Partying with Participles #3

This is the 3rd in a series of posts about Esperanto’s participles! Don’t know what they are? Don’t even know what a participle is? Then take a look at the 1st and 2nd posts.

The last post showed how we form Esperanto’s six different participles, and what they mean in their adjectival (quality-like, a-word) form. This is the form that is used when the participles are describing nouns (words like “camel”).

The post stated a important distinction. It showed that participles show the state of completion of an action, which is slightly different than simply showing tense (past,present,future). If you don’t remember, take a look at the previous post.We will find out why this is an important distinction after a brief talk about passive phrases and how to make them with the passive participles, which are the ones formed with “at/it/ot” suffixes.

So what’s a passive phrase? It’s a phrase that appears in the passive voice rather than the active voice. In English, this is really quite common:

  • The elf greeted the dwarf = active voice
  • The dwarf was greeted (by the elf) = passive voice
It all centres around how the verb “to greet” is used. In the simplest case (active voice), the subject of the action (the one doing it), the elf, is performing the action (a greeting), to the direct object (the one receiving the action,the dwarf).
However, we can move around the sentence so that the object (dwarf) is mentioned first (so that it’s actually the subject!), and we combine the “to greet” verb, with a form of the verb “to be” (is,are,was,will be), to show that the dwarf isn’t doing the action (even though we mention it first as a subject), it is actually receiving the action. The passive is useful especially if we don’t know who did the action, because the “by the elf” bit is optional.
We can do the same thing in Esperanto, using a form of the verb “esti” = “to be”, plus a passive participle:
  • La elfo salutis la gnomon = The elf greeted the dwarf (note: I’m using the word for dwarf from “The Hobbit”, because it’s better! :))
  • La gnomo estis salutita (de la elfo) = The dwarf was greeted (by the elf)
Notice this gives us many choices! When reading the examples below, bear in mind the “Esti” bit describes when in time something occurred (past,present,future), and the different participles show whether in that time the action was ongoing, completed, or going to be completed:
  • Estas salutata = is being greeted
  • Estas salutita = is greeted (the greeting finished)
  • Estas salutota = is about to be greeted
  • Estis salutata = was being greeted
  • Estis salutita = was greeted (greeting finished)
  • Estis salutota = was about to be greeted
  • Estos salutata = will be being greeted
  • Estos salutita = will be greeted (at some point in the future, the greeting will be complete)
  • Estos salutota = will be about to be greeted

It’s possible to stretch things further by using more forms of “Esti”, i.e. “Estu” or “Estus”, but you’ll be lucky if you see that around!

So why is the idea of completion rather than tense an important distinction?

  • The camel was found a few years ago
How do we use participles to render this phrase in Esperanto? Let’s imagine that the participles show tense not completion. Now we have two sources of tense, “esti” will be in a tense, and “trovi” = “to find” will be in some kind of tense. So using past, present and future, we’ve got 9 choices again like above. But instead of being examples like:
  • Action in past, and completed = Estis trovita
  • Action in present, and completed = Estas trovita
  • Action in present, and ongoing = Estas trovata
We have a set of two tenses, like these examples:
  • Action in past, and occurring around then (present tense relative to the past), whether completed or not = Estis trovata
  • Action in past, and occurred in the past relative to this past = Estis trovita

Notice how this might affect your translation of the example sentence?

Using the idea of aspect we’d do it this way:

  • La kamelo estis trovita antaŭ kelkaj jaroj
“Estis trovita”: At some point in the past, the camel was found (the finding was complete).

Using the idea of tense, so we have two tenses (the second happening relative to the first) we’d have:

  • La kamelo estis trovata antaŭ kelkaj jaroj

“Estis trovata”: At some point in the past, in the present relative to this past, the camel was found or being found

Turns out these two styles were apparently either side of a big argument about passive participles in Esperanto (it-ists versus at-ists) ! According to “Being Colloquial in Esperanto”, the aspect camp won! So stick with the first version!

So why can this strategy of rendering passive phrases using passive participles be inelegant?

Notice the following things about the camel sentence:

  1. The entity who did the finding is totally irrelevant, so we don’t need to saying “was found by somebody”, which you might do with “de <somebody>” after the passive participle.
  2. We had to decide whether the action was completed or in the process of happening (-ita or -ata suffixes), when neither are especially important; we are just trying to convey that the camel was found a number of years ago.

So it’s not very succinct  in this case, is it? There are alternatives.

  1. Using the pronounce “Oni” = “one, they, people”
  2. Using the suffix “-iĝ” = “become <root>”
  1. Oni trovis la kamelon antaŭ kelkaj jaroj = They/People found the camel a few years ago/The camel was found a few years ago
  2. La kamelo troviĝis antaŭ kelkaj jaroj = The camel became-found a few years ago/The camel was found a few years ago

This expresses the same idea, with simple tenses, no resorting to “esti”. The “oni” makes it clear that that the finders are unimportant. And the “iĝ” suffix leaves less room for mentioning who did the finding, because it brings all the emphasis to the action happening to the camel.

So in speech, they’ll usually be less call for using passive participles in this fashion. In writing, if you really wish to be absolutely certain about the state of completion of actions you might use them. The state of completion should be an important and necessary fact in this case.

The most readily understood participle in speech is probably the one ending in “-ita”, so perhaps you’d use it in speech in this situation:

  1. In “The elf greeted the dwarf”, you want to emphasise the dwarf, so you want passive
  2. You still want the elf to be present, so you don’t want to use “Oni”
  3. “de <somebody>” is a little strange when using the “iĝ” suffix, because it gives the feeling of the action just happening, it really downplays the cause of the action
So you say “La gnomo estis salutita de la elfo”.
However, you can achieve emphasis in other ways. Esperanto has very flexible word order, so “The elf greeted the dwarf” could be written:
  1. La elfo salutis la gnomon
  2. La gnomon elfo salutis
  3. La gnomon salutis elfo
  4. La elfo gnomon salutis
Style 1 is most common, so the others show some kind of emphasis. Notice how you can move the dwarf to the front without changing the meaning, because it has the accusative “n”.
Lastly, there is a short form of these passive constructions with “esti”. Most adjectives can be turned into a verb which means “to be <adjective>”:
  • Blua = blue
  • Blui = to be blue
  • Mi bluas = I am blue
  • Mi bluis = I was blue
  • Mi estas blua = I am blue
  • Mi estis blua = I was blue
You can do the same with participles:
  • La gnomo salutitis = The dwarf was greeted

I think it’s really neat, and I like the getting rid of this “esti” in the way. However, that’s a lot of meaning packed into a tight space, when people already try to avoid passive forms with participles. So perhaps stick to it only in writing!

Next time I’ll talk about using participles in an adverbial form (with the -e ending instead of -a), and why they allow you to be very expressive in a compact and neat way. While you wait, you can take a look at a past post on adverbs in Esperanto!

10 thoughts on “Partying with Participles #3

  1. Andy, I have just stumbled across your website and have read about the participles with great interest. The manner in which you have explained the use of active and passive participles has finally made clear to me how to view participles in terms of completion, ongoing or going to be completed. I thank you for having made this useful information available. I will read up on your remaining posts as well.


  2. This helped clarify a few things for me. Thank you. I have a hard time with participles, so I don’t usually use them with esti at all. I just stick to the three verb tenses. I only use participles in their adjectival sense.
    I am still a little confused about that last example, “La gnomo salutitis”, is this “salutita” turned into a verb?
    Also, loved your reply to the comment above me. Always good to see a calm and rational reply! Much respect to you sir! 🙂


    • Glad it helped! I certainly had a hard time too!

      Hehe thanks! It’s fun to pick apart baseless arguments once in a while! 🙂

      Still, being sparse with your “esti+participle” constructions, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Simplicity and ease of understanding is favoured in Esperanto sentences. It’s good to have them in your toolkit for when you really need to be that precision though!

      You’re correct about the example! In the same way that you can verbalise quality roots to be “to be [root]”, like:

      bela = beautiful
      beli = esti bela = to be beautiful
      ni ĉiuj belas = ni ĉiuj estas bela = we’re all beautiful

      You can with the participles too (which are like quality roots that used to be action roots):

      esti salutita = to be greeted/saluted
      salutiti = to be greeted/saluted
      li estis salutita = li salutitis = he was greeted

      You tend to see the “esti” version more (especially in speech), because so much information is packed into such a tight space with the other version!

      Some may argue that there can be a nuanced difference between the two styles. The version with “esti” stresses the participle as a state a thing is in. While the verbalised form stresses the action-ness of it. This nuance is present in “beli” versus “esti bela”.

      I have a post on this nuance if you’re interested:


  3. That idiotic system of participles is one of the reasons why Esperanto is only a plaything for lingvofreaks and not a real language.


    • The participles are actually a more regular and logical system for expressing what takes complex and irregular structures to express in languages such as English. You may be used to them as an English speaker, but Esperanto is not just for the English. So this makes them extremely useful for learners from many different language backgrounds.

      A number of languages have systems quite similar, though less regular than Esperanto’s system. This shows it is not an silly eccentricity of a made up language. English’s system of participles is just arbitrarily limited.

      They are also surprisingly simple for what is probably the most complicated aspect of Esperanto.

      They can allow some really succinct and elegant writing/speech. This is what makes them linguistically interesting, and worthy of exploration. But at the same time, just because they are linguistically interesting and one can explore their expressiveness for a long time, does not make them impractical or un-useful. They are concise for when one needs to be concise.

      To say that they are idiotic, seems baseless and ignorant on your part.


  4. A lot of extremely useful information! And it was seriously very helpful. I have been reading Sherlock Holmes in Esperanto for some time now, and always get confused when these participles show up. There didn’t seem to exist a set of rules to which they adhere. Thankfully I found your post! Really helped a lot! Dankon!
    PS: Mi preferas la gnomon ankaux!


  5. Wow! Lot of info there 🙂

    I liked the examples and, as before, the post helped clarify a few things for me.

    When I was going through one of the assisted courses on Lernu, I received some input that, in general, there are simpler ways to say something in Esperanto than to use passive tense and participles. Pretty similar to what you mentioned in the post that, for spoken conversation, simpler forms are more common while, in writing it may be more common to see the mixing of state/tense using participles and the passive tense.

    All in all, I’m really enjoying the series on participles and I’m sure I’ll refer back to it when I get stuck.

    BTW, I agree, gnomo is a better word but I still picture the Travelocity gnome everytime I read it in La Hobito.



    • Yeah, I definitely got carried away!

      Mhm, participles allow you to be very specific and precise with actions. So the main thing that seems to make them inelegant, is overusing them when those simpler methods will suffice. But often in books you want to be that specific; the simpler expressions just won’t do. I guess this is where they come in handy!

      I’m glad the posts are being useful!



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