How must we must?


Got something weird for you today, which came up on the 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

That particular one is terribly special

Today mainly stems from my confusion about “aparta”. Whilst I tackle it for all our sakes, I’ll also distinguish it from a couple of close synom… synomnom… synonyms (that’s literally how many tries I needed).

So the Lernu Esperanto-English dictionary gives us a good few words that “aparta” can take the role of:

  • separate
  • particular
  • special
  • apart

But bear in mind, that among a few others (more easily distinguished) there are these two Esperanto words, which can be very similar:

  • speciala = special, particular
  • precipa = most important, main, principal
I’ve scoured dictionaries so you don’t have to…

It’ll probably make our lives easier to constrain the meaning of the synonyms first.

Precipa is probably the easiest. Only occasionally does it really feel like “special”, because it’s mostly talking about the level of importance of a thing. The most important thing. Something that is precipa is a particular, special thing (apartabecause it is the most important, distinguished from the rest. But something aparta (distinguished from the rest) is not necessarily the most important (precipa).

Something which is speciala, is special, it’s either destined for a particular purpose/goal or something very specific, or unusual. Again, something which is very unusual or specific (speciala) by definition is particular/separate (aparta). But something aparta, is not always speciala.

Now you can see that aparta most certainly describes the things that the terms above describe, but it’s more general than those. Something being aparta doesn’t necessarily imply it is speciala or precipa. Something aparta is merely distinguished in some way, perhaps indeed by its importance, or by its unusualness, or else by how separate in some measure it is from other things, such measures as distance or even eminence for example.

Which one’s suitable?

Reta Vortaro to the rescue again! I worked out today that I’d read two words at different times, looked up their definitions and carried on, but thinking back, realised I have no idea what the difference between them is!

Here’s the pair, with the corresponding short lernu translations to English:

  • taŭga: suitable, of use
  • konvena: suitable, appropriate, fitting

So here’s what we get from the Reta Vortaro:


  • to be adequate, useable for something
  • to be capable of something


  • well adapted to a determined situation or precise circumstance
  • well adapted to someone’s feelings, character of social status
  • decent (e.g. it’s not konvena to occupy a seat when an old lady cannot find one)

Taŭga is a more extensive concept than konvena. Konvena refers only to the specially adapted use of something, whereas taŭga speaks of all of it’s uses.

The example the Reta Vortaro gives is a tea cup. It’s konvena only for drinking tea, but taŭga for that and also for measuring quantities of ingredients too!

Interestingly, if you look up these in the Eo-Eo dictionary of Lernu, you get the equivalent of:

  • taŭga: entirely good for some aim
  • konvena: that which is generally pleasing to other people in a certain situation

The definition of “konvena” seeming to be most different from what RV says.

Even more interestingly, both of these words are actually action roots (i-words naturally, see previous post on root types).

  • taŭgi : to be taŭga
  • konveni : to be konvena

And when you look up these words in the Eo-Eo lernu dictionary, you get the matching RV definitions.

So I’m inclined to go with the RV. Do you agree that the lernu definitions of the a-words don’t seem to match up to their i-word meanings? Or at least don’t nail the concepts? If so, maybe you or I should make a thread about it on lernu! 😀


Am I right, or am I right?

The two words “prava” and “ĝusta” can both be translated as “right”. But what’s the difference?

“Dektra” means “right” as in not “left”, so don’t be thinking about that!

Now from what I can tell, this is the difference:


This means “right” or “true”. Someone who is “prava” has an opinion or acts in a way that is true or just. Something which is “prava” is true or just.


This means “correct”, “exact” and “proper” as well as “right”. It describes something which is correct, the proper way according to rules. It may describe the exact or proper thing to do/get/receive etc. in order to complete some aim.

I mostly get this from the Reta Vortaro! I’m so looking forward to this getting up and running!

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!

Tricksy, shifty words

I have created a new category!

My usually long list of things to write about has been dwindling of late. But I’ve slowly been developing an interest in how the semantic scope of words differ between English and Esperanto.

By this I mean, given a word in Esperanto, and its translation in English, what meanings do those words encompass? Can the Esperanto word be used in all of the contexts in which the English word can be? Do the words have slightly different connotations? Are there in fact several Esperanto words that commonly translate to that English one, but that have different shades of meaning?

I see this as quite a difficult thing to grasp properly, but so very interesting! And I’m starting to think I need to invest in a massive Esperanto dictionary which has usage examples and the like.

For now, I’m going to have to rely on the Lernu forums, places like the Reta Vortaro, and your helpful comments!

I’ll use this category of post for the following types of scenario:

  • Given several Esperanto words that have similar English translations, what’s the difference between them? What shades of meaning do they convey? What situations are appropriate for each word?
  • Given an interesting Esperanto word (one that is perhaps worthy of being in the “Alluring Words” category), what meanings does it cover? How does its semantic scope differ from its common English translations?

I’ve got a couple of these in the works, hopefully you’ll enjoy and find them useful!