Category Archives: Language

Can you learn several languages at once?

Arising from this outline of the story of Latin in the first millennium, I had some correspondence essentially about how best to use Latin as a link to learn daughter languages.

As I outlined in the article, there are many good reasons for learning Classical Latin but doing so in order to make it easier to learn its daughter languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) is not one. For the reasons outlined, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian are definitely far closer to each other than any is to Classical Latin; and on balance this is probably so even for French and Romanian. Given the additional difficulty that Classical Latin is so alien (with its case endings, odd word order and peculiar structure), and harder to practise, there is no case at all for using it as a linguistic stepping stone.

Of course, as was established in the past few weeks on this blog, Vulgar or Late Latin has a better case to be used as a stepping stone. It is closer to its daughter languages and is much more familiar.

However, there are two obvious problems there. Firstly, Late Latin had no written form and existed at a time of no audio, so it must be linguistically reconstructed. Secondly, opportunities to practise are effectively zero. Therefore, actually learning it is a lot of effort and dedication. Ultimately, it is surely easier simply to learn the modern languages.

Is it preferable, then, to learn several related languages at once? I have in fact developed a course which teaches both basic French and basic Italian at the same time. Intentionally using only common vocabulary at the outset, it is theoretically possible to introduce the basic concepts of each language with minimal misunderstanding. What is interesting, however, is that no one really wants to do it, even when confronted with the materials. Instead, people instinctively want to learn one language at a time.

It is probably correct to say, then, that it should be one language at a time, even if in quick succession. That said, there is no harm in at least reading about the basics of Latin (of any era) to develop a broader understanding of what to expect in its daughter languages, and no doubt a similar case could be made for other language groups.


Classical versus Medieval Latin

I am not a Latinist, but on the basis of a further query directly in this site once again I need to pursue the subject a little further! Fundamentally, the comment concerned “Ecclesiastical Latin”, the form used by the Church (in some cases, as was rightly pointed out, across all services until the 1960s) and still the official language of the Holy See. This is closely linked to “Medieval Latin”.

Medieval Latin

As noted last week, Latin “died” as a living spoken vernacular some time between the late seventh and mid tenth century, depending on location (and exact definition). In other words, by the second millennium, no one regarded themselves to be a native “Latin” speaker and the language had no conversational use.

However, the written language (still based in the form spoken a millennium before by Caesar and Cicero) remained known by educated people, not least in the Church. Through the second millennium it remained a lingua franca, used at least in writing for everything from promulgating laws or international treaties through to medical journals and church services. The key point, however, is that it was written, rather than spoken – on the occasions it had to be spoken, it was recited using the phonological norms of the local vernacular.


Over time, each country (even countries where a Latinate language was not the vernacular) developed a pronunciation of Latin based on its own vernacular. In English- and German-speaking countries this was in fact generally closer to Classical (perhaps because there was no direct influence from an obviously related tongue), but was betrayed by the tendency to pronounce vowels too far back in the mouth (this lax pronunciation is typical of Germanic languages particularly in Northern Europe, but never of Latinate). In countries where a Latinate language was spoken, the most obvious betrayal of origin was the pronunciation of the letters [c] and [g] before a high vowel as in the contemporary vernacular rather than hard as in Classical Latin. Notably also, they generally abandoned phonemic vowel length in line with local vernaculars (thus there was no strict need to distinguish long from short vowels, even though sometimes the inherited vowels were still pronounced differently depending on whether they had been long or short, but as a matter of quality rather than length) and occasionally even diphthongs (e.g. some writers preferred simple [e] to [oe] or [ae], notably from a familiar English language point of view pena not poena “penalty”).

Over the centuries, given the location of the Holy See and also perhaps its predominant role in music as well as the original host of the Latin language, the broadly Italian pronunciation came to take precedence. Meanwhile, in the Victorian Era, an academic battle waged about whether to cede to this later Medieval Italian pronunciation or to try to move closer to the Classical (perhaps German and English-speaking linguists found it easier to argue for the latter as they did not feel the same sense of continuity as Italians in particular). By 1900 English speakers and German speakers had settled on what they thought was a restored Classical pronunciation, the one taught in schools even now.

Consider a simple phrase magnum opus Cicerōnis (“a great work of Cicero”).

Medieval (Italian) has something akin to “mangyum ohpus chicherohnis”

English/German restored is something like “magnum ohpus kikerohnis”

However, Classical pronunciation was likely something more like “mangnw’opus kyeekyerawnis”

Recent debate concerns the elision of a final nasal vowel with a subsequent vowel; and significant doubt as to the previously widespread contention that Latin vowels in Classical times differed not just by length but also by quality. (Note also that consonants were much less stressed than they are in modern German or English – [s] in particular was a bare trill.)


However, it was not just in pronunciation that Medieval Latin varied due to vernacular influence. It also took on semantics, styles and structures at odds from the Classical form (generally unintentionally), notably the tendency towards greater use of prepositions (rather than a reliance solely on case endings), more demonstratives (unus or ille effectively becoming optional articles in some writing) and a shift in subordinate constructions.

What does that last one mean? We can return again to last week. To translate “you believed I ordered wine”, Classical Latin used a raising construction which sounds stilted but not really wrong in the English equivalent to “you believed me to have ordered wine” (but Classical Latin was also typically verb-final):

crēdis mē vīnum mandāvisse

As established last week, this was no longer current in spoken Latin even before it broke up into its daughter languages (and perhaps long before – as it was not written we cannot be absolutely sure when the change occurred), and that was the form used in all daughter languages:

credes que abeo commandatu vinu albu

Therefore authors whose spoken vernacular had adopted the new structure would then replicate it even when writing supposedly Classical-based Latin:

credis quod mandavi vinum

The words and the forms (including an analytic perfect verb ending and an accusative noun case ending) are all Classical, but the structure absolutely is not. The use of quod in such a context was unknown in Ancient Rome at the time of the Republic, and is essentially a back-translation of the later que.

Living Latin

As a result the debate still rages about how Latin should be pronounced or indeed structured when it is taught or recited. However, the debate is perhaps friendlier now that it once was – in many ways, Medieval and Classical Latin are a bit like British and American English, in that they can be understood by anyone using the other one with a bit of common sense.


When did Latin “die”?

Further to my posts on Latin over the past two weeks (an overview here and a discussion of its classical pronunciation here), I ended up involved in further discussion which can probably all be grouped under the question when did Latin “die”? (Essentially, the questions were whether it is worth learning Latin, and whether it is necessary for languages to change, the answers to which I think are naturally tied together.)

Firstly, two concepts are important here.

Language Change

Language change is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It happens for a number of reasons, chief among them changes to the environment in which a language is spoken (perhaps it needs to describe new things or concepts when it moves to a new location, or it “borrows” words and even structures from languages with which it comes into contact) and the “principle of least effort” tied to the simple human desire for regularisation (we can hear this even in the speech of toddlers – “the toy breaked”, “are those oxes?”)

Ultimately, time changes all things. Languages are no different.


Once upon a time, all languages were spoken and heard; in fact, it is still the case that most languages in the world exist solely or primarily in spoken form. However, major national languages have shifted towards being widely written and read. In order to enable this, they undergo a process of “standardisation”, so that everyone across a wide area can learn a single form which can then be widely read and understood without difficulty.

It is this, above anything else, which takes language out of the realm of being solely about communication and also ties it to concepts of social identity and nation building. Ultimately, a state will usually end up deciding what the “standard” form of a language is and insisting that it is upheld. The “standard” refers primarily to the language in its written form, although in some cases standard (or at least recognisably prestigious) spoken forms exist as well.

Change and Standardisation

Language change and standardisation automatically jar. The latter is about agreeing a single prestige form of the language; but the former insists on changing it. Even the constructed language Esperanto has become subject to debate about natural change within the language versus adherence to its fundamental original principles!

Standardisation – that is, the attempt to maintain a particular form of the language (at least in writing) – is assisted by technological breakthroughs. The more people can read a language (say, through the development of literacy or the introduction of paper) and the faster it can be disseminated (say, through the invention of the printing press or the widespread use of the Internet), the more important a standard form becomes to maximise common understanding. Any technological or social innovation which widens people’s exposure to a language enhances the standard and dramatically slows down language change.

The outcome of this clash varies from language to language. We can see in English that the writing of Shakespeare of 400 years ago is relatively accessible to modern speakers, but the writing of Chaucer 200 years before that requires translation or at least some sort of guidance. What is noteworthy was that Chaucer could not be read without guidance even in Shakespeare’s day; in other words, the pace of language change in English dramatically slowed down in between Chaucer (late 1300s) and Shakespeare (late 1500s). The key development, almost exactly in between those two dates, was the introduction to England of the printing press in 1485. This made a standard written form of English essential, and slowed down change to the written language immensely. Alongside the difficulty of agreeing a standard for a language with so many influences on it in the first place (West Germanic influenced by Norse then by Norman-French with significant Latin, etc), it is this near stalling of the written standard shortly after the printing press came into widespread use that accounts for the divergence between how the language is written (based on pronunciation around 1500) and how it is pronounced today.

In France, the process was very similar – with a strong capital city and academic backing, a standard written form (in fact intentionally conservative for the sake of added prestige even by the standards of the time of the first printing press) has been maintained from which the spoken form has diverged massively. What is important here, however, is that not only have the spellings of the standard written form been preserved, but by and large so have the grammatical structures – so the spoken form has diverged in terms of pronunciation, but not in terms of structure.

In Germany and Italy the story is somewhat different, because those countries only emerged in unified form much later (in the mid to late 1800s). As a result, the standard forms in speech and writing are much closer than in the case of English or French, although they are in each case still intentionally conservative. Standard German, based ultimately on the writing of Luther and thus in effect on the educated speech of the central German-speaking area at the time of the Reformation, is pronounced as an overlay of local more north dialects and is thus intentionally closer to the written form. In Italian, arguably, this is even more dramatic – the written standard is intentionally outright archaic, based on Tuscan from the time of Dante around 1300, with Italians expected to pronounce their language in line with the written standard (meaning the pronunciation of the standard language is intentionally conservative and generally much more so than in the local vernacular).

Conversely, Spanish and particularly Dutch have had more recent updates. Spanish is based ultimately on the pronunciation of educated speakers in Castile around 1815; the current Dutch standard is post-War, including an update even to the structures of the language (for example to all but abandon grammatical case in line with contemporary usage). Although there is the odd nod to the past, generally both of these languages have effectively updated their spelling and structures to reflect pronunciation within relatively modern times, compared to other major Western European languages.

Standards do change over time too, it should be noted (for example the recent German spelling reform and the ongoing debates about written accent marks in French), but fundamentally they reflect a version of the written language based on educated speakers not just at a particular place but also at a particular time (Tuscany 1300, Castile 1800, or whatever).

Was this not supposed to be about Latin?

Which brings us to Latin. When we say “Latin”, at least in terms of the language we might learn at school, what we mean is the prestige written form of Latin from the time of Caesar and Cicero – roughly 2100 years ago. While there was no Latin Language Academy or even Government trying to enforce a standard, there was the broad social concept of Latīnitās which provided for the broadly expected form of written Latin (as well as sometimes wider cultural norms). Classicus originally referred to the highest class of citizen (and only later came to mean “exemplary”), and so although the Latin of Caesar and Cicero was not a “standard” in a strictly modern sense, it was a “classical form” which had largely the same effect.

As the Empire grew, Latin expanded as the administrative and commercial language right across Western and into parts of Eastern Europe, and even after the fall of Rome and the breakdown of the Empire in the West, no one in its former territories (with the exception of what we now consider western Germany, northern Belgium and England, where Germanic vernaculars took hold over time) was in any doubt that they spoke “Latin” until at least the late 600s. In theory at least, even 750 years after Caesar and Cicero, you could have travelled from what we now consider western Portugal through central Spain to northern France and then southern Italy and been generally understood, provided there was a bit of good will and common sense. (This is a not dissimilar situation from that which currently exists with regard to Arabic, which has a “Modern Standard” form based on the “Classical” liturgical language, but in fact is spoken in a wide range of local varieties which are all identifiably “Arabic” but in pure form are not necessarily mutually intelligible.)

However, this was not because Latin remained the same for 750 years. Language change affected it, particularly in spoken form. That is where there is perhaps a useful parallel with modern French – what resulted in around 700AD was an archaic written Latin based on pronunciation now seven centuries or so out of date, accompanied by a contemporary spoken form that was considerably distant from it. Yet, in the same way no one in 2019 denies they are speaking French just because their pronunciation does not reflect the written form, few in 700 would have denied they were speaking Latin.

It is worth noting, though, that there was a difference from the modern French comparison. Whereas Standard French has broadly retained its grammatical structures over the centuries, Classical Latin did not, giving way not just in terms of pronunciation but also in terms of vocabulary and grammar to Late Latin. This “Late” Latin maintained a degree of coherence across a wide geographical area for a number of reasons, notable among them that it derived not strictly from Classical Latin (the prestige form) but from Vulgar (or what in fact would probably be better termed “Popular”) Latin spoken by the masses rather than the elite seven or eight centuries before. Where Classical Latin remained petrified in time, Popular Latin continued to change (and regularise).

The key point here is that, if we accept Classical Latin is based on the educated speech of the Rome area in 50BC and Standard Italian is based on the educated speech of the Florence area in 1300, it becomes obvious that far more than half the changes between Classical Latin and Standard Italian had already happened by the year 700 – i.e. before anyone in Italy (or for that matter Iberia or Gaul) believed they were speaking anything other than “Latin”. In fact, given the dramatic slowing of language change after the printing press, it is probably reasonable to say this is also the case with reference to the standard form of any daughter language of Latin (although French and Romanian have specific reasons for having had notable further divergence of their own).

From around 700, it became evident particularly in northern Gaul that the local vernacular could no longer reasonably be described as “Latin”. Local populations became unable to understand even basic church recitals; travellers reported being unable to understand people even when they assumed they spoke the same language; there was in all likelihood the beginning of an awareness that Classical Latin was one thing, and the local dialect was another. By 950 or so, this point was no longer in dispute anywhere in the former Latin-speaking world, not even in Italy itself.

Learning Latin

There are many good reasons for learning (Classical) Latin, but of course it depends on individual interest. It is necessary to study ancient European civilisation; it is a useful exercise in intellectual rigour and discipline; it has useful side effects which help in fields as widespread as medicine and law. Linguistically, Latin also includes some concepts now alien from the modern languages derived from it but shared with other modern languages, so it is useful in ways beyond the obvious.


  • Standard Italian credi che abbia ordinato vino bianco
  • Standard Spanish crees que he ordenado vino blanco
  • Standard French tu crois que j’ai commandé du vin blanc

These sentences, meaning “you believe that I have ordered white wine”, are clearly distinct yet similar.

In each case, we have a word for “believe” clearly of the same origin; the use of “to have” as an auxiliary verb; and obvious linkage around the term for “white wine”. In other words, they betray an obvious common origin.

However, that origin is not directly Classical Latin, as we can see here:

  • Classical Latin crēdis mē vīnum album mandāvisse

Here, credis does indeed show a link to the daughter languages but after that the structure, involving an “accusative infinitive” construction, is entirely different and only one further word (vinum) is identifiably similar. The verb-final literal translation of “you believe me wine white to have ordered” (or even the more direct “you believe me to have ordered white wine”), with the inclusion of case endings (-um) and a past infinitive marker (-avisse), is completely alien to speakers of any of the daughter languages.

Yet, there is a more obvious origin:

  • Vulgar Latin credes que abeo commandatu vinu albu

This is not attested (no one wrote Vulgar Latin apart from on the odd wall), but it is a reasonable reconstruction of spoken Latin after the fall of Rome but before Charlemagne. It looks a lot more familiar (and would be even more so if we included the Germanic borrowing blancu rather than albu for “white” which came in towards the end of the common Latin period).

Typically of all the daughter languages, we have here: h-dropping (abeo not habeo); removal of final post vocalic -m (and unstressed -s); lowering of -i to -e (actually also in que, derived from quid); prioritisation of a word form with a prefix (commandare not mandare); and most of all an identifiably modern structure using a subordinate clause ordered subject-verb-object.

In other words, this is clearly Latin – yet it is at the same time closer to its daughter languages of centuries later than the Classical form of centuries before.

However, the case presented for learning (Classical) Latin as a window to the modern languages derived from it is not clear cut. In fact, all other things being equal (which admittedly they are not always), the logical progression from Late Latin being nearer to its daughter languages than to the classical form is that each of the daughter languages is nearer to any of the other daughter languages than any is to Classical Latin.

If we could learn Late Latin, of course, that would be another matter…



How do we know what the Romans sounded like?

Last week’s piece on Classical Latin, particularly the phonology, triggered a reasonable and obvious question: how do we know what they sounded like?

Without recorded voices of any kind, of course, we cannot know absolutely precisely. However, because we can reconstruct languages from what came after (modern languages such as, in this case, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) and indeed what went before, we can merge this with direct historical evidence of what the Romans said about their own speech to gather a very accurate picture.


Firstly, the Romans were lucky because, although their alphabet mimicked Greek (and thus Phoenician), it was in fact designed specifically for Latin. No modern Western European language has that advantage – all of them use the Latin alphabet and then have to make it fit around a different language from the one it was designed for.

Initially, the Romans required just 18 letters – five litterae vōcāles (of voice; A, E, I, O, U) and 13 cōnsonantēs (with sound; B, C, D, F, H, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T). I and U could be semi-vocalic; in fact Q was used only before U as QU to indicate this was the case (versus CU, when it was not).

In time the Romans added G to distinguish from C; X for the combination CS or GS; and K, Y and Z for words borrowed from Greek (although some writers ignored K while others came to use it more widely to replace C even in native words in particular instances, such as frequently before A).

Fundamentally, however, the Latin alphabet remained one letter for one sound, with just the odd exception (notably X and arguably QU; with greater Greek influence this came to change a little more, but we will come to that). This makes it quite straightforward to work out, for the most part, how it was pronounced because there is no reason to believe that each letter would have been pronounced significantly differently from its modern equivalent, assuming such an equivalence can be made.


The contention that we can assume most letters were pronounced as today is backed up by studies of the Proto-Indo-European language from which Latin (and also Old Irish, Old Church Slavonic, Gothic, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and others) was derived. However, comparisons across the language sets do tell us some things.

The plosives (B, C and P) were pronounced more softly probably even than in modern Italian (and considerably more so that in English or German); B frequently switched to F in Latin in certain environments, suggesting the sounds were not far apart. Furthermore, two distinct C (actually broadly /k/) sounds were inherited by Latin and it seems odd that these were merged only to de-merge again in Late Latin (and thus in all daughter languages) – hence my own contention that C (and subsequently G) was always pronounced slightly differently before a high vowel than before a low vowel (before a high vowel I suggest it was slightly palatalised, with a hint of a y-glide; that some chose to distinguish in writing between K and C may provide further evidence but most speakers probably did not think about it for long enough to consider there was a distinction, in the same way English speakers do not consider the ‘c’ in ‘care’ to be any different from that in ‘scare’).

The letter D was pronounced much more briefly than today (just a short flap), as we know it was unstable – converting initially to B in some instances (even now ‘dual’ versus ‘binary’) and being lost altogether finally except in the most common words (e.g. classical ablative mēnsā or fundō were originally mēnsad, fundod).

H was also destined to be unstable right from the start, deriving from a complex series of Indo-European laryngeals. It was already clearly lost in all but the most careful educated speech well before the time of Christ. (Note that it is conceivable that it came and went; /h/ was lost from English entirely by Shakespeare’s time but was then recovered in learned speech in the centuries after).

We know M and N were already nasal at the end of words as they emerged from Indo-European because they were often not preceded by a vowel; this changed in Latin, which placed vowels before final nasals.

S was likely pronounced as a brief tap (as in many modern Spanish dialects, see below) as it frequently developed into (and occasionally even from) R. This again was an Indo-European thing, as the S/R switch is common to many Indo-European languages (cf. English ‘was/were’, ‘lost’ but ‘forlorn’).

Given its confusion with B but rarely F, as well as other factors, V was pronounced as /w/ or at least somewhere between /w/ and /ß/ (so potentially close to modern Spanish [b] and [v] between vowels).

Indo-European tells us much less about vowels, which change much more through time. One thing we can note throughout the history of Latin is the instability between O and U and, to a lesser extent, between E and I.

Daughter languages 

We can tell much about Latin pronunciation by reconstructing it from daughter languages, most obviously Italian and Spanish.

Italian, based in conservative Tuscan, gives us many of the modern sounds as there is no reason for them to have changed. The most notable shifts are the loss of distinctive vowel length (vowel quality clearly came to be definitive in the Late Latin period as that is the case in all daughter languages) and the switch of the palatalised /k/ and /g/ (i.e. the aforementioned C or G before a high vowel in Classical Latin) to a new affricate sound (equivalent to English [ch] and [j]). Word stress has clearly shifted on some short words in Italian, but there is no reason to believe it is significantly different (even though, as the language is now more vocalic, its rhythm is somewhat different).

Notably, Italian also gives us the most likely location for pronunciation. Generally, the further south you go in Europe the further forward in the mouth pronunciation occurs (just compare a Dutch person or Dane speaking English versus an Italian or a Spaniard). There is no reason to believe this was notably different in ancient times – Latin was surely articulated towards the front of the mouth, thus lacking the lax vowels of Germanic languages.

Spanish in some ways is closer to Late Latin phonologically, and to many of the “errors” Romans themselves noted. It frequently displays [e] where Latin had I just as was apparent in colloquial or lower class speech even by the time of Christ; thus Latin and Italian lingua are Spanish lengua; Latin vices (note Pompeian graffiti veces) is Spanish veces. Spanish also exhibits AU/AL to [o] which was also a marker of lower class or rustic speech in and around Rome 2000 years ago (e.g. Latin alterum, Italian altro, Spanish otro).

Note that Spanish (as well as Sardinian, the most conservative Latinate language) contains only five basic vowel sounds. This is not absolute proof, but it strongly suggests that Classical Latin had only five too.

Contemporary writing

As noted above, Romans themselves often noted “errors” creeping into speech, or commented on how peasants or immigrants spoke. These give us a clear idea of how the language was changing. Many inscriptions themselves contain these “errors” (perhaps most commonly omitting initial h– or post-vocalic final –m) and thus reflect contemporary speech.

On top of this, the meter of Roman poetry also gives us a clear idea about elision. Notably, we can tell from this that final and initial vowels (or nasals or h-) ran into each other consistently in Latin poems, and there is no evidence other than that this was a simple representation of how Latin was actually pronounced.

This is, for the record, a fundamental point because with some exceptions it was the ending rather than the initial sound which was lost in the elision – and thus often the bit containing the grammatical coding (which makes Latin so distinct fundamentally from its daughter languages). Yet studies of Latin literature have shown that this is crucial to understanding in only a minuscule proportion of combinations, and that even then there is no doubt about the meaning from the context. This suggests that in fact one driver of Romans’ choice of word order was the determination to avoid losing a grammatically crucial ending (e.g. if it going to be unclear that you mean agricolā erat nauta ‘by the farmer was a sailor’ rather than agricola erat nauta ‘the farmer was a sailor’ or agricolae erat nauta ‘the farmer’s was a sailor’ because without the ending pronounced in the first word they all sound the same, just say agricolā nauta erat – which indeed was the most common word order). This remains a remarkably understudied aspect of Latin syntax.

Ultimately, all of these allow us to reconstruct very accurately the speech of Caesar. Not that he ever said et tū Brūte, of course – indeed he would likely have appealed to Brutus in Greek…

How to learn languages – Classical Latin

I put up my review of how to learn languages (which itself contains links to the languages I had referred to and the introduction to the overall project from two years ago) on social media recently, and was asked why I had included Late Latin but not Classical Latin.

To answer that question, well, I really need to do a page on Classical Latin…


Classical Latin, by which here I mean the Golden Age Latin of Cicero (i.e. that spoken and written by the educated classes around 2100 years ago) whose grammatical and broad orthographical norms are still what is understood to be “Latin” when it is taught. This was the direct ancestor of Late Latin, the spoken vernacular of much of western Continental Europe which, although it had variations, still constituted even in the minds of its speakers a single “Latin” language at least until 700AD (and in some areas almost until the end of the first millennium). Furthermore, Classical Latin remained a single written lingua franca throughout the medieval era, particularly in ecclesiastical, philosophical and scientific life, and is still widely known and learned (and in some cases, typically at specific conferences, spoken) in its Golden Age form.

Latin itself was originally the language of a small tribe based in and slightly to the south (i.e. within easy modern commuting distance) of Rome in the region which eventually became known as Latium (modern Italian Lazio); to the north was spoken the closely related Faliscan, and around it were other Italic languages alongside some tongues of non-Proto-Indo-European origin and Ionian Greek (well to the south along the coast). Latin spread across the Italian peninsula, largely displacing all other languages by the Golden Age Period and completely displacing them by around 100AD (another Italic language, Oscan, is particularly well attested because it was still in use alongside Latin in Pompeii at the time of its destruction but was extinct soon after it); sermō vulgāris or “Vulgar Latin” was brought to all corners of the Empire by legionaries. After the conquest of any individual province, Latin was not formally enforced but in practice administrators would always operate in either Latin or Greek (and the former was almost always preferred).


The phonology of Classical Latin has been subject to much debate. In time it gave way to daughter languages, sometimes sharing phonological developments with each other and sometimes displaying their own. Speakers of those languages, and even of English and German, came to pronounce even Classical Latin according to their own contemporary norms, and it was not until the 20th century that classical pronunciation was largely re-established in education (although Italian pronunciation, known as Lingua Latīna Ecclēsiastica or Ecclesiastical Latin, is still preferred by the Church and, mostly, in music).

Even then, aspects of that classical pronunciation remain contested (or indeed in subsequent decades have proven to be plain wrong).

Some key points of agreement among current linguists include:

  • from around 250BC, word stress shifted from the first syllable typically to the penultimate or antepenultimate depending on the length of the vowel and consonant/vowel pattern of the penultimate syllable (with some exceptions where final letters had been dropped);
  • as is often forgotten in education but now agreed by philologists, vowel length was essential (for example ancient Romans viewed short [A] and long [Ā] as two fundamentally different letters, even though they were based in the same pronunciation and often written the same way);
  • consonants were softer (less plosive) than in some modern languages such as English;
  • the pair [I] and [J] were regarded as the same letter, as were [U] and [V];
  • [M] and [N] after vowels were nasalised (even though this is rarely recognised in education).

Points of minor contention include:

  • [C] and [G] (originally regarded as the same letter but clearly distinguished by the Golden Age period) were always pronounced hard, but there is some evidence that before high vowels ([E], [I] and in practice by the Golden Age period also [AE] and [OE]) they were always pronounced with a “y-glide” (i.e. as occurs after the [n] of British English ‘news’);
  • English- and German-speaking linguists often posit a seven-vowel system (typically with [E] and [Ē] and [I] and [Ī] exhibiting not just distinct length but distinct quality) but this seems at odds with subsequent development and Southern European linguists assume only five (i.e. all five vowels had simply long and short forms; albeit six if including the [Y] in borrowings from Greek);
  • [V], while certainly closer to English [w] than modern Italian [v], may have been somewhere between /ß/ (as in Spanish vivir) and /w/ rather than purely /w/ as is often taught, particularly between vowels;
  • the third person form est ‘is’ and et ‘and’  may have been strongly elided (i.e. to something approaching ‘st/’t) in speech at all times (and not just in poetry or common speech), particularly after vowels and nasals; and
  • in common speech, where a word ended in a vowel or a nasal it was often elided (by omission or conversion into a semi-vowel) if the next word began with a vowel or h-.

The result was a language from which harsher and slushier sounds (e.g. German [ch] /x/ or English [sh] /ʃ/) were entirely absent; however, it would have been markedly less vocalic than modern Italian (or even Late Latin), and when read aloud its rhythm sounds quite alien even to speakers of its daughter languages, given its unstressed final syllables and frequent long vowels (and also long consonants, retained only in Italian among today’s major national languages descended from it). Late Latin, which distinguished previously long versus short vowels only by quality rather than length and generally dropped final nasal consonants, would sound much more familiar to speakers of daughter languages, particularly Italian and Spanish.


Before the age of printing or even paper (although they had papyrus, a word itself borrowed from Greek), Latin did not require a written standard. However, in effect it developed one in the centuries before Christ through literature (such as Terence and Plautus) and particularly the form adopted by Cicero and Julius Caesar himself. This came to be recognised as the “classical” (understood to mean “first class”) form which has been used among the educated and in education ever since.

The Romans of Caesar’s time were generally aware that their language had developed and changed through time. Many knew that older competing grammatical inflections had in time been dropped, amended or regularised; in some cases minor confusion remained (for example initial du– became b– over a period probably during the second or third century BC, so duenos ‘good’ became bonus, but in some cases such as duo ‘two’ the du– was retained; hence even English ‘dual’ but ‘binary’). Romans of Caesar’s time were not of the view that their Latin was in any way superior linguistically to that which had gone before or to any other language – indeed, if anything, quite the opposite (educated upper classes in Ancient Rome in fact chose to speak to each other in what they regarded as the true language of high culture, namely Greek).

Latin was written with an alphabet ultimately derived from Phoenician, of 23 familiar letters. [K] was by some writers considered the same as [C]; [G] and [X] were borrowed from Greek after Latin was first written but before the Golden Age of its literature; [Y] and [Z] were only used in words of Greek origin (initially so were the digraphs [CH], [PH], [RH] and [TH], which clarifies that consonants were softer in Latin than Greek); there was no U/V or I/J distinction and no [W]. Albeit with the notes above, it was largely written as spoken although already by 100BC [AE] and [OE] were merging even sometimes in educated speech to [E]. Some conservative orators, conversely, occasionally retained [O] where [U] was written (notably equus ‘horse’ was often pronounced as if *equos).

In ancient times, Latin was written only in capitals. An acute mark, now more commonly a horizontal accent mark (e.g. [Ā] above), was occasionally used to mark long vowels (or even in some instances consonants); long consonants were usually marked by doubling.


Vocabulary was inherited largely from Proto-Indo-European, likely with other additions from non-Indo-European languages spoken in the Italian peninsula. There were also significant borrowings from Greek.

Key numbers:

  • I ūnus, II duo, III trēs, IV quattuor; V quinque; VI sex; VII septem; VIII octō; IX novem; X decem;
  • XI ūndecim; XVI sēdecim; XVII septendecim; XVIII duodēvīgintī; XX vīgintī; XI vīginti ūnus; C centum; M mille.

Note that although Latin allowed counting in standard tens (so 19/XIX could be decimnovem) the last two numbers in each ten were more commonly reverse-counted (thus ūndevīgintī, literally ‘one from twenty’); this applied all the way up (e.g. 99/XCIX was most commonly ūndēcentum). Later numbers could also be counted unit first (so 24/XXIV could be vīgintī quattuor or quattuor et vīgintī ‘four and twenty’).


Latin is renowned for its complex grammar, but in fact even two millennia ago it was no more complex than what went before and was in many ways as straightforward as many modern languages such as Russian or even German.

Nouns endings changed depending on grammatical case, of which there were in practice five plus vestiges of two more (down from Proto-Indo-European’s likely eight or nine); most nouns fell into one of five ‘declensions’ which dictated the pattern by which they did this. Nouns were also one of three genders, which dictated how adjective or determiner endings also changed to ‘agree’ with them. Thus ille puer ‘this boy’, illa puella ‘that girl’, illud vallum ‘this wall’, puer bonus ‘good boy’, puella bona ‘good girl’, vallum bonum ‘good wall’; but also illum puerum ‘that boy’ (accusative; direct object), illā puellā ‘(by) that girl’ (ablative), illī vallī ‘(to) that wall’ (dative); illōs puerōs ‘those boys’ (accusative), illārum puellārum ‘(of) those girls’ (genitive), etc; unfortunately adjective and noun endings do not always match so neatly (e.g. Italiā borealī ‘from Northern Italy’, ablative).

Verbs were marked for tense/aspect (ranging from pluperfect to future, we including conditional with different aspect), voice (active and medio-passive)  and mood (indicative, subjunctive and imperative), mostly synthetically (i.e. by changing endings) with additional supine, gerunds (verbal and adjectival forms) and various infinitive markers coded for voice and tense. They typically fell into one of four classes, but common verbs were often irregular.

The basic regular verb endings in the present tense were familiar even to speakers of modern Latinate languages (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person; singular then plural):

  • cantō, cantās, cantat; cantāmus, cantātis, cantant.

However, even a verb as simple as cantāre ‘to sing’ could have over 100 more different forms (more than twice as many as even the most verbally complex modern national language), among them cantābimus ‘we will sing’, cantābant ‘they were singing’, cantāvistis ‘you [plural] sang’, cantāverat ‘she had sung’, cantātur ‘it is sung’, cantābantur ‘they were sung’, cantābitur ‘it will be sung’, cantēs ‘you [singular] may sing’ [subjunctive], cantāremus ‘we may have been singing’, cantāverint ‘they may have sung’, cantāvissem ‘I may have sung before’, cantētur ‘it may be sung’, cantārentur ‘they may have been sung’ plus cantā ‘sing!’ [singular],  cantātōte ‘you shall sing!’ [plural], cantātor ‘it shall be sung!’ and cantāre ‘to sing’, cantāvisse ‘to have sung’, cantārī ‘to be sung’ [all infinitives], cantandum ‘singing’ [gerund/noun], cantāns ‘singing’ [gerundive/adjective], cantātus ‘sung’ [past participle], , etc.

Adjectives also had their own three declensions; with the first two, regular adverbs were formed by the suffix –ē (vērē ‘truly, really’) and in the third by –iter (fortiter ‘strongly, bravely’); some were outright irregular (e.g. bene ‘well’).

Notably Latin lacked articles (particularly noteworthy as contemporary Greek had them) and, given its case endings already carried so much meaning, it made considerably less (and arguably more specific) use of prepositions than its daughter languages.

Latin word order was most often SOV but was much freer than in its daughter languages, with the predominant consideration not the parts of speech but the emphasis. Not only could clauses be ordered more or less as the speaker/author desired, but due to agreement of adjectives/determiners and nouns elements could even be separated – magnam vidi nocte in caelō stellam ‘I saw a big star in the sky by night’ / ‘Big was the star that I saw in the night sky’.


Classical Latin is, therefore, instantly recognisable and in some ways weirdly familiar, and yet at the same time utterly alien. The way words are marked and clauses are constructed requires an entirely different thought process from that used for the most widely spoken modern Western European languages; and the sound and rhythm of the language, particularly with its distinctive word stress and the frequency of long vowels and consonants, is wholly unfamiliar to modern ears.

The reason I had not included Classical Latin originally is that it is in character so different from any national Western European language we could want to learn today. What I referred to as Vulgar Latin (actually, to be precise, Late Latin) is the direct ancestor of Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian, not Classical Latin, and Late Latin just sounds that bit more familiar and obviously close to us in the modern day; therefore Late Latin is the more relevant to contemporary language learning, all other things being equal.

Of course, arguably, all other things are not equal. Unfamiliar though it looks and alien though it sounds, the echoes of Classical Latin are with us every hour of every day. Indeed, Classical Latin (with some neologisms) is perfectly capable of being used in the modern world, in speech as well as writing. Its study at once opens up a window to our heritage, but also to linguistics in general and thus to language learning of any kind. Learning Classical Latin is in some ways like getting to know a family member you have just met and didn’t previously know existed – sometimes it is bizarre and frustrating and yet there is this strand of familiarity which connects us in some ways to the ancients and in some ways to each other.

Classical Latin, of course, did not stop at one point in time as a language in spoken use, even if it did at a written classical language. Already in the Golden Age period it is apparent that [AE] and [OE] were levelling to merge with [E] and within a few centuries some speakers also merged [I] as well; there was also some confusion between [O] and [U] among uneducated speakers particularly in rural areas. In the centuries after, at least in common speech, the combination [AL] became vocalised (effectively as [AU]) and both merged with [O]. Generally speaking, the more common, rural form was the one taken by the legionaries ad Hispaniam, and thus became Spanish (cf. Spanish lengua ‘language’ and otro ‘other’, versus Italian lingua, altro – although these are tendencies, not universals). The case system also came under pressure both from the merger of vowel combinations and the elision of case endings (noted above), and so prepositions were notably more common even by Constantine’s time, often broadening their meaning (e.g. modern de/di derives from the Latin meaning ‘about, concerning’ but came to encompass ‘of, from’).

Across what was the Western Roman Empire, speakers of daughter dialects still regarded themselves to speak “Latin” at least until the end of the seventh century. However, by the middle of the eighth century in modern-day France it was becoming impossible for speakers of the local vernacular to understand even simple Church readings in Latin; by the ninth century diplomatic missions became difficult because Latin was pronounced so differently across the Continent; by the end of the first millennium no one anywhere (even in Italy itself) was in any doubt that the local vernacular speech constituted a different language from the Latin of the Church. The story of the modern “Romance Languages” had thus begun.

So, should Classical Latin be learned as a starting point to modern languages? Nōn necesse est per sē. Sed carpe diem. Quod erat dēmōnstrandum.

Pater noster quī es in caelīs, sanctificētur nōmen tuum; adveniat regnum tuum; fīat voluntās tua; sīcut in caelō et in terrā; pānem nostrum cotīdiānum dā nōbis hodiē; et dīmitte nōbis dēbita nostra; sīcut et nōs dīmittimus dēbitōribus nostrīs; et nē nōs indūcās in tentātiōnem; sed līberā nōs ā malō.

Dimmi quando…you will learn Spanish and Italian

A recent trip to Catalonia provided me with a linguistic feast, as the steady regional socio-linguistic rise of Catalan continues alongside the steady global rise of Spanish (Castilian). It is possible that Catalan will surpass Spanish as the most spoken language in households in the region of Catalonia at around the same time the United States surpasses Spain itself, Colombia and Argentina as host to more native Spanish speakers than any country except Mexico.

However, for all sorts of reasons, let us leave Catalan out of this. Instead, let us turn to a popular Italian song I overheard on one of the boulevards, Dimmi quando tu verrai.

I have written many times before that among the prime tricks in language learning are music and linkages – learning one language through its links to one you perhaps already know. So let us consider (not least because my own stepson asked me about it at the time) what we can learn about Italian and Spanish from an Italian song played in Spain.

Italian: Dimmi quando tu verrai; dimmi quando, quando, quando; l’anno, il giorno, l’ora in cui; forse tu mi bacerai.

(Loose) Spanish: Dime cuando tú vendrás; dime cuando, cuando, cuando; el año, el día, la hora en que; quizás tú me besarás.

“Tell me when you will come; tell me when, when, when; the year, the day, the hour in which; perhaps you will kiss me.”

The first verse alone tells us a tremendous amount.

Dimmi is clearly the same as dime, spelled differently although it is common for and to be exchanged as we will see (likewise quando/cuando are just an orthographic difference).

Verrai is very interesting. The verb for “to come” is the same in both languages – venir(e); the verb for “to see” is vedere in Italian (from Latin videre which gives us “video”, “visual”, etc) but has been reduced to ver in Spanish. So the future stem in Spanish is vendr- from venir and (as we will see below) ver- from ver; but in Italian verr- is from venire while vedere gives vedr-Verrai therefore could be mistaken, based on Spanish, for “you will see”; but it is in fact “you will come”.

L’anno gives two points; firstly, Italian like French but unlike Spanish allows abbreviated articles, and secondly the older -nn- spelling has become palatised as -ñ- in Spanish (in fact what happened was that the second came to be written above the other rather than next to it, but there is also now a pronunciation difference). Giorno is in fact cognate with día but from a learner’s point of view we may just note the former is close to French jour and the latter to Portuguese dia; ora versus hora is merely an orthographic convention around the silent h-.

In cui is interesting because Italian retains effectively a leftover “dative” which Spanish has abandoned. (Some Spanish speakers would flinch at “en que“, expecting perhaps “en los que” to account for the reference back to the times, but most would leave it as is.)

Italian does allow chissa (not unlike quizás) which in some contexts could mean “perhaps” but generally uses fundamentally different words here. The pronoun again exhibits the and exchange. Italian has remained closer to Latin (as is usual but not universal) with baciare “to kiss” rather than Spanish besar (cf. French baiser).

Italian: Ogni istante attenderò; fino a quando, quando, quando; d’improvisso ti vedrò; sonridente accanto a me.

Spanish: Cada instante esperaré; hasta cuando, cuando, cuando; de repente te veré; sonriente al lado de mí.

“Every moment I will wait; until when, when, when; suddenly I see you; smiling beside me.”

There is plenty here too. Italian uniquely among major Latinate languages retains ogni from Latin omnes/omnium as opposed to Spanish cada and uses attendere (cf. French attender) rather than esperare which has a wider range of meanings in Spanish than French espérer or even Italian sperare (even though all are ultimately cognate with English “expect”). It also loses the nasal in the prefix (Spanish here idiomatically may in fact prefer momento to instante).

The words for “sudden(ly)” are different even though the grammatical structure with di/de is the same and then we see the aforementioned future of “see”, with vedr- in Italian but just ver- in Spanish.

Sonridente is an adjective form which, as with vedere/ver, is reduced in Spanish to sonriente. Accanto is taken directly from Latin and uses the preposition a, whereas lado is cognate with “lateral” and is used with de – note that in Italian (and Latin) is often softened between vowels to d in Spanish and Portuguese.

Italian: Se vuoi dirmi di sì; devi dirlo perché; non ha senso per me; la mia vita senza te.

Spanish: Si quieres decirme sí; hay que decirlo porque; tiene ningún sentido por mí; mi vida sin tí.

“If you want to tell me yes; you must say it because; my life without you has no sense for me.”

This is probably the most famous element of the song, and of course it contains some useful parallels and distinctions as well. Again we have the versus swap in se/si “if” but the stronger is retained in both languages for “yes” (deriving from Latin sic “thus”). Italian retains volere “to want” from Latin (cognate also with English “will”, German “wollen”) but Spanish has lost this, replacing it with querer (which in some contexts can also mean “love”); Italian also retains a preposition di before sì; this is not strictly wrong but is considered redundant in Spanish. Spanish could use debes to translate devi but hay que is more common in the modern language (essentially “have to”), and also distinguishes between porque “because” and por qué “why” (whereas Italian uses perché for both; note also Italian per in general which covers both Spanish por and para). The i/e swap has occurred in Spanish again for decir “to say” from Latin dicere; Italian still allows dicere but it is considered archaic and is now reduced to dire (as will be seen below, however, dir- is also the stem for the future in Spanish – so the stem is the same in both languages, but is regular in Italian and irregular in Spanish).

Ha derives from avere “to have” in Italian (actually in the same way hay derives from haber in Spanish) but Spanish no longer uses the cognate verb for the general meaning “to have”; instead in Spanish tener has extended its meaning from “to hold” to cover also “to have”; perhaps no tiene would work here in Spanish but idiomatically it prefers to negate the object in such contexts, thus ningún (which would be nessuno in Italian). Italian has the reduced from senso versus Spanish sentido; both words have a range of meanings covering “sense” to “direction”.

La mia vita is interesting; it is rare that Italian and Portuguese fall on one side and Spanish and French on the other, but here that is the case. In Spanish and French all that is required is the possessive adjective (mi or ma in this case, English “my”); Italian, however, has replaced its possessive adjective entirely with the possessive pronoun (English “mine”), and thus requires the apparently redundant article la before it (in fact mia vita standing alone would not be deemed “wrong” as such, but would sound odd to most Italians); Portuguese likewise prefers the article alongside the possessive (which here would give a mea vida). Italian can in fact place the possessive either side (so could have la vita mia); Spanish may use the possessive pronoun in this way but then the article reappears as in Italian (la vida mía).

Italian: Dimmi quando tu verrai; dimmi quando, quando, quando; baciandome dirai; non ci lasceremo mai!

Spanish: Dime cuando tu vendrás; dime cuando, cuando, cuando; al besarme dirás; no nos separemos jamás!

“Tell me when you will come; tell me when, when, when; kissing me you will say; we will never leave each other!”

The first two lines here are repeated from previously, but even the last two tell us some things. Baciandome could be besandome in Spanish, but idiomatically the construction with infinitive besar turned into a noun with the preposition sounds more like the modern language. As noted above, dir- is the future stem from “to say” in both languages.

Ci is a very peculiar pronoun in Italian, which covers the meanings of French ce “this/that”; French “there, from here”; and then has also developed to replaced the personal pronoun nos “us” (at the same time as vos became vi – both Italian and Spanish like words ending in vowels but Italian is even more insistent on them, up to the point of quite fundamental grammatical restructuring in some cases). Ci, presumably carrying over its meaning of “from here”, came therefore also to mean “us”. Here, in principle, it could cover the range of these meanings – “let us not leave from here”, as much as “let us not leave us (each other)”; Spanish requires clarity on that. In line with that requirement to end words with a vowel, mai is in fact cognate with Spanish jamás (cf. French jamais).

As a final note, in the Spanish I have translated the Italian future with a Spanish future. This is arguable. Spanish hasta que and cuando, when referring to facts rather than questions, in fact require the subjunctive where Italian finché and quando use the future and English “until” and “when” in fact use the present (even though they inevitably refer to future events – remember, Germanic languages like English do not in fact have a future tense…!).

Thus “When you come [present], I will see you” would translate into Spanish usually as “Cuando vengas [subjunctive], te veré” but into Italian as “Quando verrai [future], ti vedrò“. (Note that in both Italian and Spanish the future consists fundamentally of the infinitive plus the verb avere/haber “to have” – albeit with any unwritten).

Corrections, thoughts and general observations welcome as always!

Schools should teach “language”, not languages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to learn languages Review (repost)

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

French (and Italian) grammatical “absurdity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The peculiar case of “text” as a past tense

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

At least consciously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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