Esperanto Language Blog

A deeper look at Mem and Si – Esperanto words for self part 2 Posted by on Feb 19, 2018 in Esperanto Language, Uncategorized

In January, we took a look at mem and si – two words that are often misused. This month, by request, we take a closer look at some trickier cases.

Photo credit: Howard Lake on Flikr

“si” and “mem” are both translated as “self” Photo credit: Howard Lake on Flikr

Me and my big mouth

At the end of last month’s blog post I quipped that we could probably do an entire post on the use of mem and si together. Several people commented that they would enjoy that level of depth. In the meanwhile (the very next day, in fact) I started seeing questions about si which weren’t addressed last month. It looks like there is still much to cover here, so here we go.

It doesn’t depend – si in dependent clauses

As we discussed last time, si (and derivatives like sin, sia, siajn, et cetera) refer back to the subject. Sometimes, however, it’s not obvious what the subject is. Consider a sentence like the following.

  •  Ŝi ploras, ĉar li malamas ŝin.

Should the last word be ŝin or sin?

The tricky thing here is that there are two verbs in the original sentence. To help us see what is going on, let’s start with a simpler sentence.

  • Li malamas ŝin. – He hates her.
  • Li malamas sin. – He hates himself.

In this simple sentence, it’s clear to see that “si” means the guy. The reference doesn’t change when the same sentence is part of a dependent clause.

  • Ŝi ploras, ĉar li malamas ŝin. – She is crying because he hates her.
  • Ŝi ploras, ĉar li malamas sin. – She is crying because he hates himself.

Now you si it – si with invisible subjects

One more detail to see here, when we say that si refers to the subject, we really mean the subject of the verb. This subject doesn’t even need to be explicitly expressed.

  • Mi petis al Karlo razi sin. – I asked Charlie to shave (himself.)

When we use sin here, we know that it means whoever is doing the action of razi, even if it’s expressed as an infinitive without an explicit subject. Context tells us that it means Karlo.

Now you don’t – si with invisible verbs

Ok, so the verbs aren’t quite invisible. They’re just in disguise. Consider the following sentence which generated a question from a moderately experienced speaker.

  • Eduardo agis tre ĝentile kaj afable dum nia vizito al [lia/sia] hejmo.”

The question was – if we mean “during our visit to Eduardo’s home”, do we say lia or sia? The temptation is to look for a subject, and the only expressed subject is Eduardo. However, just like we need to look for verbs without subjects, we need to look for words like vizito which could be described as a verbeca substantivo. The meaning here is “he was polite while we were visiting [verb] his home.” If we tried to use sia here, it would mean the subject of “visiting” – which doesn’t make sense.

What about si and mem together?

So, maybe I can’t write an entire blog post about si and mem together — not because there’s not anything to say on the topic, but because so many interesting questions keep coming up. Last time we talked about the expression per si mem. This time I’m going to focus on examples with the accusative: sin mem.

As we saw last time, mem is for emphasis and si refers to the subject. Therefore, sin mem is reference to the subject with additional emphasis. If you’re tempted to use si and mem together, ask yourself if you need that extra emphasis.

  • La instruisto instruis sin mem – The teacher taught himself.
  • la krimulo elperfidas sin mem en interparolado – The criminal betrayed himself under cross-examination.
  • Li sin mem demandis kiel ili estas hodiaŭ, kvardek jarojn poste, tiuj nigraj okuloj – He asked his own self how they are today, forty years later, those dark eyes.

The use of mem seems justified in the first two cases. In the first case, the teacher taught himself – and not the students this time. The second case could go either way, but the larger context for this sentence (from Beletra Almanako 21) is that nobody else betrayed him, but he did it himself (emphasis.)

In the third case, however, the mem seems superfluous. When a person demandas sin about something, it’s not like they’re running around looking for people to ask and then stop to ask themselves (and nobody else.) It’s just a way to say he’s wondering. In the same paragraph, the author wrote “li promesis al si mem” – which also strikes me as superfluous use of si and mem together, so it might be a quirk of the author.

Famous last words

You know, I think I could write an entire blog post on the difference between sinprezento and memprezento.

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About the Author: Tomaso

An Esperanto teacher since 1998, Tomaso (known in various corners of the online Esperanto world as "Salivanto") has been answering questions about Esperanto for almost two decades. He has been a regular contributor to Radio Verda, Esperanto Stack Exchange, Duolingo forums, and most recently his own YouTube Channel Esperanto Variety Show. Tomaso lives in upstate NY with four of the coolest Esperanto speakers in North America - his wife and kids.


  1. Bernardo:

    And the distinction between memfido/sinfido, memmortigi/sinmortigi…

    It would definitely be worth a few words of clarification

  2. Rafa:

    Dankon pro tio, ke vi atentis niajn petojn kaj verkis ĉi tiun blogeron! (Kaj mi ne komprenas kial mi ne ricevis sciigon pri ĝi: mi provu aboni denove!) 🙂