Ranto Appendix – K


For language‐design questions like the best way of signposting subclauses or distinguishing subjects from objects, it's possible to look for a “cost‐effective” answer that has been widely reinvented.  That kind of solution doesn't really apply to questions of vocabulary, such as when you're trying to choose good words for “day” or “dog” or “dictionary” – languages don't just happen to invent the same words for things, but they do often borrow words from their neighbours (a phenomenon that's relatively rare for grammatical features).  The best a language inventor can do here is try to find an unbiassed mechanism for picking lexical items that will be recognised all around the world.  As a result, vocabulary is the field where being “eurocentric” is most excusable: a policy of always accepting words from whoever has been most successful at spreading them across multiple continents is always going to mean taking more of them from imperialist cultures such as the Romans than from their victims (though it does at least leave the door open to occasional contributions from Arabic).

Not that Zamenhof was eurocentric because he was following this sort of policy; he was parochial by design, working on the basic assumption that only members of the European social elite should get a vote.  He justified his vocabulary choices on the basis that “every educated man” would recognise roots taken directly from Latin.  This at a time when far from getting Latin lessons, more than three quarters of the population of the Russian Empire were illiterate.

Nonetheless, he did make significant use of one of the two truly global word sources: the Western Colonial Vocabulary, made up of words like chocolate, hotel, kangaroo, police, school, shampoo that were gathered and/or distributed by the European imperial powers over the past 500 years.  Since they were present in most of his source languages, Zamenhof often used obvious candidates from this category – though not always: his word for “football” was piedpilko and “school” became lernejo.

The other common stock, which Zamenhof neglected more comprehensively, is the International Scientific Vocabulary: words usually built from English, Latin, or Greek roots for newly classified phenomena, like astronaut, interferometry, microchip, neolithic, sociopath, tele­communication.  Esperanto swallows many of these words as unanalysed borrowings, but makes no attempt to take advantage of the common roots they are built from, such as astro‐, micro‐, neo‐ and so on.  On the contrary, Esperanto “purists” insist on replacing ISV loanwords with coinages built from natively Zamenhofian roots, such as antikvscienco = “archaeology”.  In fact the one and only Greek word that made it into Esperanto's basic vocabulary is kaikaj = “and” – precisely the sort of function‐word that isn't part of this stock!

Zamenhof can be forgiven for failing to predict that words like the above were going to end up so widespread in the dictionaries of the world; but as a global wordlist develops, Esperanto looks more and more perverse in its parochial root choices driven by lexical tokenism.  Of course, radical suggestions like stocking the core lexicon with fragments of technical jargon are invariably decried by Esperantists as obscure; but which is the average non‐European inter­nationalist more likely to recognise – German die Haut as in haŭto = “skin”, or Greek derma as in dermatology, epidermis, hypodermic, etc.?

Existing Source Alternatives
birdo = “bird” ∼English avis, ornithos
ĉevalo = “horse” French Equus (caballus)
fajro = “fire” English/Yiddish ignis, pyros
fingro = “finger” Germanic digitus, daktylos
haro = “hair” Germanic capillus, trichos
hundo = “dog” Germanic Canis (familiāris)
koro = “heart” Romance cardia
libro = “book” Romance biblion, kitâb
oro = “gold” Romance aurum (Au)
prava = “right(ful)” Slavic rēctus, orthos
sango = “blood” ∼Romance haematos
stelo = “star” Romance astron
suno = “sun” ∼English sōl, hēlios
ŝafo = “sheep” German Ovis (ariēs)
ŝtono = “stone” ∼Germanic petra, lithos
tago = “day” German/Yiddish diēs, diurnus

I'd like to interrupt this table for a moment to underline what a terrible choice tago is.  Every other branch of the Germanic family gives the word an initial d, as do most of its cognates across the Indo‐European languages – Gujarati divas, Hindi din, Russian den', Spanish día, Welsh dydd… and then Esperanto words like dimanĉo, hieraŭ, ĵaŭdo = “Sunday, yesterday, Thursday” are left as individual borrowings when they could have been self‐explanatory compounds.

tempo = “time” Romance chronos
timo = “fear” Latin phobos
vorto = “word” Germanic verba, lexikos
vosto = “tail” ∼Russian cauda, ura

Incidentally, the Esperanto for “dictionary” is itself a good example of How Not To Do It: vortaro, with the inscrutable literal meaning “word‐herd, collection of words”.  I mean, I wasn't expecting Zamenhof to see the potential of the Arabic word qâmûs, which has got into other languages from Swahili to Urdu to Indonesian (though by a strange coincidence, it's originally a loan from Ancient Greek!) – but how did he manage to overlook the example of all the Germanic languages that make the compound “wordbook”?