The Hobbit in Esperanto, Chapter 2: In a Mutton Kind of Way

Last time I wrote about the Esperanto translation of The Hobbit, I mentioned Esperanto's trick of coining words out of long chains of smaller roots. There's plenty of that to appreciate in Chapter 2.

Part of learning to read (or listen to) Esperanto is getting the knack of disassembling compound words. Let's take a look at a couple.

In Chapter 2 we get to Bilbo and company's encounter with the trolls, which ends with the trolls turned to stone (ŝtoniĝis) in the morning sunlight. Ŝtoniĝis comes from ŝtono, "stone". -is is a past tense ending.

-iĝ- is a bit trickier to find exactly one English equivalent for, though it's a very common Esperanto suffix. Attached to a noun or an adjective, it means "to become" whatever the root is. For example, ruĝa is "red", so ruĝiĝi is "to blush".

You can even attach -iĝ- to a longer phrase. This chapter gives us surponeiĝu, "get on a pony!" (from sur, "on", and poneo, "pony"), which is my new favorite word, and surseliĝis, "got on the saddle" (from selo, "saddle").

But -iĝ- has a somewhat broader sense than "become". Consider these English sentences:

The sword broke.

I broke the sword.

The first sentence confines itself to what got broken. The second also tells you who did the breaking (the "agent", a linguist would say).

In English, the verb "broke" is exactly the same in both sentences. But look at the Esperanto equivalents (and I think you already know what you're looking for):

La glavo rompiĝis.

Mi rompis la glavon.

Esperanto — like a lot of languages, but unlike English — doesn't use the same verb for the sentences with and without the agent. If a verb expects an agent, you can turn it into the agentless form by adding -iĝ-.

And that pattern turns up in this chapter too! When a troll grabs Bilbo to eat him, and Bilbo pleads "I am a good cook myself, and cook better than I cook, if you see what I mean," the translator writes

Mi estas bona kuiristo, kaj mi kuiras pli bone ol mi kuiriĝas, se vi komprenas min.

When the verb is kuiras, the subject is doing the cooking; when it's kuiriĝas, they're getting cooked.

Another Esperanto suffix, -ig-, also describes change — but unlike -iĝ-, a verb with -ig- tells you who or what is responsible for that change. The trolls ŝtoniĝis, but you could also say La sunlumo ŝtonigis la trolojn — "the sunlight turned the trolls to stone."

This lets the translator write that Gandalf was enmanigante a note to Bilbo — "causing to be in hand" ("in hand" = en mano), or just "handing" it to him (which is, in fact, the original English).

There's one other coinage in the chapter that caught my attention. When Bilbo first sees the trolls, one of them is grumbling "Mutton yesterday, and mutton today." The Esperanto is "Ŝafaĵe hieraŭ, ŝafaĵe hodiaŭ".

Ŝafo is "sheep", and -aĵ- is a substance. So ŝafaĵo is mutton — and mutton is usually a noun (i.e., a person, place, or thing.) And yet what the troll says is ŝafaĵe. Ŝafaĵe is an adverb — a word that, like "quickly" or "often" or "self-evidently", describes how (or when, or where) something happened. If we ran into ŝafaĵe on its own, we might expect it to mean "muttonly", whatever that is.

What's going on here?

The troll isn't making a mistake — in fact, the trolls speak perfectly good Esperanto, if you don't mind the occasional dropped -o1.

To my ear, the troll's complaint sounds like the way you'd complain about the weather. In Esperanto (unlike English), you describe the weather using adverbs: Estas varmege, "It's really hot"; Estas malvarme, "It's cool." You wouldn't use the same sentences to describe a glass of water. "Ŝafaĵon hieraŭ" would be fine, but "Ŝafaĵe hieraŭ" conveys a sense that the mutton — like a rainstorm or a heatwave — is an inescapable irritant. (I would love to know how it sounds to other Esperantists.)

Next chapter, our poor romp ... hobito makes his way to Rivendell!

1. "ni venis de l' montar'", "we come down from the mountains" - the "not drawing-room fashion" flavor of the trolls' speech, which Tolkien captures using "come" for Standard English "came", takes the form in Esperanto of the informal pronoun "ci", which doesn't appear in this particular phrase. (back to article)

Written on March 11, 2016