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Part I: Esperanto Grammar

Chapter 18. Interjections & Verbal Play


An interjection is a free-standing word expressing an emotion, such as awe, horror, or surprise. Words like “yikes!” and “wow!” are English interjections. Not surprisingly, (1) there are few precise equivalences between languages, and (2) interjections are often imported from a speaker's native language into Esperanto, especially if the speaker is caught by surprise. Here are a few relatively common Esperanto interjections:

Ba! = Nonsense! Rubbish! (Used to dismiss and express disgust at something said by another.)
Dio estas granda muŝo!? Ba! Kion vi scias pri Dio?
= God is a great fly!? Nonsense! What do you know about God?!
Ĉu?! = What in the world?! Really?! (Expresses sudden surprise. Sometimes used by a listener to acknowledge surprised interest in facts being laid out by a speaker.)
Ili decidis vendi la hundon! Ĉu?! Jes, sed ili ne sukcesis.
= They decided to sell the dog! Really? Yes, but they didn’t succeed!)
Li diris al mi, ke la oranĝo kostus kvin egiptiajn pundojn; imagu! Ĉu vere?!
= He told me the orange would cost five Egyptian pounds; imagine! Is that so?!
Sed tio vere estis tro alta prezo, ĉu ne?
= But that really was too high a price, wasn't it?
Ha! = Ah! (Range of generally positive meanings depending upon intonation.)
Ha! Mi havas la pikan ason!
= Ha! I have the ace of spades!
Ha! Finfine mi scias, kial ŝi ne venis!
= Ha! At last I know why she didn’t come!
Ha! Post la bankedo restis ankoraŭ iom da mono en la kaso!
= Great! After the banquet there was still some money left in the cash-box!
He! = Hey! (Used to attract attention.)
He! Vi faligis vian monujon!
= Hey! You dropped your wallet!
Ho! = Oh! O! (Range of meanings depending upon intonation. Sometimes followed directly by a noun or noun phrase.)
Ho kia fuŝo!
= Oh, what a disaster!
Ho mia kor’! Ne batu maltrankvile!z
= O my heart! Beat not in agitation.
Nu … = Well … (Sound made while hesitating about saying what follows.)
Kien malaperis ŝia edzo? Nu, jen la situacio: …
= Where did her husband disappear to? Well, um, here's the situation: …
Vi ne kunportis monon? Nu, ni akceptas kreditkartojn.
= You didn’t bring money along? Well, we accept credit cards.
Ve! = Alas! Rats! (Not as stilted as English “alas”; may be used where American English uses various mild profanity. Often preceded by ho.)
Ho ve! Mi perdis la vortaron!
= Oh rats! I lost the dictionary.

In some cases, a noun or adverb (or pretty much anything else) can be pulled into use. Adverbs are most common. Here are some examples:

Interese! = Interesting!
Diable! = Damn! = Tarnation!(Expressing mild annoyance. Quite common.)
Diable! Mi esperis, ke ŝi ne venos!
= Dang! I was hoping she wouldn't come!
Damne! = Damn it! (Expressing slightly stronger annoyance. Less common.)
Damne! Kiam mi penas najli mi ĉiam batas al mi la dikfingron.
= Damn! When I try to pound nails I always hit my thumb.
Fundamenta Krestomatio! = Damnation! (Expressing justifiable annoyance. Rare.)
Fundamenta Krestomatio! Ili proponas pagi al mi neniom por mia brila manuskripto.
= Ye gods and little fishes! They propose to pay me nothing at all for my brilliant manuscript.
(The Fundamenta Krestomatio was an early collection of essays demonstrating the suitability of Esperanto for a wide variety of purposes. Using the title as an interjection is experienced as slightly comical, hence the threadbare but comical “translation” here.)

In English “my” often begins an expression of annoyed disbelief, such as “My foot!” “My ass!” or “My fiduciary!” This doesn’t routinely work in Esperanto, but can be sometimes be approximated using the preposition je, implying that one is swearing by it: Je mia piedo!, literally “By my foot.”

Vulgar Interjections

Coarser expressions occur when people are truly annoyed (or are coarser people). Languages vary a great deal in the elaboration of verbal indecency, but most people should have little occasion to hear obscenity and none to produce it in Esperanto. To answer a frequent question, however, the common American “shit!” and “fuck!” are usually fek'! and fik'! in American Esperanto. Their valence among Esperantists of other language traditions varies, and their use is not recommended.

Verbal Play

*-For more on Esperanto humor, see my 1988 article, “Esperanto: the international language of humor; or, What's funny about Esperanto?” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 1(2): 143-157. Available on this web site (link).

Because language is a particularly salient issue for most Esperanto speakers, and therefore often surfaces as a topic of common interest, there is a good deal of self-consciousness in Esperanto speech, leading, of course, to verbal gaming.*

Some jokes involve extending the paradigms of Esperanto to create implausible but (often) theoretically possible forms. Hyphens have been inserted here to show the element divisions.

Vi kiom-as? Ni tri-as.
= How many are you? We’re three.
Vi kie-is dum tiom da tempo? Subetaĝ-is mi.
= Where were you all this time? I was downstairs.
Kies estas la libro? Johan-es.
= Whose is the book? John’s.
Kio jen-as en mia poŝo? Ĉu melaso? Diable! Daĉjo!
= What’s this in my pocket? Molasses?! Damn! Davey!

Some of these forms even attain a kind of concise elegance:

Eĉ pafote silentadus li.
= He would remain silent even if he were about to be shot.

Others are silly because of their deliberately unmanageable length:

Li estas bibliotek-ist-in-id-et-aĉ-o.
= He is the brattish little son of a lady librarian.

A particularly common (if childish) game is the ridiculous over-extension of the prefix mal-. The creation of frivolous “opposites” has been invented over and over in the course of Esperanto history.

Vi volas sendi dek elefantojn al Usono? Mal-jen problemo!
= You want to send ten elephants to the United States? No problem!
Mal-iru mal-nek mal-feku! Mal-prenu la mal-dian mal-elefanton mal-el la mal-hundo
= Come and eat! Leave the damned mouse to the cat.

Other jokes satirize individuals or organizations prominent in the Esperanto movement. They are funny or not depending upon how stuck-in-the-mud you are, but they fall beyond the scope of this essay. The point is that jokes abound, and if something seems jarring, offensive, or even unintelligible, one possibility is that it is a well-intentioned joke. When nothing makes any sense at all, a vague smile is probably your best defense. (But then, you already knew that.)

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