Should-a, Would-a, Could-a…

Hello Duolingo-folk, 9+ years after I wrote this! Let me know if you need further clarification in comments below!

Let me present to you three special words:

  • devus
  • volus
  • povus

A brief explanation of this “us” ending first! “Us” usually puts a word into the conditional mood. (Beware not to pronounce it like English “us”, it is pronounced “oos”)

  • Mi manĝas = I eat (present tense, from “manĝi” = “to eat”)
  • Mi manĝus = I would eat (conditional mood)
  • Mi kuras = I run (from “kuri” = “to run”)
  • Mi kurus = I would run

Notice how in English this corresponds to using “would” with the verb. Also notice that the conditional mood shows something that is conditional, or not true at the moment:

  • Mi kurus, sed mi lacas = I would run, but I’m tired. (The running won’t happen due to tiredness)
  • Mi ridus, se vi kurus = I would laugh if you’d run. (The running only might happen, therefore the laughing only might happen).

Similarly used for imaginary, unreal things:

  • Se mi estus sana, mi kurus = If I would be (were to be) healthy, I would run.

Why are “devus“, “volus” and “povus” special?

Because they each have a special meaning, that isn’t quite what you’d expect from the conditional mood. They certainly can be used in the normal way, but often with the help of other words.

Instead of showing that the concept is conditional, unreal, or imagined, they often show that it is in fact real, but might not (or probably won’t) happen.

Let’s start with “devi“, “voli” and “povi“:

  • devi = to have to, to must
  • voli = to want,wish for
  • povi = to be able to, to can

Some present tense examples:

  • Mi devas aĉeti melon = I must buy a badger.
  • Mi volas manĝi melon = I want/wish to eat a badger.
  • Mi povas manĝi melon = I can eat a badger.

The special meanings:

  1. Mi devus aĉeti melon = I should buy a badger.
  2. Mi volus manĝi melon = I would like to eat a badger.
  3. Mi povus manĝi melon = I could eat a badger.

Notice how in each case, the action/state is still true (must, want, or being able to), but there is some doubt as to whether they’ll be carried out:

  1. I should really buy a badger (must), but I may not.
  2. I’d still like to (want to) eat a badger, but I may not.
  3. I can eat that badger, but I may not.

If the conditional mood was acting as normal it would be more like this:

  1. I would have to buy a badger [e.g. if I had money.] (The must is not true, or only maybe true, given the money condition)
  2. I would like to buy a badger [e.g. if they weren’t so evil.] (The liking/wanting is not true)
  3. I would be able to eat a badger [e.g. if they weren’t so big.] (The “being able to” is not true)

Notice for 1 and 3 the distinction is obvious in English: the special meanings use “should” or “could”, whereas the proper conditional mood sentences go back to using “would”. However, in 2 we use the same word in English, “would”. Even in the special meaning of “volus” we say “would” like. But these are two different meanings:

  • I would like to eat a badger
  • I would like to eat a badger, if I were silly.

The first sentence uses the special meaning of “devus”, and the second uses the proper conditional. In the first sentence, the liking is true, but the liked thing (eating) may not happen. In the second sentence, the liking isn’t even true, it is conditional on me being silly. (Other than using the extra words to disambiguate these two meanings in English, we often use intonation. In the second sentence one would emphasis “would” (and often “if” too) far more than the other  words.)

Similarly in Esperanto, if we want the true conditional meaning of these words, instead of their special meanings, one should expand upon the sentence, by adding such a conditional statement, or introducing the verb with words that imply conditionals, e.g. “kvazaŭ” = “as if, as though”:

  • Kvazaŭ devus … = As though it would have to…

Check out the PMEG page.