Suspension of Parliament – what now for the Opposition?

The Liberal Democrats earned headlines this week for its policy – but here it is vital to be specific – that it would revoke Article 50 (and thus “cancel Brexit”) in the event that it won a majority at a General Election.

The specific pledge, therefore, is dependent on the party winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons, in which case it would have won a mandate from the electorate for that pledge and thus to overturn that same electorate’s decision from three-and-a-half years ago.

Clearly, this is politics. The Liberal Democrats are not likely to win an overall majority, in which case it will still be mandated to negotiate its way into a coalition government offering, perhaps, a “Final Say” referendum.

The Labour Party has taken a stance of campaigning for such a “Final Say” referendum. The choice would be between a “sensible” or “workable” Brexit deal, and remaining in the EU. In principle, this is an extremely reasonable position – once the electorate sees what the UK’s future relationship with its large neighbour and chief trading partner would look like from outside, it should have the chance to decide whether that is what it really wants.

This stance will come under two main lines of attack. Firstly, it is simply unclear – what is this “sensible” or “workable” deal of which they speak and how do they know it is negotiable? Secondly, Leavers will argue that offering a “Remain” option in a subsequent referendum will mean the EU will not negotiate seriously.

The first of these will be effective, particularly if there is an election, because the voters rarely reward a lack of clarity on the big issue. The second, however, may not be quite as effective as Leavers think. It will only point to the reality that there are only two types of Brexit – calamitous or pointless. As Leavers accuse the EU of being likely either to offer a Brexit so soft that voters will reject it as pointless, or so hard that voters will reject it as calamitous, they only prove the pointlessness of the entire exercise.

For all of this, there remains the distinct possibility that the next General Election will take place with the UK already having left the EU, rendering these positions pointless.

The Conservatives will recognise this as being in their interests. Specifically, what is in their interests is to leave imminently with a deal, thus avoiding any immediate cliff-edge (in fact, leaving with a deal would probably see an economic boost as Sterling would likely gain value). Whether the current incumbent of No. 10 knows how to get a deal, and how to get it past Parliament, is another matter.

So, what could the Opposition do on 14 October? Here, we need to raise something which thus far too few are talking about.

Remember, the theoretical reason for the suspension of Parliament was for a Queen’s Speech (in other words, an outline of the Government’s proposed Programme for Government). However, the Government now lacks a majority. There is a fair chance that the Queen’s Speech will in fact be rejected. By convention, this would be regarded as a Vote of No Confidence, thus setting the clock ticking either to a change of Government or to the announcement by as early as (but no earlier than) 28 October of a date for a General Election.

There is, of course, always the potential for the Convention to be ignored, forcing an actual Confidence Vote during which the Opposition may yet decide to leave the Prime Minister to stew a little longer until he carried out the requirement of seeking an extension of the UK’s EU membership. The Opposition needs to be careful here, because it could soon be the side charged objectively with breaching Convention and good faith.

Ultimately, this does mean that the chances of the Opposition being in effect forced to form a caretaker administration are higher than commentators currently seem to suggest. Opposition MPs all need to contemplate that.

So, if the Opposition were to form a caretaker administration, what policy would it pursue, given that some of the goals established here last week have already been accomplished and given the difference in policy of the two main (English) Opposition parties?

It seems to me that the policy most likely to unify the Opposition would be one closer to Labour’s, noting that this implies no loss of face for the Liberal Democrats as they have been clear that their policy of revocation applies only in the event of their gaining an absolute majority in Parliament. It therefore remains the case that the Opposition’s best bet is surely to take office, to recommend that the public should decide between seeking an EFTA-Association-style Withdrawal Agreement and remaining in the EU.

The EU has said it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement, but that position is predicated on the UK’s maintaining its current red lines. A new administration pledging to offer an EFTA-Association-style relationship would essentially be abandoning the red line that there should be no freedom of movement (of workers) in future, and thus enabling the rewriting of the political declaration of the Withdrawal Agreement sought by the EU to allow a transition period potentially to the end of 2022 without the backstop needing to apply. Since an EFTA-style relationship would maintain regulatory alignment in most areas, with divergence likely only in agriculture and fishing (for which there are already partial checks in the Irish Sea), maintenance of an open land border with Ireland would be relatively straightforward.

Nor does an EFTA-Association-style agreement necessarily require actual membership of EFTA. As noted last week, it may be preferable for the UK to do what Finland once did and operate as an associate. EFTA would continue as is, but could bring in the UK to its agreements (and vice-versa, for that matter) if it were mutually beneficial.

Thus, it would be perfectly possible for a new administration to put to the public in a referendum this strategy for withdrawal from the EU (it can have the referendum as early as possible in the new year with a withdrawal date of 30 April, the end of the current budgetary cycle – the details can then be worked out over a transition period lasting potentially up to two and a half years), in the knowledge that the EU and EFTA would surely be relatively content with it. This is, essentially, the “workable” Brexit of which the Labour Party speaks.

What happens if the Opposition does not act, and the Prime Minister remains in post with his hands tied? Then the money remains on an election around 28 November or even 5 December, although it is increasingly hard to see what purpose such an election would serve except if the UK has left the EU with a deal in advance. In the event of a genuinely chaotic Brexit, surely a national government rather than another five-week suspension of Parliament would be required? In the event of no deal agreed with the EU by 31 October, the next step from everyone’s point of view (including, Remainers should note, the Prime Minister’s) would surely be a referendum rather than an election?

This points to another potential difficulty for the Opposition. Either the Prime Minister will blame them for having his hands tied so he cannot get a deal, or in fact he will return to the Commons before the end of October with a deal agreed. If at least some of the Opposition agree to such a deal, he can then move to an election with a fair likelihood of success (as there will no or very limited immediate chaos and he will have delivered as he said); if they do not, he will be able to paint them all as closet Remainers and can then head into a “People versus Parliament” election (with or without a prior referendum) just as he originally planned. This is why a deal with the EU is so clearly in the Prime Minister’s strategic electoral interest.

Given all of this, it may prove better for the Opposition to force No Confidence and form a caretaker administration as soon as possible to move towards a referendum under which they set the terms as above. Leaving it to the Prime Minister to come back with a deal is high risk in every sense, leaving open a route either to an election or to a referendum on his own terms which could yet result in the very “No Deal” Brexit they are trying to avoid (plus five years of dangerously incompetent Populist-Conservative Government).

The stakes are high, but predict nothing with certainty!


Can you learn several languages at once?

Arising from this outline of the story of Latin in the first millennium, I had some correspondence essentially about how best to use Latin as a link to learn daughter languages.

As I outlined in the article, there are many good reasons for learning Classical Latin but doing so in order to make it easier to learn its daughter languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) is not one. For the reasons outlined, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian are definitely far closer to each other than any is to Classical Latin; and on balance this is probably so even for French and Romanian. Given the additional difficulty that Classical Latin is so alien (with its case endings, odd word order and peculiar structure), and harder to practise, there is no case at all for using it as a linguistic stepping stone.

Of course, as was established in the past few weeks on this blog, Vulgar or Late Latin has a better case to be used as a stepping stone. It is closer to its daughter languages and is much more familiar.

However, there are two obvious problems there. Firstly, Late Latin had no written form and existed at a time of no audio, so it must be linguistically reconstructed. Secondly, opportunities to practise are effectively zero. Therefore, actually learning it is a lot of effort and dedication. Ultimately, it is surely easier simply to learn the modern languages.

Is it preferable, then, to learn several related languages at once? I have in fact developed a course which teaches both basic French and basic Italian at the same time. Intentionally using only common vocabulary at the outset, it is theoretically possible to introduce the basic concepts of each language with minimal misunderstanding. What is interesting, however, is that no one really wants to do it, even when confronted with the materials. Instead, people instinctively want to learn one language at a time.

It is probably correct to say, then, that it should be one language at a time, even if in quick succession. That said, there is no harm in at least reading about the basics of Latin (of any era) to develop a broader understanding of what to expect in its daughter languages, and no doubt a similar case could be made for other language groups.

On bridges and Brexit

Shortly after the EU referendum in 2016, as Sterling plummeted, I received from Berlin the largest translation/editing contract I had ever received. The irony of being a Brexit beneficiary was not lost on me, but I set to work.

The translation concerned the environmental statements for a construction project known as the “Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link”. Why would I mention this? Because it is relevant to explaining just how fanciful, ignorant and idiotic the people currently trying and failing to run the UK actually are.


The Fehmarn Link would cross from the Danish island of Lolland to the German island of Fehmarn, each themselves connected to the mainland respectively of Sealand (the island on which Copenhagen is located and thus also connected directly via the Oresund crossing to Sweden) and Continental Europe – marked yellow above. It is particularly important because the car ferries which currently cover the route cannot take Heavy Goods Vehicles, and thus freight traffic has no option but to head around via the island of Funen and the peninsula of Jutland to access mainland Europe from eastern Denmark (and thus most of Sweden) – marked red above.

While Denmark was busy building impressive bridges (not just across the Oresund but also across the Great Belt between Sealand and Funen – on the red route above) in the 1990s, plans began for the connection to Germany.

However, having even awarded provisional contracts, the bridge plan was changed in 2010 to a tunnel, largely because this would be less likely to be a victim of closure and also because it would be less disruptive to shipping. In 2015 the bill to proceed with construction subject to EU funding (supported by Germany and Sweden) passed the Danish Parliament. Tolls on the crossing would see the total cost recouped in perhaps 30 years.

Let us be clear about a few things here:

  • the total length of the crossing would be less than a quarter of that between, say, Scotland and Northern Ireland;
  • construction would be less than a quarter of the cost given the sea is not so deep so masts/pillars would not be so high, and even at that is now projected at €5.5 billion (itself surely an underestimate);
  • the connection benefits more than half of the population of Scandinavia (so, 12.5 million or so) linking them to German-speaking Europe, Benelux and beyond (100 million upwards);
  • motorway links (but for 25km the German side) already exist to either end of the proposed crossing;
  • there is a very specific benefit for freight traffic which literally cannot use the existing ferry service.

Despite this, and despite the proven aptitude of the Danes for such things, the project has inevitably become embroiled in legal wrangles and as we approach the 2020s, a generation after planning began and a decade after the current proposal was agreed, construction still has not started.

The population of the entire island of Ireland and Scotland combined is less than the 12.5 million just one the minority side of the Fehmarn Belt; the cost would be many times greater and never recoverable from the vastly lower amount of traffic using it (given it links such low and sparse populations); the crossing would connect a primary A-Road to a secondary A-road the latter two hours’ drive from any motorway; and in any case no constructor would take on the work as it crosses the site where unmapped munitions were dumped in 1946.

So tell me this, what kind of complete idiot would you have to be even to suggest such a thing?

It is fanciful nonsense borne of utter ignorance about the realities of finance, engineering, geography, history or frankly anything at all.

Is there any chance we could stop electing such idiots? (Oh, and could we now stop talking about it? Talking about it is exactly what the Prime Minister wants us to do to avoid discussion of his other crazed delusions.)

Suspension of Parliament – now what?!

Last week‘s update proved slightly more prescient than the previous week’s, with the Opposition rightly avoiding the trap of a pre-Brexit election and instead forcing the Prime Minister to wait for his election.

That, plus the passage of a Bill blocking a “no deal” Brexit on 31 October, led to the departure of two Cabinet Ministers from the Government and 22 Conservative MPs from the parliamentary party, leaving the Prime Minister well short of a parliamentary majority even with DUP backing.

This leaves us in uncharted waters, given that the Prime Minister needs a two-thirds majority from the total house for an election (when he tried this week and last week he did not even get half) or to lose a Vote of No Confidence. The Opposition parties are united, however, in their view that they want no such Vote until the Bill blocking a “no deal” Brexit is actually implemented – for fear of a default crash-out on 31 October during or immediately after an election campaign.

This is particularly clever by the Opposition, however, because it flushes out the Prime Minister’s “strategy”. Either he gets a deal and can leave as he said he would on 31 October, or he does not and is obliged to seek an extension of the UK’s membership of the EU into 2020. Since it is now evident the Prime Minister had no idea how to get a deal, his choice appears to be either to break his word on the date of departure or to be entirely responsible (and in fact criminally liable) for a crash-out Brexit on 31 October.

As was evident from a farcical trip to a police training college during the week, the Prime Minister had not reckoned on the Opposition being so clever. His ventures in public have clearly been the stuff not of a Prime Minister focused on the job, but of a Party Leader in full election campaign mode. However, he has been denied that election.

So, what now?

Firstly, ignore the nonsense that somehow the Prime Minister does not have to seek the extension if there is no deal by the end of October. He will have to. There is no way out of that. (That does not absolutely mean that he will, of course – but note again that he will be politically responsible and criminally liable if he does not). Note also that the Prime Minister cannot veto his own extension bid (that has to be one of the other 27 Governments, under the terms of Article 50). Politically, the extension will be offered, though conceivably to 30 April rather than 31 January.

Secondly, there will have to be an election at some stage reasonably soon, for the simple reason that no party is anywhere near a governing majority even with natural supporters. That said, it has been possible in the past for minority governments to stumble on even for a year – after the breakdown of the “Lib/Lab pact” in 1978, James Callaghan’s Labour minority government managed to do deals with other parties, including interestingly the Ulster Unionists, in order to stay in office for a further year. The issue currently is that Parliament is so sharply divided that this would likely be impossible even if the Prime Minister wanted to wait (which, evidently, he does not).

The Prime Minister is unpredictable and his best bet to enforce an election is in fact to resign. (The problem there is that he has to advise the monarch on who she should send for to form a government – he no longer has the right to recommend an election without the agreement of two thirds of MPs.)

His second best bet is to try to do a deal with the EU. However, since he has not been seriously trying, he has left it very late and the only deal available which is not identical to Theresa May’s would be the original one with the Northern Ireland-only backstop. As it is far from clear this would pass the Commons (given the alternative is an extension of the UK’s membership, more pro-European MPs are unlikely to feel it is a risk worth taking; and of course the DUP will vote against as well), the EU may well not even offer it openly. However, it is really the only route the Prime Minister can pursue to keep his word on the withdrawal date.

In other words, the Prime Minister has walked into a trap of his own making.

The question becomes what should the Opposition do now? There is surely a case for it seeking to take office prior to an election, even if only briefly, to do a few things; or at least to force legislation through for the following:

  • publish the “Operation Yellowhammer” documents outlining the likely impacts on the public (and proposed Government response) to a “No Deal” crash-out [this would ensure no nonsense from the Government on yesterday evening’s motion and it is unlikely any of the MPs in opposition to the Government would have a problem here];
  • as a consequence, pass legislation barring a “No Deal” Brexit in any circumstance [conceivable that one or two ex-Conservatives would be concerned about this but there is no doubt there would be a clear parliamentary majority for it];
  • as a further consequence, pass legislation for a referendum between leaving on EFTA-associate terms (similar to Finland’s relationship prior to joining the EU in 1995) and remaining in the EU [this would no doubt be more controversial among the Opposition parties, but it is a logical consequence of the previous two];
  • change the electoral system to PR-MMP (i.e. that used for legislative elections in Scotland and Wales) to avoid the nonsense of 35% being enough for an overall majority [Labour itself may oppose this because it denies Jeremy Corbyn the same opportunity, but it should at least be looked at].

I did not intend to do these weekly, but a week in an epoch in politics these days…

Classical versus Medieval Latin

I am not a Latinist, but on the basis of a further query directly in this site once again I need to pursue the subject a little further! Fundamentally, the comment concerned “Ecclesiastical Latin”, the form used by the Church (in some cases, as was rightly pointed out, across all services until the 1960s) and still the official language of the Holy See. This is closely linked to “Medieval Latin”.

Medieval Latin

As noted last week, Latin “died” as a living spoken vernacular some time between the late seventh and mid tenth century, depending on location (and exact definition). In other words, by the second millennium, no one regarded themselves to be a native “Latin” speaker and the language had no conversational use.

However, the written language (still based in the form spoken a millennium before by Caesar and Cicero) remained known by educated people, not least in the Church. Through the second millennium it remained a lingua franca, used at least in writing for everything from promulgating laws or international treaties through to medical journals and church services. The key point, however, is that it was written, rather than spoken – on the occasions it had to be spoken, it was recited using the phonological norms of the local vernacular.


Over time, each country (even countries where a Latinate language was not the vernacular) developed a pronunciation of Latin based on its own vernacular. In English- and German-speaking countries this was in fact generally closer to Classical (perhaps because there was no direct influence from an obviously related tongue), but was betrayed by the tendency to pronounce vowels too far back in the mouth (this lax pronunciation is typical of Germanic languages particularly in Northern Europe, but never of Latinate). In countries where a Latinate language was spoken, the most obvious betrayal of origin was the pronunciation of the letters [c] and [g] before a high vowel as in the contemporary vernacular rather than hard as in Classical Latin. Notably also, they generally abandoned phonemic vowel length in line with local vernaculars (thus there was no strict need to distinguish long from short vowels, even though sometimes the inherited vowels were still pronounced differently depending on whether they had been long or short, but as a matter of quality rather than length) and occasionally even diphthongs (e.g. some writers preferred simple [e] to [oe] or [ae], notably from a familiar English language point of view pena not poena “penalty”).

Over the centuries, given the location of the Holy See and also perhaps its predominant role in music as well as the original host of the Latin language, the broadly Italian pronunciation came to take precedence. Meanwhile, in the Victorian Era, an academic battle waged about whether to cede to this later Medieval Italian pronunciation or to try to move closer to the Classical (perhaps German and English-speaking linguists found it easier to argue for the latter as they did not feel the same sense of continuity as Italians in particular). By 1900 English speakers and German speakers had settled on what they thought was a restored Classical pronunciation, the one taught in schools even now.

Consider a simple phrase magnum opus Cicerōnis (“a great work of Cicero”).

Medieval (Italian) has something akin to “mangyum ohpus chicherohnis”

English/German restored is something like “magnum ohpus kikerohnis”

However, Classical pronunciation was likely something more like “mangnw’opus kyeekyerawnis”

Recent debate concerns the elision of a final nasal vowel with a subsequent vowel; and significant doubt as to the previously widespread contention that Latin vowels in Classical times differed not just by length but also by quality. (Note also that consonants were much less stressed than they are in modern German or English – [s] in particular was a bare trill.)


However, it was not just in pronunciation that Medieval Latin varied due to vernacular influence. It also took on semantics, styles and structures at odds from the Classical form (generally unintentionally), notably the tendency towards greater use of prepositions (rather than a reliance solely on case endings), more demonstratives (unus or ille effectively becoming optional articles in some writing) and a shift in subordinate constructions.

What does that last one mean? We can return again to last week. To translate “you believed I ordered wine”, Classical Latin used a raising construction which sounds stilted but not really wrong in the English equivalent to “you believed me to have ordered wine” (but Classical Latin was also typically verb-final):

crēdis mē vīnum mandāvisse

As established last week, this was no longer current in spoken Latin even before it broke up into its daughter languages (and perhaps long before – as it was not written we cannot be absolutely sure when the change occurred), and that was the form used in all daughter languages:

credes que abeo commandatu vinu albu

Therefore authors whose spoken vernacular had adopted the new structure would then replicate it even when writing supposedly Classical-based Latin:

credis quod mandavi vinum

The words and the forms (including an analytic perfect verb ending and an accusative noun case ending) are all Classical, but the structure absolutely is not. The use of quod in such a context was unknown in Ancient Rome at the time of the Republic, and is essentially a back-translation of the later que.

Living Latin

As a result the debate still rages about how Latin should be pronounced or indeed structured when it is taught or recited. However, the debate is perhaps friendlier now that it once was – in many ways, Medieval and Classical Latin are a bit like British and American English, in that they can be understood by anyone using the other one with a bit of common sense.


Suspension of Parliament – update

I wrote this last week on the likely next moves after the Prime Minister secured the Queen’s permission to suspend Parliament last week.

Somewhat contrary to what I wrote, it appears that the Opposition reckons it does have time to pass legislation designed to prevent a “no deal” Brexit (specifically, to prevent one any time before the end of January or perhaps in effect the end of April 2020). Of course, it remains to be seen if the legislation drafted is watertight and if there is time to pass it.

However, in many ways the effect of this legislation would be the same as a no confidence vote. It would, after all, specifically tell the Prime Minister that the legislature does not have confidence in his Brexit strategy. There is also little doubt that the Prime Minister himself will treat it that way, and so the next move will be for him to claim the Opposition is forcing him into an election on the assumption that he lacks the confidence of the House.

However, strictly speaking a “Vote of No Confidence” would not have been passed in such a context, so the procedures after one would not apply. There would be no countdown to an automatic election; instead, there would still be a requirement for two thirds of MPs to assent to an election (as happened in 2017).

(The Prime Minister could attempt to put confidence on the vote on the final Bill requiring an extension of EU membership to be sought, in which case the procedures would apply if this were allowed. This is very risky for all sides, however; for the Prime Minister it risks allowing the other side to form an administration without an election, and for the Opposition it risks an election too late to make any difference to Brexit.)

Remember, an election causes Parliament to be suspended anyway. Even if legislation is passed and receives Royal Assent (and even more so if it has not passed), it is a high-risk strategy to force the suspension of Parliament until close to 31 October, not least because it would be conceivable that no new Prime Minister would be in place by that date regardless of the date and outcome of the election. This again raises questions about just how watertight legislation can be, when it will likely in effect require action by the Prime Minister in the run-up to 31 October in any case. What happens, for example, if there is no Parliament sitting to ensure that he adheres to the law as passed? What happens if a Prime Minister, still in office post-election as the Opposition decides if it can form a coalition to remove him from office, or indeed reinvigorated by having won the election, simply ignores (or repeals) the legislation?

The Opposition needs to proceed, therefore, with caution here. It wants to stop “no deal” but it also has to be sure that, if it comes to one, the current Government carries the entire responsibility. An election close to 31 October, for all kinds of reasons, risks the UK falling out of the EU with no deal by default regardless of what legislation is passed and what the date or outcome of an election would be, with the added political consequence that the Conservatives could blame Opposition meddling for any resultant chaos.

The likelihood therefore is that, despite current overt denials, there will be pressure for an election from the Government. The Opposition (specifically the Labour Party) will still need to assent to one, however, noting that the Prime Minister then decides the precise date. The question then becomes whether the anti-No Deal side has the coherence and foresight to recognise that, in every sense, an election close to 31 October would likely merely add to the problem rather than provide a solution.

It is anyone’s guess what will happen now. For what it is worth my instinct is the Government, advised by people who think militarily rather than politically, will end up overplaying its hand.

NB: These blog posts are written for the purposes of analysis rather the political promotion. Obviously, with the latest Northern Ireland poll (DUP 29%, Sinn Fein 25%, Alliance 21%, UU 9%, SDLP 8%) means from a purely partisan point of view I quite fancy an election…!

Thoughts on Italian cooking

Just to add to the displacement activity on this blog in recent weeks as democracy itself crumbles, we turn to Italy…

Italy is a country I much admire. Despite political dysfunction and economic stagnation, it still manages to host the healthiest population in the world, and with more heritage sites in any individual region than there are in most entire countries it has rapidly become our favourite holiday destination.

My favourite aspect of it is the food and, while I am far from a gastronomic genius, I was asked for some thoughts on preparation of pasta dishes. I thought I may as well share them here – if ever a blog post were open to correction, it is this one…!


Firstly, what are we trying to do with an Italian pasta dish? Well, in the “Anglo-Saxon world” we tend to think that we cook some pasta, concoct (or just buy) as sauce, and then bung them together, merely using the tasteless pasta (because we invariably overlook it) to transport the sauce to the mouth. Such utter barbarism!

With a real, authentic Italian dish what we are trying to do is flavour the pasta. The pasta itself should then contain the mix of flavours in the dish.


We want ingredients that are as fresh and high quality as possible, of course. Make sure you have a decent extra virgin olive oil; the right cheese to complement the dish (some require pecorino; others something spicier like provolone; don’t just add parmesan to everything because it looks Italian); and ideally some direct import branded pasta.

Most of all, tomatoes (and lemons) grow outside in warm climes. So of course we English speakers put them in the, er, fridge. Another marker of Anglo-Saxon sacrilege! They’re fruit, so put them in the fruit bowl!


When you are cooking the dish you will probably only have ten minutes or so (because you’re not going to overlook the pasta…) so it is worth having your ingredients out and ready in advance.

For a Puttanesca on Saturday I had my bowl out ready for my peeled tomatoes, my olives chopped, my peppers chopped, and my capers and seasoning lined up in order of use, before I began anything else.

Pasta cooking

Now, Anglo-Saxons again take note, we want our pasta to cling to the flavours in the dish. So we don’t want to cook all the starch out of it! That is why people in countries where they both enjoy their food more and live longer than we do (what a combo that is) cook it al dente – that way the favour clings on.

Into the pasta water we are also going to add a lot of salt. This is partly to enable us to bring the flavour out of the pasta later in the preparation, but it is also because we are going to use the pasta water itself to add cream. So we are talking a tablespoon per person for almost any dish. (In my case, however, the salt then goes back in the cupboard – we shouldn’t need to inflict it directly on the sauce when we already have it in the pasta water.)


“Sauce” is actually quite a strong word for the accompaniment to a real Italian pasta dish. In some dishes it will be barely visible at all as it clings to the pasta. Three things are of prime importance.

Firstly, keep your pans the same heat. This is going to end with pasta cooking in with the “sauce” but that combination is not going to work if you transfer from pan to pan at different heat, as then they won’t meld. Personally, I find it easier to go high right at the start (just to get the water boiled or the garlic sautéing or whatever) and move to middle for most of the cooking period, but each to their own as long as they are the same temperature.

Secondly, stir or shake vigorously. Whether it’s just garlic and oil or a whole host of ingredients in your pan, you need to mix those flavours. This is particularly important when introducing cheese because you absolutely do not want that stuff clumping. (Also, if you scrape the bottom of your pan occasionally and leave the odd mark, that’s fine; you’re not going to be trading it in any time soon…)

Thirdly, particularly if you are going to add cheese, your sauce should be too watery or creamy at some stage – if it isn’t, add some pasta water to make it so. Then don’t worry – the heat in the pan will ensure it comes together.

Do not be afraid either to add plenty of seasoning through the cooking process, and at different stages. One thing, however – stick to one herb and one pepper. Do not put in basil and then randomly add rosemary; and adding black pepper to a dish which already has red pepper or vice-versa is an absolute no-no. Personally I rarely use passata or canned tomatoes (although I often keep them handy to “save” a sauce if an experiment doesn’t work out!) – I more often simply use fresh tomatoes peeled and crushed by hand alongside, if necessary in some dishes, a little salsa.

As well as garlic cloves, there are other things you can use to flavour your dish and then withdraw. If I am adding lemon, for example, I will quarter the lemon and, having sprayed or sprinkled it over, place the peel in the pan too to emphasise the flavour, before withdrawing it prior to adding the pasta (and cheese). For a Nerano, I withdraw the courgettes (zucchini) once they are browned while the garlic cloves continue to infuse into the oil, season them with basil, and then put them back in the pan while removing the garlic cloves just prior to adding the pasta and cheese.

Personally, I find white wine vinegar useful to separate out the flavours in some spicier dishes before melding them again; I occasionally use sautéed onion or even onion granules as a useful replacement for anchovies (if anchovies are unavailable or serving vegetarians); and I like to add pepper flakes of different sizes to the same dish just to vary the taste (you can do this by holding the top of the grinder out and then in, or even simply just by adding full peppercorns alongside ground pepper or sliced red pepper alongside ground flakes or better still direct import peperoncino).


Towards the end you will take the pasta over (likely with some pasta water) and add it to your “sauce”, stirring vigorously as you do so. That is how the flavour transfers to the pasta, with the salt in the water serving to bring it out further and the remaining starch in the pasta itself serving as a glue.

If you are adding cheese at this stage, do not overdo it – that is another Anglo-Saxon horror story as our dishes are so bland to start with we like to bury them in mounds of mozzarella or grated cheddar! With a real Italian dish there should be serious flavour already, so any cheese should be specifically chosen and complementary to the overall blend.

Then a trick is to place the plate on top of the pan from which the pasta has been taken to warm it up as you finish stirring and then serve. Ideally, you will lift the pasta out of the pan and just twist it as it hits the plate for the authentic primo piatto look; by all means add a sprinkle of cheese (if relevant) and a little more seasoning for aesthetic purposes at this stage.


Oh no no no.

Italian cooking is about the ingredients and the mixture of flavours; and so it is about method, not recipes. Aside from grating or grinding (when I do count how often I do it based on what worked last time) I measure nothing – I do everything purely by sight.

That is the fun of it. There is significant trial and error but once you hit the right method for a particular dish, you will know and remember!

For what it is worth, my favourite is Amatriciana, essentially a Carbonara with tomato instead of egg (and red pepper instead of black). Even more so than with Carbonara, however, this absolutely requires direct-import guanciale from the Rome area, which itself contains some more saltiness to bring out the other flavours (if you absolutely must use something else, try pancetta but add salt, however reluctantly).

For vegetarians I prefer Puttanesca, modified with onions instead of anchovies, in which I also cheat authenticity a bit by adding both green and black olives (chopped by hand, to maximise the melding in with the other flavours). “Recipes” for this often contain sugar, but since the whole point is to be healthy I avoid that!

The most remarkable dish I find is Gricia con le Pere, more or less a Carbonara without the egg or an Amatriciana without the tomato (which is thus a Gricia) but with pear strips added, ideally then caramelised. Astonishingly, it works!

My own favourite quick go-to is Nerano mentioned above, although the right spicy cheese there is hard to come by. A quicker similar alternative is simply Limone or even more simply (at least in terms of ingredients) Cacio e Pepe. Another fairly quick option is my own, combining tomato, lemon and fennel with garlic and maybe some spinach.

Practice makes perfect

The best way to learn is to do, and that means it takes a few goes before everything comes together as planned. It is a lot of trial and error, but it is really not long before you can turn out the same dishes at home that you had overlooking the gondolas or the Coliseum. By all means use YouTube or web sites like Giallo Zafferano as a back-up to follow the experts as they prepare various dishes, but nothing succeeds like just practising it yourself.

The key is to remember that fundamentally the joy of Italian cuisine is that it uses simple ingredients so efficiently to create such remarkable flavours, and that is both the fun and the genius of it.


When did Latin “die”?

Further to my posts on Latin over the past two weeks (an overview here and a discussion of its classical pronunciation here), I ended up involved in further discussion which can probably all be grouped under the question when did Latin “die”? (Essentially, the questions were whether it is worth learning Latin, and whether it is necessary for languages to change, the answers to which I think are naturally tied together.)

Firstly, two concepts are important here.

Language Change

Language change is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It happens for a number of reasons, chief among them changes to the environment in which a language is spoken (perhaps it needs to describe new things or concepts when it moves to a new location, or it “borrows” words and even structures from languages with which it comes into contact) and the “principle of least effort” tied to the simple human desire for regularisation (we can hear this even in the speech of toddlers – “the toy breaked”, “are those oxes?”)

Ultimately, time changes all things. Languages are no different.


Once upon a time, all languages were spoken and heard; in fact, it is still the case that most languages in the world exist solely or primarily in spoken form. However, major national languages have shifted towards being widely written and read. In order to enable this, they undergo a process of “standardisation”, so that everyone across a wide area can learn a single form which can then be widely read and understood without difficulty.

It is this, above anything else, which takes language out of the realm of being solely about communication and also ties it to concepts of social identity and nation building. Ultimately, a state will usually end up deciding what the “standard” form of a language is and insisting that it is upheld. The “standard” refers primarily to the language in its written form, although in some cases standard (or at least recognisably prestigious) spoken forms exist as well.

Change and Standardisation

Language change and standardisation automatically jar. The latter is about agreeing a single prestige form of the language; but the former insists on changing it. Even the constructed language Esperanto has become subject to debate about natural change within the language versus adherence to its fundamental original principles!

Standardisation – that is, the attempt to maintain a particular form of the language (at least in writing) – is assisted by technological breakthroughs. The more people can read a language (say, through the development of literacy or the introduction of paper) and the faster it can be disseminated (say, through the invention of the printing press or the widespread use of the Internet), the more important a standard form becomes to maximise common understanding. Any technological or social innovation which widens people’s exposure to a language enhances the standard and dramatically slows down language change.

The outcome of this clash varies from language to language. We can see in English that the writing of Shakespeare of 400 years ago is relatively accessible to modern speakers, but the writing of Chaucer 200 years before that requires translation or at least some sort of guidance. What is noteworthy was that Chaucer could not be read without guidance even in Shakespeare’s day; in other words, the pace of language change in English dramatically slowed down in between Chaucer (late 1300s) and Shakespeare (late 1500s). The key development, almost exactly in between those two dates, was the introduction to England of the printing press in 1485. This made a standard written form of English essential, and slowed down change to the written language immensely. Alongside the difficulty of agreeing a standard for a language with so many influences on it in the first place (West Germanic influenced by Norse then by Norman-French with significant Latin, etc), it is this near stalling of the written standard shortly after the printing press came into widespread use that accounts for the divergence between how the language is written (based on pronunciation around 1500) and how it is pronounced today.

In France, the process was very similar – with a strong capital city and academic backing, a standard written form (in fact intentionally conservative for the sake of added prestige even by the standards of the time of the first printing press) has been maintained from which the spoken form has diverged massively. What is important here, however, is that not only have the spellings of the standard written form been preserved, but by and large so have the grammatical structures – so the spoken form has diverged in terms of pronunciation, but not in terms of structure.

In Germany and Italy the story is somewhat different, because those countries only emerged in unified form much later (in the mid to late 1800s). As a result, the standard forms in speech and writing are much closer than in the case of English or French, although they are in each case still intentionally conservative. Standard German, based ultimately on the writing of Luther and thus in effect on the educated speech of the central German-speaking area at the time of the Reformation, is pronounced as an overlay of local more north dialects and is thus intentionally closer to the written form. In Italian, arguably, this is even more dramatic – the written standard is intentionally outright archaic, based on Tuscan from the time of Dante around 1300, with Italians expected to pronounce their language in line with the written standard (meaning the pronunciation of the standard language is intentionally conservative and generally much more so than in the local vernacular).

Conversely, Spanish and particularly Dutch have had more recent updates. Spanish is based ultimately on the pronunciation of educated speakers in Castile around 1815; the current Dutch standard is post-War, including an update even to the structures of the language (for example to all but abandon grammatical case in line with contemporary usage). Although there is the odd nod to the past, generally both of these languages have effectively updated their spelling and structures to reflect pronunciation within relatively modern times, compared to other major Western European languages.

Standards do change over time too, it should be noted (for example the recent German spelling reform and the ongoing debates about written accent marks in French), but fundamentally they reflect a version of the written language based on educated speakers not just at a particular place but also at a particular time (Tuscany 1300, Castile 1800, or whatever).

Was this not supposed to be about Latin?

Which brings us to Latin. When we say “Latin”, at least in terms of the language we might learn at school, what we mean is the prestige written form of Latin from the time of Caesar and Cicero – roughly 2100 years ago. While there was no Latin Language Academy or even Government trying to enforce a standard, there was the broad social concept of Latīnitās which provided for the broadly expected form of written Latin (as well as sometimes wider cultural norms). Classicus originally referred to the highest class of citizen (and only later came to mean “exemplary”), and so although the Latin of Caesar and Cicero was not a “standard” in a strictly modern sense, it was a “classical form” which had largely the same effect.

As the Empire grew, Latin expanded as the administrative and commercial language right across Western and into parts of Eastern Europe, and even after the fall of Rome and the breakdown of the Empire in the West, no one in its former territories (with the exception of what we now consider western Germany, northern Belgium and England, where Germanic vernaculars took hold over time) was in any doubt that they spoke “Latin” until at least the late 600s. In theory at least, even 750 years after Caesar and Cicero, you could have travelled from what we now consider western Portugal through central Spain to northern France and then southern Italy and been generally understood, provided there was a bit of good will and common sense. (This is a not dissimilar situation from that which currently exists with regard to Arabic, which has a “Modern Standard” form based on the “Classical” liturgical language, but in fact is spoken in a wide range of local varieties which are all identifiably “Arabic” but in pure form are not necessarily mutually intelligible.)

However, this was not because Latin remained the same for 750 years. Language change affected it, particularly in spoken form. That is where there is perhaps a useful parallel with modern French – what resulted in around 700AD was an archaic written Latin based on pronunciation now seven centuries or so out of date, accompanied by a contemporary spoken form that was considerably distant from it. Yet, in the same way no one in 2019 denies they are speaking French just because their pronunciation does not reflect the written form, few in 700 would have denied they were speaking Latin.

It is worth noting, though, that there was a difference from the modern French comparison. Whereas Standard French has broadly retained its grammatical structures over the centuries, Classical Latin did not, giving way not just in terms of pronunciation but also in terms of vocabulary and grammar to Late Latin. This “Late” Latin maintained a degree of coherence across a wide geographical area for a number of reasons, notable among them that it derived not strictly from Classical Latin (the prestige form) but from Vulgar (or what in fact would probably be better termed “Popular”) Latin spoken by the masses rather than the elite seven or eight centuries before. Where Classical Latin remained petrified in time, Popular Latin continued to change (and regularise).

The key point here is that, if we accept Classical Latin is based on the educated speech of the Rome area in 50BC and Standard Italian is based on the educated speech of the Florence area in 1300, it becomes obvious that far more than half the changes between Classical Latin and Standard Italian had already happened by the year 700 – i.e. before anyone in Italy (or for that matter Iberia or Gaul) believed they were speaking anything other than “Latin”. In fact, given the dramatic slowing of language change after the printing press, it is probably reasonable to say this is also the case with reference to the standard form of any daughter language of Latin (although French and Romanian have specific reasons for having had notable further divergence of their own).

From around 700, it became evident particularly in northern Gaul that the local vernacular could no longer reasonably be described as “Latin”. Local populations became unable to understand even basic church recitals; travellers reported being unable to understand people even when they assumed they spoke the same language; there was in all likelihood the beginning of an awareness that Classical Latin was one thing, and the local dialect was another. By 950 or so, this point was no longer in dispute anywhere in the former Latin-speaking world, not even in Italy itself.

Learning Latin

There are many good reasons for learning (Classical) Latin, but of course it depends on individual interest. It is necessary to study ancient European civilisation; it is a useful exercise in intellectual rigour and discipline; it has useful side effects which help in fields as widespread as medicine and law. Linguistically, Latin also includes some concepts now alien from the modern languages derived from it but shared with other modern languages, so it is useful in ways beyond the obvious.


  • Standard Italian credi che abbia ordinato vino bianco
  • Standard Spanish crees que he ordenado vino blanco
  • Standard French tu crois que j’ai commandé du vin blanc

These sentences, meaning “you believe that I have ordered white wine”, are clearly distinct yet similar.

In each case, we have a word for “believe” clearly of the same origin; the use of “to have” as an auxiliary verb; and obvious linkage around the term for “white wine”. In other words, they betray an obvious common origin.

However, that origin is not directly Classical Latin, as we can see here:

  • Classical Latin crēdis mē vīnum album mandāvisse

Here, credis does indeed show a link to the daughter languages but after that the structure, involving an “accusative infinitive” construction, is entirely different and only one further word (vinum) is identifiably similar. The verb-final literal translation of “you believe me wine white to have ordered” (or even the more direct “you believe me to have ordered white wine”), with the inclusion of case endings (-um) and a past infinitive marker (-avisse), is completely alien to speakers of any of the daughter languages.

Yet, there is a more obvious origin:

  • Vulgar Latin credes que abeo commandatu vinu albu

This is not attested (no one wrote Vulgar Latin apart from on the odd wall), but it is a reasonable reconstruction of spoken Latin after the fall of Rome but before Charlemagne. It looks a lot more familiar (and would be even more so if we included the Germanic borrowing blancu rather than albu for “white” which came in towards the end of the common Latin period).

Typically of all the daughter languages, we have here: h-dropping (abeo not habeo); removal of final post vocalic -m (and unstressed -s); lowering of -i to -e (actually also in que, derived from quid); prioritisation of a word form with a prefix (commandare not mandare); and most of all an identifiably modern structure using a subordinate clause ordered subject-verb-object.

In other words, this is clearly Latin – yet it is at the same time closer to its daughter languages of centuries later than the Classical form of centuries before.

However, the case presented for learning (Classical) Latin as a window to the modern languages derived from it is not clear cut. In fact, all other things being equal (which admittedly they are not always), the logical progression from Late Latin being nearer to its daughter languages than to the classical form is that each of the daughter languages is nearer to any of the other daughter languages than any is to Classical Latin.

If we could learn Late Latin, of course, that would be another matter…



“Suspension of Parliament” – what now?

This is an attempt to work out the likely next moves as the UK Government attempts to suspend Parliament, nominally ahead of a Queen’s Speech on 14 October. It’s a quick run through, so all corrections welcome!

The UK is a constitutional monarchy. In theory, significant power is still vested in the monarch, but in practice she is compelled to act upon the advice of the Cabinet Committee of her Privy Council (i.e. senior Ministers, known in most cases as “Secretaries of State”, chaired by the “Prime Minister”). The monarch appoints that Cabinet on the basis of its ability to “command a majority” in the elected House of Commons.

That immediately causes some difficulty, because currently no party can command a majority on its own. The Conservatives are backed on issues of “confidence and supply” (i.e. assuring that they are assumed to be able to command a majority and pass financial bills essential to the operation of the Government and public services) by the DUP. After defections and by-elections even this, now, provides for an overall majority over all other parties and independents of just one seat.

The House of Commons must be elected no more than five years after the last election; however, under new legislation this decade, an election can also be forced by two-thirds majority of Parliament. Conversely, a Government can be removed if it loses a “vote of no confidence” even by bare majority, in which case there is a 14-day period for another Government (in practice, another would-be Prime Minister) to prove it can command a majority, otherwise there is an election.

The current Government has announced it will advise the Queen to suspend Parliament (by convention, although only by convention, she is obliged to follow that advice) ahead of a Queen’s Speech, i.e. a speech laying out the Government’s programme and priorities, on 14 October. This would see Parliament restored just 17 days before the UK is due to leave the European Union, with no potential for parliamentary scrutiny of negotiations in the weeks before the Queen’s Speech.

On a technicality (oddly, of all things, incorporated into the Northern Ireland Executive Functions Act 2019), Parliament may in fact need to be recalled on 9 October, adding nearly a further week.

I wish to remain factual here, but it is quite obvious that if the Prime Minister were genuine about his view that a “new government” needs time to prepare for a Queen’s Speech, he could have done the preparations during the normal parliamentary recess in the summer and had the Speech next week. That he opted not to do that is a demonstration that this is an attempt, at the very least, to block Parliament having an open say on negotiations until very close to the finishing line.

Without further action, there is no doubt by convention that Parliament will be suspended until at least 9 October. It should be noted that the Cabinet (i.e. Executive) will continue to function, so unlike the Northern Ireland Assembly Ministers will still be able to provide sign-off. However, like the Northern Ireland Assembly, no legislation will be possible.

The likelihood is that there will be action. A collective group of senior Opposition MPs had announced that it had agreed a legislative route to block a so-called “no deal Brexit” (the UK leaving the European Union with no agreement as to their future relationship). This route will of course no longer be open within the timescale available if Parliament is suspended for over a month.

They could try a motion to oppose suspension, but that would have no constitutional force. They could also try some form of legislation aimed at blocking suspension of Parliament. There is, however, only a very short window in which such legislation could be drafted and passed. They may well try some form of legislation blocking “no deal”, but in fact there is no cast iron way of doing this (after all, Parliament’s clearly stated opposition to “no deal” is already being ignored).

Therefore, the likeliest action is a “no confidence vote”. With the Government holding a majority of only one, and one Conservative MP already indicating that he has no confidence in a Government suspending Parliament at this juncture, there is a fair chance that such a vote would succeed (but this is not a certainly, given there are also rebels on the Opposition benches).

If such a vote does not succeed (or even happen), Parliament will in all likelihood be suspended. However, even a successful vote is risky because, if it does succeed, the Opposition parties will have 14 days to form a Caretaker administration capable of “commanding a majority” at least for a period; otherwise, there will be an election.

Interestingly, the chances of a “no deal Brexit” have now diminished. Should the vote of no confidence not succeed, the Prime Minister will be able to tell the EU that he will put any new deal to the House of Commons on the basis of “it’s this or no deal”, which in turn will make a deal more likely to pass the Commons and thus make the EU more likely to offer one (perhaps, for example, amending the political declaration to clarify it is a Northern Ireland-only backstop with a two-year review mechanism). Conversely, should the vote of no confidence succeed, a caretaker administration could then act to legislate to avert “no deal”.

The Government will have worked out that, arguably at least, the biggest risk of “no deal” at this juncture is that the vote of no confidence passes but a caretaker administration is not formed. That would see an election held right at the deadline to leave the European Union (conceivably on the day itself), in fact making “no deal” likelier purely because there would be no Government to negotiate anything else (or even accept an offer of a delay even for a few weeks). Opposition parties should note that the Conservatives would likely win such an election and even then be able to claim “no deal” was not their fault…

Ultimately, the key point here is that any election forced at this point also has the effect of suspending Parliament. There is little point in acting to avert suspension (and by extension a “no deal Brexit”) if that action causes it! Whether certain key opposition figures will have worked that out and then act with the good grace necessary to deliver their stated goal remains an open question.

How do we know what the Romans sounded like?

Last week’s piece on Classical Latin, particularly the phonology, triggered a reasonable and obvious question: how do we know what they sounded like?

Without recorded voices of any kind, of course, we cannot know absolutely precisely. However, because we can reconstruct languages from what came after (modern languages such as, in this case, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) and indeed what went before, we can merge this with direct historical evidence of what the Romans said about their own speech to gather a very accurate picture.


Firstly, the Romans were lucky because, although their alphabet mimicked Greek (and thus Phoenician), it was in fact designed specifically for Latin. No modern Western European language has that advantage – all of them use the Latin alphabet and then have to make it fit around a different language from the one it was designed for.

Initially, the Romans required just 18 letters – five litterae vōcāles (of voice; A, E, I, O, U) and 13 cōnsonantēs (with sound; B, C, D, F, H, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T). I and U could be semi-vocalic; in fact Q was used only before U as QU to indicate this was the case (versus CU, when it was not).

In time the Romans added G to distinguish from C; X for the combination CS or GS; and K, Y and Z for words borrowed from Greek (although some writers ignored K while others came to use it more widely to replace C even in native words in particular instances, such as frequently before A).

Fundamentally, however, the Latin alphabet remained one letter for one sound, with just the odd exception (notably X and arguably QU; with greater Greek influence this came to change a little more, but we will come to that). This makes it quite straightforward to work out, for the most part, how it was pronounced because there is no reason to believe that each letter would have been pronounced significantly differently from its modern equivalent, assuming such an equivalence can be made.


The contention that we can assume most letters were pronounced as today is backed up by studies of the Proto-Indo-European language from which Latin (and also Old Irish, Old Church Slavonic, Gothic, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and others) was derived. However, comparisons across the language sets do tell us some things.

The plosives (B, C and P) were pronounced more softly probably even than in modern Italian (and considerably more so that in English or German); B frequently switched to F in Latin in certain environments, suggesting the sounds were not far apart. Furthermore, two distinct C (actually broadly /k/) sounds were inherited by Latin and it seems odd that these were merged only to de-merge again in Late Latin (and thus in all daughter languages) – hence my own contention that C (and subsequently G) was always pronounced slightly differently before a high vowel than before a low vowel (before a high vowel I suggest it was slightly palatalised, with a hint of a y-glide; that some chose to distinguish in writing between K and C may provide further evidence but most speakers probably did not think about it for long enough to consider there was a distinction, in the same way English speakers do not consider the ‘c’ in ‘care’ to be any different from that in ‘scare’).

The letter D was pronounced much more briefly than today (just a short flap), as we know it was unstable – converting initially to B in some instances (even now ‘dual’ versus ‘binary’) and being lost altogether finally except in the most common words (e.g. classical ablative mēnsā or fundō were originally mēnsad, fundod).

H was also destined to be unstable right from the start, deriving from a complex series of Indo-European laryngeals. It was already clearly lost in all but the most careful educated speech well before the time of Christ. (Note that it is conceivable that it came and went; /h/ was lost from English entirely by Shakespeare’s time but was then recovered in learned speech in the centuries after).

We know M and N were already nasal at the end of words as they emerged from Indo-European because they were often not preceded by a vowel; this changed in Latin, which placed vowels before final nasals.

S was likely pronounced as a brief tap (as in many modern Spanish dialects, see below) as it frequently developed into (and occasionally even from) R. This again was an Indo-European thing, as the S/R switch is common to many Indo-European languages (cf. English ‘was/were’, ‘lost’ but ‘forlorn’).

Given its confusion with B but rarely F, as well as other factors, V was pronounced as /w/ or at least somewhere between /w/ and /ß/ (so potentially close to modern Spanish [b] and [v] between vowels).

Indo-European tells us much less about vowels, which change much more through time. One thing we can note throughout the history of Latin is the instability between O and U and, to a lesser extent, between E and I.

Daughter languages 

We can tell much about Latin pronunciation by reconstructing it from daughter languages, most obviously Italian and Spanish.

Italian, based in conservative Tuscan, gives us many of the modern sounds as there is no reason for them to have changed. The most notable shifts are the loss of distinctive vowel length (vowel quality clearly came to be definitive in the Late Latin period as that is the case in all daughter languages) and the switch of the palatalised /k/ and /g/ (i.e. the aforementioned C or G before a high vowel in Classical Latin) to a new affricate sound (equivalent to English [ch] and [j]). Word stress has clearly shifted on some short words in Italian, but there is no reason to believe it is significantly different (even though, as the language is now more vocalic, its rhythm is somewhat different).

Notably, Italian also gives us the most likely location for pronunciation. Generally, the further south you go in Europe the further forward in the mouth pronunciation occurs (just compare a Dutch person or Dane speaking English versus an Italian or a Spaniard). There is no reason to believe this was notably different in ancient times – Latin was surely articulated towards the front of the mouth, thus lacking the lax vowels of Germanic languages.

Spanish in some ways is closer to Late Latin phonologically, and to many of the “errors” Romans themselves noted. It frequently displays [e] where Latin had I just as was apparent in colloquial or lower class speech even by the time of Christ; thus Latin and Italian lingua are Spanish lengua; Latin vices (note Pompeian graffiti veces) is Spanish veces. Spanish also exhibits AU/AL to [o] which was also a marker of lower class or rustic speech in and around Rome 2000 years ago (e.g. Latin alterum, Italian altro, Spanish otro).

Note that Spanish (as well as Sardinian, the most conservative Latinate language) contains only five basic vowel sounds. This is not absolute proof, but it strongly suggests that Classical Latin had only five too.

Contemporary writing

As noted above, Romans themselves often noted “errors” creeping into speech, or commented on how peasants or immigrants spoke. These give us a clear idea of how the language was changing. Many inscriptions themselves contain these “errors” (perhaps most commonly omitting initial h– or post-vocalic final –m) and thus reflect contemporary speech.

On top of this, the meter of Roman poetry also gives us a clear idea about elision. Notably, we can tell from this that final and initial vowels (or nasals or h-) ran into each other consistently in Latin poems, and there is no evidence other than that this was a simple representation of how Latin was actually pronounced.

This is, for the record, a fundamental point because with some exceptions it was the ending rather than the initial sound which was lost in the elision – and thus often the bit containing the grammatical coding (which makes Latin so distinct fundamentally from its daughter languages). Yet studies of Latin literature have shown that this is crucial to understanding in only a minuscule proportion of combinations, and that even then there is no doubt about the meaning from the context. This suggests that in fact one driver of Romans’ choice of word order was the determination to avoid losing a grammatically crucial ending (e.g. if it going to be unclear that you mean agricolā erat nauta ‘by the farmer was a sailor’ rather than agricola erat nauta ‘the farmer was a sailor’ or agricolae erat nauta ‘the farmer’s was a sailor’ because without the ending pronounced in the first word they all sound the same, just say agricolā nauta erat – which indeed was the most common word order). This remains a remarkably understudied aspect of Latin syntax.

Ultimately, all of these allow us to reconstruct very accurately the speech of Caesar. Not that he ever said et tū Brūte, of course – indeed he would likely have appealed to Brutus in Greek…