Overview of Esperanto

This page and the following pages give a fairly concise overview of the grammar of Esperanto. They are not intended as a course for beginners or learners. You will find excellent online Esperanto courses at Duolingo and also at Lernu.net.

Verbs

The verb in Esperanto is always in the active form and has only six possible endings. These are:

Part of verb                        
Example             
Meaning    
Infinitive: -i
Vivi kaj ami  To live and to love
Imperative: -u Prenu mian manon Take my hand
Conditional: -us Se vi vidus ŝin vi amus ŝin If you saw her you would love her
Present: -as Mi loĝas en Skotlando I live in Scotland
Future: -os Li venos al mia domo He will come to my house

Past: -is

Ni estis feliĉaj tiam
We were happy then

In Esperanto the accent is always on the second last vowel. So using the last example above, the accented vowels are in red:- Ni estis feliĉaj tiam.


Nouns

All nouns in Esperanto end in the letter "o". Very often it is possible to form a noun from another part of speech simply by changing the ending to "o". The plural of nouns are formed by adding "j" to the noun giving the ending "-oj", which is pronounced like the "-oy" in the English word "boy".

For example:

Esperanto
English
Esperanto
English
domo house           domoj houses
mano hand manoj hands
viro man viroj men
virino woman virinoj women
infano child infanoj children
ŝafo sheep ŝafoj sheep
muso mouse musoj mice

Accented Letters

You will have noticed letters with a symbol above them. Esperanto has six such accented letters. These are, with their pronunciations:

Esperanto Letter                  Closest English sound
ĉ
ch in church
ĝ
g in gentle
ĥ
ch in the Scots word "loch"
ĵ
s in pleasure
ŝ
sh in shall
ŭ
w in now

Where Esperanto fonts or Unicode are not available you can use ch, gh, hh, jh, sh and u on its own instead. Many Esperantists nowadays use the unofficial forms cx, gx, hx, jx, sx, and ux in informal communications such as email and instant messaging. Most Esperantists prefer to use the official accented letters whenever they can.

Remaining Consonants

The remaining consonants of the Esperanto alphabet are pronounced the same way as they are in English with the exception of the following: "c" is pronounced like the "ts" in "tsunami"; "j" is pronounced like the "y" in "yellow"; "r" is trilled as in Italian or Spanish.

Vowels

Esperanto vowels are pronounced the way an Italian or a Spaniard would pronounce them, so "i" is pronounced like "ee" in English, and "u" like "oo".


Adjectives

All adjectives end in "a", and like nouns, it is generally possible to form an adjective from another part of speech simply by changing the ending to "a". Adjectives agree with the noun they describe ("aj" is pronounced as the "y" in "my") and can stand in front or after the noun in the sentence:

Singular Adjective(s)
  Plural Adjective(s)
 
granda viro
a big man viroj grandaj
big men
virino bela
a beautiful woman belaj virinoj
beautiful women
blua svedleda ŝuo
a blue suede shoe bluaj ŝuoj svedledaj      
blue suede shoes
multkolora ĉielarko
a multicoloured rainbow du multkoloraj ĉielarkoj
two multicoloured rainbows

In the examples above there were a number of words which were formed from two words. For example, "sveda" means "Swedish" and "ledo" means "leather", so "svedledo" is "swedish leather" or "suede", (here changed into an adjective by making the ending "-a"). "Multa" means "much" (or many) and "koloro" means "colour", so "multkolora" means "many coloured" ... admittedly that goes without saying for a rainbow! And finally "ĉielo" means "sky" (also "heaven"), and "arko" means "arc" or "bow", so "sky-arc" or "skybow" is a "rainbow". Esperantists make free use of this facility in the language, and it is quite possible for a novice in the language to put together a word that no-one has used before.


Adverbs

In Esperanto adverbs are formed from adjectives, or other parts of speech, by changing the ending to "-e".

Adjective   Adverb  
la rapida aŭtomobilo  
the fast car  La aŭtomobilo iras rapide
The car goes quickly
bela ĉielo
a beautiful sky La ĉielo brilas bele
The sky shines beautifully
mola kuseno
a soft cushion Li tuŝis ŝian vangon mole
He touched her cheek softly
efika prelego
an effective speech Ŝi prelegis efike
She spoke effectively
forta biero
strong beer La biero odoris forte de vinagro
The beer smelled strongly of vinegar
bona kantistino
a good singer Ŝi kantis bone
She sang well

The adverb is used more freely and widely in Esperanto than in English. It can be used to express in one word what may take two or more, or may simply be impossible, in English. For example, "La malsata viro voris la biftekon kiel hundo" means "The hungry man devoured the steak like a dog", but "La malsata viro voris la biftekon hunde" means the same thing and is perfectly acceptable Esperanto. In Esperanto you can say "Ŝi manĝetis la panon birde" but you cannot say in English "She nibbled the bread birdly" without a few looks of puzzlement!

You may have noticed in the table above that the word "prelego", "speech", was changed into a verb, "prelegis", "spoke", by simply substituting the ending for the past tense of a verb. This is a powerful feature of Esperanto ... the ability to change a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb into any of the other three ... which is thoroughly exploited by the speakers of the language.


The Infamous Accusative

For English-speaking learners of Esperanto probably the trickiest aspect when using the language is the accusative. The rule for the accusative is simple, but because it is not the way we do it in English we often get it wrong.
In Esperanto a noun which is the direct object of a verb has the letter "n" added to the end to mark it as the direct object.
The closest scenario to this still remaining in English occurs with the personal pronouns: we say "I helped him", but we do not say "I helped he"; "him" is the accusative form of "he" in English. In Esperanto this becomes "Mi helpis lin". "He helped me" would be "Li helpis min".

Unlike in English, though, this rule allows freedom of word order in Esperanto. In English we cannot say "I him helped" but in Esperanto "Mi lin helpis", "Lin mi helpis", "Lin helpis mi", "Helpis mi lin" and so on all mean "I helped him" but with subtle differences of emphasis.

Because of the regularity of Esperanto the accusative rule applies to all direct objects. "Ŝi portis sakon" ... "She carried a bag" ... is correct Esperanto. Nevertheless "Ŝi portis sako", although incorrect, would be understood by all Esperantists.

Note the agreement of adjectives: "Mi manĝis verdan pomon", "I ate a green apple" and "Ni havas du ruĝajn pomojn", "We have two red apples".


Participles

Esperanto has six participle forms: active and passive with one for each time; namely present, future and past. Normally the ending of a verb is replaced by the participle ending:

Active
Meaning
Passive
Meaning
portanta   
carrying portata 
being carried
portonta
going to carry     portota
going to be carried
portinta
having carried portita
having been carried

The participles are strictly adjectives ... "viro portanta libron", "a man carrying a book"; "infano portata de sia patro", "a child carried by his/her father" ... but they can be used to mimic the compound tenses of English: "Mi estas portinta libron" means "I have carried a book"; "Mi estis portinta libron" means "I had carried a book"; "Mi estos portanta libron" means "I will be carrying a book". Esperantists generally avoid these "compound tenses" unless there is no other way to express the idea.

Participles can also be used to make the "passive voice". "Li estas vidita de la knabino" means "He has (just) been seen by the girl"; "Li estos vidita de la knabino" means "He will be seen by the girl".

Participles are very useful when they are used as adverbs: "Vidinte la knabinon, li ekamis ŝin" means "Having seen the girl, he fell in love with her"; "Estante en la urbo, mi decidis viziti vin" means "Being in town, I decided to visit you".

When participles are used as nouns they normally refer to a person: "La amato" means "The one who is loved"; "La amanto" means "The lover"; "Ŝia aminto" means "Her past lover (the one who used to love her)"; "Ŝia amito" means "Her past loved one (the one she used to love)".


Word Building

We have already seen that an Esperantist can join words together to form new words. He or she can also use an array of affixes to change the meaning of a word root. Around half of these are given below:
 

Affix
Meaning
Example
Meaning
mal-
opposite malami
to hate
    malfeliĉa
unhappy
re-
again, once more reveni
to return, to come back
-eg
increases meaning bonega
excellent
    domego
a mansion
-et
decreases meaning         libreto
a pamphlet
-in
female of ŝafino
a ewe
-id
offspring of ŝafido
a lamb
-ar
the collective ŝafaro
a flock of sheep
-ej
place for aŭtomobilejo
garage
    infanejo
nursery
-ind
worthy vidinda
worth seeing
-er
small part of panero
a breadcrumb
-il
a tool for manĝilo
a piece of cutlery
-em tendency amema affectionate
-aĵ object (with characteristics of the root) manĝaĵo a meal, food
-ebl possibility portebla portable
-ul person (sometimes animal) bonulo a good fellow

Two suffixes in particular are used a lot in Esperanto: "-ig" and "-iĝ". The first has the meaning "to cause to" and the second has the meaning "to become" or "to get". For example, "feliĉigi" would mean "to make (someone) happy" and "feliĉiĝi" would mean "to get happy" or "to become happy".
More generally: "-ig" makes intransitive verbs transitive and "-iĝ" makes transitive verbs intransitive.
For example, "Legomoj kreskas en ŝia ĝardeno" means "Vegetables grow in her garden"; "Ŝi kreskigas legomojn en sia ĝardeno" means "She grows vegetables in her garden". The intransitive verb "kreski" becomes the transitive verb "kreskigi". In English we use the same word "to grow" in both situations, even though they mean quite different things.
"Li vendas librojn en sia butiko" means "He sells books in his shop". "Libroj vendiĝas bone en lia butiko" means "Books sell well in his shop". The verb "sell" is transitive in the first case and intransitive in the second.

The use of affixes in this regular way is a very powerful aspect of Esperanto, allowing a relatively small vocabulary to express many ideas.


And finally ...

While we can modify the meaning of a root word using affixes, the affixes themselves can be treated as roots in their own right, and can be used to form adjectives, verbs, nouns, adverbs, and so on.
"Eta birdo" means "A tiny bird". "Ŝiaj idoj" means "Her offspring". "Tiu ulo", "That fellow".

Prepositions can also be used as affixes. "Enveni" means "To come in" or "To enter". "Surporti jakon" literally means "To carry on (oneself) a jacket", in other words to "To wear a jacket".

This flexibility can lead to words formed totally out of various language elements without even including a root. For example "el" means "out of", "ig" as we know means "causing", and "il" means "a tool"; so "eligilo" is "a device for causing something to be out of something else" in other words "an extractor". While this may seem a bit contrived, it is no worse than the English word which itself is compiled from two other languages: ("ex" means "out" in Latin; "tract" comes from the Latin "trahere" meaning "to drag"; and "-or" comes from the Old French suffix "-eur" meaning something which does something). Wouldn't it be good if an English speaker could just say "Pass me the outgetter, please"? Unfortunately we can't!

In any case, every Esperantist would know exactly what "eligilo" means and is accustomed to hearing and delighting in word combinations which they themselves have never heard before but which convey the speaker's intention perfectly. It is this power and flexibility with simplicity which makes Esperantists so fond of their language, as well as the fact that it really does enable communication across linguistic barriers.
Esperanto "does what it says on the tin!"