Sectarianisation of Brexit profoundly unhelpful

When the SDLP suddenly realised that a snap UK election may cost it all three of its Westminster seats, it immediately did something which may in the medium term herald the end of the party – it sought a sectarian pact with Sinn Féin.

It has, of course, since tried to dress this up as an “anti-Brexit” pact. This does not even begin to stack up. If the SDLP were genuine about opposing Brexit at Westminster, why was its first port of call a party which does not even participate there? Why has the only other Northern Ireland MP who actually turns up and opposes Brexit, Lady Hermon, who happens to be Unionist, not ever been mentioned within this “anti-Brexit” ploy?

It gets far worse, however. Because not once has a serious plan to secure Northern Ireland’s future relations with the European Union been mentioned.

Here is the real thing: most of the issues which impact upon Northern Ireland’s future relations with the European Union are in fact devolved. Northern Ireland is perfectly able, if the SDLP’s new bed mates in Sinn Féin were ever to take their seats in the Executive, to maintain EU policy in fields as wide as employment law and consumer protection. It is at liberty to seek its own arrangements on access to Health Research and reciprocal healthcare arrangements with EU states. It is even at liberty to seek its own specific deal on sharing information to tackle crime, recognising driving licences, and managing educational exchanges. Northern Ireland will also have to manage agricultural subsidies, infrastructure funding and even social programmes currently managed by or funded by EU bodies. As of next year, Northern Ireland could even decide to run with a policy of zero corporation tax to challenge for FDI as a “gateway region with access both to the UK and the EU”. Not a single aspect of this – all of which should be being dealt with by the Assembly as this election campaign goes on – has even been mentioned.

Brexit is going to happen whatever the outcome of this General Election in Northern Ireland, but the outcome of it could be managed so that the worst impacts were avoided and indeed some advantages sought through specific arrangements. To turn it into a simplistic issue to be dealt with by a sectarian pact with an abstentionist party whose own heritage is laced with Euroscepticism shows yet again a willingness to put short-term electoral advantage over the real long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland. No wonder, thankfully, more and more people are turning away from the sectarian politics which has served them so poorly on this issue and many others.

How to learn languages – Afrikaans

We are cheating a little as the final stage of our journey around European languages, because of course Afrikaans is profoundly not European (hence its name).

29 B Bangor

Spoken natively by the majority of whites and coloureds in South Africa and some neighbouring regions (notably in Namibia), including by a plurality of the population in some western provinces, Afrikaans is an extraordinary linguistic phenomenon because it provides a clear view of what would have happened to other languages had the process of language change not been slowed down by standardisation – with all the grammatical regularisation (and arguably simplification, although linguists dislike that term) that entails. Alongside English, Dutch (from which Afrikaans is derived) in fact remained the official language of the Union of South Africa until 1925 and retained that status alongside Afrikaans until 1961. Television was only introduced to the country in 1975. This means that Afrikaans is now a standard national language, but became so centuries later than any of the ones we have looked at in Europe.

So, what is it like?


Afrikaans is immediately and clearly not Dutch upon hearing it. It retains some Germanic harshness, but rather less; it has also often overtly dropped final consonants and other complex clusters.

It is, nevertheless, obviously Dutch-derived and many of the fundamental sounds (and similarities with English, helpfully) are the same.


Afrikaans was standardised remarkably late, although before the most recent reforms in Dutch. Therefore, since 1925, both languages have moved away from what was then Standard (written) Dutch.

Afrikaans simplified spelling from Dutch, notably by removing letters outright (so [z] always became [s]; [v] often became [w]; [ch] became [k] or [g]; etc).

The Afrikaans standard also removed final letters, notably -n and often also -t, where they are not (clearly) pronounced. That seems a sensible move (the spelling sewe ‘seven’ does reflect pronunciation in Afrikaans and arguably even in Dutch bettter than the Dutch zeven), but it does lead to some confusion in grammatically derived forms where it usually reappears (e.g. sewentien ‘seventeen’; also notably plurals and adjective forms, see Grammar below).

This loss of -(e)n has profound grammatical implications elsewhere.

Theoretically all vowels in Afrikaans can take an acute accent, a diaresis or a circumflex (although in practice not all do). These are generally used to show emphasis or distinction (e.g. sê ‘say’ versus the possessive particle se).

One marked peculiarity of Afrikaans is initial apostophes, notably for the indefinite article ‘n, which see the following letter written lower case even if at the start of the sentence, in which case the following word takes the capitalisation: ‘n Appel het ik geëet ‘(it’s) an apple (that) I ate’.


Afrikaans vocabulary is overwhelmingly shared with Dutch, particularly if we allow for natural progression of the language in a new setting (in much the same way as English developed to describe new things its speakers encountered in the American Wild West or the Australian Outback).

Key numbers:

  • 1 een, 2 twee, 3 drie, 4 vier, 5 vyf, 6 ses, 7 sewe, 8 agt, 9 nege, 10 tien;
  • 11 elf, 12 twaalf, 16 sestien, 17 sewentien, 20 twintig, 24 vier-en-twintig;
  • 100 eenhonderd, 1000 eenduisend;
  • 456789 vierhonderd sesenvyftigduisend sewehonderd negen-en-tagtig

Nevertheless, some core terms are taken from elsewhere, perhaps most notably baie ‘very, much’, borrowed from Malay (often covering any of Dutch heel, zeer, veel). There is also a greater tendency towards borrowing English or French terms (notably plesier, said in preference to Dutch alstublieft when responding to a said or implied dankie ‘thank you’).

Key personal pronouns (subject, object [if distinct] – 1st; 2nd; 3rd person):

  • Singular ek, my; jy, jou; hy/sy/dithom/haar/dit;
  • Plural [no subject/object distinction] ons; julle; hulle.

The polite ‘you’ form in either singular or plural is in all cases.

Informal Afrikaans does also allow some reduced forms (as in Dutch), notably ‘k (ek) and ‘t (dit).

Afrikaans is also notable because all possessive adjectives take the same form as the object personal pronoun: my ‘me, my’; hulle ‘they, them, their’ with the sole exception of sy ‘his’ (not hom; noting haar ‘her’).

For possessive use, dit tends to be used alongside the possessive particle se: dit se ‘its’. Dit is also merged, in all registers, with is ‘is’ to form dis ‘it is, it’s’.


As in English, nouns in Afrikaans no longer display inherent grammatical gender at all. The most common plural marker is the ending -e (hond ‘dog’, honde ‘dogs’; huis ‘house’, huise ‘houses’), with relevant consonant doubling (kop ‘head’, koppe ‘heads’) and any final -g in the singular generally removed in the plural (dag ‘day’, dae ‘days’). Another common plural ending, notably for family terms or borrowings from English, is -s (dogter ‘daughter’, dogters ‘daughters’). There are also notable irregularities (e.g. kind ‘child’, kinders ‘children’). Typically the -e plural matches -(e)n in Standard Dutch and -s matches -s, but this far from universal.

Verbs in Afrikaans are perhaps the most remarkably reduced element of the language. Only the auxiliary/modal verbs distinguish between an individual present and an individual past form: the auxiliary wees ‘to be’ has present is and past washê ‘to have’ has present het and past had; the modals kan ‘can/be able’ has past kon; wil ‘want/would like’ has past woumoet ‘must/have to’ has past moes; and sal ‘will’ (effectively the future marker) has past sou ‘would’ (effectively the past marker); the auxiliary word ‘become’ also exists but its past form werd has fallen out of common use. All other verbs have only two forms in common use, a base form (e.g. werk ‘work’) and a past participle (gewerk ‘worked’); in fact, those with a prefix have only one (e.g. bestel ‘order, ordered’). Additional meaning is conveyed by combining the past participle with het to form the past (ek het gewerk ‘I worked’) or with word to form the passive (dit word bestel ‘that is ordered’); or by combining the base form with any modal (ek sal werk ‘I will work’; hulle wou bestel ‘they wanted to order’). A more recent innovation is the use of gaan ‘to go’ as a (near) future auxiliary, more or less as in English and French: ek gaan bestel ‘I am going to order’.

The definite article is die and the indefinite article ‘n in all cases – the latter is now pronounced as a schwa sound (in other words as a neutral vowel, not unlike its equivalent in English when unstressed). Adverbs do not generally take an ending in Afrikaans. However, most adjectives do add an ending when appearing predicatively (i.e. before a noun); this ending almost always required for single-syllable adjectives and occasionally for others and is typically -e, although there are many common cases where further modifications are required (often removal of a final consonant; thus koud ‘cold’ becomes koue, laag ‘low’ becomes lae; or an addition of one where it once existed, e.g. sleg ‘bad’ becomes slegte), as well as a few outright irregulars (oude ‘old’ becomes ou; this die hond is oude ‘the dog is old’ versus die ou hond ‘the old dog’).

Word order is essentially as in Dutch – V2 in main clauses (i.e. the verb always appears as second element), and SOV in subordinate. Ek het die ou hond gesê, want ek in die koue huis was ‘I saw the old dog because I was in the cold house [I-have-the-old-dog-seen-because-I-in-the-cold-house-was’. Negation is complex (and, interestingly, linguists are unclear as to why it has become so!), typically involving double negation except where the negative particle nie is already final – ek het die ou hond nie gesê nie ‘I did not see the old dog’ [I-have-the-old-dog-not-seen-not]; there is also the peculiar negative imperative moenie (derived from moet nie), to which the same rule applies – moenie sê die koue huis nie Do not see the cold house’.



Afrikaans broadly retains the character of Dutch, but arguably in a more exotic way. It remains primarily nominal, but is of course considerably less conservative (Dutch already being considerably less so than German) in almost every way.

Despite the language’s original basis on the vernacular of people from South Holland, Afrikaans speakers do generally report that they understand Belgian Dutch (or Vlaams ‘Flemish’) better than that of the Netherlands.

What next?

That is our circuit of national European Latinate and Germanic languages complete! Next up I will round up the Germanic languages, and then do an overall review.

Please let me know any queries (and corrections) you have!

Ons Vader in die hemel, laat U Naam geheilig word. Laat U koningsheerskappy spoedig kom. Laat U wil hier op aarde uitgevoer word soos in die hemel. Gee ons die porsie brood wat ons vir vandag nodig het. En vergeef ons ons sondeskuld soos ons ook óns skuldenaars vergewe het. Bewaar ons sodat ons nie aan verleiding sal toegee nie; en bevry ons van die greep van die Bose. Want van U is die koninkryk, en die krag, en die heerlikheid, tot in ewigheid.

How to form an Executive at Stormont…

I had a bit of fun with some correspondents last week on the idea of the “Commission Executive” I floated three weeks ago. Some of the questions posed in fact affect the formation of any Executive, and they probably need to be looked at (at least eventually, given yesterday’s events).

It is worth emphasising – and the media should do more to stress this point – that the fundamental issue currently at Stormont is our inability to form an Executive.

In other words, we have a legislature (the Assembly), but no government (the Executive).

The reason for this is that our system for forming an Executive is extraordinarily restrictive. Firstly, it assigns only three weeks to the task; and secondly, it absolutely requires two particular parties (the largest party and the largest party in the largest different designation)  to enter the Executive even if they agree on nothing otherwise.

Although the origin is understandable, this is a frankly bizarre and unwieldy system and, one day, it will have to change. There is at least a case that that day has now arrived.

The ultimate objective, whenever this change is made, would be quite simple. Any Executive which can be formed and pass a Programme for Government and Budget should be allowed to do so.

Such a system already requires that such an Executive would include power-sharing. To pass a Programme for Government and Budget under the current Petition of Concern system, it would either have to carry a two-thirds majority in a 90-member Assembly or it would have to carry a straight majority in the Assembly as a whole and in both largest designations. I wonder if anyone has even realised this?

The easiest way to legislate for this would probably be to say that if a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot be nominated under the current system, instead of going to an election, the largest party would be given a certain period of time (probably more than three weeks in practice) to see if it could come to a “Coalition Agreement”. If it could not do so, the next largest party would be entitled to try, and so on, until it was “clear to the Secretary of State that no such Agreement was viable” (or some other similar form of words).

That Agreement would include:

  • the number of Executive Departments and their functions (perhaps the legislation permitting this arrangement should clarify no fewer than six and no more than 10);
  • the names of the Departmental Ministers appointed to head each Department (no more than 10; this would in theory allow for Junior Ministers to be assigned to larger departments);
  • the number and names of no fewer than two and no more than four “Executive Officers” (these would cover the functions of First and deputy First Minister on a rotating basis – there is no reason they should not also be Departmental Ministers);
  • a Programme for Government; and
  • an outline Legislative Programme.

That Coalition Agreement would then be put to the Assembly and, if it passed (noting that to pass it would either require two-thirds assent or majority support from both designations otherwise it could be blocked by a Petition of Concern), the Departmental Ministers and Executive Officers would thus be deemed appointed to form the Executive and carry out the Programmes outlined.

Note also that such an Agreement makes no restrictions on the number or order of Ministers (other than they must stick within the confines noted) – so, for example, a small party from one designation agreeing to form an Executive with a large party from the other could still insist during the negotiations on the same number of seats in the Executive or even on attaining particular Ministries.

I think there would be three more apparently minor amendments needed:

  • Petitions of Concern could not be used to block Executive business (policy motions or legislation) arising from the Programmes outlined in the Coalition Agreement;
  • Ministers so appointed would remain in office until they were replaced (even beyond elections on a caretaker basis, as is perfectly normal elsewhere); and
  • there would be a requirement to pass an annual Budget.

This latter is particularly important, as failure to pass a Budget (also subject to Petition of Concern) would be constitute a vote of no confidence in the Executive – and indeed would be how no confidence would be expressed by the Assembly (noting that the opportunity would thus arise annually). A vote of no confidence in the Budget would then return the process to the beginning (an attempt at nominating a First and deputy First Minister and then Ministers by d’Hondt; attempts at a Coalition Agreement; then an election).

In other words, it would all be quite normal – but would still have the relevant checks and balances in place to ensure cross-community consent.

Just a thought!

#GE17 need not be a complete disaster for NI

In the short term, the UK General Election due to be confirmed in Parliament today is surely not good news for Northern Ireland. The Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, immediately understood that having at least one election in the offing is unlikely to create the necessary space for the type of compromise required to get an Executive back up and running at Stormont before 8 June. While some will now seek to gain electoral capital by denying it, there were signs that the parties were laying the ground for a re-start of some sort, but that re-start will at best now be somewhat delayed.

In the long term all may not be lost, however. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, there is a strong case that an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister leading a party with a manifesto commitment to remain in the European Single Market (something which jars with her own commitment to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which oversees the rules of that Single Market) should seek a democratic mandate for what she proposes to do. This may not appear at first sight to matter to people on waiting lists, or concerned about jobs, or wondering when their local school will be rebuilt, but in the current global climate democracy (or at least some semblance of it) matters.

Secondly, with regard to “Brexit”, the prospect of an increased Conservative majority may work out to be no bad thing. Arguably at least, it will enable the Prime Minister to take a more moderate negotiating position without being wholly reliant on hard-line back benchers. That, if it came to pass, would be no bad thing for Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, that likely increased Conservative majority would leave it less reliant (even potentially) on DUP MPs. This may make life easier for the next UK Government trying to find some sort of deal in Northern Ireland, as it will be seen as a (slightly) more honest broker.

Fourthly, there is the simple issue that it was never necessarily the case that a (relatively) quick deal in Northern Ireland would be a good thing. Perhaps (prospectively) taking the summer to re-build relations between the parties, assess reasonably the flaws in the institutions as they are, and work out the detail of what changes are necessary to place a future Executive on a firmer footing than the last one was.

Of course, for this optimistic assessment to come to pass, the Northern Ireland issue will need more careful management than it has had hitherto. Northern Ireland will need a voice in the Brexit debate and the DUP’s acceptance of ‘particular arrangements’ will need to be fully considered; the next UK Government itself will need to understand better its role with regard to implementing past and current agreements; and after 8 June all sides will need to be determined to put popular need ahead of electoral benefit for the good of the overall process. The outcome of the election is no sure thing either – while not calling an early election in 2007 worked against Gordon Brown, actually calling one in early 1974 worked against Ted Heath as well.

From 9 June, let us hope for determined and cool heads.

Brexit not UK’s biggest problem

An Irish diplomat was recently reported as noting that the UK Government has worked out just what an economic catastrophe Brexit is.

That is bad news.

If you pay attention to nothing else ever on this blog, pay attention to this, however – there is worse news.

Manic car buying on credit… frankly crazy mortgages… mass credit card debt… pay-nothing-up-front consumer booms… that was exactly where the UK was in 2007. We all know what happened.

Yet it is also exactly where the UK is now. In fact, the UK’s credit card debt ratio and car buying spree is in fact considerably worse than it was then.

Now, as then, all these debts (and leases) are being packaged up and sold in bundles, the majority of which constitute relatively solid loans and are thus packaged as “AAA” (the highest possible rating). Now, as then, banks simply do not have enough money in their vaults – too much of it has been lent out. Soon, as then, the minority of the debts and leases which are plain junk will bite, will cause a run even on the safe loans, and financial institutions will fall.

The result will be another financial catastrophe. House prices in England will plummet, lending will become impossible, government revenues will crumble.

Peculiarly, Northern Ireland will suffer least from this because house prices and car sales have remained at a relatively sensible (i.e. fairly depressed) level, although credit card debt is a serious concern as will be the inevitable “austerity” which affects what is still an overwhelmingly large public sector (though not as comparatively large as a decade ago thankfully).

In England, where the average house price exceeds £300K and car sales are the comparatively fastest in Europe, however, there is the real prospect of a calamity worse than the first “Credit Crunch”.

The simple fact remains, as it did 10 years ago, that the UK does not pay its way in the word. Its trade deficit, contrary to Brexiteer fiction, is actually a monumental disadvantage because it means the economy (and thus the whole of government finances for Health, Education, Defence etc) runs in deficit and thus on credit – which means when there is no credit (as there soon won’t be) the country is essentially bankrupt.

No one will heed this warning, of course, any more than they will heed the warnings about the insanity of leaving the European Single Market or the EU Customs Union. It is part of the human condition that we do not learn from negative memories, even if comparatively recent. Mark my words, however: we will soon regret that flaw…

How to learn languages – Dutch

Of Western Europe’s “major national languages”, Dutch has by far the fewest native speakers (now numbering around 25 million). It is, however, a much understudied linguistic phenomenon, being a language close to German but which has ended up (for social as much as linguistic reasons) with a much less conservative grammar.

Spoken across almost all of the Netherlands and the majority of Belgium (by population), it is noteworthy that many traditional Northern German dialects are also closer (at least phonologically) to Standard Dutch than Standard German. Although they are not mutually intelligible, Dutch and German are close and many Dutch people can at least understand written German.


Dutch was also a colonial language. Although it has largely been displaced by local languages, creoles or English, it has left a notable mark in Southern Africa in the form of the generally mutually intelligible Afrikaans.

It is also, in practice, the closest national language out there to English…


Dutch shares with German a fairly harsh sound, although less so as consonants are not pronounced with the same degree of aspiration. As a result of these frequent but soft consonants, it sounds almost robotic to non-speakers.

The Dutch of the Netherlands is marked for the particularly strong (and long) pronunciation of /x/ (similar to Scottish ‘loch‘). This is a softer and generally shorter sound in Belgium, and is an obvious marker of the distinction between the two varieties.

The termination -en is common in written Dutch, both as a general word ending and as a grammatical suffix. However, the /n/ is generally dropped in all but the most formal pronunciation.

Dutch also has a range of complex diphthongs which can cause confusion for learners whose native tongues do not include them. However, Dutch did not undergo the second consonantal sound shift, meaning that some words remain very close to English: appel ‘apple’, water ‘water’, zeven ‘seven’, wat is dat? ‘What is that?’


The current standard language dates from the late 1940s, and is thus much more up-to-date than that of most other major Western languages.

The result remained a frustrating system of double and single vowels depending on the environment (closed or open syllables): naam ‘name’, but namen ‘names’ (main vowel pronounced the same way).

However, the most noteworthy aspect of the recency of standardisation is the abolition of grammatical case (except for some pronouns) and the general merger of the masculine and feminine gender. Unlike in German, Dutch nouns (and their surrounding words) are not marked for case except in archaic set phrases or some place names. This reflected changes which had already taken place in most Dutch dialects, but does give the language a quite distinct flavour from German.

The Standard was adopted in both the Netherlands and Belgium at more or less the same time. Therefore, the Dutch of both countries (sometimes referred to as “Flemish” in the latter) is identical in formal settings, with some very minor variations in spelling preference.


Dutch vocabulary is overwhelmingly of Germanic origin, although Dutch lacked the same purism as German through the 19th century and thus has generally allowed more borrowings, notably from French.

Key numbers:

  • 1 een, 2 twee, 3 dree, 4 vier, 5 vijf, 6 zes, 7 zeven, 8 acht, 9 negen, 10 tien;
  • 11 elf, 12 twaalf, 16 sestien, 17 zeventien, 20 twintig, 24 vierentwintig;
  • 100 honderd, 1000 duizend;
  • 456789 vierhonderd zesenvijftigduizend zevenhonderd negenentachtig

The core vocabulary of Dutch, given the absence of the second consonantal sound shift, is even closer to English than German’s. However, some key areas (such as pronouns) have undergone further changes versus Standard German.

Key personal pronouns (subject, [reduced], object – 1st; 2nd; 3rd person):

  • Singular ik, ‘k, mij; jy, je, jou; hij/zij/het or hij, ie/ze/’t, hom/haar/het or hem;
  • Plural wij, we, ons; jullie, jullie; zij, ze, hun or hen.

The polite ‘you’ form in either singular or plural is in all cases, taking a third person verb.

All common nouns are referred back to by hij or hem except if they are naturally feminine; all neuter nouns are het.

Dutch does retain, in the 3rd person plural, a distinction between direct object hen and indirect object hun (in spoken Dutch, either can be replaced by ze if referring to people).

The reduced forms are used usually as subjects or after prepositions. With the occasional exception of je and ze, they are generally not used in writing, particularly formally.

Dutch has its fair share of long words (combinations of other words), but marginally less so than German – in writing, hyphens are more often deployed: Noord-Duitsland (German Norddeutschland) ‘Northern Germany’.


Nouns in Dutch can be one of two genders, common (with article de) or neuter (with article het), and have plurals typically in -s or -(e)n; there is no easy way of determining which but there are some patterns.

Verbs in Dutch are marked for present or past (which adds a dental suffix, typically -t-, before the ending). Generally plural verbs have a single ending -en; singular has -t in the present (except the first person which has no ending) and -e in the past. With some common verbs, second and third person singular can be distinct, although they are gradually merging even there. Other tenses are formed with auxiliaries plus either the infinitive (ending in -en) or past participle (with prefix ge- and ending -t): ik zou dansen ‘I would dance’; jij hebt gedanst ‘you have danced’; zij had gedanst ‘she had danced’; wij zouden gedanst hebben ‘we would have danced’. The subjunctive/conjunctive is rarely encountered in modern Dutch, with its use (expressing command or desire) restricted generally to archaic set phrases.

Typical verb endings (with maken ‘to make’):

  • Present: ik maak; jij maakt; hij maakt; wij/jullie/zij maaken;
  • Past: ik/jij/hij maakte; wij/jullie/zij maakten.

Note that the final -t is generally omitted in the second person in case of inversion: maak jij but maakt hij.

The indefinite article is een in all circumstances. However, adjectives behave differently after it, as they do not take the otherwise usual attributive -e ending with a neuter noun: de grote hond ‘the big dog’; een grote hond ‘a big dog’; het grote huis ‘the big house’; but een groot huis ‘a big house’ (this is called the strong declension and also applies after other determiners, e.g. geen ‘no’, elk ‘each’ – geluk heeft geen groot huis nodig ‘happiness does not require a big house’). Adverbs, as in most other Germanic languages, are unmarked, as are adjectives used predicatively: ik heb onwillig gedanst ‘I danced unwillingly’; dat was onwillig ‘that was unwilling’; de hond is groot ‘the dog is big’.

Word order is complex: fundamentally Dutch is V2. In fact, the main verb is placed second in main clauses and first in interrogative clauses; all verbs are otherwise final (though typically in Dutch, unlike German, the main verb always precedes any participles or infinitives even in subordinate clauses where they are all placed finally): vandaag doe ik dat ‘I’m doing that today [Today do I that]’; doe jij dat vandaag? ‘Are you doing that today?’; ik ben zeker, dat ik dat vandaag doe ‘I am certain, I am doing that today [I am certain that I that today do]’. The negative particle is niet, usually placed after the verb (and object): ik doe dat niet ‘I don’t do that’.


Like German, Dutch is a largely noun-focused language. The prime difference is that Dutch is similar to what German would have become, had its Standard not adopted such a conservative grammatical form.

What next?

We are nearly done. Next week, we will cheat a little (given our focus is European languages) and take a quick trip to Southern Africa to see how Dutch developed there.

Onze vader die in de Hemel zijt, Uw naam worde geheiligd, Uw rijk kome, Uw wil gescheide op aarde zoals in de Hemel, geef ons heden ons dagelijks brood. En vergeef ons onze schuld, zoals wij ook aan anderen hun schuld vergeven. En leid ons niet in bekoring, maar verlos ons van het kwade.

Actually tourism can turn Belfast & NI around…

On 1 September last year I appeared on the radio to argue that tourism could not be the answer to Northern Ireland’s economic woes following on from this piece.

However, one reader wants to challenge me on that point! In the week Belfast hosts the 2017 Routes Europe aviation networking conference and writing in a purely personal capacity, Deborah Swain writes:

I would argue very much that tourism is absolutely central to Northern Ireland’s economic prospects. This is largely because the very purpose of tourism is to market Northern Ireland!

This week sees a major aviation networking conference, Routes Europe, take place in Belfast. It is events like this which have thrust so many cranes into the city’s skyline – there are now 19 hotels being constructed in the Greater Belfast area precisely because so many people want to come here. One major reason for this is events such as this conference.

This is not just good news for hotel chains. Everyone, from the hospitality industry (restaurants, retail etc) to taxis gain from this.

Furthermore, I would not distinguish between tourism and other sectors of the economy as if they are separate. They are fundamentally interlinked. Organisations such as Invest NI, Tourism NI and Visit Belfast work together to generate business tourism. The very idea is to expose people to Northern Ireland so that they come to consider it as a business destination – to create wealth and jobs across various sectors. By creating networks, promoting site visits and so on, what counts to us as tourism can be clearly more than what counts to many as tourism!

Routes Europe alone, for example, will see 1200 decision makers come to the city. This is a direct opportunity for our three airports to make their case to improve linkages; but much more than that, it presents Belfast as a location to build networks and do business. This can then be replicated in other sectors, because the infrastructure in Belfast and across Northern Ireland will be in place to do so.

Just this year, our “tourism” product will be targeted to bring world-leading industries to Northern Ireland with a strategic focus – that is to say, with a focus on key sectors such as cyber-security.

Tourism therefore is the very cornerstone of our economic turnaround – facilitating the very growth in targeted areas we want to see.

What do you think?

Parkinson’s 200th anniversary

This is a personal blog and I don’t generally bring business or clients into it, but this one is important!

This year Parkinson’s Awareness Week (10-16 April) marks two milestones. It was exactly 200 years ago yesterday that James Parkinson first identified the condition in his ‘Essay on the Shaking Palsy’; and it was 50 years ago that the last major breakthrough in Parkinson’s medication was made with the arrival of levodopa.

But these anniversaries are no cause for celebration. 200 years on 3,600 people with Parkinson’s in Northern Ireland are still waiting for an effective treatment that tackles the condition head on. And it’s unacceptable that 50 years after levodopa people with Parkinson’s continue to struggle to do the simple things that most of us take for granted.

Parkinson’s can fluctuate dramatically too with symptoms varying day by day and even hour by hour. People with Parkinson’s often experience tremor, slowness of movement and rigidity. Other less common symptoms include tiredness, insomnia, pain, nausea, loss of balance and constipation.

But that’s not the whole story because Parkinson’s affects almost every area of a person’s life. As well as the physical symptoms people with Parkinson’s can also have a range of ‘hidden’ symptoms including anxiety, depression, hallucinations and mental health problems.

The slow progress towards new treatments is just not good enough and Parkinson’s UK is today saying we won’t wait any longer.

The We Won’t Wait campaign aims to deliver better treatments in years not decades. Current drugs for Parkinson’s don’t stop the condition from getting worse – they only paper over the cracks by masking the symptoms. And all too often the treatments have distressing side effects.

Decades of research has deepened our understanding of Parkinson’s. We’ve discovered

We believe the science is ready for those discoveries to leave the lab and be turned into life-changing treatments. We’re convinced that new and effective treatments are within our grasp and we’re ready to drive forward the research community in a radical new approach to develop better treatments, faster.

We want to encourage better leadership that brings the best ideas together to accelerate the journey towards better treatments and ultimately a cure.

People with Parkinson’s describe the condition as taking away a little piece of them every day and are hugely concerned about the affects it has on their families. We want to change that and we want this to be the last generation of people with Parkinson’s in Northern Ireland who face an uncertain future knowing that their condition will never improve.

They don’t want to wait any longer for better treatments. And nor should they. But we can’t do this alone. That’s why we’re urgently asking people to donate whatever they can to support our vital research. We can’t stand by and let Parkinson’s treatments fall further behind.

To donate or find out more about the We Won’t Wait campaign visit

“Remain” side need to change tactics

I have written many times here of the risk of the echo chamber (particularly in this social media era) and of how left-liberals are in fact the most inclined towards inhabiting one.

Various organisations have sprung up across the UK to contest Brexit, in one way or other. They cover the whole spectrum from challenging the way the UK Government is going about leaving the EU to challenging the whole notion that the UK should leave.

Logically, they have an excellent case. There will be no £350 million a week for the NHS (particularly after a whole raft of new administrators have been appointed merely to administer Brexit); actually the EU does not have to give us a good deal (even Brexiteers now admit they may not even get a deal at all); and prices are beginning to shoot up (affecting primarily those on low and fixed incomes in places like Sunderland and Sheffield which voted to leave). Throw in lots of legal wrangling, uncertainty over how the UK will trade at all post-2019 and the fact that immigration from the EU will be untouched for several years even after Brexit, and in fact the case for simply remaining becomes rationally almost unanswerable.

Yet none of that actually matters. And, by the way, there is very little evidence that vast swathes of “Leave” voters have changed their mind; indeed, many of the 48% are now resigned to leaving the EU (quite possibly because they only voted “Remain” to avoid the currency crash which as already happened).

There is a real risk that the “New Remain” campaigners are about to make all the same mistakes as the old ones – not least because many of them are in fact the same people. They continue to focus on numbers (i.e. on “economic arguments”), when what won the referendum was a more emotional argument. Indeed, the only time “Remain” had a real lead in the polls was when its campaign was focusing not on figures but on global influence (i.e. on the contention that the UK is in fact more globally influential as a key member of the world’s largest trading bloc than it would/will be once it is isolated from it).

If people are serious about avoiding “Hard” Brexit, or even about avoiding Brexit at all, they have to convinced a considerable number of people who voted “Leave”. Let us ask a simple question: how many of those people are going to be persuaded by campaign messages which essentially say “Brexiteers are stupid”?

What is required instead (and I have no idea how possible or probable this is) is a campaign which appeals to the heart. For me (though I would love to research this in detail), it needs to start with a sense of loss from the potential lack of free movement, particularly for our young people seeking out new challenges and careers, which would surely arise from “Hard” Brexit. Then there needs to be some discussion of exactly how secure we are if we are essentially annoying our neighbours; and then exactly what our place is in the world (assuming we do not want to be Trump’s poodle, which is surely a safe enough assumption); and then perhaps about what a success multicultural Britain actually is. (That last is definitely a hard sell, but ask most foreigners what they most admire about Britain and its easy-going diversity may well be up there.)

In other words, what is required is a hearts-and-minds campaign which probably ends up asking “Is this who we are?”

That will be something quite different from George Osborne sitting in a hotel saying every household will lose £4300 due to Brexit. Which was a mistruth lie, by the way…

How to learn languages – German

German is the most published language in the world after English – and thus a near requirement for anyone studying anything from linguistics to great philosophers. It is also the most spoken native language in Europe, and is economically global. Only Chinese and English speakers collectively export more to the rest of the world than German speakers.


Regional dialects remain comparatively strong in German-speaking Europe. Peculiarly, the German of Berlin as traditionally spoken is arguably as close to Standard Dutch as modern Standard German.

German is, however, both seemingly alien (not being derived from Latin) and harsh (with its consonants, hard sounds, and glottal stops). It is also perceived to be considerably more complex than other languages.

How true are the stereotypes?


German is, unquestionably, a harsh language. It is markedly consonantal and exhibits harsh sounds, notably /x/ (usually written [ch]).

However, the phonology is relatively straightforward and accessible for speakers of most other Western languages. The vowels are relatively simple, the diphthongs uncomplicated, and most consonants straightforward. Stress is generally on the first syllable of the word (or the first syllable after any prefix). The challenge for many speakers is simply the length of words, and knowing where to place stress within them.

German is noted also for strong fairly aspirated pronunciation of consonants, the placement of glottal stops before initial vowels, and the devoicing of any final consonants in the modern language (so, for example, Tod is pronounced identically to tot).

The standard language is based on dialects which generally underwent a second consonantal sound shift in the late first millennium. This notably moved [t] to <(t)s> and [p] to <(p)f>, thus English ‘water’ (Dutch water) and ‘ten’ (Dutch tien) become German Wasser and zehn; English ‘pepper’ (Dutch peper) becomes German Pfeffer.


The standardisation of German was complex, but the outcome in terms of the written language was pleasingly regular. There remains no specific spoken standard – German newsreaders happily betray their general geographical origins.

Given the lack of unity across German-speaking lands until the late 19th century, dialect variation was a constant feature throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern era. Generally these were split into “Low” (northern) and “High” (southern) dialects. Luther’s Bible translation formed the basis for what, over a period, became Standard Written German, and it veers towards “High”. Over time, this predominantly southern form took over from Low German in the north, meaning that dialect variation there is now much less marked than in the south. Thus, even though they are geographically distant from the basis for the written standards, northern dialects (particularly those around Hanover) are often regarded as the nearest to a standard spoken form.

German displays umlauts on low vowels to mark fronting (<ä>, <ö>, <ü>), usually where a high vowel once followed (or still follows) a subsequent consonant (England ‘England’; Englände‘Englishman’); the distinction may be a grammatical marker (Mutter ‘mother’; Mütter ‘mothers’).

German is also noted for the scharfes S, the <ß> character originally representing [sz] but now seen as a specific letter in its own right (except in Switzerland).

German also marks all nouns with an initial capital letter, a practice which was once widespread in other Germanic languages but which is now exclusive to German.

Markedly, German is strict about separating clauses with commas: ich sehe, dass er da ist ‘I see that he is here’.

Austria and Switzerland have their own standard languages (and “Swiss German” is a separate story even from those). Although orthographical standards are agreed across all three countries and the standard versions are mutually intelligible, these can exhibit some grammatical differences (a tendency in Austria and Switzerland towards forming the past with the auxiliary verb rather than an ending; some differentiation in genders particularly in new words to do with technology; minor differences in prefixes particularly in Switzerland) and significant differences in vocabulary (most obviously around food – words for everything from ‘horseradish’ to ‘carrot’ are different).

German underwent a minor but controversial spelling reform in the late 1990s, aimed at regularising certain points of orthography.


German vocabulary is hugely of Germanic origin, thus close to older languages such as Old High German, Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Gothic. It is thought that up to 30% of Germanic vocabulary is not ultimately Indo-European.

Key numbers:

  • 1 eins, 2 zwei (zwo), 3 drei, 4 vier, 5 fünf, 6 sechs, 7 sieben, 8 acht, 9 neun, 10 zehn;
  • 11 elf, 12 zwölf, 16 sechzehn, 17 siebzehn, 20 zwanzig, 24 vierundzwanzig; 
  • 100 hundert, 1000 tausend;
  • 456789 vierhundertsechsundfünfzigtausendsiebenhundertneunundachtzig.

Allowing for the Second Consonantal Sound shift noted above, this means that core German vocabulary is close to English and Dutch:

  • hier ‘here’; das ‘that’; uns ‘us’; haben ‘(to) have’; Apfel ‘apple’; vergeben ‘forgive’.

Key personal pronouns (1st, 2nd, 3rd person; nominative, accusative, dative):

  • singular ich, mich, mir; du, dich, dir; er/sie/es, ihn/sie/ihn, ihm/ihr/ihm;
  • plural wir, uns; ihr, euch; sie, sie, ihnen.

The polite ‘you’ form is the third person plural in all instances (at least in the modern language), capitalised in writing (Sie, Sie, Ihnen).

German has a well known tendency to group nouns (and sometimes adjectives) together as a single word:

  • Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung ‘speed limit’, Überwachungsverein ‘oversight authority’, kostenpflichtig ‘at own cost’.


By the standards of Western languages, the German noun is remarkably conservative and thus extraordinarily complex. It, or its supporting words, is marked for singular or plural (there are no fewer than seven common ways of doing this), three genders and four cases. Masculine plural tends to be marked -e or not at all with or without umlaut (Wagen-Wagen ‘car-cars’; Apfel-Äpfel ‘apple-apples’; Tag-Tage ‘day-days’; Floh-Flöhe ‘flea-fleas’); feminine in –(e)n (Frau-Frauen ‘woman-women’; Zeitung-Zeitungen ‘newspaper-newspapers’); neuter in –er with or without umlaut (Haus-Häuser ‘house-houses’; Felder-Felder ‘field-fields’). Even with these complex generalisations, exceptions abound and in many cases dialectal variations are allowed (for example the alternative plural Wägen is allowable in the South). There is also a set of ‘weak’ masculine nouns (and effectively one neuter) which mark all cases except the nominative (subject) singular in -(e)n, occasionally with other exceptional modifications (Held ‘hero’; Helden ‘hero [object]; to hero; of hero; heroes’); all other masculine and neuter nouns mark their singular genitive in –(e)s – this has merged with the dative for feminine nouns and is in the process of doing so with all nouns in spoken German. The singular masculine and neuter dative ending –e is in the process of being lost even in the written language, restricted almost exclusively to set phrases (auf dem Lande ‘in the countryside’).

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

  • lache, lachst, lacht; lachen, lacht, lachen.

Infinitive is lachen; past participle gelacht; rare gerund lachend.

Verbs are marked for present or past; they may also be marked for subjunctive or conditional (which are often, but not always, the same form), although generally these forms are restricted to very common verbs (sein ‘to be’, haben ‘to have’ and auxiliaries) in all but the most formal language. Most verbs mark the past by adding a dental suffix: ich lache ‘I laugh’; ich lachte ‘I laughed’; with the exception of third person singular, endings are retained for both (du lachst ‘you laugh’, du lachtest ‘you laughed’; sie lachen ‘they laugh’, sie lachten ‘they laughed’; but er lacht ‘he laughs’, er lachte ‘he laughed’). As in English, irregular verbs are typically (but not always) “strong”, i.e. they form the past by changing the root vowel – ich singe ‘I sing’, ich sang ‘I sang‘ (some also exhibit changes in the second and third person singular: ich sehe ‘I see’, du siehst ‘you see’). Many speakers even avoid the past form for all but the most common verbs, particularly in the south, preferring auxiliaries (usually haben or, typically to mark motion, sein) plus past participle: du hast gelacht ‘you (have) laughed’, du bist gefahren ‘you have travelled’; the passive is similarly formed with the auxiliary werden ‘to become’, which is possible even with the neuter dummy subject es: es wird gelacht ‘there is laughing [it is laughed]’. Other meanings – future, conditional, potential, obligation and so on – are expressed through auxiliaries plus the infinitive, with changes to word order: ich muss ihm vergeben ‘I must forgive him’ (note also that some verbs, such as vergeben, take an object in the dative rather than the accusative case).

At least in the formal written language, all German main verbs must have a subject (unlike most Latin-based languages).

Prepositions may merge with articles, particularly in the masculine/neuter: in + dem = im; in + das = ins; zu + der = zur etc. They govern the accusative or dative case (or either, depending on motion towards), or very exceptionally in formal German the genitive: ich gehe ins Kino ‘I go into the cinema’; ich bin im Kino ‘I am in the cinema’; wegen des Wetters [modern spoken wegen dem Wetter] ‘because of the weather’.

Key prepositions:

  • in ‘in(to)’; zu ‘to(wards)’; an ‘at, to’; mit ‘with’; durch ‘through’; gegen ‘against’.

Only masculine singular nouns mark a distinction between subject (nominative) and object (accusative). Weak nouns mark both the article/determiner/adjective and the noun itself – subject der gute Herr versus object den guten Herrn ‘the good gentleman’; strong nouns do not mark the noun itself – subject der gute Mann versus object den guten Mann ‘the good man’. Adjectives also have two sets of endings depending essentially in whether the case is already apparent: ein guter Mann, der gute Mann. Adjectives do not agree with nouns predicatively: der Mann ist gut ‘the man is good’. Modern German generally marks only one level of gradation: dieser Mann ‘this/that man’. Adverbs are unmarked, as in most other Germanic languages: sie hat es klar gehört ‘she heard it clearly’.

Word order is strict and complex. German is fundamentally an SOV and V2 language. In interrogative clauses the main verb goes first and in main clauses it specifically goes second: ich habe gehört, dass sie darüber lachen konnten ‘I heard that they were able to laugh about it [I have heard, that they about it to laugh were able]’; hast du gesehen, ob er da war ‘Did you see if he was there?’ This “verb-second” rule applies regardless of what comes first, even if it is another clause: Gestern hast du darüber gelacht ‘Yesterday you laughed about it [Yesterday have you about it laughed]’; Als du ihm vergeben hast, habt ihr darüber gelacht ‘When you forgave him, you laughed about it’. There are also strict rules about the order of other phrases, including the positioning (towards the end of the clause) of the negative particles nicht: Gestern habe ich gehört, dass wir darüber nicht lachen konnten ‘Yesterday I heard that we were not able to laugh about it’.


German is a generally noun-based language. Phrases are based on nouns: Bei schlechtem Wetter, bleiben wir zuhause ‘If the weather is bad [By bad weather], we will stay at home’.

German can also show a preference for a degree of precision deemed irrelevant by other languages. For example, linguistic concepts such as Dachsprache or philosophical concepts such as Dasein cannot be adequately translated, and are often carried over exactly as they are into other languages. German is known even for modern terms, notably almost always nouns, which have no adequate translation: Schadenfreude, Weltmüdigkeit, Gemütlichkeit and many others.

What next

Nearest to German is Dutch…

Vater unser im Himmel, geheiligt werde dein Name; dein Reich komme; dein Wille geschehe; wie im Himmel so auf Erden. Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute. Und vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern; und führe uns nicht in Versuchung, sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.