|A: OVERVIEW||N: FAQ*|
|B: PHONEMES||O: SEXISM|
|C: ORTHOGRAPHY||P: VOCABULARY|
|D: PHONOTACTICS||Q: PASSIVES|
|E: DERIVATION||R: CASE|
|F: LEXICON||S: POLITICS|
|G: CONSTITUENCY||T: GROUNDPLANS|
|H: VERBS||U: ROOT‐CLASSES|
|I: NOUNS||V: GOOFOMETER|
|J: PRONOUNS||W: ONOMASTICS|
|K: ADJECTIVES||X: COMPARABLES|
|L: ADVERBS||Y: FUNDAMENTO|
|M: SYNTAX||Z: MAILBOX|
|Ĥ: MISSHAPES||…: NOSFERANTO|
Esperanto was invented in 1887 by an oculist from Białystok, Dr Ludwig L Zamenhof (AKA “Doctor Hopeful” – see Appendix W). Even its proponents estimate there to be barely a million Esperanto speakers in the world (largely Central/Eastern Europe); compare Albanian with about eight million, Mandarin Chinese with 1000 million, and English with (depending how you count) 400 to 1800 million. Even Klingon appears to be outselling Esperanto round here.
Most people I know despise Esperanto, but largely for daft reasons – “Everyone speaks English nowadays anyway”, “It sounds a bit foreign”, “It has no cultural identity of its own”, etc. I, on the other hand, dislike it for being:
So the result of Zamenhof's labours is that it's inconceivable that any artificial “Interlang”, however good, could succeed.
An optimally designed world auxiliary language would be
My contention is that Esperanto contrariwise is
It looks like some sort of wind‐up‐toy Czech/Italian pidgin. And if there's one part of this world that doesn't need a local pidgin, it's Europe, which not only has (at a guess) the world's highest concentration of professional polyglots, but is also the home of the current de facto global lingua franca: English.
If Esperanto vanished from existence, nothing of value would be lost; the world shows no sign of wanting to learn a constructed international auxiliary language. Maybe someday that'll change – but if it does, we'll have no shortage of candidates to choose from, since Esperanto has any number of better designed but less well known competitors. (They may have fewer existing speakers, but the difference is dwarfed by the billions they'd need to gain to be accounted a success.) Or the UN could hire a linguist or two and get a language purpose‐built, the way Hollywood now routinely does for fantasy movies!
I'm following linguistics convention by using angle brackets to mark words spelled in the conventional orthography (though they won't be visible if your browser is ignoring my CSS), as opposed to /slant/ brackets for phonemic analyses and [square] ones for phonetics. My IPA symbols are now in proper Unicode; non‐linguists can read anything that's unclear as “some strange noise”.
Esperanto also uses some unusual characters: circumflexed consonants and a breve‐marked vowel (ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ, ŭ). For example, the Esperanto for (accusative case) “surroundings” is “ĉirkaŭaĵojn”, pronounced roughly “cheer‐cow‐AH‐zhoyn”. However, there's an officially accepted way of avoiding these hard‐to‐type Unicode glyphs, so most of the time that's the standard I'll be adopting.
My “clarity” criterion strikes some readers as unfair in its apparent assumption that the rotten self‐teaching texts I've been exposed to are all the Esperanto grammar there is… so just take my rhetorical questions as attempts to hint that there are language‐design questions that Zamenhof showed no sign of recognising, and which his successors prefer not to mention. Modern Esperantists acknowledge no Standards Maintenance Authority; so on the one hand directed fundamental reforms are impossible, and on the other dialects inevitably confuse the issue. And please bear in mind that my critique is aimed at Esperanto's pretensions as a global auxiliary language; if you're a hobbyist polyglot looking for a seventh European language to learn, feel free to waste your spare time on it.
“Phonemes” are the mutually distinct sound elements which a particular language recognises as fundamental building blocks for word‐making.
For comparison, English – my dialect, anyway – has 19 vowels (mostly diphthongs), and 24 consonants. For a more detailed account see my Phonemic Transcription Key page.
Natural languages have rules determining what sounds are accepted as forms of what phoneme. For instance, in English /t/ may be an aspirated alveolar plosive, a glottal stop, or even a tap; in Spanish that tap is heard as an R‑sound and /t/ is usually an unaspirated dental plosive. Esperanto speakers show no agreement about whether it even has such rules. (And the ones writing to me seem particularly unwilling to agree on whether inter‐word glottal stops are compulsory, optional, or prohibited.)
First, why is the inventory so irregular? There's no single‐phoneme /dz/, so why is /ts/ necessary? Why /oi/ but not /ou/? And second, why does it need so many consonant phonemes, when plenty of languages get by with far fewer? For example:
/ m p β f n t ð s l ɾ r ɲ tʃ j k ɣ h /
/ m b p w n d t r z s j g k h /
/ m p w n l k h ʔ /
/ p β t ɾ k ɣ /
The languages of Zamenhof's home region show a strong areal resemblance; Belorussian and Yiddish and Lithuanian all use similar sets of consonant phonemes, prominently featuring various sounds that are uncommon in global terms. Compare the Esperanto inventory with the following:
The only phonemes Zamenhof left out of Esperanto are the ones that are hard to recognise as such – the “soft” (palatalised) consonants, nasal vowels, and /dz/! And note that I say Eastern Polish; this isn't just his natural Slavonic bias, it's the Białystok dialect!
Complaints about the ugly strings of affricates et cetera are always brushed off as a matter of taste. But surveys say distinctions like /v/‐vs.‐/w/, /ts/‐vs.‐/tʃ/, /z/‐vs.‐/ʒ/, /h/‐vs.‐/x/ are statistically rare, so it's the people who find Esperanto's sounds strange and awkward who are being objective! Indeed, never mind oddities like those, even /z/ is a fairly uncommon sound, present in less than a quarter of the world's phonemic inventories.
This crazed inventory is a splendid demonstration of Dr Z's linguistic incompetence; he couldn't see past the spelling rules of the first language he learned to write with the Roman alphabet!
A “grapheme” is a contrastive unit in a spelling system. Not surprisingly, Esperanto spelling is much better than English (in which gh is famously unruly – see my own Spelling Reform page); it can even be charted in a strict one‐to‐one correspondence with its phonemic inventory:
But not content with being phonemic (one phoneme: one grapheme), Esperanto also claims to be phonetic (one sound: one letter), which is (a) pointless and (b) infeasible.
Does Esperanto allow any variation in its sounds? Are we to believe that the N in ŝnuro (“rope”) is acoustically and articulatorily identical to the one in fingro (“finger”)? If so, Esperanto must be damned tricky to pronounce. Or do Esperanto Ls vary subtly like the ones in athletes' schools, and its Ts like those in too strict? What rules govern (e.g.) strings of voiced and unvoiced sounds, like the KV in kvar (“four”) and the KZ in ekzisti (“to exist”)? And is the word naŭa “ninth” pronounced /naw a/ or /na wa/?
The system is bizarrely irregular. Why is there a semivowel grapheme U‑breve but no I‑breve? (Clue: compare Belorussian!) Why S‑circumflex but no Z‑circumflex? Why is the affricate G‑circumflex paired up not with K‑circumflex but with C‑circumflex? Why is the velar fricative H‑circumflex dressed up as a form of the glottal approximant H? And above all, why have a distinction like this between ˆ and ˘ diacritics?
Writing C, OJ, EŬ, Ŝ in preference to, say, TS, OY, EW, X is a blatant display of parochial spelling traditions. Most of the world's typewriters had a W key; very few had one for Ŭ. And as for Ĉ/Ĝ/Ĥ/Ĵ/Ŝ keys… accents over consonants (like Ť/Ć/Ż) are a common feature of the writing systems of the area from the Baltic to the Balkans; Zamenhof's idea of how to make it more international was to avoid those particular diacritics in favour of one normally found over vowels in Romance languages. The result was a set of hybrid accented characters that suited everybody equally badly.
The problems with these diacritics were obvious enough to force a concession: we are permitted to resort to the digraphs CH, GH, SH, JH, HH(?!), plus unadorned U – hence chirkauajhojn. Many Esperantists advocate other ASCIIifications such as cxirkauxajxojn, but I'll stick with the less offputting version.
Just to show how easy it is, here is an alternative system with no diacritics (all compound phonemes become compound graphemes):
Thus ĉirkaŭaĵojn becomes txirkawajoyn. (I've heard from a good few independent inventors of schemes like this – it's a no‐brainer.) But I could hardly stop there; the nearest half‐way sane version is kirkuajo!
Phonotactics is the system of rules governing what sequences of sounds are permitted. In English, for instance, /həŋ, viʒnz, streŋθs/ occur (in “hung”, “visions”, “strengths”), while /ŋəh, ʒnzvi, stle/ are illegal.
The only hints we get about Esperanto phonotactics are bland reassurances about how euphonious it all is. There clearly are restrictions: Esperanto has plenty of words like shtrumpo, knabchjo, postscio (“stocking, sonny, hindsight”) but none like snouz, uahda, gvbrdgvnit (cf. English “snows”, Arabic “one”, Georgian “you tear us to pieces”). The extra vowel in compounds like dormOchambro “bedroom” is “optional”, but leaving such issues to Esperantists' native‐language prejudices results in coinages like antikv‐scienco, “archaeology”. No, I'm not making this up…
In this context, simplicity means learnable rules for building speakable words. A good proportion of the world's population find any syllable more complex than “consonant + vowel” hard to pronounce, which limits things unreasonably.
Zamenhof's efforts to disguise Esperanto as Italian by adding final vowels are miserably inadequate. Italian uses closed syllables sparingly (chiefly ending in /r, l, n/); Esperanto loves them. Italian allows few strings of consonants (mainly things like /bl, gr, sp/ and doubled letters); Esperanto permits many. And the rigid penult‐stress rule may be like Italian, but it's even more like Polish.
The whole problem is that Zamenhof mistook his own prejudices about “euphony” (see Appendix Y) for a globally accepted standard of phonotactic elegance. There is no such standard; Italian is full of tongue‐twisters to Japanese‐speakers (postbellico, “post‐war”), and vice versa (hyakugyoo, “a hundred lines”). Even consonant + vowel languages have words like 'aueue, Tahitian for “trouble”…
It's pathetic! Zamenhof didn't just give his brainchild a bad phonotactic system; he failed to recognise it needed any! How can it claim to be naturally euphonious when it has no regulations about euphony?
Zamenhof put a lot of work into creating a range of uniformly applicable prefixes and suffixes, such as ‐ig‐ “render” (or “cause, arrange to have done”) and ‐igh‐ “become” (or “do intransitively”) – as in blankIGI / blankIGHI, “whiten (something) / whiten (= go pale)”. Nonetheless, his original ideas required several amendments before they were usable, and they still look rotten to me.
These affixes are often baffling. In cigaredujo, “cigarette box”, ‐uj‐ means “(bulk) container”. But it also occurs in Svedujo, “Sweden” (not “Swedish ghetto”) and pomujo, “apple tree” (not “apple barrel”). Modern Esperantists just say Svedlando, pomarbo. Then there's sendajho, “transmission”, in which ‐ajh‐ is “concrete (?) expression of”; yet this is arbitrarily extended to form majstrajho, “masterpiece” and porkajho, “pork”.
Who needs all these special affixes? Isn't the two‐word expression “make white” adequate? Don't tell me we need complex affixing rules to produce indefinably subtle poetic shades of meaning; Chinese has no such rules, but is renowned for its nuanced poetry. Besides, if we need affixes like ek‐ (“suddenly”), ‐ach‐ (“contemptible”) and pra‐ (“ancient”), why are there none meaning “‐ful”, “beloved”, or “‐ward”? We can invent new ones, I suppose; but what determines which are prefixes and which are suffixes?
Different languages have very different approaches to building words (see Appendix T on morphological groundplans). Esperanto's system of chaining together strings of invariable affixes uses the same pseudo‐agglutinative groundplan spearheaded by Volapük (see Appendix X), which is at least more straightforward than alternatives like the Hebrew/Arabic system of triliteral roots. If there's a problem, it's that Dr Zamenhof seems strangely biassed against any of the range of possible affix forms spread across the globe by the “classical” languages. Compare the prevalence of the abstract noun endings ‐ia, ‐ity, ‐(t)ion with Esperanto's use of ‐eco. Those ‐ion words Esperanto does condescend to admit have to hide their family resemblance; thus regiono, “region” but nacio, “nation”.
Clockwork morphology can produce some amusing quirks:
And then there are ambiguities such as kataro = “catarrh” vs. kataro = “herd of cats” – there are so many of these I've given them their own appendix.
Strangest of all, though, is the prefix mal‐, a meaning‐reverser like Newspeak “un‐”. The only word for “bad” is malbona; “cheap” is malmultekosta, “left” is maldekstra and so on. It's an imaginative vocabulary shortcut, but it's inconsistent (“south” should be malnorda), gratingly artificial (malmalbona, “not bad”?) and misleading (malodora isn't “malodorous”)!
Esperanto has a special suffix to mark “feminine” (or to be more accurate, female) nouns: ‐in‐ (from German; in Romance languages that's a diminutive). But this has no equivalent “masculine” marker – being male is just taken to be the default! See Appendix O on Sexism.
Esperanto is notable among auxiliary language schemes for having possessed a well stocked dictionary from the start, made up from words out of an assortment of European languages. Then again it also had notably warped selection criteria, taking tuj (“immediately”) from Lithuanian tuoj, tornistro (“rucksack”) from Danish tornister, nepre (“certainly”) from Russian непреме́нно… and so on, to form a peculiar stew of words picked for their familiarity to nineteenth‐century Europeans.
In this case I'll take “clarity” to mean having an adequate stock of technical, poetic, and everyday words to be generally usable. Zamenhof was if anything overzealous in this department; for instance, his first official dictionary included two different roots, kis‐ and shmac‐, both equated to English kiss (and French baiser).
This is the inverse problem, overlooked by Zamenhof. Language learners want to be able to start communicating with as little rote learning of vocabulary as possible. English is rather good at this, as it is rich in “metonyms” – coverterms like “house” or “clothes”, usable as stand‐ins for more specialised terms like “palace” or “sou'wester” as well as in self‐explanatory compound words like “treehouse” or “nightclothes”. “Basic English” cut its essential vocabulary to 850 words; more recent schemes have demonstrated that a language designed from the ground up with lexical efficiency in mind can do much better.
Vocabulary is a relatively superficial, transient aspect of a language compared to things like syntax (speaking Pig Latin doesn't make you a polyglot); but it's the first and often the last feature of a foreign tongue that people notice, so padding out your Warsaw‐centric auxiliary language with Romance dictionary entries can be an effective way of making it seem less parochial. Instead of this random European stew, a real world auxlang would get as much use as possible out of the two most truly global word sources:
See Appendix P for some cases where there were better solutions available from these sources. It would be even more international to accept globally recognised Chinese or Hindi words too, if only there were any… Arabic, maybe.
Mind you, when I say “Romance” dictionary entries, what I mean is
the members of that family that Zamenhof saw as prestigious.
There are obvious cases where he picked a word directly from
French – for instance, the verb “to buy” is
comprar in Catalan/Spanish/
Many Esperanto borrowings are clumsily based on spellings:
Apart from anything else, where would Esperanto be if any of these languages changed their spelling systems?
Esperantised placenames frequently look as if they've been transliterated into Cyrillic and then back without regard for pronunciation: Guinea becomes Gvineo, Jamaica becomes Jamajko, Washington becomes Vaŝingtono, and so on…
Esperanto goes way over the top in marking what part of speech each word is, via its neat but somehow risible final vowel system:
This grand scheme is based on the idea that every verb has one associated (equally basic) noun, adjective, and so on – an idea with an attractive air of symmetry and logic, but one that turns out to be fatally flawed; see Appendix U for details of the root‐classes fiasco.
Non‐linguists rarely understand that grammatical categories like “Adjective” or “Preposition” are based not on universal logical principles but on pragmatically constructed conventions in a given language – for instance, where English uses adjectives like angry, Yoruba relies on verbs like bínú, “be‐angry”. “Noun” is essentially universal, but Zamenhof can't take its application for granted; what do the words “event, moth, gravity, day, waterfall, Esperanto” have in common besides the “fact” they're “Nouns”? (Ignore the propagandists who still claim that Esperanto “roots” are categoryless semantic primitives; the official grammars from the Academy of Esperanto disagree.)
There are hordes of unnecessary exceptions and irregularities. Numerals, prepositions, “correlatives”, conjunctions, modifiers, articles, and so on are all exempt; pronouns even form their own breakaway faction, consistently ending in ‐I rather than ‐O and inflecting for case but not for number.
Esperanto's word‐classes are based on the traditions of classical Latin and Greek grammars, and a poor fit for many of the languages of Europe, let alone Chinese. Hungarians won't be used to prepositions; Germans have to learn that adverbs aren't the same as plain adjectives; and Slavs have to cope with articles…
Shoehorning words into this system can mangle them horribly.
Esperanto is oddly happy to sacrifice final vowels, no matter how much they contribute to a word's recognisability. “Asia” becomes Azio, “voice” (cf. Latin/Italian voce) is vocho, “coffee” (near‐globally kofi/café) becomes kafo, and so on from alpaca and banana through to yoga and zebra. If only there were fewer constituent classes to distinguish, maybe some nouns could end in ‐A or ‐E… which would also make the rhymes in Esperanto poetry more interesting!
For details of how Esperanto verbs and participles work, see Appendix Y; it's designed to look vaguely latinate, but with its past, present, future, and subjunctive/conditional “tenses” and its inflecting participles it again most resembles a tidied‐up version of schoolbook Polish.
Zamenhof takes categories such as Infinitive, Participle, and Subjunctive on faith as universal concepts. Note particularly his failure to define the subtle differences between simple tenses (“I saw”, mi vidis) and compound forms (“I have seen”, mi estas vidinta – more literally “I am having‐seen”)… an especially vexing question when passive verbs are always formed as compounds (“I was/have been seen”, mi estas vidita).
It should be apparent to anglophones that special suffixes for infinitives, future tenses, and subjunctives are a redundant complication. It may be less obvious that English is itself over‐complex in some ways, with its passive voice (“they are regarded as a foundation”, ili estas rigardataj kiel fundamento), vestigial subject‐agreement (“we are, it is” – wisely dropped in Esperanto), and obligatory tense marking even where the context makes it obvious (“I was born in 1967”) or nonsensical (“time is a dimension” – cf. my guide to SF Chronophysics). None of this is necessary; future tense for example can be shown with auxiliary verbs (“will”), adverbs (“soon”), or if you insist, optional affixes.
One feature of verbs is present in almost all human languages, though trivialised in traditional Latin‐based school grammars: aspect, the distinction between Perfective (roughly, the “single event or act”) and Imperfective (“ongoing state or behaviour”). Esperanto's rules barely allow for aspect marking, relying on an unreliable suffix (‐ad “continual” or “gerund”) and arguable applications of participles (e.g. estas fermata, which some translate as “is presently closed” and some as “is being closed”). Left with no official system, Esperantists just stuck to their mother‐tongue habits, giving most modern dialects a (further) heavy Slavic influence.
The actual forms of these inflections (‐os? ‐inta?) are unconvincing. Worst of all is ‐u, the imperative. Most languages, for obvious reasons, arrange it so that commands can be given via the most basic verbal “stem” available, not a special, uniquely inflected form!
Zamenhof also adopts a Slavic approach to tenses in quoted speech: where English reports “we are!” either directly as “they said ‘We are!’” or indirectly as “they said that they were”, Esperantists and Slavs have to say (in effect) “they said that they are” (tenses direct, everything else indirect). There are some fairly knotty problems being ignored in Esperanto's use of reflexive pronouns and an active/passive distinction, too; for more details on this see Appendix Q.
Esperanto nouns inflect both for number and for case; i.e., more than is considered necessary in most European languages. Compare the English sentence “yesterday you hit the three white sheep” (case, tense, and number left to word‐order and context) with the Esperanto version: hierau vi frapIS la tri blankaJN shafoJN (case, tense, and number redundantly expressed by suffixes).
Esperantists never attempt to explain what cases or plurals are for. The former is extremely tricky; but even the latter is hardly cut‐and‐dried. Why are “zero secondS, one point zero secondS” plural? Indeed, what's the point of pluralising “two secondS”? Why are “rice, wheat” singular, while “nutS, oatS” are plural?
Obligatory inflections are a bad idea. Couldn't Esperanto emulate Japanese, which essentially does without plurals (one ninja, two ninja…), or Tagalog, which marks number only if it seems relevant (using a separate regular plural‐marker word)?
The same applies to case (if not more so). The Esperanto ‐n suffix is not only compulsory on verb objects, but appears on time expressions, directional adverbs, complements, and goals of motion – hence LundoN rajdu chevaloN nordeN dek mejlojN en LondonoN!, “On Monday, ride a horse northward ten miles into London!”. And yet… some kinds of noun phrase (infinitives, numerals, “many people” = multe da homoj, etc.) can't be marked for case, and they seem to get along perfectly happily without.
Languages disagree not only on the best way to indicate which of a sentence's components is the subject (Russian gives nouns fusional case endings, Japanese has particles after noun phrases, Swahili uses prefixes on verbs, and Chinese relies on word order), but even on how to define this notion of “Subject”; see Appendix R.
Why ‐j? It might be recognisable to the Italians (one percent of the world's population) who use ‐i as a regular plural marker, or even the Slavs (five percent) who use ‐и; but compare ‐s, used throughout Central/Western Europe (Spain, Germany, France, the UK…) and their colonies: forty percent of the human race! Meanwhile, ‐n as an object marker seems to be based on one piece of German case morphology (ignoring its use as another plural marker). And come to think of it, did Zamenhof ever explicitly forbid the suffixing order shafoNJ, or is this left to “common sense”?
For more on ‐n after prepositions, see L2. Incidentally, I get a lot of complaints from Esperantists who imagine it's inconsistent to want both expressive clarity and grammatical simplicity; apparently they can't imagine distinguishing (e.g.) singular from plural without there being special extra rules to make number‐agreement a compulsory part of the morphological system…
See Appendix Y for Esperanto's selection of pronouns. The system should be familiar to anglophones, with its single word for “we” (whether inclusive or exclusive), single word for “you” (whether familiar singular or polite plural), and compulsory distinction in the singular (only) between “he”, “she”, and “it”.
Few languages distinguish as we do between “a/some fish” and “the fish”, and explaining the point of this distinction is well nigh impossible. Consider also the unpredictable (to English‐speakers) way that the Esperanto article la occurs in “ten past one”, dek minutoj post LA unua; “God bless you”, LA Dio benu vin; “bird migration is remarkable”, LA birdmigrado estas mirinda (all out of “Teach Yourself Esperanto”).
Couldn't Esperanto do without articles, and treat pronouns and so on as regular nouns? Or if the pronouns really need their own system, complete with “possessive adjectives” mia, lia (“my, his”) etc., why does the interrogative pronoun have to mess things up with kia = “what sort”, kies = “whose” (a Lithuanian‐style genitive)?
Esperanto's words for “who, what” are kiu, kio, which act both as question words and as relative pronouns – a trademark misfeature of many European languages that's responsible for such unnecessary ambiguities as “Did you ask the man who did it?” Compare, say, Hindi, where question‐words begin with k‐ but their relative‐clause equivalents have j‐.
Notice that kiu, kio aren't listed among the pronouns; instead they're in a separate irregular subfamily, the so‐called correlatives. These are words for a mixed bag of concepts like “every‐thing, what‐kind, no‐where, some‐time, that‐many”; they naturally form a table with columns like “every‐” (= chi‐) and rows like “‐where” (= ‐e), intersecting at “every‐where” (= chie). But the grid has no columns for “else‐(where), any‐(thing)”, or “this‐(time)”, and no rows for “(some)‐degree, (how)‐often”, or “(which)‐direction”; such coinages require arbitrary botch‐ups, so triplets like “when, then, now” become ki‐am, ti‐am, nun. A more open system (where e.g. “anything” is simply “any thing”) would make the whole table unnecessary.
These word‐forms may not display much regularity, in the sense of behaving like normal nouns, but they do score highly for uniformity, in the sense of “did you say li estas, ni estos, or mi estus?”
Esperanto adjectives end in a superficially latinate ‐A, then add inflections to agree with the noun they modify. If there's any logic behind this, wouldn't it imply you need to put similar markers on la? That's how things work in the natural languages Zamenhof was copying here: if noun phrase agreement belongs anywhere, it's on articles.
What kinds of word go in this things‐ending‐in‐A category? “Third”, but not “three”; “many” and “any kind of”, but not “every”; “his” and “one's”, but not “whose”… if only Zamenhof had ever heard of determiners, a lexical class covering things like articles, pronouns, and correlatives, maybe the categories wouldn't have ended up such a mess.
Above all, why oh why did Zamenhof give his “simple” international language obligatory case‐and‐number concord? The Esperanto for “the houses are new” is la domoJ estas novaJ – which is on the fussy end of the scale even by European standards. Compare French les maisonS sont nouvelleS, where the “plural endings” are silent; German die HäusER sind neu, where the predicate shows no concord; or Russian домА новЫЕ, which while it does have agreement at least compensates by letting you leave some words out. Even Volapük didn't get it this wrong – domS binom nulik!
English may depend on an “Adjective” to say “the new houses”, but many languages go about things differently. Arabic uses appositional nominals (“the‐new‐things the‐houses”); Japanese prefers things that morphosyntacticians analyse as stative verbs (“being‐new house”).
The “basic” number‐terms tri, trio, tria (“three, threesome, third”) are a crowded jumble, making a mockery of the regular root/noun/adjective pattern they imitate (note for instance that both tri and tria can occur as either argument or modifier). Knock‐on effects include the baroque selection of number‐related suffixes needed for triOBLE, triFOJE, triOPE (“triply, three times, in threes”).
Why, other than because of European tradition, do we need a one‐word label for 10³ (“thousand” = mil instead of “ten hundred”) but not for 10⁴ (“myriad”) or 10⁵ (“lakh”); and a label for 10⁶ (“million” = miliono) but not for 10⁷ (“crore”) or 10⁸ (a Japanese “oku”)? If Esperanto was built around the S.I. system of prefixes this might make sense, but there's no sign Zamenhof ever heard of “kilo‐” etc. Indeed, pico is the Esperanto for pizza!
These categories are less reliable than most people assume. Latin may have had distinct “Adverbs” and “Prepositions”, but Vietnamese uses neither (it just needs flexible adjectives and verbs); even many English words (“like”, “except”) are hard to pigeonhole. Yes, most adverbs are simply verb modifiers like “fast”; but this hardly covers cases like “extremely”.
Esperanto's ‐N ending simply replaces some prepositions, modifies the meanings of others, and never associates with the rest. Zamenhof didn't just mix these prepositional functions confusingly into his case system, he also made them officially vague – see Appendix Y!
Esperanto grammar favours a proliferation of adverbs. “Whistling” in “whistling, I left” is not allowed to be a mere adjective fajfantA describing the subject – no, it's got to be “whistlingly”: fajfantE mi foriris. Worse yet, Esperanto weather phrases like “it's warm today” involve no nouns at all, so they can't have adjectives either: hodiau estas varmE (“today there is warmly”)! Some Esperantists tell me that construction is deprecated in favour of varmas (“is‐warm”), but if so then the news is taking a long time to reach the coursebooks.
Many languages go without the category “Adverb”, making do with adjectives and phrasal expressions (“quickly” = “fast” or “at speed”). What might seem more surprising to Europeans is how few languages have the category “Preposition”. Where Yiddish expresses the phrase “jump onto a box” via a preposition (slightly assisted by casemarking), Vietnamese uses modified verbs (“jump‐ascend box”); Finnish has hyper‐specialised cases (“jump box”, with “box” in the allative!); and Panjabi goes for postpositions (“jump box onto”).
These words are a strange mix. Prepositions can end in consonant clusters (like all Esperanto roots, but without the usual disguise of a tacked‐on vowel), resulting in jawbreakers such as post Kristnasktago, “after Christmas day”. On the other hand there are twenty‐odd random adverby particles and things that form a sort of semi‐developed word‐class with the distinctive ending ‐AU (ambau, kontrau, preskau = “both, against, almost”).
English prepositions are a bit un‐European in their willingness to appear with no following “object” noun (cf. our “transitive” verbs: Appendix Q). This blurs the line between “Preposition” (“I walked along the road”) and “Adverb” (“I walked along”), and allows English to form phrases outlawed by Esperanto grammar (e.g. “that's the road I walked along”)!
Zamenhof's efforts to explain the rules of Esperanto grammar (see Appendix Y) focussed almost exclusively on derivational and inflectional morphology (i.e. word‐building and word‐endings). The nearest they get to syntax is implicit word‐order rules. Unsurprisingly, Esperanto's phrase structure rules and so on turn out to be hardly distinguishable from the ones Zamenhof grew up with – they're pretty good simple ones, but it's sheer blind luck…
We know sentences are usually Subject–Verb–Object, possessives go Property–Of–Owner, and adjective phrases are Adjective–Noun; but that's about all we learn. Esperantists boast of the way the final vowels make individual nouns readily identifiable; what they fail to mention is that “free word order” turns all the higher structure of noun phrases, subclauses, and so on into a matter of guesswork.
Many languages, especially in Europe, have sets of sentences related via order‐shuffling rules (“transformations”) such as question‐inversion: “I am reading it → am I reading it?”. That's one Esperanto doesn't share; it's mi legas ghin → chu mi legas ghin?. This just makes it more baffling that it does insist on correlative extraction: when the question is “I am reading what?” (mi legas kion?), Esperanto forbids that simple word order just as English does – question words like “who, where, why” have to move to the start of their clause, giving “what am I reading?” (kion mi legas?).
Some of Esperanto's word‐order conventions are no more than optional defaults; others (although taken for granted in grammars) are unbreakable. “Yesterday you hit the three white sheep” may legally become la tri shafojn blankajn vi frapis hierau, but it's never blankajn la vi hierau tri frapis shafojn! Even the dislocation of “only” English allows in “I only ate one” is forbidden for nur. The following “obvious” order rules demonstrate classically European default assumptions:
Excess inflections such as case might at least lead to extra flexibility in word order; and Esperantists consider this an aid to stylistic elegance. But wouldn't it be easier as well as more flexible to use “topic‐marker” particles to assign emphasis? Instead, Tibetan‐speaking learners of Esperanto (with no guide to what stylistic effects are produced by what order‐shift) have to learn to treat word order as essentially meaningless.
The question‐forming particle chu is a neat idea (though maybe a bit redundant, when interrogative intonation or punctuation will do – you agree?). But its form is copied from its source, the Polish czy (or Ukrainian chi or even Belorussian ci), rather than resembling the question words like kio.