Mostly due to the wormy accusative “n”, Esperanto has quite flexible word order. The following phrases mean pretty much the same thing, “a badger frightened a squirrel”:
- melo timigis sciuron
- melo sciuron timigis
- sciuron timigis melo
- sciuron melo timigis
- timigis melo sciuron
- timigis sciuron melo
Are there any differences at all between these alternatives? Subtle ones, yes. The difference is one of emphasis.
I’ve had a read of the topic in the PMEG, and have distilled a few rough rules that’ll get you making use of this subtle emphasis change.
Firstly some terms:
- The “subject” is the thing doing the action. In our case, the subject is “melo” : the badger.
- The “direct object” is the thing receiving the action. In our case, the direct object is “sciuro”: the squirrel.
- Our action here is “timigi” = “to frighten”.
The usual word ordering is “subject – action – direct object”. So anything that departs from this ordering generates emphasis in some way.
Here’s the rules:
- If the subject is moved to the end (everything else remaining same), then the emphasis is on the subject:
- timigis sciuron melo : a badger did the frightening, not anything else.
- If the action is moved to the front (everything else remaining same), then the emphasis is on the action:
- timigis melo sciuron : a badger frightened a squirrel, it didn’t e.g. kiss it.
- If the direct object is moved to the front (everything else remaining same), then the emphasis is on the direct object:
- sciuron melo timigis : a squirrel was frightened, not e.g. a vole.
Next, let’s look at a phrase that has a prepositional relationship (e.g. inside/on/under/with/against):
- La melo loĝis en truo = The badger lived in a hole
Two rules here:
- Move the prepositional relationship to the front, and the prepositional relation is emphasised:
- en truo la melo loĝis : the badger lived in a hole, not e.g. in a box.
- Move also the subject to the end and then the subject is emphasised:
- en truo loĝis la melo : the badger lived in a hole, not e.g. the squirrel.
There are exceptions, and particular words that act in different ways. These are generally quite obvious when you come across them. One of the key exceptions is “ki-” correlatives (kiu, kie, kia, kiel, kiam, kiom, kio). These are usually at the front of their part of the phrase. You can read more in this PMEG section.