In Esperanto (and English too), there are five vowel letters. However, in many languages, including my native Bulgarian, there are more, for example the letter ъ. (Don't confuse it with the way it is used in Russian: It is totally different.) I'm not a big expert on phonology, but I saw on Wikipedia that this letter could be transcribed as [ə], [ɐ] or [ɤ], depending on where it appears in a word. Many languages have letters for the schwa and the similar sounds, and English has the sound too, although it has not assigned a letter to it.

Of course, I realise that Esperanto has its own phonology and does not need more letters. However, for me that sound is very different from the available five vowels and when I try to write a Bulgarian name or something in Esperanto, I just can not do it perfectly. Normally, one uses either a or u in place of ъ and in most cases that is not too big of a problem (as in the name of the country Bulgarujo: The first u stands for ъ really — България). However, there are cases where that just does not work. A curious example is the not-really-popular-but-real female name Пътка. It can be transliterated in two ways (using a or u):

  • Patka
  • Putka

So Esperantists will read it either with the sound of a or u there. However, if they read the version with a, they will call the woman a female duck in Bulgarian, and if they read the version with the u, they will call her a vagina. As you might guess, both would be offending.


I am not trying to propose a reform or start a war, I am just being curious here. Is there any way to represent this sound in Esperanto?

I've seen this solved by using â (in some of the names of Bulgarian delegates on the website of UEA, which requires registration so I cannot link it. Is this an accepted or common way to represent this sound?

  • I have never seen the transliteration ⟨â⟩ for [ə] in Esperanto (or in any language for that matter). The closest thing I know of is that ⟨ă⟩ represents /ə/ in Romanian (although it's closer to [ɜ]). Considering the sound [ɛ] and [e̞] (i.e., /e/ (⟨e⟩) in Esperanto) is relatively close to [ə], perhaps ъ could be transliterated with ⟨e⟩? Is Petka anything offensive in Bulgarian :p? EDIT: Just found this on Wikipedia: “Ă/ă is also used in several languages for transliteration of Bulgarian letter Ъ/ъ.” – Joffysloffy Sep 9 '16 at 9:10
  • At least for the Bulgarian case, e would not work. The Bulgarian is more like [ɐ] or [ɤ] ([ə] is rarely used for transcribing it), so not that close to [ɛ] and [e̞], I would believe. About Petka: that would not be offensive but it’s also not correct. Oddly enough, Petka is a different female name, carrying a different meaning. :) I’m asking not only about the Bulgarian case but also about all the other languages that have this (or relatively similar) sound. – Lyubomir Vasilev Sep 9 '16 at 9:23
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    Well, they're all different sounds, that's the entire problem, isn't it? Moreover, considering Bulgarian /ɤ/ is pretty much [ɐ], it'd say [o̞] is much closer than [u] (although not closer than [ä]). I pretty much gave a general answer: Pick whichever vowel is closest and/or does not yield a strange connotation in the original language. You're just going to have to accept that you can never get a perfect transliteration of every single name, because different languages have a different set of phonemes. Every Esperanto vowel is relatively far away from [ə], so none of them are a good choice. – Joffysloffy Sep 9 '16 at 10:57
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    It's sad when a genuine question has to have “I am not trying to propose a reform or start a war” when it touches a topic that might be controversial... – marcus Sep 12 '16 at 21:21
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    @marcus Indeed. I didn't actually see the ‘almost-controversialness’ of the question to be honest. – Joffysloffy Sep 13 '16 at 9:57

Your question is mainly about how to deal with foreign names in Esperanto, especially if they contain a sound that does not closely match one of the 28 sounds of Esperanto. The Akademio de Esperanto published a recommendation about dealing with foreign names in Esperanto.

This recommendation distinguishes three different ways of dealing with foreign names in Esperanto:

  • Fully Esperantizing them, e.g. "Julio Cezaro", "Ŝekspiro" and "Nov-Jorko".
  • Partially Esperantizing them, e.g. "Zamenhof", "Gamal Abdel Naser" and "Ban Ki-mun" (especially common for names originally not written in Latin alphabet; but I also usually do it to my name ("Markos Kramer"), despite the original form ("Marcos Cramer") being written in Latin alphabet).
  • Usage of the original form (e.g. "Kálmán Kalocsay") or of a common Romanization not based on Esperanto phonology (e.g. "Dèng Xiăopíng").

Additionally, the document recommends indicating the pronunciation of non-Esperantized names when they are first used in a text. These pronunciation guides should contain only Esperanto letters, with the acute accent on a vowel marking stress (e.g. [gastón varengjén]).

I guess that in your example about "Пътка", you are interested in finding a good partial Esperantization of it. The document by the Akademio de Esperanto does not say much about how to partially Esperantize, but the following comment about pronunciation guides is actually also applicable to partial Esperantizations:

en la okazo de manko de ĝusta Esperanta sono responda al la alilingva oni prezentu la plej proksiman Esperantan sonon, eĉ se tiel oni nur proksimume transdonas la originalan prononcon kaj perdas iujn informojn

Translation:

in the case of a lack of an Esperanto sound that matches the sound from the foreign language, one should present the closest Esperanto sound, even if this way one only approximately renders the original pronunciation and loses some information.

You presented an example where the loss of information would lead to a form that sounds offensive to a Bulgarian. Such things can of course happen, and that is unfortunately not completely avoidable. In the case you present, one could consider exceptionally using another not too different vowel (e.g. "o" or "e") to avoid confusion with an offensive word.

The scientific Romanization of Bulgarian uses "ǎ" for transcribing "ъ". One way of treating Bulgarian names in an Esperanto text is to not Esperantize them, but just render them in Latin alphabet using the scientific Romanization. In that case, you could use "ǎ" (but not "â"). However, then you should generally follow the scientific Romanization, e.g. use "ž" and "š" and not "ĵ" and "ŝ" for "ж" and "ш".

If you want to actually partially Esperantize a Bulgarian name (i.e. use "ĵ" and "ŝ" for "ж" and "ш"), you should use neither "ǎ" nor "â". Instead, you should always use one of the five Esperanto vowels for transcribing "ъ".

  • You swapped ǎ and ă around: Normally one uses ǎ in Pīnyīn and ă to transcribe ъ. – Joffysloffy Sep 10 '16 at 20:16
  • I followed the Wikipedia article "Romanization of Bulgarian" on this one. It clearly mentions ǎ and not ă as scientific transcription of ъ. – Marcos Cramer Sep 12 '16 at 7:53
  • You're right. Interesting. In other places in the same article it does mention the romanization ă, specifically under “Features” and “New Orthographic Dictionary system”, while I couldn't find any mention of ǎ outside the table, which is kind of odd. – Joffysloffy Sep 12 '16 at 8:45

As Marcos Cramer answered, there are three options:

  • Making it into a normal Esperanto name. Would Patko or Putko work? I know that they are vocatives in Bulgarian, but that's perhaps not the first thing that comes to your mind if it is said in the context of another language.
  • Adapting it partially to the Esperanto phonology:
    • P'tka, suggested in another answer, is probably as close as we can get there. I prefer it to Ptka, as the latter looks like it should be pronounced as one syllable. And even if I knew that Ptka consists of two syllables, I wouldn't be able to tell if it's P'tka or Pt'ka. The problem with ă, ə and other such inventions is that most people don't have a clue about how they are pronounced. And with P'tka, a pretty good approximation of the correct pronunciation comes naturally.
    • Pŭtka is another possibility. Ŭ is actually a semivowel, so if pronounced the Esperanto way, the name would be one syllable. But phonetically, this semivowel is pretty close to ъ (I think it's closer than u and a are), so this option is worth considering. As a bonus, Pŭtka is compatible with several systems of romanisation of Bulgarian.
  • Using a common romanisation scheme. I'm sure there are a lot of Пъткаs who live in countries that use the Latin alphabet. How do they write their names? Whatever form that works in English, French, Spanish, etc., will work in Esperanto, too.
  • Elegant idea to use ŭ for [ə]. Might come in handy for the Croatian prtl and the like. By the way the u in the Dutch Bulgarije indeed is the [ə] sound. Maybe more mainstream to use Peŭtka though. – Joop Eggen May 21 '17 at 21:56
  • @JoopEggen I'm sure ⟨u⟩ in Bulgarije is /ʏ/. Maybe it becomes [ə] in rapid speech, but the usual pronunciation is /ʏ/. – Joffysloffy May 22 '17 at 7:25

The schwa is most commonly replaced with an E in Esperanto. This is because languages like English, German, French, and others often write schwa-sounds with an E.

For example, compare these words:

  • studento (English: student /ˈstuːdənt/)
  • bedaŭri (German: bedauern /bəˈdaʊ̯ɐn/)
  • de (French: de /də/)
  • fadeno (German: Faden /ˈfaːdən/)
  • helikoptero (English: helicopter /ˈhɛliˌkɒptəɹ/)
  • ŝrapnelo (English: shrapnel /ˈʃrapnəl/)
  • akselo (German: Achsel /ˈaksəl/)

or these names:

  • Hamleto (English: Hamlet /ˈhæmlət/)
  • Everesto (English: Everest /ˈɛvəɹəst/)
  • Ĝenevo (French: Genève /ʒəˈnɛv/)
  • Antverpeno (Dutch: Antwerpen /ˈɑntʋɛrpən/)

(It's also worth noting that the fictional Esperanto dialect Popido uses the letter ê to write the schwa sound.)

However, in all my examples above, the schwa was also written with an E in the original language. This is not the case here:

  • the English word Alabama (/ˌæləˈbæmə/) is Alabamo in Esperanto, with an A.
  • the Catalan word Barcelona (/bəɾsəˈlonə/) is Barcelono in Esperanto, with A and E being used for the schwa.

So schwa is most often E, but it depends on the original spelling and on the language the word or name comes from.

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    The German and Polish equivalents of both studento and ŝrapnelo have full [ɛ], so they can't count as attestations of [ə] > <e>. Nevertheless I second your explanation according to which the spelling mostly depends on the letter used in the source language. – Cyril Robert Brosch May 22 '17 at 20:12

In this awkward situation I'd be very tempted to just put ə and dare anyone to complain.

It is, after all, part of the IPA and about as international a representation as you can find. If Esperanto cannot deal gracefully with edge cases when they arise, it will never be taken seriously as an international language.

However, if there is a serious practical issue (e.g. the name must be displayed in a font which does not contain the character) then I think the least misleading alternative is P'tka. The apostrophe signals the presence of an undetermined vowel, which is most likely to be read as an indeterminate vowel.

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    I would disagree with the first part. The question is about transliteration to Esperanto and Esperanto does not have the letter ⟨ə⟩. However, I do think your suggestion Ptka (why is the apostrophe useful here?) is quite a good one, since most people would insert a short schwa-like vowel in between p and t anyway, yielding more-or-less [ˈpə̆tka]. Plus Ptka is acceptable Esperanto. – Joffysloffy Sep 9 '16 at 12:02
  • Esperanto does not have schwa, but this is a situation in which the schwa is essentially unavoidable. English doesn't have the Bushman clicks, so we represent them with "!" etc and just deal with it. Nobody is going to wear a name-tag which calls them a duck or a vagina just for the sake of preserving the purity of the Esperanto transliteration system. – Andrew Woods Sep 9 '16 at 12:21
  • Well, there are decent enough options, as I mentioned before (⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩). Furthermore, on a name-tag using ⟨ə⟩ is simply unhelpful, because many people don't know what it means. Using ⟨ə⟩ in actual literature or similar is also not a very good idea, since, again, people may not know what it means, and it's not part of the Esperanto alphabet. The point of transliteration is to make a name pronounceable for any speaker of the target language. Finally, there are plenty of cases where /ə/ is transliterated using ⟨o⟩ (e.g., washington /ˈwɑʃɪŋtən/ becomes vaŝingtono). – Joffysloffy Sep 9 '16 at 12:34
  • Yes, I understand. However, even the best transliteration system will, very occasionally, come across a brick wall, a situation in which approximations and modifications aren't adequate or acceptable. When it does, a solution has to come from somewhere else, and my best suggestion for that "somewhere else" is the IPA. – Andrew Woods Sep 9 '16 at 12:46
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    @kristan Indeed! There's no need for the apostrophe either: I think Ptka would be perfectly fine. – Joffysloffy Oct 10 '16 at 15:41

The solution I contrived to translate into Esperanto Esperanto untypical sounds is the following. Esperanto as more than 90% pronounce it is actually a slavic language by its phonetic system. The five regular vowels are a as is father or car, open e as in bet or bare, open o as in more or cot (British), closed i as in pique or technique, closed u as in rule or prune.

A sixth vowel common to all slavic languages (though not phonemic in all) is hard i pronounced as i in English will or y as in Russian Tchernobyl, which is an open-lipped intermediate between i and u as open-lipped e is intermediate between a and i and open-mouthed o is intermediate between a and o. This sound, though not official, is in reality unescapable in Eo as it is the elementary short sound between two consonants when a double consonant is being pronounced with the effort of distinguishing them neatly as in lit-kovro : just observe your own mouth and hear the sound and there is a slight y after lit : litykovro whether you like it or not.

That sound is likewise happening any way as it is the least effort sound in slavic languages when consonant clusters appears without any vowel indication, and this is traditionally said to happen with Esperanto too, in such compound words as retestr-subskribo. The hyphen can at any place stand for that intermediate vowel having a rather hushed sound pronounced with the mouth closed but the lips rather lax. This sound can help distinguish the parts of a lengthy compound is the same way the hyphen distinguishes them visually. It can be used exactly in the same way as in Serbo-Croatian or Czech to give dangling consonants a neutral leaning sound like in Brno or Trst (Triesta) which both could be written Br-no, Tr-sto in Eo, though in Russian and Polish hard y is a phonemic vowel in its own right.

Since Esperanto is actually by its very birth a slavic-souled language without slavic words, since Esperanto speakers coming from so many languages all tend spontaneously to sound their vowels so as to give the impression of hearing Polish or Serbo-Croatian (though with an Italian-like or Brazilian-like melody) to uninformed ears, since all slavic languages have that sound as intermediate between i and u, it would be stupid and wicked not to acknowledge its presence in Eo, though not phonemic but only aesthetic. The consonant j, when located between two other consonants, should be the natural letter for that closed central vowel sound when an hyphen is not to be understood, as it respresents a consonant consisting in the mere fact of nearing the tongue to the palate, therefore the two cities should be written Brjno and Trjsto.

E is short open e, ee is long open e, and ej is the slightly gliding, English-like long closed e as in grey that can translate any like foreign sound, though technically Esperanto considers it a double sound. Similarly o is short open o, oo long open o, oŭ stands for a long, slightly gliding English o as in glow, low, with ŭ standing for that slight closure of the lips making the o into a closed one (though technically a diphthong by Eo standards). Such a long o sound is not frequent at all in Eo but it is possible nevertheless (though not much liked by present day Esperantists), hence the hesitation between boŭlo and bovlo for English bowl.

But -ŭ and jŭ, that is to say hard i or y followed by a slight closure of the lips, can be used to translate or imitate into Esperanto the French u or German ü sound which quite a number of langauges do have, as the city of Lübeck which Eo should translate as L-ŭbeko or better still Ljŭbeko, or French Namur which should be rendered in Eo as Namjŭro. This can be a nice way to teach Esperantists new sounds of other languages by quite close (and recognizable to the foreign ear) approximations through combinations of pure Eo sounds though not 100% accurate (though most elegant to hear nevertheless).

E is normally open e but it can be nearer a schwa when the law of least effort calls for it, with the result that the diphthong eŭ which is quite present in Eo can be pronounced both with a very distinct open e followed by a closure of the lips, or with a more neutral vowel ending in a closure of the lips more like French eu, as in eŭro (any hurried prononciation of that uncommon diphthong will result rather in the closed schwa French or Dutch like sound, as the closure of the lips indicated by ŭ has to begin as soon as the preceding vowel is uttered. So there you have your long closed schwa. The short schwa is already indicated in common Eo practice by the apostrophe ' and like the hyphen can stand for a silence.

Trump should be normally be written tr'mpo is Esperanto, but since the apostrophe has a semantic value by itself (indicating the blurring or the silencing of an o vowel, among others), it could be also indicated by a mere ŭ standing between two consonants, that is to say a neutral central sound pronounced with a small closure of the lips. Trump should be written Trŭmpo and pronounced quite like the English word with the lips a little more closed as in Northern England rather than in East London where it is closer to a. Without adding new letters nor deforming their meaning that much all exotic vowels can thus be emulated in Eo.

  • If you write Namjŭro, all of Namjŭ(r) would be a single syllable (the only full vowel is «a»). Is that the intended effect? If not, where is the syllable center of «mjŭ»? Is it closer to «mju» or «miŭ»? – marcus Oct 15 at 14:01

Technically, Esperanto is actually a slavic language having lost nearly all its original typically slavic words so as to be composed exclusively of internationally understood words which, like international words in all languages, behave in a perfectly regular way according to the easiest rules. Imagine a kind of Northern Russian language where Peter the Great would have performed the same demolition and restructuring job as when he built Russia's new capital.

All slavic languages have a sixth vowel lying somewhere u and i (but open-lipped, nearer to i than to u) in the same way e lies between a and i (but open-lipped, nearer to a than to i, as is the case in most slavic languages and as with most E-o speakers) and o lies between a and u (but rather open-lipped, nearer to a than to u, as is the case with most E-o speakers too). This sixth vowel is called hard i in Russian, where it is phonemic, y in Polish where it is also phonemic, whereas in Czech and Serbo-Croatian it is only phonetic so as to allow clusters of consonants comprising l, r and sibilants to be uttered effortlessly. E-o also forms such clusters of consonants and should simply indicate that sixth vowel (which is phonetic, not phonemic so as not to infringe the fundamento) with a hyphen as is actually already the case under many E-o pens. For example one could form estr-laboro, a masterwork in the qualitative sense (ĉeflaboro in in the official sense) with the letter r leaning onto that har i (or y) sound pronounced as English i in will or e in sided. It is a closed-mouthed (but rather open-lipped) central vowel. Esperanto should indicate the presence of that vowel with an interconsonantal hyphen (having no phonemic value as a letter in the dictionary, but would count for zero, hence its nature of "schwa" in the Hebrew sense of the word) which clearly suggests visually the right sound where the mouth is closed and the lips opened horizontally. If you try to pronounce clusters of three letters such as "best-schooled", you form that sound effortlessly and willy-nilly, no matter you form them in English as in "communist-state" or in Esperanto as in "komunist-ŝtato", as it is the least effort vowel between two consonants so to speak.

The true Hebrew Schwa used to be pronounced like this in the antiquity, even though in modern Hebrew it is either as is most frequent a front closed short e as in forte, or more academically a central closed short e as in petite or begin under the influence of German through Yiddish. That modern schwa named so by misnomer for the middle unaccented sound between e and o of so many Germanic languages is generally allowed in E-o, as was suggested by Zamenhof himself, as a possible phonetic variation of the phonemic prononciation of e in unaccented position, especially the last one (as in super or supren), exactly as is the case in nearly all Slavic languages too. It can also be indicated by an apostrophe, which generally stands for the absence of voice (which stands for a suppressed unaccented o or e nearly always) but that absence of voice occurs with the mouth half-opened as for the sound of e in English super or begin. In Russian that middle sound occurs systematically for e and also o outside the accented syllabe, and the tendency, though less markedly, shows up in all other Slavic languages, hence the proposal I am making is by no means extravagant or revolutionary.

All slavic vowels are normally counted as short, the only long ones being the diphthongs, and this is the case with Esperanto too. Esperanto true diphthongs are aj as in English buy and aŭ as in English cow, but E-o ej is more what is called in English a glide, that is to say a long closed e with a slight y-like vanish, as in English training and like meaning E-o trejni. E-o also exists as in boŭlo (meaning bowl and pronounced like it also) even though it has not been a popular sound up to now, but it can nevertheless be used for foreign words and proper nouns to be transliterated in a recognizable way. A slavic proper noun such as the infamous place Tchjornobyl should be perfectly written in E-o as Ĉjornob-lo, or Ĉjornobylo as y should just be allowed as al alternate graphic form for the hyphen without it being a letter in the very same way w is an alternate graphic form for the letter ŭ and cx for ĉ (all languages of Europe use or used alternate graphic forms in their cursive mode of writing for at least a few letters). But that "-" vowel could also be made long and closed-lipped by making it a glide ending with ŭ so as to render ü in German words such as führer, which should be rendered by E-o f-ŭrero or French u as in Béthune (E-o Bet-ŭno). The rather infrequent eŭ diphthong, according to Z. was to be pronounced preferably quite like cockney Bell (Bew') but could also be tolerated as French queue, as the first e of that diphthong though in theory an mid-open front vowel can also be tolerated as a central mid-open one when away from the main accent. President Trump should be rendered by E-o Trŭ'mp or, Trŭemp, as e just before or after a ŭ is just much easier to pronounce as a schwa.

Therefore : open central short : a open central long : aa (mostly in compounds) closed fronted short : i closed fronted long : ii (mostly in grammatical compounds such as scii) closed back short : u closed back long : uu (infrequent, mostly in compounds) mid-open front (or central) short : e mid-open front long : ee (mostly in grammatical compounds such as ree) mid-closed front short : je (after consonant) mid-closed front long : ej mid-open back short : o mid-open back long : oo (mostly compounds) mid-closed back short : ŭo mid-closed back long : oŭ closed central open-lipped short : - (also noted y or by nothing at all when no ambiguity arises) closed central open-lipped long : -j (very infrequent outside words from Russian, though possible) closed back-central closed-lipped short : ŭ- (exotic transliteration only, or dialectal esperanto such as ĵus actually most often pronounced as ĵŭ-s) closed central closed-lipped long -ŭ (exotic transliteration only) mid-open central short : ' or e (outside accent) (English hub : mostly exotic) mid-closed central short : ŭ' or ŭe (English ur as in occur) mid-closed central long : 'ŭ or eŭ (French queue : permissible easier realization of learned words in eŭ)

Therefore by adding no sign E-o can approximate nearly all vowels of all languages, though as soon as a foreign word is acclimated into more current E-o use the most infrequent ones are reduced to the most current ones (except when resulting from word composition) which are short "cantabile" a e i o u, by the very same process which makes the unsual consonant ĥ still extant for ĉeĥa (a proper name meaning a nationality) but no longer for faĥisto (from German Fachmann) which is rather replaced by fakisto (a common name meaning a specialist).

The letters A, E, I, O, and U are vowels. The rest are consonants. There are no silent letters, all of them must be pronounced. http://lernu.net/en/gramatiko/skribo

David Jordan has good advice on the topic:

Some people prefer to retain the national-language pronunciation but respell the name in Esperanto orthography. For example, “Mike” = Majk, “Jane” = Ĝejn.

Others keep the original spelling but change the pronunciation to match it. For example, I pronounce my last name, Jordan, “Yordahn” in Esperanto...

Still others translate their names into Esperanto words with the same meanings. Thus “Hope” becomes Espero, “June” becomes Junio, and so on...

Some people leave the original spelling but give a figured pronunciation in parentheses after it and expect people to learn to pronounce it despite the non-Esperanto original spelling. If I did that I would spell the name Jordan (Ĝordn) and pronounce it as I do in English.

Finally (and least helpfully), some people write and pronounce their name exactly as they do in their native language, leaving it to the listener or reader to “wing it.” That only works if both parties already speak the same language, which defeats the point of Esperanto in the first place. Obviously this is to be avoided! http://pages.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/eo/colloq/colloq040.html#sec4-1-7

Also, if it is written with the special letter, how am I supposed to type that on my keyboard. Do I have to install all the language keyboards so that I can write every name?

  • I don't see how this answers the question. The whole problem of the asker is how to transliterate a specific name into Esperanto, while the most obvious choices of vowels for the sound [ə] yield an offensive pronunciation in the original language. – Joffysloffy Nov 28 '16 at 20:05

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