The unnoticed markers of Ulster English

For all the political furore about Irish and Ulster Scots, we tend to overlook the intricacies of modern Ulster English.

Language is a surprisingly complex social construct. When we speak, we are aware of some of the regionalisms in our speech, and we may even opt to use them intentionally – for the purposes of anything from social solidarity to humour. We may not even be aware of some of them!

There is therefore a distinction between what is sometimes referred to as “Standard Ulster English” and the broader Ulster dialect. The latter is an intentional departure from formal speech, where the former is what we use even in relatively formal contexts provided it does not hinder the comprehension of outsiders. What are the markers of formal Ulster English, versus Standard British English?


A discussion like this often begins with vocabulary (those are, after all, easier for non-linguists to discuss), but many of the most obvious markers are grammatical.

For example, to express ongoing duration Ulster English prefers the present tense/aspect rather than the perfect, making it progressive for all verbs except ‘to be’.

I’m working here all that time (I have been working here all that time)

She’s in Belfast five years now (she’s been in Belfast for five years now)

He’s living there since the flooding (he has been living there since the flooding)

Here, the Ulster usage is more reflecting of all the other languages I know than Standard British English is.

Ulster English can also tend towards preferring the past to the perfect if there is doubt about relevance to the present time:

Were you ever in Cavan? (Have you even been to Cavan?)

This is not universal but in some cases it can be closer to typical American usage than British.

Note also that Ulster English prefers the conjunction where even with reference to time (compare wo in colloquial German): the occasions where this really matters (the occasions when this really matters). 

Subordinate clauses

For questions in a subordinate clause, Ulster English often orders words in line with a normal question, where Standard British English prefers a conjunction followed but non-question word order:

I don’t know is she here yet (I don’t know if she is here yet)

I wonder how many had he scored before that (I wonder how many he has scored before that)

There is a possibility that this hints at an underlying Irish language influence (as do the “verbless subordinate” clauses found in more informal Ulster English: I came in and him just sitting there).


Some non-standard words are in such common use in Ulster English that they can be used even in quite formal situations, often because they defy easy “translation” (thole, scundered).

As in Scotland, wee is a diminutive – more or less equivalent to little in Standard British English but more commonly used. ‘Diminutive’ means not only that it indicates small size but also endearment.

Interestingly, however, some words are also more commonly avoided. Perhaps, anyone or shall (see below) are often avoided, with maybe, anybody or will preferred.

Some words are descriptive of things found more commonly in Ulster and may be unfamiliar to some outsiders, but they are not strictly non-standard: barmbrack, lough, drumlin, traybake.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs are a specific subset of verbs in Germanic languages, deriving typically from verbs whose past form has become present, which mark emotion or attitude (necessity, volition, option etc).

Ulster English barely uses shall or ought to at all, and might tends to be restricted to emphatic statements.

May is used in Ulster English more in the Standard sense of ‘had better’: well, you may be there on time (well, you had better be there on time). Standard English may is usually substituted for a construction involving maybe in Ulster English: she will maybe come but it’s not certain (she may come but it’s not certain).

Ulster English also happily uses will even for collective suggestions: Will we go by train (Shall we go by train).

Ulster English also tends to treat have as a full verb with modal tendencies rather than as a standard verb:

Have you a pen (Do you have a pen/Have you got a pen)

She has ten of them sitting at home (She has got ten of them sitting at home)

Nevertheless, this usage is uncertain and subsequent reference nearly always treats ‘have’ as a standard verb even in Ulster English: Have you a pen – yes I do (now rarely have); you had twelve of them, didn’t (now rarely hadn’tyou.

Some common verbs which are not modal but have similar meaning are made progressive: Are you wanting another table (Do you want another table).

Much of this usage reflects Scottish English.


Some common phrases are different in everyday Ulster usage.

How are you is often used in Ulster English upon first introduction (very formal Standard English has How do you do).

I don’t care is used in Ulster where Standard British English would use I don’t mind; the distinction between ‘care’ and ‘mind’ in these contexts is not maintained in Ulster English.


These are some of the ways in which Ulster English, even in formal situations, varies from Standard British English. Of course, in all cases these represent broad tendencies, but it is noticeable that the distinctions persist even away from more deliberate “dialect speech”.

VAR too willing to interfere…

Yesterday did not go well in my sporting world as first the Arsenal football team and then the Ireland hockey team were denied by officials in a booth watching a video rather than on the field watching the play directly. This was more frustrating because the whole point of video reviews is to get more things right – but in this case, even objectively, it caused two things to go wrong. It is worth emphasising, however, that this was in my view because of human error in the use of the video review (and the broader over-reliance on it), rather than the basic notion of video review itself.

Before we get to directly to the cases involved, it is worth noting the standard caveat. Football and hockey matches are not decided by one decision, but by thousands – by officials, but also (in fact mainly) by players and coaches. Was Arsenal’s team selection really optimal? Did Ireland not waste its own video reviews? Were there not countless chances spurned by all teams involved throughout their respective games? Of course there were. So it worth emphasising that officials bear the brunt of our ire, particularly for decisions late in the game, because they are an easy target. It is much easier, especially in the immediate aftermath, to plead not guilty on behalf of our own team and heap blame onto officials than to assess our own performance in detail.

That notwithstanding, all did not go well for the video officials yesterday. Firstly, at the Emirates, Arsenal thought they had nicked a later winner having thrown away a two-goal lead at home to Crystal Palace. No one on the field thought there was anything remotely wrong when Sokratis fired home a likely winner, which was then reported on all relevant channels as having made the score 3-2. A minute or so later, the decision was mysteriously overturned. The game finished 2-2.

A few hours later on the other side of the world, Ireland held a 6-5 aggregate lead over Canada in an Olympic qualifying playoff as, literally in the last second of the game, Canada attacked on the left hand of the circle. An attacker ended up on the floor, the final whistle went, and Ireland had qualified. However, Canada had nothing to lose in using its final referral (in hockey, a little like tennis, teams may refer big decisions to the video umpire for as long as they don’t get one wrong), and out of seemingly nowhere a penalty stroke was awarded. This was converted, and the playoff then went to a shootout which Canada won in sudden death. Ireland certainly felt like it.

It is just about possible that Arsenal’s Calum Chambers did clip a Crystal Palace defender in the lead-up to the disallowed goal (although having seen it several times, it is frankly more possible that a Palace defender clipped him). It is just about possible that the Canadian attacker was indeed felled by an Irish nudge or trip in the final second (although at least from the angle we saw it is equally possible the trip was in fact caused by his own stick as he sped forward in desperation). In both cases the on-field decision was no foul, and in neither case was that decision anything like a “clear and obvious error”.

In football’s case, the situation is made more bizarre by the revelation that the decision to penalise Chambers and disallow the goal was made in a booth by someone not qualified to referee Premier League matches. At least in hockey’s case, it’s a fully qualified top level official in the booth (although, astonishingly, in this case they gave the official a playoff as his second ever and first international game).

Ultimately this was always the risk with video review. The video official almost feels obliged to see something to justify their presence. But this is absolutely not the point of video review.

Video review is meant merely to be an extra aid to the on-field official. Video officials are not there actually to officiate the game. Hence the requirement, stated specifically and overtly in football, for VAR to correct only “clear and obvious” errors. The aim is to deliver less controversy, not more!

It can be done right. Crystal Palace was awarded a penalty and Canada a penalty corner both resulting in a goal by video review correctly applied (whatever former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg likes to claim) to overturn a clear and obvious error earlier in their respective clashes. However, to take the final decision away from the on-field official is not the point and needs to be stopped swiftly.

In the case of football, an obvious issue is that the Premier League, unlike the World Cup or the Bundesliga, does not use pitch-side monitors for the referee to make the final decision. Even in hockey, it is peculiar that the video official not only states a yes/no answer in response to the on-field official’s question about happened, but also the details of anything that happened around it and specifically what the penalty should be. In each case, the final actual decision should be left with the on-field official – otherwise we are close to the point where in fact the better qualified official will need to be the one in the booth!

Fundamentally, the lesson here is that video reviews have their place, but they are now interfering far too often. Consultation with the video is fine, but it is time to restore the final decision-making to the on-field officials.

Now what the hell is going on?

For those of us in Northern Ireland is was another bemusing and baffling political week, even by the standards of, well, Northern Ireland.

What actually happened?


Firstly, at UK level, the UK Government wanted to put through a “meaningful vote” motion as required by an amendment forced long ago by now whipless Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, to accept the deal it has done with the European Union over the UK’s withdrawal, then due this coming Thursday (31 October).

However, an amendment forced by Mr Grieve’s fellow Conservative “rebel” Oliver Letwin declared in effect that no such vote could be “meaningful” until the actual Act enabling the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and fulfilling the deal had passed Parliament. This is designed to ensure the UK does not exit the EU with no deal, which could still potentially have happened had Parliament passed the Meaningful Vote but not the legislation that needs to go with it.

Losing to Mr Letwin’s amendment as the ten spurned DUP MPs switched sides, the Government then withdrew the Meaningful Vote but continued on Monday with legislation to implement the deal. This reached third reading, the first time that Parliament has actually shown majority support for any particular means of leaving the EU (although it is not true, as some media outlets reported, that the deal ever went “through Parliament” as the process is not yet complete). However, losing a “programme motion” meant that the Government could not proceed with the legislation as quickly as it wished, meaning that it would run out of time by 31 October and under the Benn Bill (a piece of legislation passed before “prorogation”) be forced to accept an extension to 31 January if offered by the European Union.

At this, the Prime Minister threw the head up and instead said that if he couldn’t get his legislation through in time for 31 October and was forced to 31 January, he would instead prefer to go to the people in an election, for which the soonest date under the Fixed Term Act 2011 is 12 December. However, there he runs into the problem of how to force the election – he is unlikely to get a two thirds majority for the necessary motion, so he would either have to put down legislation for such an election (which could be amended – for example, to force votes at 16 or even simply to change the date) or vote no confidence in himself (this has been done twice in Germany in the last 40 years to force elections, but is liable to misinterpretation in the UK).

Meanwhile, for its part, the European Union has said that it will offer an extension (which will have to be accepted by the UK Government unless it is for a date other than 31 January and Parliament specifically rejects it, which is unlikely) but has not yet said to which date. There is a temptation, particularly in Paris, to offer just ten days or so – enough time to get the relevant legislation through the UK Parliament and approval of the deal through the UK Parliament and the European Parliament. The likelihood will be a fudge, as last time (when 29 March became initially 12 April and then 31 October), with something like 14 November dependent on safe passage of legislation turning back into 31 January or even at the outside 30 April (this date is relevant as it is the end of the current EU budget period).

The UK Parliament will then spend a few days determining whether to have an election on 12 December (or indeed some other date in early 2020) and then whether to continue with passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and a Budget. The threat of a “Government strike” has been mentioned but is just silly.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland itself, amendments to the Executive Formation Act which achieved Royal Assent in July had clarified that, if no Executive were formed by midnight on 21 October, same-sex marriage would be legalised and abortion liberalised with exact details to be sorted through regulations by Easter 2020.

For clarification, the UK Government has clarified that same-sex marriage will formally become legally recognised in Northern Ireland in mid-January, with first registrations of marriages (accidentally but appropriately) taking place a month later in the week of Valentine’s Day. On abortion, Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (essentially the criminalisation of women seeking termination) have been deleted but the Criminal Justice Act 1945 (rendering the “destruction of a child capable of being born alive” illegal) continues to apply. The confusion here is that the latter Act refers to 28 weeks as the term after which a child is definitely capable of being born alive, but it should be noted the reverse logic does not apply (so this does not mean that a child under 28 weeks is definitely not capable of being born alive); in practice termination is a medical procedure which by law must be carried out by regulated medical professionals and under the law no professional is going to risk carrying one out other than in a case of Fatal Foetal Abnormality (i.e. not capable of being born alive under the 1945 Act) until regulations clarifying legality are completed around Easter time.

What happened in the Assembly on Monday was high farce. It is worth re-emphasising that an Assembly can only sit to scrutinise and legislate upon appointment of an Executive; and an Executive can only be appointed once the First and deputy First Minister accept their offices (appointment is automatic to the largest party and then the largest party in a different designation). As has been noted here before, Northern Ireland is unusual in that regard because other jurisdictions allow legislatures (Assemblies) to sit and allow Ministers (i.e. Executive office holders) to retain their role as caretakers after elections until they are replaced; in Northern Ireland, however, Ministers lose office on election day and the newly elected Assembly cannot function before new ones are in place. In practice, this means the Assembly can only function if both the DUP and Sinn Fein agree to let it function.

That does not mean that the Assembly cannot meet, but previous “talking shop” Assemblies have never worked because ultimately they consist of demands being made with no one taking responsibility for carrying out the Executive functions which would deliver them. Meeting (via “recall”) is not the same as functioning (via “restoration”), in other words.

A meeting took place on Monday at the behest of enough Unionist MLAs (30/90 MLAs overall is the required number), but Sinn Fein did not even attend, far less accept the role of deputy First Minister as required for the institutions to be re-established. However, a bizarre attempt was then made to skirt around standing orders so that the election of a Speaker and an Executive would not be necessary for the Assembly to resume its legislative functions. Even more bizarrely, it turned out there had been an exchange of correspondence over the previous 24 hours between a DUP MLA and the Attorney General (who, note well, advises the Executive not the Assembly and is also a long-standing anti-abortion campaigner) about a Bill which a DUP MLA had drafted to remove the amendment referring to liberalisation of abortion. Somewhat ludicrously, despite the DUP needing majority support and holding only 28 of the 90 seats including the Speaker’s, this had not been shown to anyone other than the Attorney General. Inevitably and correctly, the whole charade was ruled out of order by the Speaker on his own legal advice.

This piece is to outline factually what occurred and why the consequences were what they were, but it must be pointed out that this was in no way a serious attempt by the DUP to overturn the amendment liberalising abortion from midnight that night (21st/22nd). Even had the Speaker chosen to ignore his own legal advice and allow the sitting, the legislation and even any appointments made would have been struck down by the Courts anyway. Had the DUP really wished to act, it would have spent the previous 3-4 months working out how to restore the Executive, a move which automatically would have rendered both amendments (on same-sex marriage and abortion) void on their own terms. It chose not to do this, and thus it chose to allow the legalisation and liberalisation to proceed. What happened in the Assembly on Monday was an attempt at diverting blame, even though the simple fact is that had the DUP carried through the deal to restore the institutions in February 2018, there is zero chance that such liberalisation would have occurred by now or even imminently.

The local parties were given another three months by the Secretary of State to reach a deal to restore the institutions otherwise, under the existing law, he will have to set a date for an Assembly Election on 13 January. In practice, however, he can always have that law amended by Parliament.

What now?

Who knows? File the below under “somewhat educated conjecture”…

Clearly Brexit is the priority for everyone in politics both around Westminster and Stormont, and in practice there is close to zero prospect of a deal to restore the Executive (and thus the Assembly) before there is some clarity on it.

If the UK Government is determined to have an election on 12 December there are some risks it could take to try to force one, but it will probably not be minded to – it does not really want an election on that date, it just wants to accuse the Opposition of being chicken.

The EU will likely offer a “flextension” – something like 14 November in case of relevant legislative and administrative requirements to implement the deal being met, 31 January otherwise; in practice this will automatically be accepted by Parliament.

There is a chance (to be filed under “possible but not probable” but still higher than most commentators think) that the UK Government is not serious about its “strike” and that the UK Parliament will pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in early November, with the UK thus proceeding to leave the European Union under its terms in mid November. An election will suddenly be deemed less urgent in such circumstances, particularly if a Budget passes, and may well then be delayed until the spring.

There is also a chance that the Bill will be amended in such a way that it requires the deal itself also to be reworked. Quite where such a chaotic outworking would lead us is unclear.

There seems scant evidence of a majority in Parliament to force a deal versus remain referendum (a so-called “People’s Vote”), but if such evidence does emerge it could be one reason the Government is keen to avoid proceeding with the legislation this side of an election (since a referendum could be forced via an amendment).

In the end, the best bet is to be prepared for anything…




Northern Ireland joins the modern world

Rainbow flag

I would like at this juncture, as same-sex marriage is confirmed as legal in Northern Ireland as of early 2020, to congratulate all the campaigners who have fought for this hour in Northern Ireland.

It was an unnecessarily complex fight. Contrary to commonly stated belief, Northern Irish society is no more backward than anywhere else. The population has favoured legalisation for as long as it has in neighbouring jurisdictions. However, the requirement for a “double majority” in the Assembly, and then the collapse of that Assembly, let to the law in line with popular opinion never being passed.

Also passed as of now is the decriminalisation of abortion and the requirement to legalise abortion in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against All Women (CEDAW). I think, broadly, almost everyone will be content with decriminalisation – I would suggest most pro-life campaigners (albeit not always the most vocal ones) have no desire to criminalise young women in a crisis. Clearly, this is otherwise a highly sensitive issue and although my own view is that UN Committee recommendations on Human Rights should long ago have been adhered to, I do understand why some people (particularly but not exclusively those of strong faith) have concerns about precisely how this is being done.

For the record, my own view is that it needed to be done via Westminster (even if not necessarily in the exact way it has been) given the DUP showed no interest in serious talks about restoration of devolution. This is evidenced by the fact they did not bother even to draft legislation until yesterday (a Sunday), nor to show it to other parties (whose support, obviously, would be required to pass it) even after bizarrely showing it to the Attorney General, who has no role in advising MLAs. Indeed, other parties were only leaked a copy of the legislation after midday yesterday (the scheduled Assembly sitting time).

There was in fact no prospect of any functioning Assembly liberalising abortion to the extent it has been liberalised as of this minute. The DUP rejected the deal available in February 2018 which would have restored that Assembly; and then messed around for four months from June 2019 without even attempting to win support for its proposal to stop Westminster’s liberalising intervention. Therefore, whatever your view on this highly sensitive issue, the DUP bears prime if not sole responsibility for the fact that, as of right now, Northern Ireland has (theoretically at least) the most liberal abortion laws in Western Europe. If you agree with Arlene Foster that this is a “sad day for Northern Ireland”, you also have to accept that she played a greater role than anyone in bringing it about.

It should be emphasised that some fears of what Northern Ireland’s abortion law means in practice, while no doubt felt genuinely, are overstated. The law on “child destruction” (a ghastly term but the one used in the 1945 legislation still in effect) continues to apply and, legally, medical procedures have to be carried out by regulated professionals. In the absence of legal clarity, it is highly unlikely any more than were already occurring will take place (aside perhaps from some tragic cases of fatal foetal abnormality) before that clarification comes (probably at the end of March). The fundamental change is the decriminalisation of women; what is legal for medical professionals is still to be clarified and given killing a child capable of being born alive is still a criminal offence, no professional will take any risks in that regard today any more than they would have yesterday.

Meanwhile, let us just reflect on the good news that Northern Ireland now has equal marriage legislated for, and that as a society we can join the modern world. Now we just need to take the opportunity in no doubt imminent elections to un-elect the incompetents who have delivered nothing but uncertainty, concern, and the precise reverse of what they profess to support.

On mutual intelligibility

Mutual intelligibility in linguistics is basically defined as the level at which two speakers can understand each other. It is a core concept – the very notion of what constitutes a “language” or what constitutes “speaking a language” is founded upon it. Yet it is highly complex.

Those arriving new to language learning or linguistics are inclined to start with the obvious means of assessing mutual intelligibility – are two dialects or languages close enough structurally (in terms of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and so on) to be mutually intelligible? This is relevant of course. Even though they nominally speak different languages, speakers of Scandinavian languages will understand each other to a degree; likewise Dutch (in both its Netherlandic and Belgian forms) and Afrikaans. Conversely, I have seen an Austrian in Hamburg receive a response from a waiter in English on the assumption she was speaking a different language and it may be easier to switch, even though both were in fact speaking “German”; and it is not unusual for speakers even from within the UK to struggle in other parts of the UK, at least when in informal settings.

However, structural similarity is far from the only issue. As with language learning itself, one essential aspect of mutual intelligibility is exposure. For example, people in Portugal (population 10m) are more exposed to the main language of neighbouring Spain (45m) than the other way around; thus the Portuguese can broadly understand Spanish but the Spanish struggle with Portuguese. This is also part of the reason Norwegians understand Swedish better than the reverse; and even that Dutch speakers understand (the much more structurally complex) German language much better than the other way around. In this latter case most notably, what we have are speakers of the less structurally complex language still ending up with higher intelligibility of the more structurally complex language on grounds of exposure, when on structure alone you would expect the reverse. This can even apply within a language, as with the above example of a Northern German struggling with Austrian German (interestingly the specific issue was probably that she had ordered “ein kleines Cola“, which in Germany would be “eine kleine Cola“, as Austrians tend to use neuter for borrowed nouns where Germans prefer to make borrowings ending in a vowel feminine)likewise, the British generally find it easier to understand American English than the other way around.

Another issue can be whether speakers of a given language are used to diversity or not. The example often given here is that of Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. To simplify crudely, Norwegian is structurally more like Danish but is pronounced closer to Swedish, so it is no surprise that Norwegians (who are in the “middle” linguistically) are proven to be better at understanding Danish or Swedish than the other way around. However, the gap is so marked that further studies have shown this is not primarily to do with structural or phonological similarities (although these help), but to do with the fact that a wider range of dialects are spoken and accepted in Norway (to the extent that Norwegians could not agree a single standard form of the language and there are thus two standards, one very close to Danish and one markedly less so). As Norwegians are simply more used, in their daily lives, to “tuning in” to different dialects (with their different words, grammatical features and pronunciation), they find little difficulty in “tuning in” to Swedish or Danish either. The Swedes and Danes, conversely, being more used to a single standard language and spoken variation which can be different (e.g. in Scania or Jutland) but confined to certain settings, are less adaptable and thus (at least in speech) struggle much more with each other’s languages and even with Norwegian than Norwegians do with either of theirs.

Tied finally to this, again as with language learning, is the simple issue of motivation. Someone who is motivated to help someone will try to make communication work; someone less motivated may choose to be deliberately obstructive. Mutual intelligibility is highly flexible, depending on individuals and even potentially individuals’ moods or attitudes.

Mutual intelligibility is therefore yet another aspect of linguistics which should be relatively straightforward, but is in fact a highly complex thing tied as much to social attitudes and experiences as linguistic matters themselves.

Politics has changed utterly. Commentators need to catch up.

Politics globally, and certainly in the English-speaking world, has changed utterly in the second half of this decade.

The whole concept of what is “right” and what is “left” has gone out of the window. As attitudes towards internationalism, identity, social liberalism and basic fact checking become the defining political issues whereas economics and finance take a back seat, totally new coalitions are emerging. People who were well apart five years ago are now 90%+ aligned on the key issues; conversely, people who generally saw eye-to-eye until recently (when political debate was dominated by taxation levels and public ownership issues) now find themselves at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

This means there is no point, when seeking to report or analyse, in going back very far. There was a gradual shift in allegiances in the UK through the ’70s after the Oil Crisis and perhaps a more marked one around the Great Depression in the inter-War years, and the United States saw ruptures around segregation in the late ’60s, but surely nothing of the scale of what has just happened on either side of the Atlantic.

Here in Northern Ireland is no exception. It is obvious that voter patterns are breaking down completely, though few yet seem to willing to include this in their commentary. At the very moment you might expect re-entrenchment on the old nationality grounds, in fact it is the Progressives who reject “orange/green” who are rapidly growing as younger voters look for something new. This is still treated by reporters and commentators as something of an aberration before normal service is resumed, but in fact all the evidence is that the “aberration” is becoming permanent and that in fact in any forthcoming election the Progressives will gain further ground. This does not suit the dominant framework for reporting Northern Ireland, which has always been based on the lazy assumption of two mirror, competing “communities”; that lazy assumption is going to have to change as those who reject “orange/green” increasingly determine Northern Ireland’s future.

Most relevantly of all, we have now reached the stage where a lot of elected politicians, including the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, routinely lie. Although politicians were always inclined towards sins of omission or exaggeration, never before had political correspondents and commentators also had to behave as outright detectives. Still they take announcements from on high as worth reporting and assessing even if they are in fact plainly just ludicrous diversions.

In the UK, the key point here is that Brexit is a symptom, not a cause. Brexit emerged from the new politics of just outright lying and then blaming everyone else. That is now the standard format for seeking office, and commentators need to realise it. A lie is a lie and a myth is a myth. These cannot just be reported, they need to be tackled – and corrections forced.

It is well known what assumption is the mother of, which makes it worth emphasising that old assumptions have never been less safe. Politics has changed utterly. It requires utterly new reporting and commentating methods too.

Duolingo for language learning?

The free website and app Duolingo has earned quite a cult following, primarily based on its tendency to remind the user by email in no uncertain terms that they have to keep practising to get better. Also, some of the test sentences are amusing, intentionally or otherwise…


So, is Duolingo to be recommended?

I have used it to top up some of my more basic languages (Danish, Irish, Malay/Indonesian) or to revive languages I do not regularly use (Esperanto), so I may not be best places to judge because, primarily, Duolingo is designed to help you from absolute scratch.


Duolingo starts from scratch, which at least means it is clear where you are beginning.

It is then reasonably structured about taking you through the language and introducing vocabulary and grammatical features, albeit allowing a degree of choice to the user so that it does not get boring.

An important element is the interactive “Discuss” feature, in which knowledgeable and/or native speakers can provide guidance (and assurance, as appropriate).

Perhaps most of all, it has character and so it is (usually) good fun as you accept the challenge to move up the levels.


Duolingo starts from scratch, which can be a disadvantage as much as an advantage. Although there is an initial optional test which can advance you a little, there is no way of demonstrating general linguistic knowledge, nor general ability in related languages.

It does not effectively assess speaking ability (with some languages the function does not exist at all), so only three of the four aptitudes are truly tested.

Even more frustratingly, Duolingo assesses only translation ability. It does not enable conversations; it does not allow for general summaries; nor does it do anything to teach general usage (as opposed to fairly literal vocabulary and grammar). This never allows the user to move beyond “translation” either, which is a fundamental element of actual fluency.

Worst of all, Duolingo insists on absolute accuracy (allowing for the odd typo) right from the start. This is a very significant disadvantage. Language learning is absolutely not about perfection, particularly not right from the start, and the real risk is that it could cause users to give up in frustration far earlier than necessary.


So Duolingo is a lot of fun, but it comes with a major health warning. Fundamentally, language learning must not be about absolute accuracy and perfection right from the start; on balance, this will drive people away from it rather than help them along with it.

In some ways, therefore, Duolingo is best seen as a bit (or even a lot) of fun – and it is, of course, free. However, it should not be the focal point of anyone’s language learning strategy.

Advantages of Esperanto

Last weeks’ post, along with some others I have written about Esperanto, was seen as critical of the language. In fact, far from being critical of it, I rather like it.

What I am critical of is the notion, promoted by some Esperantists, that it is uniquely “easy” or lernebla. Put more specifically, it is a simple fact that Esperanto could be easier and more regular than it is, for example by:

  • addressing the inherently sexist nature of its vocabulary, particularly with reference to family terms (for example, Esperanto starts with a word frato meaning ‘brother’ and then derives ‘sister’ and ‘siblings’ from that, rather than starting with ‘sibling’ and deriving ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ from there);
  • removing the “genitive” correlatives (kies, ties etc), which are entirely unnecessary and cannot “agree” with their nouns (thus kiu plumo ‘which pen’, kiuj plumoj ‘which pens’ but kies plumo ‘whose pen’, kies plumoj ‘whose pens’);
  • reducing the number of phonemes (and removing accented letters while doing so) and adhering properly to “one letter, one sound” (including by removing unnecessary consonantal clusters);
  • aligning the personal pronouns and the numeral unu ‘one’ so that they agree and form plural and accusative case regularly;
  • deleting some unnecessary vocabulary items (e.g. if we can derive from vendi ‘to sell’ the word vendejo ‘place of selling, shop’ we do not need the work butiko ‘shop’);
  • tidying up the ending -au perhaps specifying it is for conjunctions;
  • we could live without a future tense (remember, English does…); and
  • taking out some prepositions (do we really need each of el, de and da, for example, when they only result in confusion depending on the semantics of the speaker’s native language?)

Therefore the argument that Esperanto is uniquely placed to become a global second language (as per its pracelo ‘original goal’) is flawed, as a matter of basic fact.

It is in fact its flaws which form part of its charm, because they make Esperanto more “natural” than it would otherwise seem. The very notion that it has some glitches or tricks makes it malpli lernebla but arguably pli lerninda, and in fact could even strengthen the argument for learning Esperanto before any other language (an argument tied to the idea that it is best to teach the recorder before the violin, the piano or the flute).

So, I don’t much care for several aspects of the phonology and some items of vocabulary are frustrating. What do I like?

Word formation

The idea underlying the vocabulary of the language is that a very short word list can be extended, via affixes and suffixes, to create a multitude of extra meanings. This is very clever, as it makes the language instantly both more accessible and more creative.

I have already used some above. The verb lerni ‘to learn’ can have the verbal suffix -i removed and then the suffix -ebl- plus the adjectival suffix -a added to indicate the ‘ability to learn’, thus lernebla ‘learn-able’. If we choose -ind- rather than -ebl- we get lerninda ‘worthy of learning’. Alternatively we could go for -ej- and use the noun suffix -o and we would get lernejo ‘place of learning, school’; or we can try -ad- and get lernado ‘the act of learning’; or with -ant- we arrive at the participle lernanto which can be taken to mean ‘one who is learning, learner’ (cunningly we can even change the tense here: lerninto is one who was learning; lernonto one who will be learning; lernunto one who would be learning).

Likewise, as noted above, if we take vendi  ‘to sell’ we can do similar: vendejo is a ‘sales place, store’ as aforementioned; vendulo is a ‘salesperson’; vendebla would be ‘sellable’, vendinda ‘worthy of selling’ and so on. Verbs can also extend their range using suffixes (e.g. vendigi ’cause to be sold, have sold’) or prefixes (e.g. ekvendi ‘begin selling’, revendi ‘sell again, re-sell’).

With the word celo ‘objective, goal’ we can create celado ‘goal setting’; celeto ‘minor goal’; celego ‘major goal’; celaro ‘group of goals, strategy’; or we can move towards prefixes instead, for example cxef- indicating ‘head’ would give cxefcelo ‘main objective, prime aim’ or as above pra- indicating ‘original’ gives pracelo ‘original goal’.

We can even combine words – so we can have lernceloj ‘learning goals’ or vendceloj ‘sales targets’.

It’s all very clever – and quite fun!

Accusative case

The so-called accusative case, which would probably be better named the “allative” as it marks both the object of a clause and motion towards, is often quoted as a disadvantage of Esperanto. However, for creativity, I find it hugely helpful.

For example, to say (the truth) that I once spoke Esperanto but I am unsure whether I now do, I could word-for-word write:

Mi ja parolis Esperanton, sed cxu mi nuntempe parolas gxin estas alia demando.

I did speak Esperanto, but whether I currently speak it is another question.’

For emphasis, however, this would probably be better stated as:

Esperanton mi ja parolis, sed cxu nuntempe mi parolas gxin estas alia demando.

I can happily place the emphasis on the language name right at the start, marking it as the object with the -n, without any loss of meaning.

The -n can also be used as a useful clarification.

  • En Italio mi feriis means ‘I holidayed [vacationed] in Italy’
  • En Italion mi feriis means ‘I went to Italy on holiday [vacation]’
  • Ili sxatas sxin plu ol lin means ‘They like her more than him’
  • Ili sxatas sxin plu ol li means ‘They like her more than he does’
  • Li traktis lin kiel princo means ‘He treated him like a prince [would treat him]’
  • Li traktis lin kiel princon means ‘He treated him like [i.e. as if he were] a prince’

This also allows prepositional phrases to be turned into adverbs of clear meaning: surtere ‘on the floor’, surteren ‘onto the floor’.

Subjunctive mood

The creator of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof, got a little confused about what was a mood and what was a tense but ultimately he ended up with a verbal system which is marked either for tense or for what is variously called the subjunctive, jussive or volitive mood (we will leave aside whether the conditional is a mood or a tense). The markers are -is past tense; -as present tense; -os future tense; -us conditional; and -u subjunctive.

This is a little more arguable for me; there is clearly an argument against the addition of a mood marker since many languages manage without one.

However, it has its uses.

  • Li volas ki vi iru means ‘he wants you to go’ [close to a demand]
  • Li volas ki vi iros means ‘he would like you to go’ [more a hope]

Therefore, as a language designed purely for international communication, Esperanto probably should not have different verb moods. However, as a language of international expression, perhaps it should?


While perhaps some of the individual number names are a little frustrating, the system is incredibly simple.

1-10 is unu, du, tri, kvar, kvin, ses, sep, ok, nau, dek; 100 is cent; 1000 is mil.

Then you simply combine them. 9876 is naumil okcent sepdek ses.

Now that is easy!

Bridge language

A criticism levelled at Esperanto is that it is too “European”, but at least it tries to cover all of Europe. Most of the vocabulary is Latinate but a lot is Germanic; however, some key words and often the semantic range is more reminiscent of Slavic. Words such as prava ‘correct’, pilko ‘ball’, po (a particle meaning essentially ‘each’) provide a bridge into Slavic; as do the way many words are used (such as the aforementioned po, the preposition el ‘out of’ or perhaps even the prefix ek- ‘begin [doing]’). There are also some subtle nods to Classical Latin (sed ‘but’, tamen ‘however’, apud ‘beside, near’) and even Ancient Greek (kaj ‘and’), so there is a bridge there too.

It’s just quite nice

The reason for Zamenhof’s relative success (for all those dismissals as a “failure”, Esperanto is by far the most successful constructed language ever and has even seen challenged from modified versions of itself, such as Ido) was probably that he was most keenly aware of all 19th century “language inventors” of the need for a community of users, rather than just writing out his new language and hoping it would fly.

However, it is also just, well, quite nice! It looks accessible but also challenging; it sounds pleasant but also neutral; it is generally regular and straightforward but has (perhaps even benefits from) the odd quirk.

As with anything in the modern world, commentary on Esperanto tends towards the extremes – it is either the perfect language of global harmony or it is a complete failure and a joke. The truth, again as with anything in the modern world, is that it has its advantages and its disadvantages; and, as with any minority language, the important thing is to allow those who wish to cherish it to do so, without seeming to force it on anyone. In that sense, yet again, Esperanto teaches us plenty about natural languages – not least because, in large part, it has come to be one.




Time now for Government of National Unity

I had no intention of restoring a political aspect to this blog, but recent events require more than Twitter threads!

We have now seen an utterly laughable proposal from the UK Government to the EU, even more laughably put forward on a “Take it or leave it” basis. Obviously, it is designed for the EU to leave it, and for the political blame game thus to be neutralised.

As a matter of fact, this is unlikely to work. Far from being evil geniuses, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are in fact evil charlatans. The EU will bat it back, offering the original Withdrawal Agreement or an extension, and clarifying the UK is responsible for the consequences if it rejects both (particularly since rejecting the latter is illegal).

The facade has gone on long enough. What is required immediately, as I wrote some weeks ago, is not an election or a referendum but a Government of National Unity.

Let us now state clearly what such a Government could do:

  • declare a national emergency (the current Government is bound to do this anyway) on the basis that the whole process of leaving the European Union is tainted by lies, misinformation and, particularly, corruption;
  • publish “Yellowhammer” in its entirety and announce an inquiry into that corruption (the Hedge Funds and foreign-based interests pursuing “No Deal” in their own selfish interest) and into those threatening to stoke violence;
  • revoke Article 50 on the basis that the inquiry needs to be complete and placed before the public before the issue is returned to them;
  • clarify that the “leave” promises people voted for in good faith were in fact utter codswallop (presenting the details publicly as necessary) and that “no deal” means chaos and then endless negotiations (a million miles from “getting it done”), and instead state an intention to hold a referendum, once inquiries are complete and published, to leave the EU on EFTA-Association terms;
  • increase funding for the NHS by £350m/week;
  • reform the BBC charter to stop the nonsense of “impartiality” between fact and fiction and between knowledge and ignorance; and
  • reform referendum rules (to include an “Independent Advertising Standards”-type body scrutinising claims made during them) and change the electoral system (to PR-MMP, as in Scotland and Wales).

Wouldn’t such a government be illegitimate and undemocratic? It would command a democratic majority in the House elected by the people, and would certainly be more legitimate that one which is in the pockets of foreign-based Hedge Fund managers who are making big money by bettering against the UK…

#Brexit’s fundamental dishonesty exposed

I fully respect that a majority of people in the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 and, I believe, that it is still the case that a majority of people in the UK would rather not be in the EU. Whether they can really be bothered with the hassle of leaving is the question now.

I can also grasp why people, even for reasons of purely emotional nationalism, would be attracted to notions of “taking back control”. I do not share but I think I understand the fear, particularly in post-industrial landscapes, of globalisation in general terms.

What I will never comprehend, however, is how people continue to support positions which blatantly veer from one extreme to the other.

Firstly, we were told that we would “take back control of our borders”.

Then, however, we were told the precise opposite: “Let them put border posts up, we’re not going to!”

Those two positions are diametrically opposed. They could not be more opposite. The notion that you take control of your border by leaving it completely unprotected and unmanned is obviously ludicrous. Frankly, a two-year-old could grasp how these are absolutely opposing things.

Now we are told that there will be border posts. So actually we will put border posts up. That is diametrically opposed again to what the Prime Minister himself said 40 days ago.

Logically, one of three things must apply:

  • you supported the Prime Minister 40 days ago when he said there would not be border posts;
  • you support the Prime Minister now when he says there will be border posts; or
  • neither.

In other words, on this issue and leaving aside all the practical consequences, you cannot possibly have supported the Prime Minister 40 days ago, and still support him now.

This is the fundamental dishonesty with Brexit. People will literally propose something as an advantage and then, just a few weeks later, support something diametrically opposed to that supposed advantage. Not for a second will they consider that this is an obvious logical fallacy, nor that Brexit is underpinned by a raft of logical fallacies.

Ultimately, it does not matter how many people vote for something, if it is underpinned by logical fallacies it is underpinned by logical fallacies. In other words, the whole thing is fundamentally dishonest; and is creating a further dishonesty as people refuse, almost by definition, to be honest enough to admit it! The Prime Minister knows the whole thing is based on fundamental dishonesty, and so does every one of his “supporters”. He has no plan and no idea, so he randomly presents ludicrous ideas in the hope no one will point out the emperor is wearing no clothes.

Unfortunately, matters are made worse by the fact we have a Government and an Opposition who engage only in logical fallacies and the inevitably consequential dishonesty on any issue at all (combined with outrageous extremism and sheer incompetence of a scale never seen before in UK politics in living memory).

The honest and logical truth, if anyone is interested, is that there are only two types of Brexit – pointless, or damaging. (And, by the way, since we are on the subject of the honest truth: the bridge is daft; we don’t need 40 new hospitals, we need properly paid and equipped staff; and the magic money tree won’t fund any of this anyway. We could also do with some honest reporting that this is all classic “dead cat strategy” every time.)

But how many of us are interested?