Esperanto's table of correlatives

✍️ → Written on 2021-04-25 in 2538 words. Part of languages Esperanto English German

Motivation

Constructing languages can be done along various dimensions. Simplicity in vocabulary, naturalism, or syntactic unambiguity shall be given as example. Esperanto has a cultural rationale to serve as universal second language in order to provide a lingua franca (or at least, this is my interpretation of Zamenhof’s statements).

Regularity is something every language learner desires. If you can ask “tu es heureux” and use the interrogative word “est-ce que” to turn it into a question “est-ce que tu es heureux”, you expect it to work for any statement/question pair. As a language learner you are looking for such rules to make your studies easier. And regularity is key is make studies easier. On the contrary, the noun-article association (i.e. der/die/das) in German has very few rules and feels arbitrary.

Esperanto as conlang feels more regular to me than any natural language. Even though Esperanto is far from perfect, in my humble opinion regularity in Esperanto peaks in the “table of correlatives”. Let me show you.

English table of correlatives

So, the idea of the table is simple: we take two dimensions and consider the vocabulary for the intersection. For example, the intersection of “universal/every/each” (column) with “time” (row) is “always”. For English, the table looks as follows:

Table 1. English table of correlatives
Interrogative Demonstrative Indefinite Universal Negative

Kind of, sort of

what kind of, what a

that kind of, such a

some kind of

every kind of

no kind of

Reason

why

therefore, hence

for some reason

for all reasons

for no reason

Time

when

then

at some time, once

always

never

Place

where

there

somewhere

everywhere

nowhere

Motion

[to] where, whither

[to] there, thither

[to] somewhere

[to] everywhere

[to] nowhere

Manner

how, as, like, such that

thus, as, so

somehow

in every way

no-how, in no way

Possessive

whose

its, that one’s

someone’s

everyone’s, everybody’s

no one’s

Demonstrative pronoun

what

that

something

everything

nothing

Amount

how much

that much

some, a little, a bit

all

none

Demonstrative determiner

who, which one, which X

that one, that X

someone, a certain X, some X

everyone, each X, all X's

no one, no X

With this table, I learned about the vocabularies „whither“ and „thither“.

German table of correlatives

Table 2. German table of correlatives
interrogativ demonstrativ indefinit universal negativ

Sorte

welches, was für ein

dieses

eines

jedes

keines

Grund

wieso, warum

darum, deswegen

weshalb, aufgrund

weshalb immer

grundlos

Zeit

wann

dann

einmal

immer

nie, niemals

Ort

wo

dort

irgendwo

überall

nirgends

Richtung

wohin

dorthin

irgendwo hin

überall hin

nirgendwo hin

Art

wie

so

irgendwie

auf jede Art

nirgendwie, auf keine Weise

Possessiv

wessen

dessen

jemandes

jedermann’s

niemandes

Demonstrativpronom

welches

dieses

etwas

alles

nichts

Menge

wieviel

soviel

etwas

alles

nichts

Demonstrativbegleiter

welches

dieses

jenes

jedes X

kein X

As far as German is concerned, it was not easy to find words for all the different cases:

  • My choice for “for no reason” (i.e. “grundlos”) is unusual. “grundlos” does not feel like a correlative, but a regular adjective. You could also translate it as “weshalb niemals”. Or more generically: pick any word of this line and add a negation (kein/nie/nicht). These feel more like correlatives, but are less specific.

  • Many words repeat between “Sorte”, “Demonstrativpronom”, and “Demonstrativebegleiter”. Also between “Menge” and “Demonstrativpronom”.

  • One funny archaic aspect is the use of the et- prefix. Instead of “irgendwo”, you could say “etwo” (I use it, it is arachic to other people in my social circle). This follows the principle of “was” → “etwas” (common in Standard German). The same can be generalized to “wie” → “etwie” (I don’t think anyone uses this one). However, “etwessen” or “etwelches” sounds completely foreign.

  • Also important, I think my table is influenced by my dialect (Carinthian, South Austrian). Someone from Germany might come up with a different table. One example, I can come up is: I would not say “nirgendwo hin”, but “nirgends hin”. For this instance, I picked the one closer to Standard German explicitly.

Slovenian table of correlatives

Disclaimer: Kudos to Anita who contributed this table!

Table 3. Slovenian table of correlatives
Interrogative Demonstrative Indefinite Universal Negative

umetnost

kakšen

takšen

nekakšen

vsakršen [vsakšen]

Nikakšen / nikakršen

razlog

zakaj

zato

-

-

-

čas

kdaj

tedaj

nekdaj

[vsekdar], vselej, vedno

nikdar

kraj

kje

tam

nekje

povsod

nikjer

smer

kam

tja

nekam

-

nikamor

način

kako

tako

nekako

nikakor

posesti

demonstrativni zaimek

kaj

to

nekaj

vse

nič

znesek

koliko

toliko

nekoliko

vse

nič

demonstrativni določnik

kdo

ta

nekdo

vsi

nihče

Now the Slowenian case is also very interesting. If you look at English, you will find shared prefixes and suffixes (wh-, th-, every-, some-, -here). German is more chaotic, but some can be found as well (we-, irgend-).

Another consistency is that you can replace the prefix to switch from Interrogative to Demonstrative (engl. “when” → “then”, “where” → “there”) (dt. “wann” → “dann”, “wessen” → “dessen”).

What about Slovenian? Slovenian uses prefixes and suffixes a lot (k-, t-, ne-, vs-, -kšen, -ies, -liko). It is much more structured than German or English.

The Esperanto case

Interrogative Demonstrative Indefinite Universal Negative

vario

kia

tia

ia

ĉia

nenia

kialo

kial

tial

ial

ĉial

nenial

tempo

kiam

tiam

iam

ĉiam

neniam

loko

kie

tie

ie

ĉie

nenie

direkto

kien

tien

ien

ĉien

nenien

arto

kiel

tiel

iel

ĉiel

neniel

posedo

kies

ties

ies

ĉies

nenies

Pruva pronomo

kio

tio

io

ĉio

nenio

kvanto

kiom

tiom

iom

ĉiom

neniom

Pruva difinilo

kiu

tiu

iu

ĉiu

neniu

Now, this peaks in the case of Esperanto. All the words are made up of prefixes and suffixes. If you don’t remember the vocabulary for “always”, just combine the prefix for “Universal” (column) and the suffix for “Time” (row) ⇒ “ĉiam”.

Of course, comparing a conlang to natural languages is unfair, but I just wanted to share this beauty of Esperanto.

Conclusion

Of course the question arises ‘Was Esperanto designed this way?’. The answer is yes.

  • In general, L.L. Zamenhof (i.e. inventor of Esperanto) seemed to base the table on Russian.

    • Slovenian correlatives are quite regular. Slovenian is a South Slavic language. Russian is an East Slavic language. They share some grammatical familiarity. This might indicate that Russian has quite regular correlatives.

    • My understanding of Russian is only two weeks old, but yeah, it seems to be regular.

    • Esperanto shares many familiarities with Slavic languages. Zamenhof himself was raised in a Russian part of Poland and was fluent in Russian. Russian is considered as one design influence of Esperanto.

  • infogalactic.com has an article about pro-forms. Correlatives are instances of pro-forms.

  • The paper “The Case of Correlatives: A Comparison between Natural and Planned Languages” discusses correlatives in various languages. But they do not discuss Russian.

  • User ‘Charotte SL’ points to a Scienca revuo article by Karl Ammer; an indologist from Vienna. He detects a relation between regularities in Esperanto and regularities in Sanskrit.

In the end, the historical context is confusing, but the table was certainly planned. And it is awesome!