Let’s be Sensible

In a very old post of mine (https://adventuresinesperanto.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/adjective-antics/), I started talking about what comes out when we start sticking “a” on the end of word roots. And at the time of writing, it was very much in line with the PMEG’s recommendation. But the world moves on, guys. One day, you wake up and decide, hey, we need a spring clean. There’s a dusty old corner of Esperanto, and in it lies a filthy web of unclarity (one day un- will have the power in English of Esperanto’s mal- even if it kills me).

I’m looking at korekta. And its ilk.

Notice at the end of that post that I suggest that some words, and perhaps action-roots in general, can take on the –ata or -ita participle meanings when adding the “a”. The PMEG now advises against such vile practice, and for good reason.

For a little refresher, what normally happens when you add “a” to an action-root is something like this:

  • Helpi = to help
  • Helpa hundo = helpful dog / dog that is helping (like helpanta)

That is, the thing being described by the new a-word is characterised by the given action, or performing the action. So for a word like korekta, here’s the good and consistent usage:

  • Korekti = to correct
  • Korektaj okulvitroj = corrective glasses / (vision) correcting glasses (like korektanta)

But you, me, and a little of even Ole Zammy, have used it like this:

  • Korekta respondo = correct answer (like korektita)

And there are a few other words that this phenomenon regularly presents itself with (e.g. kompliki & konfuzi).

Aside from just being plain inconsistent (since this usage seems to be in a minority of examples that are influenced by native language happenstance (e.g. the existence of “correct” in English)), using “a” in this manner can give the impression that the originally action root is actually a quality root. This could lead people to erroneously employ “korektigi” for “make correct” instead of “korekti”, where such –ig words already have specialised meaning.

So let’s be sensible and clean up our act!

And here’s what happens when you launch into explaining this to an unsuspecting fiancée that hasn’t started learning Esperanto (YET :D):



Hmm, quite interesting, but I sense an Esperanto rant approaching:


Oh yeah, here it comes:


That’s a lot of details that you’re doing into… I don’t think you’re gonna stop, are you?



The Ambiguous Lock

A curiosity-led ambling through the pathways of the internet one night revealed something to me that I’d never previously noticed about the English word “unlockable”. A quirk whereby it may mean either of:

  1. impossible to lock
  2. capable of being unlocked

In first case, we have “un + lockable”, where the “un” acts like “not”, and says that we mean “not lockable”. And for the second meaning, we have “unlock + able”, which says that we mean “possible to unlock”.

Pretty wildly different meanings! And seemingly all because the “un” prefix is permitted to mean either negation (not lock) or reverse/opposite action (unlock). Despicable! And Zamenhof knew it; thankfully he blessed us with both “ne” and “mal”, so that we didn’t have to tolerate such flagrant ambiguity in Esperanto:

  • ŝlosi = to lock
  • malŝlosi = to unlock
  • ŝlosebla = lockable
  • neŝlosebla = impossible to lock
  • malŝlosebla = capable of being unlocked

Neat !

Mustn’t not must, instead, must not.

Got something weird for you today, which came up on the Lernu.net forums a little while back. Have you ever tried telling someone that they don’t have to do something, or that they have to not do something?

Well if you do in Esperanto, you could be in for some head scratching and confused grunting, or be the cause of said scratching/grunting in another.

Let’s start with an easier example: telling someone they cannot do something and telling someone they can not do something if they like.

  1. You cannot feed her = Vi ne povas manĝigi ŝin
  2. You can not feed her (if you like) = Vi povas ne manĝigi ŝin (se vi volas)

See how 1 is just a simple negation of the verb. Without the “ne” (vi povas manĝigi…), this would mean, “you can feed her / you are able to feed her”; you have the ability to feed her. With the “ne” in front of the verb, like negating any verb,  this is reversed: you don’t have the ability to feed her; you cannot feed her, you are not able to feed her. In other words, the ability (to feed) is missing.

But in 2, the verb is not negated at all! Since in order to negate a verb, you must place the “ne” before it. So here, you most definitely do have an ability, you are able to do something. And what is that something? To not feed her.

This shows how the “ne” derives different meaning very logically from its placement. I’m happy with this!

But the reason for this post is that the behaviour of the verb “devi” (to have to / to must) leaves something to be desired. It has acquired a meaning in negation which is quite unruly. I can understand why, but I don’t like it, and have a suggestion for how to get people out of the habit, without breaking any rules, so that eventually tradition may change.

Well, let’s get started:

a. You don’t have to feed her
b. You have to not feed her / You must not feed her

How would we anticipate that the above are translated into Esperanto?

In the previous discussion “povi” was talking about “ability”. 1 was the lack of an ability to feed her, and 2 was an ability to not feed her.

We’ve got exactly the same problem here, except that instead of “ability” we have “duty”. In example a, we have the lack of a duty; you don’t have the duty to feed her. And in example b, you do have a duty, and the duty is to not feed her. So, logically, a negates the verb of interest (says that there is no duty, no “devi”) and b negates the feeding that follows (not the duty). Thus we’d expect:

a. Vi ne devas manĝigi ŝin = You don’t have to feed her
b. Vi devas ne manĝigi ŝin = You have to not feed her

But chances are, most readers would read both of those examples as “you must not feed her”!

What the jam!?

Now, I dunno about other languages, but I can certainly see at least one reason why English speakers might naturally keep falling into this behaviour. And that’s the fact that “devas” can translate as “must”. If “devas” could only mean “have to”, then a would clearly be “you don’t have to…” and b would be “you have to not…” because of the “ne” placement, and thus the distinction is made easily.


When “must” craftily creeps in, as it often does, we’ve got a problem, since we don’t say “you don’t must feed her”. We always switch to “don’t have to”. But if the reader is translating “devas” as “must”, then both a and b legitimately seem to say “you must not feed her”, since a is negating “must”, and b is following the more usual English word order of “must” usage.

Interestingly, as the PMEG reveals, Zamenhof himself confused these usages often, using both with the “you must not feed her” meaning (the “devas ne” meaning), so the issue is certainly widespread. The PMEG suggests this might be due to this being the most common meaning required, and that “ne” before verb is the most common style of negating.

When Zamenhof wanted the “you don’t have to feed her” meaning (the logical “ne devas” meaning), he used a completely different verb: “bezoni” = “to need”:

  • Vi ne bezonas manĝigi ŝin = You don’t need to feed her (You don’t have to feed her).

Buuuut bitter-sweetly, Esperantists are apparently beginning to see the logic and use the “ne” placement logically. But this means we’re in a situation where we have to decide whether the writer/speaker is aware of this problem or not, because if he/she is, then we’d interpret “ne devas” one way, and if not, the other!

Of course, if you have the luxury of speaking instead of writing, you could try to use intonation to get across which meaning you’re after. But would everyone interpret you the same way?

What to do? Especially if you want to encourage the newer logical usage without making unwelcome sweeping changes that aren’t understandable to traditional speakers?

My idea is the following:

I will never use “ne devi” in that order until the new logical usage is standard. Simply because, in Zamenhofian usage, it means one thing, and in the growing more logical usage, it means another.

Instead I will use “devi ne” since in both usages it means “must not / have to not”. And I will use “ne bezoni” to mean “don’t need to / don’t have to”. Since again, in both usages, this is unambiguous.

So with this tactic, not only am I following Zamehofian tradition, but my works will also be understandable to those with knowledge of this nuance. If we all did this for long enough, perhaps “ne devi” would fall out of use in the old way, and eventually make a return in its logical usage? One can hope 🙂

The inspiration for the discussion in this post (especially the usage of the words “missing” and “lacking” to explain the logic) is the PMEG post on this matter. See http://bertilow.com/pmeg/gramatiko/gravaj_verboj/povi_devi_voli/neado.html

Meloy: ilùi estoit nosay maystroy

Remember how last time I got utterly nerdy on yo asses? Well it’s only gonn’ get worse.

I think I’ve already mentioned that I’m ever so slowly writing a little Esperanto novella, a fantasy parody. In this book, there are ridiculous sorcerers, and exceedingly ridiculous spells, and I wanted magic to be associated with archaic language and full of mystery, as often one does.

Non-artificial languages are steeped in history, it’s easy to pick an ancestor, like Latin, and make such use of it for this goal. But what about Esperanto?

Well, we do have over 120 years of history, but we have the Fundamento, and we make a considerable effort to make sure the core of Esperanto stays the same, so everyone can always understand each other. Have you ever read Esperanto text by the creator of Esperanto himself? Not only was he incredibly eloquent with the language, but he’s also perfectly understandable from all that time ago. If you’re interested in how he responded to people’s questions about the language’s grammar, like I was, read the “Lingvaj Respondoj“. Esperanto has indeed changed over time (take a peek here for more info), but nothing like the difference between Spanish and Latin.

So what can be done? Well, of course someone way smarter than me has already thought such a thing would be bloody cool. Have you ever heard of Arcaicam Esperatom? Archaic Esperanto (AEo)? It’s like an Esperanto code, designed to make Esperanto like the difference between Middle English and Modern English or somethin’.

The best easy-access description of it I’ve found is the Esperanto-language wiki-page on the topic. It purposely adds complexity to the language, like more noun cases and verb conjugations, and gives it a slightly Latinesque feel. The title of this post is the Archaic Esperanto for the following:

Badgers: they will be our masters

Meloj: ili estos niaj majstroj

Sooo, all my sorcerers’ spells will be some lump of archaic obfuscation 😀 I’m thinking I’ll try to make spells be AEo tongue-twisters, or poems. Or perhaps in the realm of the more silly: food recipes, or instructions for electrical appliances, always spoken with great seriousness, because no sorcerer now knows the true meaning of the words!

See if you can translate the sentence below to archaic Esperanto!

The courageous fish, whom the badger had quietly killed, had been travelling from Paris to Shanghai.

La kuraĝa fiŝo, kiun la melo mallaŭte mortigis, antaŭe vojaĝadis de Parizo al Ŝanĥajo.

Boisterous Bajoran Buffoonery: badger disguised in costume crashes sci-fi convention

I’m a trifle nerdy, and that’s setting off my understatement-o-meter. But whether or not you are too, you’ve probably heard this quote before:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Your brain may even have read it in a commanding captain’s voice. Then a massive wind up, and POW; we’re in warp. Daa, dadada, dadada BOM BOM, dadadada da daa daa daaaa dadada daaa, –

Ahem. *lays down trumpet*

Anyway, I’ve always remarked, as I’m sure many before me have, that the ending line is so punchy.

To boldly go….

Some of you may remember certain school teachers of English language endlessly chastising you for splitting infinitives: this process of instead of keeping the “to” with its “go”, you split it with a word describing the action.

To ceaselessly battle.

To tirelessly study.

Many seem to consider it bad style. And often it can look clumsy. But I think there’s a place for it. It certainly feels at home in that Star Trek quote. And it’s that quote that fuelled me to ignore my English teacher! What if it were “to go boldly”?! Doesn’t that sound lame? Generally, the real way of getting around a split infinitive involves rephrasing completely. But dat ain’t needed nor wanted here, son.

ANYWAY. Why did I bring this up? You’ve probably realised that in many languages, you simply cannot split the infinitive, because it is only one word!

Take Esperanto: infinitives are the i-forms of verbs:

  • danci = to dance
  • ami = to love
  • iri = to go
  • tedanci = to do the tea dance (makes tea rain from the sky!).

I certainly can’t put “boldly” in the middle of “iri”.

So this got me thinking. How do we translate this? And is it as punchy? And is there anything we can do if it ain’t so punchy?

So the most naive translation I can come up with for that bit is this:

  • iri aŭdace kien neniu iris antaŭe (literally: to go boldly where no one has gone before)

Now, you gotta admit, that iri aŭdace — iris antaŭe combo really does give it a nice rhythm. BUT, you may disagree, but it really does read like “to go boldly” to me; it makes sense, but the punchiness is gone. It’s like a normal utterance. The power of the boldness word is lost.

What are our options? Well, in Esperanto, given the slightly freer word-order, a common technique for applying emphasis is to bring the word requiring emphasis to the beginning of the phrase, if this is permitted:

  • aŭdace iri kien neniu iris antaŭe (literally: boldly (to) go where no one has gone before)

Despite the unfortunate consequence that pronouncing “-ce” then “iri”  is a little less pretty, this really does bring back some umph, don’t you think? You get right to main point in the first word – BOOM, not even having to say a pesky “to”! (The thing that stops this starting to translate like “boldly going where…”, is how the paragraph begins: “it’s continuing mission: to X, to Y, to Z.” i.e. not “Xing, Ying, Zing”.)

There is another tool on Esperanto’s belt of course VORTFARADO!!! (or word-building…).

  • aŭdaciri kien neniu antaŭe iris (literally: boldy-go where no one before has gone)

Notice I change the order of “antaŭe” and “iris” to maintain the rhythm (aŭdaciri — antaŭe iris), purely poetic and unnecessary 😛

Now, what’s going on ‘ere then. “Aŭdaciri”? can I just go and do that? This is actually more than just just boldly going (as you may know if you’re familiar with this section of the PMEG). This is like a special kind of going, a kind of going that is by its very nature, daring and bold. Exploring the dangerous bits, inviting new trouble, poking your nose into the fresh-universe-snow. The going is defined by the daring.

Why? I’ll explain with the PMEG example. You can’t just go around sticking on adjectives and adverbs (a-words and e-words) to things and expect them to mean the same plain old thing:

  • dika = thick
  • fingro = finger
  • dikfingro = thumb
  • dika fingro = thick finger

Get my drift? If you join those words together, you are saying that its very nature is highly influenced by the attached property; we’re not talking about just a slightly thicker finger here; this finger is something else, it’s set apart, and one of its defining apartnesses is its thickness compared to a normal finger.

We’re not just being bold while we go through the universe; we’re bloody well pioneering for our species, our whole movement through the universe is about audacity and facing the new, the strange, the tough, and the scary head-on. THAT is how we are going through the universe.

How’s that for punchy?

(Note: an acceptable translation for “boldly” might have been “kuraĝe”, with more connotations of courageousness. But that is like boldness against fear. When what I think we really want here, is boldness in the face of trials of our morality, understanding, strength, etc. I.e. not necessarily things that make us afraid, but things that make us confront our own darkness and thought, and struggle to find the right path. A pretty lofty goal, hence audacity, intrepidity).

Before the hedgehogs attacked, we were already overwhelmed with badgers

Or: on the use of “ol” after “antaŭ”. 

Why you gotta go and use “ol” after “antaŭ” sometimes?

“Antaŭ” is the word for “before” and “in front of” in Esperanto! So it’s doing the work of two:

  • La hundo estas antaŭ la kato = the dog is infront of the cat.
  • Antaŭ la alveno de la hundo, la kato estis feliĉa = before the arrival of the dog, the cat was happy.

I’ve made posts touching on “antaŭ” before, such as this one.

But sometimes “ol” has to come after it:

  • Antaŭ ol la erinacoj atakis, nin meloj jam superŝutis = before the hedgehogs attacked, we were already overwhelmed with badgers

Wanna know why? Eh?!

What happens when I want to say “the squirrel sang before the cat (sang)”?

  • La sciuro kantis antaŭ la kato = The squirrel sang in front of the cat.

What tha?! When we just used “antaŭ” by itself it means “in front of” here! It only tends to mean “before” when it’s followed by an expression of time, or an event (the squirrel sang before morning).

This is because we’re trying to use it like a different class of word. See, “antaŭ” is a preposition; it defines a relationship with a noun: before her arrival, in front of the cat.

We’re trying to use it like a conjunction; a word that connects two whole phrases together (like “the squirrel sang” and “the cat sang”). That just ain’t gonna fly. If we allowed that, then that singing example would be an ambiguous sentence wouldn’t it? How would we know whether the squirrel was singing in front of the cat, or whether it sang some time before the cat sang?

“ol” is the word we use to help us know which usage we’re going for! Together “antaŭ” and “ol” make our conjunction, and roughly mean “antaŭ kiam” = “before when”  or “before at what time” (which is also usable, but way less traditional and usual).

The squirrel sang, before at what time the cat sang.

It’s the same deal with the preposition “post” (=after/behind). Except “post kiam” is most used!