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A learned language, but a living one
Esperanto in the light of Kalidasa's Sanskrit

The eyes with which I see now see Esperanto and its users are not the same as the eyes I saw them with as a teenager. Among the things that have happened since, is the study I’ve done of Sanskrit — a language very different to Esperanto, yet there are interesting points in common.

When is a language living?

My favourite book about Sanskrit is Michael Coulson’s Sanskrit — an Introduction to the Classical Language. Coulson not only gives comprehensive information about inflections and sentence structure, but also offers a valuable account of the history of the language. He explains that, by the period represented by the poet and playwright Kālidāsa (around the fifth century), Sanskrit “was not a mother tongue but a language to be studied and consciously mastered” — the sort of language commonly referred to as “dead”. But Coulson thinks “dead” is not the right way to think of the Sanskrit of Kālidāsa and his contemporaries. As he puts it…

a language... is living when people choose to converse and forumulate ideas in it in preference to any other... To Kālidāsa...[Sanskrit] was a learned language but a living one. 1

Coulson mentions Esperanto, in the same paragraph, as a language which came into being in a quite different way from Sanskrit. He says that, while the Sanskrit of Kālidāsa’s time is not a natural language, in the sense of being acquired instinctively in early childhood, neither is it an artificial language, in the sense that Esperanto is.

True. Yet it seems to me that the phrase “a learned language but a living one” is actually a good way of understanding what Esperanto has become to the people who talk and read and write in it.

The history of Sanskrit, as described by Coulson, involves both discipline and creative development. The element of discipline derives from the grammatical aphorisms of Pāṇini, attributed to the fourth century BCE, which were accepted as definitive. The rules, however, did not prevent all sorts of stylistic innovations, for instance increased use of certain verbal forms at the expense of others, and in compounding of nouns. “Pāṇini would have been astounded”, 2 Coulson thinks, by the innovations.

The history of Esperanto is of course far shorter, for the language is just a little over a hundred years old. Yet it too involves both discipline and creativity. Zamenhof's Fundamento de Esperanto, adopted by the first world Esperanto congress in 1905, has a defining status comparable to Pāṇini’s aphorisms. However, that has not prevented changes, for instance a shift in the use of gendered terms, increased use of stative verbs (ie verbs made out of adjectives), 3 and a very big expansion of the vocabulary. 4

Would Zamenhof have been astounded? Who knows?

Esperanto grammar, Sanskrit grammar, English grammar...

A frequent question about Esperanto, raised by people who have taken a look at the language and who have some sympathy for its goals...

Isn’t Esperanto grammar made unnecessarily complicated by the fact that its nouns and adjectives are inflected (that is, they change their endings for grammatical reasons)?

A little background... In Esperanto, the phrase corresponding to black cat is either nigra kato or nigran katon, depending on whether the phrase is the subject or object of the verb.

Compare the following sentences...

La nigra kato mordis la hundidon.

The black cat bit the puppy.

La hundido mordis la nigran katon.

The puppy bit the black cat.

An unnecessary complication? The first point to make is that there are other languages than Esperanto that treat their nouns in comparable ways. The example best known to me is Sanskrit; but it is more likely that Zamenhof was influenced by Russian, Polish, German and Latin. He may or may not have known that modern Bengali marks the objects of verbs in similar fashion. So does the Persian language — it uses a one syllable suffix. Hindi and Urdu also modify noun endings for grammatical reasons, though not to distinguish between subject and direct object.

Still, as the critics point out, there are plenty of languages which get along without a grammatical device like the Esperanto final n. English is one. Chinese is supposedly another...(A question I've written about in the article Perpetual Motion or Flying Machine). Did Zamenhof (who was familiar with English) have any good reason for not making Esperanto grammar more like English grammar? Do users of Esperanto have any good reason for persevering with the grammar Zamenhof gave them?

The answer, as I now understand it, is basically that different languages keep their complexity in different places... Sanskrit, for instance, has lots of rules about changing word endings (inflections); to an English speaker like me, they can look complicated and strict. On the other hand, Sanskrit is much freer than English on the question of word order — which word comes after which in a sentence. To an English speaker, Sanskrit word order can seem almost anarchic. I was very surprised to find out that a Sanskrit text can put a noun and its qualifying adjective at opposite ends of a sentence, with various other stuff between.

English sentence structure may seem easy and natural to those of us who grew up with it. But... have you never heard a person from a different language background stringing together English words in a non-standard, funny-sounding order? Why do you think they do that? Because they like sounding funny? The truth is that if you are learning English as a second language, (and especially if your native language has a freer word order), it is not necessarily so easy to learn how to construct a normal-sounding and understandable English sentence.

In these respects, Esperanto falls somewhere between English (or Chinese) and Sanskrit (or Russian or Polish). Its inflections are very simple compared to Sanskrit or Russian, and are completely regular. Esperanto’s word order, however, is not quite as free as that of Sanskrit. When compared to English, on the other hand, Esperanto does have a small number of unfamiliar inflections, but freer word order.

In Sanskrit or Russian or Esperanto, 5 you can often emphasize a word by placing it at the beginning of your sentence. For instance, suppose someone knows the puppy bit some other pet, but isn’t sure which. You want to tell them that it was the black cat. In Esperanto you can say....

La nigran katon la hundido mordis.

To get a similar effect in English, something must be added. For instance...

The black cat was the one the puppy bit.

Analysing the two sentences, we find that the Esperanto sentence has

two nounskaton, hundido
two articlesla, la
one adjectivenigran
one verbmordis

The English sentence has

two nounscat, puppy
three articlesthe, the, the
one adjectiveblack
two verbswas, bit
one pronounone

The Esperanto sentence has six words. The English sentence has nine. Which is more complicated?


1 Coulson, Michael; Sanskrit — an Introduction to the Classical Language; Hodder and Stoughton, UK, 1985; p xix.

2 Coulson; Sanskrit...; p xx.

3http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Esperanto#Evolution_of_the_language(accessed 11.4.08)

4 http://ttt.esperanto.org/us/USEJ/world/kontraux.html (accessed 10.4.08)

5 http://www.bertilow.com/pmeg/gramatiko/vortordo/frazpartoj.html (accessed 30.4.08)

Article first published in Ferment March/April 2008.
Revised for the Web 2010.
Article © Colin Robinson 2008, 2010

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