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Being Colloquial in Esperanto

A Reference Guide

David K. Jordan

Preface & Acknowledgements


This book is directed principally to speakers of English who have completed a basic course in Esperanto, either with a teacher or alone, and who seek a moderately complete Esperanto reference grammar in English with many examples. It is not intended as a first introduction to Esperanto, and hence is not arranged as a text book. There is of course tremendous variation in English usage around the world. This book uses American English as its standard.

Esperanto was originally the creation of Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859-1917), who, after years of experimentation, finally made his project public in 1887 in a simple list of sixteen grammatical rules and a vocabulary of a scant 900 roots. To this day Esperanto has a well-deserved reputation for being uncomplicated and logical. This does not imply that Esperanto words, sentences, or turns of phrase correspond exactly with those of English (or any other language). Other languages, after all, have no reputation at all for being logical!

Further, in the course of the century and more of its use, Esperanto has been substantially refined and expanded by its community of speakers, just as Zamenhof intended. Conventions of style and usage have grown up through active usage of the language in different situations and for different goals. Learners of Esperanto therefore often have questions about Esperanto usage. This book seeks to take account of how Esperanto is actually used by thoughtful speakers and writers today, and to provide answers to the kinds of questions English-speaking learners tend to ask.

(A couple of reviewers of the first edition took exception to this approach, arguing that one should not admit to “beginners” that speakers were ever inconsistent with each other or ever had stylistic disagreements, or that any corner of Esperanto could possibly harbor illogicallity, or even that Esperanto had evolved or was continuing to evolve. But then one reviewer also argued that examples should never be funny either. So much for reviewers.)

It has always seemed to me that, for the adult student of a foreign language, the best kind of usage to aim for is a style which does not call attention to itself. We want to avoid errors, to be sure, and this book should help you do that. And most of the time we also seek to talk in a way that draws attention to what we are saying, not to how we are saying it. And of course we want to understand everything said to us, even if it is badly phrased. This book is not intended to make you a poet or a novelist or a stand-up comic. But it should help you say what you want to say inconspicuously, without tripping, and to understand what people say to you, even if they speak much more or much less fluently than you do.

The book consists of two parts. Part I is the reference grammar. It is not intended to be a linguistically innovative, complete, or entirely consistent descriptive study of Esperanto grammar. (In Esperanto, Bertilo Wennergren's 2005 Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko. [El Cerrito: Esperanto-Ligo por Norda Ameriko., 696 pp. ISBN: 0-939785-07-2] is such a work.). Nor does it concentrate equally on all issues. Instead I have included a general description of most of the grammar that a student might learn in an elementary course, but I have made frequent reference to points of style, taste, and usage that are normally left unexplained; and I have expanded points that in my experience give native English speakers particular trouble or that we find especially interesting. I have also included a very large number of examples, since in my experience an example often makes more sense than an abstract explanation. All examples are accompanied by more or less colloquial English translations. The examples are intended to be clear, above all, and after that to be memorable if possible, and amusing at least some of the time.

A problem in creating a book of this kind is how much to rely on the technical terms of traditional grammar (words like “accusative,” “imperative,” and “preposition”). Many learners do not feel comfortable with such terms, and for that reason some instructors try to avoid them, often by painful circumlocution or by alternative terms thought to be simpler. On the other hand, most Esperanto textbooks do use standard grammatical terms, and in my experience most beginning Esperanto students have in fact learned most of them. People who come to Esperanto after having studied other languages are also already familiar with a range of relatively standardized terms used to talk about language. Alternative grammatical terminologies, I have found, introduce confusing exoticism far more often than clarity. Accordingly, in this book a noun is called a noun and a participle is called a participle.

Deciding to stick with traditional terms in most cases, I have tried to provide minimal definitions in lay language, but have still faced the problem that using such terms necessarily involves links to underlying theoretical issues about Esperanto grammar that cannot appropriately be laid out here. (Should the -N suffix on adverbs be construed as an “accusative,” for example? If not, is the similar directional -N on nouns really an accusative case after all? Why?) Whenever possible, I have tried to follow a line likely to be closest to elementary textbooks, sometimes briefly describing how grammarians differ, but more often quietly suppressing the larger theoretical issues and allowing them to operate out of sight of the reader. On a few points about which Esperanto speakers have become particularly self-conscious (e.g., compound verb forms and transitivity) I have provided fuller explanations of why the issue is interesting in Esperanto. Others (like the inherent part-of-speech properties of roots) I have left largely out of sight, although specialists will easily spot their salience here and there.

Part II contains an alphabetical list of words that seem to me to pose special challenges to an English speaker. Some are false cognates (falsaj amikoj); some are words easily confused with each other (paronimoj); some are terms that English speakers tend to fit into sentences wrong. Finally, some simply strike me as interesting or amusing. The list is in alphabetical order to facilitate reference use, but it is really intended for casual browsing. I have made no particular attempt to be brief; extensive translated examples are again included to provide clarification, amusement, and with luck an aid to memory.

Nearly all examples used throughout the book are my own. A few derived from writings of Zamenhof have a small raised “Z” at the end, as is customary in Esperanto reference works.

I hope that the new printing of this little book may prove helpful to the ever growing Anglophone esperantistaro as we strive to fulfill our dream of overcoming language barriers to achieve more satisfying world citizenship.


This work has benefited by conversations over the last half century with hundreds of Esperanto speakers, but most important have been students and colleagues in several intensive summer workshops at San Francisco State University and my many friends in the Esperanto Club of San Diego and our international guests. My sense of international usage has been much enlightened by conversations and correspondence with Esperanto speakers in a number of countries, and particularly at the Kultura Centro Esperantista at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.

The work has been hugely improved due to the efforts of many helpful readers of preliminary drafts and of the first printing. These include: Scott Cambell, Mingchi Chien, James F. Cool, Bonnie Fonseca-Greber, Nancy Friedlander, Dorothy Holland, Donald Harlow, William R. Harmon, Richard L. Horn, Ralph A. Lewin, E. James Lieberman, Paul Merrill, Gary Moore, Ionel Oneţ, Jonathan Pool, Reg Reid, Derek Roff, Donald Rogers, Catherine Schulze, Michael Sloper, and Dorothy Stermer, and members of an advanced Esperanto class taught by Dorothy Holland in 1995. Finally, Gregory V. Wasson kindly provided an Esperanto type font to facilitate computerized preparation of the final copy of the first edition.

After the release of the first edition, my poor proofreading, made worse by the impossibility of using automated spell-checking on a heavily bilingual text, became increasingly evident as many helpful readers worked with the book and sent lists of corrections. I am very much indebted to these patient and constructive people, and the present revision owes much to them.

The second edition still had proof errors, and I am grateful to John P. Prystupa for tagging some of them for me in 2000.

Unsurprisingly, the on-line version has turned up a few more. My thanks are due to Adam Wolf, Douglas Mosier, Camden Parks, Rommel Martinez, and Erik Bjørn Pedersen for tagging some of them for me. If you find more, I shall be delighted to acknowledge your help here.

D. K. Jordan
La Jolla, St. Patrick’s Day, 1999 (2nd ed.)
& May 27, 2020 (Acknowledgements Updated)

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