Dr L. L. Zamenhof didn't name his brainchild Esperanto. People called it that because of the pseudonym he published it under: la Doktoro Esperanto, “Doctor Hopeful”. There are a number of odd things about this phrase, but I'm not setting out to claim that there's anything unusually terrible about it. Quite the opposite – I'm picking it as an arbitrary high‐profile testcase, to demonstrate the standard of workmanship to be expected from the whole language.
- The reason there's a definite article la on the front of the phrase is that this is a context where speakers of French or German habitually use one. If you ask French speakers why that is, you're liable to be fed a lot of traditional nonsense about it being logically necessary when the phrase refers to one particular individually identifiable doctor; but English gets by perfectly well on the alternative theory that this sort of context makes definiteness markers redundant. The true reason many European languages use articles so heavily is that they also serve to carry grammatical agreement for things like gender and number that may otherwise not be clearly signposted. Esperanto copies this habit but leaves out the morphological traits that motivated it.
- Why did Zamenhof feel it necessary to flaunt his irrelevant status as a practicing (male) eye‐doctor, anyway? An avowedly optimistic medical practitioner sounds like bad news: doctors are expected to err on the side of precaution, not just ignore the symptoms and knock on wood!
- Notice that although the word is always translated with the adjective “hopeful” it doesn't end in an ‑A; instead Esperanto is a second noun describing the doctor (in a grammatical construction that's known as apposition). Hang on, though; if nouns are allowed to modify one another like that, why does the language have any need for the distinct lexical category of adjectives?
- Esperanto's emotional vocabulary demonstrates how unpredictable its derivational system is unless you happen to know how the roots behave in the languages they came from. Fear is timo; if you cause me to experience fear, that's mi timas vin. Disgust is naŭzo; if you cause me to experience disgust, it's the other way around, vi naŭzas min. And hope is espero, but in this case evoking the emotion requires a causative suffix: vi esperigas min.
- The word Esperanto demonstrates a flaw in the derivational morphology of participles. If they were fully regular, the word would mean “a currently in progress outbreak of hope”, and Zamenhof's pen name would have been la Doktoro Esperantulo!
- Except that Dr Zamenhof died a century ago, at which point he stopped being esperANTa and became esperINTa, “having‐hoped”. He would have been wiser to keep the tense‐markers out of it in the first place and claim merely to be esperEMa, “hope‐prone”.
- His followers immediately made things worse by claiming to be esperantistoj. The word isto is in the dictionary as “a professional”, and when used as a suffix it was supposed to indicate a vocation – hobbyist eyeball‐collectors aren't entitled to call themselves okulistoj! The word for “Esperanto enthusiasts” ought to be esperantANoj.
If Zamenhof didn't mean to name his creation Esperanto, what name did he intend it to be known by? The answer is, la lingvo internacia = “the international language”. Here the definite article is an absurd boast, since there were already plenty of other tongues with a history of use as an international lingua franca. Esperanto wasn't even the first constructed auxiliary language to attract a cosmopolitan following. And yet I still get emails denying the existence of any other international language. From foreign countries. In English.