How to learn languages – Latinate languages

Over the past four weeks, we have looked at individual Latinate (or “Romance”) languages, all deriving from Latin, and specifically from the Vulgar Latin of the eighth century. The importance of Late/Vulgar Latin has become apparent; it bears repeating that half the changes between Classical Latin and any modern Standard national Latin-based language had already happened by the time the later Latin dialects based on the “vulgar” (colloquial spoken rather than high written) form broke up geographically. Therefore, modern Latinate languages are clearly linked to that Late Latin.

Very broadly, we can split Latin’s daughter languages into “Iberian” (Spanish and Portuguese) and “Italo-Gallic” (French and Italian), at least in their Standard varieties. Nevertheless, largely because of its dramatic phonological development (and partly because of the consequent impact on grammar), French is the outlier – although Italian is geographically and in some ways idiomatically closer to French, it is in fact overall closer to Iberian than to French.

Phonologically all Latin-based languages broadly prefer soft sounds, they are more vocalic than Classical Latin was, and they exhibit significant changes to pronunciation of vowels and the letters <c> and <g> (which have softened, in divergent ways, before high vowels usually written <e> or <i>). There have been some divergences, particularly affecting medial letters (i.e. consonants surrounded by vowels or vowels surrounded by consonants). French has moved by far the fastest with its remarkably complex system of liaison; followed by Spanish and Portuguese and then by Italian, whose Standard is the most conservative form (i.e. closest to Latin).

Grammatically, the Latin-based languages discussed have all reduced three genders to two, continuing to mark them on words surrounding or referring to the noun; and they exhibit “agreement” of the adjective with the noun in all circumstances (and in each language adjectives generally follow nouns, with some minor exceptions). They are perhaps most interesting because of their treatment of the verb, however. They all mark verbs for three tenses (past, present and future) plus the conditional. These three tenses are assumed to be “normal” by many people across the Western world, but actually they are a clear marker of Latin-based languages (as we will find out, Germanic languages actually only have two tenses, and many other languages globally do not primarily mark tense at all). Additionally, most Latin-based languages continue to differentiate between imperfect and perfect aspect in the past (at least in writing). Through use of auxiliaries (usually those meaning or derived from ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, or occasionally ‘to stand’ and ‘to go’), a wide range of tense and aspect combinations is available. Notably, even though it has receded in some, all Latin-based languages continue to mark the subjunctive mood to some extent even in informal speech, at least in the present and the past. None marks for case (preferring prepositions instead) except with personal pronouns; and notably all are fundamentally SVO except if the object is the personal pronoun, in which case they are SOV.

We have, of course, not looked at a fifth national Latin-based language, namely Romanian, nor at some important regional languages such as Catalan and Sardinian. Romanian is notable because the definite article follows the noun; it also derives significant vocabulary and some grammatical forms from the Slavic languages which now surround it almost entirely. Catalan is significantly reduced phonologically (although not to the same extent as Standard French), and exhibits some marked distinction in the use of articles and the prominent form of some prepositions (e.g. amb ‘with’). Sardinian is the most conservative Latin-based language of all, maintaining even the hard <c> (i.e. /k/) sound in all circumstances, as Classical Latin did (e.g. Classical Latin Caesar was pronounced as modern German Kaiser).

Because much language study in the English-speaking world has been focused on the Classics, and particularly Latin, a lot of assumptions about languages are made based on it – which is peculiar, because English is a Germanic, not a Latinate, language. Notions such as three tenses, two genders, subjunctives, personal pronoun objects preceding verbs and so on are indeed common to a lot of the first languages English speakers learn (most obviously Spanish and French), but they are not in fact the norm and they are not a feature of Germanic languages (such as English itself).

Speaking of which, let us start on those next week…


DUP/SF don’t want to govern – so should be forced to

It is entirely predictable that the next few days will consist of the DUP and Sinn Féin blaming each other for a second election and ongoing political instability – when in fact a second election is what they both want.

What they do not want is to take responsibility for the calamitous state of Northern Ireland’s public finances; for the disastrous state of Northern Ireland’s Health Service; or for the failure to build schools, invest in roads and sort our water infrastructure. And as for Brexit…

I cautioned on these pages before the first election this year that the NIO should intervene to stop an election taking place.

Such an election would not just waste another £5 million. It would leave hundreds if not thousands of people unsure if they will have a job on 6 April; it would leave tens of thousands unsure when they will get vital treatment, vital medication or a vital diagnosis (while increasing numbers with the means simply go private); it would leave teacher pay disputes unresolved while pupils are taught in sheds rather than proper classrooms. Another six weeks for an election is six weeks (as well as £5 million) Northern Ireland simply cannot afford.

The UK Government somewhat churlishly commented earlier in the week that political stability in Northern Ireland is its responsibility. Well, frankly, it had better take some responsibility. Endless elections consisting of pushing sectarian buttons move us away from resolution at great and direct cost to tens of thousands of people, as well as leaving the entire process perched unnecessarily precariously.

Instead it should get on and do what it said it would do in past agreements (including introducing an Irish Language Act and setting up legacy bodies) and put it to the DUP and Sinn Féin simply: we had the election; you won a mandate to govern; you get on with it. Refuse to do it, and the people will know who to blame when jobs are being lost, free health services are being closed, and schools are going unbuilt.

By the way, the law requires the Secretary of State to call an election, but then the law requires the current UK parliamentary term to last five years. You know what Theresa May is about to do? Change the law so she can have an earlier election! If changing the law is good enough for the narrow interests of the Conservative Right, why is it not good enough for political stability in Northern Ireland?

We will miss Martin McGuinness

At the beginning of his adult life, Martin McGuinness was responsible for grotesque attacks and for numerous cases of human lives wasted and ended without justification.  We should never forget that.

Yet there was truth in Ian Paisley’s words that what matters is how you end your life; and in David’s Trimble’s that we would face the future with greater optimism if Martin McGuinness were still at the helm of Sinn Féin in the Assembly. We should not forget that either.

Human beings are capable of extraordinary feats of wickedness, and these should never be written out of the history books. However, they are also capable of remarkable change. We should indeed be grateful that Mr McGuinness decided to change; to put his undoubted charisma and leadership skills to much less destructive and more effective use than he did in his early years. For there is also truth in the straightforward old cliche that you do not make peace with your friends.

Indeed, we may note that grotesque destruction and appalling wickedness would surely have gone on in Northern Ireland with or without Mr McGuinness. But it is possible peace would not have advanced so far without him.

We are without him now. I trust that Sinn Féin’s next generation of leaders will find the willingness and ability to take us forward, not back; to move towards stability, not chaos; and actually to govern responsibly, not retreat to the sidelines.

Let us all be peacemakers now.

Unionists need to realise what suits England does not suit NI

It was the shrug of the shoulders as David Davis said the agriculture industry would now face tariffs of at least 40% which worried me. The fact was, after all, already known to those (albeit seemingly a minority) who had been paying attention.

The agrifood industry is perhaps Northern Ireland’s most successful and important sector. The fact is it often competes with or indeed cooperates with the Republic of Ireland’s. Now, the Republic of Ireland’s industry will have access to the European Single Market with no tariffs applied, and Northern Ireland’s will face tariffs of 40%+. I will leave it to readers work out whether that is good news for the Northern Ireland economy…

But it was already known. Frankly, Northern Ireland’s agrifood industry should have been far more outspoken before 23 June, but it was running scared of the DUP. There is no saving it from here – there is no precedent even for special arrangements (such as Norway’s) to allow anyone outside the Common Agricultural Policy tariff-free access to the Single Market within which that policy operates.

It is too late to recover the damage, although it would still do no harm to point out it was DUP policy to inflict that damage on Northern Ireland’s economy and on its rural community. One thing we should do is learn from it.

So just by the way, David Davis’ shrug of the shoulders should tell us something fairly obvious – what suits England does not always suit Northern Ireland. The DUP is now getting very excited about the prospects for future trade deals – but at least now let us learn the lesson. A trade deal which suits England (and is therefore entered into by the UK) will not always suit Northern Ireland.

Frankly, I rate the UK’s chances of trade deals as extremely low. I can think of only one which is likely – New Zealand. What would such a trade deal consist of? Well, how about exchanging the UK’s financial know-how for New Zealand’s advanced agricultural products? Such a deal would make sense for England. But it would decimate Northern Ireland’s economy by inflicting on it competition on top of removing from it access to its key market.

Some people seriously need to wake up. And not just David Davis.

How typical is the Solar System?

Venus comes as close as it ever does to Earth next weekend, and (from the UK and Ireland at least) has been as bright as ever just above the setting Sun at nightfall over the past few weeks.


In terms of size, Venus is remarkably similar to Earth, but is of course closer to the Sun (71% to 72% as far on average). It is one of four inner, terrestrial (rocky) planets, the smallest and closest to the Sun being Mercury and the most habitable other than Earth being the outermost Mars (roughly between Mercury’s and Earth’s size).

As a child I was gripped by the Solar System from the moment I observed Jupiter’s Red Spot (a storm then three times the size of Earth on the surface of the planet) through a telescope given to me for my ninth birthday. Jupiter is of course the largest planet (all the others in the Solar System would fit into it), the nearest of the outer planets and a “gas giant” a little over five times the distance of the Earth from the Sun; Saturn, also a “gas giant” and famous for its rings, is next, followed by the smaller “ice giants” Uranus and Neptune (similar in size and mass to each other, neither of which were known to the ancients and the latter of which is not even close to visible with the naked eye even in absolutely ideal conditions).

As well as moons around the planets (except Venus and Mercury) and various other objects with share orbits with the planets, the Solar System also possesses an Asteroid belt (essentially of small rocks) between Mars and Jupiter (much closer, in fact, to the former) and series of outer clouds and belts which are not all well understood. Some of these contain dwarf planets such as Pluto; outer ones have comets with weird elongated orbits. A full light year from the Sun (for scale, Earth is eight light minutes away and Neptune four light hours), the Solar System absolutely ends as the solar wind meets what is essentially outer space (known as the “interstellar medium”).

What has happened in astronomy in the 30 years since I first picked up that telescope is astounding. Then, it was not known whether there even were other planetary systems. Now, not only have 4000 or so “exoplanets” (planets orbiting other stars) been found, but entire systems are beginning to be understood. We are still at the beginning of this voyage of scientific discovery, but there is now some indication of how “normal” we are.

The Sun itself is often deemed a “typical” star but in fact it is abnormal in the sense it is among only 15% or so which are visible from other systems (the Sun would be visible with the naked eye in a night sky equivalent to our own up to about 80 light years away). Also, the Sun is among a minority (albeit a large minority) of stars which are alone – just over half are part of binary or multi-star systems (some are confirmed to have as many as four, and up to six may be possible). Of the lone visible stars like the Sun, that is to say 7-8% of the total star systems (at least in the nearby part of our galaxy), the Sun is fairly average, although some stars are vastly bigger (often thousands of times more massive and luminous) and life ranges can vary hugely (from a few million years to potentially a trillion; the Sun is halfway through its fairly average ten billion year life cycle). Stars are different colours too – the Sun, for the record, is white (it appears yellow-orange to us due to our atmosphere).

So of these single visible star systems, how typical is ours?

Well, the range of planets is fairly typical (although by no means universal). It is quite common to have small terrestrial inner planets and large gaseous outer planets. It is hard to say for certain, because by definition the exoplanets found so far tend to be large and close to their star, but the range of sizes would also appear to be quite normal, although many planets have been found to be between the size of Earth and Neptune, and quite a high number between Neptune and Jupiter. There is no reason to doubt that moons are fairly typical also. It may be that most systems have rather more than eight identifiable planets on average (some are already known to have as many as six closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun).

Two things do stand out as definite and slightly surprising, however.

Firstly, as expected, planets tend to orbit their stars along the star’s plane in the same direction as the star rotates (that direction, in the case of the Solar System, is anti-clockwise looking down from the north). However, it was also expected that planets would generally rotate the same way as they orbit (six of the eight in the Solar System do, and the remaining two were thought to be peculiar – Uranus effectively spins upright on a horizontal axis, and Venus spins theoretically clockwise but incredibly slowly, with its rotational day in fact lasting longer than its orbital year). Remarkably, it turns out that the rotational direction of stars and planets is random (roughly 50% clockwise and 50% anti-clockwise), and there is no connection between them in any given system – in other words, planets are as likely to rotate against their orbital direction as with it, and indeed seemingly entire planetary systems are as likely to rotate against their direction of travel through the galaxy as with it. (There are even systems where some planets do orbit the opposite way to their star’s rotation, particularly large planets close to their star, but this is atypical.)

Secondly, planets in the Solar System (particularly Earth) have relatively circular orbits, with little eccentricity (i.e. little difference between their closest point to and further point from the Sun). It turns out this is unusual. In most planetary systems, most or indeed all planets have more eccentric orbits than even the most eccentric in our Solar System; indeed, none has yet been discovered where even the average eccentricity is lower than that of Mercury, the Solar System’s most eccentric planet. There are also systems with large planets close to the star which are misaligned – that is to say the plane of their orbit does not match the plane of their star’s rotation. (This is all potentially a problem for the development of complex life forms, which is thought to be easier on planets with less eccentric orbits.)

Another thing which has become evident is that many planetary systems have planets which are locked to their star (i.e. they take precisely as long to rotate as they do to orbit and thus always show the same face to their star, the way the Moon does to Earth), or which are still orbiting in an interlinked manner (known as “orbital resonance”; for example planets which complete precisely three orbits for every two the next planet out completes). None of this occurs in our Solar System (at least as regards planets and the Sun). As noted above there is a bias here, however, towards systems with large inner planets, so we cannot yet determine whether such locking and interlinking is really common.

Thus our own Solar System is in some ways typical but in notable ways abnormal. The search for other planetary systems will no doubt make us able to determine just how typical and abnormal in the coming years.

The result matters profoundly. It could be that the Solar System is particularly or even uniquely capable of supporting complex life.

Or not…

How to learn languages – French

Of Latin origin but markedly distinct due to early Germanic influence and subsequently rapid pronunciation change, French is a remarkable language in every sense. Spoken natively by fewer than 125 million souls, thus ahead only of Italian among the four major Western national Latin-based languages, it nevertheless retains a global influence well beyond its numbers and a global prestige which is arguably unparalleled.

French took over from Latin in the modern era as the language of the elite (it was spoken in most European Royal Courts for centuries; Queen Elizabeth II is fluent) and of the educated. From international treaties to global post, French remains instantly recognisable and widespread in government and high culture. It is the foremost administrative language in the European institutions besides English, and is a lingua franca across most of North Africa. Although less prominent than Spanish or Portuguese, it has gone trans-Atlantic, as it is also spoken natively (with marked differences in pronunciation and colloquial vocabulary) in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick.

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Linguistically, French is also outstanding. It largely retains its Medieval spelling system, but pronunciation has developed and reduced dramatically, leading to vast complexities in “liaison” (the pronunciation of letters as words run together). So…


French phonology is a linguistic phenomenon, having developed far further from Latin than any other major Latin-based language. As a consequence of the reduction (and often complete elimination) of sounds, a hugely complex system of “liaison” exists – rules governing how different words are pronounced when placed after each other.

French is free of many harsh or rarer sounds. Thus, for many learners, the initial challenge is its strong and distinctive nasalisation. Like many aspects of the language, the distinction between the pronunciation of the four main nasals (generally written [an], [en], [in] and [on] as well as occasionally [un], with any following dental consonant silent) is contested even by native speakers and exhibits an ongoing pronunciation shift. Some speakers now pronounce many of the low and central nasals similarly, so that grand ‘big’, vent ‘wind’ and ton ‘your’ seem to rhyme, although this is frowned upon by many (and most still certainly distinguish vent).

French is also marked by a series of once complex but now reduced vowel combinations (lieu ‘place’; chevaux ‘horses’; moi ‘me’; haie ‘hedge’). These have changed swiftly through the ages, and can sound notably different in Canada.

However, the stand-out feature is the liaison system, which sees most final consonants (though not all) left silent in most instances. For example, the French number six, once pronounced not far from its modern English equivalent, has three contemporary pronunciations – j’en ai six ‘I have six’ (/s/); six amis ‘six friends’ (/z/); six voyageurs ‘six travellers’ (silent). Three is relatively unusual but most words ending in a consonant (in writing) do have two pronunciations, the citation form with a silent final consonant and a form with the final consonant sounded (and then in most instances as either the voiced or devoiced version of that consonant – so, [t] or [d] are /t/; [s], [x] or [z] are /z/; etc.), but the rules for exactly when it is sounded are complex (and change through time): Comment allez-vous? ‘How are you?’ [liaison]; Comment est-elle voyagée? ‘How did she travel?’ [no liaison on comment].

Related to this is also the concept of enchaînement, which sees the final consonant before an initial vowel in effect pronounced as if it were part of the following word. Conventions also dictate when a final -e is silent or sounded; typically in modern speech it is silent, but in combinations of words it may reappear in one: une grande femme ‘a great woman’ [final –e sounded only in grande].

Another marked development is the switch of initial in Latin to an affricate, written , which has now lost the initial stop sound (thus formerly pronounced as English but now as English ): cheval ‘horse’; chaine ‘chain’.


The Academie Française is perhaps the best known language institute in the world, essentially charged with determining (and promoting) what is and what is not Standard French. Within the French-speaking world (known as la Francophonie), the Standard is perhaps of higher prestige than is typical with other languages, with regional (or any other kind of) variations less tolerated. As ever, this applies particularly to the written language, but it may also apply to spoken French. Particularly in France itself, debate can become remarkably philosophical over the rules of liaison (noted above), general standards of eloquence, and other matters of pronunciation.

Spelling is based on the French spoken in Paris at around the time of the Black Death (as is, coincidentally, the case with English). This was not necessarily easily understood even across the rest of Northern France at the time, and was certainly alien in the South. Even at the time of the French Revolution, a huge range of often mutually unintelligible dialects existed across modern-day France; although no one can be precisely sure, there is evidence that a combination of nationalism and centralisation after the revolution saw these quickly eclipsed and the Academie Standard come to predominate, often even in speech (whereas this only happened with most other European languages upon the invention of broadcasting).

As noted above, the consequence of the Standard being based on the speech of so long ago alongside the remarkable phonological development of the language (at least in Paris) has resulted in an astonishing and in fact quite unstable disconnect between the spoken and written language. Spelling is relatively (though by no means completely) consistent, but guessing spelling from pronunciation is often impossible. This, combined with the complex rules of liaison, makes French an outstandingly hard language to master absolutely – arguably even for its own speakers!

Written accents in French are: the acute (only é) to mark an open pronunciation; the grave (è) to mark closed, or on other letters to mark distinction (‘where’, ou ‘or’; là ‘there’, la ‘the’); the controversial and often now optional circumflex on most vowels to mark distinction or a historical following [s] (hôtel) or [a] (âge); the diaresis to mark separate pronunciation within a would-be diphthong (naïve); and the cedilla to mark soft [c] before a vowel (i.e. pronounced /s/; ça ‘that’).


French vocabulary is predominantly drawn from Latin and thus is aligned heavily with Spanish, Portuguese and most notably Italian.

Key numbers:

  • un; deux; 3 trois; 4 quatre; 5 cinq; 6 six; 7 sept; 8 huit; 9 neuf; 10 dix;
  • 11 onze; 12 douze; 16 seize; 17 dix-sept; 20 vingt; 21 vingt et un;
  • 26 vingtsix; 66 soixante-six; 76 soixante-seize; 96 quatre-vingts-seize;
  • 100 cent; 1000 mille; 456789 quatre-cents cinquante-six mille sept-cents quatre-vingts-neuf.

Above 60, this demonstrates a vigesimal counting system probably borrowed from the Normans, who were originally Norse (Norse, as modern Danish, exhibited similar).

In Belgian and Swiss French, this vigesimal system may be ignored, with 70 septante and 90 nonante preferred instead (also 80 huitante in some Swiss dialects).

However, there are two noteworthy differences. First, as noted above, French phonology is heavily reduced, meaning it is not always obvious which words are related (e.g. chaine ‘chain’; Spanish cadena, Latin catena). Second, what became modern French was influenced much earlier by another major language (the Germanic which became German, Dutch and English), which provided a range of non-Latin vocabulary in certain areas such as orienteering (nord ‘north’), colours (bleu ‘blue’), or warfare (guerre ‘war’) – some of this was later passed on to other Latinate languages.

Key personal pronouns:

  • Singular je/me/moi; tu/te/toi; il/le/lui, elle/la/elle;
  • Plural nous; vous; ils/les/eux, elles/les/elles.

Vous is also used as the polite singular; modern spoken French also makes widespread use of the subject pronoun on, equivalent to English ‘one’ but often used in preference to nous or even occasionally je or tu where these have a general meaning.


French nouns are marked for the plural and are inherently masculine or feminine. Old French retained a case system for a lot longer than ancestors of other major Latin-based languages whereby, in general, masculine singular subject nouns and plural object nouns were marked –s and feminine nouns the exact other way around. Over time this was regularised so that all plurals came to be marked –s (though vestiges of the old masculine singular ending remain in personal names such as Georges or Jacques, and in some exceptional forms such as fils ‘son’) or occasionally –x. In speech, this plural is no longer pronounced in most instances, but is clear from the surrounding words.

Regular verb endings in the present tense (1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • singular chante, chantes, chante;
  • plural chantons, chantez, chantent.

These were taken over from Late Latin and were once clearly distinct from each other in speech except in the first and third person singular, with endings fully pronounced (note was /ts/ as in German). However, in modern spoken French, all of these forms except first and second person plural are pronounced identically (as if there is no further ending beyond the final pronounced consonant).

The infinitive chanter and the past participle chanté are also pronounced alike.

French verbs can be marked for future, conditional or past imperfect (the latter most usually with common verbs); the past preterite is now restricted to formal writing so that almost all past reference otherwise is carried out via the perfect, which requires auxiliaries (avoir ‘to have’ or even être ‘to be’) and the past participle. There is also a present and past subjunctive which, while rarer than in the other major Latin-based languages, remains in common use even in speech. The auxiliary aller ‘to go’ may be used with an infinitive to mark an immediate future. There is no progressive auxiliary, however; other constructions are required to mark continuous action.

Uniquely among major Western Romance languages, French is not pro-drop: every sentence must have a subject, even if it is a dummy subject: tu chantes ‘you sing’; ils finissent ‘they finish’; nous l’avons vu ‘we saw it’; il pleut ‘it is raining’.

Adjectives agree with their noun for gender and number in all instances. They are generally placed after the noun, but may appear before, including with subtle variations in meaning: une grande femme ‘a great woman’; une femme grande ‘a big woman’.

The singular articles are definite le (masculine) and la (feminine), indefinite un and une; definite are reduced to l’ before vowels (or silent h-). The only plural article is definite les. There is also in effect the further article de (du, de la; des) used as in Italian for general quantities: du pain ‘some bread’. Possessives do not require an article: ma chanson ‘my song’.

Common prepositions:

  • de ‘of, from’; à ‘to, at’; en ‘in, at’; avec ‘with’; pour ‘with’; par ‘through, by’.

The first two merge with the definite article in the masculine singular (du, au) and plural (des, aux).

French has an unusual form of mandatory double negation, with the particle ne placed before the main verb and a further particle (most commonly pas) almost always required after: tu ne chantes pas ‘you do not sing’; il ne pleut plus ‘it is no longer raining’. In speech, the ne is frequently dropped.

Peculiarly, French adopted Germanic word order late in the first millennium (verb second regardless of first element), which was replaced by SVO (SOV where object is a pronoun) gradually from around the 15th century, perhaps under the influence of the Southern Latin-based dialects it displaced as it became the language of the whole of France. Some vestiges remain: Peut-être est elle là ‘Perhaps she is there [Perhaps is she there]’. French also exhibits the system of “preceding direct object” in formation of the perfect where a past participle agrees with its object if the object appears before: tu les avais vus ‘you had seen them’; la chanson que nous avons écrite ‘the song we wrote’.


French is closest to Italian among the four major Western Latin-based languages (although it is still in practice more distant from it than any of the other three is from any other), and it does share Italian’s slight preference for noun-based constructions compared to Spanish and Italian.

French speech is marked by an even intonation, with very little stress evident within or even between words. This is exceptionally hard for non-native speakers to master (and generally not enough work is done on it by teachers and tutors because it is essential to the flow); conversely, it marks French speakers out when they speak other languages.

French speech is also marked by the tendency to add particles, a consequence perhaps of having reduced so many sounds, syllables and words. So although French words are themselves often shorter than in Portuguese, Spanish or particularly Italian, there may be additions to clauses and sentences to make them longer: Spanish Qué es? and Italian Cos’è? becomes French Qu’est-ce que c’est? ‘What is it? [What is it that it is?]’

French is notably vocalic, and thus excellent for music (though still not quite as much so as Italian).

What next?

Before moving on to Germanic, it may be useful to take a look next week at what unites Latin-based languages in the 21st century – and thus how knowledge of one can best be used to access the others.

As ever, thoughts and corrections welcome!

Notre Père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié; que ton règne vienne, que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel. Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour. Pardonne-nous nos offences, comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés. Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation, mais délivre-nous du mal.

#AE17 Transfers Analysis

There is a lot of talk around elections on either side of the Irish border about “transfers” – the votes which go to eliminated candidates or which are not needed by elected candidates which are then transferred to the next available preference.

“Transfers” are in fact a little like away goals; they do not really come into play if there are clear winners in terms of first preferences (as there were, for example, in North Down, West Tyrone and most notably Newry and Armagh, where the no doubt transfer-friendly Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy was unseated simply because he was too far behind five other candidates on first preferences). “Look after the first preferences and the transfers will look after themselves”, is what I often tell candidates pre-election!

Nevertheless, the transfers did tell an interesting story, and there is no doubt that a significant direct Ulster Unionist to SDLP transfer (in line with Mike Nesbitt’s publicly stated view) was decisive in electing John Dallat in East Londonderry.

Studying transfers in the Greater Belfast constituencies (where all five main parties are traditionally major players and two other parties also hold seats), there is significant variation between constituencies. Very often voters are clear about their choice of party for first and perhaps second and third preference, but then consider individual candidates for later preferences.

Two early eliminations (but still late enough to involve several thousand votes) stand out. In East Antrim, the elimination of SDLP candidate Margaret McKillop saw 47% of her transfers go to Alliance, 32% to Sinn Féin, and 12% to the Ulster Unionists directly. Although those first two figures are typical for Greater Belfast constituencies over many years, that last 12% is notably high by historical standards and suggests that some SDLP voters did specifically vote for “Colum and Mike”. A similar story in reverse came in Belfast North, where the elimination of Ulster Unionist Robert Foster saw 45% of transfers go to the DUP, 24% to Alliance, and fully 17% directly to the SDLP (again, a markedly higher figure than the historical norm). Neither of these was outright decisive on this occasion, but both were helpful to the Ulster Unionists gaining a second seat in East Antrim and the SDLP successfully defending a vulnerable one in Belfast North, just as they were designed to be – loyalty to the Opposition trumped communal loyalty for at least an eighth of the electorate, and probably rather more.

Noteworthy also was the Sinn Féin surplus in Belfast South, 59% of which went to the SDLP but 15% directly to Alliance and 10% directly to the Green. There is no obvious comparison in any other constituency, but this is perhaps an element of loyalty to social liberalism trumping communal loyalty (as is perhaps to be expected in that particular constituency).

It is often said that Northern Ireland elections are essentially two separate polls – one Unionist and one Nationalist. Yet not only did around 120,000 people vote first preference for candidates who were neither of those, but even thousands of those who did then transferred to candidates from other designations, often in preference to other candidates of the same designation – to support the Opposition, or particular social policies, or perhaps for many other reasons.

This should at least be food for thought for those who seem set on taking us down a track which will lead to pure “50%+1” politics. It is not what hundreds of thousands of people want, and it is not what they voted for earlier this month.

Does Sinn Féin want to govern?

Sinn Féin unquestionably had a good Assembly Election, not just because its vote rose and the gap between it and the DUP fell to just one seat, but because its decision to have the election cost it just one incumbent and enabled new (predominantly youthful, female) MLAs to be elected top of the poll.

Electorally, therefore, Sinn Féin has earned a solid mandate. That leaves an obvious problem, however – what does it want to do with it?

The party’s case, that Arlene Foster’s actions smacked at best of incompetence and that Paul Givan’s and others were pure disrespect, was not without merit and the (Nationalist) electorate agreed. But what does a solution to this look like?

The question, ultimately, is simple. Does Sinn Féin want to govern?

The answer to this question, as it knows, will be watched across the island of Ireland. Until now, instability has generally suited Sinn Féin and, perhaps partly because success breeds success, it now lies second in the polls in the Republic of Ireland ahead of Fine Gael.

Ultimately, however, voters are not in the current global context in the mood for further instability. Brexit, Trump, ScotRef and everything else are quite enough, and the experience of the Troika and the Irish property meltdown is raw. If candidates wish to be taken seriously as governing parties in Dublin, they may have to offer change but they will definitely have to offer stability.

Therefore, while many things are falling its way, Sinn Féin too is at a crossroads. Does it actually wish to govern? Because it is not just the Secretary of State who is capable of “waffle”!

#Brexit farce runs out of control

The vote for the UK to leave the EU with no plan in place was the single biggest act of economic and political sabotage any country has brought upon itself.

The blame rests not with those who voted for it – there were grounds of national sovereignty upon which the case could be made for the UK to become politically clearly distinct from the EU – but on the callous leaders of the Leave campaign who argued their case without any notion of how it could be delivered without becoming a constitutional and financial catastrophe.

The cost of this catastrophe is already being borne by the poorest, of course (those who rarely get much coverage in the media). As the cost of living (and particularly of fuel) rises, those on low and fixed incomes have nowhere to go. After all, it is no use the economy growing 2% if the cost of living is growing 2.8% – quite obviously, that leaves us all worse off, and particularly those reliant on minimum wage pay or benefits (which are not growing 2%).

On top of all of this, we now have the added constitutional uncertainty and wrangle of potential Scottish independence – the threat of which was seen off in 2014 until people voted for a Brexit Fantasyland which was never ever on offer.

Let us remember it clearly: “They need us more than we need them” cried the Brexiteers. Now they face the very real prospect of leaving the EU without a deal and without a quarter of their territory.

Take back control? This is out of control.

By the way, stricter immigration controls are perfectly possible within the EU. So is it not time to accept that the whole thing is folly and end this farce, for the sake of our economy and our unity?

How to learn languages – Spanish

In the Western World, more people speak Castilian Spanish natively than any other language. That alone makes it a prime candidate for “most useful language to learn” status!

The name of the language is disputed by speakers themselves. Castellano ‘Castilian’ is preferred by some to distinguish it clearly from other “Spanish languages”, such as Catalan, Basque and Galician; others prefer to emphasise the unitary nature of the country or the Spanish-speaking world generally by using Español ‘Spanish’.

The latter is more commonly used by non-speakers, and is thus preferred (without political or constitutional prejudice) here.

Having grown as the administrative language of what was at the time the greatest empire the West had ever known, Spanish then expanded its reach to reach its contemporary position, covering almost the entirety of Central and South America except Brazil. This also has the practical effect of making Spanish a markedly influential language in cultural and economic life within the United States. It can also serve as a gateway to other Latin-based languages, notably Portuguese and Italian.


There is a tendency to distinguish crudely between “Peninsular Spanish” and “Latin American Spanish”. This distinction is somewhat artificial – there is in fact widespread variation within Latin America (with, in particular, the dialects of the Southern Cone being outstandingly distinct in intonation and aspects of grammar), and even within individual countries. Therefore the division is nothing like as straightforward as that between American and British/Commonwealth English.

Spanish is increasingly also the first foreign language in Anglophone countries. So what, immediately, do we need to know to gain some quick proficiency?


Having sounded almost identical to Portuguese with minor exceptions, Old Spanish underwent a dramatic and probably relatively swift consonantal sound shift around its sibilants in the 15th and 16th century (just before its expansion beyond Iberia) to become Modern Spanish. Before this period, combinations had already been simplified (/dz/ to /z/ and /ts/ to /s/). Then, generally, the “hissing” sibilant (represented by <x> in Old Spanish and modern Portuguese and typically by <sh> in modern English) was eliminated entirely; the other voiced sibilant in almost all instances was devoiced (i.e. /z/ to /s/); and the resultant merged or standalone /s/ (usually now written or ) shifted in most Iberian dialects to /θ/ (usually represented in modern English by <th>). Notably, this latter shift did not occur in southern dialects upon which most Latin American varieties are based.

Spanish had already generally lost initial f- in common words (perhaps due to Basque influence), which is now silent but written h– (e.g. hijo ‘son’, hierro ‘iron’; cf. Portuguese filho, ferro; Italian figlio, ferro). Silent initial h– is also now written etymologically in modern Spanish, e.g. haber ‘to have’ (cf. Old Spanish aver; modern Italian avere). This may not apply in compound words: hacer ‘to do’ but satisfacer ‘to satisfy’.

Spanish speech has also merged <v> and <b>, typically written etymologically in the modern language. Like Portuguese but unlike Italian, it also tends towards removing vowels between consonants and vice-versa (ver ‘to see’, pueblo ‘people’; Italian vedere, popolo).

With all those developments with consonants, Spanish vowels have also developed to become remarkably simplified, to just five. However, in certain stressed positions some are diphthongised (<e> to <ie> and <o> to <ue>).


Spanish has an Academy, whose most notable (and widely accepted) intervention was to re-spell the language to reflect modern pronunciation (allowing for some etymological distinction, which has had the effect of catering for some dialect variation) in 1815. Therefore, the writing system is considerably more representative of modern daily speech than is the case for languages such as English and French, while also less complex than Portuguese or Italian.

Unlike Brazilian versus European Portuguese or American versus British English, there are no differences in spelling standards across the Spanish-speaking world. The differences are confined to items of vocabulary and occasionally verb (particularly past participle) forms.

The assumption in standard writing is that words end in a vowel, –n or –s. Where this is the case, stress is consistently applied on the penultimate syllable; otherwise it is on the final; exceptions require the stress to be marked with an acute accent (plátano ‘banana’; fácil ‘easy’; nación ‘nation’). This accent is also used to mark separately pronounced vowels (día ‘day’) or distinction (mi ‘my’; mí ‘me’; this is particularly notable for question words, e.g. donde ‘where’, que ‘which, that’; dónde? ‘where?’, qué? ‘which? what?’). The only other written accents are the conspicuous tilde <ñ>, formerly a double consonant <nn> but now marking a palatisation (typically written <gn> in French and Italian), and the diaresis <ü> used to mark sounding after <g> (e.g. vergüenza ‘disgrace’).


Spanish vocabulary is overwhelmingly from Latin, but Spain’s history both as colonised (predominantly by Arabic speakers) and coloniser (predominantly in the Americas) means it also draws widely from elsewhere.

Key numbers:

1 uno; 2 dos; 3 tres; 4 cuatro; 5 cinco; 6 seis; 7 siete; 8 ocho; 9 nueve; 10 diez;
11 once; 12 doce; 16 dieciséis; 17 diecisiete; 20 veinte; 21 veintiuno; 100 cien;
1000 mil; 456789 cuatrocientos cincuenta y seis mil setecientos ochenta y nueve.

Unlike Italian and Portuguese (and Old Spanish), Modern Spanish distinguishes between the auxiliary haber and main verb tener ‘to have’.

Key personal pronouns:

  • Singular yo, me, mi; tú, te, ti (or vós; polite usted); él/ella, lo/la, le;
  • Plural nosotros, nos; vosotros, os (polite ustedes); ellos/ellas, los/las, les.

The distinction between tú/vosotros and usted(es) (which takes the third person verb) varies between dialects. In many cases (notably parts of Bolivia/Ecuador/Colombia/Venezuela) vosotros is abandoned in the plural but the tú/usted distinction remains in the singular. In the Southern Cone, notably around the River Plate, vós is used as a singular (with its own set of verb forms).

Spanish also exhibits three degrees of distance: este/esta ‘this’; ese/esa ‘that’; aquel/aquela ‘that yonder’.


The Spanish noun, in common with nearly all other Latin-based languages, is either masculine (typically ending -o) or feminine (typically ending -a). Plural form is almost always -(e)s (with very few exceptions, typically direct borrowings from English or Latin). A notable feature of Spanish is the “interpersonal a“; the preposition is required before all “animate” grammatical objects: el agua ayudó a mi hijo ‘the water helped my son’; vimos a Conchita ‘we saw Conchita’. (The origins and purpose of this feature remain a mystery to linguists.)

Verb endings in present tense (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • canto, (tú) cantas or (vós) cantás, canta; cantamos, cantais, cantan.

Note also “infinitive” cantar; “past participle” cantado; “gerund” cantando.

The verb is not quite as complex as in Portuguese (at least in daily speech), but as in Portuguese separate preterite and imperfect endings run alongside present, future and conditional even in daily speech; there is also a present subjunctive form and bizarrely two past subjunctive forms (which are more or less interchangeable). In addition, the perfect aspect can be formed with the auxiliary haber and an immediate future with ir a ‘to go, to’. Notably the passive is often formed with a reflexive: Español se habla en Venezuela ‘Spanish is spoken [speaks itself] in Venezuela’.

Adjectives agree with their nouns in all circumstances, typically but not always placed after them: una vergüenza loca ‘a crazy disgrace’. Adverbs are relatively rare, but in line with Vulgar Latin and most of its daughter languages add –mente to the feminine form: verdadero ‘true‘; verdaderamente ‘truly’.

The singular articles are masculine el (definite) and un (indefinite), and feminine la and una. Plural are los and unos, and las and unas. Plural indefinite articles are relatively common to mean ‘some’ or ‘a number of’: unos cantadores ‘a number of singers’. There is no elision but, before stressed a-, la rather confusingly switches to el: el agua ‘the water’ (feminine). Unlike in Portuguese, no article is required with possessives: mi canció‘my song’ (although stylistically it may be reinserted if the full possessive adjective is placed after: la canción mía ‘the song of mine’).

Common prepositions:

  • de ‘of’; a ‘to’; por ‘for, through’; para ‘for, towards’.

The first two of these merge in the masculine singular with the article: del ‘of the’; al ‘to the’.

The negative particle is no, simply placed before the verb and any object pronouns: no lo vimos ‘we did not see it’. Double negation is possible and sometimes required: no vimos nada ‘we saw nothing’.

Spanish is consistently a pro-drop language meaning that verbs are used without the subject if the subject is clear: canto ‘I sing’; terminan ‘they finish’; lo vimos ‘we saw it’.

Spanish has a tendency to prefer nouns standing alone where other languages may prefer an adjective: es verdad ‘it’s true [it’s truth]’.

Word order is typically SVO (SOV where the object is a pronoun), but is in fact quite free. VSO is particularly common in subordinate clauses: el hierro que vieron los cantadores ‘the iron that the singers saw [saw the singers]‘. There is no ‘preceding direct object agreement’ in modern Spanish, but any object preceding the subject (or assumed subject if one is absent) must be repeated as an object pronoun: esta canción la hemos escrito hoy ‘This song, we have written it today’.


Spanish is a generally vocalic language (though less so than Italian), but generally has a somewhat flatter intonation. This can vary, of course – some dialects in Argentina and Uruguay do sound quite Italian. It is also quite verbal, often preferring complex verbs or even nouns turned into verbs (e.g. necesitar ‘to need’, solucionar ‘to solve’).

What next?

We continue heading north, to French – a language as theoretically far removed from Latin as Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, but one which in fact appears markedly distinct from them collectively.

Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre; venga a nosostros tu reino; hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo; danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día; perdona nuestras ofensas, como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden; no nos dejes caer en la tentación, y líbranos del mal.