Usona Esperantisto № 2008:5

Making things harder than they really are

Lasta ĝisdatigo: 2018-04-22

At some point after we start learning Esperanto, we begin to notice things that make the language seem harder than it needs to be. For example:

Ni komencis la kunvenon, kaj la kunveno komenciĝis.
Mi boligis la akvon, kaj la akvo bolis.

Why say komenci in one place and komenciĝi in the other? And why does boli work differently?

The usual explanation is that komenci is transitive and boli is intransitive, and to use komenci intransitively or boli transitively requires a suffix. Even if students remember what “transitive” and “intransitive” mean, they’re left with the impression that the transitivity of Esperanto verbs is something like the gender of French nouns: a more or less arbitrary attribute that unfortunately has to be looked up in a dictionary and committed to memory.

And Esperanto is supposed to be easy?

Even worse, some verbs in the original Plena Vortaro were labeled neither “tr” (transitiva) nor “ntr” (netransitiva) but “x”, meaning that they are sometimes transitive and sometimes not! Fumi, for example, can be used both ways:

La fajro fumis dum li fumis sian cigaredon.
The fire gave off smoke while he smoked his cigarette.

And here’s another surprise: Suppose you want to call a meeting to order by saying “Let’s begin.” The sentence contains no object, so should you say “Ni komenciĝu”? No, the student is told, you say “Ni komencu”, because you’re using a transitive verb “absolutely.”

Students can be forgiven for finding this confusing, or even a bit nuts. It’s a case of an explanation making something sound much harder than it really is. Let me suggest an alternative.

Suppose you’re trying to explain to your students the difference between boli and boligi. What does water do when it boils? You might liven up the class by asking them to act it out, or you could act it out yourself at the risk of some passerby in the hall calling the paramedics.

Okay, now what do you do when you boil water? Not at all the same thing that the water itself does! It’s a different action, and Esperanto recognizes that difference by using a different verb – but one you can easily and logically create from the first verb.

When you boil water what you’re really doing is making the water boil, and in Esperanto this meaning of “make” is frequently conveyed by the suffix -ig. To put it differently, -ig conveys the idea of causation. That is, “to make (something) boil” or “to cause (something) to boil” is “boligi (ion)”.

The situation is different with komenci, where the meaning is inherently transitive, “to begin (something)”. But there’s still a clear distinction between what you do when you begin a meeting and what the meeting does when it begins. So as before, the two meanings are conveyed by two different (but very similar verbs). This time, though, we need a suffix that conveys the idea of being acted upon or becoming, corresponding to “to get” or “to become” or “to be” in English. That suffix is of course -iĝ.

The similarity between -ig and -iĝ is a blessing and a curse. If you know one you can easily remember the other, but it’s easy to get the two confused. My best suggestion is to remember a specific example of each, but if you know of a better aid to memory, let me know.

The meaning of komenci isn’t inherently obvious, but if you know the phrase la kunveno komenciĝis, you know that komenci must mean to start something. This suggests that it might help to introduce komenciĝi before komenci and likewise with other verbs whose meanings may not be obvious.

A student is much less likely to be confused by a verb like manĝi:

Mi manĝis la panon, kaj la pano manĝiĝis.
I ate the bread and the bread was eaten.

This example illustrates very memorably that English is not, after all, simpler than Esperanto here. Yes, in English we can say, “We began the meeting and the meeting began” without worrying about the difference, but we can’t say “We ate the bread and the bread ate”. Esperanto is more consistent (and logical):

Mi manĝis la panon, kaj la pano manĝiĝis.
Ni komencis la kunvenon, kaj la kunveno komenciĝis.

In practice the distinction might still make Esperanto less than maximally easy (as Bernard Golden argued in Marĝene de la lernolibro), but here, as in a few other areas, Esperanto sacrifices maximum easiness for expressive precision.

In any case, thinking of things this way lets a student see why we say “Ni komencu!” instead of “Ni komenciĝu.” It’s for the same reason that we say “Ni manĝu!” (“Let’s eat!”) rather than “Ni manĝiĝu!” (“Let’s get eaten!”). When we begin something (a meeting, a job, or whatever), we ourselves are not what’s being begun.

To sum up: Transitivity isn’t some arbitrary trait that you have to memorize; it is inherent in the meaning of the verb – or in each meaning, when the verb has more than one. This explains the business with fumi: The meaning “to give off smoke” is inherently intransitive, whereas “to smoke (something)” implies an object. (The Plena Ilustrita Vortaro and NPIV recognize this distinction by labeling as “tr” or “ntr” not the verb itself, but the definition, thus eliminating the confusing “x” of the older PV.)

So you can reassure your students that when they learn verbs in Esperanto they don’t have to worry about memorizing transitivity. They simply have to learn the specific meaning of the verb, which is something they’d expect to learn anyway.

Finally, you can cover all this without ever mentioning the word “transitivity” — especially when you first bring up the subject. At some point, however, it’s useful to explain the meaning of the abbreviations “tr” and “ntr” since they show up in most Esperanto dictionaries. Rather than thinking of them as separate from the definition, it’s useful to view them as part of it: an extra bit of clarification. This is especially true in Esperanto-English dictionaries, where the meaning may be ambiguous in English.

A personal note

I was planning to devote this or the next column to an interview with Don Houpe, asking him about his experience teaching Esperanto to high school students for more than two decades. But August 20 I received an email from one of his daughters telling me that Don had just died. His death came as a shock to everyone who knew him and his loss was a heavy blow to the local Esperanto community in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. Many times he arranged to host regional meetings held at his school, as recently as last spring. He was also well-known among the students and teachers at NASK, not only taking part himself but sending several of his students. Don was besides one of the major customers of the Esperanto-USA book service, giving his school library one of the largest collections of Esperanto materials in the United States. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him, at NASK, in AATE, in Esperanto-USA, in our local and regional groups, and across Esperantujo generally, and as students, colleagues, family, and friends. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a funeral service with as many mourners.