Category Archives: Language

How to learn languages – Indo-European

So, following on from last Friday’s general introduction, let us start at the beginning.

imageThis is the “family tree” of Indo-European languages. It is slightly simplistic, as it does not take account of languages which have been heavily influenced by other languages (not least English!)

This means that over 400 languages, including all national languages in Europe bar Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, are derived from a single tongue spoken around 5000 years ago, probably in or near modern Ukraine, which we now call “Proto-Indo-European” (PIE). Half the world’s population speak a daughter language PIE natively. PIE then broke up over the centuries into different dialects as tribes moved geographically and language changed (for a range of reasons from basic language change to coming across new things to describe and, of course, coming into contact with other languages).

So a good start is to have some idea what PIE was like.


Clearly, we do not know precisely what PIE sounded like.

However, we can, through reconstruction, work out that it had a lot of various sounds similar to those typically represented by modern English <h> and <l>. Most of these have been lost, but we can tell they existed from the way words developed subsequently.

We can reliably guess more about consonants than vowels, although we do know the most commonly occurring vowels were /e/ and /o/. Consonants were distinguished not just by “voiced” (e.g. /b/) and “voiceless” (e.g. /p/), but also “aspirated” (as Classical Latin <ph>). There would also have been considerably more of these (i.e. individual consonant sounds) than in most modern languages.

Most noteworthy of all, perhaps, is the clear indication that PIE relied on pitch rather than stress; and that this was applied at the start of words (perhaps with the exception of words with prefixes, which were exempt). This would have given it a markedly more different sound from any Western European language now.


Proto-Indo-European speakers had not, of course, developed the technology of writing. Written forms of the language are, therefore, the reconstructions of academic linguists.


Most of our vocabulary originates from PIE (though in fact this figure is lower for Germanic languages such as English than it is for Romance languages derived from Latin).

Key numbers:

  • 1 hoi-no-; 2 dwo-; 3 trei; 4 kwetwor-; 5 penkwe; 6 sweks; 7 septm; 8 oktou; 9 newn.; 10 dekm.

Note also k’m.tóm ‘a large number, a hundred’

PIE did have nouns, verbs and adjectives (this is not the case for all languages worldwide). However, other classes were less clear – what are now prepositions in most daughter languages were often postpositions or simply affixes, for example.


Nouns in PIE had eight, perhaps nine, cases – marked by endings to distinguish whether they were being used as subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor, recipient and so on. They had three numbers (singular, dual, plural) and three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and fell into a number of classifications. Some were further grouped – those ending -r, for example, often marked family relationship (and generally still do).

Verbs were marked, either by changes to the root vowel or by an ending (or both), primarily for aspect (rather than tense, as such) – whether something is relevant to the present or not. There were also complex moods – essentially marking whether something was certain, optional, counter-factual, and so on. Verbs could also be marked directly for mediopassive – the passive (effectively switching the subject and object around) or reflexive (making the subject also the object). They came in four classes – marked by the stem vowels (i.e. those generally appearing before the ending) /a/, /e/, /i/ or none – and were themselves classified by aspect (as being stative, reflecting a state; imperfective, reflecting something ongoing; or perfective, reflecting something complete – thus, where in English it is correct to say both ‘I boil the water’ and ‘The water boils’, PIE would not have allowed the same form for both).

Common (thematic) verb endings (1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • Singular: -oh,-esi, -eti 
  • Plural: -omos, -ete, -onti

Dual also existed, but is not relevant to modern Western European languages.

All adjectives agreed with nouns; it is unclear how much distinction there was between adjectives and adverbs.

Pronouns were markedly different from how we currently understand them. For example, there were first and second person pronouns (‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’) but not third person (no ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘they’).

Key personal pronouns (in nominative/accusative) were:

  • singular h,eg’oH/h,me’, tuH/twe’; plural wei/nsme’, yuH/usme’

Word order was generally SOV, although the range of cases (and other marker particles) would have allowed significant variation for emphasis and there was a shift in some dialects late on to SVO. The key negative particle was ne.


Clearly, it is hard to assess the character of a language spoken thousands of years ago.

We do not know exactly what its own origins were, and whether they were shared with any other language tree (this is keenly debated by linguists, but seems unlikely to me).

We know something about the culture. We can tell from the language that society was clearly patriarchal, for example. Much of this too, however, remains keenly debated.

What now?

Let us move forward then to the earliest “Romance” and “Germanic” languages.


How to learn languages – General

This list of vocabulary items proved popular among a number of correspondents.


So I intend to run a trial series on Fridays on how best to learn other Western European languages – please participate (and correct me where appropriate)!

The idea is to give an absolutely basic grounding, from which you can develop knowledge in the ways I have suggested in the past. Remember, motivation is essential!

Here is one absolute essential: the trick to speaking a language is not to know everything, but to get around what you do not know. That is what this is about!


To speak any language, you will of course need to know how it is pronounced. You need only the basics to start with – most consonants are pronounced the same way in any language, so you will need to know the vowels, probably the diphthongs (two vowels pronounced together), and perhaps some awkward consonant clusters (consonants appearing together).

Over time, it pays to mimic the rhythm and intonation of the target language. To speak Italian like a Cockney or French with an Ulster accent is like trying to learn the words of a song without the tune. You will never get it absolutely perfect, but you want to get to the stage where you are not immediately identifiable as an English speaker (not least because that makes it hard to practise if the other person knows, or thinks they know, English).

As a quick tip: not all letters are entirely individual. Many are actually closely related to each other, and this can have an impact on how they change from language to language. For example, pairs such as /b/ and /p/, /v/ and /f/, /g/ and /k/ or /z/ and /s/ are in each case voiced and voiceless versions of what is otherwise the same letter; some languages may distinguish them, others may not.


Standardisation is an essential part of this – each modern Western European national language has a written standard. Such standards have developed in different ways – some gradually through time through constant updating, some based on deliberately conservative usage of a particular geographical dialect, some as deliberate mergers of dialects. Exactly how deliberately standards were developed and how widely accepted they are varies from case to case – but knowing something about how a standard developed will always help guide a learner to a general understanding of the interconnection between the spoken and written language. (Of course, some learners may specifically wish to focus on specifically on spoken or specifically on written – a decision worth making at the outset.)


Firstly, you will want to have a basic idea where most of the vocabulary comes from. This is often quite easy – most Italian words come from Latin. However, it can be tricky – English is a Germanic language, yet much of its vocabulary is directly or indirectly from Latin. Knowing this means you can take a reasonable guess even at vocabulary you do not know (remember – the trick is to get around what you do not know).

Secondly, you will want a reasonable list of pronouns/determiners (including articles) and prepositions – in English, such words include ‘that’, ‘the’ and ‘to’. Such words do not directly translate from language to language (remember, no vocabulary does!!), but it is absolutely necessary at least to recognise many of them at the outset, and then begin to use them by mimicking the patterns you hear.

Thirdly, you will want the above list. What is it? It is a list of what I have found to be “core vocabulary”; words which are essential to saying things. Remember, again, the key is to “work around” what we do not know – for example, we do not need to know the word ‘often’, provided we can say ‘nearly always’ or ‘sometimes’. The above list is the ultimate “work around”!


Unfortunately, you cannot get anywhere without grammar. This is often dreaded because it tends to be taught in too much detail. To start with, you need only the basics (and to know which quirks to watch out for); the detail can come freely once you are using the language.

Firstly, you will want to know how nouns work – they or the words around them may or may not be marked for number (in English, singular or plural), gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) or case (in English, direct ‘they’ versus oblique ‘them’; many languages have far more than this).

Secondly, you will want to know how verbs work – they may or may not be marked for (or supported by other words to mark) tense (in English, past or present), aspect (whether ongoing and/or relevant, e.g. ‘I have been’, ‘I am being’) or to “agree” with the subject (‘I like’, ‘she likes‘). They may also be marked directly for mood (in English, indicative or subjunctive) or voice (active or passive).

It is worth noting that tense is a peculiarly Indo-European thing; languages around the world often have verbal systems which indicate the evidential basis of the action (whether I felt it; saw it; heard about it first-hand; heard about it from other sources; etc), and some have no concept of time within their structure or vocabulary whatsoever. The comparative obsession with tense is itself a relatively recent innovation within Indo-European – originally, the focus was more on mood and aspect (essentially on relevance rather than particularly time).

Thirdly, you may want to know how adjectives work – they may or may not “agree” with nouns; and they may or may not take the same form as adverbs.

Fourthly, you will want to know at least basically how clauses are structured, including the main word order (English generally is “SVO” – subject, verb, object), negation, and connecting words (‘He came but you stayed’, ‘I like that she was here’, etc).

There will also be other particles to deal with – how to link things together, express questions or exclamations, and so on.

This seems like a lot, but you can do it in stages – work out how nouns work, then verbs (and put those together), then adjectives (and add those in), and then structure, picking up the particles as you go along.


Character? I think knowing a language’s character before you begin is as relevant as anything.

Firstly, you want to know the background to the language. Where does it come from? What influences are contained within it? For example, English is a Germanic language heavily influenced by Norman French, marked also by a significant sound shift from around 1350-1600. Knowing this means you can make sense of why the vocabulary is the way it is (with basic words generally Germanic, and high culture words French or Latin), why the spelling appears so odd, and even to some extent why the grammatical structure is relatively simple.

Secondly, you may want to know generally whether the language is predominantly nominal or verbal – in other words, does it build clauses predominantly around nouns (facts) or verbs (actions)? This is general, and no language is absolutely one way or the other, but knowing this gives you a real feeling for how the language is used.

Thirdly, languages are not standalone things – they are products of a culture. You will need to learn something about the character of those who speak them too. (However, steer clear of stereotypes, which are often unfair and unhelpful!)

What now?

So, let us try this with a few languages over the next few Fridays – we will go back in time to start with, to touch on this final “character” point (and also make us realise how lucky we are that languages simplify over time). Then we will try some modern Western European languages.

2017 – Twenty seventeen

A notable feature of confusion in the English language over the past generation or more has been the pronunciation of years in the 21st century. Did the London Olympics occur in twenty-twelve or two-thousand-and-twelve?!

Interestingly, there is less doubt as to the long-term answer to this than the short-term. In the short term, the tendency was to carry over the tendency from the first decade of referring to, for example, the Beijing Olympics of “two thousand and eight”. Thus, even the Rio Games were, for some, in “two thousand and sixteen”. There is a certain logic to this – “2016” is so pronounced otherwise, and most other languages of which we are aware (admittedly those more distant linguistic cousins of Latin rather than Germanic origin) make no distinction between the pronunciation of years and the pronunciation of numbers in general.

However, the long term trend in English is towards first two digits followed by final two digits pronounced as separate numbers. This year will, a generation from now, always be pronounced “twenty sixteen”. This tendency will work backwards too; 2012 will almost certainly come universally to be “twenty twelve” within the next few years. In fact it is not impossible that, in the second half of this century when it is out of living memory for most, even 2008 will come to be “twenty oh eight”, although this is less predictable.

The same did not quite apply in the 20th century, but there is a slight parallel. At the time, the years of the Edwardian era were lengthened by many speakers so that, for example, by maternal grandfather was born in what was often pronounced at the time as “nineteen hundred and six”, even occasionally “nineteen and six”. It was only later that “nineteen oh six” became universal.

Perhaps because of the extra syllable, next year will come even in its own time to be almost universally “twenty seventeen”, and it is this which will see previous years gradually re-pronounced by analogy (a significant aspect of linguistic change which is still very much apparent).

So, Happy New Year and wishing readers a very prosperous twenty seventeen!


German – great for bossing people about with clarity!

Hier geparkte Fahrzeuge werden kostenpflichtig abgeschleppt. 

So goes one of my favourite sentences in any language. It, or slight variations of it, can regularly be seen all over urban Germany.

Loosely, it means “Vehicles parked here will be towed away at the owner’s cost”. But directly it is far better, more or less “Here parked vehicles will be costs-dutybound towed away”. I love the clinical nature of it – I mean, actually you can park here, but the specific penalty will be (will be, not may be) paying to retrieve your car from the tow company before you have access to it again.

I came across a similar principle on a sign on the fencing around a non-league football pitch in Hamburg last weekend.


Simply brilliant. Loosely “Anyone cursing or offending the referee must count on a dismissal from the sports ground”. Fantastic – I mean in theory you can curse the ref, but if you do you must (must!) count on dismissal.

This is so much better than “Do not block access” or “Swearing at the ref will not be tolerated”. These lack clarity. What if I do block the access – will you merely be slightly miffed or are we talking prison? Not tolerated by whom and what will they do about it – it could be anything from a stern glare to a visit to the local police station! Such a spectrum of potential consequences means I am probably more likely to risk it. But if I know I am getting towed away or removed from the ground, well, at least I am absolutely clear about the odds and not likely to test them! (Mind, when the home team was 3-0 down at halftime in that evening’s game, some may have been tempted to let off a bit of steam in return for not having to watch any more!)

This is all a bit of fun of course – but maybe another example of how culture reflects language and vice-versa?!

“Tense” is a very Western thing…

French spelling is notoriously conservative, but it had at one stage moved from Latin tempus ‘time’ to the spelling tens. This was subsequently re-Latinized to the modern spelling temps (although words such as tentation remain), but not before English had borrowed the word ‘tense’.

Any language learner will be familiar with ‘tense’. Indeed, we are very familiar with the notion that there is a ‘past’, a ‘present’, and a ‘future’. These assumptions are widespread, and even make their way into artificial languages such as Esperanto.

In fact, they are profoundly wrong, in two main ways.

Firstly, Germanic languages such as, well, English, do not in fact have three tenses. English has a present (‘like’, ‘break’) and a past (‘liked’, ‘broke’) – and that’s it. The modal verb ‘will’ (or, archaically, ‘shall’) can be used to mark that something is due to occur in the future, but it is far from necessary – ‘Tomorrow I am going to Germany’ is present grammatically, marking future; but ‘He will go on and on about it’ is marked as if future while in fact present. The notion that English has three tenses derives from Latin, but English is not a Latin language.

Secondly, the very concept of tense itself is rare. It has become widespread in Indo-European languages, spoken by half the world’s population natively, so we assume ‘tense’ and ‘language’ go together like ‘fish’ and ‘chips’. In fact, very few languages beyond the Indo-European family routinely mark for ‘tense’.

Indeed, Indo-European languages themselves marked originally for ‘aspect’ – not when something happened in relation to the present, but rather whether it was relevant to the present (the difference fundamentally between ‘I liked’ and ‘I have liked’). This notion of relevance and indeed general evidence as to whether something has occurred is much more common in languages such as Chinese and Indonesian; these routinely mark for closeness to the action in various ways, but not for tense unless for some reason time is very relevant. Indo-European languages hint at this too in their use of ‘mood’ – German for example distinguishes between whether something is definitely the case marked by the usual indicative form (sie hat es getan ‘she has done it’) or allegedly the case marked by the rarer conjunctive (sie habe es getan ‘she is said to have done it’).

It is beyond my expertise to explain how relevant this is socially and culturally, but inevitably it means that non-Indo-European-speaking societies are (and were) generally less focused on time than Indo-European-speaking ones. The very concept that time has a beginning and an end and is a single spectrum from past to future is an Indo-European one, not backed by other linguistic frameworks (and not, actually, by science – though Einstein’s theory of relativity is beyond the scope of this blog). Other societies globally see time as much less relevant, and may view it as circular or simply marginal.

The fundamental here of how language shapes society and vice-versa is subject to much debate. However, we can at once see why that debate is so keenly participated in!

Language links at Christmas

It is the first Friday of December, which means the first language post of the Christmas season, and what better way to start moving through the advent calendar than this superb version of “God Bless Us Everyone“, popularised by a “Christmas Carol” (the 2009 Carrey version)?

I have written many times before that the best way to learn languages is through music. The linked version is a particularly good example because, of course, those of us who have seen the animated film (probably several times each Christmas if my household is remotely typical) will be familiar with the song and the lyrics. Putting those lyrics into another language, ideally the original, means that we have a head start because we know roughly what they say already (although the demands of rhyme and meter do not allow for word-for-word translations, so there is still some challenge).

So it is with the magic of “Silent Night” (original German “Stille Nacht“), “O Holy Night” (original French “Cantique de Noël“) or even “Feliz Navidad“. Learning the linked original gives us a chance of understanding, while also picking up the rhythms of the language as we go along – without, really, much effort.

The other main trick to language learning, of course, is to recognise the links between languages. In the linked version of Bocelli’s performance, the lyrics are provided subtitled in both Italian and Portuguese. Both of these languages are derived from Latin and, although both are closer to Spanish than to each other, it is not difficult to see how closely linked they remain.

It is not just the links between them we pick up in this way, but also the distinct flavour of each language. Why not look at some examples?

  • Italian notte “night”, Portuguese noite (Spanish noche) derive from the Latin nox-noctem (generally nouns in modern languages of Latin origin derive from the object form, not the subject – noctem in this case) but none retains the awkward ‘c’ before ‘t’, merging it in slightly different ways (and even the Classical Romans did not pronounce the final ‘m’ except in very careful speech, so it is long lost in all derived languages);
  • that is just one of the majority of the words in the lyrics which are obviously cognate in both languages (a few are identical, e.g. sempre “always”; some are distinguished only by orthography, e.g. Italian che “that, which” versus Portuguese/Spanish que, armonia “harmony” versus harmonia, or iniziare “to beginversus iniciar; some are only a matter of an additional syllable or minor change, e.g. Italian qui “here” versus Portuguese/Spanish aquí; others still have markedly different spellings marking only minor differences in pronunciation, e.g. Italian Dio “God” is apparent in the written Spanish Dios but slightly less so in written Portuguese Deus);
  • Italian retains ogni “all, each” from Latin omnes “all”, whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) uses cada from later Latin cata “by”; all three also have a word for “all” derived from Latin totus (tutto, tudo/todo and todo respectively; cf. English “total”);
  • Italian cuore “heart” derives directly from Latin cor, whereas Portuguese coração (and Spanish corazón) derive from the later expanded Latin version coratio (also the derivation of “courage”);
  • Italian esultare “to rejoice” in this case shows Italian modifying and awkward combination (note also the coffee is “espresso” not *”expresso”!) where Portuguese (and Spanish) retain the original exultar;
  • Italian (also Spanish) libero “free” has become livre in Portuguese; this is a fairly standard switch (cf. Italian possibile, Spanish possible but Portuguese possível);
  • Italian male “evil” (as well as Natale “Christmas” with which it rhymes) shows the straightforward Italian preference (near requirement) for words to end in vowels (which makes it such a fantastic language for music), where Portuguese and Spanish are quite happy with mal – we see this again with Signore “Lord” versus Senhor (Spanish señor) in the next line and with grammatical endings such as amare “to love” versus amar (also apparent in the noun amore “love” versus amor);
  • Italian guidare “to guide” is again more conservative, identical to the Latin, where Portuguese (and Spanish) have both removed the medial ‘d’ to become guiar – this loss is more common in Portuguese than in Spanish, and occurs again later in the lyrics where Italian padri, madri “fathers, mothers” becomes Portuguese pais, mães (but the ‘d’ is maintained in Spanish padres, madres).
  • Italian ascoltare “to listen” is similar to Spanish escoltar but Portuguese prefers ouvir (more typically translated as “to hear”) in this case;
  • Italian aiutare “to help” shows the standard voicing of medial ‘t’ to medial ‘d’ versus Portuguese ajudar (Spanish ayudar) – shown immediately again in lodato “praised” versus louvado;
  • Italian miracolo “miracle” also shows a standard distinction from ‘r’ to ‘l’ and again voicing from ‘c’ to ‘g’, thus Portuguese milagre (Spanish milagro).
  • The Italian object pronoun ci is a development of Latin hic “this/here” and is thus markedly different from all other Latin-derived languages including Portuguese (and Spanish) with nos “us.
  • Italian preghiere derives directly from Latin  precor “pray”, whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) have rezar from Latin recitare “recite”;
  • The ending on the Italian carità “charity” from Latin caritas-caritatem becomes by standard derivation (noting again the above devoicing from ‘t’ to ‘d’) caridade in Portuguese (caridad in Spanish) – this also applies in the very first line to Italian felicità “happiness” from Latin felicitas (versus Portuguese felicidade and Spanish felicidad);
  • Italian infondere “to instill” is from Latin infundere but the chosen Portuguese translation incutir derives from incutio (which is perhaps closer to “inspire” in a general sense);
  • Italian sono, in this case “(they) are”, shows how unstable the verb “to be” is – though it is not apparent, it does derive from the same origin ultimately as Portuguese estão (Spanish would have son like Italian here, but also has estan like Portuguese in some contexts);
  • Italian has cercare “to search” and (ri)trovare “find (again), retrieve” distinctly from Portuguese (and Spanish) buscar and (r)encontrar, but ultimately three are derived from Latin (circare “to look around”; tropus a way of singing; incontrare “to encounter, meet”) and one (buscar) is of unknown origin – the choice between them is one of usage through the ages;
  • Italian quello “that” does have a Portuguese cognate aquele, as the Portuguese este “this” does have an Italian cognate questo (it just so happens that the different one was chosen in the translation to reflect modern usage);
  • Italian vincere “to win” by regular differentiation has become Portuguese (and Spanish) vencer – above, this also applied to Signore versus Senhor, and it even applies to distinctions such as di “of, from” versus de;
  • Italian benedicere “bless” derives more directly from bene “well” plus dicere “say” (which are both still the contemporary forms) than the Portuguese abençoar which derives from older ben plus diçoar (modern bem and dizer); and
  • we also see throughout that Italian has maintained the formation of the plural by changing vowel (typically -o to –i, –a to –e or -e to -i) whereas Spanish and Portuguese typically add -(e)s.

So what have we learned just from this short section?

  • as with any pairs of Latin-derived languages, a lot of words (e.g. sempre or armonia/harmonia) are absolutely identical or at least essentially the same (there are many more, e.g. casa “house”, costa “coast” or verde “green”);
  • voiceless consonants before vowels are often voiced in Portuguese (e.g. aiutare/ajudar), so we may reasonably guess that Italian sete “thirst” will be Portuguese sede or fuoco “fire” will be fogo;
  • voiced consonants between vowels can be lost completely in Portuguese (as in fact can others such as ‘l’; Italian salute “health” versus Portuguese saude);
  • Italian retains higher vowels (e.g. vincere versus vencer; also in “in” versus em, diciembre “December” versus dezembro);
  • in some cases Italian retains an older syllable (e.g. settimana “week” versus Portuguese/Spanish semana) or even just a more directly Latinate word (e.g. domandare “to ask” versus Portuguese perguntar);
  • endings can be predictable (just as Italian felicità “happiness” is Portuguese felicidade, so qualità “quality” is qualidade; likewise possibile “possible” versus possível and mobile “mobile” versus móvel; and there are others – if attenzione “attention” is atenção, we may guess that nazione “nation” is nação); and
  • the basic structure in terms of verb conjugations, positioning of pronouns, basic word order and so on is similar in each language, with notable exceptions (such as plural formation).

Remember, we got all this ultimately from the lyrics of one short, very memorable song!!

This is the fun and effective way to learn languages – through obvious linkages based on memorable music.

Now, where is that Advent Calendar…?




Can you learn Spanish without the subjunctive?

There was an interesting exchange on Twitter recently on the topic of the subjunctive.

That seems an unlikely opening sentence to any blog post, so I should be specific: it was about the case that to learn a language, at least initially, you do not need to learn all the detailed aspects of its grammar and general form. The example given was that it is possible (allegedly) to get a long way in Spanish without needing the subjunctive.

This argument had its proponent and its opponent. I do not fall into either category completely, but I veer more towards the opponent in this case.


The subjunctive is a verbal “mood”, rarely used in English (usually to mark obligation or recommendation: “It is essential that you be there“) but very common in Spanish. Furthermore, in Spanish its form is more likely to vary (in English, the subjunctive form is as often as not the same as the “normal” indicative: “It is essential that you come“).


Spanish has maintained the subjunctive in wide use, even in the colloquial spoken language. It is obligatory in many instances (vienes “you come”; es muy importante que vengas “it is very important that you come”); and it is vital to meaning in others (aunque vienes “even though you are coming”; aunque vengas “even if you come”).

Basic Learning

The essential argument that it is not necessary to know every aspect of a language’s structure at the outset is undoubtedly true. After all, when we teach any language, we tend to start with the “normal” indicative present tense and then introduce other tenses and forms as we go along.

When I teach Spanish to community groups, I often avoid teaching verb forms at all initially. Instead of learning puedo “I can”, puedes “you can”, podemos “we can” and so on, it is possible for example to learn “es posible por mí… por ti… por nosotros” and then also “es necesario…”, “es bueno…” and so on for basic phrases (thus we can already express possibility, necessity and desirability without any verb forms).

Therefore, I do see the argument that the subjunctive is not necessary at, or even particularly near, the outset.


However, it is a simple reality of the structure of the Spanish language that the subjunctive is widely used (and, as noted above, often decisive as to meaning).

Therefore, it is not quite accurate, in my view, to say it can be delayed indefinitely or even for any real length of time.

Spanish also, for example, has three past tense forms [strictly two, plus a present form which indicates past]. I would contend that in fact it is more important to know the present subjunctive than to know the preterite (one of those past tense forms), as it is more likely to arise sooner and in a way which may be decisive as to meaning. Most native speakers will understand a foreigner mixing past tense forms, but may be thrown by the use or non-use of the subjunctive.


Therefore, reluctantly, I conclude the subjunctive (at least in the present form) is necessary fairly early. It simply cannot be avoided for too long without sounding ludicrously stilted or just plain wrong.

I would suggest the same applies to Italian and Portuguese (perhaps not so much to spoken French).

Language has identity aspect

This is not an advertising blog, but this book brought to my attention by a regular correspondent is surely an important contribution to our understanding of what language is.

I should declare a further interest that my company offers a course on the subject.

There are a lot of issues here which are worth bringing together in summary:

  • language is not solely about communication of immediate information – everything, from choice of register even to choice of language, communicates things about identity and attitude well beyond the mere information conveyed;
  • what is a language cannot be defined linguistically – what are apparently individual languages or not is often a political choice, and changes with politics (30 years ago Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin were all the same language);
  • all languages are to some extent human constructs (the choice of what constitutes good or bad usage, formal or informal register and so on is determined by social leaders, even sometimes influential individuals – dropping ‘h’ in English used to be deemed formal/high register, for example) and thus entire languages can be reconstructed and put back into full use having once been assumed ‘dead’ (e.g. Hebrew);
  • all languages come with certain innate assumptions based on the culture of those who speak them (this even includes the likes of Esperanto – far from ‘neutral’, it attracts a particular group who tend to be internationalist and left-leaning);
  • close to home, it is utterly naive to assume development of Irish or Ulster Scots (or indeed Scots in Scotland) will be a-political by default – indeed, the promotion of (and opposition to) minority and regional languages is fundamentally political.

It is worth noting, also, that although standard languages are defined by nations (and national identity), linguistic borders can also shape national borders.

I am not remotely suggesting the linked book focuses on all of these points, but they were triggered by it!



Esperanto 2.0

My piece a month ago on Esperanto raised a debate among some correspondents about whether Esperanto would have a better chance of attaining its original aim of becoming a universal global language if its imperfections were ironed out.

To be clear, the pracelo (‘original goal’) was that Esperanto would become the lingvo internacia. In 2016, this probably is not as clearly understood as it was in 1887; the idea was that the lingvo internacia would stand along side everyone’s lingvo nacia. In other words, national languages would continue to be used within national boundaries, but to communicate across them people would use the lingvo internacia (“inter” meaning precisely what it says).

As one correspondent noted, the problem is the “network effect”. In theory, if even only 10% of the population of every country in Europe and North America were to learn Esperanto, it would become very useful indeed. If you were on a train anywhere from Stockholm to Seattle or Vancouver to Vladivostok, the chances would be that there would be someone in your carriage (never mind the whole train) who spoke both the local lingvo nacia and the lingvo internacia, putting you just one person away from being to communicate with almost everyone.

This objective is so obviously desirable to many people, that many have reached the conclusion that it is Esperanto itself which is to blame. It appears intuitive that if there were a decent “international language” of this type, people would take the time to learn it – not least because that period of time would not be very long, given the language would be designed to be simple, regular and easy to learn.

This logic is compelling, but it is flawed. There are many problems with it, but two obvious ones stand out. The first is that in fact people would not necessarily take the time to learn it, because no matter how simply and regularly it was constructed, it would still take time and effort to attain fluency (that is the nature of human language). The second is quite simply that there already is a lingvo internacia – English. It is already the case that if you are on a train anywhere in Europe or North America, the chances are high that someone on that train, and almost certainly in your carriage, will speak both the local language and English.

This second is, of course, the real issue. Pracelistoj (Esperantists determined to attain the language’s original goal) counter that Esperanto is easier to learn than English because of its simpler structure (but actually that is not true, because structure is not the only issue), or that Esperanto is better because it is neutrala (but actually nothing is neutral, and ultimately if I just want help on a train to work out whether I need to get out at the next stop, I do not care whether my communication is particularly “neutral”).

On top of this, as I argued a month ago, my own view is that the reason Esperanto has succeeded (given that the pracelo is simply unattainable but Esperanto is vastly better known and more widely used than any other constructed language) is that it is imperfect. The imperfections themselves are causes of debate, and debate creates interest and exposure. The result can be sensational.

[Readers in the Belfast area will love the colloquial translation in the above link of “How are you?” as Kio pri vi, literally “What about you?” – it turns out we speak the Universal Dialect…!!]

Due to the above mentioned flawed logic, reform of Esperanto is a hot topic. What is interesting about this is that it means debates about Esperanto usage are as hotly contested (and, er, hypocritical) as with any natural language. The language is based on the Fundamento, 16 rules and other notes published by Zamenhof in 1887 and confirmed by the Declaration of Boulogne in 1905. Interestingly, however, even the Fundamento was itself a reform of an earlier version Zamenhof wrote out but did not publish in 1878; and Zamenhof himself proposed notable revisions in 1894 which were rejected at Boulogne. Boulogne therefore saw the Fundamento become something of a sacred text among some Esperantists, with any deviation at all frowned upon by many.  This in itself caused some breakways, notably Ido shortly after Boulogne (literally “Derived From”, backed by those who supported the 1894 reforms and others) and Novial (an adaptation designed by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen).

The problem has always been that not only are reforms frowned upon by many (who argue that they may interfere with the absolute clarity of the existing language in use), but also that those making them tend to go too far, with the result that they break as much as they fix. In any case, what is the point of learning a language, if someone just comes along and changes it every few years? This is to leave aside the point, as noted above, that even a successful reform would not move Esperanto any nearer the pracelo, because that is unattainable regardless.

However, reform is necessary because languages do change. Reform, however, must seek to reflect the principles of the language, not change them.

For the sake of a bit of fun, here are the reforms I would make if, for some bizarre reason, I were given the opportunity (in detail here):

  • abolition of accented letters and adherence to ‘one letter, one sound’ – there are various ways to do this, but one is to merge <c>, <s> and <z> as <s>, thus leaving <c> and <z> free to represent the sounds of currently accented letters;
  • tidying up of the -au ending for use only on coordinating and interrogative particles (so krom becomes kromau; cu[cxu] becomes cau; etc) with removal of other words possessing it or appropriate amendment (e.g. hodiau is an adverb, so either replaced by tiutage or amended to hodiecxirkau and kontrau are prepositions, so perhaps cirkum and konter; etc);
  • replacement of the (“imperative”) verbal ending -u by -es (to align with all the other verbal endings), with consequent simplification of correlatives by abolition of those ending -es (if al ciu[cxiu] is good enough, there is no reason de ciu should not be); and
  • adoption then of -u for personal pronouns (whose endings currently clash bizarrely with the infinitive), perhaps with consequent plural regularization and reduction – these could be simply mu, vu, lu/cu/zu, muj, vuj, zuj (with perhaps indefinite onu and reflexive su) and adjectival forms still adding -a/aj.

This way, we have actually reformed the language to bring it more into line with founding principles – a simpler spelling system with “one sound, one letter”, and a simpler system of grammatical endings (so that post-vowel -s always marks a main verb; post-consonant -u always marks a pronoun; and -au always marks a particle).

Let us say I also got a little more adventurous and could add another couple:

  • consequent tidying up of numbers, to be single syllable, more easily pronounced, and not liable to confusion with other word classes or each other, to un, du, tri, fir, cin, heks, sep, ok, non, dek (with unu reserved effectively for use as a quantifying pronoun);
  • in line with the above preferable rejection of consonantal clusters, simplification of the verb ‘to be’ to esi or even, to reflect that modern pronunciation often in practice drops the initial e-, just si – thus mu (e)sas ‘I am’; zuj (e)ses ‘they should be’; etc.

Of course, most of these reforms reflect the 1894 reforms or aspects of Ido or Novial, but the key is to stop digging once you have done the basics. I would be tempted, for example, to:

  • switch around the correlatives ending -o with those ending -u;
  • remove the letter <h>;
  • take out a few syllables in widely used vocabulary items (e.g. statau not anstatauparteni not aparteni; ci for sciinio/niu/niom etc. not nenio/neniu/neniom etc.);
  • formal addition of aliu, aliam etc to the list of correlatives;
  • remove consonantal clusters altogether (unknown in numerous major languages, from Japanese to Malay-Indonesian);
  • change kun to kon in line with the common prefix (thus konveno, koniri alongside konstrui, konfesi);
  • change kaj to ed aligned with sed;
  • allow two objects on the assumption that the first is indirect (mu donas vun leteron ‘I give you a letter’);
  • abolish the article la outright; and
  • reduce the number of prepositions (merging de/da/elpro/por etc.)

However, in reality I would not advocate these. The issue is, the more changes you make, the more you have to make, as we can see from one example I deliberately added above:

  • I had already changed the subjunctive-imperative ending, by perfectly reasonable analogy with other verb endings, to -es;
  • I then changed the verb ‘to be’, initially in line with Ido (which went from esti to esi) and then genuinely to reflect the fact that many users omit the initial e- in speech (so from esi to si);
  • that then gave the subjunctive-imperative verb form ses;
  • but ses is, of course, already in use as the number ‘six’, so that then had to be replaced;
  • it is conventional for vocabulary to be drawn from somewhere, so I make out I am deliberately differentiating from sep ‘seven’ (not an unreasonable thing to do, but if you started down that line across the language you would never stop) by borrowing heks from Greek;
  • now I have just borrowed a word with a consonantal cluster at the end, defeating one of the points of the reform, so I have to make out that is fine because the word won’t take a suffix (even though actually it may be a prefix, but don’t tell anyone…)
  • … phew, I might just have escaped this time, but let’s not risk it again, eh?!

So no, in fact I would leave the numbers (except non ‘nine’) alone! I think I would probably also have to leave esti (though I might at least suggest sti, in line with the actual pronunciation which some research has found to be a common adaptation among native speakers).

Therefore, there is only so far you can take people and only so far you can go without losing the spirit of the original language or causing further complications – a reality in any language, artificial or natural!

Tial stus la zojo de Esperanto 2.0…

Such would be the joy of Esperanto 2.0…

Is policy on Irish language self-defeating?

Eoin Butler, a Gaeilgeoir from Mayo, has put out a challenging video on Irish Government policy with regards to the Irish language.

Essentially, he argues, it’s nonsense.

The arguments made to explain the decline of the Irish language (to minority status even within the Gaeltacht) – essentially that it does not receive enough government support and that it is not taught properly, and that in any case any nation needs a language of its own – are flawed. In fact, he continues, its decline is for the simple reason that the Irish have made the English language their own (as a matter of fact), and indeed it is only being kept on life support to encourage tourism in areas of the country with no industry and artificially to maintain a translation service. This is an issue because it causes confusion over the law, and indeed is even outright dangerous (in the case, for example, of warning signs put in heavily touristy areas in a language no tourist will speak).

Objectively, it is very hard to argue with any of that (although I may challenge a little of it). However, Mr Butler’s point (remember, as a Gaeilgeoir) is that the whole issue is not dealt with objectively. My own view is that he needs to build on that point – human beings are not objective; and even less so when nationalism (or general “group-think”) comes into play.

This is the thing: every nation has its completely irrational aspects – but these aspects are deliberately distinct from any other nation, and thus form a national bond. England has lots of them, from the use of miles rather than kilometres to the odd terminology in its parliament. France has a linguistic issue of its own. Germany has a determination not to have upper speed limits. Almost any country of standing has them, in other words.

So, in my view, that is what this is about. It is an incredible aspect of human nature, particularly when combined as “groups” or “nations”, that we engage in “debate” on such irrational terms around particular subjects.

Put that “irrational national distinctiveness” together with the vested interests of which Mr Butler speaks and there is not much chance of change. What Mr Butler says about the likelihood of knowledge of the Irish language being enhanced by removing the compulsion to learn it is absolutely correct. But Irish Government policy is not about enhancing knowledge of the Irish language. That is probably where the “debate” needs to begin.