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Part I: Esperanto Grammar

Appendix on Participles

Because participles have a particularly nasty reputation among American Esperantists, this appendix aims to supplement the discussion in the text by providing some background into the issues involved in the inordinate amount of discussion they have received.

Participles: The Brief Story

A participle is an adjective formed from a verbal stem.

She is the reigning monarch.
They bought a used car.
He sat on the newly painted bench.
It will be a written exam.

The English -ing (“reigning”) participle is a “present active” participle because it refers to the present and reflects the action of the noun it modifies. (The monarch reigns and does so at this time.) The -ed participle (“used”) is a “past passive” participle because it usually reflects the previous action of others upon the noun it modifies. (The car was already used by someone.)

*-In the nature of things the distinction between active and passive forms makes sense only with transitive verbs. Passive participle endings are not used with intransitive verb roots. At least not correctly!

Esperanto also has active and passive participles that reflect time. But, unlike English, Esperanto includes participles for all three of its tenses, both active and passive: a total of six participles.*

The Esperanto verbal system includes three tense-linked suffixes attached directly to a verbal stem:

amas = loves (the present tense)
amis = loved (the past tense)
amos = will love (the future tense)

The same vowels are used as time-markers in the system of participles:

Active Particples Passive Participles
Present
Past
Future
am-a-nta = loving
am-i-nta = having loved
am-o-nta = going to love
am-a-ta = being loved
am-i-ta = having been loved
am-o-ta = to be loved

(Note that in English I have used forms of the verb “to have” to try to create approximations to the Esperanto forms. There is no such usage in Esperanto. In particular havi must never be used as an auxiliary verb this way. Havi means “to possess” and nothing else!)

These verbal adjectives, like any other adjectives, can be used attributively:

la dormanta virino = the sleeping woman
la manĝanta porko = the pig that is eating

Or they can be used with the verb esti to form a predicate:

La virino estas dormanta. = The woman is sleeping.
La porko estas manĝanta. = The pig is eating.

Of course, since participles, unlike other adjectives, show time, and since the verb esti in such sentences also shows time, time can become very precisely indicated in such sentences, sometimes ludicrously so:

La porko estas manĝonta. = The pig is going-to-eat.
La porko estis manĝonta. = The pig was going-to-eat.
La porko estos manĝonta. = The pig will be going-to-eat.

That is probably all you need to know about participles. As a bottom line for people who do not want to read “The Full Story,” below, what is shown in verbs is time, but what is shown by participles, most Esperantists now finally agree, is actually state of completion rather than time as such. That is to say, -is, -as, and -os show when something happens. But -inta and -ita show that the action is completed at the time in question, -anta and -ata show that it is in progress, and -onta and -ota show that it is anticipated but not yet begun. To say “The building was built in 1935,” one uses the form estis konstruita because construction was completed. To say it “had already been built by 1935,” one says estis jam konstruita, showing the pluperfect by means of the adverb jam.

An idiom that may constitute a partial exception is the expression esti okupata = “to be busy,” which also occurs as esti okupita with no difference whatever in meaning, at least when it refers to people.


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Participles: The Full Story (And the Famous “Ata/Ita” Problem)

Now we come to the core of the so-called ata/ita problem, which so plagued Esperanto stylists during the 1950s and early 1960s. Although the three regular verb forms themselves are always active (manĝas, manĝis, manĝos), the participles may be either active (manĝinta = “having eaten”) or passive (manĝita = “eaten, having been eaten”). Therefore the combination of esti and a passive participle constitutes a kind of passive verb:

La libro estas jam legita. = The book has already been read.
La unua pilko estos ĵetita de mi. = The first ball will be thrown by me.

Because the passive participle includes an indication of time, and the form of esti also includes an indication of time, time is potentially shown twice. There is therefore no exact passive equivalent of a sentence like La porko manĝas = “The pig is eating,” which contains only one indication of time (-as). The passive sentences that are possible are made with the passive participles. Because the passive sentences each have two time markers, the active equivalents must also have two time markers. So La porko manĝas is not strictly an active equivalent of any passive form. A real passive can only be made with passive participles, not with simple verbs. Here is a table. The English glosses are very artificial in order to line up directly with the Esperanto expressions. English, after all, is a different language!

Active Passive
La porko manĝas. = The pig eats/is eating. (no strict equivalent)
La porko estas manĝanta. = The pig is eating. La porko estas manĝata. = The pig is being-eaten.
La porko estas manĝinta. = The pig has eaten (Lit.: is having-eaten) La porko estas manĝita. = The pig has been eaten (Lit.: is having-been-eaten)
La porko estas manĝonta. = The pig is going-to-eat. La porko estas manĝota. = The pig is to-be-eaten.

If we shift the estas to estis in each of these sentences, the effect is to change the “is” of the English translations to a “was”:

Active Passive
La porko manĝis. = The pig ate/was eating. (no strict equivalent)
La porko estis manĝanta. = The pig was eating. La porko estis manĝata. = The pig was being-eaten.
La porko estis manĝinta. = The pig had eaten (Lit.: was having-eaten) La porko estis manĝita. = The pig had been eaten (Lit.: was having-been-eaten)
La porko estis manĝonta. = The pig was going-to-eat. La porko estis manĝota. = The pig was to-be-eaten.

*- Esperanto also possesses a “pseudo-passive” form made with -iĝ-. It also exploits the use of the dummy pronoun oni with active verbs. Both of those devices are simpler, more frequent, and more elegant than full passives. There is therefore no problem expressing passive ideas in Esperanto; the problem arises when people insist on expressing them exclusively by using passive participles!

Technically there is no way to say in Esperanto “The pig is eaten,” or “The pig was eaten.” One has to specify whether the pig is (or was) being eaten or whether it has (or had) already been eaten. Esperanto is more precise than English (or most other languages) in this particular because Esperanto passive constructions are made only with participles.*

In many cases so much precision is not actually desirable. Consider the following sentence: “The house was built many years ago.” As a practical matter, in Esperanto we would probably say Oni konstruis la domon or La domo konstruiĝis, but if we want to use a passive participle, then we have to decide whether “was built” here means

estis konstru-ita = was having-been-built = had been built
OR
estis konstru-ata = was being-built = was under construction

In other words, we have to decide whether what we care about is that the house was abuilding many years ago, or that it was finished. Both of these things are true. The English sentence does not distinguish between them. Neither, presumably, would an Esperanto passive that was a true transform of the active sentence: Li konstruis la domon. = “He built the house.” How then are we to choose between the two forms? Should the passive be formed with -ata or with -ita?

*-Principal books by atists include: Jung: La esperanta konjugacio (1965-66); Setälä, Vilborn, & Støp-Bowitz: Esperanto: moderna lingvo (1965); Mimó: Kompleta lernolibro de regula Esperanto (1973). Principal books by itists include: Glük & Willems: La verbo en Esperanto (1937). Kalocsay: Vojaĝo inter la tempoj (1966); Kalocsay & Waringhien: Plena gramatiko de Esperanto (1935, 1938, 1964); Kalocsay & Waringhien: Plena analiza gramatiko de Esperanto (1980); Schwartz: Ne kiel Meier! (1964); Waringhien: Lingvo kaj vivo (1959).

The way in which this choice was to be made became a technical problem in Esperanto linguistics, but the way in which arguments were devised to justify one solution rather than the other is a fascinating study in the ideology of language and a stormy chapter in the history of the Esperanto movement. The ata/ita problem is probably one of the most absurd trivia of Esperanto grammar, and yet at one moment in our history it turned father against son, student against teacher, friend against friend, and colleague against colleague in the most bitter internal conflict. For years argument went back and forth, and there were whole books devoted to the problem of the passive participles!*

So far I have translated and explained the participles as though only “tense” or “time” were at issue. The choice of a translation for a sentence seemed simply a matter of being more precise about time than one is in English. However Zamenhof's explanations about his intentions are not unambiguous about this. He described the use of passive participles in two slightly different ways. On the one hand, -ata is to be taken to mean that “the act is, was, or will be present in relation to the time in question,” i.e., the time of the main verb; and -ita is to be used “if the act has been accomplished earlier than the time in question,” i.e., earlier than the time of the main verb. In other words, the issue is time.

*-Quoted in Aktoj de la Akademio 1963-1967: Oficiala Bulteno de la Akademio de Esperanto n-ro 9. 1968, pp. 41-42.

On the other hand, he continues by saying: “If one considers only the deed accomplished, the result of the act and not its taking place, one uses -ita.” And “in sum, -ata always entails the idea of some duration in the accomplishment of the act, which one regards as present in its mode or tense. On the contrary, -ita always entails an idea of an act that is not continuing, of which one is concerned only with the fulfilled action, the result. This form shows the priority of the action [in time], if one compares its time with the time of another act.”* 2 In other words, the issue is completion or incompleteness.

Zamenhof, in other words, sees the difference between -ata and -ita as one both of tense and of what in Slavic languages is called “aspect” or completion. The point of controversy arises in whether a sentence like “The house was built many years ago” should be translated as

A. La domo estis konstruata antaŭ multaj jaroj
past time of the action same time as the main verb

or as

B. La domo estis konstruita antaŭ multaj jaroj
past time of the action accomplished act (duration of
the act unimportant)

The first position, technically referred to as the “clearly temporal system” (nete tempa sistemo), was colloquially called atismo, while the second was referred to as itismo, because of the two participles selected.

Actually, a third translation could also be made, following the view that, although one is concerned with a house already built, one's concern is a present one, and accordingly the constructing should be put in the past, while the verb should be in the present:

C. La domo estas konstruita antaŭ multaj jaroj
present, time of reference past, time of the action

There was a simplifying logic to this, but it was clearly a minority view that need not be seriously considered in understanding the Great Debate over all of this.


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The arguments in favor of one position or the other made appeal to various sources of authority. Both sides cited the writings of Zamenhof, both in and about Esperanto, but Zamenhof’s statements never (and his examples rarely) distinguished tense from aspect with sufficient clarity to allow a decision to be made by anyone not already committed. The “atists” made an additional appeal to the verbal system of Western European languages: Estis -ita, they argued, is a “pluperfect,” corresponding to the English “had X-ed,” and to comparable forms in other western European languages. (That is how I translated La porko estis manĝita, above.) The “atists” probably committed a rhetorical blunder here, since appeals to general Western European usage sometimes succeed in defending choices of vocabulary in Esperanto, but rarely succeed in defending one or another grammatical usage, and can usually be counted on to raise the hackles of those Esperantists who (like me) insist that Esperanto is an independent language, not a mere shadow of Latin or English or French or German or whatever.

*-Ibid., p. 43. The document is not a formal declaration of the Academy, since the “atists,” sensing defeat, apparently staged a walk-out to prevent a quorum. So it merely reports the vote of those attending, as I understand it, which was 26 favoring the itist side out of 31 voting. Such an overwhelming victory for itism has since been regarded by most Esperantists (including me) as tantamount to an Academy declaration, official or not.

Arguments raged between “atists” and “itists, with most Esperantists rather puzzled about the whole thing. The closest thing to an “official” solution that ever emerged, and the triumph in the end of “itism,” was a 1965 notice from the Academy of Esperanto, which enunciated four positions:*

  1. The Esperanto tense system consists of but three tenses: the present, the past, and the future.
  2. All other time relationships (such as the pluperfect, future perfect, etc. of many other languages) are expressed by adverbs, conjunctions, or simply by context.
  3. The six participles, used either with nouns or with the verb esti, show aspect, not tense. They show, in other words, in what phase of the action the subject finds himself with respect to the object: whether beginning and unfinished (-ant, -at), finished and fulfilled (-int, -it), or not yet begun but intended or awaited (-ont, -ot).
  4. Accordingly the forms with -ata focus upon the duration or repetition of the act, and the forms with -ita focus upon the result of the act. The forms with -ita can also show priority in time in the event that there is separate evidence of that in the sentence, such as a word like jam = “already.”

Thus La domo estis konstruita (“The house was having-been-built”) means “the house was built” unless some additional word in the sentence specifically requires it to mean “the house had been built.” And conversely “the house was built many years ago” must correspond to estis konstruita, not to estis konstruata (or estas konstruita).

But the Academy draft text continued with a further note. Since up to now no “official “definition had existed for the usage of the passive participles, opinions on this matter have naturally been diverse, it explained, so the new ruling should not be interpreted as a condemnation of those Esperantists who had taken the “atist” position. To encourage peace in the family, the Academy recommended that all further abstract discussion be avoided and it be left to practical usage to drift into logical conformity with itself.

Agreement with the new position was not immediate, in spite of Academy efforts to stifle debate after it had spoken, and in 1967 the Academy released some examples to the press in answer to some rather legalistic language problems developed by the French Union for Esperanto and the Esperanto Union of German Instructors. The test examples were, it seems to me, clear examples of the difference between an “atist” and an “itist” position, but even so the Academy was not unanimous in its vote. Here are the test sentences. The English glosses follow the scheme for literal translation used earlier when the pig was being eaten, and therefore contain something of an “atist” bias, but they should be understood as neutral at least in intention, seeking merely to provide a crude English gloss that will be as literal as possible.

Problem 1.
Ni garantias, ke la domoj detruitaj dum la milito estos rekonstruataj en 1970.
= We guarantee that the houses destroyed during the war will-be being-reconstructed in 1970.
Thus the guarantors will have made good
A. if in the course of 1970 the reconstruction begins and continues.
B. only if in the course of 1970 the reconstruction is finished.
Problem 2.
Mi promesas, ke mia ŝuldo estos pagita la 9an de majo.
= I promise that my debt will-be having-been-paid the 9th of May.
Thus the debtor will relieve himself from debt
A. on or before the 9th of May.
B. earlier than the 9th of May.
Problem 3.
Ni asertas, ke la aŭtomobilo de s-ro X estis efektive riparata la lastan semajnon.
= We affirm that Mr. X's car was actually being-repaired last week.
Thus last week
A. someone was really occupied with the repair of the car.
B. the repair of the car was finished.
Problem 4.
Via propono estis unuanime akceptita la 3an de junio.
= Your proposal was unanimously having-been-accepted on the 3rd of June.
Thus they accepted the proposal
A. on the 3rd of June.
B. before the 3rd of June.

The Academy, by a vote of 26 to 5 (with six abstentions) decided only sense A in each case “conforms to the traditional language usage of Zamenhof.” [Ibid., p. 74. ]*

Prominent among the “itists” was Gaston Waringhien, President of the Academy of Esperanto, and insofar as it is possible to tell, the Academy's decisions were based very heavily on documents prepared for them by Waringhien. The logic presented in public documents may or may not have been the only logic discussed in the Academy debates themselves, but it is worth examining here because of its importance in establishing how one determines “correct” usage in Esperanto.

In this case, the issue is represented as having been resolved by appeal to “the traditional language usage of Zamenhof.” Zamenhof's instructions, as we noted, were unclear. And various other writers used the forms differently. The word “traditional” suggests that all of Zamenhof's writings were investigated. But this in itself raises a problem: If Zamenhof was an “atist” in one essay but an “itist” in another, which was to have priority? The most frequent usage? The earliest? The latest? The one I agree with?

The first Esperanto congress in Bologne-sur-Mer had already decreed in 1905 that the only strictly “canonical” portion of Zamenhof’s work was the Fundamentals of Esperanto (Fundamento de Esperanto), and subsequent editions of that work have left the text of it untouched, even when minor errors and inconsistencies have been found and have had to be corrected in marginalia. In Academy Circular No. 76 of February, 1965, President Waringhien argued that the Fundamentals of Esperanto consists of four parts: “Preface,” “Grammar in Five Languages,” “Exercises,” and “Universal Vocabulary.” The preface was not officially regarded as part of the Fundamentals until 1958, and the “Universal Vocabulary” is only a vocabulary list, rarely germane to problems of usage. [Ibid, p. 29.]* The “Grammar in Five Languages” provides only the famous sixteen rules, where this point is not clearly discussed. [Ibid., p. 30.]* So the “Exercises” of the Fundamentals becomes the principal place to look for pointers to good usage. [Ibid., p. 35.]*

In general one seeks first in the Fundamentals; and within the Fundamentals, in the “Grammar” before the “Exercises,” and in the “Preface” last of all. Minute examination of the Fundamentals precedes even casual examination of other works of Zamenhof or of anybody else, not to say contemporary spoken usage.

The points that an English speaker should bear in mind about all this pettifoggery are these:

  1. Ideas expressed with passives in English are usually expressed with oni or with -iĝ- in Esperanto. There is no direct passive verb as such in Esperanto, only a participial passive form which can be used to create compound passive constructions.
  2. Accordingly, passive constructions in Esperanto have greater precision (whether about time or aspect) than they do in many languages, often more precision than you really want.
  3. If an idea really is best expressed by a passive participle construction, the distinction among -ata (duration) and -ita (completion or, with an adverb, prior time) and the occasional -ota (expectation) is not usually difficult to make.
  4. If there is any doubt, it is nearly always preferable to recast the sentence into the active form and use oni as the subject:
    Oni konstruis la domon antaŭ multaj jaroj.
    = The house was built many years ago.
    Oni manĝis la porkon.
    = The pig was eaten. = They ate the pig.
  5. If you insist on using passive participle constructions in doubtful cases, you will almost certainly be thought inelegant, but fewest Esperantists will be jarred by the -ita form.
  6. When using -ita to represent the English pluperfect (= “had X-ed”), be certain that an adverb (usually jam = “already”) or clear context makes any other interpretation of the clause impossible:
    La libroj estis venditaj kiam li venis.
    = The books were sold when he came. (ambiguous)
    La libroj estis jam venditaj kiam li venis.
    = The books had already been sold when he came.
    La libroj estis venditaj antaŭ ol li venis.
    = The books had been sold before he came.
    La libroj estis venditaj post kiam li venis.
    = The books were sold after he came.

Final Note: The participles are occasionally rendered into verbs by substituting verbal endings for the final -a of the participle and dropping the form of esti, producing verbally complex ideas. Such forms are sometimes adduced as evidence that the Esperanto verbal system is non-European in its basic logic.

konstru-at-as (= estas konstruata) = is being constructed
konstru-ot-is (= estis konstruota) = was to be constructed
konstru-int-os (= estos konstruinta) = will have constructed etc.

The odd wit even occasionally produces monsters like konstruintus and konstruontu, although I have never seen them get as far as an above-ground printing press. Unfortunately, such verbs can themselves logically become participles: Ĝi estis konstruotinta! = “It was to be constructed.”

Pagu tuj la monon, kiun vi al mi ŝuldas!
= Immediately pay the money you owe me!
Mi estas pagonta.
= I am going to pay it.
Jam hieraŭ vi estis pagonta. Pagu nun!
= Already yesterday you were going to pay it. Pay now!
Vi pravas ke mi pagontis hieraŭ, do hodiaŭ mi pagontintas.
= You are right that yesterday I was going to pay it, so today I have already been going to pay it!
Jam hieraŭ jam vi pagontintontis. Pagu tuj!
= Already yesterday you had been going to have been going to pay it. Pay immediately!
Ho, do morgaŭ mi estos pagontintinta. Ĉu vi ne povos atendi ĝis mi jam pagontintontintos?
= Oh well, tomorrow I shall have been having been going to have been going to pay it. Couldn’t you wait till I will already have been going to have been going to pay it?
Nun mi plene kunfuziĝas.
= Now I am completely confused.
Ĝis revido.
= See you later.

Attractive as such forms are to a certain kind of mentality, they are far outside of mainstream Esperanto, and tend to confuse one’s listener or reader, so they are actually available only as a form of verbal play. But who knows what the future may hold?


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