8 and 9 April 2007

Word formation mechanisms in Esperanto – Introduction


I vaguely remembered there must be an older Esperanto pre-version of the first pages of this English attempt, so I looked it up in order to publish that too. I didn't find it, but instead found a 1989 manuscript I had half forgotten I ever wrote, which was in Esperanto with a German translation. It was hand-written, with a few paragraphs also typed with a mechanical typewriter, on the top and bottom half of two A4 pages.

Where, when, why?

The manuscript has the dates “2/4/6/9 Dec. '89” on it. I don't know if I wrote this in Germany in a hotel room, or at home in the Netherlands. German was a language I often used at the time, working for the Dutch branch of German company Nixdorf, sometimes also in Germany (Paderborn, Berlin, München) itself. This is probably why the original Esperanto text has a German translation, but there isn't anything in any other language.


The text is about word formation mechanisms in Esperanto, how they make Esperanto a unique language with possibilities of its own, which tend to be fully employed only when writing directly in the language itself, instead of translating existing texts into it.

In 2007 after I found the manuscript again, I decided to make a web version of it. It typed the texts exactly as found, with only minor corrections of obvious errors.

The way I used the Esperanto language in this short text is probably unusual, because I do not distinguish words from affixes (prefixes and postfixes), but try to see the whole of the Esperanto vocabulary as a single set of roots, or building blocks, which can be combined into words rather freely. So some “words” consist only of what are usually considered affixes, e.g. the verb ekani, ek-an-i, from

I can imagine some find this usage objectionable and ungrammatical. I remember having read such objections on Usenet, but I don't manage to find them again.

One point where I went very far in using the language in controversial ways is where I call Zamenhof Esperanton kreintulo. The word Kreintulo, kre-int-ul-o is from:

so it means “person who created”.

Now Esperanton is a noun, the language name (although also composed of root elements, Esper-ant-o) with the accusative marker -n added to it. So I thus mark the thing that this “person who created” created.

It is quite questionable if this usage is correct, because kreintulo isn't a verb, but a noun. Also Esperanton seems to function as an adjective, so should it have been Esperantona? But -on- is also a suffix in its own right, as in tri-on-o meaning “third” so this would be confusing. Also, it is strange to have both a noun marker and an adjective marker in the same word.

Or should it simply have been Esperanta? Or, because the word more or less functions as a genitive (but Esperanto has no genitive case and uses the preposition de instead), I could have simply written: kreintulo de Esperanto.

It didn't, because I was trying to stretch the grammatical potential of Esperanto to its limits, and probably surpassed those limits. But it is what I wrote over 17 years ago, and probably deliberately, so I won't change it now.

What next?

The text mentions that even the miadejuneclingva version [note *)] (literally “my from young being language”) is a translation from the text originally written in Esperanto.

But Dutch is my native language, not German, which is the only language into which a translation was found. I must have had plans to also translate the Esperanto to Dutch and English, but I didn't and won't now, keeping the original in the unfinished state it was in then.

I also won't keep my promise, made so long ago, to continue the article and explain further how word formation works in Esperanto.

So the answer to this chapter's question, “what next” is simply: “nothing next”.

Note 1:

*) By the way, the usual Esperanto expression for “native language” is gepatraj lingvo, “of both sexes, parents, language”, or denasklingvo, “from birth language”. But I wanted to be creative when writing the text, kreadante. So I created a different and more accurate word. This is what Esperanto lets you do.

Note 2:

The original Esperanto version contains 345 words and 2468 characters including spaces and interpunction. The German translation has 449 words (+30%) and 3257 chars (+32%).

Now translations are usually longer than originals, because the special features of the source language require more words to mirror them in the target language, which has features of its own, but not the same ones. A 10 to 20% percent increase is normal.

But that this also happens, and very markedly (over 30%), in a translation from Esperanto, may indicate that it isn't a toy language, but a real language with possibilities of its own, not shared by other languages.

Also, German is known for having relatively few and long words, and for being longer than other languages in terms of characters. This is true even for original texts with the same meaning content, or in texts in different languages, both translated from a common source language. See these statistics derived from the 2005 proposal (presumably all translated from a French original) for a European constitution.

See also this rate calculation tool.

See also these statistics.

In my own eo => de translation, the average word lengths (including spaces and interpunction) in the two languages (with Esperanto used in the unusual way I use it in) are similar: 7.15 (eo) versus 7.25 (de).

Note 3:

This is an interesting description of problems with Esperanto. However, I think in part they stem from the wrong approach I mentioned earlier: using Esperanto as a language to translate into from other languages, not as a language in its own right.

I don't see it as a problem that kompreneble can mean “understandably” and “of course”. Seeing these meanings as different is an English way of looking at the world. In Esperanto, these meanings belong together, and are captured in this one word. Such different views on reality frequently exist between different natural languages too.

In other cases, the author is simply wrong. He states:
For example, “ethics debate” and “ethical debate” both translate to “etika debato”.
In fact, it is quite easy to make this distinction: “ethics debate” is prietika debato, debato pri etiko or even etikdebato (or etikodebato for easier pronunciability).

The author writes Thus “ĝi estis ŝtelita de mi” could mean “it was stolen from me” or “it was stolen by me”.
I don’t think this is correct. Yes it is, because my Esperanto-Dutch dictionary confirms this meaning of de. Anyway, when it matters to make it unambiguous, there is the special word far.

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