[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1982 pp4-5]
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[Esperanto: see Journal topics, Newsletter topics.]

SSS Conference 3: Spelling in other languages and international aspects of English spelling.

"The Principles of Esperanto Spelling"

by Stuart Campbell.

Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K.


Esperanto is an artificial language devised by Ludwig Zamenhof in 1887. Other artificial languages have been devised but none has achieved the popularity of Esperanto. Some rules for pronunciation in Esperanto. This example of a planned spelling system has some important reminders for spelling conservatives and reformers.


Esperanto is the international 'auxiliary' language devised by Ludwig Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, and published in 1887. He gave it no name, but pseudonomously called himself 'Dr. Esperanto,' a name which in Esperanto means one-who-hopes. He hoped that the new language would bring peace and understanding between nations and ethnic groups.

Some called such a language 'artificial,' implying the worst meaning of that word. Truly it was man-made. But I prefer to point out that normal languages have evolved naturally, but in an unplanned way. As a consequence, they contain irregularities, but artificial languages are 'planned' and do not contain irregularities. In this respect they are superior to the natural languages. In fact all language is the creation of mankind.

There have been many attempts to produce a planned language for international use, not to replace natural languages, but for use beside them. However none has achieved the popularity or penetration of Esperanto. It is spoken in all countries of the world by some several million people. It is the main competitor of English as an international language.

Now one thing is clear to the creator of a new language for international use. One of its attributes must be simple spelling. Such a language will be used not only by the common people, by those who can hardly spell their own language. Its orthografy must be simple and regular.

This is a cardinal rule in Esperanto. It is a totally phonetic language, i.e. the same symbol is always used for the same sound. It is also totally phonemic, that is, every word is pronounced just as it is spelt. Consequently there are no silent letters. As far as I know, such perfection is achieved in no natural language. Esperanto has a simplified spelling system par excellence. It was made with these characteristics in mind:

1. Simplified spelling is desirable, and the ultimate would be a language which uses absolutely phonetic spelling and whose grammatical rules are never broken. Esp. is the only known language that has these characteristics.

2. All language is artificial (i.e. man-made) but most are 'unplanned.' Esp. is a carefully planned language.

3. A brief account of the origin and purposes of Esp. (with emphasis on simple communication without misunderstanding) will follow. Its requirement that orthography and vowels should be unambiguous is explained. The Esperanto alphabet has 28 letters: 21 consonants, 5 vowels and 2 semivowels. The vowels are all pure sounds, monothongal, and for this reason Esperanto has no dialects. Names of letters are their sounds.

Vowels: a as in bad, have
e as in there, lend
i as in see, machine
o as in molest, glory
u as in rude, boot
Consonants: Plosives: p, b, t, d, k
Affricatives: ĉ as in catch,
ĝ as in hedge,
c as in cats. a voiceless alveolor affricative.
(Derives from Polish, Russian and Czech, and often begins a syllable, e.g., cepo, unlike ts in English.)
 Fricatives:f, v, s, z, h
ŝ as in shut
ĵ as in pleasure
ĥ as in loch, a voiceless velar fricative
 Liquids:l clear, as in leaf
r should be trilled
 Nasals:m, n.
Semi-vowels:j, as in yes, a gliding, nonsyllabic i-sound.
ŭ (u), a gliding, nonsyllabic u-sound, postvocalic.
 Both form diphthongs as follows:
 aj, as in my. (Polish: strajk)
ej, as in play
oj, as in boy
uj, as in ruin
aŭ, as in how
eŭ, as in 'debutantes' ow.

Notice the lack of letters q, w, x, y, which are transliterated: q = k, w = v, x (two sounds) = ks, y = j.

Esperanto does not contain the English 'th'-sounds, which are difficult for foreigners (except Spanish). Overall, pronunciation is European, not English.

Comments on diacritics (supersigns):
For maximum internationality, Zamenhof chose wordroots that as far as possible combine international similarities of appearance and similarity of sounds. (The root is the basic part of a word before addition of prefixes or suffixes, or, if it is a verb-root, inflections.)

In fact, Zamenhof considered graphic agreement more important than phonetic agreement, e.g., the form 'teatro' (a theatre) is recognizable to the eye of the English reader, and gives the European pronunciation. 'juna' (young) resembles the French 'jeune' and the German 'jung' in spelling, but is like German and English in sound.

However, letter and letter combinations (digraphs, trigraphs, etc.) are not pronounced the same way in every country, i.e. 'ch' in English has the sound ĉ, in French ŝ, and in German generally ĥ. 'j' in English has the sound ĝ, in Spanish ĥ, in German j, and in French, j.

Thus in Esperanto the word 'gardeno' looks like English 'garden' and German 'arten,' sounds like French 'jardin', and has similar sound and looks to Italian 'giardino'.

Thus Zamenhof uses diacritics to unify international orthography and pronunciation, and to reduce variation and number of letters.

In fact, only two supersigns are used: ˆ and ˇ (the latter only on u.) Thus Esperanto has only six diacritic marked letters compared with 15 in Czech, 13 in French, 10 in Portuguese and Roumanian, 9 in Hungarian, Polish and Lithuanian, 8 in Welsh, 7 in Spanish and 6 in Italian.

You can get a good idea of Esperanto spelling by trying to respell English in Esperanto. I will give you an example, which will also demonstrate the defects in English:
Tu bi, or not to bi: dat iz di kŭestjn:
Ŭeto tiz noŭblo in di majnd to sofo
Di slingz and aroŭz ov aŭtrejĝa fortjun,
Or to tejk armz agejnst a si ov troblz,
And baj opoŭzing end dem? Tu daj; tu slip;
Noŭ mor; and baj a slip to sej ŭi end
Di hart-ejk and di tauzand natjural ŝoks
Dat fleŝ iz er tu, tiz a konsjumejŝn
Divaŭtli tu bi ŭiŝt. Tu daj, to slip;
Tu slip! porĉans tu drim; aj der'z di rob;
For in dat slip ov det ŭot drimz mej kom,
Ŭen ŭi hav sofld of dis mortal kojl,
Most giv us porz: der'z di respect
Dat mejks kalamiti ov soŭ long lajf.
1. d [with circumflex]. Not in Esperanto. Used here to show voiced th.
[d with circumflex is not available; d is used.]
2. o. Used here for the indefinite vowel, which is needed.
3. oŭ. Used here as a diphthong.
4. Simplified pronunciation - no distinction between slip/ sleep.
5. t [with circumflex]. Voiceless th.
[t with circumflex is not available; t is used.]

This example shows that English has basic defects which make it unsuitable as an international language. It also shows how foreigners would prefer to spell English. This spelling, while odd to us, would look familiar to many foreigners.

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