Category Archives: Language

How to learn languages – Afrikaans

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

29 B Bangor

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

So, what is it like?


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Key numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

What next?

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

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

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

How to learn languages – Dutch

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Key numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What next?

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

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

How to learn languages – German

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


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

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

How true are the stereotypes?


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Key numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key prepositions:

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

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

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


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

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

What next

Nearest to German is Dutch…

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

How to learn languages – Danish

The Germanic languages are split into North and West (East, represented notably by Gothic, has died out).

North Germanic excludes Finnish, which is not Indo-European at all. Historically, they were themselves split into Western (Norwegian, Faroese, Icelandic) and Eastern (Swedish, Danish and some other regional varieties). Nowadays, the split is considered more Insular (Icelandic, Faroese) versus Scandinavian (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish), although exact terminology varies.

Norwegian is a peculiar case. Over centuries of rule from Copenhagen, the language of administration in Norway was effectively Danish (albeit spoken with a Norwegian accent and generally referred to in Norway as “Norwegian”), and over time this was adopted in formal settings by many educated speakers in the Oslo area. However, traditional spoken dialects were barely affected, particularly in remote fjord areas to the west, and they remained more Western (i.e. more similar to insular languages such as Icelandic rather than to Danish). Upon independence, Norway was left with no option but to adopt two standards – one representing the traditional rural dialects known as Nynorsk “New Norwegian”, and another representing the previous administrative language initially often referred to as “Dano-Norwegian” but officially known as Bokmål ‘Book Tongue’. The latter is predominant, but both retain equal status nationally.

Of the three largest Scandinavian populations, Norwegians are used to dialect variation (even internally) and are thus the best at understanding either of the other two. Broadly, Norwegian (at least in Oslo) is closer to Danish in writing but to Swedish in speech. Danes and Swedes struggle to understand each other’s spoken languages, although with a bit of effort on behalf of both speaker and listener there is some mutual comprehension between eastern Danish and southern Swedish dialects (either side of the Oresund). Scandinavians have little difficulty reading each other’s languages.


Swedish is the major Scandinavian language – its near 10 million speakers account for half the total. However, it is not one in which I have any active competence – which brings us to Danish…


Among Germanic languages, Danish is the French of the operation – remarkably phonologically reduced.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is stød, whereby syllables may be separated by a “creaky voice”, a break feature similar to but not quite the same as a soft glottal stop, often accompanied by an apparent change in pitch. This is not always reflected in writing: læser ‘read(s)’ (the verb form) exhibits stød before the -er suffix, but læser ‘reader’ does not. No one quite knows how or when this developed (although it was certainly present by 1600), and it is not found in traditional southern dialects.

Danish also vocalises some consonants after vowels; e.g. dag ‘day’ (pronounced similarly to English ‘die’), skov ‘forest’.

A notable feature also is the softness of consonants (voiced consonants are frequently softened to become devoiced and those which were initially devoiced are softened further), particularly medially; e.g. the first syllable of at hedde ‘to be called/named’ is not much different from English ‘hell’, and the <b> in at købe ‘to buy’ is actually close to an English /w/.


Danish was distinct from Swedish by the time it began to be written down around 1200 (until then the administrative language of Denmark, which at the time included part of what is now southern Sweden, was in fact Latin).

Particularly from the 17th century, Danes played a disproportionate role in the development of linguistics and took a keen interest in the grammar of their own tongue. Gradually they codified a standard language, based generally on the educated Copenhagen dialect.

Nevertheless, the rapid changes in pronunciation in Danish mean that several common words (notably some personal pronouns) are spelled irregularly.

The Danish alphabet adds the letters æ, å and œ, which often mark the equivalent of umlaut (i.e. are grammatically distinctive). Officially clauses must be separated by commas, but in practice usage varies.


Danish (and, broadly, Scandinavian) vocabulary is overwhelmingly Germanic, deriving from the Norse spoken by the Vikings.

However, notably, it was reinforced by trading terms from Low German (i.e. what are now traditional dialects of northern Germany and the Netherlands somewhere between Standard German and Standard Dutch) in the Middle Ages, meaning that business and economic terminology is very often similar to German or Dutch (with the Norse-derived terms displaced).

The Danish numbering system retains the vigesimal (i.e. twenty-based) system used by the vikings – Danish is the only Scandinavian language which retains it. This means that higher numbers are marked not by the number of tens, but by the number of twenties; this includes halves, and halves are counted to the next whole: in effect, therefore, 90 is based on ‘half-to-five-times-twenty’.

  • 1 en/et; 2 to; 3 tre; 4 fire; 5 fem; 6 seks; 7 syv; 8 otte; 9 ni; 10 ti;
  • 11 elleve; 12 tolv; 15 femten; 16 seksten; 20 tyve; 21 enogtyve;
  • 30 tredive; 40 fyrre; 50 halvtreds; 60 tres; 70 halvfjerds; 80 firs; 90 halvfems.
  • 100 hundrede; 1000 tusind; 456789 fire hundrede seksoghalvtreds tusind syv hundrede niogfirs.

Another peculiarity is that Danish counts singular or plural according to the last number – so, for example, 101 or 4001 takes a singular.

Swedish and Norwegian use a ten-based counting system and place ones after tens: thus 92 is nittiotvå [‘ninetytwo’] in Swedish but tooghalvfems [‘twoandhalftofive(times twenty)’] in Danish.

In the modern language, there is little resistance to borrowings from English (given the high proficiency Scandinavians have in it), including even occasionally of entire phrases.

Interviews in English are very often shown on Danish television without subtitles or dubbing, and indeed English is often the language of communication across Scandinavian borders (for example, it is the language of Nordic MTV).


In the Standard language, Danish nouns may be one of two genders (“common” or “neuter”), and are generally marked for the plural in -(e)r (with another smaller group of short words, usually common gender, in -e). However, in the absence of any preposition (in some instances), adjective or determiner, any definite article appears joined to the noun as a suffix: common –(e)n, neuter -(e)t and plural –ne; thus hund ‘dog’, hunden ‘the dog’, hunde ‘dogs’, hundene ‘the dogs’. Aside from in archaic set phrases, there are no case markings in modern Danish, although possession is marked by a clitic -smin fars hus ‘my father’s house’.

In Swedish and Norwegian, the definite article suffix appears even where the noun is supported by an adjective or determiner: Danish det gamle hus, Norwegian det gamle huset ‘the old house’.

Both Norwegian Standards maintain three genders; Standard Swedish has just common and neuter, as Danish.

Danish main verbs, fundamentally, are marked for present (-(e)r) or past (generally –te or –de, although as in English there is a group of “strong” verbs which mark their past forms by changing the root vowel); notably, in all modern Scandinavian languages, these are not marked to agree with their subject in the modern language. There is also a specific habitual passive marker (which can be used in any tense) -(e)s; bogen læses ‘the book is read’ [generally]. Verbs also have participle forms (typically in –t), which may be used with the common irregular verbs at være ‘to be’ or at blive ‘to become’ to form a passive (used typically for one-off action) or at have ‘to have’ to form the perfect aspect (for completed action). Aside from in deliberately archaic phrases, there is no distinct subjunctive/optative mood in modern Danish.

Key prepositions:

  • ‘to, at’, til ‘to, towards’, ‘in’, med ‘with’, mod ‘against’.

As in most Germanic languages, adverbs are unmarked. Adjectives, however, have varying forms depending on whether they are used attributively (in which case they are placed before the noun) or predicatively and, in the former case, what their environment is. In most circumstances (when indefinite or used predicatively) adjectives agree with their noun by adding –t for the neuter singular or –e for plurals (there is no change for common singular): en stor bog ‘a big book’, et stort hus ‘a big house’, store boger ‘big books’; bogen er stor ‘the book is big’, huset bliver stort ‘the house gets big’. Definite attributive adjectives always add –e: den store bog ‘the big book’, det store hus ‘the big house’. Generally, no -e is required with adjectives already ending in a vowel; some adjectives also display other irregular modifications. In practice, this means adjectives often appear in the -t form in general use because after  det ‘that’ the neuter form is required: det er fint ‘that is fine’.

Key personal pronouns (1st, 2nd, 3rd person):

  • Singular: jeg, mig; du, dig; han/hun, ham/hende (impersonal den and det)
  • Plural: vi, os; I, jer; de/dem.

Danish also distinguishes between the third person possessive adjective hans/hendes ‘his/her’ and the reflexive sin/sit/sine: hans bog ‘his (someone else’s) book’; sin bog ‘his (own) book’.

Danish did previously have De/Dem as polite second person forms (both singular and plural), but since the ’70s these have dropped almost completely out of use.

Scandinavian languages are fundamentally SVO and V2 languages. The verb phrase stands as the second element in the clause, regardless of what the first element is; this is the case even if the first element is itself a clause: Da jeg boede i det hus, havde jeg hunder ‘When I lived in that house, I had dogs [When I lived in that house, had I dogs]’. The negative particle ikke generally follows the verb: jeg havde ikke hunder ‘I did not have dogs’.


In general, Scandinavian languages initially appear quintessentially Germanic, with a focus around the noun. This is reflected in Danish speech, where the emphasis is placed firmly on nouns.

Danish is noted for its remarkable phonology; it can almost appear as if words are scarcely pronounced at all. On the other hand Swedish, and to a lesser extent Norwegian, stand out among West European languages for their almost tonal system of pronunciation.

What next?

Time to get to West Germanic (which includes, of course, English)…

Fader vår, du som er i Himlene, helliget vorde ditt navn, komme ditt rike, skje din vilje, som i Himmelen, så og på jorden. Gi oss i dag vårt dagelige brød, og forlat oss vår skyld, som vi og forlater våre skyldnere, og led oss ikke inn i fristelse, men frels oss fra den onde.

How to learn languages – Latinate languages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to learn languages – French

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

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

  • img_2104

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Key numbers:

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

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

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

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

Key personal pronouns:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common prepositions:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

What next?

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

As ever, thoughts and corrections welcome!

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

How to learn languages – Spanish

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Key numbers:

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

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

Key personal pronouns:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common prepositions:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What next?

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

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


How to learn languages – Portuguese

Portuguese, a significant global language given its predominance in Brazil, comes next among Latinate languages and then we will move back east and north.

But here we have a problem. Because, ahem, a verdade é que não falo Português…

Mind, let us compare that straight away to Vulgar Latin:

  • I had shown words the development of words such as veritate, which developed to Portuguese verdade ‘truth’ (see also here);
  • Late Latin –(i)one generally becomes a full nasal in Portuguese, written –ã(thus, for example, o ‘not’);
  • I had mentioned in Vulgar Latin fabulare had taken on the broad meaning ‘speak’, developing in Portuguese to falar.

So, the above means ‘the truth is I do not speak Portuguese’. Easy…

Actually I do speak a little rusty Portuguese (otherwise I could not write this), having spent some time over several years near Lisbon in my late teens. Nevertheless, how would I or anyone else go about learning it properly?

(In this case, particularly, all corrections welcome…)


For European football fans, Portuguese is the language of the moment after all, so let us take a look!


Portuguese is characterised by distinct nasal sounds, marked variously (nacão ‘nation’, portagem ‘[toll] gate’, muito ‘much’); that of Portugal is additionally particularly recognisable from its slushy sound (<s> before a consonant or at the end of a word is pronounced like English <sh>, e.g. nacões ‘nations’, escola ‘school’; <d> is also somewhat palatalised before <e> or <i>, almost like English <j>, in words such as cidade ‘city’ or dia ‘day’).

Marked also, again particularly in Portugal, is the shortness of vowels. These can almost be clipped between consonants and at the end of words (final <e> is generally silent).

Double consonants are often written etymologically but not pronounced (e.g. passar ‘pass’). Palatised /l/ and /n/ are written with a following <h> (filho ‘son’; Espanha ‘Spain’). A complex series of initial consonant clusters ending <l> in Latin has been reduced to initial <ch> in words such as chover ‘rain’ (< Vulgar Latin plovere), chama ‘flame’ (< flamma), chave ‘key’ (< clavis).

Brazilian and European Portuguese are easily distinguishable – the latter seeming a lot faster due to its slushier and clipped nature (those are, admittedly, not technical terms!)

What in English is known as a “tilde” (e.g. ãõ) was originally a following letter n, marked by both Portuguese and Spanish calligraphers above the previous letter to save space.


Portuguese has a bizarre history well beyond the scope of this blog post, because its first identifiable form came not in modern Portugal at all, but in the now Spanish region of Galicia to the north. Essentially three major modern Latin-based languages spread south from the northern Iberian peninsula – Catalan to the east; Castilian (what most now call “Spanish”) in the middle and Galician to the west. Those Galician speakers heading south during the Reconquista of the Peninsula ended up founding the Kingdom of Portugal (while those who remained in Galicia ended up tied to Spain – in fact, the current Prime Minister of Spain is Galician).

The standardisation of Portuguese, begun when it was recognised as the common language of the people distinct from Latin in the 1290s (at the same time as the foundation of the first university in Portugal, now in Coimbra), was complex. The emergence of literary norms struggled to deal with a significant sound shift in the late Middle Ages. The practical outcome is that the language has far more variations in vowels than neighbouring Castilian Spanish, thus requiring a much wider range of accent marks. (For the record Galician remains a regional language of Spain with its own written system, now linguistically somewhere between Castilian and Standard Portuguese.)

Unusually among European languages, the current Portuguese Standard is primarily the work of one man, Gonçalves Viana, tasked to carry it out at the beginning of the Portuguese Republic shortly before the Great War. Passing this task to one man, and assuming that the main aim was direct phonemic representation, caused its own problems, again beyond the scope of this blog post. Perhaps Portuguese spelling is best described as very complex, but at least quite consistent. (Brazil adopted its own similar but not identical Standard some decades later.)

A controversial spelling reform in the past few years sought to bring the varieties of Portuguese (predominantly “Brazilian” on one hand and “European” on the other; African varieties generally follow “European” literary norms) closer together. Nevertheless, although such things are difficult to quantify exactly, the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese are probably greater than between, for example, American and British English. Not only do some (albeit now fewer) spellings and words vary, but grammar is markedly different. By most accounts the Portuguese have little difficulty understanding Brazilians (as they are used to Brazilian soap operas etc), but the reverse is not always true, particularly when speech becomes more informal and colloquial.


Portuguese vocabulary is largely of Latin origin, though Portugal’s history under Arabic-speaking rule and subsequently as an imperial power in its own right have led to some other influences.

Key numbers:

  • 1 um; 2 dois/duas; 3 três; 4 quatro; 5 cinco; 6 seis; 7 sete; 8 oito; 9 nove; 10 dez;
  • 11 onze; 12 doze; 16 dezesseis; 17 dezessete; 20 vinte; 21 vinte e um; 100 cem;
  • 1000 mil; 456789 quatrocentos e cinquenta e seis mil setecentos e oitenta e nove.

A key word in Portuguese without obvious parallel is ficar ‘be, get’.

Key personal pronouns:

  • singular eu, me (mim); familiar tu, te (ti) or polite você; ele/ela, o/a (lhe);
  • plural nós, nos; vocês; eles/elas, os/as (lhes)


Portuguese nouns have one of two genders, masculine often ending -o and feminine -a (but note feminine -ão). Plural generally adds -(e)s but there are exceptions (and -ão becomes –-ões).

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

  • canto, cantas, canta; cantamos, cantatis, cantam.

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

The Portuguese verb is extraordinarily complex. Not only has it endings to mark present, past preterite, past imperfect, future and conditional, it also includes endings for a pluperfect in use in daily speech; it also has the full range of past, present and future subjunctives all in use even colloquially. To this is even added a set of personal infinitives. Portuguese then uses ter (cf. Italian avere, Spanish haber) as the auxiliary verb to form the perfect.

Portuguese is a pro-drop language, meaning verbs can be used without the subject if the subject is clear: canto ‘I sing’; terminam ‘they finish’; o vimos ‘we saw it’.

However in the 21st century, unlike in other Latinate languages, there is a marked growing tendency to include the subject regardless, particularly in Brazil: eu canto; eles terminam; nós o vimos.

Portuguese adjectives agree with nouns in all positions; generally they appear attributively after them.

Portuguese articles are also exceptional as the definite has been reduced to masculine o (plural os) and feminine a (as). This is used before possessives: a meu chave ‘my key’. The indefinite article is slightly more complex, with masculine um and feminine uma also having plural forms uns and umas (used typically to mean ‘some, a number of’; umas chaves ‘a number of keys’).

Common Portuguese prepositions:

  • de ‘of, from’, com ‘with’, a ‘to’, por ‘for, on behalf of’, para ‘for, towards’.

Most of these are combined with the definite article where relevant, sometimes with amendments:

  • da ‘of the’ [feminine singular]; ao ‘to the’ [masculine singular]; pelas ‘for the’ [from para+os; masculine plural]; ás ‘to the’ [from a+as; feminine plural].

Usage of pronouns, particularly personal pronouns, varies between dialects, even within Brazil and Portugal. In some areas, including most of Brazil, você (used typically with a third person verb) has taken over entirely for ‘you’, meaning second-person verb forms are lost entirely.

Word order is typically SVO or SOV where the object is a personal pronoun. However, the exact order of items where personal pronouns appear as objects is complex, and varies also between Brazilian and European usage.


Portuguese is a rhythmically very different language from Spanish or Italian; while structurally very similar to the former, it sounds utterly distinct.

It is a markedly verbal language, with a wide range of subtleties in tense and mood expressed through the huge range of endings (and combinations of auxiliary verbs) available.

What next?

Next week we will stay in Iberia with Castilian Spanish, an apparently similar (but in practice very different sounding) language.

Pai nosso, que estás no céu; santificado seja o teu nome; venha o teu reino; seja feita a tua vontade; assim na terra como no céu; o pão nosso de cada dia nos dai hoje; e perdoai as nossas dívidas; assim como nós perdoamos os nossos devedores; e não nos deixes cair em tentação; mas livrai-nos do mal.

How to learn languages – Italian

Italian, spoken by about 70 million people as a mother tongue and over 100 million in all, is a major European language but, purely in terms of numbers, is not by any means of real global significance.

However, it is probably the best language to learn first of all those derived from Latin (the other relevant Western European national languages being French, Spanish and Portuguese), assuming your intent is to learn them all. This is because its vocabulary is closest to Vulgar Latin, its grammar reflects both French and Spanish (so is something of an intermediary between them), and in general it displays some typically Latinate complexity without being freakishly difficult to learn.


What do we need to know?


It is not for nothing that Italian is regarded as a lyrical and romantic language. With the exception of some common short words, native Italian words must end in vowels. This is what makes it, in every sense, a musical language. Indeed Italian generally lacks characteristically hard sounds.

Double consonants are so pronounced, as they were in Latin (but no longer are in any other major language derived from it).

English speakers are often confused by the <ch> (and to a lesser extent <gh>) spelling, which marks a hard consonant /k/ (or /g/) before a high vowel (<e> or <i>).


“Now we have created Italy, we must create Italians” goes the famous quote from the 1848 Risorgimento. Even now, Italians generally speak of the Italian “languages” (plural), reflecting a wide range of traditional regional dialects.

The standard language, which still allows some significant variation, is based on the Tuscan of Dante, thus with a slightly northern and slightly conservative bias. The standard written form is therefore based on the speech of Florence around 1350, but (unlike English and French) the spoken version is based directly on it. Therefore, despite this conservatism (meaning Italian remains the closest national language to Latin), pronunciation does reflect spelling (in that order).

Italian rules around written accents allow for some variation, but generally only a grave to mark a closed vowel (lattè ‘milk’) or strengthened vowel in a diphthong (più ‘more’) is used.


Italian vocabulary is overwhelmingly of Latin origin, with relatively few other influences. There was a re-influencing from French around and after the Renaissance (as French became the language of High Culture and philosophy across Europe), and there is significant recent influence from English.

Key numbers:

  • 1 uno; 2 due; 3 tre; 4 quattro; 5 cinque; 6 sei; 7 sette; 8 otto; 9 nove; 10 dieci;
  • 11 undici; 12 dodici; 16 sedici; 17 diciassette; 20 venti; 21 ventuno;
  • 100 cento; 1000 mille; 456789 quattrocentocinquantaseimila settecentottantanove.

Italian personal pronouns have shifted markedly in recent centuries. Notably, it has a peculiar and widely used pronoun ci, used both as a dummy subject (e.g. ci sono ‘there are’) and since late Medieval times as a first person plural object (replacing nos as it switched towards ni).

Key personal pronouns:

  • singular io, me, mi; tu, te, ti, lui/lei, gli/le, lo/la; 
  • plural noi, ci; voi, vi; loro, li/le.

Generally feminine third person pronouns (Lei, La; Loro, Le/Li) tend also to be used as polite second.


Italian nouns are one of two genders, marked singular or plural. Masculine nouns often end singular -o plural -i; feminine singular -a plural -e, with another set of either gender ending singular -e plural -i.

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

  • canto, canti, canta; cantiamo, cantate, cantano.

Note also “infinitive” cantare; “past participle” cantato; “gerund” candando.

Verbs are marked for tense (and aspect) and agree with their subject noun; the subjunctive mood is widespread. Non-subjunctive endings may mark present, imperfect, conditional or future tenses (also past, although this is generally reserved for writing); combinations with the verb avere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ may also mark perfect (or general past in speech), pluperfect or future-perfect (he creduto ‘I have believed’; eravamo andati ‘we had gone’; avranno visto ‘We will have seen’). Immediacy can be marked with andare ‘to go’ and progressive aspect with stare ‘to stand’. Fewer tense endings are in use with the subjunctive, although the full range with avere, essere, andare and stare are available.

Italian is a pro-drop language, meaning verbs can be used without the subject if the subject is clear: amo ‘I love’, finiscono ‘they finish’, lo hanno visto ‘We saw it’.

Adjectives agree in number and gender with nouns in all circumstances, with the same endings as for nouns above (uomo piccolo ‘small man’; costa verde ‘green coast’; canzoni italiane ‘Italian songs’). Attributively, they tend to go after the noun, but not always (dolce vita ‘sweet life’).

The singular articles are il/lo and un/uno (masculine), and la and una (feminine); plural i/gli (masculine) and le (feminine) – there is no indefinite plural article although di may be used as a quantifier (vorrei delle mele ‘I would like some apples’). Elided singular forms (masculine and feminine l’ and even feminine un’) are in use.

Prepositions take strong personal pronouns: con te ‘with you’.

Key prepositions:

  • di ‘of, from’, ‘to’, in ‘in’, con ‘with’, per ‘through, by’, da ‘originating from’.

A complex range of preposition+article combinations exist (di+lo=dello; a+la=alla; in+gli=negli etc.)

Word order is typically SVO (but SOV if the object is a pronoun). When forming the perfect, participles agree with any object appearing before them: la hanno vista ‘we saw her’; le canzoni che hanno scritte ‘the songs we wrote’.


Modern Italian is literally a very musical language, for which it is well suited given the predominance of vowels. It is spoken as such, generally towards the back of the mouth with an emphasis towards the end of the clause.

However, Italian does have a perhaps surprising preference for nouns combined with a relatively small number of key verbs (e.g. ho fatto una investigazione del caso ‘I investigated the case’, literally ‘I did an investigation of the case’).

What’s next?

We will move over the sea to Iberia to cover Spanish (and Portuguese) next, as they are fundamentally more similar to Italian than French is.

Padre nosto, che sei nei cieli, sia santificato il tuo nome; venga il tuo regno; sia fatta la tua voluntà, come in cielo, così in terra. Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano e rimetti a noi i nostro debiti, come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori, e non ci indurre in tentazione, ma liberaci dal male.

How to learn languages – story so far

We have established so far that all major national languages in Western Europe are derived from Indo-European, a language which was itself of extraordinary complexity by modern standards. Its phonology was marked by aspiration, strong and various <h> sounds, and probably tonal distinction – making it in many ways quite unlike even its daughter languages such as Classical Latin and Old Norse. Grammatically it was also quite distinct, exhibiting distinction by case, use of postpositions as often as prepositions, distinction primarily by aspect rather than tense, and a wide range of declensions and conjugations. Nevertheless, core vocabulary and basic aspects of grammar are already in some ways familiar.

We took at the oldest script in any Germanic language, the 4th century Bible translation into Gothic, to see how Germanic had developed in the centuries after Christ; and notably we also looked at Vulgar or Late Latin, which itself already demonstrated half the changes from Classical Latin to modern Latinate languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. These languages are more markedly modern phonologically, as they have generally lost tonal distinctions and the range of <h> sounds. They are also grammatically a little closer, distinguishing more definitively by tense rather than aspect and beginning to shift decisively towards using prepositions (rather than postpositions or case). However, they remain strange; in spoken form they would be utterly unrecognisable, and even in written form they look familiar but are still distant.

We also saw, through Middle English, how modern written standards are often based on Medieval pronunciation (we will see how remarkably often this is the case as we go on). Here, as one correspondent noted, we also see how inadequate the so-called “Latin” alphabet really is to represent the complexity and combination of sounds actually used in modern speech. This is so complex that even the invented language Esperanto, with 28 letters, failed to deliver on its own avowed objective of one sound to one letter. We have also seen how social disruption (such as the Black Death) or technological disruption (such as the invention of the Printing Press) can have dramatic effects on language change – either encouraging it or stalling it (although, as one correspondent noted, these effects generally speed up or stall processes already ongoing, rather than causing new ones).

I am always grateful for correspondence on this series – next up, we are moving to the modern day with a look at contemporary Standard Italian.