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In Defense of the Accusative Posted by on Jun 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

Amelie Ambrus hits us again with another interesting post about Esperanto literature. This time she wants to share her love of the accusative with the world. Enjoy!

Is there any point to that pesky -n ending? People disagree – English-speaking learners often dislike it, and some people go so far as to propose reforms to get rid of it.

I admit the accusative is not the easiest part of Esperanto. However, it allows Esperanto to have a fairly free word order. That might not sound like much, but it allows translations into Esperanto to be more flexible and natural, and also makes poetry sparkle.

Yes, an entire book about the accusative!

Free word order allows you to emphasize what is most important in a sentence. In English, you can say “the dog bit the cat”. If someone doesn’t hear you and asks “the dog did what to the cat?”, you can change your intonation patterns and say “the dog BIT the cat”. In writing, you need to rely on typographical conventions, or adding extra words. In Esperanto, though, you can change the word order to get a similar effect, putting the most important part first. “La hundo mordas la katon” and “mordas la hundo la katon” mean the same thing, but the second one emphasizes the biting. Similarly, to emphasize that it is the cat being bitten, you could write “La katon mordas la hundo”. This flexibility also gives speakers and authors freedom in when to reveal information, so it has the most impact, as the following poem shows.

Vilaĝeto ĉe rivero,
verda monto, flora bord’,
sonoril-son’ de l’ vespero,
benko ĉe la doma pord’,
ligas min al vi memoro:
gaja ludo de infan’,
la sekret’ de juna koro,
kiso de l’ unua am’…
Vilaĝeto ĉe rivero,
vin revidi vanas rev’,
tenas min en mallibero
urba vivo, zorgoj, dev’.
Little village by the river,
green mountain, flowery shore,
bell-sound of the evening,
bench at the home’s door
memory ties me to you:
merry games of a child,
the secret of a young heart,
a kiss from ones’ first love…
Little village by the river,
to see you again is a vain dream,
I’m held in a prison
(by) urban life, worries, duty.

“Ĉe fenestro de vagonaro” by Julio Baghy, translation by Amelie Ambrus
(used with permission from Vojaĝo en Esperanto-lando)

I can’t find a way to get English to render “ligas min al vi memoro” as powerfully as in the Esperanto original, which is fundamentally about the tie; more striking near-synonyms such as bond still aren’t quite satisfactory at conveying this nuance. Similarly, the last couple of lines of the original poem are in a powerful, active form; to put them into English, one either needs to change the word order (negating the suspense about what is keeping the poet in a ‘prison’, and that the prison is metaphorical), or use a passive form, which loses most of the vigor.

Flexible word order takes a while to get used to. However, once you are used to it, it is such a powerful, graceful tool that it becomes hard not to miss it in English.

Postscript: The above translation tries to be quite close to the original, while remaining readable English. The trade-off involves both slightly strained English, and slight inaccuracies, unfortunately.

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About the Author:Chuck Smith

I was born in the US, but Esperanto has led me all over the world. I started teaching myself Esperanto on a whim in 2001, not knowing how it would change my life. The timing couldn’t have been better; around that same time I discovered Wikipedia in it’s very early stages and launched the Esperanto version. When I decided to backpack through Europe, I found Esperanto speakers to host me. These connections led me to the Esperanto Youth Organization in Rotterdam, where I worked for a year, using Esperanto as my primary language. Though in recent years I’ve moved on to other endeavors like iOS development, I remain deeply engrained in the Esperanto community, and love keeping you informed of the latest news. The best thing that came from learning Esperanto has been the opportunity to connect with fellow speakers around the globe, so feel free to join in the conversation with a comment! I am now the founder and CTO of the social app Amikumu.


Comments:

  1. Mark:

    There is no defense for the acusative. It is completely unnecessary.

    • reddie:

      @Mark It eases transition from languages that don’t have a Subject/Verb/Object word order, as an example Japanese or German.

      Hence making it better as an international language

  2. Riz S:

    I think the -n does have its place, and that English speakers are the biggest whiners about it because “That’s not how we do it in English”. English-speakers (not all, but some) tend to be very egocentric individuals (myself included, who would -ideally- have liked to rid Esperanto of the -n and yet knew logically it has its purpose and that I simply had to grow into it) who don’t like to see outside the box when it comes to language. People who speak at least one other language can often understand the value of language differences more so than people who strictly speak English.

    People who are not comfortable with grammar as well will obviously complain, as now they must intricately examine their speech and sentence structure for the first time since probably the 12th grade. This is a lot of “work” for these people, and comes across as unnecessary. But had we simply retained our English grammar skills and kept them in practice, frankly we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

    But I will admit.. the -n complicates Esperanto in a way so as that it is no longer the fantastically-easy language we’d all like to think it is. It also makes understanding spoken Esperanto much, much harder than understanding written Esperanto, which I find to be a drawback. This is not something Esperanto -writers- take into consideration if they do not -speak- the language on a regular basis, which many of us do not. It is, in fact, very trying to understand where a sentence is going when you have to deal with -n in the spoken form.

  3. Amelie Ambrus:

    Mark: strictly speaking, it is unnecessary – as is changing verbs at all, which both English and Esperanto do, but Chinese doesn’t. It’s perfectly fine to think that having -n isn’t worthwhile, but I think it’s easy to underestimate what a loss that would be.

  4. Romz:

    The accusative is fine where it is. Many reforms that I saw as proposals to abolish it were overwhelmingly anglo-centric and reminiscent of similar initiatives undertaken by the Ido movement.

    On the other hand, many people whose mother tongue has a flexible word order (such as Spanish in my case) and those whose mother tongue uses the accusative (such as Arabic and Greek, for instance) tend to be fond of Esperanto’s use of that case and fully appreciate the ingenuity of this simple mechanism.

    I think that, as they become familiar with Esperanto and they begin to see the language from the “inside” and to become immersed in its literature, English speakers learn to appreciate the accusative as well.

    All things good require patience and perseverance, so too does Esperanto. 😉

  5. Amelie Ambrus:

    Riz S: -n takes a while to get used to, especially for people who don’t have a similar feature in a language they already know.

    The one ray of sunshine for English speakers is that English does have an accusative case, although only for pronouns. It’s already natural for you to say “I send it to them” and “They send it to me” – ‘them’ and ‘me’ are both in the accusative case.

    The accusative case isn’t just for writers. It’s a perfectly normal feature in a wide variety of languages. Slavic languages (Russian, Serbian, Polish, etc), German, Latin, Hungarian, Finnish, Armenian, Arabic, Amharic, Sanskrit, Turkish, and many aboriginal languages, from Quechua through Nez Perce and Wangkumara, all have an accusative case. Needless to say, the use of the accusative in these languages is not confined to writing.

    I’ve never found spoken Esperanto much harder to understand than written Esperanto, even as a beginner. On the other hand, I’ve certainly been heckled when I’ve missed including a -n in my own speech, which is something I occasionally do.

    For people who are already comfortable reading typical Esperanto literature, I’d recommend reading “Pikniko ĉe vojrando.” It’s not an easy read, but it uses flexible word order very heavily, and understanding sentences with the accusative will almost certainly seem less daunting afterwards.

  6. Amelie Ambrus:

    Romz: very well said!

  7. Betty Chatterjee:

    Native English speakers are not the only ones to make mistakes with the accusative, most of the Danes I know find it difficult too. However speakers from other language groups (slavonic for example) seem to take to it easily. I too enjoy the flexibiltiy that it allows. When so many other aspects of Esperanto grammar are easy,why whimp about this comparatively modest challenge?

  8. Uxel:

    Fakte, ankaux por brazilanoj la afero okazegas, ja escepte kun pronomoj. Mia penso estas, ke nur kiam Eon ni cxiutage uzos gxin en realaj siuacioj, kiam gxi igxos familara mondskale, ekz. parolata en cxefaj televidkanaloj, igante nin spekti niajn preferatajn programojn: telenovelojn, filmojn, noticojn, diskuti realajn aferojn, legi (famajn) magazinojn kiujn cxiuj en la mondo legas, paroli kun nia dentisto, doktoro per Eo, kiam niaj naciaj verkistoj verkos rekte en Eo per gxi, kaj niaj instruistoj lerneje ekde de la unuaj lecionoj instruos en Eo ni majstros la lingvon. Dume, diskutoj kiel cxi-tiu, tamen, gravas. Kiel cxiu aparta ago ja gravas. — Ankaux lingvoj posedas animon…

  9. Uxel:

    Korekto: En la dua linio ne konsideri ‘gxin’.

  10. L.R.:

    Por komenti la internacian lingvon, cxu ne estus preferebla uzi nur cxion-cxi, eble kun angla traduko ?

    (Sed oni povus preferi francan tradukon, aux germanan, aux rusan, aux… !!)

  11. mankso:

    Amelie skribis:
    >It’s already natural for you to say “I send it to them” and “They send it to me” – ‘them’ and ‘me’ are both in the accusative case.

    Pardon me, but in these two English sentences ‘them’ and ‘me’ are in the dative case after the preposition ‘to’, not the accusative, as in modern German and Old English. In ‘I see them’ and ‘he sees me’ though, they are indeed in the accusative.

    One point nobody has yet mentioned is that certain (not all!) Esperanto prepositions may be followed by the Esperanto accusative (despite Rule 8/16), where the meaning of the preposition is ambiguous. Here the accusative is used to indicate a ‘change of location to’, e.g.
    ‘en la ĝardeno’ (inside/in the garden) versus
    ‘en la ĝardenon’ (into the garden from outside it); ‘la fiŝo naĝas sub la ponto’ (the fish is swimming under the bridge, and remains there) versus ‘la fiŝo naĝas sub la ponton’ (the fish swims from a position not under the bridge, to under it, then out the other side). The Friendship Week slogan ‘amikeco trans limoj’ has never made grammatical sense to me – surely it must be ‘amikeco trans limojN’?! ‘Li loĝas trans la montaro’ (…on the other side) but ‘la aviadilo flugas trans la montaron’ (…from this side to the other).

    This usage is familiar to speakers of German, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Latin etc., but not to speakers of modern English or of Romance languages. Esperanto would be very impoverished without the accusative!

  12. Nero:

    Modern English doesn’t have cases. It has direct and indirect objects.

  13. mankso:

    What about the marked genitive for nouns in Mod. English? English has a two-case system: unmarked common case ‘boy’, marked genitive case ‘boy’s’.
    (from Quirk & Greenbaum’s “University Grammar of English”)
    I agree that the form of the noun does not differ between direct and indirect objects (unlike most pronouns). A distinction should be made between form and function.

  14. James O'Neill:

    I am native English speaker (American) and I like the Accusative case for many of the reasons that the author stated.

    My wife is Russian and I speak a little Russian too. Russian can have a fluid word order, while English tends to be rather rigid -> SVO.

    If you speak with someone in Esperanto who comes from a fluid word order language and they arrange their sentences fluidly and you come from a rigid word order language like English you should soon see the advantages.

    I think it is really useful especially in areas with diverse language groups.

  15. Judith:

    Understanding when to use the Accusative is little more difficult than understanding when something is an object. Students of German, Russian, Latin etc. hate the Accusative because of all the changed endings that have to be memorized, and because it’s necessary to distinguish it e. g. from the Dative. In Esperanto, the memorization effort is minimal (-n everywhere for everything) and there is no Dative to complicate matters, so there is no reason to fear it.

  16. Bruno:

    I think -n should go away. Isn’t one of the goals of Esperanto to be simply… simple? Why trouble so many people learning about this case if it isn’t really necessary to communicate? The advantages cited by the other comments are too insignificant, when you compare them to the advantage of simplifying the language and making more people speak and write it fluently.

    I think -n endings should vanish as well as the concordance of adjectives to the noun. My native language is Portuguese and we do make the concordance between adjectives and nouns… and still I hate it in Esperanto “the easy language”.

    I would be happy if this language could be even easier so we could “propagate” it easily, too.

  17. Kenny:

    Esperanto is supposed to be an easy language to learn thereby encouraging more people to do so and communicate with each other, wasn’t that always the primary goal? I’ve just started learning the language, and the accusative ‘n’ stands out as an overly complicated and unnecessary addition to the language. I wonder how many people give up on seeing this aspect of Esperanto. Consign it to the dustbin where it belongs and allow Esperanto to become the ‘Easy Language’ it has always promised to be.

  18. Mazog:

    As someone who only knows English. the accusative case was not confusing in any manner and came quite naturally to me. If so many have learned this concept then surly it cant be as hard as some people proclaim it is. As everything in life, you cannot expect learn Esperanto overnight, every aspect of the language takes practice and perseverance to learn.

    What would getting rid of the accusative do? No more people are going to learn it or like it because it was taken away, anyone who wants to learn it will look past a bit of difficulty with the grammar (you cant expect to learn any language without some difficulty, even Esperanto). Even if we manage to sway a few English speakers by making it easier for them, speakers of many other languages will complain on the new “rigidness” of the language, and overall making the language harder for them.

  19. SeanB:

    Calling the anti-accusative position “anglo-centric” is a non sequitur and it is a veiled (or not-so-veiled) ad-hominem (calling it “imperialist” and/or “chauvanistic.”) Set aside the supposed anglo centrism and ask yourself: would the language be easier without it? One of Esperanto’s key purposes was to be easy. It would ABSOLUTELY have more speakers if it were easier. It would ABSOLUTELY have more speakers if it did not use the accusative. The accusative was definitely a mistake as far as the goals of the language are concerned. If you want fina venko, the accusative is the number 1 obstacle. Don’t get me wrong, I still like the language and I still think it is easy. But it would be easier without the accusative, and I haven’t seen substantive arguments to the contrary. Yes, it might be “more poetic” or “less english” or “easier to emphasize without resorting to italics” but I think those goals are a lot less valuable than easyness.

    I actually came to this post hoping to find a solid defense of the accusative, hoping for some really good reason for it that I hadn’t thought of. It seems that that truly good reason doesn’t exist. I think it’s too late to unwind the accusative so I don’t support reform proposals, but I can’t bring myself to pretend that the language would not be easier (and still complete) without it.

  20. SeanB:

    Also need to add a key point about so-called “anglo-centrism”: Actually the top 7 languages with the most native speakers, accounting for 41% of all native speakers. Do not use the accusative. Only when you get to #8 on the list do you find your first accusative-using language: Russian. There are more non-accusative languages after that, so it is safe to say that THE MAJORITY OF ALL OF THE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD did not learn the accusative as natives. It might be safe to turn around and accuse the accusative defenders as “Euro Centric.”

    Here are the top 10 natively spoken languages. None use the accusative:

    Language native % of world pop.
    mandarin 14.4
    spanish 6.15
    english 5.43
    hindi 4.7
    arabic 4.43 (non-classical)
    portugese 3.27
    bengali 3.11
    TOTAL 41.49

  21. Matthew:

    This article to realize my appreciation for the accusative case. Understanding the accusative case in Esperanto is one of those stepping stones to understanding other languages and how they work. I get the cases now thanks to Esperanto’s accusative case. Good article, keep it up!

  22. Weng:

    I am a Cantonese speaker and I have always been wondering why the accusative case is used in Esperanto. The -n ending once dissuaded me from learning the language as I used to think that an international language should not have introduced a seemingly useless feature as such. This article definitely gives me some new insights and the poem powerfully demonstrates the beauty of the accusative case. The sentence “vin revidi vanas revo” is so beautiful that I don’t think any other language (or at least English) can offer the same thing – flexible word order and the ease of changing an adjective into a verb – with such simplicity.