Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Esperanto 2: Warning, contains meat

Esperanto has certain suffixes for various grammatical purposes, and others that add some extra meaning. One of the latter is -aĵ, which you add to the name of an animal in order to get the word for its meat. Some examples:
Chicken (the bird) - koko, chicken (meat) - kokaĵo
Cow/bull - bovo, beef - bovaĵo
One of the sentences I had to translate was kokaĵo estas viando, which means 'chicken is meat'. Now obviously the word for 'chicken' in that sentence has the 'meat' suffix already in it, so there's a certain redundancy here. It's a bit like saying chicken meat is meat in English. (Incidentally, I don't know if any other language has a suffix specifically for 'meat', and I don't know if it can be extended to fruits, for instance, as in the flesh of a peach, which I'm sure does exist in other languages.)

I was thinking about this redundancy and its counterparts in English. We don't have exactly the same thing, of course, as our words for meat are either the same (chicken, fish) or a different word entirely (beef, pork). So I suppose what we have is a kind of semantic redundancy: 'meat' is part of the meaning of beef. In other words, beef is a hyponym of meat. But someone might not know that beef is a meat (say they were learning English and you were explaining what the word meant, for instance). That wouldn't happen with Esperanto because the meaning is right there in the word if you know what the parts mean. It's 'compositional'. 

That said, people are not always that conscious of the grammatical parts of words, especially if the word is common. It's pretty usual for me to discover that many of my second and third year students can't correctly identify clauses as past or present tense, for instance. (Sorry students, if you're reading, but it's true.) They know as a native speaker what it means, but it's subconscious knowledge. 

And we have comparable redundancy in English. Imagine if you said I've been hurt in the past. Well, I've been hurt is past tense so in the past isn't necessary. It is possible that it might remove the 'immediate past' meaning that we would normally understand from the perfect tense if it's uttered out of the blue, but in context it is definitely redundant and still perfectly fine to say. Similarly, a little duckling doesn't normally mean a duckling that is particularly small compared to other ducklings, and the -ling tells us it's little anyway. 

I might need to find a fluent Esperantist to give me some 'native' speaker judgements on whether the sentence I had to translate has the 'explaining the meaning of the word' interpretation or not. 

Incidentally, Esperanto is literally the only language that uses the character ĵ, which means it's not on my computer's keyboard and is hard to type and that's annoying. 


  1. -ajxo doesn't mean precisely (just) 'meat', but more generally something like 'thing connected in some way to the root'. John Wells' (yes, that John Wells!) Teach Yourself Esperanto Dictionary gives the examples novajxo 'novelty', segajxo 'sawdust', infanajxo 'childish act', and indeed bovajxo 'beef'. As a noun, ajxo is 'thing'.

    Speaking of compositionality, I used to be Treasurer of Junularo Esperantista Brita, and I called the box with all the papers in the kasistecxajxaringo. I was only slightly more pretentious then than I am now.

    What do you use to get the j-circumflex character? If you use Firefox as a browser and need to type it there, the ABC Tajpu add-on includes it.

    1. Aha - that makes more sense. So its meaning is evaluated in context. It's interesting the way duolingo presents things, so you get it piecemeal without the full picture.
      I just copied and pasted this time. I've got it in my mac's symbol menu thing but it's not one of the ones that appears when you press and hold a key, like more common accented letters are. (I use chrome, which probably has an equivalent add-on.)