I’ve seen (in the romaneto “Gerda malaperis”):

Kion vi volas diri?

However, I suppose that just like in English, there is a slight difference between “What do you mean?” and “What do you want to say?”. The former asks about the meaning of that which the speaker said, while the latter (though it may also have the same meaning) may be understood as “Please change your way of expression because I didn’t understand what you said.”

I find the same distinction made in Bulgarian: „Какво имаш предвид?“ and „Какво искаш да кажеш?“

So, how can one say that in Esperanto? Does “Kion vi signifas?” convey the same meaning or this won’t work?

Or am I being too picky and there is no difference?

4 Answers 4


A usual expression is

Kion vi celas?

More precise would be "Kion vi celas diri?" but you'd drop "diri" in colloquial language.

  • That's interesting. I instinctively thought of "Kion vi celas?", but couldn't justify the meaning using vortaro.net
    – harlandski
    Aug 27, 2016 at 21:02
  • 2
    A common alternative to "Kion vi celas?" is "Kion vi intencas?". Aug 31, 2016 at 14:45
  • 1
    These common expressions aside, this answer doesn't quite get to the question of how do you say "mean" as in "intend to say." The answer to that is indeed "voli diri." Nov 13, 2016 at 22:18

Yes, Kion vi volas diri means both, though you can be more specific if you like. You can't say Kion vi signifas in this sense.

That's the tl;dr, now for the longer answer.

The meaning of mean / La signifo de signifi

According to the freely-available Oxford Learner's Dictionary, the first two meanings of the verb mean are:

  1. Have as meaning
  2. Intend as meaning

Whereas vortaro.net has

  1. Havi precize difinitan sencon

But nothing to correspond to 2. So in any case "Kion vi signifas" is not possible in the meaning you require.

Mean and want to say

As you've said in your question, "mean" and "want to say" can mean the same thing, so Kion vi volas diri is fine for both. If you really want to specify, "What do you mean?" as opposed to "What do you want to say", you could say for example:

  • Kion tio signifas? (Focussing on the meaning, not the person)
  • Kion vi intencas diri? (More literal gloss of 2. above)
  • Kion vi celas [diri]? (With apologies to Johmue.)

Kion vi signifas? is wrong. Signifi means "to have a certain meaning". Words, signs, symbols, etc. have meanings, but people don't: they have intentions.

I wouldn't say that "Kion vi volas diri?" expresses that you didn't understand, but it perhaps does have the implication that the person didn't say what they meant, and invites them to change the meaning, rather than express it in a different way. I think "Kion vi volis diri?" says what you want.

  • I realised that “Kion vi signifas?” is wrong moments after I posted the question but decided to not edit it for self punishment. :) Aug 27, 2016 at 20:20
  • I think it's a useful thing to leave in your question, as I certainly found it confusing myself when I first wanted to say "What do you mean?" in Esperanto.
    – harlandski
    Aug 27, 2016 at 21:46

Note that in English, his meaning means "intended significance" and its meaning usually means "literal significance". The former is translated celo, "aim" (or, to avoid ambiguity, you might make that dircelo) and the latter is signifo (or pedantically, denotacio).

"What were you just trying to say?"

Kion vi ĵus celis diri?

Kion vi ĵus dircelis?

"What is the meaning of what you just said?"

Kion tio signifas?

Kio estas la signifo de (tio) (kion vi ĵus diris)?

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