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Tag: esperanto

Learning Esperanto Part III: Bits and Pieces

Okay, in no particular order…

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I’ve created a separate Twitter account for me to talk Esperanto and follow people who are talking Esperanto. It’s @jonnonekso. (Although that’s something of a provisional user name).

I think that’s pronounced something like “Yon-no Neck-so”, with short “o”s. The two names end in letter o’s because, of course, all Esperanto nouns end in an “o”, and names are nouns.

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I have joined the Esperanto Association of Great Britain. In April, they’re holding a congress at Eastbourne, which is pretty near Brighton. So that gives me a target – get good enough at the language by then that it will be worth me going.

* * * * *

I’ve been learning various words using the iPhone Esperanto app from uTalk. They do apps for all languages, with the basic idea that they’re for travellers, who aren’t fussed about grammar, but just want to know how to say (in broken language) basic things like: “Two beer, three wine, one coffee”, “Taxi!” and “Where is my luggage?”

(Broken, not pluralised, I think that’s: “Du biero, tri vino, uno kafo”, “taksio”, and “kie estas la baga?o”).

So I’m going through that each night on the train with the idea that it will familiarise me with the basic way things are pronounced and give me an initial stock of fundamental words.

I’m simultaneously reading through a couple of books (on iPad via Kindle) to get an idea of how the language works (like I said, the iPhone app bypasses all grammar). The best of these books is The Esperanto Teacher, by Helen Fryer.

* * * * *

The word for black is rather unfortunate. Yes, I know it’s all from a Latin root, but one does worry what might be the result of someone overhearing you using the word nigra – especially in the context of something, or someone, who is, in fact, black.

* * * * *

Old books often aren’t very good. The other book I have is Esperanto Self-Taught with Phonetic Pronunciation by William W. Mann, which was written in 1907. (I’m therefore assuming that Mr Mann is dead, and thus unlikely to be affected by any criticism I might offer.

Now I was, and still am, quite keen to use this book because of one very cool thing. It’s available as a podcast from LibriVox, thanks to Esperantist Nicholas James Bridgewater. I downloaded it from iTunes, so I can sit on the train reading the book on my iPad while hearing Nicholas reading it aloud on my iPhone.

It’s just a shame that the book is a bit strange. Maybe it’s intended more as a reference guide (although it does say that it is a practical guide for a student to learn the language) but after a quick run through the letters of the Esperanto alphabet and how to pronounce them, it then launches into section 1: The World & its Elements. This starts with Air (aero) and then leads into words like:

  • dew
  • eclipse
  • hail
  • moonlight
  • thaw
  • creek
  • flood (deluge)

…and then its on through metals, animals, and so on. So much for getting off the plane and ordering yourself a beer. There is, apparently, a section on grammar later on, but you’re supposed to memorise (literally) tens of thousands of words first.

Oh well.

Learning Esperanto Part II: Why Esperanto?

In yesterday’s post I explained why I wanted to learn a second language. In today’s post I’ll try and explain why I’ve selected Esperanto as my language to learn. Why? Well it basically comes down to three things. It’s easy. I like the ideals and culture behind it. And I love the elegance of the design.

Esperanto is an artificial language originally intended to be used as universal second language. Now I have no obvious real-world language to select. I haven’t acquired a Dutch girlfriend. I haven’t invested in a Spanish holiday home. There’s no language in particular I want to learn, so I figured it made sense to start with the training wheels on, with a language explicitly designed to be easy to learn and use.

In addition, learning Esperanto seems like a fun geeky thing to do. It’s true that there aren’t many speakers of it, but those who do speak it are scattered across the world and likely of a similarly geeky outlook to myself. So it’s a cool, sociable way of meeting like minded people.

And yes, I know that learning Klingon would be the seriously geeky thing to do, but I believe it’s both a hard language to learn and potentially wearing on the throat. (Lots of guttural shouting).

Finally, there’s the elegance of Esperanto’s design. I’m sure the programmers among you will know the feeling of encountering a really nicely designed programming language or library, one built upon core, universal principles, elegantly expressed, and of seeing it and thinking, “That’s just nice.”

It’s like that with Esperanto. Let me give you some examples, just from the stuff I’ve picked up in the last couple of days.

Firstly, every letter is pronounced (there are no silent letters), and every letter is pronounced in the same way, all of the time. You know how in English “lute” and “but” don’t rhyme? You wouldn’t get that in Esperanto. (And let’s not even get into “tough”, “dough”, “through”, “thought”, “thorough”, “plough”, “cough” and so on).

Secondly, you can deduce the nature of a word in Esperanto from its ending. All nouns end in “o”. All adjectives end in “a”. Words are pluralised by adding a “j” (pronounced “y”) to both their ending and the ending of associated words. So you get something like:

Blanka hundo = White dog

Li hundo = He is a dog; Lia hundo = His dog; Liaj hundoj = His dogs

Numbers work in a similarly elegant way. Imagine you have the following in English:

One First
Two Second Pair/Duo
Three Third Trio
Twelve Twelfth Dozen

So what we have there is the basic form of the number, the number when used as an adjective (e.g. the third man) and the number when used as a quantity (e.g. a dozen eggs). Note that the adjectives are all different (the change from v to f in twelfth is particularly vicious), and most numbers don’t have a quantity (e.g. you’ll end up saying things like a set of nine).

In Esperanto, you get the following:

Unu (One) Unua (First) Unuo (a single item)
Du (Two) Dua (Second) Duo (Pair/Duo)
Tri (Three) Tria (Third) Trio (Trio)
Dek (Ten) Deka (Tenth) Deko (a set of ten)
Cent (A hundred) Centa (hundredth) Cento (a set of a hundred)

Verbs mostly end with something s.

-as means present tense.

-is means past tense.

-os means future tense.

-us means something that would have happened if something else had been true.


mia skribas = I am writing

mia skribis = I wrote

mia skribos = I shall write.

(The exception to that rule is if the verb is being used without reference to time or subject. In that case, it ends with i. I think that means that if someone was asking me what I do for a hobby and I wanted to reply that, “I write!”, I would say, “Mia skribi“).

Obviously there’s a lot more, but that’s hopefully given you a taster of what it’s like. In programming terms, if natural languages are like spaghetti code written in legacy C, Esperanto is like a modern, high-level structured language.

Oh and yes, if you’re wondering, “Esperanto” is a word in Esperanto, and yes, it is of course a noun. It means “one who hopes”.

Learning Esperanto Part 1b: Remembered Things

Well having listed in the previous post all the German that I’d learned, I have of course spent the afternoon remembering things.

Firstly, “Wo ist?”, which I think means “Where is?”. Something is, anyway. I remember that one because of an incident that happened in my third year of German. A friend of mine was asked by the teacher to read a line of German from a worksheet or something.

He started off with “Wo ist…” as in “Woe ist” not “Voe ist”. (“W” in German is pronounced as “V”).

I remember thinking that even with the standard of teaching we were getting, it took some talent to get more than two years into learning Germany and still not know how to pronounce the letter W.

Other dirty stop-outs slinking in late with embarrassed looks are:

Du = you (unless you’re being formal, in which case it’s sie).

Mon (mun?) = one

I should know he and she, but they seem to have gone.

Danke = thank you

Bitte = please

Not that knowing the latter’s particularly impressive. You ought to know that much German just from watching war films (“passporten bitte!”), just as you learn the French word for Norway from watching the Eurovision Song Contest. (“Norveg, nul pwa, Norway, nil points”).

There are obviously some things I’ve forgotten, but there aren’t many. I’m pretty sure that at best, I knew only a few handfuls of words.

Learning Esperanto Part I: Confessions of a Monoglot

My name’s Jonny, and I’m a monoglot. I speak and write English, and that’s it. I know many non-English speakers will think I’m lazy. Stupid even. I think I’m neither lazy nor stupid, but if it’s any consolation, being unable to speak more than one language is a quite a source of annoyance to me. I’ve long been of jealous of people who can speak multiple languages. It’s not about being able to go places, or talk to people. I can can fly to pretty much anywhere in the world and book a flight, take a taxi, find a hotel room, order a meal. Rightly or wrongly, being English means not having a great need to learn another language.

I’m jealous because I don’t think you can truly understand what language is until you can speak more than one of them. How could you understand colour if you’d only ever seen the colour red? Understand what music was if you’d only ever heard one song? What does it feel like to have two languages in your head? What does it feel like to read text in a foreign language, or heard it spoken – and understand it? Does it feel different?

I did study a language at school, supposedly: German. But that just seemed like a textbook example of how not to teach a language. Firstly, they arbitarily divided the school into two halves, teaching one half German and the other half French. So my best mate Paul spent three years learning French and I spent three years learning German. So right away, those of us learning German had two big motivational issues:

1) How could the teachers claim that it was important that we learn German? After all, if it was important, then my mate Paul would be getting taught it, wouldn’t he?

2) German? That’s the unsexiest, least cool language ever! (I’m not saying it is, but it was how we felt). How come they get to learn the language of love and we get to learn the language of invading people? They get mon amour, and we get Actung! Schnell!

And then they started teaching us, and this is the weird thing. I have no recollection of what they did beyond about week three or four. This is what I remember of German, all learned in the first three or four weeks (apologies for mis-spellings, but this is all from memory, and from thirty years ago).

Ich bin Jonny. I am Jonny.

Ich heisse Jonny. I am called Jonny.

Meine name ist Jonny. My name is Jonny.

Ja. Yes. Nein. No.

Der, die, das. Male, female and neuter ways of saying the.

Eins, zwei, drei, feir, funf and so on. (I won’t bore myself by going up to neun-und-neunzig).

One, two, three, four, five and so on.

Ein, eine, einem. Three ways of saying “a” – can’t remember now which is which.

Rot, blau, braun, weisse, schwartz, gelb. Red, blue, brown, white, black, yellow.

And that’s pretty much it. I studied it for three years, eighty minutes a week, forty weeks a year, but it seemed like somewhere around week four or so we just stopped learning. I literally have difficulty remembering what we did. We must have done something. But it’s a blank.

Quite frankly, it was a pretty shit school. I don’t have exact figures, but I think the exam results for my year were something like:

40% getting at least one O’ Level or CSE (precursors to GCSE) at grades A, B or C.

8% getting at least five O’ Levels or CSEs at grades A, B or C.

6% staying on to do A’ Levels.

1% going to university or polytechnic to do a degree level course.

A lot of time in all lessons was spent going round in circles while people pissed around, but I think German was especially hard hit by this. There was homework, I think. And we had bits where we supposed to learn things. But there was never any progress. Never any sense of building on things. And we never had to have conversations. You might occasionally be asked by the teacher to saying one word or a sentence fragment out loud. But never more than that. You never actually had to talk. It was all just the occasional exercise. I think it only ever seemed to be about being given a list of words to copy off a sheet on the wall and being supposed to memorise whether or not they were male, female and neuter. I don’t ever recall being told to break into pairs or groups and try talking to each other. I don’t ever recall being told to watch a TV programme in German and copy down what they were saying, and then translate it into English, which I would have thought would be an obvious way to teach us. It was all just, copy these words off the sheet on the wall.

So after three years, I’d never actually attempted to speak German, out loud, and would probably have been very tongue tied if I’d tried. We didn’t have to study a foreign language for O’ Level, so everyone I knew dumped German after three years as soon as they had the chance. Maybe the guys who did French did better. I don’t know. After a year or so I sort of lost touch with my mate Paul.

Strictly speaking, not knowing any German has never inconvenienced me. In the thirty-seven years since I failed to learn German, I’ve spent precisely two and a half days in Germany, on a business trip, meeting a bunch of programmers who spoke perfect English. But it’s left me feeling faintly stupid when I meet people who do speak multiple languages. Learning a language seems so hard at an intellectual level that it scares me like nothing else I’ve ever encountered.

Which seems like a good enough reason in itself to learn one. So I’m going to try, and I’m announcing it here because the best way to get yourself to do something is to tell so many people that you’re going to do it that fear of embarrassment will keep you going whenever resolve might flag.

Tomorrow I’ll write a bit about why I’ve picked Esperanto.

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