Interesting thoughts

I thought I’d share with everyone, someone’s interesting advice about learning Esperanto. I can’t remember where I got the advice, so it could be from the Lernu.net forums, or one of the books I’ve been reading. At the time I read it, I thought it was pretty interesting, but only as I continue to bear it in mind does it become more and more helpful.

It’s easy to fall into a trap when learning a new language (at least for me it is!), whereby as you learn, you map each new word to a particular word in your native language. Often this can work out okay, like memorising “kato = cat”, but often it doesn’t. Sometimes one word in English will have far more different uses than is sensible with the “equivalent” word in Esperanto, and vice versa.

Coming from English (and certainly other languages) to Esperanto, one of the biggest problems where this style of learning gets you into bother is with verb transitivity. The idea that some verbs describe actions that happen between a subject and object(s), and others describe things that happen to the subject, unrelated to anything else.

  • “She ran”. In this phrase, “she” is the subject and running is the action. “To run” is intransitive here: it is an action that the subject performs, it is not performed on/to an object.
  • “She hit him”. In this phrase, “she” is the subject, and is performing a hitting action on the object “him”. “Hit” is therefore transitive.

But English is a spaghetti mess of a language, and as such, tonnes of its verbs can have entirely different meanings depending on whether or not you give them an object; you can just arbitrarily use the same word as intransitive or transitive.

  • “The water boiled”. Intransitive! The subject is water, and it is hot and bubbling, the boiling is happening to the subject.
  • “She boiled the water”. Transitive! So… what?! If we were to take “boil” to mean the same thing as the first phrase, then “she” (the subject) would be boiling, and how is “the water” then to be interpreted? But that’s not the case, “boil” now means “to cause to boil”!

A problem arises because Esperanto isn’t a mess, it’s really quite neat.

I’ve only come across 7 verbs in Esperanto that can be both transitive and intransitive, and in these cases it made sense to do so, the meaning didn’t shift like in “boil”, the subject was always performing the same action, but it just happened to be possible to do it with or without a recipient of the action (You’ll have to make noises like you’re interested if you want to know which ones, and get me to justify my view here! :D).

So let’s take “boli” = “to boil”

  • La akvo bolis = The water boiled.

Here, the water is bubbling and boiling itself. It didn’t cause anything to boil; the verb “boli” is intransitive, it cannot take an object!

  • *Ŝi bolis la akvon* makes as little sense as the English interpretation above where “she” is bubbling and boiling, and we don’t know what the water is doing. In Esperanto “boli” can only be used about the thing that is bubbling.

In order to get the other meaning we must change the word. Verbs in Esperanto can be made transitive by adding “ig” to the end. It’s like saying “to cause to <root>”, so “boligi” = “to cause to boil”:

  • Mi boligis la akvon = I boiled the water / I caused the water to boil.

So, the problem we often have is remembering what’s intransitive and what’s transitive, so we know how to use a word, for which there is perhaps just a single word in English.

So here comes the simple advice. Do not learn words by their English equivalents, learn them by picturing the concepts, imagining the actions, then you’ll never mistake them.

Which makes complete sense. If you imagine the scene of bubbling and boiling of the subject for “boli”, you’ll never mistakenly put “ŝi” in front of it unless she herself is actually bubbling and boiling! So I’ve been trying not to translate sentences or words, but capture their meaning and what thoughts and feelings they evoke. It certainly feels like it’s allowing me to progress faster!

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4 thoughts on “Interesting thoughts

  1. You say you have come across about 7 transitive/intransitive verbs in Esperanto. Just wondering, what were they?

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