Dancing World-Soul Kali                                                           Kali for the World

Perpetual motion or flying machine?
On the search for a bridging language…

A response to a number of thought-provoking articles on Rick Harrison's website "Proposed Guidelines for the Design of an Optimal International Auxiliary Language", "Is Esperanto's vocabulary too large?", "Fairwell to Auxiliary Languages", and to his descriptions of the languages Vorlin and Esperanto Sen Fleksio.

The essay "Proposed Guidelines…" describes itself as a contribution to discussion. The essay you're looking at now is intended the same way.

Perpetual motion or flying machine?

Two of Rick Harrison's essays are, so to speak, antithetical. In "Proposed Guidelines…", Harrison looks at the potential value of an international auxiliary language, and at what such a language would ideally look like. In "Fairwell to Auxiliary Languages", he concludes that the quest for an auxiliary language that can win general acceptance is "similar to the quest for a perpetual motion machine — futile".

Like the quest for a perpetual motion machine, the quest for an auxiliary international language has involved many ambitious projects, and many disappointments. As Harrison says, "If the world unexpectedly develops a hunger for an auxlang, it already has a thousand options from which to choose." ("Farewell...")

I'd suggest, though, that a better metaphor might be the quest for a heavier-than-air flying machine. That quest, too, involved all sorts of frustrations and debacles. But eventually something took off.

And the fact is, among the "thousand options", there are at least four that have become airborne, in the sense of winning acceptance of communities of users from different countries: Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, and Interlingua. Of these four, Volapük has (so to speak) crashed, and Esperanto stands out, as the one whose number and diversity of active speakers is indisputably the greatest.

Will Esperanto, or some other planned IAL, ever become as important for international communication as Arabic or Chinese or English? Maybe not. Certainly neither Esperanto nor Ido nor Interlingua has risen in popularity as rapidly as the aeroplane did. Yet, even the aeroplane took time to become the usual way of seeing the world. In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew his little plane across the Atlantic, I can imagine people saying "Great stunt, but will it ever compete with the ocean liner and the Zeppelin?"

Harrison's articles indicate that he has been part of network of thoughtful people who like the idea of an auxiliary language, but have reservations about Esperanto — people who hope to come up with something that will do the same job better.

No-one can stop them from trying, but surely they need to take the competition seriously — to think carefully about why Esperanto has made the progress it has? Surely they need to consider what Esperanto gets right, as well as what (if anything) it gets wrong?

What is an IAL for?

In "Proposed Guidelines…" Harrison sets out three goals for an optimal international auxiliary language or IAL.

1.It should be "relatively easy" to learn as a second language.

2.It should be usable for "both mundane conversation and highly technical information".

3.It should be culturally neutral.

He writes that these points are listed in order of declining importance, implying that ease of learning is the single most important point.

At the end of "Proposed Guidelines…", however, Harrison notes that "the features of a language don't matter as much as the benefits of knowing the language". Very true. People don't generally learn languages just for the sake of learning them. They learn them in order to use them.

For this reason, I'd suggest that, out of the three goals, point 2 is actually more important than point 1. If I can't use a language to talk about what I want to talk about, and to do so clearly, then what do I care how easy it is to learn? And what I want to talk about may not be only the mundane and the technical, but also feelings, stories, dreams.

Of course ease of learning matters a lot too. The words "relatively easy" are well chosen, though. Any second language (as distinct from a third or fourth language) requires a special effort. It is not simply a matter of developing new patterns of thought, but of getting beyond old patterns.

A language that would be really easy for everyone would be as wonderful as a generally available free lunch. Which may indeed be in the category of the perpetual motion machine. The optimal planned auxiliary language is, I suggest, more like a nourishing lunch at a competitive price.

Pidgins and nail soup

Harrison goes on to quote another auxlang theorist, Jacques Guy, who argues people who want to create an easy-to-learn IAL should focus on pidgin languages. ("Proposed Guidelines…" 1.3)

Pidgins are highly simplified languages born of the necessities of trade. The very word pidgin has been interpreted as a worn-down Chinese form of the English "business". Chinese Pidgin English was a tongue with which Chinese dock-workers and merchants and English-speaking traders could tell each other what they wanted. Several expression from Chinese Pidgin entered more general English usage, e.g. "long time no see" and "no ticket, no shirt".

I've heard it said that any language can be used to express anything. The claim reminds me of the recipe for nail soup. Yes, you can make soup out of an iron nail. Just simmer it in water, with a little salt... perhaps a bit of garlic.. an onion or two... a bit of turnip... perhaps an old hambone... Before serving the soup, you take out the nail.

It may well be that a pidgin (business) language (with the help of a few extra words and grammatical devices) can develop into a language for all sorts of everyday uses besides business — a creole — and then (just add a pinch of orthography, a few figures of speech, a bit of technical vocabulary) into a language of poetry, drama, scientific treatises. The emergence of modern English, out of a sort of hybrid Saxon-Norman, is arguably an instance of this very process.

Does it follow that studying pidgins will enable you to create an optimal international language for expressing thoughts more subtle than "no ticket, no shirt"? I think not, any more than studying nails will enable you to create the perfect soup.

Vocabulary issues

Familiarity versus neutrality

One thing Esperanto, Ido and Interlingua have in common - vocabularies consisting of words which look and sound familiar to speakers of major European languages. Before dismissing this approach as Eurocentric, it is worth considering the following points

1. Role of European languages in regions distant from the European Union, e.g. role of Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America.

2. Extensive use of European loan-words in certain Asian languages such as Indonesian (though there are others, such as Chinese, which prefer calques).

3. Similarities between the European languages and other languages of the Indo-European family, e.g. Farsi, Hindi.

Does Esperanto now have too many words?

The alleged excessive size of the current Esperanto vocabulary (discussed on the page "Is Esperanto's vocabulary too large?") is an interesting point.

Zamenhof's original Esperanto vocabulary contained some 900 roots. Zamenhof, however left room for expansion in two directions — compounding of roots, and use of loan-words adapted to Esperanto orthography. Growth of vocabulary is the most notable change that has occurred in Esperanto through the twentieth century.

Orwell's fictional language Newspeak can be read as a warning about possible dangers in the limited initial vocabulary of Esperanto, as well as about dangers of Basic English. Orwell warns us that thought itself may be limited when vocabulary is limited.

Does a tenfold expansion in vocabulary mean ten times more work for those learning the language? Only if you think that learning a language means committing to memory every word in its dictionary. If so, how many of us have mastered even a first language, let alone a second?

Consider for example the word "kvokao", the title of an entry in the Esperanto edition of Wikipedia. It isn't among the words listed in Zamenhof's first book, but comes from the English "quokka", which in turn comes from the Noongah "gwaga". A kvokao, quokka, or gwaga is a furry little critter which is an everyday sight on Rottnest Island, Western Australia — a cat-sized cousin of the kangaroo.

Proficiency in Esperanto does not mean you have to memorize a word like that. It means knowing how to look it up if you need it.

Synonyms — hindrance or help?

Synonyms may seem like unnecessary baggage in an IAL, but they can sometimes help you to get your message across. Especially when you are trying to communicate with someone at a distance.

If you are talking to someone face to face, you can often tell when they don't understand a word you've used. Then you can go back and explain. When you are writing an article, it is different. If a reader doesn't understand a term you've used, he or she may never get your point. One way of reducing the risk of this happening is to hedge your bets by using synonyms.

For, instance, suppose I am writing in Esperanto about the kind of curved tube which swimmers use to breath, while floating face down in the water. I don't know whether my readers will be experienced Esperantists or beginners, or whether they will have the time or inclination to consult dictionaries about unfamiliar words. Should I use the word "ŝnorkelo" (which can arguably be described as an international word), or the Esperanto compound "spirtubo" or both?

The word "ŝnorkelo", of German origin, is recognizably the same in quite a number of languages, such as Swedish, Dutch, Spanish (esnórquel), not to mention English. But what about the Italians, whose word is "aerotore"?

The word "spirtubo" is a compound of two simple Esperanto roots, "spir/i" to breathe, and "tub/o" a tube. Someone who knew both roots might be able to work out the meaning of the compound without having seen it before, and without looking it up. Although "spirtubo" could also (and sometimes does) mean a "windpipe" or "trachea".

So what strategy do I as a writer use to maximize my chance of being understood? Perhaps the best thing is to hedge my bet, with an expression like "spirtubo (aŭ ŝnorkelo)". As has been done in the Esperanto Wikipedia entry about the snorkel.

Why not simpler grammar?

Since the birth of Esperanto, critics have argued that the ideal auxiliary language should have a simpler grammar, without that famous or notorious "-n", the Esperanto marker of the accusative case. Defenders of Esperanto have responded that the "-n" is a good thing, because it allows more flexibility in word order. In the essay "Proposed Guidelines…", Harrison looks at essentially this question in the light of grammars of English, Russian, and Chinese.

Is English grammar easier than Russian?

Rick Harrison comments that Russian morphology is complex, and that even native speakers have to spend years at school learning to master it. ("Proposed Guidelines..." paragraph 1.3) Zamenhof would presumably have agreed with this point — although Russian was among the languages he learned as a child, the inflections he devised for Esperanto are nothing like Russian inflections.

It is one thing to say that English morphology is simpler than Russian, but another thing to say that English grammar is simpler; for morphology is, after all, only one aspect of grammar. It is, I suggest, debatable whether English grammar as a whole is simpler and easier than Russian.

Consider the linguistic implications of those Russian reversal jokes made popular some 20 years ago by Jakov Smirnov. The American boasts: "In America you can always find a party!" The Russian responds, awkwardly yet forcefully: "And in Russia, party find you!" Such a joke is based not only on a view about communism, but also on the trouble which speakers of Slavic languages have with English — the irregular word orders that the learners come up with. The point is that in Russian (for instance) you can reverse the order of words in a sentence without changing the meaning.

Russian reversal jokes let Americans with fluent English feel superior, not only about their political freedoms and their lively social life, but also about their fluency. But, what does it really mean, when the supposedly simpler grammar of the English language frustrates people who grew up with the complexities of Russian inflection? In the end, I suggest, the joke is on us English-speakers, specifically on the way we tend to think that our own language's principles of word order are "natural and efficient" (a phrase used in "Proposed Guidelines…" paragraph 6.2.3 — a quote from Jason Johnston).

Word order or word-marking?

As Rick Harrison asks "should the roles of the verb's arguments be indicated by word order or by overt markers (such as noun declension or 'case tags')?" ("Proposed Guidelines…" paragraph 6.2.3)

To put the point less technically... When you hear or read a sentence like "The cat bit the dog", it is the rules of English word order that tell you which did the biting and which got bitten. There are other languages, such as Russian and Latin and Noongah (see Charles Symmons' outline of Noongah grammar) and Esperanto, that can give you the same information in another way - by marking the nouns themselves.

While English doesn't have a system of declension nouns like 'dog' and 'cat', it does have declensions for pronouns like "I/me", "they/them", as can be seen by comparing a sentence like "I saw them" with "They saw me."

The Esperanto declension is applied to more words than the English, but is also more regular. In English, there is a general tendency for accusative pronouns to contain an "m" (me, him, them, whom), but there are exceptions to this (e.g. the accusative of "she" is "her") and the exact form of each pronoun has to be learned separately. In Esperanto, there is just one accusative ending "-n" for all declinable words.

What word order can signal

words have to come in some specific order anyway, so that the order may as well signal something useful" (Jason Johnston, cited in "Proposed Guidelines…" paragraph 6.2.3)

A valid enough point... But is the distinction between subject and object the only useful thing that word order can signal?

Emphasis, for instance — how many languages use word order to signal that ?

The Greek term "hyperbaton" refers to such usage of word order.

Word order variation in English literature

In his 1999 description of the proposed IAL Vorlin (section 11), Harrison tells us that in English, changed word order for the sake of rhyme is a hallmark of "embarrassingly bad poetry".

Are Samuel Taylor Coleridge's works "Kubla Khan" and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" embarrassingly bad?

In any case word order variation has literary uses in English that have nothing to do with rhyme.

In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings we find:

"These we will take!" said Gandalf suddenly.1

This dramatic sentence involves at least two departures from the Subject-Verb-Object word order that is usual in English.

1. The word "these", which is the object of the verb "take", comes first instead of last in its clause.

2. The name "Gandalf", subject of the verb "said", comes after its verb instead of before.

Consider the first four words: "These we will take!". The meaning is the same as "We will take these", but the emphasis is different.

Because English distinguishes between the nominative pronoun "we" and the accusative "us", it remains clear which word is the subject of the verb "take" — we know that Gandalf and his companions are the ones about to take something.

A sentence constructed the same way, but using nouns rather than pronouns, can be ambiguous in English. If someone wrote: "The dog the cat will bite", readers would be left guessing which animal was expected to bite which. The reader who doesn't want to be left guessing can reasonably call such a sentence bad. But would it be equally bad in another language — Chinese for instance?

What about Chinese literature?

Rick Harrison writes…

Sometimes we hear the assertion that an inflectional case-marking system and free word order are necessary to facilitate poetry and literature. This claim seems to be contradicted by the fact that Chinese has no inflections to mark cases but is nevertheless powerfully expressive, as demonstrated by its 2000-year history of unsurpassed poetry and literature. ("Proposed Guidelines…" paragraph 6.2.3)

Actually, the case of Chinese is not quite so clear cut.

In Literary Chinese or Wenyen (the form of Chinese used for most of that 2000-year history of literature)…

* there is an accusative pronoun "zhī" (), "chih" in the old transliteration, described as a "generalized object substitute"; 2

* noun objects (and other complements) can be shifted for emphasis to the beginning of a sentence; 3 and

* noun objects shifted in the above way sometimes have a "zhī" added to the end. 4

In short, Literary Chinese does have ways of varying its usual Subject-Verb-Object word order, and can mark a noun as the direct object of a verb. Modern Mandarin has a similar gramatical device, the bă-construction (using the word "bă" () before a noun), which allows an accusative noun to appear before its verb rather than after. 5

Other major languages of world literature, in which marking of cases allows variable word order include Sanskrit, Hebrew, Classical Arabic...

Is flexible word order helpful for translations?

For an IAL intended to be used for translation of classical literature, flexible word order is surely an asset. The more flexible the word order of your IAL, the more you will be able to translate texts from a spectrum of languages without changing the order in which the authors expressed their ideas.

What about using a preposition?

There are at least two ways in which an IAL could allow for flexible word order without ambiguity. Rather than a suffix like "-n", one could use an accusative particle or preposition. E.g. something like the Literary Chinese "zhī", the Mandarin "bă", or the preposition "na", which some Esperantists have been experimenting with, and which Harrison endorses in his Esperanto Sen Fleksio.

An accusative preposition or particle would indeed offer advantages similar to those of a suffix like "-n". On the other hand, wouldn't it also present similar disadvantages for the learner whose first language doesn't have such a device? The English-speaking learner, for instance, would still need to know what an accusative is, and get used to the idea that you can mark an accusative noun by a method other than word order, as well as learning the specific mechanism used to do so...

Shouldn't Zamenhof have said more about Esperanto word order?

Zamenhof's original 16 rules of Esperanto grammar don't say very much about word order. Harrison is, I think, alluding to this lack when he writes of the failure of IAL designers "to spell out their rules of syntax". ("Proposed Guidelines…" 6.2.1)

No doubt it would have been helpful if Zamenhof had spelled out from the first how word order was to operate in Esperanto. However, Zamenhof didn't just provide a list of grammatical rules and vocabulary, he also wrote books and letters in Esperanto, gave talks at meetings etc... He began a process where all sorts of issues have been resolved through practice (usage).

Esperanto today is a functioning language with over 100 years of experimentation and experience. Its relation to the original 16 rules is like the relation between a substantial, useful building and the architect's blue-print. It may well be a clearer blue-print would have meant easier work for the builders. Fact remains that the building went up, and held together.

Overcoming the derision

In the essay "Fairwell to Auxlangs", Harrison observes that constructed languages get criticised in a way that natural langages don't. He mentions as an example a class of students howling with laughter at the way Esperanto constructs its word for "mother" (patrino) out of the word for "father" (patro), and he comments…

No doubt these same students would have listened quietly and respectfully if told that some natural language had an identical feature.

I think this is true. Sanskrit, for instance, has a feature not exactly identical, but at least comparable — the word "pitarau", which should logically mean "two fathers", but in fact means "mother and father".

As Harrison says: "People will accept arbitrary or irregular features that were invented or tolerated by an entire culture" but not in a language developed by a single person or a few people.

In that case, there may be a way to get beyond the tendency to derision, at least in the case of a language such as Esperanto, which has already won the support of an international constituency. Maybe the secret is focus less on the origin of the language (the work of Zamenhof as an individual), and more on what it has become — a means of communication that no longer belongs just to one person, or to a few people, but to a diverse community. A language used like other living languages, for talking, reading and writing about all sorts of topics, but considerably easier to learn than most of the others.

January 2010

1 Tolkien J.R.R.; The Return of the King; George Allen and Unwin, 1966; p 167.

2 Shadick, Harold and Ch'iao Chien; A First Course in Literary Chinese; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1968; Volume II, page 222.

3 Shadick, Harold and Ch'iao, Chien; A First Course in Literary Chinese; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1968; Volume III pp 871 to 872

4 Shadick, Harold and Ch'iao, Chien; A First Course in Literary Chinese; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1968; Volume III, page 872.

5 www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/ealc/chinling/articles/ba1.pdf

© Colin Robinson 2010

Comment from Zibethicus

Friday February 5, 2010

It's too interesting and detailed an article for me to disoblige it with a short response.  It'll just havta wait for some conjectural 'spare time' in the future.   For now, consider this: Latin as, if you please, a lingua franca must have had many of the same features a Esperanto once upon a time.  And many European languages derived from regionalisations of Latin.  Thus, a 'universal language' demonstrated that it was capable of great liveliness of expression and organic growth.  I don't see any reason why a great poet could not write exclusively in 'Speranto, making neologisms as he or she went along.  One part of the liveliness of such a language is the possible mutability of the form as in the case of the Tolkien usage you cite.  As with music, in creative terms, the role of linguistic rules is partly to be broken.


Response from Colin

Monday February 8, 2010

Glad you found the article interesting... Regarding Latin and its role in western cultural history, here's a snippet of info that I found interesting when I came across it a few years back...

Several of my friends, on hearing that I was translating Utopia, have looked faintly puzzled and asked 'Into what?' Educated people are often unaware that the book with written in Latin... Utopia is expressed in a timeless medium, which cuts it loose from its own particular age... (from Paul Turner's intro to his trans. of Utopia by Thomas More)

Re Esperanto poetry -- I understand there quite a bit there already, have read a small sample, and added some mainly would-be humorous lines of my own... Did you know that there are people who create rock music in Esperanto?

Best wishes


Send us your comments

Share your thoughts about this article with the rest of us. Email


Or use this form to send your email automatically *...


* This method will work if your browser handles "mailto" links. If we don't acknowledge your on-topic message, feel free to resend it another way!

Kali for the World      Dancing Kali home