“But, surely, Justin – you must be aware that there's an official source for all the answers about Esperanto grammar:”
L.-L. ZAMENHOF 1905
Fundamento de Esperanto…
DE LA LINGVO ESPERANTO
EN KVIN LINGVOJ
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 the “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:
GRAMMARA) THE ALPHABET
The text comes in French, English, German, Russian, and Polish editions, each of which starts not with a Rule 1 but with an entire Section of rules that don't count towards the total of sixteen, setting out 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.
Aa,a as in „last“ Bb,b as in „be“ Cc,ts as in „wits“ Ĉĉ,ch as in „church“ Dd,d as in „do“ Ee,a as in „make“ Ff,f as in „ﬂy“
Yes, the punctuation is in Polish… but more significantly, these are really rather shoddy pronunciation guides. As an RP‐speaker I'm advised to pronounce a and e as [ɑː] and [eɪ], while the versions in other languages say to use [a] and [ɛ] – or [e] if you're French. Francophones are also told that c is pronounced as in “tsar”, which (depending on what French dictionary you believe) might mean [dz] or just [z].
Gg,g as in „gun“ Ĝĝ,j as in „join“ Hh,h as in „half“ Ĥĥ,strongly aspirated h, „ch“ in „loch“ (scotch) Ii,i as in „marine“ Jj,y as in „yoke“ Ĵĵ,z as in „azure“
Calling ĥ a “strongly aspirated h” is quack linguistics; extra aspiration just produces a louder [h]. If Zamenhof had bothered to ask a phonetician he'd have learned that the sound in Scots “loch” is the voiceless velar fricative [x].
Kk,k as in „key“ Ll,l as in „line“ Mm,m as in „make“ Nn,n as in „now“ Oo,o as in „not“ Pp,p as in „pair“ Rr,r as in „rare“
The French are clearly instructed to pronounce o as [o]; Poles are equally clearly told to use [ɔ]; and anglophones… well, it might mean [ɒ], [ɔ], [ɑ], or a variety of other things depending on your accent. If it's like mine, you'll probably pronounce r two different ways in the one word “rare”.
Ss,s as in „see“ Ŝŝ,sh as in „show“ Tt,t as in „tea“ Uu,u as in „bull“ Ŭŭ,u as in „mount“ (used in diphthongs) Vv,v as in „very“ Zz,z as in „zeal“
Anglophones are told u is [ʊ]; everyone else is told it's [u]. And as for ŭ, the French are instructed to say it as in German “laut” and the Poles are just told it's “short”… even though both languages have native [w] sounds!
Remark. — If it be found impraticable to print works with the diacritical signs (ˆ,˘ ), the letter h may be substituted for the sign (ˆ), and the sign (˘ ), may be altogether omitted.
Assuming he means “impractical”, this is a fairly generous license to write ĉirkaŭaĵojn as, um, cʰirkauajʰojn or something.
B) PARTS OF SPEECH
Despite the name, this section 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.
The French and Russian versions of this document (but not the German or Polish ones) 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 Parisian 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 ŝipo, right?
The comparative degree is formed by preﬁxing pli (more); the superlative by plej (most).
Oh no it isn't – prefixing would give pliblanka, “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 (“very”) precede the word they modify.
The word “than” is rendered by ol, e. g. pli blank'a ol neĝ'o, “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; do they inflect for number? After all, this very rule goes on to use the plural forms “tens” and “hundreds”!
They are :
unu (1), du (2), tri (3), kvar (4), kvin (5), ses (6), sep (7), ok (8), naŭ (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. 583 = kvin'cent tri'dek tri.
Yes, that's a typo in the English version of the original; it should be 533.
Ordinals are formed by adding the adjectival a to the cardinals, e. g. unu'a, “ﬁrst”; du'a, “second”, etc.
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 “triple” or “threefold” could just have been different adjective senses of the root tri.
Fractionals add on, as du'on'o, “a half”; kvar'on'o, “a quarter”.
Thus tridek duonoj, “thirty halves”; tridek‐duonoj, “thirty‐seconds”; tri dekduonoj, “three twelfths”; fractions are regular nouns. It's only the integers named above that are indeclinable: “add a 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, “ﬁe apiece”.
That's a clone of the Russian preposition по, 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; ŝi, she; ĝi, 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, “to be fractional”!
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”.
Note that “mine”. Like ordinals, Esperanto possessive pronouns can occur in the role of verbal arguments (as in English: “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 :
a) The present tense ends in as, e. g. mi far'as, “I do”.
b) The past tense ends in is, e. g. li far'is, “he did”.
c) The future tense ends in os, e. g. ili far'os, “they will do”.
Tense‐marking is fetishised; aspect‐marking is marginalised.
ĉ) The subjunctive mood ends in us, e. g. ŝi far'us, “the may do”.
d) The imperative mood ends in u, e. g. ni far'u, “let us do”.
e) 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 subjunctive? (Also, two typos: “she” written “the”, and far'i without its flyspeck.)
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 “the” 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.
f) 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 phrase. And
DOING is probably used as a sound‐effect more often than as
an appropriate translation for farante!
g) The past participle active ends in int, e. g. far'int'a, “he who has done”; far'int'e, “having done”.
ĝ) 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 (not to mention pronouns)?
h) The present participle passive ends in at, e. g. far'at'e, “being done”.
ĥ) The past participle passive ends in it, e. g. far'it'a, “that which has been done”; far'it'e, “having been done”.
i) 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. ŝi est'as am'at'a de ĉiu'j, “she is loved by every one”.
Remember how “he” definitely “did” and “the father does” while “she” only “may do”? Remember how the active participles mean “he who”? Whereas now “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 – these “small lines” don't even appear in the Esperanto portions of the Fundamento! What's more, each translation has its own conflicting version; the French edition for instance says the lines are standard (but optional in correspondence with fluent speakers), while the Polish shows them as slashes and gives no explanation.
Grammatical terminations are considered as independent words. E. g. vapor'ŝip'o, “steamboat” is composed of the roots vapor, “steam”, and ŝip, “a boat”, with the substantival termination o.
Thus in vaporŝipoj the plural‐marker grammatical termination j is the principal word.
12. If there be one negative in a clause, a second is not admissible.
Asking “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 speakers 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!
15. In phrases answering the question “where ?” (meaning direction), the words take the termination of the objective case;
More evidence that Zamenhof needed better glasses. And somebody must have told him 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 “where did 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 “from” and “since”.
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, ĝoj'i je tio, “to rejoice over it”;
That “it” being an unlisted pronoun. (Oh, it's not a “personal” pronoun, like ĝi 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 versions of this text that I've seen allow for ‐n only to mark accusative or dative, and say 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 teatrical'a), etc.
“No change” is a blatant lie; for instance, “quasar” 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 ones like “theatre”. But Esperanto doesn't have any older, “native” vocabulary!
16. The a of the article, and ﬁnal o of substantives, may be sometimes dropped euphoniae gratia,
That's “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, Ŝiller’ for Ŝiller'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 Ŝiller’? 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.