That's an active interest, so they come out with: "I am interesting in learning English".

Learner-friendly? Hardly.

Nearly there, Mr Dorren. Just a couple more points that I need to make.

Right at the end of Chapter 51, you state:

The Esperanto vocabulary is partly based on English (fanklubo for ‘fan club’, ĉipo for ‘computer chip’, et cetera) ...

I have to admit that I had to check in John C. Wells's English Esperanto English Dictionary (pub. Mondial, 2010) to see if you were right about "fanklubo" - and indeed you were. It seems like an odd example to choose, but that's your prerogative, I suppose.

However, you're TOTALLY WRONG about "ĉipo" (pronounced "CHEE-po"). That is not the word for a computer chip at all. According to Wells, that would be "ico" (pronounced "EET-so") from "integrated circuit" - or "blato". And I'd take Wells's word over yours any day. For many years, he was Professor of Phonetics at University College, London. And he's a member of the Academy of Esperanto. What you might call a respected authority.

Your argument, Mr Dorren, is extremely subjective, not to mention biased. If Esperanto were that difficult, would there be so many "denaskaj" Esperantists (i.e. people born into an Esperanto-speaking environment)? Could people speak tenderly and/or romantically in the language, or write erotic poetry that communicates not with the brain, but the other parts that even Heineken couldn't reach? Would we be able to create risqué jokes in Esperanto? Would it even be thinkable to sing meaningful songs that don't sound any more foreign or out of place than, say, the Azerbaijani entry at the Eurovision Song Contest?​

Finally, you round off your chapter with this otherwise unremarkable little paragraph:

Esperinto – somebody who used to be hopeful, but no longer is. A word that sums up neatly the mood of most Esperanto speakers.

Not in my experience, Mr Dorren. Not by a long chalk.

And in any case, where's your evidence to support that insignificant little word "most"? I wouldn't let my Burmese students get away with making a sweeping statement like that without well researched support, and I'm certainly not going to let you off the hook either. Show me your proof and I'll swallow my pride.

To cut a long story short, before you go slagging off something like Esperanto, do your homework. Get the facts. Ask people who actually know, rather than jumping to conclusions. One of these days, one of them might just jump back at you!


Gentle reader - If you'd like to know a little more about Esperanto, here's a brief introductory video.

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