A Major Difficulty of Esperanto
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the sixteenth chapter of Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village. You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies. You may not post this material to any site. You are invited to insert links to this site. For any other use, including publication, you must first get permission.
There is one feature of Esperanto which creates a considerable learning load for many students. They have to spend some time practicing the use of the ending –n which is often referred to as “the accusative ending.”
The –n ending has three uses in Esperanto.
I The –n ending indicates the DIRECT OBJECT
The most common use of the accusative ending, –n, is to indicate the direct object of a verb.
Some verbs are said to be intransitive. If I say, “He laughed”, you don’t ask, “What did he laugh?” He just laughed. The action just happened. “He laughed” is a complete sentence all by itself.
Some verbs are said to be transitive. If I say, “He chased”, you expect me to go on and say what or whom he chased. Until I do so, I have not provided you with a complete sentence. “He chased” is not a sentence but only a fragment of a sentence. You need to add a direct object, that which was chased, as in the complete sentence, “He chased the thief.”
In English, we use word order to tell who did the chasing (the subject of the sentence) and who or what was chased (the direct object of the sentence.) We give the subject (the one doing the chasing) first; the verb, second; and the object (the one that was chased) third. Because of this feature, English is called an SVO (subject-verb-object) language:
Because the key element in English is word order, if we change the word order we drastically change the meaning of the sentence. Because these two sentences have different word orders, they have different meanings:
Many languages use some other word order to indicate which word is the subject and which word is the object. Japanese is one of a very large number of languages that puts the verb last. It is a SOV (subject-object-verb) language. Other languages put the verb first. These are VSO (verb-subject-object) languages. There are even a few languages which put the subject last. These are OVS (object-verb-subject) languages.
Then there is an entirely different kind of language which does not use word order to indicate the subject and the object. This kind of language uses different grammatical markers, such as endings, to identify the subject and the object. One well-known language of this kind is Latin. Here are two Latin sentences which mean exactly the same thing. Even though the word order in these two sentences are quite different, they both mean: “Man bites dog.”
“Dog” in Latin is “canis” when it is the subject. It becomes “canem” when it is the object of the action. In the same way, “man” in Latin is “homo” when it is the subject, but “man” becomes “hominem” when it is the object of the action.
Here are two further sentences. Each of these sentences mean: “Dog bites man.”
In Latin, as we have seen, “canis” becomes “canem” when it serves as the direct object. Here Latin turns –is to –em. In Latin “homo” becomes “hominem” when it serves as the direct object. Here Latin turns –o to inem.
Esperanto uses the same method that Latin uses in order to indicate the direct object of a sentence. However, unlike Latin, it always does so in the same way.
In Esperanto all nouns take the ending –o. Esperanto adds an –n in order to create the direct object. Thus “hundo” means “dog” and “hundon” means “dog” as a direct object. The corresponding words for human being are homo and homon.
Here are four Esperanto sentences, each of which means: “Man bites dog.” (“Man” here is used in the generic sense of “human being.”)
Here are four Esperanto sentences, each of which means “Dog bites man.”
There is a big advantage to this system of indicating the direct object by means of an ending. Speakers or writers can put any term they wish at the beginning of the sentence in order to emphasize its importance. In the subject-object-verb system of English, speakers or writers cannot rearrange the elements of an English sentence in this way without altering the meaning of the sentence.
If Esperantists want to emphasize, for instance, that a man is biting a dog, they could say, “Mordas homo hundon.” If they want to emphasize the fact that it is a dog that is being bitten, they could say, “Hundon homo mordas.” And so on.
The accusative ending –n gives users of Esperanto enormous flexibility in word order. By following a single, rigid rule (Add –n to a noun that is used as a direct object) Esperantists gain tremendous freedom in arranging words to suit their taste and their goals in communication.
A second benefit of this direct object ending is that people who learn Esperanto can start out by using the same word order they have used in their native tongue. Let us take as an example the very simple sentence, “I love you.” The English word order for this particular sentence is SVO. The French word order for this particular sentence is SOV. (“Je t’aime.”)
An English speaker learning Esperanto can naturally (and correctly) say, “I love you”:
A French speaker learning Esperanto can naturally (and correctly) say, “Je t’aime” (I you love):
These are two benefits of using the accusative ending –n to indicate the direct object: (a) great flexibility in word order which enables users of the language to emphasize whichever element they want to and (b) the ability of new learners of the language to use the same kind of word order that they are accustomed to use when speaking their native tongue.
A third benefit is even more crucial than these two. Using the accusative to indicate the direct object promotes clarity. When people who speak dozens or hundreds of different native tongues use a common international language to communicate with each other, they are using a language in which they have relatively limited experience. I have now been working with Esperanto over a period of thirteen years. During that time I estimate that I have spent five thousand hours or so with this language. I have spent a reasonable amount of time speaking Esperanto and a great deal more time writing and reading in it. I calculate that over a period of forty-five years I have spent some eight thousand hours with French, mainly in reading the language. However, this time spent on these two languages is only a very tiny fraction of the time I have spent using English, my native language, reading, writing, speaking and dreaming in it. It is reasonable to estimate that I have spent 6000 hours a year using English for about sixty-three of my first sixty-five years. This comes out to some 378,000 hours. This is an enormous amount of experience with English. Look at this comparison:
|Language||Hours of experience||% of hours|
Naturally my English is far better than either my French or my Esperanto. Because of the enormous amount of time I have spent speaking, listening, writing, reading, dreaming and thinking in English, I can catch the subtleties of the language, I can figure out what is being said by the context, I can compensate for the mispronunciation of poor speakers of the language and know what they are saying.
Suppose students do not spend tens or hundreds of thousands of hours with a language that is being used for international communication but only hundreds of hours. They will not have anywhere near the familiarity with the language that native speakers of a language have. It makes sense to use little invariable grammatical markers to let them know beyond any doubt which words are adjectives, which are adverbs, which are verbs, which are nouns and which are nouns that are being used as direct objects.
Gaston Waringhien gives a number of sentences in his native French which he uses to show how sentences can be taken in two senses. French, like English, uses only word order to indicate which nouns are the direct objects in sentences. If we translate many of Waringhien’s sentences into English, the same difficulty remains. Here are two of these sentences, translated into English or slightly adapted, along with others which Waringhien translated from other unplanned languages which, like English and French, do not have a grammatical marker for the direct object:
1. Faithful or not, he loved her.
2. Smith insulted the president more violently than the previous speaker.
These sentences are ambiguous in English. Each of these sentences may mean either one of two things because there is no marker to indicate the direct object. For instance, the first sentence is ambiguous because it is not clear whether it is the man or the woman who may or may not be faithful. (This is no trivial matter. It makes a lot of difference which individual the writer is claiming may be unfaithful.)
Let us see how the English sentences are ambiguous and how the Esperanto sentences cannot be ambiguous:
- (English). The English sentence Faithful or not, he loved her could mean either of these:
(First possible meaning) He loved her whether he was faithful to her or not.
[In this case faithful modifies the subject, he, who might be faithful or not.]
(Second possible meaning ) He loved her even though she might not have been faithful to him.
[In this case faithful modifies the direct object, her, a woman who might be faithful or not.]
In English the context will often make the meaning clear, at least for native speakers who have hundreds of thousands of hours of experience with the language. In English conversation, the tone of the speaker’s voice will often make the meaning clear. But for the foreigner who has just had a few hundred hours to spend with the language it is very helpful and often crucial to have a little marker that tells which word is the direct object.
The corresponding sentences in Esperanto would be clear to someone with just a few hundred hours of experience with the language because the presence or absence of the accusative ending –n would make the matter clear. This is how it would work in Esperanto:
The first way of translating Faithful or not, he loved her into Esperanto conveys the first possible meaning of the sentence but not the second:
(First meaning) Fidela aŭ ne, li amis ŝin.
This means that he was the one who may have been faithful or not. This is because both fidela and li are the subject of the sentence. This is obvious because they do not have the direct object n-ending.
The second way of translating Faithful or not, he loved her into Esperanto conveys the second possible meaning of the sentence and not the first meaning:
(Second meaning) Fidelan aŭ ne, li amis ŝin
This means that he loved her whether she was faithful or not. This is because both fidelan and ŝin are what is loved, i.e. are part of the direct object. They both have the direct object n-ending.
The second sentence provides a more sophisticated example of how Esperanto avoids the ambiguity of English:
- (English). The English sentence, Smith insulted the president more violently than the previous speaker could mean either of these:
(First possible meaning) Smith insulted the president more violently than the previous speaker had insulted the president.
[In this case speaker is a subject, someone who has also dealt out insults to the president.]
(Second possible meaning) Smith insulted the president more violently than Smith had insulted the previous speaker.
[In this case speaker is a direct object, someone who, like the president, has been insulted by Smith.]
In Esperanto if the previous speaker was doing the insulting (i.e. was a subject) the Esperanto words for the previous speaker, “la antaŭa parolanto”, would not have the n-ending:
The first way of translating Smith insulted the president more violently than the previous speaker into Esperanto translates the first possible meaning of the sentence but not the second:
(First meaning) Smith insultis la prezidenton pli krude ol la antaŭa parolanto.
This means that the previous speaker also insulted the president.
In Esperanto if the previous speaker was another person who was insulted by Smith, the Esperanto words for the previous speaker would take the direct object n-ending.
The second way of translating Smith insulted the president more violently than the previous speaker into Esperanto translates the second possible meaning of the sentence and not the first:
(Second meaning) Smith insultis la prezidenton pli krude ol la antaŭan parolanton
This means that the previous speaker was also the object of Smith’s insults. The fact that la antaŭan parolanton was the object (of Smith’s insults) is clearly indicated by the direct object n-ending.
In both these sentences prezidenton with its n-ending is clearly the direct object. In the first sentence antaŭa parolanto is a second subject. In the second antaŭan parolanton is a second direct object.
Umberto Eco, the Italian semiotician has praised Esperanto as a masterpiece. He points out that Zamenhof often chose to make the grammar of his language more powerful rather than settling for a less effective simplicity. As an example of this, Eco points to the accusative ending.
2 The -n ending indicates DIRECTION
Consider this English sentence:
- The child jumps on the bed.
In this form the sentence is ambiguous. It can mean either that the child was already on the bed and is in the process of jumping on it or that the child was not on the bed but jumps onto it.
Esperanto makes this distinction clear by means of the accusative ending –n. Here are the sentences in Esperanto:
- La infano saltas sur la lito.
(The child was already on the bed. Now the child is jumping on it.)
- La infano saltas sur la liton.
(The child was not on the bed. He is jumping onto it.)
Here are some other examples:
- La infano marŝas en la domo.
(“The child is walking in the house.” He was already in the house, and now he is walking inside of it.)
- La infano marŝas en la domon.
(“The child is walking into the house.” He was outside, but now he is entering the house.)
This is a second use of the -n ending.
3 The -n ending used IN PLACE OF A PREPOSITION
One of the great difficulties in learning a language such as English or French is learning the correct use of the prepositions. Moving from one language to another, there often seems to be no logic to the use of prepositions.
When I was a ninth grade student I started studying French. I studied many vocabulary lists. The vocabulary items for prepositions were terribly misleading, although I did not fully recognize this for decades to come. They would give the preposition à and say that it meant “to.” They would give the preposition dans and say it meant “in.” According to the textbook de meant “of.”
In fact this is very misleading. This is how they should have translated de: to, for, of, in, with, off of, by. They should have done something similar with most of the other prepositions.
I am not exaggerating at all. To show how arbitrary is the use of prepositions I will give a number of French translations of the English preposition to with examples and then a number of English translations of the French preposition à with examples. This will show how a single preposition from one language is translated by any number of prepositions from the other language, depending on the accompanying words. An English speaker who studies French has an enormous job of learning the many different French equivalents for the English prepositions. A French speaker who studies English has the same kind of enormous task. Most students of French and English never master the use of prepositions in their new language. (Something similar can be done with other pairs of languages.)
Afterwards I will show how much simpler this task can be in Esperanto.”
|to the opera||à l’opéra.|
|to France||en France|
|to express my feelings||pour exprimer mes sentiments|
|the train to Paris||le train de Paris|
|in time to the music||en mesure avec la musique|
|to be tired||être fatigué|
English Translations of the French Preposition à
1. Sometimes English speakers use the preposition “about”:
|rêver à quelque chose||to dream about something|
2. Sometimes English speakers use the preposition “to”:
|aller à l’école||to go to school|
3. Sometimes English speakers use the preposition “at”:
|être à la maison||to be at home|
4. Sometimes English speakers use the preposition “by”:
|être payé à l’heure||to be paid by the hour|
5. Sometimes English speakers use the preposition “for”:
|ce n’ést pas à moi de le dire||it’s not for me to say|
6. Sometimes English speakers use the preposition “in”:
|il l’a fait à sa manière||he did it in his own way|
There are other possibilities as well.
Prepositions are little words that combine with nouns or pronouns to form a phrase. They show how one element in a sentence relates to another element in the sentences. Prepositions are used so differently in these two languages that the student must individually memorize very large numbers of individual usages. Very few students succeed in this Herculean task.
Esperanto prepositions can be somewhat complicated too. However, whereas languages like English and French require the use of prepositions, which must be learned individually, Esperanto provides ways of dispensing with the use of a particular preposition. In doubtful cases the user of Esperanto is free to utilize the all-purpose preposition “je” (pronounced like “yet” without the “t”) which has no specific meaning but which may be used to show that some relationship exists. If writers or speakers do not want to use “je” they may use the accusative ending –n in place of that preposition.
In English, we can say: “We hear music.” The verb “hear” requires a direct object. The same is true in Esperanto:
In English we cannot say, “We listen music.” We have to say, “We listen to music.” In Esperanto we can follow this form too:
|Ni||aŭskultas||al la muziko.|
|We||listen||to (the) music.|
However, let us suppose an Esperantist cannot remember which preposition is used with “listen.” One way out is for him or her to say:
|Ni||aŭskultas||je la muziko.|
|We||listen||to (the) music.|
Another way is to use the accusative ending -n:
|We||listen||(to) (the) music.|
Here the direct object ending –n is one of the means available to solve a problem for speakers of Esperanto, the problem of whether or not they can use a particular preposition with a verb.
The Cost-Benefit Ratio of the Ending “–n”
These then are three uses of the accusative ending –n:
(1) to show the direct object clearly and unambiguously,
(2) to show movement into or onto something and
(3) to replace a preposition.
The benefits are very great. This is why the early users of Esperanto voted down the proposal to do away with the accusative ending, –n.
However, although the benefits are very great, the cost is also great. It takes a great deal of work to acquire the habit of using the accusative ending. Practice and repeated practice is necessary. Many Esperantists who otherwise speak well forget to use this ending. Fortunately, in practice this does not often lead to misunderstanding.
The most common word order in Esperanto is subject-verb-object as in Mi aĉetis la aŭtomobilon (I bought the car). Although, as we have seen, Esperantists freely use other word orders for emphasis, this SVO word order has become a kind of a standard. In practice Esperantists who neglect to use the accusative ending use this word order to indicate the direct object. That is to say, they use the same method to indicate the direct object as English does.
By leaving out the direct object ending they are making a small grammatical mistake, perhaps of the caliber of the common English mistake of confusing the verbs to lie and to lay. By sticking rigidly to the SVO word order they are forgoing the flexibility of word order afforded by the accusative ending. But for purposes of everyday communication in speaking and in correspondence they are clear enough.
On a level of writing or speaking where precision is important and where Esperantists wish to use the placement of words to achieve emphasis, the correct usage is available. It will always be understood.
There is no doubt that having to master the accusative ending –n places a considerable learning burden on students of Esperanto, a learning burden which students of French and English do not have. In exchange for putting in a lot of work practicing the use of this ending, students of Esperanto gain a number of benefits:
(1a) great flexibility in sentence structure,
(1b) the freedom to use the same sentence structure which the learners use in their native tongues,
(1c) an ability to be perfectly clear always about who is performing the action and on whom the action is being performed,
(2) a method of expressing direction into something or onto something, and
(3) a method of avoiding errors involving prepositions.
If newcomers or even fairly experienced Esperantists forget the n-ending to indicate the direct object, they can always fall back on word order, something that is not correct, but a method that will work and one which more experienced Esperantists will not make a fuss about when it is a matter of conversation or casual correspondence.
Very often, in fact, Esperantists use two methods to indicate the direct object, the accusative ending and the SVO word order. This redundancy, as Waringhien has pointed out, is very useful when people who speak different native languages are communicating in a common third language which they use only occasionally.
In the case of the –n ending the learning burden for the student of Esperanto is certainly high. The advantages, however, are considerable. In terms of the cost-benefit ratio, as Esperantists generally see it, the costs are high but the benefits are very high.
Zamenhof believed that this trade-off was more than worthwhile. The community of users of Esperanto voted and made the decision that the advantage of the –n ending were such that it should be kept. Once the early Esperantists voted to keep the –n ending, Zamenhof was adamant about keeping it. He was not going to let people continuously tinker with the basic structure of a language of a living community, a language which he hoped would eventually bring the people of the world together. He was not going to endorse continual tinkering with the language, tinkering which would discourage others from learning it, because they would soon realize that anything they learned could soon be made obsolete by the tinkerers.