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Esperanto in 10 Minutes or Your Money Back
Mon Sep 16th, 2002 at 07:09:25 PM EST
There's an old joke that goes something like this: "Q: What do you call someone that speaks two languages? A: Bilingual. Q: What do you call someone that speaks one language? A: American."
Learning a new language is a massive undertaking. I know, because I'd spent about 6 years studying Spanish and French with very little to show for it. Then I discovered Esperanto, a planned language, designed to be easier to learn than other languages, while allowing for linguistic richness. In Esperanto, once you learn a rule of grammar, you can apply it without the burden of many exceptions. Verbs in Esperanto are all conjugated regularly and simply. While I recognize that Esperanto is not perfect, it has changed my life, and allowed me to appreciate foreign language again. It allows my international friends and myself to communicate on fairly equal ground.
Esperanto can be learned many times faster than most natural languages. To prove this point, in the scope of this article, I will teach you a whole new language. No longer will you be the butt of an old joke. Give me a few minutes of your time, and I'll teach you a new language.
History of Esperanto
No Esperanto lesson is complete without going into some of the history of the language. Esperanto was invented by Dr. Ludovic L. Zamenhof, a Russian-born Jewish eye doctor living in Warsaw, Poland during the late 1800s. As a boy in high school, Zamenhof knew several languages: Polish, Russian, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, French, and English. He saw first-hand the strife that language barriers caused people.
Then one day the idea struck him: what if there was an easy-to-learn language that people could learn to bridge between two languages? It wasn't a unique idea; there were attempts to do the same before and since. In 1887, after 10 years and a couple of revisions, he published the first book of his international language under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto, which means "One who hopes." Today, Esperanto is used by about 2 million people.
Esperanto uses a slightly different alphabet than than you may be used to, but much of it is the same as English. Pronunciation of letters in Esperanto is phonetic, that is, each letter can only be pronounced one way, and most Esperanto letters sound like the standard English pronunciation. In fact, these letters [b, d, f, h, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, v, and z] are all pronounced as they are in English.
The five vowels are pronounced regularly too, and much like they are in English and other Romance languages:
- a as in "father"
- e as in "bed"
- i as in "pizza"
- o as in "no"
- u as in "tune"
That leaves a four letters which may be slightly different to us English speakers.
- c /ts/ as in "prince"
- g /g/ as in "girl," (Always a "hard g," never a "soft g.")
- j /y/ as in "yellow" (Important!)
- r "European /r/ sound". Can you roll it just a bit? If not, your regular /r/ will work.
Esperanto also adds six additional letters, which don't have an ASCII code, and may not show up properly in your browser without the proper . Most of them look like a standard Latin character with a circumflex ("hat") accent above them. There are a few conventions for displaying these characters using the standard ASCII character-set. My preferred method is called the "X-system," and seems to be widely accepted in the Internet community.
Since X is not in the Esperanto alphabet, I place an "x" after an accented letter, denoting a different character. This method is quick to type, although I think a rare few Esperantists see it as ugly. Some new Esperantists also get confused thinking that "cx" is two letters. Just be sure that when you see me type "cx," it means one accented letter "c".
- cx /ch/ as in "chocolate"
- gx /dj/ as in "fudge"
- hx hard "ch" as in "loch"
- jx /zh/ sound as in "vision"
- sx /sh/ as in "shoe"
- ux /w/ as in "water"
Each vowel in Esperanto represents a separate syllable. So, a word like ideo is a 3-syllable word. When pronouncing Esperanto words, always place the emphasis (stress) on the next-to-the-last syllable. Ideo is pronounced "ee-DEH-oh."
Using this simple pronunciation guide, you should be able to pronounce any word in Esperanto, and with its regular spelling rules, you might be able to spell any word pronounced to you. "Spelling bees" would be pretty boring in Esperanto.
Parts of speech
In Esperanto, it's easy to tell what part of speech a word is, by looking at the last letter. I've bolded the letter I use for my memory mnemonic.
- Nouns (Objects) end in "-o".
- Adjectives end in "-a".
- Adverbs end in "-e".
- Infinitive verbs end in "-i".
Try practicing the pronunciations of some of these words.
tree = arbo to write = skribi healthy = sana
idea = ideo to love = ami clean = pura
bird = birdo to speak = paroli comfortable = komforta
man = viro to eat = mangxi green = verda
city = urbo to be = esti large = granda
book = libro to see = vidi same = sama
house = domo to read = legi full = plena
friend = amiko good = bona
Plurals end with a -j suffix. (Remember the /y/ sound of the "j"?) Keep in mind, adjectives keep the same ending as their noun. For example, a green tree is verda arbo. ("VERD-ah ARB-oh") Green trees are verdaj arboj. ("VERD-eye ARB-oy") Get it? Since languages could have different adjective-noun word order, Esperanto allows for nouns and adjectives to come in any order. So, you could say verda arbo or arbo verda. They both mean the same. Thanks to the endings, you know which one is the noun, so order is not important, except to maybe emphasize one more than another, or perhaps for poetic reasons.
(As a side note, there is no article "a" or "an" in Esperanto. There is one article: "the" which is "la".)
If you've studied foreign languages before, you might be excited to find out that there are no irregular verbs in Esperanto. Verbs are simple, and without exceptions. Just strip off the -i ending and add -as for present tense verbs. Thanks to the word endings, you can mix up the word order a little bit and still be understood.
I eat. = Mi mangxas.
The man writes. = La viro skribas.
The green birds spoke. = Parolas la birdoj verdaj. (Verb-Subject order is OK!)
The tree is green. = La arbo estas verda.
Again, because other languages might have a different Subject-Verb-Direct Object order, Zamenhof found it necessary to make a distinction between the Subject and the Direct Object. This is a little tricky to get used to, but is quite valuable. Direct Objects in Esperanto are marked with an -n on the end, so:
The man reads big books. = La viro (S) + legas (V) + grandajn librojn. (DO)
or... = Librojn grandajn (DO) + legas (V) + la viro (S).
or... = Legas (V) + la viro (S) + grandajn librojn (DO).
Okay, now you're looking at me funny about this Direct Object thing, right? Actually, it's a borrowed gimmick from Latin. We even have vestiges of the rule in English. The word "who" becomes a direct object "whom." I could never remember the rule about who/whom myself until I learned Esperanto.
Funny Esperanto Tricks
If you've stayed with me this far, let me share a couple of cool aspects about Esperanto. For one, words in Esperanto are modular, and can be mixed and matched. If I know the word for dog (hundo) and suppose I want the adjective form to make a "dog house." Here, "dog" describes the kind of house, so it's clearly an adjective. All I need to do is to remove the noun -o ending from hundo, and apply the -a ending. Now I have hunda domo. Remove the -o, and add a -e to make an instant adverb. Hunde, would mean, "in a dog-like manner."
This can, in some instances, be taken to silly extremes. The verb, hundi, can mean, "to act like a dog" or "to be doglike". So, a valid sentence Esperanto could be, "Hundo hundas hunde." which means, "A dog acts like a dog, in a dog-like manner."
Exercise: Since I've told you the word for same (sama), can you tell me the words for the noun form of "same," "similarly," and "is the same as." Hint: You can just change the ending letter!
Here's where the fun starts, and the language really starts to boom. Because Esperanto is an "agglutinative" language, you can glue words together to create new words. English is agglutinative as well, but not to the extent that Esperanto is. We talk about disintegration and one-upmanship, and people know what we're talking about. Take, for example, the English word "unfriendliness." It can be broken down into following morphemes:
friend base of the word.
-li- makes a noun into an adjective
-ness abstract quality, turns an adjective into a noun.
So, "unfriendliness" is the quality of the nature of not being a friend. You might notice I read that word backwards to come up with its definition. Esperanto can work almost exactly the same way. Creating compound words is a cinch, so in our above example, we could shorten hunda domo to simply hunddomo, dropping the -o of hundo, and treating it as a prefix.
Just like English, there are several suffixes and prefixes to help you along. Here's a few of the biggies:
mal- Word means the opposite, like our "un-". Plena means full. Malplena means empty.
-ul- Person who is X. Grandulo means a big person.
-il- Tool for X. Skribilo means writing instrument.
-ej- Place for X. Legejo means place for reading.
-ec- Abstract quality of X, like our -ness or -ship. Amikeco means friendliness or friendship.
There's several of these little morphemes, but they are quite handy. Let's say you don't know the word for hospital (incidentally, it's very similar to English, hospitalo) you could formulate the word from simple roots. A hospital is thing (-o ending) that is basically a Place (-ej-) for People (-ul-) who are not well (mal + sana). Putting it together, we have malsanulejo, a place for unwell people. It's somewhat of a mouthful, and perhaps not a perfect translation, but enough to get your point across. Knowing even a few of these morphemes will really multiply your ability in Esperanto.
Exercise: Now that you've seen this, can you create the word for "unfriendliness"?
These little morphemes can even be used on their own, affixing a -o to make a noun, -a for adjective, and so on. In other words, the word mala means opposite, and ilo is a tool. You can even stick these little guys together; for example, ilejo is a place for tools. Feel free to play around with the roots I've given you to create new words. One of the joys of Esperanto is mixing and matching these words allows your vocabulary to increase dramatically. After learning just a few words, you can use them to create complex new words at your whim.
If you've completed the article, you can now consider yourself a samideano, a member of the same idea. You know a little bit of the language now, and a little can go a long way. Esperanto does get a bit more complicated than this, but not by too much. From here, you scan step up to one of the free Internet courses. I recommend:
- This is an old tried and true course, which I believe was developed from a snail-mail paper correspondence course.
- A more modern course, focusing more on Esperanto culture. I found it a bit less cut and dried than the previous course.
- ( For "advanced" students.) After taking the above courses, you'll probably be ready to read a small novel in Esperanto by prolific writer Claude Piron. The course is taught entirely in Esperanto, but the chapters are short, and it's not too difficult.
All three courses provide a free tutor to guide you, answer questions, and grade your work. Or if you prefer to work by yourself, the lessons are all on-line.
Other Esperanto Entertainment:
The Esperanto Correspondence Service is a pen-pal service for Esperanto speakers. I've corresponded with a number of nice folks from this list. The best way for a learner to learn is to use the language regularly, and this service gives you a good excuse. Corresponding and writing about your everyday activities teaches you to use the language quickly.
Would you like an international vacation with free housing? The Esperanto Passport Service is an international hospitality service for Esperanto speakers. The service boasts over 1,000 hosts, who will allow you to stay in their home for free or practically nothing. The catch? The service is for Esperanto speakers, only.
Celebrate Zamenhof Day! Zamenhof's birthday was December 15th, and has become a holiday among Esperantists. It is customary to buy a book, either as a gift for someone else, or even for yourself. Bonus points for buying .
A heartfelt document about Esperanto's role in the language movement. Not too long, and a very good read.
An on-line encyclopedia, in Esperanto.