Action, Quality, Thing.

For the sake of future posts, word roots types are the topic for today. This is an important concept in Esperanto for understanding how we build words.

Most words in Esperanto can be said to consist of a root and an ending. Where the root gives the word the core meaning, and the ending marks whether it’s a noun/adjective/verb etc. and its tense, mood, or plurality.

And these endings are productive! The verb form may not be in the dictionary, but we can just use a verbal ending to make it. We can even smoosh roots together for new core meanings before assigning the endings.

But the main point today, is one that has only been touched on in previous posts. That is, that roots are not these neutral creatures that have no properties or characteristics of their own until they receive their endings.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll rarely see a root by itself twiddling its thumbs. They do in most cases need these endings in a sentence. However, they do have their own properties. There are different classifications of root word. And depending on which classification a root lies in, they act in different ways when different roots or endings are applied to them.

An example in the PMEG is the comparison between “brosi” (to brush) and “kombi” (to comb). Their roots are “bros-” and “komb-“. The “i” shows that they are being used as verb infinitives (as in “I want to comb/brush my hair”).

So what happens when we change them to nouns with our handy noun suffix “o”?

“broso” means “brush”. But “kombo” means… The action of combing!!! As in “My hair needs a combing”. What. The. Hell… Why? We did exactly the same thing, with very similar words!

It’s all because of the roots. “Komb-” is an action-like root. “Bros-” is a thing-like root. When you add the noun ending to a thing root (bros-) it just means the thing. But when you add it to an action root, it means “the action of <root>”. There are other ways to achieve what we want with these roots: knowing that “komb-” is an action root, but that we want the word for “comb” we can use the tool-like suffix “il”, “Kombilo” means “(a) comb”. Conversely, we can use the continual action suffix “ad” on “bros-” if we wanted “the action of brushing”, “brosado”.

This may seem unnecessarily complicated at first, but once the idea is internalised, it makes the process of word-building a lot more foolproof and interpret-able.

There are three main classes with respect to the the characteristics above: action-like, quality-like, and thing-like (like verb, adjective, noun).

Though we could define subcategories. Since within the class of thing-like words, for example, there are tool words, profession words, people words, animal words. All of these will have slightly different interactions (that are usually quite obvious don’t worry).

The point of this post is to create awareness of this fact rather than talk about all possible different interactions of these words (Or I’d be basically translating the PMEG). I’ll give you a few examples of the different roots, and in future posts I’ll talk about interesting things you can do with different roots. For example, it’s not always enough to say “oh this suffix changes the meaning of words to X”. Often one must say “When applied to quality-like roots the meaning is X, with thing-like roots Y…” (Check out this post, which shows how the verb ending interacts with a few different root classes).

Quality-like roots inherently show description, the quality or characteristics of something:

  • blu-: blua = blue
  • saĝ-: saĝa = wise
  • bel-: bela = beautiful

These words naturally lend themselves to the “a” ending of adjectives, describing words.

Action-like roots inherently show action, or state.

  • kur-: kuri = to run
  • rid-: ridi = to laugh
  • kant-: kanti = to sing

The words naturally lend themselves to the “i” ending of verb infinitives (and other verb endings). The “i” shows you the action you expect from the root, and then other affixes will derive meaning from the different interpretations of the action.

Thing-like roots are those that fit into neither of the above, being about either concrete things, or concepts.

  • tabl-: tablo = (a) table
  • hund-: hundo = (a) dog

They lend themselves to the noun ending “o”. They will action differently than the previous categories when participating in word building.

10 thoughts on “Action, Quality, Thing.

  1. This komb’ / bros’ story I read a week or two ago in the concise “Detala Gramatiko de Esperanto” of B.Wenergren (I bought this one because the PMEG is available on the web and this one is cheaper, thinner and easier to read).

    In some other language one has to be a linguist to go down to such details and he will still get lost into the nonstandard aspects, However in Esperanto one can understand and play with such details of the language as if he is doing some arithmetic!


  2. I have been unable to find any good sources/dictionaries that define the inherent nature of a root. Where are you getting this information?


    • Most dictionaries note this implicitly in the ordering of the definitions concerning a particular root. So, if you look up “komb” at say, , you’ll see that the “kombi” form is listed first, because it is an action root.

      If you type “brosi” into the Lernu dictionary, it’ll tell you that it comes from “broso”, because it’s an object root! 🙂


  3. So assuming that Komb- is an action word because the device is named for the action (and not the other way around) then is there a word in Esperanto for brushing that does not have the context of using a brush? E.g., I brushed her cheek with my hand?

    That to me would seem to be the defining line, if there was a generic word for brushing and Bros- was simply referring to one device the action could be committed with, whereas Komb- is an action that the Kombilo was designed to perform.


    • Hmm… yeah I’m not sure there is? I’ve had a little look and not come across anything generic other than words with other shades of meaning like “rub”. Maybe you could use an affix or other root to give “rub” a meaning closer to the generic brushing?

      Alternatively, perhaps “brosi” would actually be fine. Brushing her cheek is a metaphor. In the same way one might say “I hammered on the door”. I’m not actually using a hammer (as the word literally means, and brosi = rub/brush by means of a brush), but the hammer imagery is there for effect.

      I think it does indeed refer to that meaning just using the object (like hammer), but that you can use it metaphorically. Would you agree?


  4. This post was particularly enlightening, but I am having a little trouble understanding the logic behind…
    “Komb-” is an action-like root. “Bros-” is a thing-like root.
    …because in my mind they are both tools and action like words.

    Is there some other way to think around this?


    • Good! 🙂

      And yes… this just happens to be a tricky example. Most often the root type is obvious because everyone understands that a root about “run” is obviously an action, and one about “red” is obviously a quality. But comb/brush is more tricky. See how you can imagine them as both tools (thing-like roots) and action-like roots?

      It would totally ruin the affix system if a word could belong to several categories. How would we know if we need to make it a tool with “-il”? Or a continuing action with “-ad”? How would we know what happens if we make it a verb with “i” (does it mean “to be a ” or “to do “)? We’d just be stuck.

      So unfortunately we have to make some kind of decision; the least evil path to allow the affixes to work is to declare of what type a root is, so we always know what to do with it. So as I understand it, at some point it was decided that “komb-” was action-like, and “bros-” was thing-like root.

      The logic is only that someone important decided that “komb-” was more action-like and “bros-” was more thing like. Although, they could have possibly decided this based common international usage, or etymological reasons. Or maybe that’s just what they thought was best 😀

      When we learn a new root, if it’s not absolutely clear which category it falls under, we must learn that along with it, in the same way that we learn whether a verb is transitive or intransitive when we learn it. Though thankfully the category is usually obvious.

      A dictionary will either usually give enough examples of usage of a word so that you can tell what type it is, or alternatively, list its main type first (i.e. if it’s an action-like root, it will show the “i” form first). In really simple dictionaries, they may not list the root or several incarnations of the root, but instead just the main form.

      As a last note, if you’re in mid-conversation and forgotten what type a word is, I’m sure people will understand what you mean if you use redundant suffixes. For example, you’ve forgotten if “bros-” is thing-like or action-like. But you want to talk about the tool, sure “brosilo” is a bit weird, given that “broso” is already the tool, and perhaps your friend will correct you, but I’m sure they’ll know what you intended, rather than risking not knowing what you are saying to a person! 😀


      • “The logic is only that someone important decided that ‘komb-’ was more action-like and ‘bros-’ was more thing like. Although, they could have possibly decided this based common international usage, or etymological reasons. Or maybe that’s just what they thought was best”

        The reason for this is actually explained on the website of Esperanto USA:

        “What really defines a brush (in English as well as Esperanto) is what it is, not how it’s used. Paint brushes, hair brushes, tooth brushes, and so on are the same kind of thing although used in pretty different ways. Combing, on the other hand, is basically an action that combs are designed to perform.”


        • Thanks for finding that!

          Though, if this distinction was immediately obvious like “bel-” is immediately obvious as a quality root, then novices wouldn’t make errors, and the distinction would scarcely need explaining.

          Before learning to recognise “bros-” as an object root, and “komb-” as an action root, I would have considered both of them as the same (either both action or both object), because of how tightly coupled their main usage is in English and how I felt I could come up with just as many comb object examples as those brush ones in that quote.

          So ultimately, I think perhaps it was still down to someone demonstrating that reasoning (the quote), which lead to them being the root-types that they are now.

          Interestingly, I heard the other day that there have been a number of entries in well known Esperanto dictionaries which differed in their root classifications. I haven’t been able to find details yet though. But if true, it shows that such things certainly aren’t set in stone! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s