Chapter 18
Two More Difficulties of Esperanto

Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft.  Here is the eighteenth 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. 

Esperanto is not without problems for the student.  Because an enormous number of Esperanto words are created by combining morphemes, one of the learning burdens which the student of Esperanto has, is to figure out where one morpheme ends and another begins.  This can occasionally be tricky.

Reading Compound Words

Suppose that a student comes across the word perfido and that the student knows that per means “by means of” and that fido means “faith.”  Following the rules of Esperanto the student could figure out that perfido means “by means of faith.”  If he saw a sentence Li trovis ĝin perfide, he could suppose it meant something like “He found it by means of faith.”  In fact, perfido, a word which Zamenhof introduced into the language, means “treachery.”  It is the same as the English word “perfidy.”  (The English word perfidy comes from the Latin per which means “by means of” and the Latin fides, which means “faith.”  That a word that means “treachery” comes from words that mean “by means of faith” is not at all unique to Esperanto.  Perhaps these words originated in a shorthand way of saying that something was attained by means of counterfeit or feigned faith.)

A common Esperanto word is eraro.  It means, as you might guess, “an error.”  However, this little word could be read as being composed of the morphemes er and ar, in which case eraro would be a perfectly good word meaning “a collection of elements.”

These two examples are somewhat artificial.  I am not aware of anyone having been tripped up by them.  However, the following examples show what does actually happen:

I am reading an article about how minority languages are dying off.  I come across the word formantaj.  My first inclination is to read it as beginning with the morpheme for, which means “away.”  But that makes no sense, and immediately I see that the word begins with the morpheme form which has the same meaning as it does in English and that the word means “forming.”  In this case my reading was only held up for the barest split second.

A friend sends me an e-mail letter containing the word “pos’tetikedoj.”  He uses the apostrophe to indicate that there is a circumflex accent over the s.  (He could not write accented letters in e-mail.)   I read the first three letters, pos’ (poŝ), as the Esperanto word for “pocket” and I wonder what tetikedoj are.  After a moment I realize that there is no such word and that the word means something like labels for envelopes.  Pos’t (poŝt) means “mail” and etikedo means “label.”

Here are two examples from the experience of a new Esperantist who has progressed to the point where she is reading a book in fairly easy Esperanto.  She came across the word bluokulaj.  She immediately recognized that it was a compound word, and she took the first component word to be bluo.  Bluo is a noun which, as you might guess, means “blue” (the color).  She could not figure out what kulaj means.  Her dictionary told her that kulo means “gnat.”  However, that made no sense for bluokulaj was an adjective that modified the Esperanto for “baby girl.”

She brought her problem to me.  I saw at once that the second component of this compound word was not kulaj which would mean “like a gnat” but “okulaj” which comes from the noun okulo, meaning “eye” (as in the English word “oculist”).  In other words the author assumed that anyone would read the word as blu-okulaj and not as bluo-kulaj.  (In combining words in Esperanto you can either include or omit the noun or adjective ending of the first component, whichever sounds better.)  The author assumed that any reader would break the word after blu and not after bluo.

The author could have ensured that new Esperantists would read the word correctly by simply using a hyphen to write “blu-okulaj.”  For some reason Esperantists are stingy with their hyphens in such cases.  This causes a lot of trouble for readers of Esperanto, certainly for new readers, sometimes for fairly experienced readers.  In this regard Esperanto is not the extremely easy language which many of its proponents suppose it to be.

Here is another example from the same student:  She came across the word ĉiamulo.  Without any hyphen to guide her, she quite reasonably read the word as ĉia-mulo which would mean “each kind of mule.”  However, this made no sense in the given context.  It turns out that the word should have been read as ĉiam-ulo which would mean “always-person” or “someone who is always there” (like a regular patron of a restaurant).

One way of avoiding this problem is for Esperantists to be a little more generous with their hyphens.  However, even if they make a reasonable effort to do so, there will still be this kind of impediment where Esperantist readers might divide a word wrongly in their imagination and at first come up with a wrong meaning and then have to go back and make a correction.  Perhaps all of this will just take a second but it will happen a number of times and slightly slow down the comprehension even of a fairly competent Esperantist.

This is a trade-off.  It goes along with the nature of the language in which the student does not have to learn an enormous number of words to be able to communicate effectively but instead can put together little words, morphemes, to create new words.  The advantage of the system of creating longer words out of well-known components is that a student does not have to master more than about 1000 or 1200 words and parts of words to gain a decent working knowledge of the language.

In my opinion the gain is worth the cost.  Because of the logical construction of the language I was able to gain a decent working knowledge of the language after a few months of hard work.  In reading correspondence in ordinary, everyday Esperanto, I rarely have the kind of problem just described.  In my experience it comes up mainly in literary Esperanto.

This feature of the language, freely making words out of components, makes for some pleasant literary effects.  I have made use of it myself.  It is fun to play with the language this way and to use it to get ideas across.  More than that, it makes it easy to create words as needed.  For example, if I do not know the Esperanto word for “shed” I can say “ilejo” or “ileja konstruaĵeto” which mean “a place for tools” or “a tool-place little-building.”  I can communicate effectively by putting together components of words to create the words I need and I will be understood.  There is a cost to this as I have shown but to my mind the benefit is enormous.  The cost-benefit ratio is favorable.

The Problem of Transitivity

In English some verbs are intransitive while others are transitive.  The verb to limp, for instance, is intransitive.  That means that limp cannot take a direct object.  You cannot limp someone or something.  You just limp.

To expect, on the other hand, is a transitive verb.  It requires a direct object.  You cannot simply expect.  You have to expect something and that something, whatever it may be, is the direct object of the verb.  In the sentence “I expect rain”, rain is the direct object.

A great many English verbs are used both as transitive verbs and as intransitive verbs.  For instance, the verb to run may be used either way.  Run is used as an intransitive verb in the sentence “He runs fast” and as a transitive verb in the sentence “He runs the whole show.”  The same is true about the verb to boil.  Boil is used as an intransitive verb in the sentence “The water is boiling now” and as a transitive verb in the sentence, “I’ll boil some water for tea.”

Esperanto authorities discuss the matter of transitivity.  Some, such as Grosjean-Maupin, claim that there are the same three kinds of verbs in Esperanto as there are in English (transitive verbs, intransitive verbs and those verbs that are both transitive and intransitive).  Others, such as Waringhien, claim that each verb in its basic form is either transitive or intransitive but not both.  Where a verb appears to be both, Waringhien holds, there are different meanings involved.  When the verb is intransitive it has one meaning and when it is transitive it has another meaning.

An Extra Learning Load

Now all of this might appear to be just grammarians’ quibbles.  However, students of Esperanto have a real problem when it comes to learning verbs.  This problem, of course, does not involve complex patterns of conjugation because all Esperanto verbs are conjugated in the same simple way.  The problem involves having to learn the specific transitivity of each verb.

For example, the verb boli is intransitive and only intransitive.  You can say “La akvo bolas” (The water is boiling) but you cannot say “Mi bolas la akvon.”  To turn a verb that is intransitive into a transitive verb you have to use the little suffix –ig which means “to make” or “to create.”  You say, “Mi boligas la akvon” which means something like “I make boil the water” or, in better English, “I cause the water to boil.”  In English there is no problem.  You use boil both as a transitive verb (I am boiling the water) and as an intransitive verb (The water is boiling).

On the other hand the verb estingi (to extinguish, to put out) is a transitive verb.  You can say “Mi estingis la kandelon” (I put out the candle) but you cannot say “La kandelo estingis.”  That would mean that the candle was extinguishing something else.  To turn a verb that is transitive into an intransitive verb you have to add the little ending –iĝ which means “to become.”  You say, “La kandelo estingis” which means “The candle became extinguished.”

For each verb students of Esperanto have to learn an additional fact besides the meaning of the verb.  That additional fact is the specific transitivity of the verb (whether it is transitive or intransitive).  This provides a certain learning load.  Once students know the transitivity of a particular verb, they can easily convert the verb to the other state of transitivity by adding the appropriate ending, –ig or –iĝ.

The Uses of –ig and –iĝ

Students of Esperanto are saved the necessity of learning many separate verbal roots because they have available –ig and –iĝ.  These suffixes can be used not only to change the transitivity of verbs but also to turn adjectives, nouns, adverbs and prepositions into verbs.  Here are some examples in no particular order:

mortito diemortigito kill
amito loveamigito endear
starito be standingstarito stand up
falito fallfaligito knock down, to fell
levito liftlevito rise
bonagoodrebonigito repair, restore
feliĉahappyfeliĉigito delight
frenezacrazyfrenezigito drive s.o. mad
klaraclearklarigito explain
lertaclever, ablelertigito train
fruaearlymalfruigito delay
pecopiecepecigito dismember
gustotastegustigito season
siluetosilhouettesiluetito stand out
postafter (in time)postito lag
subbelowsubigito overcome
anstataŭinstead ofanstataŭito be replaced

The logic is clear.  If ami means “to love” then amigi means “to cause to love” or “to endear.” If klara means “clear” then klarigi means “to make clear” or “to explain.”  If stari means “to be standing”, then stariĝi means “to become standing” or, in better English, “to stand up.”

Common Errors

The most common errors which Esperantists make, even Esperantists who have thousands of hours of experience with the language, are errors involving the accusative ending and errors involving the transitivity of verbs.  Bernard Golden has pointed out that this latter kind of error is committed not only by ordinary Esperantists but also by experts, by authors of books on teaching the language and by members of the Academy of Esperanto.  There are at least many hundreds of verbs in the language.  Because of this, it is no wonder that Esperantists have trouble keeping the transitivity of each individual verb in mind.

For most Esperantists there is not much of a problem.  If they make this kind of a mistake they are almost always understood anyway.  If an Esperantist were to say “Mi bolos la akvon”, everyone present would understand that he is using bolos as a transitive verb.  Some who are more expert in the language would realize that he is not speaking quite correctly, but of course they would understand what he was saying perfectly well.  In English the same verb is often used both in a transitive sense and in an intransitive sense.  The context makes clear which use is involved.  The same, in practice, is true in much (slightly incorrect) everyday Esperanto.

Esperantists have been making errors involving transitivity for a hundred years and they have understood each other in spite of this.

Nevertheless, when Esperantists want to write for publication in something more than a local club newsletter they run into a problem.  They have to keep a dictionary handy to make certain that they get the transitivity of verbs right.  Golden says that although Esperanto is an easy language to learn, this feature of the language is not easy at all.

He suggests a solution, that the common usage of ordinary Esperantists be at first tolerated and then gradually accepted as correct usage.  This would get rid of a big learning load, eliminate a lot of errors which do not get in the way of understanding and make Esperanto an easier language to learn correctly.

Other Esperantists disagree with Golden.  They claim that there is a degree of precision provided by verbs being basically either transitive or intransitive but not both.  Jouko Lindstedt points out that Esperantists often add superfluous ig or iĝ endings to verbs.  He does not consider such errors very serious but he points out that such usage is not altogether correct either.  He gives as an example the verb movi which means “to move” and is transitive.  An Esperantist not being certain that movi is transitive says “Mi movigis la tablon” intending to express the idea “I moved the table.”  In fact what this person is saying is “I caused to move the table” or, in good English, “I caused the table to be moved.”  In other words this sentence does not mean “I moved the table myself” but “I had someone else move the table.”  There is a difference.

Lindstedt holds that this system of transitivity is a basic part of the grammar of the language.  He admits that this feature of the language is not easy to master, but he claims that the value of the additional precision that it brings is well worth the added effort to learn the specific transitivity of each verb.  In other words he is satisfied with the cost-benefit ratio.

It will be interesting to see how Esperanto develops.  If a good number of highly respected Esperantists were to start following common usage in this matter, then common usage would gradually come to be regarded as correct.  This is what happens in all languages.  French developed from Latin.  As Marcel Proust points out somewhere in À la recherche du temps perdu, all that French is, is a collection of boners in speaking Latin.  In all languages, including English, when a mistake is made all the time by practically everyone, it becomes correct usage.

I do not think that this kind of change will take place with the feature of specific transitivity.  I think that most Esperantists will continue to make these tiny errors regarding transitivity (as well as often omitting the accusative ending) and that they will be understood anyway.  On the other hand expert Esperantists will strive to get the transitivity of each verb right to maintain the precision of the language.

Esperanto, like other languages, will continue to be spoken and written on different levels.  Some will use the language on an ordinary level and they will be understood by everybody.  Golden calls this species of the language “the demotic language.”  On the other hand a minority of Esperantists will speak a more elegant, a more perfect Esperanto, what Golden refers to as “the elite version of the language.”

This “demotic Esperanto” can be learned very rapidly.  It is a highly effective means of communication.  The “elite version” of the language takes more effort to master.  This latter version of the language is suitable for literary works of the highest quality.


Interestingly there is a parallel problem in English.  I read on an internet portal screen these two lines: “Celebrations Welcome / In the Year 2001”  I first read it as meaning that celebrations were welcome (in the year 2001, as they may have been at other times).  Of course “Welcome in” is not two ideas but one morpheme.  A lot of examples of this kind of error are found in the books on fractured English. 


In the years following Zaft’s discussion it has become clearer that the problem of ‘transitivity’ is most severe for speakers of languages like English and French.  These languages define many verbs quite broadly.  The solution for Esperanto students is to learn the more precise, narrower meaning, which Esperanto allots to most verbs.  So that instead of simply equating ‘boli‘ with ‘boil’, it is necessary to learn that it means ‘boil’ only in the sense that something ‘is bubbling on account of the application of heat‘.  If the speaker intends to say something or someone is ‘making x bubble by heating it‘, they must say so and use ‘ig‘ which means ‘make’, i.e. ‘boligi‘.  However this learning burden probably extends to less than fifty words. 

Chapter 19    A Fine Literary Language