Why Not English?13 min read

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Perhaps we should first ask “Why not English?”. Why should English not be the IAL (or for that fact any natural/organic/native language). Well, let us take a look at all of the problems that people who are learning English as a second language would have to encounter while reading/writing/speaking it. Similar problems will be found with other natural languages as well:

I. Comparative Characteristics of English and Esperanto

This table is taken from Henri Mason’s IPertnity BLog post from March 15, 2009.

Alphabetnon-phonetic (46 phonemes, 20 vowels)phonetic with 28 letters
Pronunciationchaotic, elusive, impossible to standardiseeach letter is pronounced and always represents the same sound
Stressindefinable, determined by usage; no standard can be establishedalways on the penultimate syllable
Irregular verbs283none
Conjugation : – rootvariableinvariable
Identification of the grammatical functionConfused, many grammatical relations are unexpressedclear and immediate
Syntaxrigid, fixed word ordervery subtle
Word derivation *limited possibilities : 5%vast possibilities : 17%
Index of agglutination *0,31
Idiomsinnumerablevirtually non-existent
Homonymsvery numerousvirtually non-existent
Polysemy **very common (1)rare
Vocabulary necessary to understand an ordinary text ***for 80% — 90% : 2000 words for 99% : 7000 words (2)500 words + 50 grammatical elements 2000 words
Time needed to reach a standard equivalent to A-level ****1500 hours for a French speaker150 hours for a French speaker

Sources :

  • * “Lingvistikaj aspektoj de Esperanto”, Dr John C. Wells; professor of English language phonetics at University College London.
  • ** Edward Thorndike, a famous American teacher and educationalist.
  • *** “Fortoj de l’vivo”, Vilho Setälä, a Finnish linguist.
  • **** Dr Helmar Frank, director of the Institute of Cybernetics in Paderborn, Germany.
  1. 21 120 different meanings for the 850 words of the basic vocabulary.
  2. Frequency of dictionary consultation : one unknown word in a hundred.

II. Cultural Idioms, Colloquialisms, and Slang

A primary problem that most people have when learning natural languages as a second language are its Colloquialisms, and Slang. You can learn the technical way that a language is spoken in school or classes (subjects, nouns, verbs, vocabulary, etc…), as my wife originally did, and then you can learn how the language is really spoken by going to its native lands, and find that speaking literally might get you looked at strangely. You will be understood, but the lack expressiveness that native speakers bear.

Normal speech of natural languages by natives is rife with slang, figures of speech, and so on that are rooted and entrenched in its cultural identity, language, and norms, which are most definitely not going to be the same as the person who is learning the language as a second language.

Examples of such phrases are:

  • ‘See you later’ does not mean necessarily that you plan on seeing them later
  • ‘that sucks’ does not mean literally that something has sucking power
  • ‘What’s up.’ – is not asking what is up there
  • ‘There is more than one way to skin a cat.’ might be literally true, but that is not what the speaker is really meaning

The presence of these when attempting to communicate can make it very difficult to communicate between a native speaker and a non-native speaker. A native speaker is bound to speak in such a way that will allow these colloquialisms through and confuse the non-native speaker.

Esperanto has the advantage of not having these problems to hinder communication, which is one of its greatest advantages for international communication. It lacks cultural specific phrases which either speaker may not be aware of.

III. The Crazy Inconsistencies of English

A. Homophones

(Homophones): In English we have a few ways that have organically grown for us to make the ‘oo’ or ‘ew’ sound as in the following situations: to, too, two, and sue. Four different ways to make the same sound.

… or this: beautiful, few or lieu.

Esperanto is phonetic and does not have these issues. Only one way to make each sound.

B. Homonyms

(Homonyms): We have so very many words that sound alike, but that mean very different things :

  • to, too, two
  • sent, scent, cent
  • their, they’re and there

For a more complete list try Homonym list from About.com’.

Esperanto has only one way to make each sound, so it does not have this problem.

C. Capitonyms

A capitonym is a word whose meaning changes when it is capitalized. E.g.

fiat Fiat
List of some Capitonyms

D. Contranyms

From Daily Writing Tips:

The English language includes an interesting category of words and phrases called contronyms (also spelled contranyms, or referred to as autoantonyms) — terms that, depending on context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings. When you use these words, be sure the context clearly identifies which meaning is intended:

  1. Apology: A statement of contrition for an action, or a defense of one
  2. Aught: All, or nothing
  3. Bill: A payment, or an invoice for payment
  4. Bolt: To secure, or to flee
  5. Bound: Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement
  6. Buckle: To connect, or to break or collapse
  7. Cleave: To adhere, or to separate
  8. Clip: To fasten, or detach
  9. Consult: To offer advice, or to obtain it
  10. Continue: To keep doing an action, or to suspend an action
  11. Custom: A common practice, or a special treatment
  12. Dike: A wall to prevent flooding, or a ditch
  13. Discursive: Moving in an orderly fashion among topics, or proceeding aimlessly in a discussion
  14. Dollop: A large amount (British English), or a small amount
  15. Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them
  16. Enjoin: To impose, or to prohibit
  17. Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable
  18. Fine: Excellent, or acceptable or good enough
  19. Finished: Completed, or ended or destroyed
  20. First degree: Most severe in the case of a murder charge, or least severe in reference to a burn
  21. Fix: To repair, or to castrate
  22. Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat
  23. Garnish: To furnish, as with food preparation, or to take away, as with wages
  24. Give out: To provide, or to stop because of a lack of supply
  25. Go: To proceed or succeed, or to weaken or fail
  26. Grade: A degree of slope, or a horizontal line or position
  27. Handicap: An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement
  28. Help: To assist, or to prevent or (in negative constructions) restrain
  29. Hold up: To support, or to impede
  30. Lease: To offer property for rent, or to hold such property
  31. Left: Remained, or departed
  32. Let: Allowed, or hindered
  33. Liege: A feudal lord, or a vassal
  34. Literally: Actually, or virtually
  35. Mean: Average or stingy, or excellent
  36. Model: An exemplar, or a copy
  37. Off: Deactivated, or activated, as an alarm
  38. Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, in reference to lights
  39. Out of: Outside, or inside, as in working out of a specific office
  40. Overlook: To supervise, or to neglect
  41. Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee
  42. Peer: A person of the nobility, or an equal
  43.  Presently: Now, or soon
  44. Put out: Extinguish, or generate
  45. Puzzle: A problem, or to solve one
  46. Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part
  47. Quiddity: Essence, or a trifling point of contention
  48. Quite: Rather (as a qualifying modifier), or completely
  49. Ravel: To entangle, or to disentangle
  50. Refrain: To desist from doing something, or to repeat
  51. Rent: To purchase use of something, or to sell use
  52. Rock: An immobile mass of stone or figuratively similar phenomenon, or a shaking or unsettling movement or action
  53. Sanction: To approve, or to boycott
  54. Sanguine: Confidently cheerful, or bloodthirsty
  55. Scan: To peruse, or to glance
  56. Screen: To present, or to conceal
  57. Seed: To sow seeds, or to shed or remove them
  58. Shop: To patronize a business in order to purchase something, or to sell something
  59. Skin: To cover, or to remove
  60. Skinned: Covered with skin, or with the skin removed
  61. Splice: To join, or to separate
  62. Stakeholder: One who has a stake in an enterprise, or a bystander who holds the stake for those placing a bet
  63. Strike: To hit, or to miss in an attempt to hit
  64. Table: To propose (in British English), or to set aside
  65. Temper: To soften, or to strengthen
  66. Throw out: To dispose of, or to present for consideration
  67. Transparent: Invisible, or obvious
  68. Trim: To decorate, or to remove excess from
  69. Trip: A journey, or a stumble
  70. Unbending: Rigid, or relaxing
  71. Variety: A particular type, or many types
  72. Wear: To endure, or to deteriorate
  73. Weather: To withstand, or to wear away
  74. Wind up: To end, or to start up
  75. With: Alongside, or against

III. Inconsistent Grammar

A. Inconsistent Pluralization

How about we talk about the lack of a consistent method for creating plurals in English. What follows are several of the ways that we create plural nouns in English:

  • car – cars
  • sheep – sheep
  • mouse – mice
  • woman – women
  • foot – feet
  • baby – babies
  • ox – oxen

Esperanto’s plurals are all the same – ends in ‘j’,
so it does not have this problem either. =)

B. Inconsistent Verb Tensing

Irregular Verbs are everywhere in English. Learning how to tense a verb properly is very difficult. Past, present, and future tensing of verbs is so organic that you have to remember a slew of word exceptions in order to know how to tense your verb properly:

Infinitive VerbFuture TensePast Tense
Infinitive VerbFuture TensePast Tense

Here is a page listing the irregular verbs in English.

In Closing

The following poem will go to great length to illustrate all of these points and more:

We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes.
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese.
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
When couldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?

The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot – would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular is this and plural is these,
Why shouldn’t the plural of kiss be nicknamed kese?

Then one may be that, and three may be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.

The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim!
So our English, I think you will all agree,
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through?

Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.

And dead; it’s said like bed, not bead;
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother.
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there.
And dear and fear for bear and pear.

And then there’s dose and rose and lose —
Just look them up — and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Why, man alive,
I’d learned to talk it when I was five.

And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned it at fifty-five!

Author Unknown

Author Unknown

Famed psychologist, linguist and UN translator – Claude Piron covers all of this and more quite thoroughly in the speech that he gave in Switzerland, at the International Youth Forum “Interweek”, Akademgorodok / Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia, 15 May 1994 titled “The hidden perverse effects of the current system of international communication“.

Watch the following video by famed UN Linguist Claude Piron called The Language Challenge – facing up to the reality, which covers this topic more. Sylvan Zaft also covers many of the difficulties that you can encounter learning foreign languages in this video “a Language for the Rest of Us

Here, I have just covered some of the linguistic issues with having English as the IAL. In the next section titled “Why Esperanto?” we will cover other issues.

If you know anyone who has tried to learn English as a second language you will know what I mean. I help my wife with her English, as well as having spoke with many people from overseas that speak English as a second language, and it is not always easy breaking through the slang, colloquialism, as well as English’s oh-so-very-numerous quirks and exceptions. Keep in mind that you will find such similar issues in almost all native languages. English is one of the most bastardized languages on the face of the earth, which is a much a curse as it is a blessing. This fact makes the language flexible and expressive, but it makes it very, very difficult for someone to learn it as a second language.

The Spelling Society is lobbying for English spelling reform and cites the difficulty of children learning the language as one of the reasons, and this video also covers this issue too.

2 thoughts on “Why Not English?13 min read

  1. For me a main argument for Esperanto and against English is a moral one. It is unfair (unjust) for some individuals to be able to use their native language in international settings while others must use a second or third language. No one chooses where to be born or what language will be their native language. It is a matter of luck, and those who are lucky have a special obligation to level the playing field. As Albert Schweitzer said, “Good fortune obligates.”

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