Category Archives: Language

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.


Sinn Fein itself has way to go on “respect agenda”

I was lucky enough to be called into BBC Talkback on Wednesday week ago for what presenter William Crawley described as a “very civilised discussion” on language and culture, particularly with regards to the Irish Language Act.

What was interest was the response on social media. This involved widespread mockery of Ulster Scots, essentially for being too close to English to be regarded as a language. Most notably, this mockery often came from official Sinn Fein representatives or accounts.

Let us, first of all, address that concern. As anyone who speaks several languages knows, sometimes phrases are close or even identical. “La luna grande con la costa verde” is good Spanish, and good Italian. “My pen is in my hand” is good English, and good Afrikaans. Inevitably, given its proximity to English, even good Scots will also be quite similar in many respects (not unlike Irish and Scottish Gaelic). This is a simple linguistic fact, which needs to be accepted by all sides engaged in minority language development. (And, by the way, I never once on the programme insisted that Ulster Scots should be considered as having “language” status, merely that there was a case for it and that it should be afforded respect either way. Respect requires understanding, and understanding requires respect.)

So, to start with, anyone mocking this simple linguistic fact is in fact betraying their own ignorance. No one who is multilingual or has genuine command for and respect for language itself would engage in such behaviour.

Then, of course, anyone engaged in such mockery is also engaged in basic disrespect, both for the nature of language itself and for Ulster Scots.

Peter Robinson, former DUP Leader, wrote a fundamentally unhelpful analysis earlier in the week on his Facebook page, but suddenly his analysis was demonstrated to have a grain of truth. Sinn Fein activists are busy demanding respect, but are unable to give it. This is outright hypocrisy.

It should be noted that many prominent Sinn Fein respresentatives and any Irish language activist I know would reject such mockery, and would be saddened by it (I have no doubt that Janet Muller, who appeared with me, would agree). Nevertheless, if they want respect they have to ensure it is offered.

Meanwhile mockery of anything, including Ulster Scots and indeed Irish, is an absolute right in a free society. However, as ever, it should be based on an understanding of the issues and facts. Such an understanding takes effort and time. I am sorry that so few people seem willing to take that effort and time to be able to engage knowledgeably in issues around language and culture (and even appropriate mockery of them). That is, perhaps, the crux of our problem here.

Irish Language Act – where now?

I was on BBC Talkback on Wednesday where I expressed gloom about the prospects of agreement on an Irish Language Act before the “deadline” yesterday.

To be clear, my main point was that this is not really about the Irish Language, but rather about trust between the two main parties here. The Irish Language happens to reflect this in two ways: firstly, it was the withdrawal of funding for bursaries which proved the final straw for Nationalists in December; and secondly Nationalists (rightly or wrongly) generally feel they were promised an Act in 2006 if not before.

Nevertheless, we may look at some of the issues around it.

Unionists tend towards the view that an Act is simply not needed because the Irish Language is already well enough looked after (a view expressed by an Ulster Unionist peer yesterday) or because this is a matter for a Commission on identity and tradition due to report later in the year and has to be taken “in the round”.

Nationalists take the view that an Irish Language Act is necessary to protect and enhance the rights of Irish speakers, and perhaps implicitly because they feel respect for it should be placed in law.

For fear of being cast as a woolly Liberal, in fact I would suggest that objectively neither of those is quite right. Therein perhaps lies the compromise.

To take the last first: Irish speakers have no theoretical reason to believe their own rights alone (and not those, say, of Polish or Gujurati speakers) should be protected in law. Rights would apply equally to anyone who cannot or, arguably, prefers not to use the common language of the vast bulk of the population. That is the case for saying that rights are already protected; or it is the case for placing the rights of speakers of minority or foreign languages in a Bill of Rights; or it is even the case for a rights-based “Minority Languages and Cultural Respect Act”.

However, in fact I do believe there should be specific Irish Language legislation on the grounds that statutory responsibilities to protect and promote the language itself should be placed in law, in order for the language to be maintained as part of our cultural heritage. This is a little different from the “rights-based” approach, even if the outcome would not necessarily be too dissimilar. The issue here is that Irish is a native language in only two jurisdictions, and those jurisdictions therefore are both charged with ensuring its survival as a language in use.

This then, by the curious logic of the talks process, leads to discussion of a “Cultural Respect Act” or whether there should be a standalone “Irish Language Act” accompanied by an “Ulster Scots Act”. Here we need to be clear that an “Irish Language Act” is not just part of “culture and tradition” as Unionists suggest, but fundamental to building trust between parties charged with governing. However, we also need to be clear that delivery of “an Irish Language Act” (note specific phrasing) does not mean delivery of the exact legislation that Sinn Féin or any other party wants.

This takes us back to purpose. The objective of Irish language legislation should be to put the development of the Irish language on a sure footing, while also securing respect for it. This requires Unionists to recognise its importance to many people in Northern Ireland (not exclusively speakers and not exclusively Nationalists); and it requires Nationalists to focus on what is important for the language, noting that this means they have a right to expect an Act but not necessarily one absolutely in their own image. This last point is worth emphasising: when Sinn Féin talks of “implementing past agreements” it has a right to suggest that an Irish Language Act is part of that implementation, but it has no right to insist on the precise Act it wants.

An obvious way around this, of course, is to do both a “Cultural Respect Act” and an “Irish Language Act”. The former would put general rights and statutory requirements with regard to minority languages and cultural respect in general into law (statutory requirements to encourage awareness, spell names correctly, enable government correspondence in languages in use in NI with a written standard, set objectives for encouraging use of minority languages including 10% of the population fluent in Irish by 2031, etc). The latter would add those specifically deliverable for Irish (noting in the preamble the theoretical possibility that they could be added for Ulster Scots or indeed other languages in due course), such as official recognition for Standard Irish in NI and the right to parental choice for Irish-medium education or for their child to learn Irish regardless of which school sector the child attends – a right which is beneficial to the survival of the language as it encourages its use across the community, but which is currently impactable for anything other than Irish. (Politically, Nationalists get their standalone Irish Language Act and establish a broad “respect agenda”; Unionists deliver on matching it, as far practicable, for Ulster Scots and all cultures in general. It is not how I would do it, but it may just work for the key participants.)

Compromise is necessary, in other words. Who knew?

Scots language – does allowing people to make mistakes work?

in response to this piece last week, one Scot responded arguing that Scots could not survive unless people were allowed to make mistakes.

Up to a point, that is true of anything, of course, and particularly of language learning. I have argued for a long time that making mistakes and learning from them is central to the art.

There is a problem here, however. It is essentially this: if I am learning a language, I do not go writing newspaper articles in it until I attain a reasonable degree of fluency.

I would argue this is even worse when the language in question is endangered. Far from people using them wrongly for symbolic reasons, what minority languages need is people taking the time to learn them properly and then using them well. This situation is magnified when the minority language is in any case similar to the majority language (Scots to English, Catalan to Spanish, etc).

No language can survive if, ultimately, it is constantly used with reference to another language (e.g. Scots with reference to English). That applies whether the problem is that there is too much interference from the other language (as is often the case with Scots in Scotland), or if the problem is that the language is artificially distanced (with, for example, deliberately inaccessible spellings and bizarre neologisms, as is often the case with Ulster Scots).

So, yes, people who care about minority languages should use them. But they should use them with the ultimately objective of learning them thoroughly, and they should be aware there are certain levels of proficiency required before they try using it in certain contexts. It is also inappropriate to use it for the sake of political symbolism when it is not being used well – that just invites ridicule, as last week’s blog post demonstrated. To be absolutely clear, if you just write English with a few made-up spellings and pass it off as Scots, you will end up with everyone speaking English and not Scots.

Difference between Scots and Gibberish

Oh dear.


Let us leave aside the sentiment. Linguistically, this is nonsense.

Scots is not just makey-uppy English; it is a linguistic system in its own right and, despite the lack of an absolute standard, that system has rules – including with regard to spelling.

This should in fact read something like: we soudna be takkin the fit aff the undependence accelerator, we soud be pressin it tae the fluir! Like Wallace, nou isna the time for faint herts – it’s the time for bauld new braveherts!

The most obvious confusion concerns the digraph ‘ui‘, as in guid ‘good’. This has a very specific pronunciation (although it varies from dialect to dialect, it is always higher than in English), which is distinct from the ‘ou‘ in soud/shoud ‘should’ (pronounced more or less as in English) and the ‘i‘ in fit ‘foot’. In fact, the only word in which it actually appears is spelled in the original to suggest a different pronunciation – in fact the vowel in fluir ‘floor’ is pronounced in Scots as in guid (the original ‘flair’ is just nonsense). There is more to writing Scots than just guessing based on English pronunciation.

Even in this small section, there are other obvious errors and inconsistencies, notably ‘bold’ (actually if it is auld ‘old’ it must, etymologically and phonologically, be bauld ‘bold’).

The problem with the promotion of Scots in Scotland has for some time been the reverse of the problem for Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland and Donegal. In Scotland, the tendency is to go too close to English; in Northern Ireland, the tendency is to go too far away. In both cases, however, the result too often is a completely inconsistent mess with no basis on good linguistic practice.

Underlying this particular piece (and, it must be said, others like it in the same paper) seems to be the rather ludicrous notion that because someone is Scottish they can automatically speak and write Scots. Actually the vast majority of Scots speak and write English, albeit with notable Scots influence. Scots itself, however, is a different linguistic system with its own etymological, literary and orthographical heritage – something you would think independence supporters would recognise! Like anything else, it must be learned properly before it is used – otherwise the result just looks like scunnersom haivers.



Complications of British versus American English

The distinction between British English (assumed to be the BBC/Cambridge standard) and American English (based on the variety often referred to as “General American”) is widely misunderstood, even by native speakers. What can we do to understand it better?


American English is essentially a mix of the various dialects spoken upon the arrival of the English language in North America, which then moved west. As they moved west, they tended towards further convergence. There is, thus, very little geographical variation on the West Coast, whereas in the east there is a clear distinction between, for example, New England, New York, the Washington area and the South.

For a variety of reasons, there is a tendency to overplay the relevance to American English of accents from Scotland and Ireland, and to underplay to importance of dialects from England (notably the West Country). Nor is there any case for suggesting any particular dialect is more or less conservative than any other, on either side of the Atlantic.


In formal usage, with some minor spelling differences, American and British English are almost identical. In a Presidential Debate, for example, no British viewer will have any difficulty at all with linguistic comprehension.

At the other end of the scale, colloquial speech exhibits significant differences. However, this is true within North America and the British Isles as much as between them.


When people in the UK talk of American English, they generally talk in terms of “Americanisms”, i.e. words or phrases apparently borrowed into British English from American English.

In fact, the complaints often concern things which are not Americanisms at all, but general developments in English.


“Briticisms” or “Britishisms” are also found in contemporary American English, particularly on the east coast. They include:

  • “go missing” (in the sense of deliberately disappear: General American “disappear”);
  • “brilliant” (to mean essentially “Ok, let’s do that”: General American “Ok”, “Right”);
  • “dog’s breakfast”, General American “mess, complete failure” [actually first cited in County Antrim in 1892];
  • “liaise”, General American “work with”; and
  • “scuppered”, General American “ruined”.

President Obama also caused a furore in the UK in early 2016 when he said the UK would “go to the back of the queue” (General American: “line”?), but in fact the term is not unknown in the United States and indeed Obama himself had used it several times before.


In fact, vocabulary is rarely a clear-cut difference. For example, Americans “mail” a letter using the “United States Postal Service”, whereas the British “post” a letter using the “Royal Mail”. In many instances, apparently different words are simply a matter of priority usage – for example, whereas Americans are more likely to use “automobile”, both Brits and Americans use “auto(mobile)” and “(motor) car” (there will be just slight differences as to when: Americans will speak of the “auto industry” rather than “car industry” but even Brits have an “Automobile Association”; where Americans have an “auto show”, Brits will in fact refer to a “motor show”).

The main differences in fact come in the idiom in use in relatively informal speech (geographical dialect differences are always most marked in colloquial usage). A few marked differences (but again there are few absolute rules) appear to be:

  • Americans use more formal language in signage: “Restrooms”, “Beverages” etc. (UK “Toilets”, “Drinks”);
  • Americans may prefer to refer to self, notably in instructions “At this time we are going to need you to fasten your seat belts” (UK “At this time you should fasten your seat belts);
  • With certain verbs, Americans use the main verb where Brits prefer a modal: “Do you hear what I hear?” versus “Can you hear what I hear?”
  • “Tags” in American are different – for example, “You were here yesterday, right?” versus more typical British “You were here yesterday, weren’t you?”

There are also some interesting more global challenges. Should Americans refer to legislatures abroad generally as “parliaments”, even though they may be called something different locally and Americans themselves do not have parliaments?

Needless to say, many American idioms have made it across the Atlantic with little awareness of their true meaning in Britain. In British English:

  • things can “sell like hotcakes” even though there are no “hotcakes” (the nearest equivalent is perhaps “pancake”, although exactly what that is depends on where you are in the British Isles);
  • a number can be a “ballpark figure” even though there are no “ballparks” (only “grounds” and “stadiums”), and someone can “step up to the plate” with the wrong type of “plate” being envisaged (not “envisioned”, by the way…);
  • something can be “heard on the grapevine” even though this refers to a method of communication specific to the American Civil War (when the Union side used wires in trees to pass on messages which looked like “grapevines”);
  • questions are “million dollar” questions, not million pound, with the specific exception of a 2000s game show!


There are also subtle but marked grammatical differences.

American English treats collective nouns as singular, whereas in recent decades British has come to prefer plural: “The committee has/have decided”. British still uses singular where no group connotation is implied: “The committee consists of nine members”.

American English simplifies conditional clauses: “If they appeared at the same location, we would surely have seen them?” versus British “If they had appeared at the same location, we would surely have seen them?”

Americans are also more willing to maintain the full “would have” as the conditional from “have” in the conditional clause itself, whereas British prefers “had” in conditional clauses reserving “would have” only for main clauses (although in colloquial speech it often ends up confused, with “had have”): “If I would have seen it, I would have acted” versus “If I had seen it, I would have acted”.

Conversely, American is stricter about the use of the present subjunctive: “It is essential these matters be attended to” versus “It is essential these matters are attended to”.

American also prefers the preterite for immediate past action, where British uses the perfect: “What did you just do?” versus “What have you just done?”

American often also refers back to a whole noun phrase: “I knew if I missed that putt, I was out of the golf tournament” versus “I knew if I missed that putt, I was out of the tournament”.

There are some verb forms which differ too, at least in general. American has irregularised “dive-dove-dived” by partial analogy with “drive-drove-driven” (British retains “dive-dived-dived”). Conversely American has fully regularised “dream-dreamed-dreamed”, “learn-learned-learned” and similar where British allows “dreamt” and “learnt”. (With that latter, there is a subtle difference in meaning too – Americans often use “learn” where Brits use “find out”).


An interesting question is how significant is the distinction between American versus British English versus other New World versus Old World varieties? Of course, the answer to this is subjective. In order, I would suggest the distinctions are as follows:

  • Brazilian versus European Portuguese (most distinct): there are marked differences in basic pronunciation and fundamental aspects of grammar, as well as some spelling and vocabulary;
  • Quebec versus European French: there are marked differences in certain areas of pronunciation as well as vocabulary (but less so in grammar and scarcely at all in spelling);
  • Latin American versus Peninsular Spanish: this is much harder to judge as there are significant variations within Latin American Spanish (indeed, the very notion that there is such a thing as “Latin American Spanish” is dubious) – notably, the Spanish of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) has a markedly different intonation and significant grammatical differences versus that of central Spain, but those are perhaps the extremes;
  • American versus British English: despite spelling differences and some noteworthy variations in vocabulary, in fact American and British English may be the closest – but it is subjective!

In some ways German German versus Austrian German also exhibit as many spelling, vocabulary and grammatical differences as British versus American English, for various historical reasons.

How to learn languages – Review

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!