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There are two concepts in Esperanto which new learners often mix up – not because they are all that similar to each other – but because they both translate approximately to “himself” (herself, themselves, et cetera.) These are the particle mem and the reflexive pronoun si.
Of these two, mem is the simplest one to explain. It’s used for emphasis – usually of the word that comes before it. Sort of a verbal underlining.
Without mem, the meaning would be almost the same. It’s just that the key element would not have the same emphasis.
I’m hoping that by this point, many of you are asking “but what about ‘-self’?” You may have learned in your basic Esperanto course that mem means “himself, herself, itself.” I intentionally avoided these words in my examples to show how mem can add emphasis without comparing it to “-self”. Ultimately we want to express ideas in Esperanto, not translate words. Just a few more more examples to show where “-self” comes in.
Remember that mem is about emphasizing another word in the sentence. There is a secondary meaning of mem that follows from this, similar to how it works in English. If Petro mem built the house, that means that he did it himself. He didn’t pay someone to do it, and he quite possibly didn’t have any help. (“All by himself.”)
The term “reflexive” means that the subject and the object are the same thing. Imagine that I’d just waxed the table and I can see my reflection in it. If I were an Esperanto-speaking caveman, I might say something like this.
In Esperanto, we can just plug in mi for Tomaso if we don’t want to sound like a caveman. However, in English, something funny happens.
The “-self” here has nothing to do with emphasis, so it is not mem. It is called a “reflexive pronoun” in English. In Esperanto, if the subject is mi, ni, or vi, we don’t have to do anything special here. However, if it’s “third person” (just about anything but mi, ni, or vi), that’s where si comes in.
Note that there is not a mem to be seen here. The “-self” here has nothing to do with emphasis, but only means that the subject and object are the same thing. Remember that si is only for third person – that is, not with mi, ni, or vi. Also note that si must be used any time we’re referring to the subject. If we use a different pronoun, it means a different person.
(Bonvolu ne ŝerci en la komentejo pri kalvuloj.)
Another common use of si is in the possessive pronoun sia. Again, this always refers to the subject. It is only used in “third person”.
And again, if you don’t use sia, the listener will assume you’re not talking about the subject.
There will be times when you’ll want to do both things at once – refer to a third-person subject and emphasize that it’s this very subject (la subjekto mem) that you’re referring to. Enter “si mem.”
We could probably do an entire blog post on si and mem together (and I will if there are enough comments requesting this). For now I’ll just say that many of the times we see mem with si, the mem is actually superfluous, but by far not always. Just remember that this is an emphasized reference to the subject.
One of the more common and useful ways to use these together is in expressions like per si mem, which means approximately “in and of itself.”
There are other good descriptions of mem and si out there (I’ve hot-linked the descriptions in PMEG). My goal isn’t to duplicate those descriptions, but rather to highlight the difference to avoid some of the typical confusion which English-speaking learners encounter. When you find yourself thinking about how to translate “-self” into Esperanto, it’s best to take a step back and ask what idea you’re trying to express. If you want to emphasize a word, use mem. If you want to refer to the subject (and if the subject is not I, you, or we), use si.