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Each letter of the Esperanto alphabet has a fixed pronunciation, very little influenced by adjacent letters. Here are some approximate English equivalents.
|c||ts||haTS; TSeTSe fly|
|ĝ||j||Jump, Judge, George, Giant|
|ĥ||kh, ch||bleCH! (very hard h of Scottish Loch Lomond, Hebrew Lachish, German Bach)|
|ĵ||(s)||meaSure, pleaSure, treaSure, beauJolais|
|o||o||cOke, lOne, prOletariat2|
|p||p||sPeak (See note about K.)|
|r||r||a flap or trill R, as in Italian or Spanish3|
|t||t||sTorm (See note about K.)|
|u||oo||tOO, nOOn, mOO, OOps! (Never like ew in “mew”!)|
|ŭ||w||coW (Occurs only after a or e)4|
Footnotes for the table:
1. Note for the phonologically sophisticated: Esperanto P, T, and K differ from English P, T, and K in being unvoiced and unaspirated (as in several European languages), while the English ones are unvoiced but aspirated. Comparable values of P, T, and K occur in English only when these sounds follow S. However, there is enough phonetic “space” around Esperanto sounds that a little aspiration doesn’t usually hinder communication very much, even if it contributes slightly to an American accent.
2. Some speakers lower this slightly so that it is somewhere between the O in Oaf and the O in Off. The important thing is to avoid drawing it out into a U sound at the end.
3. The ordinary American R is phonetically a vowel. In Esperanto it is one of the least admired features of a strong American accent. Similarly, speakers of French and German often import a back-of-the-throat, gargled R into Esperanto, which is equally inappropriate and (worse yet) potentially confused with Ĥ. For those who distinguish between a flap and trill R (represented by R and RR in Spanish), either may be used for Esperanto R, although the flap seems to be preferred by most speakers who notice a difference.
4. The letter Ŭ functions very much like an English W. There are few Esperanto words that use it except after A or E, but in borrowed words it is sometimes pressed into service to represent a W sound in other positions (e.g., poŭpo alternating with pobo = “stern”). Usually when Esperanto borrows words with W sounds in them, it converts the W to a V. For example, the Swahili language is normally called la svahilia in Esperanto, but I have seen and heard la sŭahilia as well.
In the above list, J corresponds with the English consonant Y. Unlike Y, Esperanto J is only a consonant, never a vowel. It merges with an adjacent vowel to form a diphthong, just as English Y often does:
The letter Ŭ also merges with a preceding vowel to form a diphthong:
An Esperanto word has one syllable for every vowel (or diphthong) in it. When two vowels come together, each is pronounced separately. A word has as many syllables as it has vowels. The stress (“accent”) always falls on the second-to-the-last syllable:
When, occasionally, two identical vowels happen to come together, some speakers separate them with a very slight pause (sekretari-ino). Others run them together, but hold the combined vowel slightly longer Both of these approaches can produce pleasing and easily understood Esperanto, if not carried to extremes. If one of the vowels happens to be the second-to-the-last vowel in the word, then the stress on it also helps to show that there are two separate syllables.
*-Some observers note a growing tendency for a light secondary stress to appear on the first syllable of four-syllable words. If so, it is a trend of interest to linguists, but for learners it can be ignored.
Esperanto words should properly have but one stress, and accordingly the difference in pronunciation between skríbo táblo (two words) and skribotáblo (one word) is one of stress. Many Esperantists (including most English speakers) do, however, put a secondary stress on the syllable that originally carried it in the first element (skrìbotáblo). That doesn’t hurt anything, but don’t expect to find it universal.* Naturally, when the occasion calls for special emphasis, the secondary stress can become primary:
*-Because native Esperanto speakers are few and spread all over the globe, a certain amount of variation from speaker to speaker is normal. Among skillful speakers, this is less than one might think. For one thing, the influence of writing on speaking is great in Esperanto, so that the most eloquent speakers tend to pronounce words very precisely following their spelling. Despite interference from hundreds of different native languages, Esperanto pronunciation among the best speakers is probably more uniform from Amsterdam to Zanzibar than is the pronunciation of English from Amarillo to Zanesville. With care, it is apparently possible for the adult learner to lose a “foreign” accent in Esperanto much more easily than in other languages. But it does take care.
Developing a good international Esperanto accent requires practice and attention. Speakers who do not make a continuing effort toward proper pronunciation show varying influences from their native languages. Besides the problem cases of some consonants, noted in the list, we English speakers tend to have trouble keeping our vowels pure. E, for example, tends to be drawn out as though it were spelled EJ (as in English “dAY”). This is inelegant, although it can usually be understood. Similarly O is sometimes shortened to something more like the OU in English “OUght” and begins to sound enough like A to confuse some listeners. Sometimes unstressed vowels lose their distinctiveness, producing muddy speech as well as a very non-Esperanto accent. All these tendencies must be resisted if one is to be easily understood internationally.
Aim for the properly international pronunciation and you will reap praise and respect from the international community, who tend to stereotype native English speakers as stumble-tongued. But however excellent your own pronunciation, don’t be surprised if you hear some variants, especially among beginners or unskillful speakers.*
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