Learning Esperanto: Questions & Answers

As a tutor for the Senkosta Esperanto-Kurso, I have frequently given additional explanations to accompany the course lessons. This webpage was created as a means of preserving and organizing these clarifications.

Click on any of the following topics to jump to the relevant section of this document.

Who do I think I am to dare to answer all your questions? Now I better confess right up front that I'm not an expert Esperantist! I took the snail-mail version of the Free Esperanto Course 4 years ago, and then worked through 2 self-study books, took the intermediate-level on-line course, and then an advanced course. I only get to talk in E-o a couple times a month, and I've never yet been to a Universala Kongreso. (You know there's a World Esperanto Congress every year, right?) But by now I've read a lot of books & magazines, etc. in Esperanto, and I've been tutoring on the net for a couple years now, for the English and French versions of the course, so I can probably answer most questions. And if I don't know the answer, I'll get hold of someone who does! Is that fair enough?

Word order / Subject vs. Object / -n ending: Don't let this "-n" thing throw you. It's one of the easiest mistakes to make for us whose language doesn't (usually) make any difference (except word order) between subject and object.

In English: "The cat see the dog", "The dog sees the cat".

But with pronouns we use different words! "I gave you a book", "You gave me a book".

In Esperanto the object is indicated, not by word order, but by "-n".

Word order in Esperanto only serves to give a little more emphasis on one word or another, but doesn't change the meaning. This makes E-o incredibly flexible. Try some poetry in Esperanto!

As a matter of practicality, it is customary in compound sentences to put the parts that are most closely related close together.

Very commonly in Esperanto we rearrange the word order to put emphasized words at the beginning or end. This mostly eliminates the need for the passive voice which is used frequently in English.

Adjectives take same endings as nouns: The adjectives, etc., which modify a noun must match it:

Ekzemple: via taso, viaj tasoj, vian tason, viajn tasojn

This is important, since word order is flexible in Esperanto, you need to be able to tell what words relate to what.

It does take a little getting used to, especially when you start to rearrange the words in the sentence. But this accusative "-n" is one of the things that makes Esperanto such a flexible language, for poetry or for translations of national language literature that retain much of the feel of the original.

Why use the accusative (object case) in "Bonan tagon!" ? C`ar tio signifas: "Mi deziras bonan tagon al vi" = "Bonan tagon al vi!" = "Bonan tagon!" Have a good day!

Order of words in questions / -n ending: Remember, no matter what the word order, the noun without the "-n" ending is the subject, and the one with "-n" is the object.


Changing a sentence to a question doesn't change which word is the subject or object:

Why no "-n" ending?

Q: Is there any reason why in a clause such as coffee "with milk and sugar," that milk and sugar do not have to agree with the noun which they are modifying?

A: Yes, the general rule is that a noun that follows a preposition doesn't take the ending "-n".


This is the normal situation. However, so you don't hold it against me later, let me amplify that:

The ending "-N" indicates one of the following:

(1) direct object, (2) movement towards something, (3) an omitted preposition, such as "al", "dum", etc.

The only time you use a "-n" on a noun in a prepositional phrase, is in case (2), where you are indicating movement towards the object. If you want examples of the three uses of "-n" now, I'll be happy to give some, but it does come up in a later lesson. For now, I would practice using the nominative (normal noun form) in prepositional phrases.


More details for those who insist on knowing now:

Why no "-n" ending?  La knabo faris neniom da hejmtaskoj. Did you think it should be this?

Can't be: since "da" is a preposition (and ignoring motion), the noun that follows takes no "-n".

So how is the object marked in this sentence? Should I write:

Don't kid me, you couldn't really pronounce that, could you?

The correlatives ending in "-ial", "-iam", "-iel", "-ies", "-iom" can't take a "-n" ending directly, but generally this isn't a problem, since "-ial", "-iam", "-iel" function as adverbs (why/when/how).

But "-ies" is normally an adjective and is used with no additional endings or agreement:

And "-iom" can function as a subject or an object, often followed by the preposition "da", and again, with no additional endings to indicate if it is the object of the sentence: Oh oh! Did you just notice that Esperanto isn't "perfect"? But don't lose heart, it is still very logical, useful, complication-free. But it is a real language, being used daily around the world.

If the lack of the part-of-speech indicator seriously bothers you here, the last example shows that a rephrasing can eliminate the problem. The correlatives ending in "-ia", "-ie", "-io", "-iu" take normal endings as needed. Also any correlative can be converted into another part of speech by adding the normal noun/adjective/adverb endings (-o/-a/-e).


Indicating direction by use of "-n" after prepositions. Don't use the accusative ending (-n) after a preposition except as a shorthand to indicate motion towards something. Compare: La kato kuris sub la tablo = The cat ran around under the table. (It was already under the table, and ran around there.) La kato kuris sub la tablon = The cat ran under the table. (or: La kato kuris al sub la tablo) (It was somewhere else, and ran under the table.) La kato kuris de sub la tablo = The cat ran out from under the table. (It was under the table, and ran out from under it.)

Notice that "{preposition} {noun}-n" means the same as:

When to use "la" There's a bit of flexibility in Esperanto about when to use the word "la". It does tend to be used more than the definite article in English ("the"), especially with abstract ideas (love = la amo, beauty = la belo, etc). Zamenhof said it was not an error to omit it, perhaps because different languages use it to different degrees (some, like Russian, don't even have it). But he put it in the language, and we still use it, since sometimes it is useful to make a distinction between "the father" and "a father". But it's nice that Esperanto has some leeway here.

The definite article is used to specify _one_ particular individual, already referred to, and also for _abstract_ qualities.

In both the English and the Esperanto, using "la" presupposes that we _already_ have been talking about a particular cake, "the" cake. The first time this cake is mentioned, I would not use the definite article. It is just _a_ cake. Or maybe I'm refering to "the cake over there" or "the cake with pink icing", etc. In that case again I'm specifying a _specific_ cake, so would use "the".


About "this" and "that":

tiu   =  that: c`i tiu, tiu c`i    =  this
tiuj  =  these: c`i tiuj, tiuj c`i   =  those
tie   =  there: c`i tie, tie c`i     =  here
tia   =  that kind of:  c`i tia, tia c`i    =  this kind of ktp. (etc.)

Use the particle "c`i" (before or after) to change "tiu" ("that") to "this". Like in English, use "this" ("c`i tiu") for something near, "that" ("tiu") if the thing is farther away from you.

In some cases one person might use "tio c`i" where another would use "tio". This will not usually cause confusion, and merely partly reflects the national language usage. For instance, the French often say "là" ("there", "that"), etc., when we would use "here", "this", etc. in English.

Capitalization: Generally capitalize only the first word of the sentence, names of people, names of countries when used as nouns, names of holy books, and the name of God = "Dio".

Pronunciation of Diphthongs: Q: Is the letter J always pronounced like english Y(boy)?

Yes. It may follow a vowel:

If the J is at the beginning of a word or syllable, it has the sound of Y in the English "yes", "yet", etc. Like J in the German "Ja".

Ekzemple:    La filoj vidas la kukojn.

Q: And how do you pronounce Ù?

Diphthongs with "U-breve":

The breve sign over the "u" can be drawn like the bottom half of a circle, or slightly bowed arc opening upwards, like a small parenthesis on its side. But I'm sure everyone would recognize even a straight line or upside down circumflex accent. I generally use a back-apostrophe over (or after) the letter.

The sound eù - what is it like? "EH-oo": Try saying "men who", then drop the "n" and "wh" sounds and say it quickly, accenting the "e". Like "aù" and "où", "eù" counts as one syllable: Eù-ro-po, neù-tra-la

Linguistic space / Vowel pronunciation: One of the nicest things about Esperanto is the "linguistic space" around the vowels, the permissible variations in pronunciation. (I'm sure there must be a better word for this!) What I mean is this: small to moderate variations in the pronunciation of a vowel do not make the word unintelligible. It is probably because there are only 5 vowels sounds, so there are fewer possibilities for confusion.

The same goes for "r". As a best choice, use a Spanish (or Italian?) rolled "r", but everyone will understand you perfectly well if you use another. The Parisian French "r" is quite guttural, but still would be understood in Esperanto. The American "r" is _so_ different that it calls attention to itself, so I would avoid it.

Pronunciation of letters with hats:

Unlike in English and other "natural" languages, in Esperanto each sound has only one pronunciation.

Pronunciation of H: Q: Is "H" always pronounced normally? In "horo" for example, isn't it silent?

Yes. No. Maybe it seems odd to say "horo" since the "h" is silent in the English word "hour". But in Esperanto _every_ letter is _always_ pronounced, and always the same way. There will be some variation among speakers, due in part to the influence of their mother tongue, but it has to be pronounced. I use basically the same "h"-sound in English, Esperanto, and German. Of course, in some English words it is silent, but not in Esperanto. Notice that Esperanto also has the letter "h`", pronounced like the German "ch", as in "Bach".

Which syllable to accent: Stress is ALWAYS on the next to last syllable. Each syllable has exactly one vowel A, E, I, O, U, or one diphthong AJ, EJ, OJ, UJ, AÙ, EÙ. So there are two syllables in "filoj" are fi-loj. (Actually, there is no rule saying whether the "l" belongs with the syllable before or after it. fi-loj or fil-oj Take your pick! But each syllable has one and only one vowel.)

Use of "ESTAS": Q: Estas is followed sometimes by objects (-o) and sometimes adjectives (-a). Is that correct? Are there any other possibilities?

Yes and yes. But since word order is flexible in Esperanto, so I wouldn't say "is followed by".

Or a noun and an adjective: Or a noun, with the sense of the English "there is", "there are": Or one adverb, where English would use "It", but there really is no subject:

Grammar-coding endings on correlatives: Correlatives take whatever grammar-coding endings are appropriate. Take -j -n:  kiu, tiu, iu, ..., kia, tia, ia, ... Take -n:  kio, tio, io, ..., kie, tie, ie, ... Don't take endings:  kies, kiel, kial, kiam, kiom

KIU, used as a pronoun (who): Kiun mi vidas? = Mi vidas kiun? (ktp) = Whom do I see? Kiuj min vidas? (ktp) = Who (plural) sees me? Kiujn mi vidas? (ktp = Whom (plural) do I see? * Note: "k.t.p." = "kaj tiel plu" means "etc." = "et cetera"

KIU, used as an adjective (which): Vi neniam aùdis kiun kanton? = _Which song have you never heard?

KIO: Kion vi mang`is? = Vi mang`is kion? = What did you eat?

KIA: Kiajn librojn vi legas? = What kind of books do you read?

Similarly for the TI- I- NENI- and C`I- correlatives.

The suffix "-n" can also represent direction, moving towards something. As you will see, this extra meaning does not conflict with the primary meaning (direct object). (Details in Lesson 6.) I only mention it here because kie/tie/ie/c`ie/nenie can take an "-n" in this case: Kie vi estas? = Where are you? Kien vi iras? = Where are you going? (Toward where, whither)

The correlatives which end with a consonant have meanings such that it never happens that they need endings, but they can be turned into words that do (regular word-building!): Kiom = how many, how much Kioma = how many-eth Kioma horo estas? = The how-many-eth hour is it? ==> What time is it? Kial = why Kialo = reason (the why and wherefore!) C`u vi konas la kialon = Do you know the reason?

This was probably too much, wasn't it? I get to rambling on. But then, I'm the kind of person who likes all the rules to be explained at the beginning, although sometimes it might be better to take one thing at a time and really master it before going on.

Weird words with X's: The problem is that on some Internet newsgroups and mailing lists the 8th bit gets mangled, so we lose our accented characters. So a number of temporary "work-around" solutions are used. At least half of the messages I see on Internet (especially in soc.culture.esperanto) use the "X"-convention, replacing both circumflex and breve by a postfix "x", but I've never been very happy with it. Others use "^" before or after the letter, some use "u~" to represent "u"+breve, others just leave off the accent. (But that's getting into a bad habit, hard to break!) The letter combination "aux" occurs frequently in French, so using "ux" for "ù" causes difficulties for some of our French-speaking friends. A postfix "h" is a time-honored way to show the circumflex, but most Esperantists on Internet avoid it because of pronunciation confusion: there are Esperanto words that have the letter combinations "ch", "gh", etc., in them. Rarely I see post-fixed apostrophes, which I really don't like because the symbol already has a standard meaning in English, French, German, ...

Then I saw a message where someone used the back-accent. I had previously seen it sometimes to indicate a breve, but never before for a circumflex, but I like it:

c` g` h` j` s` u`
^ ^ ^ ^ ^ -
c g h j s u
If you try, you can imagine that the back-accent is just the tail-end of the circumflex, which your mind can place over the letter, unlike "c^", etc., where the circumflex is clearly beside the letter. I understand that there is even some historical precedent for this use.

Well, I suppose people will keep arguing about this until everyone has computers with Latin-3 or Unicode fonts that can actually show all the Esperanto characters correctly. If you want to download Latin-3 based fonts to see the correct Esperanto characters, look in my FUR (Frequently Used Resources) under "Esperanto", "Fonts".

I can tell you, after reading a few hundred Esperanto posts on the net it's a great relief to read a Esperanto book or magazine which uses the correct letters!

Use of "ne" as a word / prefix: Q: When does "ne" come by itself and when does it join the verb forming one word?

A: Good question! Generally if you are saying something doesn't happen, etc., you take the sentence and put the separate word "ne" in front of the verb.

Incidentally, if you only want to negate one part of the sentence, you put the "ne" immediately in front of that part:

When does "ne-" join another word as a prefix? The most common case is with adjectives and adverbs: and similarly for adverbs.

Or we could place the "ne" elsewhere to emphasize different things:

To be honest with you, sometimes you can't really tell any difference in meaning between using "ne" as a word or as a prefix. I chose an example where I feel a difference, anyway.

"Ne-" can also be prefixed to nouns, but less commonly:

I don't recall ever seeing "ne-" as a prefix to a verb. There's nothing illegal about it though! No, I don't think this would be used. If you ever see "ne"+verb somewhere, please email me!

What is the difference between "ne-" and "mal-"? Basically, "ne-" negates the meaning of the word, while "mal-" reverses it to mean the opposite.


Sometimes there is an overlap between the meanings of "ne" and "mal". There isn't much difference between: But the normal difference shows up in sentences like:

Use of compound tenses: Lesson 8 describes the compound tenses, such as:

Esperanto has very precise shades of meaning available: To give even more possible meanings, you can change the "estas" to "estis" or "estos". But let's not get into that yet. In Esperanto you should use the simple verb endings (-is/as/os) most of the time. So I would translate: While he was reading, I fell asleep = Dum li legis, mi ekdormis

I better just mention that Esperantists normally use the simple past/present/future tenses most of the time, and only use these "compound" tenses when they want to express an exact shade of meaning. For example, above I would simply say, "Vi baldaù finos c`i tiujn lecionojn." The meaning is already clear, so we let it go at that. I don't want to give you the impression that these forms aren't used, they are, but not as commonly as the simple forms.

Also notice that several English compound forms are translated by the same Esperanto phrase:

I wrote
I did write
I was writing
 =  Mi skribis
I was writing when ...
I was in the process of writing when ...
I was actually writing at the moment when ...
 =  Mi estis skribanta, kiam ... 

Oh, the English word "do" isn't translated when it is used as a "helping verb":

These are all the same in Esperanto, although we'll see that you can give many different shades of meaning.

Having trouble remembering the correlatives (table words)?

Try out the tips given below.  You've seen the table before, but to refresh your memory:





Some kind of, any kind of


What kind of, what (a)


That kind of, such a


Every kind of, all kinds of


No kind of




For some reason


Why, for what


So, for that


For every reason


For no reason




Sometime, anytime, ever


When, at what


Then, at that


Always, at all


Never, at no
time, not ever




Somewhere, anywhere, in some place


Where, in what


There, in that


Everywhere, in
every place


Nowhere, in no place




Anywhere, to any place


Where to, to what place


There, to that place


Everywhere, to every place


Nowhere, to no place




Somehow, in some way


How, in what way


That way, thus
like that, so


In every way


In no way




Someone's, anyone's


Whose, which one's


That one's


Everyone's, everybody's


No one's, nobody's




Something, anything


What, what thing


That, that thing


Everything, all things






Some, some quantity



How much, how many, what quantity


So much, as many, that quantity


The whole quantity, all of it


Not a bit, none, no quantity




Someone, somebody


Who, what person


That person, that one


Everyone, everybody


No one, nobody

Some, any...
Which, what...
That ...
Every, all, each
None, no...

[With thanks to Leszek Kordylewski KRAK /c`e/ MIDWAY.UCHICAGO.EDU, Chicago, Aug. 6th, 1991.]

[Notice that the additional '-EN' row is built from '-E' + indication of direction ('-N').]

Certainly after just a little use the correlative (table words) become automatic:  consider that you only need to learn 5 beginnings + 9 endings = 14 things and that gives you 5 x 9 = 45 words, some of the most commonly used words at that.

Ok, we see the pattern, but still sometimes can't remember a word when we need it!

I don't know if this will help, but here's a summary of some mnemonics from various sources:

kiu (ki u)  (pronounced kee-oo:  French qui + English who, means who)
tiu (that, that one),  iu (any),  c`iu (each, every), neniu (no-one, none)

The underlined letters in the parenthesized word are supposed to make you think of the beginning of the Esperanto word.  Note that the English "none" actually means "no amount of" so it is "neniom".  But to me "none" sounds like the beginning of "neni-", so it makes it easier to remember.


kio  (what Object, thing (as a whOle))

kiu  (who? [U-sound], short for UnU, one, individUal)

kie  (whEre?)

kia  (what kindA, what kind of A ...?)

kiel (how? in an ELegant manner)

kiam (A.M. or p.m.?)

kial (why? what's the reAL reason?)

kiom (hOw Much, hOw Many?)

kies (whoSe, hiS, herS, possESSive)

Help remembering beginnings (from: Step by Step in Esperanto by M. Butler)

I-  is like a sign-post pointing in an Indefinitely, in some direction or other;

K-  a post pointing in various directions -- Which shall I follow?

T-  a post pointing in one definite direction -- That one.  (Note:  think of a "T" with a longer arm on the right.)

C^- The accent over C^ is like a family umbrella, sheltering every one, each, all, beneath it;  the letter C^ itself is shaped like arms stretched out to embrace each and every one.

(Italics are Butler's.  Personally I find this signpost idea rather silly.  But sometimes silly is easy to remember.)

As I say, with just a little practice you get them straightened out, so keep reading, writing, using the language.  In the meantime, maybe these ideas will help.

Antaùen! / Forward! (How to continue learning Esperanto): To continue learning Esperanto, there are several possibilities:

1. You can order a book through your local bookstore. Ask the salesperson to do a computer search for "Esperanto". After doing the 10-lesson course, I used "Teach Yourself Esperanto". Much of it was review, but with new vocabulary and lots of examples of conversations, etc. Very helpful.

2. Books, magazines and cassettes (for learning Esperanto or simply in Esperanto) may be ordered from your national Esperanto society. In USA, try: Esperanto League for North America Box 1129 El Cerrito, CA 94530 toll-free call: 1-800-ESPERANTO (1-800-377-3726) email: info /c`e/ esperanto-usa.org  website: http://www.esperanto-usa.org/ (incl. Librokatalogo)

For the address of other Esperanto organizations, ask ELNA or ask me, or read the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) for the newsgroup soc.culture.esperanto

3. An advanced course, based on the book "Gerda Malaperis" is available on Internet. To start the course, go to <http://www.esperanto.org/gerda/>.  Or from <http://www.esperanto.net/veb/>, click "Lerni Esperanton", then "Gerda-kurso".

4. Some other resources on the net:

    Virtuala Esperanto-Biblioteko at http://www.esperanto.net/veb/
    FTP archive at ftp.stack.nl in /pub/esperanto
    Usenet newsgroup: soc.culture.esperanto
    Many other newsgroups & email lists
    Hundreds of World Wide Web pages about Esperanto now exist. Do a search for "esperanto". Try <http://wwwtios.cs.utwente.nl/esperanto/>

5. Write to penpals, via mail or the network. One of the most fascinating things about being an Esperantist is the wide range of people and cultures you are exposed to. Lists of people who wish to correspond appear in nearly every Esperanto magazine, as well as monthly in the newsgroup soc.culture.esperanto

6. Find out if there is an Esperanto group near you. If there isn't, start one!

Nu, se mi iam ajn povos helpi vin, skribu al mi!

==> Reiru al mia hejmpa^go.

^Gisdatigita je la 16a de junio 2004 fare de Ken Caviness    --    Bonvolu averti min pri iuj ajn eraroj!