Pronunciation notes

Spelling and Pronunciation

Our first Esperanto lesson introduces 30 vocabulary items. (For an introduction to the online lessons, visit ea-mondo.org/l-0 – call or text 780-904-0363 or email admin@ea-mondo.org to arrange for a tutor or other help.) To learn the equivalent vocabulary in English you need about 45 vocabulary items. Because of the inconsistencies in English spelling and pronunciation, even if you added another 15 Esperanto vocabulary items, the Esperanto lesson would still be many times easier. Most students can learn to fully understand these first 30 Esperanto vocabulary items in 30 minutes. At that rate, twenty such lessons would require 10 hours. Allowing one hour per lesson means learning the 600 vocabulary items would require 20 hours. Studies have discovered that 95% of spoken Esperanto can be understood after mastering less than 500 vocabulary items.

In our first lesson, students learn how to pronounce all of the Esperanto vowels and most of the consonants. Esperanto spelling and pronunciation follows consistent rules. Once you have learned the sounds that each letter makes, and the rule for the syllabic stress, you can correctly pronounce Esperanto words from the first time you see them.

In Esperanto every syllable contains one and only one full vowel. Every multi-syllable Esperanto word is stressed on the syllable before the last – i.e. the syllable containing the second last vowel. Two syllable words are stressed on the first syllable, five syllable words are stressed on the fourth syllable etc. That’s the rule. There are no exceptions. You may need to practice a bit before it becomes second nature, but in seconds you have learned which syllable to stress in every multi-syllable Esperanto word. There is no similar rule in English. In order to correctly pronounce English, for every new multi-syllable word students learn, they also have to learn where it is stressed (“today” is stressed on the last syllable; “yesterday” is stressed on the first syllable; “tomorrow” is stressed on the middle syllable).

Most of the consonants sounds are the same as in English. But there are a few that need to be learned. The letters “ĉ” and “ŝ” are pronounced like the English “ch” and “sh“; “ĉu” is pronounced like the English word “chew”; “ŝi” has the same pronunciation and meaning as the English word “she”. Without the hat over the letter, the Esperanto “s” is pronounced the same way that it is usually pronounced in English (e.g. “s” at the beginning of “so”, or the “s” between “e” and “t” in “best“). Without the hat, the Esperanto letter “c” has the “ts” sound, like the “c” in the English word “prince”. The letter “ĝ” with the hat is the soft English “g” as in “German”. The word “ĝi” (meaning “it”) is pronounced like the name of the English letter “g”. Without the hat, the letter “g” is the hard English “g” as in “good”. With the hat, the letter “ĵ” is pronounced like the “s” in “pleasure”. For those who know French “ĵ” is pronounced like the “j” in the French word “je”. Without the hat, the letter “j” is a half vowel discussed below. The letter “r” is like the English “r” but slightly rolled (like the “r-r” in “ear-ring”).

There are five vowels and two half vowels in Esperanto. The five vowels are a, e, i, o, and u. The half vowels are “j” and “ŭ”. If you know Spanish, the sounds made by the full vowels are the same as in Spanish.

The Esperanto vowel “a” is pronounced like the “a” in “father”. In English, this sound is also spelled: “ah” (ah), “au” (audio), “augh” (taught), “aw” (saw), “awe” (awesome), “o” (not), and “ough” (bought). (8 English spellings)

In Esperanto the letter “i” makes the same sound as it does in the English word “piano”. In English, there are multiple other ways of spelling this sound: “a” (bologna), “ae” (paediatric), “e” (me), “ea” (eat), “ee” (see), “e-e” (delete), “ei” (either), “ey” (money) “ie” (piece), “oe” (phoenix), and “y” (city). (12 English spellings)

The Esperanto vowel “o” makes the same sound as the “o” in the English word “no”. Here are another twelve ways of spelling this sound in English: “au” (mauve), “eau” (bureau), “eo” (yeoman), “ew” (sew), “oa” (boat), “oe” (toe), “o-e” (note), “oh” (oh), “ou” (shoulder), “ow” (snow), “owe” (owe), and “ough” (dough). (13 English spellings)

The three English words “to”, “too”, and “two”, are all pronounced the same way. The sound after the “t” is the sound of the Esperanto vowel “u”. In addition to those three ways, in English the sound is also spelled “ew” (new), “ough” (through), “u” (duty), “ue” (due)’, “u-e” (rude), and “ui” (suit). (9 English spellings)

The sound represented by the Esperanto (and Spanish) vowel “e”, is rarely seen outside of diphthongs in English. In diphthongs, the beginning of the sound is different from the ending. Say the English word “bait” slowly – dragging out the vowel sound “ai“, you should notice that it is a diphthong. The beginning “a” sound of the “ai” in “bait” is the sound of the Esperanto “e“. To pronounce it correctly, begin pronouncing the “ai” vowel sound of “bait” but instead of gliding, don’t let the sound change. The “a” in “bait” and the “e” in “bet” are quite similar. Pronounce the “be” at the beginning of “bet” and glide into the word “eat” and you’ll be saying something pretty close to “bait”. Because in English the sound is rare outside of diphthongs, native speakers of English tend to pronounce the Esperanto “e” with the English short “e” sound as in the word “bet”. In the middle of words the difference is hard to notice, but when Esperanto words end in “e”, make an effort pronounce the Esperanto “e”.

It is worth noting that the vowel sounds of Esperanto are significantly different from each other. Consider the pronunciations of the English words “bat”, “bet”, and “bit”. Notice how similar the sounds are. If “bat” and “bit” were Esperanto words they would be pronounced like the English words “bought” and “beet”. If “bet” were an Esperanto word, whether you pronounced it like the English word “bet” or pronounced with the Spanish “e” sound, there is really nothing you could confuse it with. Note also how much more distinct the Esperanto “o” and “u” sounds are compared to their most common English pronunciations: “boat” and “boot” versus “bought” and “but”.

The half vowel “j” makes a sound like half of the Esperanto vowel “i”. Note that they are the only two letters with a dot above. The “i” in the English word “bait” is a similar half vowel. The half vowel “ŭ” is pronounced like half of the Esperanto vowel “u”. The English letter “w” is often pronounced this way. Smoothly and quickly glide the sounds together and cut short the sounds of the half vowels and you correctly pronounce the Esperanto diphthongs. The Esperanto “J” makes the same sound as “ee” in the English word “beet”, “ŭ” the same sound as “oo” in “boot”; but both are pronounced for only half the length of time. The half vowel “j” forms diphthongs with “a”, “e”, “o”, and “u”; the half vowel “ŭ” forms diphthongs with “a” and “e”.

The diphthong “aj” (ah-ee) sounds like the English long “i” sound. As usual there are multiple English spelling for this sound: “ai” (aisle), “aye” (aye), “ei” (eider), “eigh” (height), “eye” (eye), “i” (hi), “ie” (tie), “i-e” (lite), “ig” (sign), “igh” (light), and “y” (my). (11 English spellings)

The Esperanto diphthong “ej” is pronounced the same as the “ai” in “bait“, or “a” (acorn), “ae” (Rae), “a-e” (date), “ay” (hay), “ei” (vein), “eig” (reign), “eigh” (weigh), “ey” (they). (9 English spellings)

The diphthong “oj” (oh-ee) sounds like the “oi” in “coin”, also the “oy” in “boy“.

The diphthong “uj” (oo-ee) sounds like “ui” in “suite”, or “wee” sound in “sweet” with the “ee” sound cut short.

The diphthong “aŭ” (ah-oo) sounds like “ow” in “how”, also spelled “ou” (ouch), and ough (plough).

If English has a sound similar to the Esperanto diphthong “eŭ” (eh-oo), it would be in an obscure little known word, but by following the Esperanto pronunciation principles, you will pronounce the sound well enough to be understood. Even poorly pronounced, there is really no other sound in Esperanto that it could be confused with.

The two half vowels also appear at the beginning of some words. The half vowel “j” at the beginning of a word is still half of the English “ee”. This sound is usually spelled with a “y” in English. The Esperanto word “jes” is pronounced similar to, and means the same as, the English word “yes”. The half vowel “ŭ” rarely starts words, but when it does it is pronounced like half of the English “oo”. In English this sound is usually spelled with a “w” (watt).

Compared to Esperanto, English has many more vowel sounds to learn (consider bat, bait, bet, beet, bit, bite, bought, boat, but, boot, bough, boy, book). Many of these sounds are so similar that students of English have trouble distinguishing between them. English is further complicated by the multiple ways of spelling these sounds, and multiple pronunciations of the same spellings. Consider the letter combination “ough”. It has seven different pronunciations: “aw” (thought), “awf” (trough), “ew” (through), “o” (though), “ow” (bough), “uf” (tough), and “up” (hiccough). A student of English has no chance of figuring out the pronunciation of any of these words based on the spelling, nor the spelling of the words based on the pronunciation. The meaning, spelling and pronunciation all have to be learned separately.

In ten minutes you can easily master the pronunciation of the five Esperanto vowels and the two half vowels. After investing those ten minutes, you can pronounce any Esperanto vowel sound well enough to be understood. Instead of ten minutes, mastering the spelling and pronunciation of English vowels takes years.