Usage Determines Meaning, Even in Esperanto

by Dec 27, 2012Linguistics1 comment

I just read a fascinating book recommended to me by Alan Jacobs, an English prof at Wheaton who recently completed the task of reading literally every book there is. This particular book was Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect LanguageThe story of these many languages and the various impulses which led to their creation is fascinating, and it yields many insights into language itself.

And this I could not resist. Here’s the best insight—or at least the one that best helps me beat my dead but beloved horse. Below is the insight that helps me make yet again that old point that usage determines meaning.

Okrent comments, after a great deal of investigation into multiple humanly-invented languages from the last 400 years, that

the primary motivation for inventing a new language has been to improve upon natural language, to eliminate its design flaws…. Looked at from an engineering perspective, language is kind of a disaster. We have words that mean more than one thing, meanings that have more than one word for them…. We have irregular verbs, idioms, and exceptions to every grammatical rule—all of which make languages unnecessarily hard to learn.

The “one invented language you have ever heard of,” she later comments, is Esperanto. And it was indeed designed, at least in part, to eliminate these irregularities. Any English speaker who has studied a Romance language can read basic Esperanto almost immediately, because the endings are simple and consistent. Nouns end in -o, adjectives in -a, adverbs in -e. Verb conjugation is simple, too. No declensions like Greek. No confusing noun classes like Swahili.

This simplicity has enabled many people around the world to learn Esperanto. They actually use it in fluent conversation at Esperanto confabs.

Through this book I learned, however, that Esperanto is much older than I realized (it was born in 1877), that it was created (and it achieved popularity) because it was fueled by a bit of Babel-like utopianism, and that there are actually native speakers of this humanly invented language. There are people whose (admittedly weird) parents grew up speaking Esperanto in the home.

Because of this fluency, because of the fairly large number of speakers, and because of the 125 years Esperanto has had to evolve, even this humanly constructed language has changed due to habits of common usage!

I simply have to quote Okrent:

Languages like Esperanto have an advantage [when it comes to grammatical irregularities] in that they are built from preexisting conventions—the general language habits of speakers of European languages. Esperanto itself does particularly well because it developed its own culture and community, and therefore has better-defined conventions for what words mean and how they should be used. But at the same time, it has sacrificed some of the perfect regularity that it was intended to have. For example, the accusative -n ending used to mark the object of a verb is in the process of being lost. Speakers often leave it out—and joke about what a pain it is to remember to use it—and one study found that even native speakers don’t use it all that consistently, even when the language of their home country has an accusative marker. But they always use it when they say saluton, “hello,” or dankon, “thanks.” Those words were originally formed as the objects of verbs (as in “I wish you greetings” or “I give you thanks”); now they are just set phrases that happen to have an -n ending. But they are used so often, and their forms are so established by habit, or convention, that they are immune from the erosion of the grammatical marker they express.

Nobody means for words to become irregular. Some things are well reinforced by the habits of the language users, and other things give way to change. One day someone comes along and asks, “Hey, why doesn’t this one fit the pattern?” and the answer has to be, “Well, ’cause that’s the way we say it.” One day, newcomers to Esperanto may ask the same thing about saluton and dankon. They will also probably want to know why people say stas for “is” (a shortened pronunciation that many young Esperanto speakers use today) instead of estas, or ĝis for “goodbye” (the colloquial rendering of ĝis la revido, “until we see each other again”). They already have to just learn the idiomatic meanings of certain expressions like ne jukas min (it doesn’t itch me—“I don’t care”) and jam temp’ esta’ (a reference to a line of an old … poem [written by the founder of Esperanto] that modern speakers use—instead of the proper jam la tempo estas—to mean “the time has come”), and many other phrases you can’t figure out with a dictionary or list of affixes alone. Esperanto is still pretty regular, and still pretty easy to learn, but it’s governed by the way people use it—not by some perfect mathematical system or universal standard of meaning. Our languages have inconsistencies and irregularities because they are run by us, and not by some perfect rule book or grand philosophy. I don’t know about you, but the story of invented languages only convinces me that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Languages, even when they are used by people nerdy enough to have learned them from rule books, naturally change. They worm their ways into awkward corners. They drop off unnecessary or difficult-to-remember affixes. And yet the world does not end. People understand each other perfectly. Language change is okay. Common usage determines meaning.

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1 Comment
  1. mlward

    A great NY Times video captures some of the spirit and humor of language invention.