A tell-tale sign of a constructed language?

Martin Haspelmath’s book Indefinite Pronouns (1997) is a detailed examination of the structure and use of indefinite pronouns in many languages. The book looks at 40 languages in detail and gives an overview for 100 more languages.

Among many other interesting things in this book, one detail caught my eye. The book identifies a structural pattern that exists in Esperanto, but in very few natural languages, if any. Haspelmath suggests that this pattern betrays the fact that Esperanto is an Artificial language.

Esperanto is not a natural language. It is an artificial language, created by Ludwig Lejzer Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist born in 1859 in Belostok (now Białystok, then in Russia, now in Poland). It appears his first languages were Yiddish and Russian.  

In this post, I summarise two patterns that Haspelmath identifies in many languages:

  • building indefinite and negative pronouns from generic words
  • building indefinite pronouns on an interrogative

I then look at the pattern that exists in Esperanto. Haspelmath states that this pattern does not occur in natural languages.

Building indefinite and negative pronouns from generic words

Haspelmath points out that, in many languages, indefinite pronouns and negative pronouns occur in various series all containing one member for various ‘major ontological categories’ (such as person, thing, time, place). In many of those language, those pronouns consist of:

  • a generic word identifying the ontological category; plus
  • a marker of indefiniteness (or of negation) using a generic word (eg a generic noun) to identify which series the pronoun belongs to.

Indefinite and negative pronouns in English

As Table 1 shows, English is one of those languages. In English:

  • the 1st component is the marker of indefiniteness (or of negation). Those markers are identical to a related determiner: some– or any (marking 2 series of indefinites) or no– (for negatives). In this post, I don’t discuss the differences between the 2 series of indefinites (the some- series and the any- series).
  • the 2nd component is a generic word—in most cases, a generic noun—clearly a label for the ontological category, such as body (for ‘person’), thing, place or time.
Ontological categoryIndefinite
Indefinite (any-)Negative
Mannersomehowanyhowno way
Related determinersomeanyno
Table 1. Some English pronouns

Note on table 1: the only items not formed by just adding the determiner are never and no way (rather than non-existent *notime and *nohow).

Building indefinite pronouns on an interrogative

Many other languages form these pronouns in a different way. They add a prefix or suffix to an interrogative pronoun (a pronoun that asks a question).

One such language is Hungarian. This language uses the prefix vala- to form indefinite pronouns and the prefix sen- to form negative pronouns, as Table 2 shows.

Ontological categoryInterrogative
Vala series (‘some-‘)Negative
Table 2. Some Hungarian pronouns

Notes on table 2

  • Unlike English, Hungarian has pronouns referring to the category of property: milyen (‘which kind of?’); vala-milyen (‘some kind of’); sem-milyen (‘no kind of’). 
  • The final -n- appears as -m- immediately before another -m (an example of phonetic assimilation). It drops completely immediately before -h.


As shown in Table 3, Esperanto forms indefinite and negative pronouns in the same way as the interrogative pronouns. This is similar to the strategy in Hungarian, but with one important difference:

  • Hungarian forms both the indefinite and the negative pronouns by adding a prefix to the interrogative forms. The prefix is vala- for the indefinite pronouns and sen- for the negative pronouns.
  • In contrast, Esperanto forms the interrogative and the negative pronouns by adding a prefix to the indefinite forms. The prefix is k- for the interrogative pronouns and nen- for the negative pronouns.
Ontological categoryInterrogative
Indefinite (‘some-‘)Negative
Table 3. Some Esperanto pronouns

Haspelmath comments that many of those languages (like Hungarian) build indefinite pronouns from interrogative pronouns by adding a prefix or suffix; but very few languages—possibly none—go in the other direction by building interrogative pronouns from indefinite pronouns.

As a result, Haspelmath suggests: ‘With respect to its indefinite pronoun system, Esperanto is thus probably not a possible human language.’


Haspelmath highlights 2 common ways in which languages form indefinite pronouns and negative pronouns:

  • many languages (such as English) add an indefinite (or negative) marker to a generic word.
  • many other languages (such as Hungarian) add a prefix or suffix to a base consisting of an interrogative pronoun.

Esperanto uses that 2nd strategy, but with a twist: the base is an indefinite pronoun (not the interrogative pronoun). Haspelmath contends that this twist is not found in natural languages, and could only arise in artificially constructed languages.  

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *