It would seem advantageous for any language to have minimal numbers of syllables in its words, especially for its most common words, where there would be no loss (and instead, probable gain) in communicative ease and clarity.

For example, why would it make sense for "they" (= "ili") in Esperanto to have two syllables rather than just one? Same for "one" (= "unu"), and there could be many more examples.

I'm by no means a linguist or highly knowledgeable in Esperanto, so if anyone could help clear this up (or explain why my premise is faulty), that would be helpful!

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    Why would it seem advantageous to remove evolved security features, like the 90+ percent redundancy that characterizes all natural languages? See the discussion on the fictional "Speedtalk" from Robert Heinlein's story Gulf. – jlawler Jul 2 '13 at 20:15
  • As the number of syllables becomes lower, the complexity of syllables tends to rise. Look at languages like Chinese or Vietnamese where most words are two syllables and single-syllables are plentiful. There is also the aspect of retaining recognizability of Latinate words - shorten them too much and Esperanto would not be as easy to acquire for speakers of English, French, Italian, etc. – hippietrail Jul 4 '13 at 11:53
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    @hippietrail, as stated, I would say that Mandarin is a nice counterexample, at least compared to English. Mandarin has about 1200 possible syllables, whereas English has more than 8000. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_language#Grammar_and_morphology – dainichi Jul 5 '13 at 1:54
  • Having studied Esperanto on Duolingo, one of my problems in the listening challenges was that rapidly pronounced, ni, mi and vi aren't terribly easy to distinguish. – prosfilaes Nov 8 '16 at 2:50

There are a number of different goals that the constructors of conlangs might have, such as ease of learning, regularity of grammar, minimal inventory of phonemes, or philosophical hierarchy of knowledge. Conciseness could be such a goal, but I do not remember encountering an actual conlang where it was (John Lawler mentions a fictional example, in Heinlein's Speedtalk, and Vaclav Havel's play The Memorandum turns on a conlang called Ptydepe, in which the most common words are the shortest, and the least common the longest).

As John Lawler says in his comment, redundancy is actually very common in real-world languages, and for a good reason: because speech is often used in noisy environments (in the communication-theory sense of "noisy" as well as the everyday sense). Extreme brevity would be likely to lose much of that redundancy, and it is not clear exactly what would be gained to offset that.

So the simple answer is "Because that was not one of Zamenhof's goals". He was much more concerned with regularity, and with ease of learning.

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One good attempt at a language like this is Dutton Speedwords, which was elaborated under a principle known as Zipf's law, namely, that most common words are the shortest. One language that preceded Esperanto was Volapük, which made words unrecognizable and difficult to connect to words in other languages. In the free marketplace of ideas, Esperanto rose to the top of the IAL heap even without adhering to Zipf's law, so those who have learned it have not found that lack of conciseness to be disadvantageous. If conciseness were a necessity for the advancement of a language, then you would see greater popularity of Solresol, whose alphabetic components are the seven basic tones of the music scale, or Toki Pona, the product of a teenager dabbling in Eastern religions.

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The length of the words is not a decisive criteria, when foreigners are trying to express ideas accurately in a language they learned from internet. However, in most cases Esperanto is shorter than English, even if Zipf was (luckily) not involved in assembling it (see http://www.remush.be/rebuttal/index.html#203).


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Your suggestion is not how Esperanto was authored, but how several a priori constructed languages have been authored. These languages tend to have little traction as several of their goals (i.e. brevity) supersede other elements that make languages usable.

A posteriori languages, on the other hand, such as Esperanto, borrow elements from existing languages, hence making them more organic, and more likely to be adapted.

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(Note: this answer relies on a 2019 study, so it's definitely not Zamenhof's original rationale. However, it might be relevant to other constructed-language enthusiasts.)

A study by Coupé, Oh, Dediu, and Pellegrino recently found that natural languages tend to convey the same amount of information per second, across the world. Languages like Japanese (with fewer possible syllables) convey less information per syllable, but more syllables per second, while languages like English (with many more possible syllables) convey more information per syllable, but fewer syllables per second.

The authors speculate that this is could be tied to an innate human limit—speakers adjust their rate of speech to convey information as quickly as their listeners can process it, but no faster. If correct, this would imply that the information density per syllable in a constructed language doesn't significantly affect the rate of information transfer.

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  • Answering this old question because an edit bumped it to the front page again, but I continue to be surprised how many different questions here this one study can be relevant to. – Draconis Aug 8 at 20:14

As an aposteriori language Esperanto takes its words from existing languages. It does however have the notion of word stem plus -o for noun, -a for adjective, -as for verb present tense, and so on. And it reduces some pseudo-suffixes in word stems somewhat.

  • nacio = nation (reduced "~tion" to "~ci")
  • nacia = national (reduced "~al" to "-a")
  • naciigi = nationalize (-ig meaning "make")

  • kombini = combine

  • kombinas = combinates
  • kombino, kombinaĵo = combination (-aĵ = product, aĵo = thing)

As you see there is some reduction of pseudo-suffixes, in favour of systematic endings.

The numerals are - apart from 1 - all monosyllabic. Why 1 is the exception, one may guess. Esperanto has no indefinite article (English "a"), so maybe a security measure. The digits are also reduced in an almost Volapük like manner:

unu du tri kvar kvin ses sep ok naŭ dek

The advantage is easy counting. Where a foreign speaker often tends to fall back on his native language where counting, Esperanto helps a bit.

However to come back to your question: Esperanto does not reduce much, and it would have not be so much better. Volapük ("Worldspeak") shows that.

Doing away with categorical suffixes (~ation, ~al, ~ess, ~ine) did not come without a (shorter) substitution, though systematized. This does not make Esperanto texts much more compact though.

Though Esperanto gives a better active language possession, especially for non-europeans, providing an automatic assurrance of correctness, there exist other perspectives.

Interlingua goes entirely the natural way, to have readable text close to the natural languages - with several pseudo-suffixes to make an adjective from a noun, and so on. So Interlingua is a language not reducing its syllables. Nevertheless people love the language, and do not care to switch to Esperanto.

Given the three in order of reduction-to-natural, failed Volapük (very reductive), successful Esperanto, and "linguistic" Interlingua, I think the majority of linguistics tend more in the direction of Interlingua than Esperanto (a shame). So reduction is no compelling advantage.

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    What is a pseudo suffix? – hippietrail Jul 20 '13 at 2:58

Actually, this is exactly how Esperanto was originally planned. Instead of taking words from other languages, all the vocabulary was one- or two-syllable words (ex. ab, ba, ca, ac, all being different root words). Then the creator of Esperanto realized that he couldn't even remember what the vocabulary meant himself, and so he thought that if he couldn't remember then no one else would be able to either. Eventually he realized it would simply be easier to remember if the roots were form languages he already knew, even if they were long. (After he had already decided he was going to take words from French/Latin and German, that's when he realized he should take only the most international words, it's not that he had this whole idea from the beginning.)

I can't speak for any other constructed language, but it might be that the creators found out the same as he did.

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    Do you have the slightest evidence from literature to your claims? – jk - Reinstate Monica Nov 7 '16 at 14:04

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