What are some suboptimal design decisions of Esperanto?

I really don’t like this kind of question. As many on Quora and outside Quora have said, optimal design is not how a language prevails; language typology is not about better and worse but different; and the defensive Esperanto assertion that Esperanto has an internal cohesion is quite true.


That said, if there is a point in debating Esperanto design (which I dispute), the most questionable features are:

  • The diacritics. It’s a solution that makes sense if you live in Poland, but it’s been a burden.
  • The accusative. I *love* the free word order of Greek, and I love that it shows up in Esperanto. But it’s an unnecessary burden for learners of caseless languages.
  • The neurotic avoidance of polysemy, which has led to some quite artificial differentiations of stems (sento/senso/senco from the beginning, but it got much worse).
  • Inventing aspect distinctions, and not having the linguistic sophistication to realise it and document it. Three decades of argument between the atistoj and the itistoj could have been avoided.

I’m not perturbed by definiteness or number-marking, or the deprecation of ci “thou” (which happened at the last minute before publication). I’m very happy Esperanto didn’t go the way of Occidental, and prioritised schematism over naturalness: if I want Italian, I know where to find it.

There’s been much moaning over the mal– words; Orwell lampooned them in Newspeak; Ido got rid of them; and the dirty secret of the “poetic” replacement words in Esperanto is that they are Ido words, introduced by former Idists. They don’t bother me either: once you learn them, you internalise them.

And Zamenhof dealt as well as anyone could with the deluge of reform proposals. Much of this had already been brought up in 1894.

What are some signs of Venetian and Genovese influence in the Greek islands (and Cyprus)?

Not aware of any Russian influence; 7 years was short, and I’m not aware that the Russian presence was substantial. The British did leave behind ginger beer and cricket.

Venetian and Genoese influence that I know of includes:

  • Substantial Italian, Venetian and Genoese lexicon in the dialects of the Greek islands. When my grandmother told us off for being noisy, she’d tell us not to make ντραβάγια [dravaʝa]. That word is just travaglia: travail.
  • On Crete, Venetian-era fortifications. The huge land walls around Iraklion had to withstand a twenty-year siege. In my home town of Sitia, the Venetian fortress (Kazarma: Cas’ Arma) is still the most prominent landmark. It helped that the town was depopulated for two centuries afterwards.
  • The  literature of the Renaissance was substantially based on Italian models. The only enduring legacy of that was Erotokritos, which was popularised as a chapbook, and is still sung on Crete (there are accounts of people who had memorised all 10,000 verses). It also became a distant ideal for Modern Greek literature, of what could have been if the pedants had not gotten their way.
  • In the Ionian islands: Western style folk music, including barbershop-style harmonies, and mandolins. Unsurprisingly, when I was a kid and Greek TV featured folk music from throughout Greece, Ionian Islander music was not included. Did not fit the stereotype.
  • Greek Catholicism, although that’s limited to only a couple of islands (Syros being the main instance).

To whom Constantinople and Byzantium legacy belong to, Greece, Turkey or Bulgaria?

To anyone who claims it.

I mean, seriously, what are you going to do? Sue the claimants you don’t like in the Hague?

It belongs to the Greeks, who continue to call the City Constantinople and the empire Byzantine, Andrew Baird nothwithstanding, whose literary and church culture is suffused with Byzantium, and whose language if not range of ethnicities came to coincide with Byzantium’s.

It belongs to the Turks, who see the remnants of Byzantium all around them in İstanbul, and whose Ottoman forebears assumed both the mantle and many of the institutions of the Empire of Rum.

It belongs to the Bulgarians, at least in part, because their Orthodoxy was, for the better part of a millennium, Tsarigrad’s—even if Krum did drink wine out of Nicephorus’ skull, and Basil made has name as the Bulgar-Slayer.

It definitely belongs to the Russians, who saw themselves as the Third Rome for centuries.

I’m reminded of one of the many pointless disputes on who claims whom as theirs in Greek history. The target of the dispute was the military feats of the Souliotes: Orthodox by creed, Albanian by language. Who got to claim them?

A Greek author could be expected to say “Obviously us”, but the Greek author in question (who was an Arvanite) had exactly the right answer, even if it was intended as a dodge.

Their legacy was for the whole world.

How come the concept of ‘homosexuality’ was not known in Ancient Greece (if it was in the Bible itself)?

Paul refers to ἀρσενοκοίτης, “sleeping with men”, which is an expression for the concept of homosexuality. Predating the modern term homosexuality. And indeed, which might well be rendered as “homosexuality”, even though it was not the word that Ancient Greeks used. There is a contrary opinion that it refers specifically to temple prostitution in Leviticus; but I find that unconvincing: I have no problem believing that Paul was anti-gay.

See the diversity of opinions in Homosexuality in the New Testament.

So the Greek of the Bible doesn’t use the Modern Latin-derived word homosexuality, just as it doesn’t use the Modern Latin-derived word crucifixion. But it certainly uses a reference to homosexual practices, in a negative sense. And so did Ancient Greeks; kinaideia, for example. (For the difference between negative and positive references to homosexuality, see e.g. Nick Nicholas’ answer to Why were there (apparently) more homosexual men in Ancient Greece than today?)

Do libraries have enough shelf space for all of their books at once?

Do libraries have enough shelf space for all of their books at once?

No. They have offsite stacks. Where books go so you’ll never find them again (unless they were really, really well catalogued; and even then, it’s not the same as browsing shelves).

University libraries have peaks and troughs of demand, and in the trough, there will be enough room for books on the shelf…

… and if there isn’t, that’s when more books are sent to the stacks.

Does Esperanto have dialects?

The most clearcut regional distinction between Esperanto speakers that I’m aware of is in the accentuation of compound numerals, such as dudekkvin “twenty-five”. In some countries they are accented as dúdek kvin; in some as dudékkvin. I read somewhere an early Esperantist saying, after a conference in Finland, “the Finns have taught us how to accent numbers”.

Other than that, the unwashed masses of beginners and eternaj komencantoj are no doubt speaking semi-Esperanto with heavy influence from their native languages; but the standard is consistent, and I’m surprised at the examples Philip Newton brings up (though they certainly make sense).

You could argue that the long-drawn-out and tedious debate about verb tense vs aspect was regionally based, with the atistoj mostly based in Germanic-speaking countries. As the argumentation of both parties was based on tedious casuistry over the Zamenhofian corpus, I quickly tuned out of the literature.

Why is the Ancient Greek verb ὀράω so horribly irregular?

The question comes from an exchange Joachim Pense  and I had about irregular verbs. My argument to him was that, if you know something about the history of Greek phonology, and factor in suppletion, the verbs do at least start to make some sense.

Warning: if you don’t already know Ancient Greek, don’t bother reading further.

Why is this verb so damn messy? In particular, as Joachim asked,

For example the reduplication + lengthening in the perfect active. The perfect medium – is the contraction involved regular? And the aspirated labial in the perfect passive? I forgot the details in Greek to know if that is standard. And to boot the future is in the medium.

1. Suppletion.

Lots of old Greek verbs are suppletive. Suppletion means that one tense comes from one root, and another tense comes from a completely different root. The parallel in English is go and went. A less obvious counterpart is be and was.

There is a lot of suppletion in Ancient Greek (and to some extent inherited into Modern Greek). But suppletion isn’t because someone along the line wanted to mess with their descendants’ brains. Suppletion happens because those different tenses, which look like they belong to completely different verbs, actually were completely different verbs. Went is the past tense originally of wend (as in “wend my way”).

The dirty secret of Greek is that what regularity they do have is a fiction. I know there are Greek learners exclaiming “what bloody regularity?!” But if you look at those tables of conjugations in the grammars, you are struck by how neat and patterned they all are.

Well, the neatness is not how it started. The neatness comes from analogy, with generations of Greek speakers trying to make their verbs follow patterns, so they could actually learn the damn things. The future passive, for example, if you look very closely, doesn’t have quite the right suffix. It wouldn’t: it’s a Classical era invention, by analogy with the aorist passive. It didn’t exist in Homeric Greek.

There’s a very boring book on my shelves by Henri van de Laar: Description of the Greek Individual Verbal Systems. It’s a list of every very old Greek verb, and its history. The tl;dr of it is the interesting bit: he’s pretty sure that the mess of ὀράω reflects the original state of the Greek verb system. Where aorists and presents were completely different verbs, which only coincidentally and messily converged into the one pattern.

In this case, we have a merger of no less than three verbs:

ϝοράω, which gives us the present ὁράω and imperfect ἐώρων, and the perfect active  ἑώρακα ~ ἑόρακα

ϝείδω, which gives us the aorist εἶδον

ὄπτομαι, which gives us the future ὄψομαι, the perfect passive ὤμμαι, and the aorist passive ὤφθην.

That’s not the end of course. Let’s keep going.

2. What’s going on with ϝοράω?

Well, for starters, we have an initial digamma. The digamma dropped off in Homeric times (though it stuck around in say Aeolic); but the digamma explains a lot of syllabic augments where you don’t expect them.

If ὁράω was a normal verb, it would get a temporal augment: ὤρων. But it doesn’t: it gets an added syllabic augment instead,  ἐ-, of the kind that you only get when the verb starts with a consonant.

And the digamma is your explanation. The verb *did* start with a consonant, the digamma. The imperfect of ϝοράω was ἐϝόρων, and the perfect active was ἑϝόρακα. The digamma dropped out everywhere, and so we’re left with ἐόρων and ἑόρακα. Simples, right?

Well, not right, because the imperfect is ἐώρων. Why?

Well, one bit of that is irregular magic, and one bit is regular Attic.

The irregular magic is that sometimes, randomly, some verbs don’t get augmented once, they get augmented twice. They take a η- augment instead of an ε- augment, as if the ε- augment was augmented again. That’s not impossible to understand: people assumed the ε- form wasn’t already augmented already for whatever reason, and they augmented it again. The best known ancient case is βο­ύλομαι > ἠβουλήθην, not ἐβουλήθην. In Modern Eastern Cretan dialect, in fact, η- is the default augment.

OK, that gets us from ἐόρων to ἠόρων. That doesn’t get us ἐώρων.

And this is where the regular Attic bit comes in. Think: do you ever see ηο together in Attic? No. But, if you know your Herodotus,  you do see lots of ηο in Ionic.

Where you see ηο in Ionic, you see εω in Attic, in lots of places where εω makes no sense. The accentuation of εω as a suffix makes no sense for example: τάξεως is accented as if its final syllable is short. But ω isn’t short. Attic has this bizarre -εως declension, where Doric has the far more sensible -αος ending (which is what the Koine went with). So Doric λᾱός, Attic λεώς.

And Ionic  ληός.

The change of Ionic ηο to Attic εω was regular. And it applied to starts of verbs too. So. ἐϝόρων > ἐόρων > ἠόρων > ἐώρων. And similarly, ἑϝόρακα > ἑόρακα > ἠόρακα > ἐώρακα.

3. What’s going on with ϝείδω?

It’s an old verb, which is why εἶδον is a second aorist, not a first aorist. It’s so old that its perfect tense has ended up as a completely different verb.

That verb is (ϝ)οἶδα, to know.

And what is the Germanic cognate of ϝοἶδα?

German wissen, and English wit.

4. What’s going on with ὄπτομαι?

Why, simplicity itself.

The present is unattested, and may never have been used, but you should recognise the stem from the related nouns and adjectives. As in ὀπτικός, optical. And as in ὄμμα, eye.

(Oh, you don’t see ὄμμα? We’ll get to that.)

-pt- is a lot of consonants for a Greek verb root to end in. Tense suffixes involve even more consonants. And not all those consonants are going to survive the merger.

[EDIT: In his comment, Gabriel Bertilson points out I’m overcomplicating things: the -t- itself is an insertion before the present stem (which isn’t attested anyway), and the root is just op-. So ignore the -t- in the following.]

So for example the Aorist Passive you would regularly get would be ὤπτθην, /ɔ́ːpttʰɛːn/. Not even Ancient Greeks could pronounce  /ɔ́ːpttʰɛːn/. But with the aspiration shared between the /p/ and the /t/, and dropping the ttʰ back to /tʰ/, they could pronounce /ɔ́ːpʰtʰɛːn/: ὤφθην. That’s completely regular.

[EDIT: make that ɔ́ːptʰɛːn > ɔ́ːpʰtʰɛːn]

Same goes for the Perfect Passive. ὤπτμαι /ɔ́ːptmai/ is smoothed out, again regularly, to /ɔ́ːmmai/: ὤμμαι: labial followed (eventually) by an /m/ gets smoothed out as /mm/. We’ve seen the same smoothing in ὄμμα. ὄμμα is just the verbal noun of ὄπτομαι, just as γράμμα is the verbal noun of γράφω.

[EDIT: make that ɔ́ːpmai > ɔ́ːmmai]

As for ὄψομαι, that’s just ὄπτσομαι /óptsomai/ made pronouncable: drop the /t/, and you’ve got /ópsomai/. You’ve got a middle, because it’s an old verb, and the future was first introduced as a middle voice notion. The future tense wasn’t originally something you were going to do; it was something you wanted to do. Which is consistent with middle voice. The proto-Greek future ending is –sy-, which is cognate with the desiderative suffix -σείω that survived into Aristophanes: χέζω “I shit”, χεσείω “I want to take a shit”.

The active future came later: it was more attempts by later Greek speakers to smooth out the jumble of forms they had inherited into something learnable.

How do modern Greek Orthodox feel about the Iconoclastic events?

Well, let me put it this way (answering the related question, “how do I feel about Iconoclasm”.)

The town of Agios Nikolaos, Crete is named after an old church of St Nicholas. The church is still around, now built into the grounds of a hotel: Byzantine Temple of Agios Nikolaos – Travel Guide for Island Crete, Greece

The church was built in iconoclastic times. The church is full of 14th century standard frescos, and 17th century graffitos; but the plaster has fallen off in places, and reveals the original iconoclastic wall designs.

Circles and flowers; and no representation of humans.

It felt eerie. It felt like I’d stumbled into a mosque…

What does ‘hydra-headed evils’ mean and from where does it originate?

The reference is to the Lernaean Hydra, a legendary monster in Greek Mythology that Hercules killed.  The Hydra was a snake-like monster with many heads; and if you cut off one head, two more would grow in its place.

As Nikos Tsiforos‘ humorous retelling of Greek Mythology put it, Hercules’ reaction when he observed this was:

Dammit, this monster’s just like the Tax Department during an audit.

And indeed, the Hydra is a good metaphor for a situation where many things are going bad (lots of heads), and where trying to make things better only makes things worse (chop one head off, get two more heads).