Overview of Esperanto
- Word Building
Page 1 of 10
These pages give a concise overview of Esperanto grammar. They are not intended as a crash course for beginners or learners. There are many excellent online Esperanto courses, e.g. at Lernu.net Although Esperanto has an easy straightforward grammar with no irregularities, it still requires hard practice to achieve fluid thinking - a measure of mastery in any language.
As a language Esperanto sets out to 'do what it says on the tin'. It is designed to be clear, flexible, creative, a pleasure to speak and listen to. It has been demonstrated that learning Esperanto as your first 'foreign' language gives you the confidence you need to tackle another one! Here is a recent example of this finding.
Esperanto also carries its own unique philosophy or aspiration - to put everyone on as near equal footing as possible. It is nobody's sole language, nor does it aim to be. Rather its role is to protect other languages by enabling communication and friendship between people with different languages. At present all scientists who do not have English as their first tongue know they have to learn it, if they want to work in high-level scientific research. This means non-English speaking scientists have to spend years practising English. As a result their own languages become weaker and second-rank, culturally and commercially. Of course many people whose first language is English feel they do not need to make the effort to learn to speak another one.
In the following pages reference is made at times to English. This is not intended to criticise English or its speakers. It is just assumed that readers understand English and so may find the comparison helpful.
Page 2 of 10
VERBS -AS, -IS, -OS, -I, -U, -US
Esperanto verbs (action words) are always in the active form and have one of only six possible endings:-
|Ending and role
|-as present||Mi studas en Irlando||I study in Ireland / I am studying in Ireland|
|-is past||Vi estis tre kontenta tiam
||You were very content then|
|-os future||Ni iros al lia domo||We shall go to his house|
| -i infinitive
||Ridi kaj vivi kune||To laugh and (to) live together|
|-u imperative||Prenu mian manon, mi petas||Take my hand please|
|-us conditional||Se vi vidus lin, vi amus lin||If you saw / were to see him, you would love him|
In Esperanto the emphasis is always on the second last vowel. In the first two examples above, the emphasised bits are shown in red:- Say: Eer-lan-do; Vee es-tis treh kon-ten-tah tee-am. There is more on the sound of letters under the Letters, Adjectives and Accusatives pages, and on pronunciation on the Adverbs and Word Building pages.
Page 3 of 10
NOUNS - O, -OJ
All singular nouns (names for objects) in Esperanto end in the letter "o". All plural nouns add "j" (sounds like 'y') making their ending "-oj", pronounced "-oy" as in the word "boy".
Pronunciation note for column 3 above. Say:- 'daw-moy', 'ma-noy', 'vee-roj', 'fe-nes-troy', 'een-fa-noy', 'bo-voy', 'moo-soy'! In Esperanto the emphasis is always on the second last vowel, shown here in red.
Page 4 of 10
LETTERS OF THE ALPHABET
The Esperanto alphabet has 28 letters which give it 28 sounds:-
a b c ĉ d e f g ĝ h ĥ i j ĵ k l m n o p r s ŝ t u ŭ v z
Esperanto letters are pronounced the same way no matter where they occur in a word. Five letters have a 'hat' above them and a sixth a 'saucer'. These six (marked above in red ) are pronounced as follows:
|Esperanto Letter||Closest English sound|
|ĉ||'ch' in church|
|ĝ||'g' in gentle, 'dg' in lodge, 'j' in job|
|ĥ||'ch' in Scots loch, or in Welsh bach|
|ĵ||'s' in pleasure, leisure, vision|
|ŝ||'sh' in shall, 's' in 'surely', 'ch' in chagrin|
|ŭ||'w' in now|
Where 'hatted' letters are not available, ch, gh, hh, jh, sh and u can be used instead. Nowadays cx, gx, hx, jx, sx, and ux are used in informal communications such as email and instant messaging. This keeps words in alphabetical order! As 'hatted' letters become increasingly available, the preference is to use them. They look more elegant. The letter ĥ is very rare. The letter ŭ (a 'saucer' rather than a 'hat') comes most often with an 'a' in front - as in 'aŭ' in the table below. There is no need for English's q, w, x or y.
The remaining letters are pronounced much as they are in English, BUT
|Esperanto Letter(s)||Closest English sound|
|c||'ts' in tsunami, tsar, bits|
|e||'e' in get|
|i||'ee' in feet, 'ei' in receive, 'ie' in grief|
|j||'y' in yellow|
|o||'aw' in awl, 'ou' in bought|
|r||'rr' in barred (rolled tongue)|
|u||'oo' in boot|
|aj||'y' in my, 'ye' in dye, 'ie' in die, 'igh' in sigh|
|aŭ||'ow' in how, 'ough' in bough|
|ej||'ay' in day, 'eigh' in heigh|
|oj||'oy' in toy|
|uj||'ui' in ruin (said quickly)|
If the English langauge represented its sounds as well as Esperanto does, it would need at least 43 letters! The Initial Teaching Alphabet of the 1960's showed how such an alphabet would work. The five Esperanto vowels are pronounced the way an Italian, Greek or Spaniard would. They are medium-length, open, pure and clear - as in singing: ah, eh, ee, awe, oo! If speakers want an accent to imitate, Italian is often recommended, but not necessarily spoken as fast as Italians do! Esperanto may aim at 28 sounds, but in practice its sounds vary both from individual to individual and according to mother languages just as the shape of written letters vary. However with only five distinct vowels variant accents in Esperanto matter less than in many languages.
Page 5 of 10
ADJECTIVES - A, -AJ
All singular adjectives (describing words) end in "a". Copying the nouns they describe, plural adjectives are built by adding "j" (sounds like 'y'). Adjectives can come in front or after their noun. Examples:-
||a big man||grandaj viroj
||a beautiful woman||belaj virinoj
|blua ŝuo svedleda
||a blue suede shoe||bluaj ŝuoj svedledaj
||blue suede shoes|
||a multicoloured rainbow||du ĉielarkoj multkoloraj
||two multicoloured rainbows|
Esperanto does not have an equivalent for English 'a' or 'an'. For pronunciation see page 4 on letters. Hints: say 'gran-dye vee-roy', 'be-lie vee-ree-noy', chee-e-lar-koy, mult-ko-lo-rye etc.
In the examples above there are a number of longer words built from two shorter ones. Thus "sveda" means 'Swedish' and "ledo" means 'leather', so "svedledo" is 'suede leather' or just 'suede'. It is changed into an adjective by making the ending "-a". "Multa" means 'much' (or many) and "koloro" means 'colour', so "multkolora" means 'many-coloured'. Finally "ĉielo" means 'sky' or 'heaven' and "arko" means 'arc' or 'bow', so 'sky-arc' or 'skybow' is a 'rainbow'. Esperanto is constructed to encourage word-building like this. It is quite possible for a beginner to create a word that no-one has used before! Provided their newly minted word is built correctly they will be easily understood and congratulated.
The red portions are included only as a reminder that the emphasis is always on the second last vowel. In no way do they show how a word is built! The pages Word Building and Prepositions give many more details about word building as a very important feature of Esperanto.Top
Page 6 of 10
ADVERBS - E
In Esperanto adverbs (words describing actions rather than objects) are most formed from adjectives (or other words) by changing the ending to "-e". They can come in front or after the verb, but not necessarily closely.
|la rapida aŭto
||the fast car||La aŭto iras rapide
||The car goes quickly|
||a beautiful sky||La ĉielo bele brilas
||The sky shines beautifully|
||a soft cushion||Mole li tuŝis ŝian vangon
||Softly he touched her cheek|
||an effective speech||Ŝi parolis efike
||She spoke effectively|
||strong beer||La biero forte odoros de vinagro
||The beer will smell strongly of vinegar|
||a good singer||Ŝi povas tre bone kanti
||She can sing very well|
Besides adverbs made from other words, Esperanto has some 'pure' adverbs, a few of which appear on the Participles page. Adverbs are used much more freely and widely in Esperanto than in English. An adverb can be used to pack into one word what may take two or more words in English. For example, "La malsata viro voris la bifstekon kiel hundo" means 'The hungry man devoured the steak like a dog', but "La malsata viro voris hunde la bifstekon " means the same thing but because it is unusual and more creative it is more expressive and surprising. In Esperanto you can say "Ŝi manĝetis la panon birde" but in English you would have to say 'She nibbled the bread like a bird' or something similar. You might experiment with 'bird-wise'!"
You may have noticed in the fourth example above that the word "parolo" (speech) was changed into a verb, "parolis" (spoke), by simply substituting the 'o' noun-ending for the 'is' past-ending of a verb. This is a very powerful feature of Esperanto - the ability to change a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb into any of the other three - and is thoroughly exploited by the speakers of the language.
The red portions are included only as a reminder that the emphasis is always on the second last vowel. In no way do they show how a word is built! All sounds and syllables need to be clearly spoken - not slurred as often in English. Fika parolo is a very rude expression. La biero fote odoros means the beer will 'smell like a photo' or 'as in a photo' - both unlikely.
Page 7 of 10
ACCUSATIVES - N
For English speakers probably the t r i c k i e s t aspect of Esperanto is adding the "n" ending, often called the accusative ending. A better name might be the 'clarity' ending but that term is unknown to grammarians! The "n" ending is added to a word following any other ending it might have (see footnote below). It can play three1 separate roles but this page deals with only one of them - the one used for clarifying who or what is directly affected by an action (the direct object of the verb) in contrast to who or what carries it out (the subject of the verb).
English makes the distinction between who or what acts (subject) and who or what is acted upon (object) by fixing the order of words. First the actor (subject of the action) is named, secondly comes the action (verb) and thirdly the direct object of the action. So in 'Man bites dog!' the 'man' is the actor (subject), 'bites' is the action (verb) and 'dog' (object) gets bitten! Change the word order for yourself to test different meanings.
Esperanto shows the distinction by the endings of the words. So in "Viro mordas hundon" the bare "o" shows who acts, the added "n" shows who suffers from the action. For sake of effect one could say "Hundon mordas viro" - probably with a special tone of voice to draw attention to this less than usual event!. The dog would still suffer.
Because 'endings' are not the way such distinctions are done in English, English speakers of Esperanto often experience initial difficulties. However Esperanto's method does appear in English personal pronouns. English says 'I helped him', not 'I helped he' - "Mi helpis lin" in Esperanto. So 'him' is the accusative form of 'he' in English.
The table below shows the changes in the pronouns in red:-
|English Pronouns - Subject / Object
||Esperanto Pronouns - Subject / Object
|I help Peter
||Peter helps me||mi helpas Petron
||Petro helpas min|
|You help Peter
||Peter helps you||vi helpas Petron
||Petro helpas vin|
|He helps Peter
||Peter helps him||li helpas Petron
||Petro helpas lin|
|She helps Peter
||Peter helps her||ŝi helpas Petron
||Petro helpas ŝin|
|It helps Peter
||Peter helps it||ĝi helpas Petron
||Petro helpas ĝin|
|We help Peter
||Peter helps us||ni helpas Petron
||Petro helpas nin|
|They help Peter
||Peter helps them|| ili helpas Petron
||Petro helpas ilin|
Observe Esperanto's consistent system for nouns and pronouns.
Freedom of word order in Esperanto allows much flexibility - "Mi lin helpis", "Lin mi helpis", "Lin helpis mi", "Helpis mi lin". All these mean "I helped him" but with differences in rhythm and nuance. These 'twists' can be expressed in English by using special wording, such as "It was him I helped".- or maybe it should be "It was he I helped"? Similarly, 'It was me who helped him'.
Because of the insistent regularity of Esperanto the "n" ending is applied to all direct objects, whether pronouns, nouns or adjectives (see below). "Ŝi portis sakon" - "She carried a bag" - is unambigous Esperanto. Nevertheless "Ŝi portis sako", although possibly confusing in some contexts, would in practice be understood by most Esperanto speakers!
As stated on the page on Adjectives they copy noun endings: "Mi manĝis verdan pomon" - "I ate a green apple" and "Ni havas du ruĝajn pomojn" - "We have two red apples". These examples show what is called 'agreement' between adjectives and nouns. Once English speakers get the idea and remember their 'n's, this feature of Esperanto usually causes few difficulties. It adds considerably to the clarity, rhythm and musicality of Esperanto - essential qualities in a language designed to be spoken by people with different first languages. Compare Esperanto's use of only five clear musical vowels, all medium in length (see Letters page).
The red portions on this page are NOT used to show emphasis, just different endings.
Pronounce ruĝajn pomojn 'roo-jeye-n paw-moyn'. 1You can find out the other two roles where the -n ending gives Esperanto increased clarity in any good textbook.
Page 8 of 10
PARTICIPLES -ANT-, -INT-, -ONT-, -AT-, -IT-, -OT-
Esperanto can make participles or verbal adjectives from verbs (action words) which include both when the action happens and whether the person or thing described carries it out or is on the receiving end. English often uses a phrase for the same job or finds a totally different expression. In the example below the basic idea is 'manĝ' - eat. The participle idea is added first, then the adjective ending.
|Active - source of action
||Passive - receiving the action
||(having been) eaten|
||going to eat||manĝota
||going to be eaten|
Grammarians call verbal adjectives 'participles' as these forms are part verb and part adjective. Here are some more examples:-
|Kantantaj birdoj sorĉas min||Singing birds enchant me|
|Mi vidis la brulintan arbon||I saw the (having) burnt tree|
|La irontaj birdoj malgajigis min||The (about to be) departing bird saddened me.|
|Manĝataj kukoj rapide malaperas||Cakes (being) eaten quickly disappear|
|La batitaj tamburoj estas nun silentaj||The (have been) beaten drums are now silent|
|Rigardu al la kuirotaj ingrediencoj!||Look at the ingredients about to be cooked.|
Esperanto, like English, has not got simple words for passive actions, i.e. where the person or thing is passively acted upon. So like in English, participles have been used for this purpose: for example "Li estas vidita de la knabino" - "He has (just) been seen by the girl" and "Li estos vidita de la knabino" - "He will be (just) seen by the girl". However Esperanto speakers generally prefer to avoid these "compound verbs" and say directly "La knabino ĵus vidis lin" or for special effect "Lin la knabino ĵus vidis" - 'The girl has / had just seen him'. Esperanto uses "oni" to avoid naming an actor, for example: "Oni ne rajtas sidi tie" - 'You may not (have no right to) sit there'. This is not considered rude, but clear and elegant.
Verbal adjectives are very often changed to adverbs, i.e. the ending "e" replacing the ending "a". Like all adverbs these forms describe the actions. They always relate to the subject of the action. Examples:-
|Vidinte la knabinon, li ekamis ŝin||Having seen (on seeing) the girl, he fell in love with her|
|Alveninte en la urbo, mi decidis viziti vin||Having arrived in town, I decided to visit you|
When a verbal adjective is changed into a noun, i.e. the ending "o" replacing the ending "e", it normally refers to a person. Examples:-
|La amanto||The lover|
|La amato||The loved one|
|Ŝia aminto||Her past lover (the one who used to love her, i.e. her ex-lover|
|Ŝia amito||Her past loved one (the one she used to love)|
|La prezidanto||the presiding one, i.e. the president|
|la prezidintoj||the former presidents, the ex-presidents|
Verbal adjectives are a very common type of word in Esperanto.
Unfortunately verbal adjectives have been often mis-used in Esperanto by English speakers - and speakers of some other languages. People try to mimic the compound tenses of English or their own first language. Some older text books recommended expressions such as "Mi estas leganta la novan libron" - 'I am reading the book, "Mi estas leginta la novan libron" - 'I have read (am having-ready) the new book' and many such like. However Esperanto speakers generally prefer to avoid compound verbs in favour of simple ones, adding where helpful an adverb like "jam" - 'already', "nun" - 'now', or "baldaŭ" - 'soon', to emphasise timing where necessary. For example "Mi nun legas la novan libron" - 'I am (now) reading the new book', "Mi jam legis la novan libron" - 'I have (already) read the new book' .
The red portions are included only as a reminder that the emphasis is always on the second last vowel. In no way do they show how a word is built!
Page 9 of 10
WORD BUILDERS - AFFIXES
As has been shown on the Adjectives page Esperanto encourages joining words together to build new ones. However it also has a specially designed set of word builders known collectively as affixes. These can be attached to the front of a word (prefix) or added at its end (suffix) - before any grammatical ending is added. The placing of the hyphen in the list below shows whether the affix is added to the front or rear of the word. The spoken emphasis always stays on the second last vowel in the total word.
Examples of affixes:-
||precise opposite, contrary of||malami
||to hate (ami - to love)|
||empty (plena - full)|
||again, once more, repeat, re-||reveni
||to return, come back (veni - to come)|
|-aĉ||in a very poor state||domaĉo||hovel (domo - house)|
|-aĵ||object, stuff, material related to||manĝaĵo||meal, food[stuff] (manĝi - to eat)|
|ditto||heredaĵo||heritage (heredi - to inherit)|
||collective of, group of||arbaro
||wood (arbo - tree)|
||directory (adreso - address)|
|-ebl||possible, capable of, -ble||portebla||portable (porti - to carry)|
|ditto||rompebla||fragile, breakable (rompi - to break)|
||quality of, -ness, -ity, -ship||amikeco
||friendship, friendliness (amiko - friend)|
||augmentative of, super-sized||bonega
||excellent (bona - good)|
||a mansion (domo - house)|
||garage (aŭto - car)|
||kitchen, cookhouse (kuiri - cook)|
|-em||tending to, inclined to||parolema||talkative (paroli - to talk, speak)|
||small part of, bit of||panero
||breadcrumb (pano - bread)|
||booklet (libro - book)|
||puppy (hundo - dog)|
||cause to, render, -ify||unuigi
||unify (unu - one)|
||whiten (blanka - white)|
||become, come to be||flaviĝi
||turn yellow (flava - yellow)|
||a tool, instrument for||ŝlosilo
||key (ŝlosi - to lock)|
||ewe (ŝafo - sheep in general)|
||worth of, -worthy||vidinda
||worth seeing (vidi - to see)|
|-ul||person (sometimes animal)||bonulo||a good fellow|
The use of affixes in this regular and creative way is a very powerful feature of Esperanto, allowing a relatively small stock of words to express a great many ideas. You may observe some affixes express an emotional content. Like other modern languages Esperanto has also a special set of affixes for scientific and technical terminology, which you can find in any good dictionary.
The red portions are shown here only as a reminder that the emphasis is always on the second last vowel. In no way do they show how a word is built! Indeed compound words are not pronounced according to their substructure but according to their syllables, using open syllables where possible. So 'malami' is pronounced 'ma-la-mi' and 'vidinda' as 'vi-din-da'. The emphasis is on 'la' and 'din' even though these words are each built from three smaller units, 'mal' + 'am' + 'i' and 'vid' + 'ind' + 'a'.
Page 10 of 10
PREPOSITIONS - POSITION WORDS PLUS MORE WORD BUILDING
Esperanto defines prepositions precisely and narrowly, insisting that they are used logically wherever possible. It even possesses a special preposition for use when no clear logical relationship seems available.
|al - to, towards
||ekster - outside||laŭ - according to, along||sen - without|
|anstataŭ - instead of||el - out of||malgraŭ - notwithstanding||sub - under, beneath|
|antaŭ - in front of, before, ago||en - in||per - by means of||super - above|
|apud - near, close by||ĝis - until, as far as||po - at the rate of||sur - on, upon|
|ĉe - at, next to||inter - between||por - for, in order to||tra - through|
|ĉirkaŭ - (a)round, about||je - not defined||post - after, behind||trans - across|
|da - quantity of||kontraŭ - against, opposite||preter - beyond, past|
|de - of, by, from||krom - except, apart from||pri - concerning, about|
|dum - during||kun - with||pro - because of, owing to|
A preposition makes the role of its accompanying noun unmistakable. An additional ending is not needed in Esperanto - unlike in many languages (including sometimes English).
|La kato lekis la lakton per sia lango||the cat licked the milk with its tongue|
|La aglo flugis super la arbarego||The eagle flew over the forest|
|Mi sidis apud li||I sat beside him|
Note English changed from 'he' to him' in the third example.
More Word Building
The Word Building page shows how to build words using affixes. However affixes are also words in their own right. You can use them to make adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs and so on. Examples:-
|Eta birdo||A tiny bird|
|Ŝiaj idoj||Her offspring|
|Tiu ulo||That fellow|
|Ni manĝos kune||We shall eat together (i.e. withly!)|
|Por ili vino anstataŭas akvon||For them wine replaces water|
|La vento senigis lin de lia preferata ĉapelo||The wind deprived him of his favourite hat|
Prepositions can also be used in word building. Examples:-
|Surportu la ruĝan jakon||Carry on (yourself) the red jacket, i.e. Wear the red jacket|
|Eligilo||An extractor (see footnote)|
In the tables of examples above 'sen+ig+as' and 'eligilo' are words built entirely out of prepositions, affixes and endings. There is not what you might have considered an 'ordinary' word among them. Everything in Esperanto is a potential building block. It is this power, flexibility, creativity and simplicity which make Esperanto such an endearing language to its speakers.
Esperanto indeed 'does what it says on the tin!' - "Ĝi plenumas la skatolan promeson!" (It fulfils the tin's promise). Why Esperanto has not been enthusiastically adopted by the world at large is probably not because of its intrinsic qualities (although some have argued so) but because of a multitude of other factors in the equation - economic and political power, international jealousies, fear of loss of influence, willingness to accept the status quo, (more recently) faith in technological solutions, etc. These are issues beyond the scope of this overview.
'Eligilo' is 'a device or tool (il) for causing (ig) something to be out of (el) something else'. While this may seem a bit contrived, it is in fact no worse than the English word 'extractor' itself. 'Ex-tract-or' is built from 'ex' ('out of' in Latin), 'tract' ('dragged' in Latin) and '-or' ('something which does something' in Old French). At times in English we might dare to say 'an outgetter' or ' a getter-outer'. No? We would probably be understood, but mocked. In Esperanto we would more likely be congratulated.
The red portions are included only as a reminder that the emphasis is always on the second last vowel. In no way do they show how a word is built!
This overview is indebted to the Scottish Esperanto Association.