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Compound Words

Sometimes it’s convenient to render a phrase like saber of light or barroom sport of tossing dwarves as a single word like lightsaber or dwarf-tossing. Such words are called compound words.

Despite alleged monstrosities like Finnish lento­kone­suih­kutur­biini­moot­toria­pume­kaanik­koa­liup­see­riop­pilas and German Schützen­graben­vernich­tungs­auto­mobil, compounds are often shorthand renderings of even longer constructions in Esperanto, like harbroso (“hairbrush”) from broso por haroj.

Broadly speaking, there are four different types of compound word in Esperanto — copulative, appositional, endocentric, and exocentric. In all cases, words are joined together by putting them next to one another, and, euphony permitting, by dropping the termination of the first word(s):

elfo-festo [festo de elfoj] elf-party
elf-amiko [amiko de elfoj] elf-friend

Compound words generally consist of a head (a word that expresses the basic meaning of the whole compound) and one or more modifiers. (E.g., handbrake consists of the head brake, the basic meaning of the compound, and hand, describing the sort of brake it is.)

In Germanic languages, the head usually comes last in a compound, but this varies from language to language — and often within the same language (e.g., English lockpick and pickpocket, Spanish chupacabra and fazferir). Esperanto uses the model of Greek and Latin derived international compounds, where the main element, if any, comes last (e.g., astronaut “star-sailor”, anthro­pophage “man-eater”).

Beyond this, compound words in Esperanto may observe additional rules, depending on which category they fall into:

Copulative and Appositional

These include words that denote the sum of all the elements (ex. bittersweet, from bitter and sweet) and words where the elements provide different descriptions for the same thing (ex. hunter-gatherer, from hunter and gatherer).

Such compounds are made by simply by joining two similar words (two adjectives of taste in the case of bittersweet, two nouns of occupation in the case of hunter-gatherer) in the usual way:

dolĉacida [dolĉa kaj acida] bittersweet
ĉasistoj-kolektistoj [ĉasistoj kaj kolektistoj] hunter-gatherers
nigrablanka [nigra kaj blanka] black-and-white

There appears to be no consensus as to whether such combinations constitute true compound words or not, and therefore whether or not to inflect each element in them separately — that is, whether to say nigrablankaj instagramoj or nigraj-blankaj instagramoj. For the time being, both are correct.

Endocentric

These are compounds where the first element denotes a special type of the last element (ex. railroad is a special type of road), and they include several sub-categories:

Noun, Verb or Phrase + Noun, Adjective, or Verb

These compounds begin as a noun, adjective, or verb followed by a prepositional phrase, like boat (propelled) by steam. They then attach the object of the preposition (in this example, steam) as a prefix to the first word, creating steamboat:

dentobroso [broso por dentoj] toothbrush
proteinriĉa [riĉa je proteino] protein-rich
pistolbati [bati per pistolo] to pistol-whip
pagipova [pova pagi] solvent
grizharulo [ulo kun grizaj haroj] grayhaired man
unokululo [ulo kun unu okulo] one-eyed man
La familio Lannister nanĵetas malgrandan Tyrion ĉiu­ves­pere. [ĵeto de nano] The Lannisters dwarf-toss little Tyrion every night.
Ĉu iu diris “Tondro-furio, benita klingo de la ventoserĉanto”? [serĉanto de vento] Did someone say “Thunder­fury, Blessed Blade of the Wind­seeker”?

If the first element of a compound is effectively an adverb (proteinriĉa, pistolbati) and the ending isn’t or can’t be elided, the first element is written as a separate word: (proteine riĉa, pistole bati). See below.

Adjective or Adverb + Noun or Verb

This is a somewhat restricted category in Esperanto; blackboard is pronounced differently from black board in English, but that doesn’t happen in Esperanto. For an adjective or adverb to be the first element in a compound, it has to have an elidable ending. Otherwise, it’s a separate word.

nigra listo [nigra listo] blacklist
rapidmanĝaĵo [manĝaĵo preparita rapide] fast food
laŭtparolilo [laŭte paroli]-ilo loudspeaker

Determinative Adjective or Preposition + Adverbialized Noun

When an adjective that indicates which and not what kind or a preposition is combined with a noun, the resulting compound can only exist as an adverb or adjective — ĉiu tago (every day) can become ĉiutage, for example, but as a noun remains ĉiu tago, not ĉiutago, a word that wouldn’t logically mean anything.

miaparte [mia parto]-e for my part
tiuokaze [tiu okazo]-e in that case
subtera [sub tero]-e underground

Preposition + Verb

When a preposition is combined with a verb that can take an object, the preposition is often treated as an adverb with an elided -e and the object of the compound is the object of the original verb:

depreni ĉapelon [de-e preni ĉapelon] to take off a hat
enhavi glutenon [en-e havi glutenon] to contain gluten
alportu al mi la kapon de la predikisto [al-e portu la kapon] bring me the head of the preacher man

When the combination of preposition and verb imply motion toward something, that something, depending on the speaker’s preference, may or may not be preceded by another preposition, usually the same one used as the verb’s prefix. If this additional preposition does not itself imply motion, then the thing being moved toward becomes the verb’s object and takes the -n termination:

eniri (en) ĉambron [iri en ĉambron] to enter a room
aliri al famulo / aliri famulon [iri al famulo] to approach a celebrity

Unfortunately for the learner, not all such compounds make literal sense. This is especially true when the first element is pri (“about”, “concerning”) or el (“out of”), which sometimes retain their literal meaning in a compound, as in:

pripensi temon [pensi pri temo] to think about a topic
eltiri denton [ele tiri denton] to pull out a tooth

but very often take on special roles given their analogous prepositions in other languages. In these cases, pri serves to swap the indirect object with the direct object, and el more or less means “thoroughly” or “to completion”:

serĉi drogojn en ies bagaĝo to search for drugs in someone’s luggage
priserĉi ies bagaĝon por drogoj to search somone’s luggage for drugs
rabi plumojn de banko to forcibly steal pens from a bank
prirabi bankon je ĝiaj plumojn to rob a bank of its pens
uzi plumon to use a pen
eluzi plumon to use up a pen
kreski to grow
elkreski to grow up
pensi to think
elpensi to think up
fari to do
elfari to achieve, execute

Occasionally el will also stretch the meaning of the compound’s head, effectively making the compound a new word that must be learned separately:

teni to hold
elteni to hold up, endure
porti to carry
elporti to endure

Exocentric

Exocentric compounds differ from other sorts in that they denote something unexpressed by any single element in the compound. For example, silverback denotes not a type of back, but a male ape characterized by a silver back, and before-tax denotes not a type of tax, but profits reckoned before taxes.

Esperanto forms exocentric compounds in much the same way English does, except that compounds beginning with numbers or adjectives usually end in -ulo when used as nouns (ex., grizhara “grey-haired”, but grizharulo “grey-haired man”), effectively making them endocentric, not exocentric.

One should be cautioned that in compounds where the ending of the first element can’t be elided or doesn’t exist, the compound’s elements can be mistaken for separate words when spoken (ex. tripartaj diinoj “tripartite goddesses” vs. tri partaj diinoj “three partial goddesses”, subtaso “saucer” vs. sub taso “under a cup”). And as with endocentric compounds, if the first element is an adjective or adverb, either its ending must be elided or the element written as a separate word.

trianguloj formoj kun [tri anguloj] triangles
ĉiutaga io rilata al [ĉiu tago] everyday
duvizaĝa io havanta [du vizaĝojn] two-faced
superhomo io [super homoj] superman
antaŭĉambro io [antaŭ ĉambro] ante-chamber

Exocentric compounds beginning with a number are sometimes rendered synecdochically, but this isn’t recommended: unuokulo, dumastoj.