Category Archives: Language

The subjunctive – what’s that all about?

Verb forms and combinations can demonstrate a number of things. Most commonly in Western languages they are marked for “tense” (when something occurs), “aspect” (whether something is complete or progressive) and, perhaps most mysteriously for English speakers, “mood”.

“Mood” is tricky, because it can mark a huge range of things depending on the language (and, arguably, underlying culture). In the case of languages closest to English speakers (Germanic languages like German or Dutch, or Latinate languages like French or Spanish), the most common issue is that of the “subjunctive mood”, typically used to express something which is counterfactual, hypothetical or assumptive.

The subjunctive mood is in decline in almost every one of those languages, particularly in spoken use. It is hard to measure precisely, but the problem arises because it has probably declined further in English (and, specifically, British English).

Firstly, the subjunctive does have a common use in all languages as a means of expressing a desire, particularly in set phrases: “Long live the Queen!” is also subjunctive in French (“Vive la reine!”; also commonly “Vive la France!“), Spanish (“¡Viva la reina!”; also commonly “Viva España”), and German (“Hoch lebe die Königin!”) among others, including actually Esperanto (“Vivu la regxino!“).

Secondly, however, its usage, particularly in contemporary speech, varies hugely otherwise. In Spanish and (even more so, perhaps) Italian, it is a constant feature of the daily language, particularly in subordinate clauses (usually introduced in Spanish by que and Italian by che, although not all of these require the subjunctive). The subjunctive is compulsory to indicate objective, often translated by the infinitive (“to be”, “to do”, “to like” etc):

La LFP enviará entrenadores españoles a China para que trabajen en colegios – “The LFP [football league] will send Spanish coaches to China to work in colleges.” [El Periódico, 4 August 2015]

It is also used to indicate desire or obligation:

Espero que vengas a visitarnos – “I hope you come to visit us” [Word Reference, 19 August 2015]

Hay que tú lo hagas – “It is necessary that you do it” [RTVE Text, 18 August 2015]

It can indicate hypothesis, including in very broad terms:

Lo importante es que te gusta a ti – “The important thing is that you like it” [Coca Cola advert, RTVE, February 1998]

It can also mark something which is clearly counterfactual, effectively changing the meaning of an introducing phrase:

Aunque sea bueno, no le seleccionan – “Even if he is good, they don’t select him” [subjunctive]

Aunque es bueno, no le seleccionan – “Even though he is good, they don’t select him” [not subjunctive]

In Spanish, the present subjunctive is also used to indicate uncertainty in the future (other languages often use a future tense here):

Hasta que salga el sol – “Until the sun goes out” [song title, Don Omar, 2012]

Again, there is a distinction in meaning here:

Lo hacemos cuando vienes – “We do it when you come” [i.e. habitually]

Lo haremos cuando vengas – “We’ll do it when you come” [i.e. once, in future]

Away from subordinate clauses, it can also indicate generalisation, again changing the meaning of the introducing word:

Gane quien gane – “Whoever wins, wins” / “I don’t care who wins” [both subjunctive]

Closest to English, there is also a past subjunctive (actually with two different forms used more or less interchangeably, but we’ll not go into that…) used to indicate hypothesis, particularly in conditional clauses:

Si yo fuera rico – “If I were a rich man” [translation of song title]

Numerous verbs are also followed by the subjunctive only in the negative or interrogative (as this expresses a counterfactual situation, whereas the positive does not):

Creo que lo sabes / No creo que lo sepas / ¿Crees que lo sepa yo? – “I believe you know / I don’t believe you know / Do you believe I know?”

Spanish also theoretically has a future subjunctive, although this is now restricted to literary or legal usage (not so in Portuguese, in fact, where it is still heard in speech).

French in theory uses the subjunctive in much the same way as Spanish. However, in daily speech, it often manages without the subjunctive, except for more formal situations or particular phrases.

Obligation takes the subjunctive, even typically in daily speech:

Il faut que tu le fasses – “It is necessary that you do it”

However, desire is less certain:

J’espère que tu viens [or viennes] rendre visite – “I hope you come and visit” [not subjunctive, at least in common parlance – there is uncertainty even among native speakers about such cases]

French typically does distinguish between the positive (factual) and negative (counterfactual), as with Spanish above:

Je crois que tu le sais / Je [ne] crois pas que tu le saches / Crois tu que je sache? – “I believe you know / I don’t believe you know / Do you believe I know?”

Unlike Spanish, French uses the future in clauses with “when”:

Nous le ferrons quand tu arriveras – “We will do it when you come”

German, however, not being Latinate, uses the “subjunctive” (often known as “conjunctive”) is a completely different way, most markedly to express “reported speech”:

Frau Merkel habe besondere Vorteile in der seinerzeitigen DDR genossen – “[It is said that] Ms Merkel enjoyed special privileges in the East Germany of the time / Ms Merkel [reportedly] enjoyed special privileges in the East Germany of the time” [Chronik Berlin, 2005]

There are also particular set usages to indicate something obviously counterfactual:

Er guckte mich an, als käme ich von einem anderen Stern – “He looked at me as if I came [from the moon]”

There are also mixed conditional usages which may or may not be deemed “subjunctive”. However, unlike Spanish, Italian and (formal) French, there is no subjunctive for wish or desire:

Ich hoffe, dass du besuchen kommst – “I hope you come to visit” [no subjunctive]

So, what about English? I touched on it in the second half of this article, which I recommend you read. Ahem, see what I did there? “Read” is in fact subjunctive in that sentence…

The subjunctive is used in English more often than we sometimes believe, but in many cases (such as the last paragraph) its form is the same as it would be otherwise and therefore we do not notice. However, if we change this to “which I recommend she read”, or even “which I recommend be read”, we can see the subjunctive form.

This can be critical. Compare “He insists she pays” with “He insists she pay”; the first means that he is insistent that she (habitually) pays; the second that he was insistent that she pay in a particular instance.

Of course this is, as in French, a formal thing – in modern speech “He insists she pays” is the more likely form with the distinction left to context.

As in German, the subjunctive of desire is largely lost, although there are vestiges in the use of past subjunctive forms after certain verbs or in set phrases (“Wish you were here”, “Would that they had” – both present meaning, actually subjunctives).

Modern English also gets around subjunctives, either by other modal verbs (“I will carry out his recommendations, whatever they may be”) or, arguably, by the infinitive (“I want you to be there”).

So, thirdly, if English largely gets by without the subjunctive, surely languages could just do away with it? It seems this is not so easy. If this were the case, for example, you certainly would not complicate an invented language designed to be regular with a subjunctive. Yet one exists in Esperanto, with usage somewhat akin to French (even if it is seen as more optional than complisory in some instances).

Necesas, ke vi faru gxin – “It is necessary that you do it” [optional subjunctive]

Mi esperas, ke vi venos viziti – “I hope you come to visit” [subjunctive generally not used]

Fundamental distinctions in meaning can be illustrated by the subjunctive, even in Esperanto:

Mi diris al vi, ke vi iros Belfaston – “I told you you would go to Belfast” [not subjunctive, statement of fact]

Mi diris al vi, ke vi iru Belfaston – “I told you to go to Belfast” [subjunctive, statement of command (but possibly not fact)]

In conclusion, the subjunctive mood has wildly varying usages and is in wildly different states of decline in the major European languages. Yet even in English, the world language where that decline is perhaps most marked, it remains in use; and even in Esperanto, an invented language set up to be regular and uncomplicated, it has a clear role.


Why do we pronounce “one” as “won”?

Why do we pronounce “one” and “won” the same way? After all, they are not remotely the same word!

To take the latter first, there is some instability in the pronunciation of the letter <o>, particularly before a nasal (typically <n> or <m>); it is frequently pronounced as if it were <u>. This is partly because it is only recently that (British) English moved to lip rounding on the letter <o> (even old Pathé news clips will show this lacking, as remains the case in American), so <o> and <u> were once more similar. The other reason, bizarrely, is simply orthography – some calligraphers did not like to write <u> before <n> or <m> because it could run together and become unclear, so they switched to <o>. The winning version in Standard Written English was chosen almost at random – hence we have “win-won” but “sing-sung”; and “son” and “sun” are pronounced identically. It was not completely random, etymology also had something to do with it – hence, for example, “London”.

What about “one”, why is it pronounced the same way?

Until the fifteenth century across England, and indeed later in most English-speaking areas, “one” was pronounced as you would expect, to rhyme with “stone” and close to modern southern English “own”. Of course, this remains in related words such as “only”, “(a)lone(ly)” and even in fact “atone”. Modern Scots does pronounce the direct equivalent ane “one” (cf. stane “stone”) as you would expect (Scots actually has a “y-glide” in such circumstances, thus it sounds like “yin”, but this is entirely predictable); and of course Dutch has een (cf. steen “stone”) and German has ein (cf. Stein).

So what happened to make English the lone (ahem) exception?

Well, nobody knows! Some things in language are just mysterious. This is just, well, one…

Ancient Indo-Europeans may have counted in eights

Following on from last week’s blog, one correspondent asked about the peculiarity that all Western Latin-derived languages change their means of counting around the number 16-17.

To explain again specifically: for the numbers 15-18, Classical Latin had quindecim, sedecim, septendecim, duodeviginti – derived literally from ‘five-ten’, ‘six-ten’, ‘seven-ten’ but then ‘two-from-twenty’.

French and Italian have, respectively, quinze/quindici, seize/sedici, dix-sept/diciasette, dix-huit/diciotto – in each case literally ‘five-ten’, ‘six-ten’ but then (unlike Latin) ‘ten-seven’, ‘ten-eight’.

Spanish changes order one further back: it has quince, dieciseis, diecisiete, dieciocho – thus ‘five-ten’ but ‘ten-six’, ‘ten-seven’, ‘ten-eight’.

Here, it is over to you – why did all three shift from Latin, with Spanish shifting one further?

One thing which is immediately apparent, however, is that most Indo-European languages show a common trait around the number ‘nine’. This is, in French, Italian and Spanish respectively, neuf, nove, nueve. It is no coincidence that this is similar to the word for ‘new’: neuf, nuovo, nuevo. As far back as Proto-Indo-European, from which Classical Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Proto-Germanic were derived, the word for ‘nine’ showed a striking resemblance to the word for ‘new’. The reason is quite simple: it was a new digit. Originally, Indo-European speakers counted only to ‘eight’.

It is thought we now use Base Ten as our counting system because that is the number of fingers we have (including thumbs), but the linguistic evidence is that millennia ago we ignored the thumbs. Counting in Base Eight is fairly logical after all – it allows for constant doubling, from two to four to eight to sixteen as so on; computer scientists, no less, typically use Base Eight or Base Sixteen (or simply Base Two, i.e. binary).

(It should be noted no specific evidence has been found in Eurasia for ancients having counted in Base Eight; though there is none that they counted in Base Ten either. There is evidence from the Americas of humans counting in Base Eight; alongside significant evidence of Base Twelve and even a system based around Sixty used by the Babylonians.)

What is interesting is that the subsequent moves in Latinate languages towards a shift in order around the number sixteen demonstrates that there is still something innately important about that number. It is also just about possible that although Classical Latin was consistent from 11-17 (including, unlike its daughter languages, 17 itself), spoken Latin was not and that there was always a split in the spoken language around 16.

Any thoughts on this more than welcome!

Random notes on Spanish versus Italian

Spanish and Italian are so similar that the untrained linguist can, on occasions, struggle to tell them apart. This does make it relatively easy to attain reasonable competence in one having learned the other; although it can also make this difficult, because there are also fundamental differences which mean that the initial apparent similarity can be deceptive.

Naples - an Italian city once administered by the Spanish

Naples – an Italian city once administered by the Spanish

Four Western European national languages (which between them have around 200 million mother-tongue speakers in Europe and even more than that in the Americas) are descended from Latin – Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Of these, it is no surprise that Spanish and Portuguese have multiple common traits not shared with the others, although Portuguese is somewhat more challenging for a variety of reasons (discussed here).

Leaving aside Portuguese, geography would dictate that French should be the “middle” of the three, but this is not the case. In fact, the reality that travel was historically easier over water (i.e. around the Mediterranean) than land already makes French the isolate; and French is in any case an immediate exception because of its early contact with Germanic, discussed here.

Thus although Italian is closer to French than Spanish is, there is no dispute that Spanish and Italian have much more in common with each other, at least structurally and phonologically, than either has with French. So how can the Spanish speaker maximise their knowledge of Italian, and vice-versa?


Both Italian and Spanish are derived from Latin, and did not have the Germanic intervention that French had. Both specifically derive from “Vulgar Latin”, the spoken dialects of less educated people some centuries after Christ (notably, in the case of Spanish, Roman soldiers from all over the Empire who used Latin typically as a common second language). However, the differences between them arise in large part from the method of standardisation.

Essentially, modern Standard Spanish is a later standardisation than modern Standard Italian. In the case of Spanish, the basis is the language of the central Iberian Peninsula which moved southwards to encompass the entirety of Andalusia; “Golden Age Spanish” was the language of El Cid and of imperial Spain, but the spelling system was further adapted subsequently to take account of further phonological changes. Thus, Standard Written Spanish is designed fairly accurately to reflect the way the modern language is spoken.

In the case of Italian, there was effectively a “re-standardisation” to an earlier version, based around the Tuscan city of Florence (home of the medieval author Dante). This means that the Standard is somewhat more prescriptive – rather than reflecting how people speak, it asks people who speak a wide variety of ways to write a separate version for the sake of common understanding across the Italian Peninsula. The practical outcome is firstly that the “Standard” is in fact based on an older version of Italian (thus closer to Latin) than Spanish is; and, secondly, that spoken dialects of Italian are further removed from that “Standard” (although they are now swiftly converging towards it).

There has also been some linkage between the two languages over the centuries; most notably, Spanish administrators controlled much of southern Italy in the late Golden Age (although some of these would have spoken Catalan – that is one for another blog!)


Although Italian has more mother tongue speakers in Europe than Spanish (roughly 70 million to 50 million), Spanish is the more global language and is thus seen as the “bigger” of the two. This has practical modern consequences, in that Italians are more acquainted with Spanish than vice-versa. As just one of many cultural examples, it is common for Spanish-language songs to succeed in Italy (in fact both Number 1 and Number 2 in the Italian charts at time of writing are in Spanish); not only is the reverse impossible, but it is in fact the norm for Italian singers to record albums both in Italian and Spanish to maximise the market (the likes of Alessandro Safina, Eros Ramazotti and Laura Pausini all do this as a matter of course).

Therefore, the linguistic similarities (alongside historical links) allow a broad and wide-ranging cultural exchange – but this cultural exchange happens almost exclusively in Spanish.


The structural similarities between the languages are obvious. Fundamentally they are vocalic languages relying heavily on verbs. Both are:

  • “pro-drop” languages (the subject pronoun may be dropped – for example, amo in Italian, Spanish and Latin conveys the meaning on its own of ‘I love/adore’);
  • “masculine-feminine” languages (nouns may be one of two genders, masculine or feminine, and the markers are often -o and -a – thus Italian/Spanish amico/amigo ‘friend’ is masculine; amica/amiga is specifically a female friend);
  • “post-attributive” languages (most obviously, adjectives typically follow nouns although common ones may precede – un buon’amico/un buen amigo ‘a good friend’ but la terra verde/la tierra verde ‘the green land’);
  • typically “synthetic” languages (particularly with verbs – amava/amaba on its own carries the meaning of ‘I/he/she used to love’); and
  • SVO (but SOV with pronouns) – thus vedo la terra/veo la tierra ‘I see the land’ but la vedo/la veo ‘I see it’, although word order is relatively free in each (more so in Spanish).

There are other similarities too, although these can mask some differences. Both languages, even in modern form, make significant use of the subjunctive mood, but usage varies slightly – for example, Italian has credo che sia and non credo che sia for ‘I believe/don’t believe he/she is’ (both with subjunctive), whereas Spanish has creo que es and no creo que sea (thus subjunctive only with preceding negative).

Other areas are subtly different, particularly where Italian is similar to French. For example:

  • Modern Spoken Italian tends to use the perfect with avere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ to refer to the past at all, whereas Spanish distinguishes between perfect and preterite – thus in Italian ho perduto means both ‘I have lost’ and ‘I lost’; but Spanish distinguishes between he perdito and perdí;
  • Furthermore, this distinction between avere and essere for the perfect is not retained in Spanish – thus sono venuto ‘I have come’ (literally: ‘am come’) but he venido ‘I have come’; Italian also displays preceding object agreement whereas Spanish does not, thus Italian la ho vista ‘I have seen it [feminine]’ but Spanish la he visto; or
  • Italian must refer back using extra pronouns to mark case, whereas Spanish does not – thus ci sono tre amici qui ‘there are three friends here’ but ci ne sono tre ‘there are three [of them] here’, but hay tres amigos aquí and hay tres [no further reference word required].

Italian also has a markedly more complex set of preposition-article mergers. Where modern Spanish only has del (from de + el) and al (from a + el), and thus none at all for the feminine or plural (de la, a la; de los, a los; de las, a las), Italian has a vast range covering masculine, feminine, singular and plural – del, dello, della, dell’, dei, degli, delle; al, allo, alla, all’, ai, agli. alle; also nel, nello, nella, nell’, nei, negli, nelle and so on. It may be noted, however, that this is arguably not a structural difference, but an orthographical one (I do not intend to deal with orthography specifically in this piece) – the two languages have simply chosen to reflect these mergers in different ways.

The single most fundamental difference between Italian and Spanish (or any other Latinate language) is that Italian almost always requires words to end in a vowel – this is a tendency in Spanish, but is much less required. This has implications for verbs (thus ami/amano ‘you [singular]/they love’ versus Spanish amas/aman, Latin amas/amant), common word formation (dieci ‘ten’, Spanish diez) and, most markedly of all, the formation of the plural.

In Standard Italian (and all Italian dialects to the south of Florence), the plural is formed by changing the final vowel of the noun (or adjective): thus amico-amici ‘friend-friends’; terra-terre ‘land-lands’; campione-campioni ‘champion-champions’ (note also common borrowings which look common in one form but not the other, such as panino-panini, capuccino-capuccini, graffito-graffiti, pizza-pizze). On the other hand, Spanish does this in line with other Latinate languages and English – amigo-amigos, tierra-tierras, campeon-campeones. This applies equally to adjectives: canzoni italiane ‘Italian songs’, Spanish canciones italianes.


Italian and Spanish do sound similar to the untrained ear because they are structurally similar and quite vocalic (compare German or Dutch, which have considerably more consonants, particularly at the end of words). They also pronounce all the letters written – there is, for example, no silent final –e as there is in modern spoken French and Portuguese (and English).

However, as noted above, there are significant differences, primary among them Italian’s greater insistence on final vowels; perhaps as a consequence, its intonation is also markedly different (somewhat more up-and-down – whereas Spanish is quite flat, at least outside Argentina where there is considerable Italian influence).

Another easy marker is that Italian generally retains intervocalic voiceless consonants where Spanish voices them (as amicversus amigabove; also gelat‘ice cream’ versus helado, etc).

Another Spanish development is the range of diphthongs (i.e. double vowels) in stressed syllables which Italian either has not developed or has developed differently (as Italian terra versus Spanish tierra from Latin terra; or buono versus bueno above from Latin bonus).

Italian does not share the Spanish requirement before consonants for e- before s-: scola ‘school’ versus escuela; Spagna ‘Spain’ versus España. Italian also allows more clusters, particularly with initial s-: svegliare ‘to wake’; scudetto ‘championship’. Spanish allows some of these combinations with other initial letters, but even then not all; and does not use even those it does allow as often.

To the untrained ear, there is one obvious sound which exists in Italian and not in Spanish, and vice-versa. Italian has a strong [ts] sound in words such as ragazzo ‘mate’ or even pizza, for which there is not even a remotely close approximant in Spanish (though there was, in fact, until around 300 years ago). In return, modern Spanish has a [x] sound similar to Scottish ‘loch‘ which does not exist at all in Italian; it is variously spelled, but most commonly now -j- as in hijo ‘son’, jefe ‘boss’, or occasionally g– as noted below.

A marked difference tied to this is the treatment of the letters c– and g- before a high vowel (typically –e or –i). In Latin this was always pronounced [k] and [g], but it softened in Vulgar Latin and then went in various directions. In Italian, c– is now [tsh] as in English ‘chin’; in Spanish it is typically merged with [s], so as English ‘sin’, although Standard European Spanish has [th] as in English ‘thin’ – thus the first syllable of Italian cinque or Spanish cinco ‘five’ is pronounced ‘chin’ in Italy, ‘sin’ in Latin America (derived from parts of southern Spain), and ‘thin’ in most of Spain. In Italian, soft g– is now [dsh] more or less as in English ‘gel’; in Spanish, as noted above, this is a hard [x] – thus Italian gemello ‘twin’ has a first syllable as the English ‘gem’, but the first sound of the Spanish gemelo sounds similar to the last sound in ‘loch’. (I do not wish to focus on orthography in this article, but the marking of any retained hard c- and g- before a high vowel is an obvious marker in writing: Italian add the letter –h in each case; whereas Spanish switches c– to qu– and g– to gu-: the most obvious example is Italian che versus Spanish que).

Modern Italian generally does not allow –l after an initial plosive, replacing it typically with the vowel –i – thus ciaro versus Spanish claro ‘clear’ (though see also below re chi-); piazza versus plaza ‘square’; bianco versus blanco ‘white’.

The letters b and v have merged, effectively, in modern Spanish, and the modern written standard selects them seemingly at random. Italian retains the clear distinction from Latin. Spanish also does not like initial f-, which is silent (though written h-) particularly in common words – thus Italian ferro versus Spanish hierro ‘iron’; also in fact fare versus hacer ‘to do’. Italian does not write initial silent h-: thus avere versus haber ‘to have’ (note also b/v merger); Olanda versus Holanda ‘Holland’.

As the gemello/gemelo example also indicates above, Italian retains double consonants, pronounced as such. Spanish does this only for the rolled –r– in words such as perro ‘dog’.

Spanish does have ll– but considers it distinct letter; the same sound is written gl– in Italian, although in fact it often equates to ch(i)– or pi– deriving from Latin cl-/pl– – thus, Latin clamare ‘to call’ gives Italian chiamare but Spanish llamar; Latin clavis ‘key’ gives Italian chiave but Spanish llave; Latin pluire ‘to rain’ gives Italian piovere but Spanish llover. This general palatisation is apparent in the –tt– versus –ch– combination too – e.g. Latin noctem ‘night’ gives Italian notte versus Spanish noche; octo ‘eight’ gives otto versus ocho.

There are of course many more parallels like these – they can easily be picked up.


As can be seen thoroughout this article already, a lot of vocabulary is similar, and differences are predictable or at least reasonably guessable: terra versus tierra ‘land’; amico versus amigo ‘friend’; perdere versus perder ‘to lose’; canzone versus cancion ‘song’; bianco versus blanco ‘white’; ferro versus hierro ‘iron’; piovere versus llover ‘to rain’.

Many words are, of course, identical: La luna grande solo ama la cosa con la costa verde ‘The big moon only likes the thing with the green coast’ is an entire sentence which is theoretically identical in Italian and Spanish.

This is misleading, of course. Nothing is that easy!

Firstly, there are simple words which are just completely different. My list of core vocabulary demonstrates some. Other key words which are not remotely similar include Italian ripostare versus Spanish contestar ‘to answer’; volere versus querer ‘to want’; imparare versus aprender ‘learn’; scegliere versus elegir ‘to choose’; posto versus lugar ‘place’; fino a versus hasta ‘until’; vietato versus prohibido ‘forbidden’; tavolo versus mesa ‘table’; or camara versus habitación ‘room’.

Secondly, there are many examples of where the same or a similar word exists in each language but is not used identically or even similarly. Italian avere ‘have’ covers both Spanish haber and tener; then Spanish de ‘of, from’ covers both Italian di and da. Italian comprendere covers ‘infer’ and even ‘include’ but not directly ‘understand’ (for which it has capire); Spanish comprender covers more ‘understand’ but not so much ‘infer’ (for which it has entender). There are countless examples of this – indeed it is the norm, in practice.

Thirdly, there are words which, while available in both, are simply more commonly used in one language than the other. For example, devere ‘to have to’ is widely used in Italian, but its Spanish equivalent deber is less so (Spanish often prefers a construction such as tener que). The adjective necessario ‘necessary is used in Italian alongside necesario in Spanish, but the verb necesitar is exclusive (at least in regular modern usage) to Spanish.

As a general note, because the Italian standard is based on an older version of the language, much of its vocabulary is longer and/or closer to the original Latin. Thus Italian settimana ‘week’ becomes much shorter Spanish semana; or Italian numbers such as undici ‘eleven [literally one-ten] and dodici ‘twelve [literally two-ten]’ become the more clinical Spanish once, doce. (Interestingly, with numbers between 11-20, Spanish switches order one later than Italian – for 15-17 Italian has quindici [five-ten], sedici [six-ten] and then diciasette [ten-seven], which is in line with Latin; Spanish has quince [originally five-ten] but then dieciseis [ten-six] and diecisiete [ten-seven].)


These are literally random observations as a rusty Spanish speaker who recently spent some time in Italy. They are not designed to reach any particular conclusion.

Nevetheless, they do reinforce my long-held view that we are wasting our time teaching languages individually in schools, as if they all have to be approached separately from each other. The simple fact is that knowledge of Spanish is a vast advantage in Italy; and vice-versa no doubt. Yet it is also a frustration – you can come to think you can say and write more than you actually can; some basic grounding is still necessary.

The historical background is helpful to aid the switch from one to the other, as is the basic vocabulary linked to above. However, most important of all are the patterns which enable structures and vocabulary to be reasonably guessed at. Becoming familiar with those is like becoming familiar with the controls of a car while learning to drive – they look intimidating at first, but once you learn to use them they become second nature.

Most of all, adventures in comparing Italian and Spanish are adventures in the most prominent linguistic culture of them all, descending obviously as they both do from Latin. It is sometimes easy, sometimes frustrating, sometimes challenging – but always fun!

Who is ‘indigenous’?

In response to a recent piece, two correspondents came back asking some very interesting questions about what is “indigenous”.

I do not like the word “indigenous” at all. It does very little justice to our history, particularly in Europe. We are also inclined to tie together Ethnic and Linguistic terms (as one correspondent noted), which is unhelpful.

Let us take the north of Ireland in the 15th century. The Normans had come and integrated, so we are really at a stage when the “indigenous Irish” are all at peace living happily together all speaking Irish Gaelic.

Except, well, that was not remotely the case. It was in fact far more interesting than that. To the far north east, the McDonnells had become the dominant clan in the Glens – they were Gaelic speaking, but had in fact come over from Scotland within the last couple of centuries (where some of them remain – the McDonalds). To the west was “The Route”, dominated by the McQuillans, of Cambro-Norman origin (literally “west Brits” by origin within the previous few centuries). Well over to the west were the Sweeneys and other groups in Donegal who had also settled from Scotland, and would also have had little trouble doing so as Catholic Gaelic speakers, other than in that they were blatantly taking someone else’s land. Even to the south east, we find the barony of “Mourne”, inhabited by “indigenous Irish” who had been on the island probably for millennia. Except they had in fact taken over that territory only in the previous few centuries, hence giving it the name also given to “Monaghan” in preference to the name of the tribe previously “indigenous” at that location, the Boirche. This is all leaving aside the ongoing Anglo-Norman settlements scattered along the east coast – in Carrickfergus, Ards and Lecale – which were in fact of longer standing than some of the Gaelic settlements.

The problem is that throughout Irish history people have moved to and from the island – after all, St Patrick himself had been brought over from western Britain a millennium beforehand. They have also moved within the island – the largest death toll in any conflict in the island’s history was in fact in a battle about territory and overlordship near Moira in AD 637, before even the Viking invasions, never mind the Norman.

Then of course, there is the linguistic issue. Here, in fact, there is a better case for applying the words “Gaelic” and “indigenous”, although even there they are far from perfect. “Gaelic” initially refers to “raiders”, a name applied to a group who brought a Celtic language (specifically Q-Celtic, unlike Welsh which is P-Celtic) to the island of Ireland. There is no reason to believe that they took over or even dramatically altered the ethnic mix (a recent survey showed that neither the Vikings nor the Normans significantly altered British genes), but they did change the language spoken and the most unifying feature of pre-Viking, pre-Norman or pre-plantation Ireland was that its inhabitants spoke that language (albeit, of course, in hugely varying dialects and in common with many people in northern and western Scotland). This linguistic and ethnic separation, of course, applied with the subsequent dominance of the (Germanic) English language; it has not changed the ethnic mix particularly either.

The divisions/diverse identities this has brought about are even political, and not just in the obvious way. Even to this day, the broad (cultural, not ethnic) split brought about by the Norman invasion (never mind the Scottish settlements and the plantation nearly half a millennium later) still applies – people with Norman surnames are more likely to vote Fine Gael and less likely to vote Fianna Fail than people with Gaelic surnames, for example.

There is therefore something fundamentally wrong with people who seek to suggest that Ireland is somehow purely Gaelic, either ethnically or culturally. That is not to say that “Gaelicism” is not a significant, even the most significant, identity on the island. But to focus on it alone is to miss the diversity that makes Ireland what it is – complete not just with the influence of Vikings (who founded Larne and Dublin), Normans (who account for nearly a quarter of all surnames), or Ulster Scots and planters (who industrialised the north east); but also with smaller stories of movements from one part to the other, or interconnections with Scotland, Wales or the west of England (and further afield) which are all a vital part of the story. Throw all that into the mix, and not only is no one truly “indigenous”, but no one wanting to reflect the entirety of Ireland’s story would want to be, as it would be left incomplete.

I guess one man’s division is another man’s diversity. We probably need to stop creating the former, and start celebrating the latter.

Time for an Esperanto Language Act

I wrote a few weeks ago about the story of Esperanto. Given all the controversy over politicisation of the Irish Language and the gibberish produced in the name of “Ulster Scots”, it is obvious that a unifying language is needed for Northern Ireland – perhaps one we could all speak when we don’t fancy speaking our native tongue? What about a language that looks clearly different from English but doesn’t take an eternity to learn? What about a language which actually comes from the same country as our largest external minority, Poland? What about a language specifically set up to promote peace and bring people together? What about Esperanto?

Where Irish is unfortunately tied to politicised phrases and Ulster Scots is associated with straightforward ridicule, Esperanto is well known as the most successful constructed language ever and is designed specifically to unify rather than divide.

Not only is Esperanto easy to learn and set up to promote harmony and good relations between different groups, but it comes associated with a global community of its own whose objective is world peace. Who could object to that? By giving it prominence in Northern Ireland, we would be inviting peace makers from all over the world to our shores. It would earn us prominence and prove to the world that we are serious about building a new, peaceful and harmonious society.

What is more, Esperanto is easy to pick up quickly but also helps directly with learning other key languages. Primary school teachers could learn it quickly and use it as an introduction to other languages before pupils get to post-primary level. It is advantageous across the board too. Much of its structure is similar to German, while two thirds of its vocabulary comes from Latin or languages descended from it (mainly French and Italian). There is also significant Slavic influence, making our fellow citizens originally from Central and Eastern Europe immediately at home and helping us expand our trade into fast-growing economies beyond the old Iron Curtain. It is also used and shaped globally, further helping us develop an outward-looking approach essential to creating new trade and thus new jobs and wealth.

A rights-based Esperanto Language Act would include:

– the right for any pupils to learn Esperanto from P2, with teachers instructed to deliver this (designed to help later language learning);

– the right to correspond with authorities in Esperanto and with other citizens for trade (it may well be easier for Polish and Lithuanian citizens in particular to communicate with us in Esperanto, creating a fair and neutral environment of genuine equals); and

– the right to use Esperanto in daily life without discrimination (after all, it is a global language so cannot be deemed in any way exclusive).

So, there we have it. Esperanto is a potential second language for all which is easy to learn and obviously neutral, and which was designed to promote peace and unity among all people. It would give us the type of global outlook necessary to think the way others think and even learn other European languages to enhance trade and knowledge, leading to new wealth and jobs. It would also help with the integration of people arriving here, while giving us a reputation as a first-class location to promote peace and harmony regardless of background. Kio estas pri tiu propono, kion oni ne sxatus?!

You’ve noted the date. Obviously this proposal is not serious. It could not possibly be adopted. It is, after all, totally rational…

Minister’s answers on Primary Language programme unacceptable

The Minister of Education is withdrawing supplementary funding from primary schools to teach languages tomorrow. This decision is ludicrous, for many obvious reasons – you need to learn languages young; you need languages to trade (and create jobs); you need languages to open your mind to other ways of seeing and experiencing things. The evidence is clear cut.

However, his excuse is even worse. He is having to withdraw the funding to “protect front line services”.


The Minister has just funded an Irish language school against advice. I supported this, precisely on the basis that languages are good for young people. But it is not a “front line service”.

The Minister has just, yet again, recommended 600 teachers be trained in Northern Ireland (more than half in an inefficient, segregated environment), when we need no more than 400 (in an efficient, integrated environment). So, not a “front line service”.

The Minister continues to stall on mergers, over-spend on bureaucracy and put obstacles in the way of efficiency (not least integration), all of which take from “front-line services”.

So let’s hear less of this “front-line services” garbage. He is trying a cheap but, in the long term, serious cut to pay for a few pet projects, none of which add up to the best future for our young people.

Let’s Debate…

Ed Miliband accuses David Cameron of not wanting to “debate him”.

It’s a strange one. I – and many others, judging by my Twitter conversations on the subject – would have thought you debate something, not someone. In other words, the object of “debate” should be a topic, not a person.

A similar issue was raised a few weeks previously over the use of “protest” with a direct object – e.g. “they are protesting cuts”. Many would suggest this makes no sense – you protest for something, or you protest against something, but surely you cannot protest something?

What is the linguistic issue here?

The issue concerns something called valency. To explain this, let is deal firstly with something else, related, called transitivity.

Verbs (in English and most similar languages, anyway) are either transitive or intransitive.

Those which are intransitive, such as sleep or rain, cannot take a direct object at all: ‘I am sleeping’; ‘It rains on the roof’.

Those which are transitive, such as like or break, can (and, generally, must) take a direct object: ‘I like it’; ‘I spoke English to the woman’.

There are some verbs which may be used transitively but it is not obligatory: ‘I helped him’ (transitive), ‘I helped with the move’ (intransitive).

There are also some verbs in Modern English which can be transitive or intransitive: ‘I’m boiling the water’ (transitive), ‘The water is boiling’ (intransitive). In older Germanic, such verbs were distinct from each other, and occasionally this distinction is retained, although usually unstably: the ‘sit’ versus ‘set’ distinction is now regarded as having developed to a semantic distinction (specific versus general); the ‘lie’ versus ‘lay’ distinction is very unstable in contemporary Spoken English, with the latter generally taking over from the former. [German retains, more stably, the specific original intransitive versus transitive distinction: ‘sitzen’ versus ‘setzen’ and ‘liegen’ versus ‘legen’.]

Then there is the issue of valency, which includes the subject plus any other “argument” that can follow the verb. For the sake of this post, we will limit these to indirect objects, which in Modern English must be introduced by a preposition: ‘I am sleeping’ (valency=1); ‘I like it’ (valency=2), ‘I spoke English to the woman’ (valency=3). Typically, valency=3 includes a subject (‘I’), an unmarked direct object (‘English’), and an indirect object marked by a preposition (‘to the woman’). An object is always required with transitive verbs, but with some verbs this need not necessarily be a direct object – ‘I spoke English’ (direct object) is a complete meaningful clause, but so is ‘I spoke to the woman’ (indirect object).

However, valency=3 is arguably possible even with intransitive verbs, for example ‘I went to Belfast by car’.

It is generally accepted that the maximum in Modern English is valency=4: ‘I bet him fifty quid on Arsenal’ (the four are ‘I’, ‘him’, ‘fifty quid’ and ‘on Arsenal’). This is odd, however, because ‘bet’ appears to have two direct objects – ‘him’ and ‘fifty quid’. Many languages would not allow this (and would require it to be rephrased), but Modern English now appears to.

Some other verbs are unstable here: ‘He gave the chair to him’ is standard transitive valency=3; however, ‘He gave him the chair’, with word order changed, is now valency=3 but with what appear to be two direct objects. One analysis is that ‘him’ is still an indirect object (in this and the ‘bet’ example above), even though it is unmarked – its status as indirect object is arguably marked by word order, with the indirect object always appearing in English before the direct object (you can also say ‘I gave the man the chair’ and ‘I gave him it’).

[Fellow Germanic language, German, allows this but marks it not by word order but by using a different case for each of subject, direct object and indirect object (underlined): ‘Er gab ihm den Stuhl’; ‘Er gab dem Mann den Stuhl’; ‘Er gab ihn ihm‘ (the word order is actually different when two pronouns are used versus two nouns; pronouns always appear before nouns regardless).]

So, what about debate and protest?

In prescriptive grammars and dictionaries, debate is like help – it may be used transitively or intransitively. However, according to both the Oxford English and Webster Dictionaries (perhaps the best authorities in British and American English respectively), its transitive meaning refers to a topic, not a person: to ‘debate David Cameron’ therefore means to debate about the Prime Minister, not with him, in both varieties. It would be possible to ‘debate with David Cameron’ or perhaps even ‘against David Cameron’, thus making him an indirect object, but the preposition is required if he is to be the opponent rather than the topic. Valency=2 either way, but the transitive meaning is specific to a thing rather than a person; of course debate could be used with valency=3: ‘Ed wants to debate the standard of living with Dave’ – a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object marked by a preposition.

According to similar authorities, protest is intransitive in British English but transitive in American (inherently, in American, it means specifically ‘protest over’ in British). Thus, ‘protest cuts’ is good American English, but would (prescriptively, at least) be ‘protest over cuts’ in British English. Valency=2 either way, but one is transitive and the other is not.

That said, the above usage is prescriptive – it is laid down by academic authorities, but there is no “Academie Anglaise” to enforce it. If the British decide to adopt the American usage of ‘protest’ to mean inherently ‘protest over’ (thus becoming transitive), it will not be the first time and the dictionaries and grammars will soon catch up.

The usage of ‘debate’ with a personal direct object will probably become common too. It is possible for verbs to move from requiring clearly marked indirect objects to allowing the indirect object to appear direct (as we saw above with ‘I gave the chair to him’ and ‘I gave him the chair’). It is even more common in American English, where this is allowed for standalone indirect objects: British English has ‘write a letter’ but ‘write to me’ (indirect object clearly marked with preposition), but American allows ‘write a letter’ and ‘write me’ (presumably an indirect object, but deemed obvious from the context). This is probably why ‘debate me’ sounds like an Americanism. Its future is less certain in British (which, after all, has not yet adopted ‘write me’), but if the Leader of the the Opposition is using it, it will probably become common over the next generation. In fact, I bet you fifty quid on it (valency=4)…

Those colours again…

A correspondent (a very important correspondent – my wife’s election agent!) kindly drew my attention to an article which covers some of the aspects of the colour issue I raised last week.

The whole programme is worth watching and appears to be available here.

The essential point is that colour names are merely names we apply to perceptions; and that our linguistic naming of colours actually determines what colours we see. In English, for example, we distinguish pink-purple-red-orange but have only one “green” despite a similar range:

Colour Spectrum

Put another way, I remember arriving in South Africa as a 10-year-old and my first thought as we landed at Johannesburg, genuinely, was “The grass is yellow!”

This was a first indication that colours are literally different in Southern Africa, and it is more important to be able to distinguish between yellows and greens that, say, between greys and blues. Southern African languages would name their spectrum accordingly – with different words for various shades of green but quite possibly nothing at all for blue and relatively little for red – and this in turn means speakers of those languages literally distinguish those colours more easily in sight, but effectively only see one red and do not see blue at all (as evidenced in the linked article above).

Indo-European languages (such as English, Irish, French, Greek and Hindi) all derive from a single language, probably spoken in Ukraine around 5,000 years ago. To this day, there are some common markers derived from it, such as -r for family relationships (father/mother/brother; athair/mathair/braithair; pere/mere/frere and so on). Another point of interest, as noted in the article, it is impossible to reconstruct reliably a word for “blue”. This may give us some clues as to climate, location, geography and so on – in the same way we can reconstruct words for some types of tree and foliage, but not others.

Ultimately, what linguistics is doing here is given us a clear source of evidence about where we come from and how we perceived and perceive the world.

Give up languages in primary schools, you say? Crazy!

That dress – and linguistics…

I am amazed that I haven’t written about the subject of language and colour before, because it forms the start of every single training course I do, regardless of the topic.

So, what colour is this dress?
The dress...

Well, what colour is this car?
A car...

Here’s the interesting thing – the language we speak will, to a large degree, determine what colour we see things as.

For example, we know a banana is yellow. Even if a banana is placed under a blue light this making it blue, we will still see it as yellow – because we know a banana is yellow. Our brains actually correct our vision to record the colour as the one we know it to be, even as another part of our brain is seeing it as blue. If memory serves, there was a BBC Horizon programme about this some years ago.

Speaking of fruit, the classical Romans did not initially have oranges. Not only did this mean the word for the fruit was missing from Latin, but so was the word for the colour. The colour word is taken from the fruit. Ancient Romans, at least before familiarisation with the exotic fruit, would literally have seen anything orange as either dark yellow or light red. Traditional Irish has no colour orange at all, likewise generally using “buí” (more usually translated as yellow, thus also the colour of a banana…)

Likewise, in Traditional Irish, the above car is unquestionably “glas”. It is in fact right in the middle of the spectrum; no Traditional Irish speaker would be in any doubt about it. “Glas” covers anything from the colour of a grey horse to the colour of a murky sea (blue) – but not all blues, most blues are in fact “gorm”.

A lot of this is also determined by the environment. The Romans also had no word for “brown” (French had to borrow “brun” from Germanic); in Latin, brown things are generally described as red. To emphasise: this literally meant they saw them as red, not brown, as their brains reconnected the colour with the language. Germanic languages, spoken 2000 years ago predominantly by people living in forests, did have “brown” no doubt because of that arboreal environment.

In English, we see a lot of things as “green” (anything from a dark bush to perhaps even a tennis ball) where, in many languages, these different shades (say a dark bush, grass, lime and a tennis ball) would be clearly distinct (i.e. a different word altogether, the same way we distinguish purple from crimson from pink from red from orange). On the other hand, some languages do not meaningfully distinguish blue from green at all – seeing the sky and foliage as marginally different shades of the same colour.

Only a distinction between white/light and dark/black is universal in all languages. Interestingly, if any languages have only those plus a third colour, the third colour is always red. If there is a fourth colour, it is generally centred roughly on the colour of a tennis ball (yellow or green); if there is a fifth, the other of “yellow” or “green” comes next. Only upon the introduction of a sixth does blue appear – in other words, every single language which distinguishes between five colours excludes blue; every single one which adds a sixth includes blue. These terms are somewhat relative, but they are fundamental to how we literally see the world.

Those are the linguistics. The car, officially, was platinum green. You may make your own mind up about the dress!


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