In English we can say, I brush my hair with a brush and comb my hair with a comb, which seems simple enough. So why is it that in Esperanto we say, Mi brosas miajn harojn per broso kaj kombas miajn harojn per kombilo?
One difference is that in Esperanto the word haro means a single hair, so we refer to brushing or combing our harojn, plural. This is logical, and it’s similar to the way many other languages say it, but a literal translation sounds comical to native English speakers because we say hairs only in reference to hairs that are noticeably few and relatively far apart. (Yes, like the ones on the top of my head. Thanks for reminding me.) Someone learning Esperanto might be amused by this, but probably not confused.
The other difference is more puzzling. Why do we refer to the two hair care instruments in question as brosoj kaj kombiloj? Why not brosoj kaj komboj, or brosiloj kaj kombiloj? Why does one require the -il suffix and not the other?
We’d be inclined to ask a question like that of English (or most other languages) because we don’t expect them to be logical or consistent. Hence it doesn’t surprise us that we staple with a stapler but nail with a hammer. When someone points out that words with pronunciations as different as laughter and daughter differ only by the first letter, or that we speak of traveling on a plane when most of us actually have the good sense to travel in them, the person asking the question is probably a comedian (specifically Gallagher in the first instance and the late George Carlin in the second). But we tend to expect better of Esperanto, so what’s going on here?
The usual explanation, going back at least to Kalocsay and Waringhien’s Plena Gramatiko, is that root words in Esperanto have an inherent part of speech. Some, like bros-, are fundamentally nouns. Others, like komb-, are fundamentally verbs. Still others, like bel-, are fundamentally adjectives.
This explanation isn’t reassuring to someone learning the language. Having to learn whether a root is nominal, verbal, or adjectival sounds too much like memorizing noun gender in German or Latin or Russian. Fortunately in practice it’s nowhere near the problem that the description implies, and just as with the notion of verb transitivity discussed last time, there’s a way of looking at it that makes it seem far less forbidding. Before I get to that, though, let me say a little more about the traditional view, since it influences how Esperanto dictionaries are written.
Zamenhof’s Universala Vortaro gave roots without endings, but in a modern Esperanto dictionary, the great majority of words have an ending attached that shows the “base” part of speech. The main entry for bros- has an -o on the end to show that it’s a noun. The verb brosi is there as well, but usually as a derivation of the noun broso, not a word in its own right. Similarly, komb- ends in -i to show that the root is inherently a verb, bel- has the -a ending of an adjective, and so on. Of course, roots such as kaj, mi, hodiaŭ, and the like that can stand on their own with no grammatical ending are shown without one.
(The usual convention in Esperanto dictionaries is to ignore grammatical endings when determining alphabetical order, which is why words sometimes seem to be out of place. For example, franco and Francio are usually given in that order rather than the other way around, because the final -o has no effect on the alphabetization. Students could be saved confusion if more textbooks and teachers took pains to point this out.)
When the root word is a verb, the corresponding noun is an action. So from the verbs manĝi, kuri, and ŝoveli, we get the nouns manĝo (“a meal”), kuro (“a run”), and ŝovelo (“an act of shoveling”). It follows that since kombi is a verb, kombo means “an act of combing”. So to identify a comb, we need a different noun, kombilo, and similarly we eat and shovel with manĝiloj and ŝoveliloj.
On the other hand, we don’t need to say martelilo because martelo already means a hammer.
This suggests another way of looking at the question: It similarly clears things up when you understand the meaning of a noun. Kombo and manĝo are actions, so it isn’t surprising to find them under kombi and manĝi in dictionaries. Belo and justo are abstract qualities, and dictionaries define the roots as adjectives. Martelo and hundo are things, and that’s how they’re treated, as nouns.
As discussed last time, whether a verb is transitive or intransitive isn’t something you have to memorize like gender in French or Spanish. If you really understand the meaning of the verb, it’s obvious. Similarly, if you really know what a root word in Esperanto means, it’s clear whether it’s “verbal” (an action), “adjectival” (a quality), or “nominal” (a thing).
This isn’t to say the standard grammatical explanations are incorrect, only that they can make the grammar seem harder than it really is. In fact, students who’ve never heard the traditional explanation are probably less confused than the ones who have!
Of course, whether a student has had it explained or not, the broso/kombilo distinction may still seem unnecessarily difficult. Why not, say, just have broso mean “the action of brushing”? Then it would work just like kombo, and the objects would be brosilo and kombilo. Or why not make kombo the name of the instrument, in parallel with broso?
Well, that’s a possibility, but there are actually good reasons the words work in Esperanto the way they do. What really defines a brush (in English as well as Esperanto) is what it is, not how it’s used. Paint brushes, hair brushes, tooth brushes, and so on are the same kind of thing although used in pretty different ways. Combing, on the other hand, is basically an action that combs are designed to perform. Even if you might want to quibble with this, it’s simply not a big enough problem in practice to worry about.
In fact, the general lesson to take away from all of this might be that grammatical theory tends to be harder than grammatical practice. Teachers of Esperanto, at least at the level of courses for komencantoj and progresintoj, should take care not to explain matters in a way that confuses more than enlightens.