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Eco: An Optimized Grammar

Dr. Esperanto, An Attempt Towards An International Language, 1889

L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), as Dr. Esperanto, An Attempt Towards An International Language, Henry Phillips, Jr., trans., New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1889. Courtesy of Cornell University Library and This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“The twenty eight letters of the Esperanto alphabet are based on a simple principle: for each letter one sound, and for each sound one letter. The tonic accent always falls on the penultimate syllable. There is only one article, la, invariable for words of all genders–thus la homo, la libroj, la abelo. Proper names do not take an article. There is no indefinite article.

Concerning the lexicon, the young Zamenhof had already noted that in many European languages there was a logic of suffixes that produced both feminine and many derivative forms (Buch / Bücherei, pharmakon / pharmakeia, child / childish, rex / regina, host / hostess, gallo / gallina, hero / heroine, Tsar / Tsarina), while the formation of contraries was governed by prefixes (heureux / malheureux, happy / unhappy, legal / illegal, fermo / malfermo, rostom / malorostom–the Russian for “high” and “low.”)

In a letter of 24 September 1876, Zamenhof described himself as ransacking the dictionaries of the various European languages trying to identify terms with a common root–lingwe, lingua, langue, lengua, language; rosa, rose, roza, etc. This was already the seminal idea of an a posteriori language.

Wherever Zamenhof was unable to discover a common root, he coined his own terms, privileging Romance languages, followed by the Germanic and Slavic ones. As a result, any speaker of a European language who examined an Esperanto word list would discover:

(1). Many terms that were easily recognizable as being similar or identical to his or her own;

(2). Terms which, though deriving from a foreign language, were still easily recognizable;

(3). Terms which, though strange at first sight, once their meaning had been learned, turned out to be easily recognizable; and finally,

(4). A reasonably limited number of terms to be learned ex novo.

Here are some examples: abelo (ape), apud (next to), akto (act), alumeto (match), birdo (bird), cigaredo (cigarette), domo (home), fali (to fall), frosto (frost), fumo (smoke), hundo (dog), kato (cat), krajono (pencil), kvar (quarter).

Esperanto also includes a comparatively large number of compound words. They are not inspired by the a priori projects, where composition is the norm, since the terms work like a chemical formula; Zamenhof could find compound words in natural languages (think of man-eater, tire-bouchon, schiaccianoci, to say nothing of German).

Compound words, moreover, permitted the exploitation of a limited number of radicals to the maximum. The rule governing the formation of compounds was that the principal word appeared at the end: thus–as in English–a “writing-table” becomes skribotablo.

The agglutinative principle which governs the formation of compound words allows for the creation of easily recognizable neologisms (cf. Zinna 1993).

From the radical stem, the neutral form is given by the suffix -o. This is not, as might appear, for example, to Italian or Spanish speakers, the suffix for the masculine gender, but merely serves as a mark for singular.

The feminine gender is “marked” by inserting an -in- between the stem and the singular ending -o. Thus “father / mother” = patr-o / patr-in-o, “king / queen” = reg-o / reg-in-o, male / female = vir-o / vir-in-o.

Plurals are formed by adding -j to the singular: thus “fathers / mothers” = patr-o-j / patr-in-o-j.

In natural languages many terms belonging to the same conceptual fields are frequently expressed by radically different lexical items. For instance, in Italian, given the conceptual field of parenthood, one must learn the meaning of padre, madre, suocero, genitori (father, mother, father-in-law and parents) before acknowledging that these terms belong to the same notional family.

In Esperanto, knowing the meaning of the radical patr, it is immediately possible to guess the meaning of patro, patrino, bopatro and gepatroj.

Likewise, in English (as well as in other languages) there are different endings for terms which all express a job or an occupation, like actor, driver, dentist, president, surgeon.

In Esperanto the words for all occupations are marked by the suffix –isto, so that anyone who knows that dento is “tooth” will automatically know that a dentisto is a professional who deals with teeth.

The rule for the formation of adjectives is also simple and intuitively clear: adjectives are formed by adding the suffix -a to the root stem: “paternal” = patr-a; and they agree with nouns in number: “good parents” = bonaj patroj.

The six verbal forms are not conjugated, and are always marked by six suffixes. For instance, for the verb “to see” we have vid-i (infinitive), vid-as (present), vid-is (past), vid-os (future), vid-us (conditional) and vid-u! (imperative).

Zinna has observed (1993) that, while the a priori languages and “laconic” grammars tried, at all cost, to apply a principle of economy, Esperanto follows a principle of optimization. Following the principle of economy, Esperanto abolishes case endings, yet it makes an exception of the accusative–which is formed by adding an -n to the noun: “la patro amas la filon, la patro amas la filojn.”

The motivation for this exception was that in non-flexional languages the accusative is the only case which is not introduced by a preposition, therefore it had to be marked in some way. Besides, the languages that, like English, had lost the accusative for nouns retain it for pronouns (I / me). The accusative also permits one to invert the syntactic order of the sentence, and yet to identify both the subject and the object of the action.

The accusative serves to avoid other ambiguities produced by non-flexional languages. As in Latin, it serves to indicate motion towards, so that in Esperanto one can distinguish between “la birdo flugas en la gardeno” (in which the bird is flying about within the garden) from “la birdo flugas en la gardenon” (in which the bird is flying into the garden).

In Italian “l’uccello vola nel giardino” remains ambiguous. In English, “I can hear him better than you” is ambiguous, for it can mean either “I can hear him better than you can hear him” or “I can hear him better than I can hear you” (the same happens in French with “je l’écoute mieux que vous,” or in Italian with “lo sento meglio di te“).

The Esperanto accusative renders this distinction very simply: the first case is “mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vi,” while the second is “mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 327-30.

Eco: The International Auxiliary Languages

Couturat & Leau, Histoire de la Langue Universelle, 1903

Louis Couturat (1868-1914) & Léopold Leau (1868-1943), Histoire de la langue universelle, Hachette, Paris, 1903, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed a revolution in transport and communications. In 1903 Couturat and Leau noted that it was now possible to voyage around the world in just forty days; exactly one half of the fateful limit set by Jules Verne just thirty years before.

Now the telephone and the wireless knitted Europe together and as communication became faster, economic relations increased. The major European nations had acquired colonies even in the far-flung antipodes, and so the European market could extend to cover the entire earth.

For these and other reasons, governments felt as never before the need for international forums where they might meet to resolve an infinite series of common problems, and our authors cite the Brussels convention on sugar production and international accord on white-slave trade.

As for scientific research, there were supranational bodies such as the Bureau des poides et  mesures (sixteen states) or the International Geodesic Association (eighteen states), while in 1900 the International Association of Scientific Academies was founded.

Couturat and Leau wrote that such a growing of scientific information needed to be organized “sous peine de revenir à la tour de Babel.”

What could the remedy be? Couturat and Leau dismissed the idea of choosing a living language as an international medium as utopian, and found difficulties in returning to a dead language like Latin.

Besides, Latin displays too many homonyms (liber means both “book” and “free”), its flexions create equivocations (avi might represent the dative and ablative of avis or the nominative plural of avus), it makes it difficult to distinguish between nouns and verbs (amor means both love and I am loved), it lacks a definite article and its syntax is largely irregular . . . The obvious solution seemed to be the invention of an artificial language, formed on the model of natural ones, but which might seem neutral to all its users.

The criteria for this language should be above all a simple and rational grammar (as extolled by the a priori languages, but with a closer analogy with existing tongues), and a lexicon whose terms recalled as closely as possible words in the natural languages.

In this sense, an international auxiliary language (henceforth IAL) would no longer be a priori but a posteriori; it would emerge from a comparison with and a balanced synthesis of naturally existing languages.

Couturat and Leau were realistic enough to understand that it was impossible to arrive at a preconceived scientific formula to judge which of the a posteriori IAL projects was the best and most flexible. It would have been the same as deciding on allegedly objective grounds whether Portuguese was superior to Spanish as a language for poetry or for commercial exchange.

They realized that, furthermore, an IAL project would not succeed unless an international body adopted and promoted it. Success, in other words, could only follow from a display of international political will.

What Couturat and Leau were facing in 1903, however, was a new Babel of international languages invented in the course of the nineteenth century; as a matter of fact they record and analyze 38 projects–and more of them are considered in their further book, Les nouvelles langues internationales, published in 1907.

The followers of each project had tried, with greater or lesser cohesive power, to realize an international forum. But what authority had the competence to adjudicate between them?

In 1901 Couturat and Leau had founded a Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, which aimed at resolving the problem by delegating a decision to the international Association of Scientific Academies.

Evidently Couturat and Leau were writing in an epoch when it still seemed realistic to believe that an international body such as this would be capable of coming to a fair and ecumenical conclusion and imposing it on every nation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 317-9.

Eco: Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica

Duerer, Albrecht (1471-1528)

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The Sun, the Moon and a Basilisk, circa 1512. The Sun, the Moon and the Basilisk (half eagle, half serpent, hatched from a cock’s egg by a serpent), represent Eternity. This drawing from a fragment is on the back of a manuscript translation of the Hieroglyphica by Horapollo translated by Willibald Pirkheimer, an associate of Dürer. Alexander Cory’s 1840 edition is posted on the Sacred Texts site, and the 1595 Mercier and Hoeschel edition in Latin and Greek is hosted on due to the kind courtesy of the Getty Research Institute and the Sloan Foundation. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“In 1419 Cristoforo de’ Buondelmonti acquired from the island of Andros a mysterious manuscript that was soon to excite the curiosity of philosophers such as Ficino: the manuscript was the Greek translation (by a certain Philippos) of the Horapòllonos Neiloùs ieroglyphikà.

The original author, Horapollo–or Horus Apollos, or Horapollus–was thus qualified as “Nilotic.” Although it was taken as genuinely archaic throughout the Renaissance, scholars now believe this text to be a late Hellenistic compilation, dating from as late as the fifth century AD.

As we shall see, although certain passages indicate that the author did possess exact information about Egyptian hieroglyphs, the text was written at a time when hieroglyphic writing had certainly fallen out of use. At best, the Hieroglyphica seems to be based on some texts written a few centuries before.

The original manuscript contained no images. Illustrations appeared only in later editions: for instance, though the first translation into Italian in 1547 is still without illustrations, the 1514 translation into Latin was illustrated by Dürer.

The text is divided into short chapters in which it is explained, for example, that the Egyptians represented age by depicting the sun and the moon, or the month by a palm branch.

There follows in each case a brief description of the symbolic meaning of each figure, and in many cases its polysemic value: for example, the vulture is said to signify mother, sight, the end of a thing, knowledge of the future, year, sky, mercy, Minerva, Juno, or two drachmas.

Sometimes the hieroglyphic sign is a number: pleasure, for example, is denoted by the number 16, because sexual activity begins at the age of sixteen. Since it takes two to have intercourse, however, this is denoted by two 16’s.

Humanist philosophical culture was immediately fascinated by this text: hieroglyphs were regarded as the work of the great Hermes Trismegistus himself, and therefore as a source of inexhaustible wisdom.

To understand the impact of Horopollo’s text on Europe, it is first necessary to understand what, in reality, these mysterious symbols were. Horopollo was describing a writing system, whose last example (as far as Egyptologists can trace) is on the Theodosius temple (AD 394).

Even if these inscriptions were still similar to those elaborated three thousand years before, the Egyptian language of the fifth century had changed radically. Thus, when Horopollo wrote his text, the key to understanding hieroglyphs had long been lost.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 145-6.

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