Category Archives: Language

Scots language – does allowing people to make mistakes work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difference between Scots and Gibberish

Oh dear.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Complications of British versus American English

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


There are also subtle but marked grammatical differences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

How to learn languages – Review

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


How to learn languages – Germanic languages

We are now close to the end of this series, having looked at all major Western Latinate and Germanic languages as well as Scandinavian.

Phonologically Germanic languages tend to be less vocalic and reliant on harder consonantal sounds, thus often rather harsher sounding than the likes of French and Italian.

Generally Germanic languages retain a distinct neuter gender, although many do not distinguish masculine from feminine. The most noteworthy distinction from Latin-based languages, however, is perhaps the more restrictive verb, which is marked for only two tenses (past and present, also with no imperfect) and which displays a much less widespread subjunctive mood.

In terms of vocabulary, Germanic languages are more likely to build single words where Latin-based languages rely more on phrases. Borrowings from Latin, French and English are common across all of them, however.

Germanic languages have come to be more common in science (including linguistics itself), but less so in music. Debate rages about whether this is a consequence of their basic character.

We did omit Insular Nordic languages, which have very few speakers but are fascinating because of their conservative nature (Icelandic retains verb endings for person and noun/adjective markers for four cases and three genders, as well as old letters and systems of phonological umlaut), and actually modern English itself (a Germanic language fundamentally, but now something of a hybrid). We do have enough, however, to help learn one major Germanic language from knowledge of another.

I will do a final review next week answering any queries which have arisen as best I can.

How to learn languages – Afrikaans

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

29 B Bangor

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

So, what is it like?


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Key numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

What next?

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

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

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

How to learn languages – Dutch

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Key numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What next?

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

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

How to learn languages – German

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


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

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

How true are the stereotypes?


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Key numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key prepositions:

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

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

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


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

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

What next

Nearest to German is Dutch…

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

How to learn languages – Danish

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Key prepositions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

What next?

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

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

How to learn languages – Latinate languages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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