I was talking to a friend the other day about languages, and I briefly mentioned how it’s annoying how many languages are unnecessarily complicated and how it would be awesome to create a language that was logical and easy to learn. Little did I know this already existed…
Created around 120 years ago, Esperanto was intended to attenuate the number of conflicts due to linguistic and cultural differences. To achieve this goal, it was designed to be as easy to learn for everyone (though it is more similar to romance languages than Asian languages—other more truly international languages have been created, but they seem to end up being inconsistent and difficult to learn for everyone). Now, it has around 2 million speakers worldwide.
It is supposedly around 5 times faster to learn than natural languages. Upon my initial dabble with the language, I was amazed at and extremely excited by how consistent and logical the language was. After just an hour or two exploring it, here are some takeaways about what makes it really really awesome:
- Pronunciation is simple: Each letter makes exactly one sound, each sound in the language is associated with exactly one letter; emphasis always on second to last syllable.
- Grammar is consistent: nouns end in -o, adjectives end in -a, direct objects with -n, and plurals with -j. This means that you know exactly what part of speech something is.
- Word ordering flexibility: Because of consistent grammar, you have lots more word ordering flexibility. I love you = mi amas vin (vin = you, as a direct object), and this phrase can be reordered in 6 different ways, which is amazing.
- As a vehicle for learning target languages: It has been shown across multiple studies that learning Esperanto for a bit, and then focusing on a target language will lead to better overall acquisition of the target language than spending all that time on that target language (i.e. 6 months Esperanto + 18 months French > 24 months French). These findings make a lot of sense because Esperanto really makes you understand the grammar behind everything because of how grammatically consistent it is.
- You can derive words from the root: The root for stuff relating to health is san. Therefore, the noun for health is sano, the adjective healthy is sana, and these can be flipped around to be the opposites becoming malsano (disease) and malsana (unhealthy). Various other logical combinations can be created, like malsanulejo, which means hospital, or the place (-ejo) where people (-ulo) are sick (malsana). Upon learning the various roots, prefixes, and suffixes, you can quickly translate the meaning of any Esperanto word. Amazing 😮
I will be attempting to learn this language over the coming months as I find it absolutely incredible. If you find it fascinating, I encourage you to check it out! There’s a ton of online resources, like the videos linked above, and lernu has a free course.
While dabbling in the Esperanto world, I heard mention of a mysterious other language that went by the name of Toki Pona. Rumor was, it only has about 120 words. How incredible was this, I thought. So I watched some videos explaining its basics, and immediately, I was hooked.
Here’s a basic sentence: jan pona mi li wile moku lili e kili lili.
Let’s break it down.
- jan means person
- pona means good. When describing a person, it means a friend (good person).
- mi is a term representing me, myself, mine, I, and everything to do with me. In this case, an adjective, making it my friend.
- li indicates a third person subject is about to be followed by a verb. This is for clarity.
- wile expresses a want, desire, or need. In this case, it can be interpreted to mean want.
- moku has to do with food. This time it means to eat as a verb.
- lili means little, but because it is after a verb, it is an adverb saying that the action is done to a small extent.
- e indicates that a direct object will follow (aka the target of the verb’s action). This is also for clarity and reduction of ambiguity,
- kili is a fruit or vegetable
- lili means little once again, but because it is after a noun, it is an adjective.
Putting this together, my friend wants to eat a little bit of the little fruit.
Countless more complex ideas can be created, and it is riveting to see how much verbal acrobatics can be done to make things work.
Flexibility of words
The crazy thing about Toki Pona is how flexible words have to be. While you cannot easily express every idea with Toki Pona and you cannot always eliminate all ambiguity, it is amazing how much can be done with just over 100 words.
The example above showed how some words can be used in different ways (namely lili). It also shows how adjectives are created by stringing them after the nouns (kili lili mi means fruit that is little that is mine).
There are definitely more complicated grammatical nuances of Toki Pona for expressing ideas more exactly (like gender and grammatical tenses), but the idea of the language is to keep things simple and not overcomplicate things.
I am not fluent or even conversational in Toki Pona, but according to those who are, it forces you to focus on only the relevant details, because it encourages you to discard irrelevant information.
A different way of thinking
Both these languages are really incredibly thought-provoking. Simple additions to languages such as consistently labeling direct objects can increase grammatical awareness dramatically.
In contrast, reusing words to mean different things can make you think about ways to resolve ambiguity and question why we have 170,000(!!!) actively used English words.
A lot of debate has gone into the question, does language affect the way that we think? This question is also known as the linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
I personally believe that this is quite true, and language does affect the way we think. I would find it hard to believe that having no gender or no numbers wouldn’t affect the way we view things.
Just spending a few minutes looking at these languages can reveal a lot about what we take for granted with language.