Esperanto, the most successful constructed language in world history, was conceived and developed in Poland. But is there any Polish in Esperanto?
The idea of Esperanto was first conceived by Ludwik Zamenhof, then a gymnasium student, around 1879 in Białystok, which at the time was a provincial town in the western part of the Russian Empire (today Poland). As the legend goes, propagated by Zamenhof himself, it was the multi-cultural, but not necessarily peaceful, atmosphere of the town that became the inspiration for the concept of a universal language, which in Zamenhof’s mind would contribute to ending all conflict between nations and ethnic groups.
When the first Esperanto handbook finally came out in 1887 in Warsaw, Zamenhof’s idea was to create a language as easy to learn as possible. Structured by a set of 16 simple rules (with no grammatical exceptions), and built around a lexicon of word roots coming from, primarily, Romance languages, Esperanto consisted of very few elements that could be considered Slavic, at least at first sight. And yet the influence of Slavic languages, and Polish in particular, on the deeper structure of Esperanto may be more pervasive than one would expect.
Esperanto Vocabulary – 1% Slavic
As most interested in Esperanto surely know, the lexicon of the language relies heavily on word roots from Romance languages. In fact, the huge majority of Esperanto words (around 75%) come from Romance languages, particularly French. This made sense as at the time (i.e., the late 19th century) French was the most widespread, international tongue – a kind of lingua franca, so to speak, a language that most educated people, at least in the Western-centric world, were expected to know. Other important contributions to the Esperanto lexicon came from Greek (13%) and Germanic languages, mostly English and German, which combined make up 10% of it. Hence the relative comprehensibility of easy Esperanto texts for anyone familiar with some of these languages (and basic Esperanto rules). Take for example:
"Sed ne sufiĉas nur ekzisti," li diris, "mi bezonas liberecon, sunlumon, kaj floreton kiel kunulinon." (Hans Christian Anderesen, La Papilio)
However, Esperanto relies also heavily on words which were not taken from any other language, but were invented by Zamenhof, this small segment of the lexicon, called aprioric elements, makes up only 1% of Esperanto vocabulary, but in terms of frequency, it constitutes half of the words used in Esperanto text.
And then there’s the 1% of words which according to scholars have their etymology rooted in the Slavic languages. While relatively few, it makes it all the easier to pinpoint and trace them.
Polish? Russian? Slavic…
The Slavic Esperanto lexicon is generally considered to derive from two Slavic languages, both of which Zamenhof knew very well – Russian and Polish. While Russian, as he later recalled, was his favourite during his early days, as well as the language of the larger part of his linguistic output, Polish was the language spoken in Warsaw, where Zamenhof would eventually spend most of his life. And it’s actually these two languages that make up the 1% of Slavic in Esperanto vocabulary. The problem is that sometimes identifying the original language is very hard if not simply impossible.
While Esperanto words like barakti (to flounder, from барахтаться barahtat'sja), gladi (to iron, from гладить gladit'), krom (except, from кроме krome), or vosto (a tail, from хвост) are easy to identify as of Russian origin (they simply don't appear in Polish), and others like kolbaso can be considered as coming from Russian based on their phonetic build-up (Rus. kolbasa, compare Pol. kiełbasa), there are also some that can be really problematic. This goes for words like celo (aim), bulko (bun), klopodo (effort), kaĉo (porridge, from kasza / каша kaša), prava (right [in opinion], from prawy / правый pravyj), or svati (to matchmake, from swat / сват svat). Due to their almost identical forms in both languages, it seems hardly possible to tell from which language Zamenhof took the original root.
And yet the group of Esperanto words which are usually identified as Polish loan words is significant. It includes such words as:
- barĉo - borscht (from barszcz),
- ĉu - whether (from czy),
- krado - a grating (from krata),
- luti - to solder (from lutować)
- pilko - a ball (Polish piłka)
- ŝelko - suspenders (from szelki)
- [via] moŝto - [your] highness (from Polish mość),
While this is a rather diverse bunch, comprising elements of clothing, sport items, local food, and a grammatical particle, some of these words can be more interesting than others, and actually instructive in telling us something about how Zamenhof saw the component languages of Esperanto, in this case Polish.
Via Moŝto, or speaking to his majesty via Polish
One of these words is moŝto. It certainly isn't a word of particular prominence or frequency in contemporary Esperanto. In fact, it's a word you're not likely to use at all, unless you’re addressing high authority, or... a king. The latter was Zamenhof’s case – he used the word (precisely: Lia reĝa moŝto) when addressing the king of Spain Alfonso XIII speaking at the Esperanto Congress in Barcelona in 1909. Yet it is this word that also happens to offer interesting insights into the role of Polish in the Esperanto system.
The word goes back to the Polish word mość, one of many honorific lexemes used (historically) in Polish. In early modern Poland, the phrase was required as an obligatory form of address between and to members of the Polish nobility (szlachta). Used and abused, this linguistic habit was part of the more widespread social and cultural phenomenon known as szlachtomania (nobility-mania), a real scourge of early-modern Polish society.
Zamenhof speaking in Esperanto at the Esperanto congress in Barcelona, 1909.
While Zamenhof on the one hand made sure that addressing people in Esperanto would be as democratic as possible (Esperantists address each other by a simple vi (you), much like in contemporary English, and unlike in Polish), he also reserved a mode of speaking when addressing the highest royal authority. In finding the right word he somewhat naturally turned to Polish. A choice well justified, as Polish is perhaps the only Slavic language (along with Czech) to have developed an elaborate honorific system that distinguishes between who you’re talking to, based on your age and social status (historically, class of society).
That Polish is at the core of Esperanto honorific usage is best exemplified in the phrase via reĝa moŝto, which translates as Your Majesty, and can be seen as quite a direct calque from the Polish: wasza królewska mość...
Is Ĉu Polish?
But perhaps the most interesting and telling case of a Polish Slavic influence on Esperanto is the particle ĉu (whether, if). This little but important word goes most likely back to the Polish czy, otherwise it comes up only in Belarusian (ці/tsi) and is not used in other Slavic languages. Interestingly the same particle (צי, tsi) surfaces also in Yiddish, a language Zamenhof was surely familiar with.
Much the same as in Polish, ĉu in Esperanto is used primarily to introduce a question. Like in this example:
Ĉu li aŭ ŝi amas min? [Does he or she love me?]
Whereas in French or English, asking a question involves inverting the word order and/or inserting an auxiliary particle, which as many struggling language learners surely know, can be quite complicated, Esperanto simply puts ĉu in front of the phrase or subordinate clause, the sentence basically stays the same. This is exactly how 'czy' operates in Polish and Yiddish.
But ĉu is also interesting because it opens us on the issues of syntax – as most structuralists would tell you, language is not really about vocabulary. This helps to pinpoint the more thorough impact of Slavic, and Polish in particular, on the fundamental grammatical structures in Esperanto. Like say, the accusative...
Is Esperanto's accusative Slavic?
Esperanto is somewhat notorious for its rather free word order. This goes for noun + adjective order (adjective noun) but also, and more importantly, the structural order of subject, object and verb in a sentence. The latter in Esperanto is very flexible, even if the word order which is usually recommended is SVO. This flexibility, which allows for great liberty in constructing Esperanto sentence, is actually facilitated through the presence of the accusative. Compare these examples:
The boy bit the dog
La knabo mordis la hundon
La knabo la hundon mordis
La hundon la knabo mordis
La hundon mordis la knabo
Mordis la hundon la knabo
Mordis la knabo la hundon
The presence of the accusative case (marked by the -n ending) was a bone of contention in early discussions among Esperantists (and partially led to a schism in the early Esperanto movement, see Ido). But Zamenhof always remained a strong advocate of the accusative. As Professor Żelazny explains, he thought it was a key tool in allowing bigger flexibility for Esperanto sentences, which was particularly important in poetry, which Zamenhof admired so much. The accusative affix allowed for greater flexibility in the Esperanto word order and thus multiplied the rhyming potential of it, which otherwise would be very limited.
As a result, Esperanto’s word order is very fluid (although naturally some positions are preferred by users) just like it is in Slavic languages. And while it’s obviously impossible to trace back the invention to Polish or Russian (German also has the accusative,) the Esperanto sentence shares a general similarity with the rather free syntax of Slavic sentence.
This is showcased in the early translation of The Pharaoh by Bolesław Prus. As Walter Żelazny notes, it was La Faraono, translated by Kazimierz Bein, that became a kind of model for much of the literature later written in Esperanto.
Slavic at the back of Zamenhof’s mind: Semantic calques
A more subtle influence of Slavic languages on the structure of Esperanto, and more precisely its morphology, can be traced in the semantic build-up of Esperanto word formations, like senanima, senforta, or senfunda. While all these words are built from Esperanto (sen-) and Romance elements, they are actually semantic calques from Slavic languages, but again telling whether it’s Polish or Russian may be next to impossible.
- senanima – heartless, callous [calque of Rus. бeздyшный or Pol. bezduszny]
- senfunda– bottomless [calque of Rus. бeздoнный, Pol. bezdenny]
- senforta – powerless [calque of Rus. бессильный / Pol. bezsilny]
A similar ‘subliminal’ influence of Slavic semantics can be seen in the meaning and functioning of some words. One oft-cited example is the Esperanto word plena ‘full, complete’, which looks Latinate in form (French plein(e), Latin plen- ‘full’), but has the semantic range of Russian полный polnyi ‘full, complete’, as can be seen in the phrase plena vortaro ‘a complete dictionary’, a usage not possible with the French or Latin words. And one could add that it’s also how the word pełny is also used in Polish.
Slavic at the back of Zamenhof’s mind: Aspect and Tense
In fact, many other peculiarities of Esperanto grammar can be explained through such subconscious Slavic influence. Even in such ungraspable areas as the Esperanto time-sense, which differs from that of English.
One good example is the Esperanto use of present vis-a-vis the English usage of present perfect. As Donald J. Harlow explains, ‘in a few cases when in English something might be expressed as having happened in the past, in Esperanto it would be shown in the present, assuming that it is still going on and still of interest.’
Mi loĝas ĉi-tie jam kvin jarojn (= I have been living here for five years already)
This follows closely the Polish/Slavic usage of present tense for such sentences: Mieszkam tu już of pięciu lat.
In addition, the progression of tenses, which in Esperanto differs significantly from that of the Western tongues, can be seen as being influenced by Polish/Russian usage. Whereas in English, the tense of the verb in the subordinate clause depends on the tense of the verb in the main body of the sentence, as in:
I know that he will come…
I knew that he was going to come...
In Esperanto, as Harlow explains, for subordinate clauses beginning with ke (‘that’) and ĉu (‘whether’) the tense of the verb in the subordinate clause is independent of the main clause:
Mi scias, ke li venos...
Mi sciis, ke li venos...
This too is much in keeping with the way subordinate clauses operate in Polish (Wiem, że on przyjdzie / Wiedziałem, że on przyjdzie - the verb in relative clause stays the same). And it contrasts sharply with the common experience of Poles learning English, for whom progression of tenses is a hard nut to crack.
According to Professor Żelazny, Slavic impact on the Esperanto verb system is further implied in prefixes added onto verbs which sometimes modify the verb aspect, a phenomenon known from the Slavic verb system. Like in kanti vs. ekkanti, where the latter has a perfective aspect.
Another area of a possible Slavic influence is phonology. As Walter Żelazny explains: "The Esperanto phonological system is almost entirely Polish." That’s why, as Żelazny claims, the majority of Poles, as the majority of Slavs, should not have to learn any vowels. In fact, all the sounds which you can find in Esperanto are also in Polish, including diacriticical signs: ĉ (Polish cz), ĝ (dż), Ĵ (ż), Ŝ (sz), ŭ (ł).
A bit surprisingly, Polish influence is also traceable in the Esperanto alphabet and orthography. The Esperanto alphabet consists of 28 letters, with each letter standing for one sound. Apart from diacritical letters, its peculiarities include the letters C and J. Pronounced as ‘ts’ and ‘y’, respectively, they may at first seem a bit counter-intuitive for many Esperanto learners, but they are best explained on the grounds of the Polish alphabet. It is a common experience of many Polish learners that these letters to the English eye are false friends. (As to further Slavic influence in the Esperanto alphabet, compare the letter ŭ in Esperanto and Belarusian).
But perhaps the best and most convincing example of the overall influence of Polish – and not Slavic languages – on the shape of Esperanto is its accent. The accent rule was included already in the first edition of Unua Libro, the first Esperanto handbook, published by Zamenhof in Warsaw in 1887. Among the 16 cardinal principles of Esperanto the one No. 10 reads:
The accent falls on the last syllable but one (penultimate).
The penultimate accent just happens to be one of the characteristic features of Polish, differentiating it sharply from other local Slavic languages, like Russian (which has unpredictable stress) or Czech (initial accent) as well as from French, which accents the last syllable pronounced. That's why some practitioners of Esperanto claim that Polish pronunciation of Esperanto is the most natural and closest to the Esperanto standard. But this is of course rather a matter of individual taste.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, September 2016
Bibliography (in Polish):
- Walter Żelazny, Ludwik Zamenhof. Życie i dzieło. Recepcja i reminiscencje. Wybór pism i listów, Kraków 2012 (available also in Esperanto)
- Agnieszka Jagodzińska (ed.), Ludwik Zamenhof wobec „kwestii żydowskiej". Wybór źródeł, Austeria 2012