Category Archives: Language

Schools should teach “language”, not languages

This drop in the number of school pupils taking or even being offered languages in Northern Ireland is fairly typical of the UK as a whole (although not, in fact, of Ireland).

At one level it is indeed alarming. Living solely in English is to cut off access to other cultures and other ways of doing things in every walk of life. It is even unhealthy.

However, a drop in the number of languages on offer in schools is not necessarily a bad thing if it leads to a long needed correction. In fact, the way languages are taught in schools is outdated and, for most pupils, hopeless. This could well be the reason fewer schools are even offering them.

Firstly, the process on language teaching itself needs to be reformed. As I have written many times here, “vocabulary lists” and “dry grammar” are no way to learn a language. Asking for vanilla ice cream when you know you would prefer strawberry, or saying you have two sisters and one brother when you’re an only child, is the final straw in the inevitable loss of interest. This is even more the case when it all seems so pointless.

Secondly, however, the very notion of teaching each language as a separate subject needs to be challenged. Do we teach probability separately from trigonometry? No, we teach mathematics. So why teach languages separately?

Many of the basic principles of Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, or all four of those languages together are the same. We could even learn Esperanto first as an introduction to get pupils interested. Some of the principles of Indo-European as a whole are interesting. Even the broad notion of language (that some use compass directions for left and right, or others use relevance rather than time as the key verb distinction) can draw attention. Keep it interesting and pupils will learn.

It is time to think again about the whole thing. It is not that pupils are any less interested in languages in principle. The problem is the way they are taught fundamentally does not work.

The original post ended there, but it is worth adding the first comment to the text at this point. Edward McCambley writes:

The difficulty is with time. Perhaps the greatest act of educational vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries was the Labour Goverment’s decision to abandon school study of a modern language GCSE. This meant, in effect, for many pupils, a modern language for two years. This is worthless.

The way forward is to do what Irish medium schools do. Make a language other than English central to the curriculum. And before the True Brits get worked up: I am not (sadly) an Irish language speaker. I might add that the abandonment of modern language study by that well known local business, Queen’s University, in its pursuit of Asian money, does not help.

Whether that way forward is viable is debatable. However, it is worth noting that pupils are already leaving some Irish-medium primary schools with GCSEs in two languages (typically Irish and Spanish). Parents are told that it is for them to ensure English-language competence is maintained. That must be food for thought?


How to learn languages Review (repost)

Every Friday this year, I have run through how to learn the major Western European languages.


It is important to emphasise that, in terms of learning, the story starts with this general vocabulary list and overall introduction. Without it, the other introductions to each individual language and language group make sense, but have limited value.


Then we need to note that all the languages referred to – the entirely of  both the Romance/Latinate and the Germanic language family (as well as many others) – derive from a single language known by modern linguists as Proto-Indo-European.


Anyone embarking on learning several languages – particularly if these are Romance/Latinate, Germanic and/or Slavic – may consider first learning the constructed language Esperanto. This is relatively simple, but offers some introduction to the principles and complexities/challenges/fun of language learning (from tricky phonology to the subjunctive mood, alongside some unintentional irregularities). It can also be useful for vocabulary, drawn as it is largely from Latin or Latin-based languages but also in significant part from Germanic and Slavic.


What are usually referred to as “Romance” languages are those derived from Latin – among national languages, this means (from west to east in Europe) Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian. They all carry over complex verb systems (with three tenses and a range of moods, and full verbal agreement) and two noun genders (with full adjectival agreement). In fact, almost half the linguistic change between Classical Latin and each of those languages had occurred by the time they split apart; thus they are not only derived from the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar but in fact from the Late Latin still in some use at the time of Charlemagne – having some comprehension of that late version (also known as “Vulgar Latin”) is a huge advantage to anyone wishing to learn any Romance language, and particularly to anyone wishing to learn more than one.

All other things being equal, perhaps the best Romance language to start with is Italian. It is the most conservative of the main national Romance languages, and therefore includes most of the features found in the others.

On the basis that it is easier to learn a relatively complex language before a structurally more straightforward one, next may be Portuguese. From a purely European point of view, this one seems marginal, but the growing role of Brazil as a regional power perhaps gives it as much significance as any other in the modern world.

Structurally more straightforward (comparatively) is arguably the most useful foreign language for English speakers to learn, Spanish. The main complication is that the phonology of Spanish has changed markedly since the Golden Age, although spelling has (broadly at least) kept up. With almost half a billion native speakers worldwide, and a significant role also within the United States, this is rapidly becoming the first language in schools in the English-speaking world with good reason. Its only drawback is that learning other languages having learned Spanish generally takes longer than the other way around.

For all that, in the British Isles French generally remains the first foreign language, with its remarkable cultural power and astonishing phonological development. This is not particularly linguistically helpful, however, as its distinct phonology (a product, at least in part, of notable early Germanic influence) means French is further from the other three modern Romance languages looked at here than any of the other three is from any of the others.


Germanic languages derive from what is referred to by linguists as “Proto-Germanic”, spoken at the same time as Classical Latin. They display simpler verb forms (with only two tenses, rare use of subjunctive mood and even in some cases elimination or near elimination of verbal and some adjectival agreement) but a broadly more complex noun (albeit simplified in some modern standards), with the neuter case maintained at least in some form across the board. The first major written text in Germanic is in fact in the now extinct East Germanic language of Gothic, contemporaneous with the Roman emperor Constantine.

The first written version of any Germanic language still in existence was in fact the West Germanic language of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, from which modern English (and also Scots) is derived. Old English bears almost no more relation to modern English than Gothic does, but the intermediate period gave us the language of the first great English literary figure, Chaucer. This is known as Middle English, but is markedly further removed from the modern language that the Early Modern English of Shakespeare as the speed of language change slowed down after the invention of the printing press.

Modern English is, of course, something of a hybrid given the influence on it of Latin, Norman French and other languages; like French, it is complicated by the fact it is written to reflect medieval rather than modern pronunciation, and there has been a sound shift since. The most widely spoken West Germanic language other than English, and the most conservative and obviously Germanic language still widely used, is German, with the remarkable ongoing complexity of its noun system; it is grammatically complex, but at least its written form reflects its sound shifts.

Another less complex West Germanic language is Dutch, interesting in its own right but also because of its even more grammatically reduced daughter language spoken in Southern Africa, Afrikaans. This is the nearest national language in existence to English (but the reverse does not apply).

There is also a group of North Germanic languages, split between the Western or Insular ones (Icelandic, Faroese and arguably one standard of Norwegian) and the Eastern or Scandinavian ones (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish). To some degree each group of these is mutually intelligible (they are significantly more conservative as you move northwest), but Danish is outstanding for its remarkably reduced/progressed phonology.


It has been my contention throughout that tying the knowledge of the basic vocabulary at the outset to an overall historical overview and then a fundamental grammatical outline gives us a much faster route to becoming at least proficient in several foreign languages without having to learn each from scratch. This way, language learning need not be such a chore, and in fact takes on a much more interesting route.

Nevertheless, as ever, I am open to any corrections, queries or contrary views!

French (and Italian) grammatical “absurdity”

Two Belgian ex-teachers in the French-speaking part of the country published an article (in French) seeking to achieve what is surely the impossible – to change a ‘rule’ of French grammar. They are doing so because, they claim, the rule is ‘absurd’.

The rule concerned is usually known in English as the “Preceding Direct Object” rule. It is a peculiar rule and one which will have caused some consternation among most who studied French to advanced level.

The rule concerns the agreement of the past participle in the perfect aspect (the usual way of indicating the past in spoken or all but the most formal written French). In a straightforward sentence when the main auxiliary verb is avoir ‘to have’, such as j’ai acheté les chaussures ‘I (have) bought the shoes’ the basic (actually masculine singular) form of the participle (acheté) is used.

However, if the verb requires être ‘to be’, used with certain verbs which are intransitive (cannot have a direct object), the participle ‘agrees’ with the subject: il est monté but elle est montée (and ils sont montéselles sont montées).

This also applies to reflexives: elle s’est lavée ‘she washed herself’. This means in effect that the participle is ‘agreeing’ with the direct object as well as the subject (in a reflexive clause they are the same).

However, the notion of the participle ‘agreeing’ with the direct object is then carried over in the modern language to include when the direct object is a pronoun (in which case it appears before the verb): thus j’ai acheté les chaussures but je les ai achetées (assuming we are still referring to chaussures). In fact, French has since the 17th century at least adopted an outright rule that the participle ‘agrees’ with any direct object preceding the verb in the sentence. Thus it is even: les chaussures que j’ai achetées.

The fundamental principle is sometimes said (by prescriptive grammarians) to be that a participle with avoir after the direct object is in effect an adverb (and thus unchangeable), whereas one after a direct object or the subject of être is an adjective (and thus ‘agrees’). Quite where this idea came from is unclear.

The Belgian teachers’ argument here is that for all this complication (and it took long enough to write the above), there is generally no difference in pronunciation whatsoever (with minor exceptions: the participle in j’ai pris les chaussures ‘I took the shoes’ is pronounced differently, at least in careful speech, from the participle in les chaussures que j’ai prises; but this is a rarity). Their argument, therefore, is that the whole thing is basically an unnecessary complication, an irrelevance, and in any case an aberration borrowed for no particular reason from Italian.

They unquestionably have a point. Spanish, for example, manages perfectly well constructing its perfect through the auxiliary verb haber and an invariable past participle: he comprado las zapatas; las he comprado; las zapatas que he comprado. No difference. Easy. (It was not ever so, however, and in fact we still see vestiges of the old system of ‘agreement’ in modern Spanish: it is still the case that if tener is used as the principal verb rather than haber to emphasise the change of state, the participle agrees with the participle: tengo compradas las zapatas ‘I’ve got the shoes bought’; however, this is regular because the participle agrees regardless of the position in the sentence of the direct object.)

What is interesting, however, is that if the rule was borrowed from Italian, it was probably borrowed in error. Modern Italian, with some minor exceptions, does not require (although it does permit) agreement of the participle with a preceding direct object as in French; and it is questionable whether it ever did.

Modern Italian does require ‘agreement’ with a third person direct object pronoun: ho comprato le scarpe; le ho comprate. The reason for this is understandable; in speech, the third person direct object pronoun sounds the same before any form of avere ‘to have’, and thus it is the participle which indicates the actual form: l’ho comprato is masculine singular; l’ho comprata feminine singular; li ho comprati masculine plural and le ho comprate feminine plural – in each case, in general speech, the only difference clearly heard between each of those is the final letter.

Otherwise, however, Italian does not require ‘agreement’; some speakers prefer ci hai visti (with agreement) and others ci hai visto ‘you have seen us’. Generally, in fact, Italian prefers non-agreement if the direct object is not a pronoun: le scarpe che ho comprato would be preferred by most speakers to le scarpe che ho comprate, although neither would be seen as an error.

Italian, therefore, has maintained the preceding direct object rule as an option, but absolutely requires it only where it specifically assists understanding by enabling a clear distinction in pronunciation. French, on the other hand, insists on maintaining the rule in all circumstances, despite the fact that in almost all cases it makes no difference to pronunciation whatsoever (and thus cannot be decisive to understanding).

The Belgian teachers clearly have a point, therefore. There appears no reason whatsoever, therefore, that French would not in fact adopt the Spanish rule over the Italian one, not least because the Italian one is not even a rule but rather an option! However, it is unlikely much will change – the fact is we as human beings become very accustomed to grammatical rules, even the plainly ‘absurd’ ones!

The peculiar case of “text” as a past tense

When I wrote last week that originally all verbs in Germanic languages (such as English) formed their past forms by changing their root vowel (e.g. sing-sang-sung) and that the now productive (i.e. perceived to be regular) means of doing so by adding a dental suffix (-t or, more typically in Modern English, –ed), I would suggest that this was news to most readers.

At least consciously.

Yet every reader, in fact, knew this. As speakers of a Germanic language we are in fact linguistically programmed to know that the “dental suffix” ending marks the past. As a result, through time, it has become increasingly the case that it does (as noted last week, we now say helped not halp/holpen).

In fact, our pre-programmed determination to end past forms with a dental suffix overrides our preference for regularisation itself. There is a peculiar 21st century example of this.

The verb “to text” has emerged only in the past generation. It would have appeared senseless to anyone before the mid-90s that “text” could be anything other than a noun.

However, here is a funny thing: in casual speech, the verb “to text” is irregular in the past.

The regular past of text would of course be texted. Yet just listen out for it the next time you hear it, or even consider what you yourself say, and you will note that the past form (at least in casual speech) is in fact text. People actually say ‘I text her yesterday’ not ‘I texted her yesterday’.

We see this also with verbs such as “to bet”. What has happened is that our innate tendency towards ending a past with a dental suffix (in this case –t) has overridden our preference for outright regular past formation.

So, it turns out we know rather more about our linguistic heritage than we thought – even when using the most 21st century vocabulary!

Irregular verbs in English

‘There must be a Japanese word for the feeling you have when you see someone write “has went”‘, I once tweeted. As I wrote on this blog some years ago, it is of course a lost battle; a generation or so from now, “has went” (rather than the currently Standard “has gone”) will be universally accepted.

One potentially interesting aspect of this is that went is a “suppletive”. Suppletives are words used as part of a paradigm (e.g. a past form of a present; thus went for go) which have no historical relation. Other examples in English include good – better and some parts of to be (which varies wildly through the paradigm across am and are through been to was and were). What generally has happened is that a word which originally had a restrictive term has come to be more generally used. Went was in fact originally the past form of wend (cf. sent of send); go (actually gan as it was originally, and still is in non-standard speech in Northumbria) had another suppletive past form eode (which combined with a suffix also gave ful-eode, now followed; the present form follow is in fact a regularised back formation versus the original fulgan, cf. German folgen). Over time went took over as the past form of what was now go, but the non-suppletive past participle form gone remains (at least in careful, standard usage).

Most neighbouring languages do distinguish between a past form (sometimes known as a “preterite”) and a part participle. French has parlai/-as/-a etc versus parlé(es); German has plauderte(-st/-n) versus plaudert; Spanish has hablé/-aste/-ó versus hablado; and so on. With regular verbs, however, English no longer does – talked is both a past form (used throughout the paradigm – I talked, you talked, it talked…) and past participle (I have talked).

However, these regular verbs are in fact an innovation in Germanic languages. Originally, all verbs formed their past (and occasionally other forms) by way of ablaut – essentially, amending the root vowel. Still around 150-200 verbs in English (and other Germanic languages such as German) do it this way: sing-sang-sung, break-broke-broken, come-came-come and so on. However, as even those examples show, there has been a tendency towards regularisation (broke-broken was, until even Shakespeare’s era, brake-broken as is still evident in the Modern German brechen-brach-gebrochen; cf. also Modern English swing-swung-swung [not/no longer swang]).

It was only over time that Germanic languages developed an alternative past formation by way of a dental suffix (basically either -t or –d) which became productive (i.e. the normal way of doing it) to the extent that now it is the way with almost all verbs. Many verbs which now do it that way were once not (help-helped was at the time of the King James Bible an innovation from help-halp-holpen, cf. again modern German helfen-half-geholfen).

The pressure towards regularisation, despite the fact the language is standardised, is what brings about such forms as “he has came“, “it is broke“, “she has rang” (or indeed “she rung“) or “I have went“. It also nudges some verbs into the regular category, or just causes outright confusion (e.g. regular transitive lay-laid-laid versus irregular intransitive lie-lay-lain) or comes to separate words completely (e.g. set versus sit). Since the invention of the printing press, this tendency has slowed down remarkably, but is still evident.

In the end, regularisation in informal speech creeping into the standard language over generations is a forewent conclusion… (ahem, actually gone will remain as an adjective and in set phrases, such as “bygone” or “days long gone” but as a participle it will be “gone” soon enough…).

“Between you and I” and other horrors…

It was one of a number of papers exchanged between Michelle O’Neill and I“, noted Arlene Foster earlier this week.

She is not having a good run. Not only is it obvious that her party leadership had an agreement to restore devolution and then couldn’t provide the leadership to make the easy sell, but she then got mocked for her use of English. It should, of course, be “between Michelle O’Neill and me“.

This is a poor error – and it is an outright error, not just a non-standard variation – yet I see it all the time. What is going on here?

Fundamentally, the rules around personal pronouns are quite simple in English. “Direct” forms are used when they are the subject of a clause (thus “I, he, she, we, they“) and “oblique” forms are used when they are an object (“me, him, her, us, them”) – the form you is now used for both. Thus it would be “Michelle and I saw the draft” [subject]; but “Other negotiators joined Michelle and me“, “They showed Michelle and me the text” and  “There was an agreement between Michelle and me” [direct object, indirect object and pronoun object respectively – but it does not matter, any object takes the same form].

So how could anyone get this wrong?

Firstly, there is the issue of hyper-correction of a common dialectal (non-standard) rule. In many dialects of English, and in Scots, the grammatical rule is in fact that the direct form is only used if the pronoun is the subject and stands alone. Thus it is “I saw the draft” but, in many non-standard varieties, “Her and me saw the draft” (or indeed perhaps something like “Me and her seen the draft). There are some slight variations on this “rule” – other dialects require the pronouns to be removed from the verb, for example. Because this rule is so widespread in non-standard dialects, it is a prominent part of education in Standard English (whose rule, it must be said, is a lot simpler) that it should in writing and formal speech be “She and I saw the draft“. It is emphasised that the subject form is required, and indeed that to be polite the “I” should come second.

Secondly, we have the tendency in speech not just to distinguish between “direct/subject” and “oblique/object” but also between unstressed and stressed – when we stress a pronoun we tend to use the oblique form, e.g. “I didn’t see the draft, me“. This is quite common – French has a similar tendency (“Moi, je n’ai pas vu le document“), and Dutch has an entire separate set of unstressed person pronouns.

Both of these – the hyper-correction and the spoken tendency as well as the underlying grammar of some non-standard dialects – tempt us towards the oblique (object) forms over the direct (subject). Additionally, there is also the confusion around what happens after copulative verbs (verbs which do not take an object, most obviously “to be“); here, modern English tends towards the oblique form (“It’s me“, cf. French “C’est moi“), whereas the more typically Germanic “It is I” sounds archaic or even pompous (German actually has “Ich bin es” or “Das bin ich“, literally “I am it / That am I“). Indeed, this process has already led to the complete collapse of one direct/subject form, as the formerly uniquely oblique/object form “you” has come to take over from ye” entirely.

Nevertheless, the “rule” in Standard English is extraordinarily simple. As a subject of a verb, the direct (subject) form is used; as an object (of any type) of a verb or a pronoun, the oblique (object) form is used.

Between you and me, I suspect she did show her a draft…

Why “Taoiseach” but not “Bundeskanzler”?

A question was raised in social media the other day, albeit slightly in jest, around why the media refer to the head of the Irish Government by his Irish language title “Taoiseach”, but to the head of the German Government by her English language title “Chancellor” (as opposed to “Bundeskanzlerin”, noting the additional feminine suffix -in).

In fact, the reason is simple. The Head of the Irish Government’s title even in English is “Taoiseach”. This is one example of the way in which the Irish language plays a symbolic (rather than a particularly communicative) role in Irish national life, and it is far from the only example. The police service is referred to even in English as An Garda Síochána, the planning authority as An Bord Pleanála, and so on. Most political parties maintain their Irish language name even in English. Part of this plays into the profound role the Irish language plays among those who do not in fact speak it but nevertheless regard themselves as holding an Irish national identity.

No such commonality exists between the German language and German national identity – not least because the vast majority of Germans speak German all the time anyway. In fact, if anything, the “cool” thing to do in German is to borrow an English language word (such as the word “cool” itself) or even entire phrase (though not always precisely – Germans say “last not least” and speak of “das Happy-End”, neither of which is quite right, but perhaps such things are “fifty-fifty”). There is thus no insistence that the title of the Head of Government must be in German, as long as it is a rough translation. (Germans do, out of interest, have a bizarre keenness for the all-compassing use of the prefix “Bundes-” meaning “Federal”, to the extent that the manager of the national football team even is referred to simply as the “Bundestrainer” – which would literally suggest he trains the entire federation, and not just its elite footballers!)

The distinction between “Chancellor” and “Prime Minister” is merely one of cultural reference, but it is notable that it is maintained in English. Similarly, the United States (and some other countries such as Argentina and Mexico, referred to in English) has a “Congress” whereas most other places have a “Parliament” – “Congress” implies specifically a legislature bringing together members from different parts of the federation meeting “in congress”, whereas “parliament” requires only members. Ireland, of course, splits its parliament into Dáil Éireann (with Teachtaí Dála or “TDs”) and Seanad Éireann, even in English.

There are some quirks here in the English-language references to other Heads of Government too, however. Whereas English translates “premier ministre” as “prime minister” and “Kanzler” as “chancellor”, it does not do Southern European or Scandinavian leaders quite the same courtesy. Italy and Spain, for example, refer to their Head of Government as “Presidente” (“President”; understood in these cases to mean “of the Council” or “of the Government”), but to avoid any clash with the usual term used for the Head of State in a republic English sticks with the translation “prime minister”. Sweden, Denmark and Norway, on the other hand, refers to their Heads of Government as “statsminister” (“minister of state”), but to avoid potential confusion with lower ranking ministers English again here sticks with “prime minister”. These things are never straightforward!

Interestingly, although it was widely used from the Victorian Era, the term “Prime Minister” did not appear in law even in the UK until the 1930s and still does not, of itself, carry any salary. An Taoiseach is, of course, notoriously overpaid…

Making Irish a political football is disrespectful of the language

I have no problem with an Irish Language Act in principle – indeed I think it rather odd that Northern Ireland lacks one, given similar legislation for Gaelic in Scotland and Welsh in Wales.

I am also sympathetic to the broad point being made by Nationalists that the disrespect shown towards Irish by particular hard-line Unionists needs to be tackled quickly. It is not unreasonable to suggest that politicians should be held accountable for being disrespectful towards the Irish language or indeed any other aspect of culture and heritage cherished by people here.

However, making the Irish language the centre of the political breakdown is also disrespectful and unhelpful to it. What is being done by some (though not all) in Sinn Féin can only end up entrenching positions and thus sectarianising the language. This shows clearly that they too are seeking to put political advantage ahead of what is genuinely good for the development and promotion of Irish.

If people have a genuine interest in the progress of the Irish language and of the devolved (including cross-border) institutions, then they will not be so crude as to make the Irish language the fundamental sticking point. The broader issue of demonstrating respect and building relationships between parties – even if to some extent represented by attitudes towards and comments about Irish – has to be tackled for what it is.

The fact is if trust in general is lacking, we need to rebuild it carefully. We should not drag languages into it, for their own sake as much as anything else.

Numerical nightmares in foreign languages

This is a brief blog post to ask foreign language speakers and learners a simple question: do they have the same problem with numbers I have?!

The trick to speaking a foreign language fluently is to think in it – something I find comes to occur naturally. You get used to the different structure, the different rhythms, and the different means of naming things quite quickly, particularly if you have the opportunity to immerse yourself (for example by living and/or working where the language is spoken daily).

Yet one thing always seems to jar – a number.

For example, if reading a document, “1985” to me is always “nineteen eighty five” regardless of which language I am reading. Even if not reading aloud, I find myself almost skipping the number, knowing that I have just internally “pronounced” it in another part of my brain – in English, in effect.

This can be potentially troublesome. While I have, in general, little difficulty following the radio news in German (allowing for the odd inevitable misunderstanding around alien people or concepts), the traffic report can become tricky particularly if a three-digit road number is mentioned. Firstly, three-digit road numbers are read out in full in German (as opposed to digit by digit as in English), and then of course the last two digits are effectively inverted – so the A647 would be literally the “A six-hundred seven-and-forty”. My brain seemly seems wired wrongly here, having to take time even while otherwise “thinking in German” to untangle the seven and the four – by which time I may have missed the crucial diversionary exit!

This cannot be a fundamentally linguistic problem because of course no such untangling is necessary with numbers from 13-19 in English itself – “fourteen” is effectively the wrong way around (with the four first, contrary to “twenty-four”, for example) but takes no time to untangle – at least not for a native speaker.

Is it more that the parts of the brain which deal with language and numbers are separate, and only one gets re-wired when operating in a different language from native?

All thoughts welcome!

Language or dialect? It doesn’t actually matter…

In Italy, linguists refer to lingue italiane ‘Italian languages’ – plural. This is odd. Travelling around Italy, by and large, the road signs seem to be in a single language, waiters address you in a single language, newspapers are in a single language. So why ‘languages’?

This is complicated further by the fact there are various ‘degrees’ of ‘language-dom’ apparent across the country.

Firstly, let us start with the basics. The language we refer to as ‘Italian‘ is, as noted in the link, in fact based on a conservative form of literary Tuscan. This, notably since the Risorgimento of the mid-19th century, has been gradually accepted across the country as the written and subsequently even spoken standard. All Italians can now speak it, and a majority now do in all contexts (even informally among family).

Secondly, like any large European country, Italy has borders which were (and on the margins in some cases still are) contested, with national and linguistic minorities thus left within the boundaries of the Italian state. Thus, to the northeast there are tens of thousands of Slovene speakers; in the north there is a German speaking majority in South Tyrol; in some northwestern valleys there are speakers of dialects which would be more commonly linked to French rather than Italian; and in the Sardinian town of Alghero an estimated 20,000 people speak Catalan. These are languages with their own standards which are clearly distinct from Standard Italian, which can themselves be written, and which are clearly therefore different languages. So far, so easy.

Thirdly, within Italy, there are other Latin-derived languages with their own clear identity and, broadly, their own standard form. Two of these are particularly noteworthy. First, there is Sardinian, which like Standard Italian derives from Latin but which broke off and became literally isolated much earlier than dialects on the mainland or in Sicily and is thus markedly distinct – few doubt that Sardinian constitutes a different language with regional status. Second, there are Friulian (near the Slovene border) and Ladin (in South Tyrol) which are also derived from Latin but also broke off from Latin earlier than dialects elsewhere in Italy, which were maintained in valleys of mountainous areas (often largely cut off from communities elsewhere), and which have now developed their own place in education and written standards (Friulian and Ladin, alongside Romansch in neighbouring Switzerland, are related to each other more closely than any is to any other Latinate language, but are spoken in distinct regions and thus generally treated separately). Sardinian and Ladin-Friulian constitute a different case, as they are spoken by communities which have been based for over a millennium within the boundaries of what is now the modern Italian state. They are regional minority languages, but they are not languages of national minorities (and thus they have their own standards developed within Italy, rather than based on national or regional languages spoken in greater numbers elsewhere), which requires somewhat different treatment to enable their protection and development.

Thirdly, there are ‘languages’ (usually referred to as such in Italian, but as ‘dialects’ in English) of clear historical importance – notably perhaps Venetian, Sicilian and Neapolitan – which are spoken in some contexts by millions of Italians. These are written informally but have no agreed ‘standard’ as such, nor is there any particular desire for one – by and large, speakers are happy for written communication to be carried out in Standard Italian. These are not, however, ‘dialects of Italian’ – they followed a distinct progression from Latin and therefore do not derive from the same medieval Tuscan origin as Standard Italian (although they are historically and linguistically closer to it than Ladin-Friulian or Sardinian).

Within Italy, there is also a noteworthy linguistic boundary, referred to as the ‘La Spezia-Rimini line’). One marked distinction between traditional speech on either side of this line is that plural forms take -s to the north (including in Friulian-Ladin, Sardinian and Venetian, as well as in all dialects of French, Spanish and Portuguese and all regional Latin-derived languages and dialects in France, Spain and Portugal; thus Spanish lengualenguas ‘language-languages’) but involve amendment of the final vowel to the south of the line (including in Neapolitan, Sicilian and Tuscan and thus in Standard Italian, so lingualingue).

Then there are naturally versions of modern spoken Italian (i.e. generally close to the standard) which include traces of these latter regional ‘languages’. These may properly be referred to as ‘dialects of Italian’ because fundamentally they do, for the most part, derive from the Tuscan-based standard.

Why does this matter to us, say, in Northern Ireland?

It means that within Italy there are various languages and dialects in use: firstly, there are languages spoken more commonly in neighbouring countries with longstanding written standards; second, there are Latin- (but not Tuscan-) based regional languages now in use in education with developing written standards; third, there are regional languages (in fact with much greater numbers of speakers than either of the previous two categories, but whose speakers use them only in limited circumstances) with significant historical relevance but limited modern use and no widely accepted standard written form; all in addition to the Tuscan-based Standard Italian which initially developed primarily as a literary and thus written form. The important point is this: in fact most Italians in informal speech speak along a spectrum between their regional language and Standard Italian, tending increasingly towards the latter with each passing generation.

Which of those are ‘languages’ and which are ‘dialects’ is irrelevant, particularly given the last sentence. In fact, most Italians speak what is clearly a language (Italian) in a dialect form influenced by what they themselves generally regard as another ‘language’. There are at once Italian languages (plural) alongside a single Italian language – and this causes no problem to any Italian.

Bring this back to Northern Ireland and we have some obvious parallels. First, like German in South Tyrol or Slovene near the Adriatic, languages such as Polish or even Mandarin have pre-existing standards in their own country of origin, so although there are rights for speakers of those languages there is no need for a process of ‘linguistic development’ because they are not endangered and have standard forms, dictionaries, grammars and so on. Second, like Sardinian on Sardinia or Friulian-Ladin in mountainous areas of northern Italy, Irish is a native language of the jurisdiction (under severe threat) with a written standard but which does, unlike Polish and others, have a requirement for linguistic development because its use has (or, at least, had) declined and, if Northern Ireland does not take action to protect and promote it, there is a serious chance it will be lost altogether. Third, like Venetian or Neapolitan, Ulster Scots (like Scots across the North Channel) is a historical regional language whose speakers now use it in a spectrum with Standard English tending towards the latter; arguably, its historical importance requires some intervention to protect it, but such intervention would not be the same as is appropriate for Sardinian, Ladin-Friulian or Irish.

Those who are serious about the development of minority languages will reflect on these realities sympathetically as they introduce legislation and policy designed to promote both speakers’ rights and protect languages which may otherwise be lost. Desirable outcomes will perhaps be different in each case, and the approach towards attaining them will inevitably be.

We are, of course, about to find out who is serious and who is not.