I am analyzing the transitivity of verbs in Esperanto, and I don't seem to find any coherence. For that reason, when I write a text, I constantly feel the need to search in a dictionary for the direct object a verb should take. Could anyone help me find the rule(s), please?

According to PIV, tra/vid/i does not take the direct object of vidi tra as its own direct object, but rather takes the indirect object introduced by tra: so the sentence mi vidas (la fiŝon) tra la akvo becomes mi travidas la akvon.

The same can be said about super/verŝ/i: according to PIV, verŝi la palan lumon de la luno super blanka maro becomes superverŝi blankan maron de l' pala lumo de la luno.

However, according to PIV, sur/hav/i does keep the direct object of havi as its own direct object: so the sentence nia domo havas ardezan tegmenton sur si becomes nia domo surhavas ardezan tegmenton.

The same can be said about en/hav/i, for which PIV gives this tautology from Zamenhof: la vorto «ĝi» enhavas en si ion malaltigan.

If I check PIV for peti, I can see that both peti iun pri io and peti ion de iu are correct, so the direct object of one becomes the indirect object of the other, and vice versa. So if the transitivity of peti can be equivocal like that, why is it not the same with verbs like el/pet/i, of which PIV suggests the direct object must be ion (and the indirect object de iu or al iu)?

The same as peti can be said for rimark/ig/i: according to PIV, one can say rimarkigi ion al iu or rimarkigi iun pri io. Also the same for sci/ig/i. So why can we only say vidigi ion al iu?

Finally, why is it that Zamenhof gave two direct objects to atent/ig/i in this example from PIV: iliaj disĉiploj atentigis ilin, ke estas jam tago? Shouldn't transitive verbs in Esperanto have only one direct object?

I hope to finally have a clear answer on those issues that seem totally illogical to me.


3 Answers 3


A very good question and not easy to answer. I'll try anyhow, although my limited command of English makes it even harder.

First some preliminaries (also useful for future questions):

  1. What you are asking less concerns transitivity (IMHO a useless concept) but rather thematic roles: peti iun and peti ion are both transitive use of a verb, but the objects have different roles.

  2. Not everything that is possible in Esperanto is attested. The system is very flexible, and not all theoretically valid forms/constructions have been used until now. So if you can't find a specific use of a verb, this does not necessarily mean that it would be wrong.

  3. There is a hierarchy with regard to the norm, which has to be kept in mind when arguing with attestations.

    a) Everything in the Fundamento is good and correct, everything contradicting the Fundamento is wrong, per definitionem;

    b) For things not covered by the Fundamento first have a look at how Zamenhof said it. It is good, as long as there is no consensus in the rest of the speech community to say it otherwise;

    c) If neither Fundamento nor Z help, look at the use of good authors. Many of them are in the Tekstaro. BTW: Not everything in the Tekstaro is brilliant. Especially Varankin, cited above, linguistically is not very skillfull, making beginners' mistakes like Tio estas bone.

  4. Always count with the fact that the speakers of E-o are L2 speakers who can be influenced by the mother tongues → be careful with phenomena found only with specific authors.

So, now on the topic:

In fact, I see three questions here:

  1. Double-object with atentigi
  2. Varying thematic role of some objects like with peti
  3. Changes in the thematic role of compound verbs.

Let's answer them one by one:

ad 1.: The (implicit) rule is not, although often formulated so, that there cannot be two direct objects in one sentence, but that there cannot be two accusative case forms with the same function in one sentence: mi igis lin manĝi la legomojn"mi manĝigis lin per la legomoj" OR "mi manĝigis la legomojn al li". But not "mi manĝigis lin la legomojn". As the ke-sentence in your example is not marked as an accusative (-n), it is no problem to add it as an object.

ad 2.: While E-o is very consistent with the thematic role of the subject (you can't change it without changing the verb, cf. ruli - ruliĝi, while English has ambiguous to roll), it is quite flexible with the object. To my knowledge this has not yet been explored scientifically, but it seems obvious to me that the more the array of possible complements of a verb is abstract or atypical, the more variety is allowed without changing the word. With other words: On the one hand, prototypical settings with clear semantic roles tend to have fixed valency frames, which can be overriden only with means of word formation, e.g. donaci: Mi donacis libron al ŝi (prototypical patient, prototypical beneficient), ŝarĝi: Mi ŝarĝis ŝtonon sur la kamionon (prototypical patient, more or less typical place) → Mi pridonacis ŝin (per libro), Mi priŝarĝis la kamionon (per ŝtonoj) (untypical objects, less typical instruments). But on the other hand, peti, demandi etc. don't have such easily predictable morphological codings for the complements. peti iun and peti ion are more or less valid in the same manner, they are similarily expectable and predictable, as both objects are more abstract than in the case of e.g. donaci. What we see here is merely an instantiation of the universal tendency of human language to overtly encode/mark less used, less expected meanings and not to mark expected meanings.

ad 3.: Also the object of compound verbs is flexible with regard to its thematic role. As you have seen, it need not be the same as with the simple verb, I would even guess that in most cases it is not, as the aim of prefixation (here short for compounding with a preposition) is to build new verbs with new valency frames. The topic is too complex to discuss it here in depth, just some remarks: a) Some preverbs are merely for emphasis: eniri en domon ~iri en domon b) The preverb pri- has faded semantically and is now merely a marker for the applicative, making an indirect object into a (untypical) direct object, see the example donaci → pridonaci above. c) In most cases the preverb can be interpreted either I) as an adverb (X-Y-i Z-on ~to Y on Z in an X way) or II) as an co-predicate/predicative adjective (X-Y-i Z-on ~to Y Z into/as X) Examples for I: Your enhavi, surhavi: Ĝi enhavas eraron ~Ĝi havas eraron ene Examples for II: surmeti: Mi surmetis mantelon ~Mi metis mantelon sure [faris ĝin sura]

Your examples travidi, superverŝi belongs to category I (~vidi trae, ~verŝi supere), but at the same time they also change the thematic role of the object, from patient to place.

With regard to your other example kontraŭdiri, please check first whether there are examples of this use other than from "Metropoliteno".

Edit: To put it in more concise words: As with causatives of transitive verbs (type manĝigi above), also prefixed verbs can leave the object role of the simplex verb (havi/enhavi ion) or change it, making the former prepositional object into the direct object (vidi ion tra akvotravidi akvon). The question I am not yet capable responding (because I have no neat example) is, whether you can find both types with the same prefixed verb.

  • Thank you for the enlightening answer! If you prefer, I would be fine with an answer in Esperanto, if you think it would get your message expressed better. About “pri”, I also noticed that “ridi” used to be transitive sometimes, and that nowadays “priridi” is preferred for that use. You wrote: “The topic is too complex to discuss it here in depth”. Is there any reference I could read about that in depth?
    – maliktunga
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 15:02
  • Thanks, I'll stay with English in this thread (it's rather a matter of time to invest than of expressiveness). You could try to get through the jungle of Plena Analiza Gramatiko (Kalocsay/Waringhien), but it is neither really scientific nor trustworthy, IMHO. AFAIK there is no "modern" treatment of the topic, in fact it's worth at least a PhD thesis. I'm planning to write a bit about it especially from a pedagogical point of view (as the indications "tr."/"intr." in dictionaries are misleading, as I alluded), but I have no idea when I will find the time to do so... Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 16:05
  • So far your answer seems to be the one that goes more into the details, so I chose it as my preferred answer. A PhD thesis? I guess that will never happen. I am looking forward to reading your text about the topic!
    – maliktunga
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 12:40
  • You just have to memorize them. If it was up to me, I would have made all verbs transitive for simplicity.
    – Lumo5
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 14:45

I am of the school that too much thought is put into the transitivity of verbs. The transitivity follows directly from what the words mean. You've got to learn whether the meaning allows a direct object, just like you have to learn whether the verb will take a parameter with per or one with al.

I am not sure I have a total explanation for you, but I will say that I don't remember any of these seeming all that weird to me - perhaps because they're similar to how I see them in my native language.

  • travidi - to see through - what I am I seeing through? The water.
  • superverŝi - to pour over - what is the light pouring over? The sea.
  • surhavi - to have on - what do I have on? My shoes.
  • enhavi - to contain - what does the bucket contain (what does the bucket have in it)? Sand.

As for

  • peti iun pri io
  • peti ion de iu

There are a lot of verbs like this - especially when you add -ig- to a transitive verb. I just tell people that language is not math. There are sometimes a few ways to say the same thing. (Rimarkigi is a good example of this.)

So why can we only say vidigi ion al iu?

I'm not sure that it is necessarily true that you can't. Certainly PIV says it that way, and probably because of national language influence most people use vidigi that way, but I found the following in Robinsono Kruso

  • Mi vidigis lin, kiel mi faras panon

The word elpeti is not very common. I had not heard of it. To follow the pattern above, it seems to me like it means "to extract by request." (Ex-tract literally means to pull-out - so rather than pulling something out, you're requesting it out.) With that in mind, it just seems obvious to me that the thing that you're pulling out is the thing you are requesting, and not the being you're requesting it from.

Finally, why is it that Zamenhof gave two direct objects to atent/ig/i in this example from PIV: iliaj disĉiploj atentigis ilin, ke estas jam tago?

Is it really two objects? This is the same pattern that we see in a sentence like:

  • Mi certas, ke estas jam tago.

Is it fair to say that "ke estas jam tago" is the object here? I would say that it is not. You can imagine that this is a shorter version of the following:

  • Mi certas pri tio, ke estas jam tago.

in which case, we can see the sentence you're asking about as a shortened version of:

  • iliaj disĉiploj atentigis ilin pri tio, ke estas jam tago
  • 1
    I've been thinking a bit more about this, and I remain convinced that it's nearly all explainable by semantics. One insight that has come to mind since writing the above is that we conceive of vidi and vision as something which starts at our eye and the reaches out and touches something. This is not how vision works, but this concept is embedded in how we talk about it (I could see into the room), Superman's heat vision, and in this scene in Mazi where white dashes come shooting out of Mazi's eyes to let us know he saw the typewriter (youtu.be/Rlx2nP5hAvA?t=5m48s). Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 11:36
  • 2
    This conception of vidi has important implications on how we speak. We don't tell people "hey, you're blocking the light from the TV", we say "you're blocking my view to the TV." If we consider a word like piki, which involves taking a pointy object and making contact with another object, adding the prefix tra (trapiki) changes the meaning slightly, but the object remains the same. It now means that the pointy thing not only made contact with the object, but that it came out the other side. The same is true with travidi. Our vision came out the other side of the object. Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 11:42
  • 1
    I suspect this same semantic concept of vision influences the parameters we use with vidigi. I can take an object, act on it, and bring it to you to see, but I can't really cause you to allow the magic beam come out of your eye. As I said, though, this is also explainable by national language influence. (The Robinsono Kruso quote may or may not be an isolated example.) Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 11:50
  • My comment to your answer is too long, so I will publish it as an answer.
    – maliktunga
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 0:38
  • My long answer did not cover everything that you wrote. Your answer is great. I thank you for rectifying me about the "two" direct objects. I had not noticed the ellipsis. Thank you for taking my question into double consideration, even though you are "of the school that too much thought is put into the transitivity of verbs"! I also used your Robinsono Kruso quote as an inspiration for my own search in the Tekstaro.
    – maliktunga
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 0:53

This is an comment to Tomaso Alexander's answer. I know it is against the rules to write an answer instead of a comment, but the message is so long that it would have to be broken down into many small comments, and that would look ridiculous. I am sorry.

Thank you for the answer. Unfortunately, I think some words are too ambiguous to be explained solely through a comparison with English words—I would also like to remind that Esperanto should not require the user to learn anything like English to understand its semantics! Esperanto should be explainable through Esperanto (and logic) alone, shouldn’t it?

Your analysis of travidi, superverŝi, surhavi and enhavi seems too simplistic for what the words’ breakdown really implies. Here's an example to show what I mean.

Take the word kontraŭdiri. Any French or English speaker would intuitively translate that word to contredire or "contradict" and thus assume that the verb's direct object is the same as the indirect object in diri kontraŭ, i.e. ion or iun. In other words, kontraŭdiri iun aŭ ion is the equivalent of diri kontraŭ iu aŭ io, not diri ion aŭ iun kontraŭ…. Furthermore, when one analyzes the ion in context, one can notice that the ion in kontraŭdiri ion is not the same ion as in diri ion: the latter is what the subject says, while the former is what the subject contradicts.

However, from my research, Esperanto's semantics seems to me more complex than that, and the ion in kontraŭdiri is in fact more ambiguous than what can be found in, say, English or French. Searching in the Tekstaro, I found that Metropoliteno by Vladimir Varankin seems to make use of the second definition of PIV's kontraŭdiri in a transitive way, thus making the derivation kontraŭdiri ion mean diri ion kontraŭe instead of diri kontraŭ io. For that reason, one can find the following ambiguous passages:

— Vi havas, ŝajne, riĉan domon? — demandas mi.

— Riĉan? — indigninte kontraŭdiras la mastro, — kial do ĝi estas riĉa? Meza domo! Kaj, krome, mi neniel povas ĝin elaĉeti! Mi ankoraŭ ŝuldas por ĝi ĉirkaŭ du mil markojn! Kie mi ilin prenos?

Notice that kontraŭdiri is used in the same (transitive) way as demandi and diri, thus demonstrating that the direct speech acts like a direct object:

— [Tion] demandas mi.

— [Tion] indigninte kontraŭdiras la mastro.

Additionally, take a look at the following sentences from the same book:

Li estis pasie kontraŭdironta, sed eksentis en la aero odoron de bona tabako.

Vitalij estis kontraŭdironta, sed ekrigardinte la severajn kaj malgajajn okulojn de Alice, silente prenis la remilojn.

Vitalij estis ion kontraŭdironta, sed subite ekaŭdis mokeman voĉon de Zoja.

Indeed, the use of kontraŭdironta (even with a direct object) seems very similar to that of dironta in the same source:

La homo aliris la balustradon kaj, sin klininte malsupren, ion estis dironta.

Mi estas dironta al ŝi, ke la amo estas pravigo por ĉio, ke la ĝuo estas kreita por amantoj, sed en la kuirejo retondras la siteloj.

Mi estas tiom multe dironta!

— Mi estis dironta, ke mi aprobas la proponon de Erich!

— Kion vi estas ankoraŭ dironta?

Following the reasoning above, I conclude that kontraŭdiri ion can be broken down as both diri kontraŭ io and diri ion kontraŭe and that the following sentence can be logically formed:

Mi kontraŭdiras la argumenton de iu, per kontraŭdiri al tiu mian argumenton.

So that mi kontraŭdiras ies argumenton and mi kontraŭdiras al iu mian argumenton mean essentially the same thing.

  • My thought at this time is that if you had asked your question in Esperanto, I would have answered in Esperanto without reference to English words. My point - that the bulk of the confusion here is covered by semantics - is the same however you express it. Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 1:35

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