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 present 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.

  • 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 '20 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 '20 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 '20 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 '20 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 '20 at 20:54

In Esperanto, there are two relations of the tenses of main and subordinate clause possible: relative tenses and absolute tenses. Relative tenses means that the tense in the subordinate clause is set relative to the tense in the main clause. Absolute tenses means that it is set relative to the time of utterance, just like the tense in the main clause.

Though there are these two possibilities we are not free to choose. The type of subordination and the meaning that should be conveyed determine the choice. In the mentioned examples, only relative tenses are correct.

If you want to say that you knew at past time X that a person was sick at that same time X, this is a correct way to say it:

Mi ne sciis, ke vi estas malsana.

In the other case you mentioned, if the person is still sick in the present time, this fact makes no difference at all to what you did not know in the past (because causation does not work backwards in time). So you could say the exact same sentence. If you, nevertheless, want to talk about what you did not know in the past about the present, you would, of course, use the future as the appropriate relative tense:

Mi ne sciis, ke vi (ankoraŭ) estos malsana hodiaŭ/nun.

You can insert ankoraŭ to express that the state expressed in the subordinate clause has been valid continuously from some point in the past until the present. And it is helpful to add a temporal adverb so that it is clear what point in the relative future you are referring to. Without such an adverb this subordinate clause could refer to any time after “Mi ne sciis …” took place, whether in the (absolute) past, present, or future.

  • Very interesting... so that would suggest that my original understanding would be correct, after all, in opposition to the person I was having the discussion with on Duolingo, and in opposition to PMEG and the other answer by Juha Metsäkallas. You did mention that both relations occur in Esperanto, though, just in different circumstances. Perhaps that's where the confusion has come in. Could you give a description and/or example of cases where the absolute tense would/should be used in Esperanto? – Vincent Oostelbos Jun 4 at 10:22
  • Is it just me or do we really have two conflicting answers now? I'm not sure which one is more correct... – marcus Jun 4 at 19:04

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