Some time ago, I had a discussion on the Duolingo forums about the relativity of verb tenses in Esperanto. It seemed in that discussion that I had always been slightly mistaken about my understanding of the rule. I thought the verb tense in a subordinate clause takes as its point of reference the tense established by the main verb, so that if you want to say that you knew at past time X that a person was sick at that same time X, the subordinate clause would take the present tense, because it would be present relative to the time of the main verb. However, it was pointed out to me that the tenses are wholly independent, such that if the subordinate clause is also at time X, i.e. also in the past, it would therefore just be past tense. (The difference with English would then be that in English, something continuing into the past would still be given in past tense if the main verb is in past tense, which would not be the case in Esperanto.)

So I would have originally said, "Mi ne sciis, ke vi estas malsana." According to the other person, it should be "Mi ne sciis, ke vi estis malsana", unless the person is still sick, and then it could be "Mi ne sciis, ke vi estas malsana".

Is this indeed correct? I suppose it feels strange to me in that last case that you would be talking about knowing in the past about the illness in the present, i.e. the future relative to when you were doing the knowing, as it were. Also, it could lead to awkward ambiguities, where in "Mi ne sciis, ke vi estis malsana", it is not clear if the sickness was at the same time of the knowing, or further in the past still (before time X). The person suggested "estis estinta malsana" or even "estis malsaninta" as possible ways to specify that it's further in the past, but those both feel very clunky, to me.

PMEG (relevant page) seems to support what the other person was saying, but I think it leaves a little bit of room for uncertainty, and I wanted to check up on it further with the expertise of other users of this site, just to be on the safe side.


Let's do like Bertil Wennergren suggests in PMEG, and split the sentence into two clauses.

Mi ne sciis, ke vi estas malsanaMi ne sciis. Vi estas malsana.

The first happens in the past and the second now. So if you didn't intend to say, that "I didn't know (say, yesterday) that you are sick today", then the tense in the later sentence is wrong. Tense-wise a more correct would be Mi ne sciis, ke vi estos malsana : I didn't know, that you would be sick (today). (Remember the difference between la us-modo in Esperanto and the conditional in English.)

On the other hand if you use the simple past tense in both sentences

Mi ne sciis, ke vi estis malsanaMi ne sciis. Vi estis malsana.

you have in theory the ambiguity, that you mentioned. However in practice people assume, that they take place at the same time unless otherwise noted.

How to make that notation? For instance

Mi ne sciis, ke vi estis malsana hieraŭMi ne sciis. Vi estis malsana hieraŭ.

Here the context is obviously such, that I just got to know, that you were sick yesterday, i.e. while getting to know and being sick both happened in the past, they must have taken place at different times.

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  • Right, thank you. So in other words, the other person was indeed correct. And is this indeed how people use the rule in practice, as well? I am wondering if my misunderstanding is common in practice. – Vincent Oostelbos Feb 28 at 12:48
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    As a rule of thumb assume the "simplest" or "most obvious" interpretation and give extra info (in my example the word hieraŭ), if you mean otherwise. – Juha Metsäkallas Feb 28 at 13:50
  • Thank you, but I meant my misunderstanding about the rule, rather than a misunderstanding about the intended meaning in the case of ambiguity. – Vincent Oostelbos Feb 29 at 15:22
  • You mean the change of tense, when combining separate sentences into one? I think it depends on one's native language, how one combines in it. Also if you realise, that different languages combine in different ways, you start to seek the Esperanto way. – Juha Metsäkallas Feb 29 at 17:57
  • I mean my confusion about the rule as described in my original post. I thought the subordinate phrase's verb took its tense relative to the main verb, so that present tense for the subordinate verb would mean the same moment that the main verb was set to, regardless of whether that main verb is in past, present, or future tense. Instead, it seems that both verbs should be taken relative to the moment the sentence is spoken/written/read, independent of one another. I was wondering if other people use it the way I first understood it, in practice—regardless of whether or not that'd be correct. – Vincent Oostelbos Mar 2 at 20:54

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