Knowing how to want

What’s the difference between “voli” and “deziri”? This has bothered me for a while, and so just before I descend into using them interchangeably, I’ve decided to look to see if there is any real difference.

Both of them often translate to “to want” or “to wish”.

If you look in the dictionary, you’ll get:

  • voli = to wish, to want
  • deziri = to desire, to wish

Now, in English, when I look up “want versus desire”, I get things saying that “desire” is simply a stronger “want”.

In Esperanto, as with any nuance, there are many people who simply use the two words interchangeably. However, beyond this, I’ve found a couple of accounts of what the difference could be.

Firstly, by looking around many past posts on the forums, I often find this distinction:

  • “Deziri” describes a wanting, but only for o-words (nouns).
  • “Voli” describes a wanting, but only for verbs.

Thus, “mi deziras pomon” = “I want an apple”, and “mi volas iri” = “I want to go”. But you wouldn’t say “mi deziras iri” and vice versa.

An explanation for this went along the lines of “voli” is wanting to do something, and “deziri” is wanting a concrete thing.

Which makes the distinction more tangible in my opinion, because the noun/verb distinction seems a little arbitrary:

So you might say “mi volas iri por ferio” = “I want to go for a holiday”. But do you really have to change to “deziri” just to say “mi volas ferion” = “I want a holiday”? Seems a bit arbitrary!

Anyways, the Reta-Vortaro provided a slightly different distinction, which some people on Lernu referenced too:

  • Deziri = Consciously have a tendency toward (be inclined to/feel like) something; aspire to possess or enjoy something.
  • Voli = To have a desire, intention, decision, or feel a need about something or someone.

It notes a difference between them being that “voli” often implies an intention to do something in order to make come true the desired thing. Which kinda makes sense, given that it comes from the same kinda root as English “volition”. And “volo” (the noun form) means “will” (e.g. in “free will”).

People also note that the meaning of “voli” in practice has drifted to encompass a lot of what “deziri” means, due to people using them interchangeably (*sad face*).

This is what I’m thinking of going with:

  • Assume the noun/verb thing is just a rule of thumb.
  • Drive a distinction between the two words, for a bit of variation (given that people will know what I mean, but may not get the small perhaps unimportant nuance), but be aware that when I use “deziri” many would prefer “voli”.

The distinction I will use is the following:

  • I will use “voli” when I wish to emphasise intention, will, or decision being involved (e.g. want to understand, or want to lose weight)
  • I will use “deziri” to describe tendencies/inclinations. Or to describe something I wish to enjoy, or use it if I do not wish to emphasise a willingness to acquire the thing I desire.
In light of the comments on this post, I’ve modified the point below (which was my original last point). This is what I originally thought:
  • I also consider “voli”, given its addition of will/intention, to be a stronger desire than “deziri”. So in everyday speech, I will probably use “deziri” for concrete objects that I just happen to want (momentary inclination), like an apple, even if I’m extending a hand to get the thing as I talk!

I now think this:

  • Given the implication of will/intention in “voli”, I consider it a slightly different kind of wanting to “deziri”. Just because one word includes the will to attain what is desired, doesn’t necessarily mean the desire is stronger. For this purpose one would use the intensifying suffix “-eg”. “Deziregi” is like “to greatly desire” . However, the inclusion of “aspire” in the definition of “deziri” and its comparison to words like “bezoni”, suggest that “deziri” has at least some deeper wanting behind it than “voli”.

Anyone disagree? Got a better idea?


I may update this post soon, in light of the PIV coming online!


8 thoughts on “Knowing how to want

  1. Andy, I would focus more on what ReVo and NPIV say about these words. Ok. it’s interesting enough to observe certain patterns of usage in the forums of Lernu, but you have to remember that there are a lot of inexperienced Esperanto speakers there! So, be selective about who you take notice of…

    I’ve been reading through a few of your posts here, and it’s a little surprising that you don’t quote the example sentences of NPIV ( and ReVo more often. Ok, has only recently become available, but ReVo’s been around for ages.

    The example sentences of NPIV/ReVo are exellent for getting a feel for the exact meaning of a word. And then it’s often interesting to take a look at which words these dictionaries compare the given root with. For example, in the case of ‘dezir/i’, ReVo suggests comparing it with avidi, bezoni, sopiri, envii, ambicii, bruli, soifi. I think that is rather a strong indicator of the intended meaning of ‘deziri’.

    I remember also wondering about the difference between ‘voli’ and ‘deziri’. I didn’t want to assume that they had similar meanings to the correlating English words, ‘want’ and ‘desire’, but I think this is indeed generally the case. ‘Voli’ is certainly the more general and more frequently used word, rather like ‘want’ is. Just take a look at the words use in the definition of ‘dezir/i’:

    “Konscie emi al io, aspiri posedon aŭ ĝuon de io”. ‘Aspiri’ is not your average form of ‘wanting’!

    Regarding the use of nouns or verbs after ‘voli’ and ‘deziri’, I think your conclusions are a bit iffy. Just search ‘dezir’ in the “”, and you will find many, many examples of ‘deziri’ being followed by a verb. There is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be.

    • Indeedy! Unfortunately, I had no access to PIV when making most of these posts. But I could certainly have quoted more from ReVo. Though often when you see what looks like a post in which I haven’t quote from ReVo, the examples I’ve given are actually the same structure as the ReVo examples, but I’ve instead substituted in more pleasing (to my funny bone) words, involving badgers and squirrels.

      I’m glad you’re having a bit of a read through! Tempts me to write a few more! Do feel free to point out all my errors and misunderstandings, I’m always eager to learn!

      As for the noun/verb issue, I completely agree with you, having done the search at the time of posting. I included the observation because it was by an experienced Esperantist on Lernu, and I wished to show that there is perhaps a better distinction (in case other people hear this noun/verb distinction and wonder about it veracity). So somewhere in this post, you’ll see that I actually disagree with what they said, but perhaps my disagreement was only mildly voiced (a habit of mine!).

      You’ve got a very good point about the word “aspire”, perhaps that is the bit of “deziri”‘s definition which makes it a stronger want! And also a very good suggestion to pay more attention to what compares the word to, thanks! I’ve changed the bottom edit to reflect your input!

  2. From a personal perspective, I always thought desire was something you wanted, but would never have (most likely). In comparison, “want” is something you could probably get with little, no, or much effort.

    In my own brand of English, I don’t use desire, because it sounds a bit sexual (no sex please, I’m British), so I use things like “I would really want/like an apple…(but the shops are closed)”.

    Other things I would desire…
    – Jessica Biel.
    – to grow weed in my apartment.

    Things to want.
    – pizza tonight.
    – to lose 10kg this summer.

    Then there are things I would “feel like”. I’m not really sure how to express this in Esperanto though. It’s like you could want it, but haven’t made up your mind yet.

    • I’ve certainly noticed that usage among other English speakers! I tend to use desire a bit more, but normally as a noun rather than verb for some reason (I wouldn’t say “I desire that”, more like “I have a desire for…”).

      But I don’t think this is the case in Esperanto. It doesn’t have such a sexual connotation. Especially because one of its meanings is to express goodwill to someone, something literally like “I desire/wish to you a good day”.

      Though, there is a certainly an element of “aspiring to enjoy/possess”, without necessarily the will to achieve it.

      For “feel like” which is like a momentary desire, tendency or need, perhaps the root/affix “em” would be good. Check out my most recent post on it:

  3. It’s interesting you would consider “voli” to be stronger than “deziri”. I was under the impression it was the other way around, since “deziri” is so similar to desire in English and desire is stronger than want.

    I’m fortunate to have another language I can compare it to and that is my mother tongue Dutch. In Dutch we also have two words to express a desire. One of those is ‘willen’ which is used daily and would be similar to ‘want’ in English. Just by listening to the sound of both the Dutch and the English, I would use ‘voli’ as want(EN) / willen(NL) and ‘deziri’ as desire(EN) / verlangen(NL).

    • Yeash, perhaps that decision was a bit hasty. Maybe I will edit that bit. I think im leaning toward a compromise, rather than a reversal of my decision, though.

      I was definitely urged on to think of ‘deziri’ as being stronger given that English ‘desire’ is stronger, but the finding of the implication of will in ‘voli’ made a decision reversal.

      But there’s actually no reason that intention to do something means a stronger desire.

      There’s also nothing in any definition I’ve seen to suggest that deziri is a stronger want (so far, let me know if you see such a definition!)

      I’d be tempted to just say, that they are different types of want. Neither necessarily stronger than the other. That’s what ‘eg’ is for:


      • I just love the usage of prefixes and affixes in Esperanto.
        Especially here, it immediately makes it clear you mean a strong desire with either volegi or deziregi.

        I guess the opposite is also true. Dezireti is when you kinda want something but not a lot.

        This is definitely the way to go to make it clear what level of wanting you mean.

        Thanks Andy. Looking forward to more of your blog posts.

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