|Justin B Rye 2007–2009|
But, surely, Justin – you must be aware that there's
an official source for all the answers about Esperanto grammar:
LA FUNDAMENTO DE ESPERANTO
GRAMMAR (English version)
Some people (like the authors of
Teach Yourself Esperanto)
claim that the sixteen rules in this document constitute a
comprehensive grammar of the Esperanto language. Others
realise how ludicrous that idea is, but say it's the list of all
untouchable rules Esperantists aren't allowed to
modify. That doesn't make much sense either, since some of
the early reform proposals that were rolled into a single
political football and kicked out as
Ido would have been
perfectly compatible with it… still, whatever it is, I
personally used to see it as a barrelful of fish which it
wouldn't be sporting to wheel onto the firing range.
However, by popular request:
A) THE ALPHABET
The rules start not with Rule 1 but with an entire unnumbered Section, which sets out in somewhat approximate terms what the funny letters mean. Enshrining this in a specification document implies that unlike, say, Cornish, which is still Cornish no matter how you spell it, Esperanto must be written in this prescribed orthography. If you use Elvish Tengwar, it's not Esperanto any longer. But let's skip over that lunacy and proceed with:
B) PARTS OF SPEECH
…which mostly deals not with defining the lexical categories of Esperanto but with taking them for granted and describing how they inflect.
1. There is no indefinite, and only one definite, article, la, for all genders, numbers, and cases.
translations of this document add a footnote here
saying that Esperanto's use of articles is just like French or
German, but foreigners who have problems can simply not use
them. That's a myth; when you're
struggling to understand what a French Esperantist is saying, the
information conveyed by <la> may be vital.
If it was an ornamental nonsense-syllable, it would be crazy to
waste a sixteenth of the ruleset on it!
2. Substantives are formed by adding o to the root. For the plural, the letter j must be added to the singular. There are two cases: the nominative and the objective (accusative). The root with the added o is the nominative, the objective adds an n after the o. Other cases are formed by prepositions; thus, the possessive (genitive) by de, "of"; the dative by al, "to", the instrumental (ablative) by kun, "with", or other preposition as the sense demands.
One moment Esperanto has only two cases, the next it has as many as it has prepositions – they're just spelled the same as the nominative. If you imagine this is merely an attempt to explain Esperanto grammar to speakers of English in terms of features neither language has, you're forgetting that these rules are definitive: they say Esperanto has a dative case, so it's heretical to deny that fact!
E.g. root patr, "father"; la patr'o, "the father"; la patr'o'n, "the father" (objective), de la patr'o, "of the father"; al la patr'o, "to the father"; kun la patr'o, "with the father"; la patr'o'j, "the fathers"; la patr'o'j'n, "the fathers" (obj.), por la patr'o'j, "for the fathers".
Because apparently we need to be shown examples of how to stick
an <n> onto a word, but its function can be
explained by repeating the label
objective. And the
prototypical noun is an intrinsically male word.
3. Adjectives are formed by adding a to the root. The numbers and cases are the same as in substantives.
If dative case-marking is indicated the same way on adjectives as
it is on substantives, by adding the word
<al>, that means
to a white ship is
<al blanka al shipo>, right?
The comparative degree is formed by prefixing pli (more); the superlative by plej (most).
Oh no it isn't – prefixing would give
whiter! Esperanto does
use prefixing in, for instance, <malpli>,
less, but the above is a botched attempt at a word-order
rule (the only one on the list): adverbial modifiers like
<pli> and <tre> (
precede the word they modify.
The word "than" is rendered by ol, e.g. pli blanka ol negho, "whiter than snow".
Why is it only French and Russian readers who are told about the preposition <el>, used with superlatives? Are the rules different for them?
4. The cardinal numerals do not change their forms for the different cases.
Okay, so numerals are a separate PART OF SPEECH from the articles and substantives and adjectives. Never mind case just now, what are their pluralisation rules? After all, the forms <dekoj> and <centoj> occur in the Esperanto text of this rule!
They are: unu (1), du (2), tri (3), kvar (4), kvin (5), ses (6), sep (7), ok (8), nau (9), dek (10), cent (100), mil (1000).
This isn't a random vocabulary lesson, it's an exhaustive list, and zero isn't on it.
The tens and hundreds are formed by simple junction of the numerals, e.g. 533 = <kvin'cent tri'dek tri>. Ordinals are formed by adding the adjectival a to the cardinals, e.g. unu'a, "first"; du'a, "second", etc.
The versions of Rule 4 diverge here. The Esperanto edition reiterates the agreement rules for adjectives, while the others go on like this:
Multiplicatives (as "threefold", "fourfold", etc.) add obl, e.g. tri'obl'a, "threefold".
If only the ordinals had been given an affix of their own,
instead of being misclassified as the adjective forms of the
cardinals, words like
just have been different adjective senses of the root
Fractionals add on, as du'on'o, "a half"; kvar'on'o, "a quarter".
Thus <tridek duonoj>,
three twelfths; fractions
are regular nouns. It's only the integers named
above that are indeclinable:
thousandth, a thousand, and a million is <adiciu
milonon, mil, kaj milionon>.
Collective numerals add op, as kvar'op'e, "four together". Distributive prefix po, e.g., po kvin, "five apiece".
That's a clone of the Russian preposition <po>,
not a unique
prefix deserving of its own special mention.
Adverbials take e e.g., unu'e, "firstly", etc.
Those are the specifically ordinal adverbs, which is why the cardinal adverbs ended up in sidings like <kvarope>.
5. The personal pronouns are: mi, "I"; vi, "thou", "you"; li, "he"; shi, "she"; ghi, "it"; si, "self"; ni, "we"; ili, "they"; oni, "one", "people", (French "on").
If you want to say
people, why not stick to that
word? You'd save on special exceptional pronouns, and avoid
the collision with <oni>,
Possessive pronouns are formed by suffixing to the required personal, the adjectival termination.
So when Rule 2 said possessives were formed with <de>…
The declension of the pronouns is identical with that of substantives.
Oh, so the root with the added <o> is the nominative, then for the plural, the letter <j> must be added?
E.g. mi, "I"; mi'n, "me" (obj.); mi'a, "my", "mine".
mine. Like ordinals, Esperanto possessive
pronouns can occur in the role of verbal arguments (as in
mine was the first), so their adjectival endings
make no sense. What they really are is
determiners – see K2.
6. The verb does not change its form for numbers or persons, e.g. mi far'as, "I do"; la patr'o far'as, "the father does"; ili far'as, "they do".
A poor choice of example-word, since <fari> is
never an auxiliary verb and
do is rarely anything else.
Forms of the Verb:
+ The present tense ends in as, e.g. mi far'as, "I do".
+ The past tense ends in is, e.g. li far'is, "he did".
+ The future tense ends in os, e.g. ili far'os, "they will do".
Tense-marking is fetishised; aspect-marking is marginalised.
+ The subjunctive mood ends in us, e.g. shi far'us, "she may do".
+ The imperative mood ends in u, e.g. ni far'u, "let us do".
+ The infinitive mood ends in i, e. g. fari, "to do".
If these are all
moods, why is the subjunctive dressed up
like a tense? Can't a verb be simultaneously past and
There are two forms of the participle in the international language, the changeable or adjectival, and the unchangeable or adverbial.
One of the strangest delusions Esperantists persist in
subscribing to is the notion that Esperanto is
international language. In reality it wasn't even the first
constructed auxiliary language to acquire an international
following (see Xa)… but I still get
emails denying the existence of any other international
language. From foreign countries. In English.
+ The present participle active ends in ant, e.g. far'ant'a, "he who is doing"; far'ant'e, "doing".
If it meant
He who… it would be a noun
DOING is probably used
as a sound-effect more often than as an appropriate translation
+ The past participle active ends in int, e.g. far'int'a, "he who has done"; far'int'e, "having done".
+ The future participle active ends in ont, e.g. far'ont'a, "he who will do"; far'ont'e, "about to do".
Rather than have a separate element to indicate tense, which could be emphasised when tense was relevant or omitted when it wasn't, he's built it in three times over, once as a verb-ending, again as part of the active participles, and yet a third time for passives. Unless we're meant to think of <-is>, <-int->, and <-it-> as sharing a morpheme <-i->… in which case, why does it also turn up to mark infinitives?
+ The present participle passive ends in at, e.g. far'at'e, "being done".
+ The past participle passive ends in it, e.g. far'it'a, "that which has been done"; far'it'e, "having been done".
+ The future participle passive ends in ot, e.g. far'ot'a, "that which will be done"; far'ot'e, "about to be done".
If the present participle construction adds some sort of progressive-aspect element, how do I form a non-progressive passive? If on the other hand <ili faras> and <ili estas farantaj> mean exactly the same thing, why do I need to learn two different ways of saying it?
All forms of the passive are rendered by the respective forms of the verb est (to be) and the participle passive of the required verb; the preposition used is de, "by".
Wasn't that the marker for the possessive (genitive) case?
E.g. shi est'as am'at'a de chiu'j, "she is loved by every one".
the father does while
may do? Remember how the
active participles mean
she happens to be the one used as the
canonical example of passivity…
7. Adverbs are formed by adding e to the root.
Except that we've already met one adverbial modifier that ends in <i>:
The degrees of comparison are the same as in adjectives, e.g., mi'a frat'o kant'as pli bon'e ol mi, "my brother sings better than I".
Speak of the devil. Once again the male relatives hog the limelight.
8. All prepositions govern the nominative case.
C) GENERAL RULES
That's all the PARTS OF SPEECH finished – if Esperanto has any conjunctions, they're a secret.
9. Every word is to be read exactly as written, there are no silent letters.
Here we go again with the writing-system rules.
10. The accent falls on the last syllable but one, (penultimate).
The only piece of information about Esperanto phonology that gets to be counted as an official numbered rule.
11. Compound words are formed by the simple junction of roots, (the principal word standing last), which are written as a single word, but, in elementary works, separated by a small line (').
Not only is this yet another rule wasted on
prescribing how the language should be written down, it's a rule
that more or less nobody has ever been seen to obey! What's
more, each translation has its own conflicting version; the
French edition for instance says the small lines are standard
(but optional in correspondence with fluent speakers), while the
Polish shows them as slashes and gives no explanation. Any
readers hoping that the Esperanto edition might be authoritative,
or at least
elementary, sorry: it neither uses nor
Grammatical terminations are considered as independent words. E.g. vapor'ship'o, "steamboat" is composed of the roots vapor, "steam", and ship, "a boat", with the substantival termination o.
Thus in <vaporshipoj> the plural-marker grammatical termination <j> is the principal word.
12. If there be one negative in a clause, a second is not admissible.
Doesn't this get us nowhere? is forbidden!
Incidentally, one of the dullest non-answers I get to my
criticism of the mandatory case-, number-, and tense-inflection
systems is that redundancy can be useful. Of course it
can. But the rest of the time it's useless. That's
why I say to make it optional, and let users decide how much of
it they need. Meanwhile, here's Zamenhof explicitly
outlawing a popular form of redundant marking, instead of telling
us anything about how negation does work!
13. In phrases answering the question "where?" (meaning direction), the words take the termination of the objective case;
Somebody must have told Zamenhof that
where to? was bad
grammar. This construction isn't restricted to answering
questions, though – indeed, it can be asking one:
e.g. kie'n vi ir'as? "where are you going?";
Look, there's an <-n> in that question there, attached to the <kie>… a representative of an entire family of words that aren't covered by these rules!
dom'o'n, "home"; London'o'n, "to London", etc.
Answering this question with a plain placename would be
dangerously ambiguous, of course – unlike
you come from?, where it's perfectly safe…
14. Every preposition in the international language has a definite fixed meaning.
Indeed, some are blessed with several –
<de>, for instance, which as well as being a
possessive or sometimes
agentive marker also happens to have the
bonus definite fixed meanings
If it be necessary to employ some preposition, and it is not quite evident from the sense which it should be, the word je is used, which has no definite meaning;
Wait, what? So, uh, this <je>… is it a preposition in the international language? And how exactly would I detect such a necessity?
for example, ghoj'i je tio, "to rejoice over it";
it being an unlisted pronoun.
(Oh, it's not a
personal pronoun, like
<ghi> is? Sure, that makes sense.)
rid'i je tio, "to laugh at it"; enu'o je la patr'uj'o, "a longing for one's fatherland".
Well done managing to cram <patr> back in again there.
In every language different prepositions, sanctioned by usage, are employed in these dubious cases,
No, many of the world's most important languages don't even have prepositions.
in the international language, one word, je, suffices for all. Instead of je, the objective without a preposition may be used, when no confusion is to be feared.
Oddly, the Esperanto version of this text allows for <-n> only as an accusative or dative marker and says nothing about it standing in for an imaginary preposition that means nothing in particular!
15. The so-called "foreign" words, i.e. words which the greater number of languages have derived from the same source, undergo no change in the international language, beyond conforming to its system of orthography. -- Such is the rule with regard to primary words, derivatives are better formed (from the primary word) according to the rules of the international grammar, e.g. teatr'o, "theatre", but teatr'a, "theatrical", (not teatricul'a), etc.
No change is a blatant lie; for instance,
becomes <kvazaro>, conveying neither the sound nor
even the spelling of the original. Come to that, nor is it
true that these are
so-called foreign words –
it's recent acquisitions we call
foreign, not Middle English
theatre. But Esperanto doesn't have any
16. The a of the article, and final o of substantives, may be sometimes dropped euphoniae gratia,
for the sake of euphony – as I'm sure we
all agree, Esperanto is improved by any reduction in the amount of
it that's spoken.
e.g. de l´ mond'o for de la mond'o, Shiller´ for Shiller'o;
I'd have thought the more important consideration was that Friedrich von Schiller pronounced his name with one [l] and no [e]. And this performing-arts theme is odd, given that Zamenhof's background was in ophthalmology rather than musical theatre.
in such cases an apostrophe should be substituted for the discarded vowel.
So as well as unpronounced and unwritten small lines, Esperanto has these almost indistinguishable apostrophes too! But where does the stress go on <Shiller´>? And how are these silent characters not prohibited by Rule 9?
Now, what's missing from these sixteen commandments? Well, almost anything about the phonology, derivational morphology, or syntax… it would take about as many rules again just to get the kind of basic overview I'd want to see in the front of a tourist phrasebook.