Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A couple of particles in English and Esperanto

leave a comment »

In thinking about this (fascinating) article by John McWhorter, I had an insight. I was taught in elementary school that “to do” means “to accomplish” and in learning later languages encountered their verbs that seemed always to include one that meant “to make or do.” 

But the English “do” is weird, as that article points out, and I was struck by two uses of “do” as a particle.

First, “do” as a particle that, when prefixed to a declarative statement, converts it to an interrogative. In this use, “do” transforms the declarative “You like cats.” into the interrogative “Do you like cats?”

I was struck by this because Esperanto has a particle that does the same — “Ĉu” — and in Esperanto it is not assigned  a specific word meaning. The student is informed only that “ĉu” is used to convert a statement into a question: “Vi ŝatas katojn” is the declarative statement, “Ĉu vi ŝatas katojn?” is the corresponding question. The dictionary entries would look like this:

vi = you (pronoun, second person)
ŝatas = likes (verb, transitive)
katojn = cats (plural)
ĉu – and here I quote directly from an Esperanto-English dictionary: “Used for introducing a question” [note that no specific word meaning is offered]

Somehow I had not realized that “do” as an interrogative particle isn’t connected with “accomplishing” anything. Like “ĉu” it functions only to make the statement a question, with no specific meaning in itself.

Spanish, FWIW, doesn’t use a word (or word order) at all. Instead, Spanish relies on punctuation:

Te gustan los gatos. – You like cats. (literally, cats are pleasing to you)
¿Te gustan los gatos? – Do you like cats.

Word for word the same, the interrogative nature being conveyed purely by punctuation (or tone of voice if the statement is spoken), and not by words or word order.

German, in contrast, relies purely on word order (and, of course, tone of voice if the statement is spoken — I suppose all languages are to a degree tonal, some (Cantonese) more than others (English)):

Du magst Katzen.
Magst du Katzen?

It would be interesting to go through various languages (via, say, Google translate) to see how they handle the declarative/interrogative conversion.


Second, “do” as a particle to convey emphasis. “Do” converts the simple statement “You like cats” into the emphatic statement “You do like cats.” Again, “do” has no connection to accomplishment and no specific meaning in itself. It serves only to add emphasis.

Esperanto has a particle “ja” that serves exactly the same function: “Vi ŝatas katojn” is the simple statement, “Vi ja ŝatas katojn” is the emphatic version. Again, no specific word meaning is needed, only the observation that the statement is now emphatic. (In fact, an Esperanto-English dictionary does offer specific word meanings — “surely, indeed, rather, certainly” — but it equally well might have said only “Used to add emphasis to a statement” with no specific word meaning assigned.

What is now evident to me is that in these uses “do” (and “ĉu” and “ja”) don’t really have a meaning in the way that most words have a meaning. Rather, they (in effect) change the ambiance of the sentence — as in a play the lighting makes the same stage content appear this way or that, warm or bleak, comforting or jarring. The lighting is part of the play, but quite a differt sort of part than the actors or the dialogue or the props or the action.

Written by Leisureguy

22 August 2020 at 6:48 am

Posted in Esperanto

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: