How ‘difficult’ (using Esperantist terms) is an inflected language like Proto-Indo-European for Europeans?

For native speakers of most modern Romance languages (apart from some reminiscence of the neuter case), Nordic (Germanic) languages, English, Dutch, or Bulgarian, it is usually considered “difficult” to learn an inflected language like Latin, German or Russian: cases are a priori felt as too strange, too “archaic”, too ‘foreign’ to the own system of expressing ideas. However, for a common German, Baltic, Slavic, Greek speaker, or for non-IE speakers of Basque or Uralic languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian), cases are the only way to express common concepts and ideas, and it was also the common way of expression for speakers of older versions of those very uninflected languages, like Old English, Old Norse or Classical Latin; and their speakers didn’t consider their languages “difficult” …

Therefore, to use different cases is the normal way to express concepts that non-inflected languages express in different ways – i.e. not “more easily”, but “differently”. That’s the point Esperantism has lost in its struggle to convince the world of its “easiness”. In fact, the idea that cases are difficult is so impregnated in Esperantism, that some did create “an old version” [probably deemed "more difficult"] of Esperanto called Arcaicam Esperantom, as a fiction of evolution from an older language…

Thus, among the European population (more than 700 million inhabitants), just around 200 million speak non-inflected languages, while the rest use at least 4 cases to express every possible concept. Within the current EU, more or less half of its speakers speak an inflected language – like German, Polish, Czech, Greek, Lithuanian, Slovenian, or non-IE Hungarian, Finnish, etc. – as their mother tongue.

For example, the literal sentence “I go to-the-house” [not exactly the common expression "I go home" which is expressed differently in each language] would be said in Spanish “voy a-la-casa”, or in French “je vais a-la-maison”, in Italian “vado a-la-casa”, etc. Therefore, in an “easy conlang” for Western European speakers, say in something called Esperanto, a sentence like “io vo a-lo-haus” is apparently “easy”, because the syntactical structure is similar to those non-inflected languages.

NOTE: In fact, there are other interesting concepts behind the use of the obligatory subject before the verb in languages like English or Esperanto, that appears usually in those languages that have reduced the verbal system; therefore, the subject is necessary only in those languages whose verbal inflection becomes too simple to express an idea that must still be expressed some way – more or less like different combinations of prepositions and articles are often needed to substitute the lost nominal inflection, as we discuss here. In those ‘less innovative’ languages that retain a rich verbal system, the subject appears for some reason, as e.g. in Spanish “yo voy a la casa”, which must be expressed differently in innovative languages, using different linguistic resources, like e.g. Eng. “I myself go to the house” (or maybe “it’s me who…“), or French “moi, je vais a la maison”. Is that obligatory subject and ‘simplified’ verbal system of Esperanto “easier”, and therefore “better”…? I guess not. It’s just an imitation of French or English that Mr. Zamenhoff deemed “better” for his creation to succeed, given the relevance of those languages (and its speakers’ acceptance) back in 1900…

On the other hand, in German it would be “Ich gehe nach-Haus-e”, in Latin, it is “vado ad-domu-m”; in Polish “idę do-dom-u” etc. The use of declensions, if compared to uninflected languages, is usually made of just a simple change of “preposition+article” -> “declension” – or, in the ‘worst’ case (as it is shown here), by a “preposition+article” -> “preposition+declension”.

To sum up, can some languages be considered “more difficult” than others? Yes, indeed. If seen from a European point of view, some linguistic features are not easy to learn: the Arab writing system, Chinese unending kanjis, Sino-Tibetan or Vietnamese tones, etc. can cause headaches to [adult] speakers willing to learn them… Also, from an English, French or Spanish point of view, learning a language like Esperanto might seem “better” because of its apparent and equivocal “easiness”… But, between (a) all Indo-European speakers learning a non-inflected language like English [or 'easy' Esperanto], or (b) all Indo-European speakers learning an inflected one like Proto-Indo-European?; I guess there is no language “easier” than other, and therefore the “better” option should come from other rational considerations, not just faith in the absurd ramblings of an illuminated Polish ophthalmologist.

Therefore, the question remains still the same: why on earth should any European willing to speak a common language select an invented one (from the thousand “super easy” ones available) than a natural one, like the ancestor of most of their mother tongues, Proto-Indo-European?

4 comments

  1. Indo-European

    Moreover, Mithridates writes, following the letter of the editor of the Bristol Herald Courier in Virginia, about the importance of learning Latin for English speakers, that students who learn Latin show a greater knowledge of etymologies and Romance languages, and (because of that) have a better understanding of Science and Arts in general than those who don’t. One should add that learning Greek, French and German would help students still more, just like Romance language speakers who learn Latin and English show better results than those who don’t. And learning PIE would evidently be still more efficient, as it helps understand not only the etymologies of Greek and Latin words, but also the relationship of that common Classical vocabulary with the rest of Indo-European languages (including the own, be it English, Polish or Persian), and a better understanding and easier learning of any other given classical language or old Indo-European dialect in general.

    I don’t know any study or statistics showing similar benefits of learning Esperanto or any other “conlang”, though…

  2. Mithridates

    You know, that’s pretty much the main reason I found MIE to be attractive in the first place, those notes in the back explaining not just terms that came from Latin but other words that aren’t really that well-explained like how the were in werewolf is related to vir- in virile, and so on. I was thinking it would be interesting to write another grammar book where things are more easily explained for the average person to show them exactly how MIE fits into the whole scheme of things. Something akin to how etymonline explains the origin of words:

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=werewolf&searchmode=none

    “late O.E. werewulf “person with the power to turn into a wolf,” from wer “man” + wulf (see wolf; also see here for a short discussion of the mythology). The first element probably is from PIE *uiHro “freeman” (cf. Skt. vira-, Lith. vyras, L. vir, O.Ir. fer, Goth. wair). Cf. M.Du. weerwolf, O.H.G. werwolf, Swed. varulf. In the ancient Persian calendar, the eighth month (October-November) was Varkazana-, lit. “(Month of the) Wolf-Men.””

    Or since that would take a lot of word perhaps a word of the day type service could be interesting as well. I was actually thinking a few weeks back of just copying and pasting a single note from the appendix of the MIE Grammar each day (not every note, just the ones I find to be particularly interesting) to the blog because one note at a time is very easy to digest for the average person.

  3. Indo-European

    I was thinking it would be interesting to write another grammar book where things are more easily explained for the average person;

    I was actually thinking a few weeks back of just copying and pasting a single note from the appendix of the MIE Grammar each day

    If you want to copy&paste everything in little pieces, or publish the Grammar yourself, with or without additions, or changing this or that part, that’s OK, it’s licensed as GFDL and CC-by-sa for that. That’s why free licenses are supposed to work so well, because people can make everything they want with free licensed material, without a need to ask for permission: some parts of the book are in fact taken from GFDL, Creative Commons or Public Domain works… If I die tomorrow :shock: , the grammar will still be improved by others without a need for permission from me or my family.

    a word of the day type service could be interesting as well
    I thought about preparing a Google widget (for Google personalized Home Page) including that, but I’m not a software developer, and it seemed to me too hard to learn how to do it. In fact, there was no need to show the “MIE” form, just showing the etymologies and the PIE phonetical writing would have been great. I prefer to spend time in text translations, grammar corrections, and translations of resources and websites, though. If you know somebody interested in developing such widgets, please tell!

    those notes in the back explaining not just terms that came from Latin but other words

    I’m glad to see that the etymological notes I prepared gave somebody a better impression of the language revival! That section is something criticized by more “purists” who would like to show just the actual Proto-Indo-European common vocabulary (as in our essential lexicon) and not the MIE form of any derived word of well-known languages. So, for example, to say “international” using lit. translation entergnationalis from Lat. internationalis is possibly a bad choice for MIE, given the rest of possible words built in other Indo-European languages. I state it clearly in the beginning of the notes section, but it’s probably still equivocal and weird to say “these are possible MIE words, but not all of them can be used in MIE:???:

    That and other questions must still be dealt with: like the Latin ending “-ta-t-is”, as e.g. Uniwersitatis, which is left for the moment as IE “-ta(-t)”, as MIE Oiniwersita(-t) – because Old Indian shows the same abstract ending, a PIE -tat, but not the further extension (hence a Latin innovation) in -is… Or, the Italic and Armenian common ending -tion, as in Lat. “genera-tion” (cf. Gk. genesis< IE gene-tis) etc. which has an addition -ti-on probably dialectal PIE addition unnecessary in most Modern Indo-European vocabulary. I still write it in legal terms, as adsoqiation, “association”, because it is not an informal “grouping” (hence adsoqiatis) but a Latin legal term; it is still somehow controversial to take all legal or medical terms (as the anatomic nomina) for MIE, even if translated, because there are languages like German which show different terms for either or both, and most have an Indo-European etymology too…

    As always, the ideas are there, but we lack the necessary time to carry out all projects, discussions and improvements. Time to time.

  4. Pingback: Indo-European languages of Europe » Blog Archive » A simple FAQ about the “advantages” of Esperanto and other conlangs: “easy”, “neutral” and “number of speakers”

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