Esperanto orthography is terrible

Wed 28 September 2016

Note

If you’re an Esperantist, I’m not saying you’re a bad person for liking Esperanto. I’m not saying the language is bad either. I’m just saying the writing system could’ve been much better.

Nor am I proposing that this orthography be adopted; I’m simply showing what effect a small number of changes would’ve had.

The orthography of Esperanto is terrible. Not as bad as, say, English or French, but pretty bad. It needn’t have been this way, though, as it’s so very close to actually being good.

Many screeds against Esperanto orthography will point to its use of diacritics, but this is largely a distraction from a deeper issue with the language’s orthography, which is its handling of a kind of sound called an affricate.

What’s an affricate?*

In a nutshell, an affricate is a compound sound consisting of a stop followed by a fricative pronounced in the same part of the mouth (know as the place of articulation) where both sounds end up blending into one.

Esperanto has three affricate sounds:

EO EN IPA
c ts [t͡s]
ĉ ch [t͡ʃ]
ĝ j [d͡ʒ]

While it’s possible for an affricate to constrast with a stop-fricative sequence consisting of the same sounds, it’s very uncommon and rarely ambiguous.

Moreover, the circumflex diacritic doesn’t have any consistent meaning other than having some vague relationship with the letter it modifies. In some cases (ĉ, ŝ, ĝ), it hints at palatalisation, but the rest are entirely arbitrary.

So, what does this have to do with Esperanto spelling?

Writing affricates using their constituent sounds*

A good design principle for an IAL is that it ought to be easy for people coming from any background to pronounce. Esperanto’s orthography accidentally favours the creation of words that are difficult to pronounce.

Esperanto adheres to a linguistically naïve conception of the ‘one sound, one letter’ orthographic principle, requiring the affricates be treated as one sound rather than a compound sound, and thus does not guard against complex consonant clusters involving an affricate and either a stop or a fricative, thus giving us words like ‘scii’ and ‘matĉo’, which are difficult to pronounce.

To eliminate this bias within the language’s orthography, we could eliminate ‘c’, ‘ĉ’, and ‘ĝ’ by writing them as their constituent sounds:

Original Reformed (I)
c ts
ĉ
ĝ

The spelling is still as unambiguous as before, but what’s been revealed as some nasty consonant clusters in words. Take the aforementioned ‘scii’ and ‘matĉo’: in this reformed orthography, some unfortunate complex consonant clusters in these words become more obvious: ‘stsii’ and ‘mattŝo’.

A good orthography should guard against bad spelling-based borrowings like these by making them obvious. The existing orthography does not.

Zamenhof orthography:

En multaj lokoj de Ĉinio estis temploj de la drako-reĝo. Dum trosekeco oni preĝis en la temploj, ke la drako-reĝo donu pluvon al la homa mondo. Tiam drako estis simbolo de la supernatura estaĵo. Kaj pli poste, ĝi fariĝis prapatro de la plej altaj regantoj kaj simbolis la absolutan aŭtoritaton de feŭda imperiestro. La imperiestro pretendis, ke li estas filo de la drako. Ĉiuj liaj vivbezonaĵoj portis la nomon drako kaj estis ornamitaj per diversaj drakofiguroj. Nun ĉie en Ĉinio videblas drako-ornamentaĵoj, kaj cirkulas legendoj pri drakoj.

Reformed (I) orthography:

En multaj lokoj de Tŝinio estis temploj de la drako-redĵo. Dum troseketso oni predĵis en la temploj, ke la drako-redĵo donu pluvon al la homa mondo. Tiam drako estis simbolo de la supernatura estaĵo. Kaj pli poste, dĵi faridĵis prapatro de la plej altaj regantoj kaj simbolis la absolutan aŭtoritaton de feŭda imperiestro. La imperiestro pretendis, ke li estas filo de la drako. Tŝiuj liaj vivbezonaĵoj portis la nomon drako kaj estis ornamitaj per diversaj drakofiguroj. Nun tŝie en Tŝinio videblas drako-ornamentaĵoj, kaj tsirkulas legendoj pri drakoj.

The language would have been better off had Zamenhof gone down a route like this.

Eliminating diacritics completely (if you really want to)*

If you wanted to, you could toss out diacritics entirely and still adhere to the one-sound-one-letter principle. Here’s a completely reformed orthography based on these changes that eliminates diacritics:

EO Reformed (II)
c ts
ĉ tc
ĝ dj
ĥ x
j y
ĵ j
ŝ c
ŭ w

Reformed (II) orthography:

En multay lokoy de Tcinio estis temploy de la drako-redjo. Dum troseketso oni predjis en la temploy, ke la drako-redjo donu pluvon al la homa mondo. Tiam drako estis simbolo de la supernatura estajo. Kay pli poste, dji faridjis prapatro de la pley altay regantoy kay simbolis la absolutan awtoritaton de fewda imperiestro. La imperiestro pretendis, ke li estas filo de la drako. Tciuy liay vivbezonajoy portis la nomon drako kay estis ornamitay per diversay drakofiguroy. Nun tcie en Tcinio videblas drako-ornamentajoy, kay tsirkulas legendoy pri drakoy.

Going further*

Now, that orthography isn’t to my own personal taste. Here’s how I’d tweak things to fit my own preferences.

I’d eliminate ‘w’ and ‘y’ from this, replacing them with ‘u’ and ‘i’, with a dieresis used for disambiguation. This is purely for aesthetic reasons.

I’d also kill off ‘x’, replacing it with ‘h’ or ‘k’: the sound is so uncommon in Esperanto that if it were a natural language, it would’ve been eliminates a long, long time ago.

I personally don’t like the use of ‘c’ for /ʃ/, but if you’re eliminating diacritics and want a letter with some precedence for representing that sound then your choices are either ‘c’ or ‘x’, or go with a diacritic. This is one place where I’d consider preserving the original use of ‘ŝ’.

This would give you:

En multai lokoi de Tŝinio estis temploi de la drako-redjo. Dum troseketso oni predjis en la temploi, ke la drako-redjo donu pluvon al la homa mondo. Tiam drako estis simbolo de la supernatura estajo. Kai pli poste, dji faridjis prapatro de la plei altai regantoi kai simbolis la absolutan autoritaton de feuda imperiestro. La imperiestro pretendis, ke li estas filo de la drako. Tŝiui liai vivbezonajoi portis la nomon drako kai estis ornamitai per diversai drakofiguroi. Nun tŝie en Tŝinio videblas drako-ornamentajoi, kai tsirkulas legendoi pri drakoi.
Category: Language
Tags: Esperanto