Does the simplicity of Esperanto verb tenses make its verbs too imprecise?
by MarcDiaz, September 6, 2016
MarcDiaz (User's profile) September 6, 2016, 10:45:39 PM
As most of you may already know, in English there are a number of tenses. More than in Esperanto. And this increased number of tenses makes the meaning of its verbs more nuanced.
Present simple: general truths, things happen in a general present
Present continuous: the real now, something that happens while the person is speaking
Present perfect: this one is a bit confusing. It is generally some kind of past which is still relevant to the present.
Past simple: an action in the past which is finished
Past continuous: an action in the past which was going on
Past perfect: an action in the past that happened before another one
Past perfect continuous: an action in the past which happened before another one and which was going on for some time
Future with "will": predictions, decisions at the moment and other indefinite usages
Future with "going to": intended actions in the futre
Future with present continuous: plans which are very likely to happen
There might be some more now, but it does not matter. The idea was not for you to learn English, but to see the different nuances a tense in English can express.
Now, the goal of Esperanto seems to be simplicity. Therefore, Zamenhof decided that it would only have three tenses: past, present and future. But in doing so, we lose the continuous tenses, which might be useful sometimes. I know German, for example, seems to get by quite well without the continuous tenses. But even German has more tenses than Esperanto. The perfect tenses are also lost. Also, the different shades of intention that seem to determine the choice of the English tense for the future are "lost", or not used.
I know that in the end it all boils down to a matter of simplicity vs accuracy. Esperanto favors simplicity. My question is: Is simplicity really the best choice for a language that is meant to be used worlwide for all subjects and areas of life? If we want to talk about philosophy, science, cuisine or any other subject that exists in this world, wouldn't maybe a greater degree of accuracy be desirable over simplicity?
And, in any case, do you think the language will evolve over time, like all national languages have done, and new tenses and expressions will arise? But if it did, would it not be against Zamenshof's intentions that the same language be spoken everywhere in the same way? I suppose that means not only everywhere but also all the time, right? Will the system with only three tenses be always and forever used, and never changed, because it is actually practical enough?
What are your views on this? I would like to read your opinions.
PS: I realized there are two more tenses in Esperanto: the conditional and the imperative. But since thay are not temporal tenses, my point remains the same.
Vestitor (User's profile) September 7, 2016, 12:47:49 AM
By the time I joined the UEA, I had (already) been learning Esperanto for six months. Which in Esperanto would be (if I am correct):
Kiam mi aligis la UEA, mi jam estis lernanta Esperanton dum ses monatoj.
The second clause could stand alone.
It's not the only example. The easy test is make a sentence in one of the tenses, if you can render it into Esperanto...
opalo (User's profile) September 7, 2016, 6:04:26 AM
Esperanto has a full set of compound tenses, constructed using participles. The list on this web page will give you the general idea: (Some of the names are debatable.)
A lot of the time these aren't felt necessary and various particles and adverbs are used instead. With practice one rarely struggles with expressing nuances. A large number of important works of literature have been translated into Esperanto and I think that a look at any of them will dispel any remaining doubts you may have.
MarcDiaz (User's profile) September 7, 2016, 6:27:12 AM
My description of the usage of the several tenses in English was not meant to be comprehensive and cover all cases, but rather to give a brief idea of when they are used, so people could get an idea of all the nuances a system with only three tenses cannnot express. They are basically two: the continuous and perfective aspects of the verb tenses.
The tense you mention, the past perfect continuous, can be easily recognized containing "had been", that's true. "Had been" + a verb in the -ing form, which gives it its progressive meaning. But I did not want to write the structure of every tense, since my intention was not to tell you how to recognize the different verb tenses in English, but rather to think about what aspects and nuances determine the choice of one tense or another in English, and how that choice is more detailed in English than in Esperanto.
However, my brief general description of the usage of the past perfect continuous, which was an "action in the past which happened before another one and which was going on for some time" seems to be quite accurate in this example. I am going to show you why by analizing the example sentence you wrote:
By the time I joined the UEA, I had (already) been learning Esperanto for six months.
Here, there's an action in the past (to learn Esperanto) which happens before another one (to join the UEA). This action (to learn Esperanto) not only happens before another action but was also going on for some time (in this example, six months). Hence, its continuous aspect.
I hope this clarifies your confusion.
Having said this, I realized that Esperanto makes use of some other verb forms to make up for this simplicity. These other verb forms are the participles. Your sentence contained one participle, which gives the sentence this continuous aspect. It is true that it seems to be used seldom in Esperanto, and its usage is not encouraged if a simpler form can be used, but the possibility exists nevertheless to use them.
There are two types of participles in Esperanto: those ending in -at-, -it-, -ot- (which refer to the object of the sentence and are used mainly to build passive sentences) and those ending in -ant-, -int-, -ont- (which refer to the subject of the sentence). The latter participles, those with the letter "n" in the affix, can refer to all three tenses and each one seems to give a different aspect to the verb, when they follow the verb "esti". For example:
-ant-: continuous aspect
-int-: perfective aspect
-ont-: "preparedness" or intention to do something in the future
Therefore, it is true that this continuous aspect of the verb exists in Esperanto. One only has to use a compound verb, formed by the verb "esti" and the participle which refers to the subject in the present (-ant- form). The tense of the verb "esti" will determine if this continuous aspect happens in the past, present or future.
- Li estis promenanta: He was walking (or going for a walk). Equivalent to the past continuous.
- Li estas promenanta: He is walking (or going for a walk). Equivalent to the present continuous.
- Li estos promenanta: He will be walking (or going for a walk). Equivalent to the continuous in the future with the au-xiliary "will".
Like I said before, the perfective aspect can also be expressed in Esperanto. In order to express it, one must use the participle which refers to the subject in the past (-int- form). Again, the tense of the verb "esti", which precedes it, will determine what tense this perfect tense will be. A few examples will probably show this more clearly:
- Li estis promeninta: He had walked. (Equivalent to the past perfect.)
- Li estas promeninta: He has walked. (Equivalent to the present perfect.)
- Li estos promeninta: He will have walked. (Equivalent to the future perfect with the au-xiliary "will".)
It is interesting to note that Esperanto makes use of this participle referring to the subject (the one with the "n" in its affix) and not the one referring to the object (the one without the -n- in its affix). It would be more similar to many European languages, including English if it used the latter, but for some reason, Zamenhof chose a version which is quite unfamiliar for us. It would sound more familiar for most European learners, for instance, if the sentence "I have drunk water" was formulated with the verb "havi" and the participle for the object. This would look like:
"Mi havas trinkata akvon"*
Instead, he decided to go for this uncommon verb combination, which might be used in other languages. However, the meaning of the real Esperanto expression "Mi estas trinkinta akvon" sounds to me rather like "I am a "former drinker" of water". I do not know if a more precise literal translation would be possible, but I think most people would agree that to most European Esperanto learners, this construction sounds quite alien. Like all things, pactice might make one used to it, but I think it licit to ask oneself if the construction with "havi + object participle" would not also be an interesting construction to use and more natural-sounding to most speakers.
Another questions pops up. The genuine Esperanto constructions require the verb "esti" as the first verb of the compound. "Esti" is a copulative verb which does not require an accusative, but a nominative. Therefore, one could ask himself if it would make more sense for the accusative to be actually a nominative: Then, the noun phrase coming after the verb would not have to end in -n. For example:
"Mi estas trinkinta akvon" would become "Mi estas trinkinta akvo". In this case, the words "trinkinta akvo" would be perceived as a group of words which complete the copulative verb "esti". However, I suppose it is matter of tastes. Each structure would be valid and it would be only a matter of taste. If, however, it is the compound verb that is seen as a group of words "estas trinkinta" could be perceived as a verb form of the verb "trinki", and that would make the use of the accusative logical.
There is another temporal tense in which the participle which refers to the subject can be used, namely the future. This is formed with the affix "-ont-" and the nuance it seems to express is that of preparedness or willingness to do something. I think that is quite similar to the meaning of the structure "going to" in English. Here too, the tense of the verb "esti", which precedes the participle, will indicate if this intention referes to an action in the past, present or future. Let's see some more examples:
- Li estis promenonta: He was prepared to walk / He was about to walk / He was going to walk
- Li estas promenonta: He is prepared to walk / He is about to walk / He is going to walk
- Li estos promenonta: He will be prepared to walk / He will be about to walk / He will be going walk
MarcDiaz (User's profile) September 7, 2016, 6:40:35 AM
Thanks for your link. Actually, I was writing my latter post at the same time you posted your own, so I could not see it, but I had already realized that Zamenhof had designed this not-so-simple and more accurate system of compound verbs, which can make the verbs more nuanced.
It is interesting to know that this system exists. I quite like it. Simple, yet accurate at the same time. I just find the structure for the perfective aspect of these verbs a bit unfamiliar, but like you and I said before, it is matter of practice and getting used to it.
Vestitor (User's profile) September 7, 2016, 10:25:40 AM
MarcDiaz:Hello Vestitor,There is no confusion to clarify or clear up. I see you found the tenses.
I hope this clarifies your confusion.
novatago (User's profile) September 7, 2016, 12:12:07 PM
bartlett22183 (User's profile) September 7, 2016, 8:00:38 PM
"If my native language has such and such a feature, then obviously international auxiliary language X must also have that feature." This is ever so common a misunderstanding of beginners. When I was a beginning learner of French so many decades ago, there were some students who were completely baffled why "Je suis allant" was not a perfectly good rendering for English "I am going." It took them a long time to wrap their heads around the idea that French is just not English with strange corresponding words substituted one for one.
The same applies to Esperanto. I do not claim expertise, but I have over time read several scholarly connected texts in E-o with no problem, most specifically including the E-o verb system. One just has to get used to a different way of thinking and doing things and realize and accept that different languages simply are not relexifications of one another.
sudanglo (User's profile) September 8, 2016, 5:50:09 PM
Although mi promenis (for example) might be I walked, or I was walking, or I have walked etc, if when used in a particular sentence in Esperanto there is only one English tense which will work naturally for the translation, then any theoretical ambiguity has magically disappeared.
La akcidento okazis dum mi promenis en la parko. (was walking)
Laŭ mia 'fitbit', (paŝokalkulilo) mi jam promenis 2 kilometrojn hodiaŭ (have walked)
Mi decidis ne preni la aŭtobuson, kaj anstataŭe marŝis (piediris) al la stacidomo (walked)
Of course, if there is a potential ambiguity in a specific sentence then recourse may be made to the complex forms of the verb.
lagtendisto (User's profile) September 9, 2016, 11:24:49 AM
MarcDiaz:I know that in the end it all boils down to a matter of simplicity vs accuracy. Esperanto favors simplicity. My question is: Is simplicity really the best choice for a language that is meant to be used worlwide for all subjects and areas of life? If we want to talk about philosophy, science, cuisine or any other subject that exists in this world, wouldn't maybe a greater degree of accuracy be desirable over simplicity?Creators of Lidepla conlang simply named it "The principle of facultative precision".