Esperanto – the basic and the abstract

There are two beginning students, komencantoj, at the Stanford class on conversational Esperanto.  Since they are already polyglots, they are picking the language up quickly.  However, they still have a difficult time following advanced conversation.

Why is this? you might ask. Isn’t Esperanto supposed to be the easiest language in the world to learn?

Yes, and basic Esperanto is a breeze.  “La ĉielo estas blua.” “Mi malsatas. Ni manĝu.” “Kie estas la necesejo?”  “La plumo de mia onklino estas sur la tablo.”  “Mi donis libon al Karlo.”

Very basic.  Very concrete.  And if we were, say, a race of hounds who live only in the moment and only think about things they can see, taste and smell, that would be all that would be required of any language.  But human thought involves so much more than the current moment, concrete nouns and simple verbs.  We think abstractly, hypothetically and subjunctively.  We talk about things we can only infer without actually witnessing.  I have heard it said that without the subjunctive, one can only speak Italian with a limp.  I would say the same about any language.

Once ideas become more complex, the language must accommodate or it’s useless to humans.  With humans, conversations turn abstract with very little prompting, and the komencantoj quickly become lost.  Fortunately, the problem is solved with practice and familiarity.

An example of this is illustrated by the translation of the phrase, describing the Society for Creative Anachronism, “The Middle Ages as they should have been.”

The best I could do was, “La Mezepoko kiel ĝi devintus.”  (There is nothing illegal about the use of the word devintus though many experienced esperantists have warned me about it.  The preferred usage evidently is ” … kiel ĝi estus devinta.” though that sounds awkward to me.  And if you google the word devintus you’ll find it used other places by quite fluent esperantists.  “It’s not common usage,” some will complain.  But “… should have been” also is not a common phrase.)  We are talking about the conditional past.  How more abstract can you get?  It’s easy to talk about the conditional future, even the conditional present.  But the conditional past? As if the past were a malleable thing? Generally a topic for geeks, eh?  Only a first class language could tackle that.  Is Esperanto, by this definition, a first class language?  You tell me.  For my money, the nunaj komencantoj will be slinging the subjunctive lingo inside six months.  A year tops.



One Response

  1. Interesting. It’s quite hard to think of the meaning of devintus/estus devinta from an English point of view! Or from the point of view of any language. It’s pretty cool how Esperanto expands the possibilities of what can be said so succinctly.

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