The language this blog is written in is the constructed (as opposed to naturally evolved) “international language” of Esperanto. Esperanto is a language that was designed to be “everyones second language”, and to function as a common communication medium between people of multiple cultures.
The word “Usono” – the name of this blog – is the Esperanto translation of “United States Of North-America”. In Esperanto, America is considered to be both sets of continents, north and south, and there are other “united states” on those continents. So, the USA is given the distinction of being the one in North America.
I’m not going to present a history of the language here, as there are already so many treatments of the subject on the internet that do so much better than I could. For details on why it was created, by who, and some basic information on its structure, please see the entry in the Wikipedia.
The upshot of it all is that, for a variety of reasons, Esperanto is the easiest language in the world to learn. It is estimated that it is five times easier to learn than Spanish, ten times easier than English, and twenty times easier than Japanese. It sounds like a cross between Italian and Russian.
How easy is “easy”?
We need to make a distinction between “easy” and “effortless”. It’s not effortless. Like any language, it has a vocabulary and grammar that needs to be memorized, and there’s just no way around that. So no matter how easy it is, you still need to memorize a bunch of words. The good news is that the number of words you need to memorize are much smaller than those of other languages.
If it doesn’t have as many words as other languages, doesn’t that make it not as good as the others?
Actually, saying it doesn’t have as many words as other languages is misleading. It’s very hard to say how many words Esperanto actually has – in some ways it could be said to have far more words than even English – it’s just that you don’t have to memorize every single one of them. Instead, you memorize a small number of word components, and piece them together, like playing with lego blocks. And you can put the pieces together in a mathematically spectacular number of ways.
Esperanto is unlike most Western European languages in that it is built up out of a number of unchangeable “root” words, to which are attached a number of prefixes and\or suffixes (known together as “affixes”). As long as they make sense, any combination of roots and affixes can legitimately be put together into a word, which dramatically increases the number of possible words at your disposal. When you learn an Esperanto root, you haven’t just learned one word – you also immediately have learned every other word that can be formed from it. This aspect of the language makes for very rapid acquisition of vocabulary.
In English, for example, when you learn the word “cat”, you also have to just remember that a baby cat is a “kitten”. When you learn the word “cow”, you simply have to memorize the fact that a baby cow is a “calf”. When you learn the word “mouse”, you have to remember that there is, in fact, no special word for a baby mouse (or, at least, not one that most people know). If you didn’t already know English, how would you ever figure out that “kitten” comes from “cat”? They don’t even start with the same letters!
In Esperanto, the suffix “-id” means “child of”. Stick it on the end of a word, and you have the word for its child. So…
(All nouns end in “o”, and these are nouns, so after tacking on the “-id” suffix we need to finish it off with an “o”)
Baby Mouse: Musido
And so on. In the last example, we even see a word that has no direct English equivalent. This is not an unusual situation – it is very easy to come up with single Esperanto words that require several words, or even a whole sentence, to express in English.
Let’s extend this example a bit. The suffix “-ar” means a collection or group of something. So:
Group of cats: Kataro
Litter (of kittens): Katidaro
Herd (of cows): Bovaro
Herd (of calves): Bovidaro
Group of mice: Musaro
Litter (of baby mice): Musidaro
And then take a look at the English plurals:
Cat – Cats. To pluralize, we add an -s.
Kitten – Kittens. Same pattern. Easy.
Cow – Cows. Still the same pattern. Really easy.
Calf – Calves. Uh… this is not the same. Where’d the “f” go? There’s a “ve” now? Wha’? At least we still add an -s.
Mouse – Mice. Okaaaaaaaay. The “ous” turned into “ic”. And we remember this? (Sadly, yes we do. And even sadder, these kinds of weird rules make English very difficult to learn.)
Here’s the rule for Esperanto plurals. You add a -j on the end of the noun, after the “o”. Every. Single. Time.
Some people may say to themselves “What’s so hard about these English exceptions? You just learn them and then you’re done.” And these people are correct; there’s nothing particularly hard about these exceptions individually. The problem is that there are so many of them. It’s the difference between learning your phone number, and memorizing pi to 1000 digits; it’s the sheer quantity of the material that has to be learned that makes the task difficult, not each exception taken on its own.
There are no exceptions to the rules of Esperanto. If you know the name of an animal (and the affixes which are common to all nouns), you immediately know the name of the animals young, and what a group of either is called. You also know what the name of the location where the animals are kept is (the suffix “-ejo”), what a male animal is called (the prefix “vir-“), what a female animal is called (the suffix “-in”), and so on. With the affixes commited to memory, each time you learn a root, you actually learn from ten to possibly as many as two hundred related words, without having to memorize each one individually.
The word for “dog” is “hundo”. So, what would you call a set of two (or more) locations that litters of female puppies would be kept in? There is no English word for such a thing, of course. The way English is structured, it’s not possible for there to be a word for it – none of the rules allow for deriving it from other English roots. But there’s an Esperanto word for it, and you actually already know it: hundidinarejoj (a contrived example which gives us a relatively ugly word, and not one that probably gets much use – I may, indeed, be the first person to ever put this word together – but it is still perfectly legitimate Esperanto, would be understood instantly by any Esperanto speaker, and illustrates a level of precision that leaves English in the dust).
Why did I say you already knew that word? Because if you’d read the preceding paragraphs, I explained every part of it. Here’s how it breaks down:
Hundido (puppy; -id means “child of”)
Hundidino (female puppy; -in means “female”)
Hundidinaro (litter of female puppies; -ar means “collection of”)
Hundidinarejo (Place where you keep a litter of female puppies; -ejo means “a place that contains something”)
Hundidinarejoj (Two or more places where you keep litters of female puppies; -j indicates “more than one”)
Words like this don’t come up very often. But when you need them, it’s nice to know they’re there.
What about verbs? Conjugating verbs is always complicated!
Most languages get mighty complicated when it comes to verbs. In English, the word “be” is extremely irregular, and its various forms just have to be memorized:
And that’s just present tense. How about past tense?
Am\are\is\was\were. They all come from the word “be”? They don’t even look like “be”. And when it comes to irregular verbs, English is easy compared to French, which has a thick book concerning the conjugation of just 501 verbs.
Here’s how to conjugate all verbs in all tenses in Esperanto:
Take the root, and tack on one of the following suffixes:
This is how it works for all verbs, with no exceptions. So, if we take the Esperanto word root meaning “be” – “est” – we have the following:
Infinitive: esti (to be)
Past: estis (was\were)
Present: estas (am\are\is)
Future: estos (will be)
Conditional: estus (would be)
Imperative: estu (be!)
How about the root for “take” – “pren”?
Infinitive: preni (to take)
Past: prenis (took)
Present: prenas (take)
Future: prenos (will take)
Conditional: prenus (would take)
Imperative: prenu (take (it)!)
They all work exactly the same way. Learn a root, and you know how to conjugate it without having to wonder if maybe this one is different. It won’t be. There are no exceptions.
Alright, so it’s easy. So what? Why learn a language no one speaks?
You probably are either an American, or live in an English speaking country (Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc). No one around you speaks Esperanto, and maybe you’ve even never heard of it before. Everyone speaks English, so what’s the big deal? What could Esperanto do for you, to justify bothering with it?
Only about 10% of the world actually speaks English. Of that 10%, only about 5% speak it well enough to communicate with – the other 5% have probably taken some classes in it, but know it about as well as the average American with a few years of Spanish classes knows Spanish. In other words, not very well. That leaves 95% of the world that you probably can’t communicate with at all, or at least with extreme difficulty. Even in Europe, most of the English speakers outside of Ireland and the UK are in tourist areas. Move a little ways out of those areas and you’ll find yourself unable to talk to nearly anyone.
A study of world languages some time ago figured that approximately two million people speak Esperanto fluently. Unlike with the national languages, they are not concentrated in any one area, but instead are spread throughout the globe. For example, if you learned Italian really well, you would be able to talk to people in Italy. But the Italian you spent so much time on wouldn’t help you a bit if you were in Russia, or Thailand, or India. However, you will find Esperantists in each of those places. Italian is good for visiting Italy, Russian is good for visiting Russia, Thai is good for visiting Thailand, but Esperanto can be good for visiting everywhere (especially if you use the “Pasporta Servo” world service, which matches Esperanto speaking tourists with local Esperantists for free lodging worldwide).
Even if you are just using the internet to “travel”, Esperanto works wonderfully. When using the internet, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that it is an English-speaking place. Every page you hit is in English! Sure, now and then you might hit one in Japanese or Spanish, but really… nearly the whole place is in English.
This is an illusion. It just so happens that English pages tend to link to other English pages and not to pages in other languages. When you do a search (on Google, or wherever), you probably are searching using English terms, and thus get nothing but English hits. So, you can travel far and wide on the internet and rarely see a page in another tongue, because the web naturally segregates itself by language. The other languages that are out there are for the most part invisible to English speakers. But they are there. And, just as there is an Italian internet, and a Russian internet, there is also a huge Esperanto internet. Remember, there’s nearly two million Esperanto speakers across the globe; a lot of them are on the web.
On the many forums I visit (and I visit quite a few), I see mainly people from English speaking countries. Americans, Canadians, Irish, British, etc. I almost never see anyone from Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Japan, China, Vietnam, etc., etc., etc. The number of people I meet online who are not from English speaking countries is very, very, small. Often their English is hard to understand, because it is so difficult for a non-native to master English. They are not dumb people by any means, but they come off sounding unintelligent because of the way they write English – using incorrect conjugations, leaving out words like “a” and “the”, not getting the plurals correct, and so on. And these people probably speak English better than most of the people in their countries. Again, it’s not because they are stupid – indeed, they may be smarter than many of us because they speak English as well as they do in addition to their native tongue – but it’s because English is maddeningly complex for someone who didn’t grow up with it.
On the Esperanto forums, I have had many conversations with people from Eastern Europe, Turkey, Uzbekistan, China, and so on. People who I would never have a chance to meet on the English internet, because they don’t speak English. But all of the people I meet on these forums, no matter where they come from, speak Esperanto. And it’s because of this common second language that we can all converse regardless of our native languages. I regularly read a blog written by a student in Iran, talking about the conditions there. I have talked about democracy with someone living in Cuba. When the riots were occuring in Hungary last summer (2006), I was able to get hourly updates on what was happening because of blog posts from people who were literally there – usually this news was many hours ahead of the English language news. In fact, I frequently learn of things going on in the world at least a day before the stories start showing up on English news sites.
People in non-English speaking countries generally learn English because it gives them a leg up economically. English is far and wide the language of international commerce, science, and technology. Learning English can open up all kinds of job opportunities in these other countries. Learning Esperanto doesn’t help anyone this way. And there is a saying concerning this:
When people speak to you in English, it is because they want your money. When people speak to you in Esperanto, it is because they want your friendship.
OK, so what kind of time are we talking here?
I am not particularly good at languages. I took German for four and a half years, both in high school and college. I got good grades in it – generally A’s – and yet I cannot read even the simplest of news stories written in German. And, since English is a Germanic language, German is probably the closest foreign language to English that there is.
I took three years of French, and also got good grades in it. And my French is much worse than my German. Pathetically bad, considering how much time I spent on it.
After two weeks of studying Esperanto for from fifteen minutes to half an hour a night (on my own), I was – with the help of an online dictionary – able to read most news stories written in Esperanto without any real difficulty. After a month I was able to take part in the Esperanto forums. After six months my skill level far, far exceeded any abilities I had ever achieved in German or French after spending an hour a day for five days a week with them for many years. I’m now a little over a year into my very-part-time Esperanto studies, and, as you can see by looking at my blog, have very little difficulty writing about nearly anything at all in it – a level of fluency I could never match in German or French.
It’s easy. It’s not effortless. But it is easier to learn than any other foreign language. It was consciously designed that way. And I have made many friends across the globe, by means of the internet, who live in countries which would otherwise be entirely inaccessible to me if English were my only language. I’m not talking to people in the tourism industry – I’m talking to regular people with regular jobs and regular lives who allow me to see the real culture of the country I’m (at least virtually) visiting. I am not speaking to them on my terms (i.e., requiring that they make all the effort in learning to communicate with me), but on completely equal terms. We both speak the same language, and sometimes I’m better at it than they are, and sometimes they are better at it than I am, but we have both made the effort to try and meet halfway. Esperanto has been called a “linguistic handshake”, and that description is actually pretty accurate. Learning English allows non-natives to put their hand out and try to fill it with your money. Learning Esperanto allows everyone to put their hand out and grasp the others hands in an act of friendship.
Which sounds better to you?
Let’s pretend for a moment I want to learn it. How much will it cost?
It will cost you some time, and that’s all. Esperanto belongs to the community of speakers worldwide, not to a company, and in that spirit it can cost absolutely nothing to learn it except the time spent. It is about as close to an “open source” language as there is.
There are books you can buy, if you want – courses and dictionaries and stories and so on. There are magazines you can subscribe to. You can buy t-shirts and flags and pins, if you care about such things. And some of those things do make learning Esperanto easier (more so the courses and dictionaries, less so the t-shirts and pins).
None of that is necessary to learn Esperanto, since entire courses are available for free on the web. And some of these courses actually have people standing by, waiting and willing to personally correct your work and answer your questions. For free! With no subscription costs or later “platinum-level courses” or whatever. They are just volunteers who love the language and want to help other people learn it. Like open source software programmers, they aren’t working for the money, they’re working because they love what they’re working for.
The absolute best place to start is at Lernu! (the word means “Learn!”, and the exclamation point is part of the name). There you will find numerous courses, from beginner to advanced, along with forums in several major languages (so as a beginner, you can ask questions in your own language, or later on, in Esperanto itself). It also provides a very useful online dictionary which can translate Esperanto words to and from a very large number of different languages. The link I gave is for the English version of the site, but the site is available in twenty four different languages. Everything at Lernu! is provided by volunteers and is free of charge.
As of right now (while I type this), there are 28610* people registered at Lernu! So you know you won’t be the only one there. In fact, there are typically between 10 and 30 people logged on at any given time, 24 hours per day. It’s not a chat site (although there is a built in instant messenger), so you don’t have to just jump in and start talking to people. You can approach it at your own pace, and choose the path of study that is easiest for you.
Later on, you might want to buy some books – possibly a printed course like “Teach Yourself Esperanto”, by Cresswell and Hartley, or a dictionary like “Comprehensive English-Esperanto Dictionary” by Peter Benson. These are available at the ELNA (Esperanto League for North America) site, which has a large online bookstore of Esperanto-associated titles. But while those books are great to have (and I have both of them), they aren’t strictly necessary. Lernu! will take you a long ways, if you spend the time with it.
* Note: I wrote this in January, 2007. As of October 14, 2007 (just ten months later), that number has increased from 28610 to 40681.