Justin B Rye [MAIL] 2007–2013

Ranto Appendix – Y


But, surely, Justin – you must be aware that there's an official source for all the answers about Esperanto grammar:

Fundamento de Esperanto


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:



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.

A a,
a as in last
b as in be
ts as in wits
ch as in church
d as in do
a as in make
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].

g as in gun
j as in join
h as in half
strongly aspi­rated h, ch in loch (scotch)
i as in marine
y as in yoke
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].

k as in key
l as in line
m as in make
n as in now
o as in not
p as in pair
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.

s as in see
sh as in show
t as in tea
u as in bull
u as in mount (used in diphthongs)
v as in very
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.


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 oOther 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 uses 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, five 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.



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 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!

  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 as an accusative or dative marker 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.