Category Archives: Language

“How many languages do you speak?”

In the same way an astronomer hates being asked how many planets there are in the Milky Way, a linguist hates being asked how many languages they speak. It is one of those questions which seems straightforward, but is in fact nightmarishly complicated.

Let us even leave aside the really tricky question of “What is a language?” and focus solely on national languages in Western Europe. How many does anyone speak?

Personally, I speak only one language natively, namely (British) English. English is of course an oddity in Western Europe because, as a fundamentally West Germanic language with a dramatic French-Latin overlay, it has no obvious sister language. Whereas anyone who can read Danish will have a reasonable chance also with reading Norwegian, or anyone who can read Spanish with Portuguese, there is no such partner for English. So native proficiency in English gives you English and, realistically, nothing else – a total of one.

I studied Germanic Linguistics, lived in Germany briefly both as a child and a student, and visit German-speaking Europe annually. Thus, I speak German fluently and with a reasonably native accent – but definitely not to a level of native proficiency. Most German speakers take me to be Dutch (as Dutch is closely related and Dutch people all seem to speak everything!), but almost never mistake me for German. This means I can speak and write grammatically accurately (and generally, but probably not always, idiomatically), and I can read and understand more or less anything proficiently (although, as with anything, if the topic is unfamiliar there can be problems). Notably, I find things that happen in German easier to explain in German, and I occasionally dream in German – some people’s definition of fluency. But I am most certainly not native – so still only one native, but let us say two fluent.

Now it gets really tricky. As a minor subject I studied Spanish, which meant I lived with a family in Andalucia for five months. Immersion is the best way to learn a language in the sense of coming to understand and speak it reasonably fluently, so I certainly was fluent in spoken Spanish (even reasonably colloquially, at least at the time). However, I read very little and my writing would no doubt still have been littered, even after the five months, with minor grammatical errors (notably, mistakes around things like prepositions which may be glossed over or just mumbled in speech, or choice of wrong tense, or the odd wrong gender). I have visited Spain only very infrequently this century, and continue to read very little Spanish, hence my use of the past tense with reference to my former relative spoken fluency. A bit of time back in Spain or Latin America would no doubt help, but it takes me a while to tune in (even, say, for series like Narcos) and even then I by no means pick up every word. So I was never as fluent even in speech as I was in German, it is arguable whether I was ever fluent in writing, and I am only getting rustler. How do you count that one? Not native (so, still one), not really fluent (so, still two), let us call it broadly “proficient”?

Then there is French, and now it gets very confusing! I never stayed with a French family (nor indeed in France) for more than two weeks, but I did study the language to A-Level, and in a subsequent course. Thus, I definitely find it easier to write French accurately than Spanish, but almost impossible to speak it at all idiomatically (far less colloquially). My technical vocabulary is probably greater in French than Spanish, but some more basic household words are probably missing in French but not in Spanish. Of course French, even at the best of times, is extraordinarily difficult for foreigners to pronounce! So, is my French better than Spanish? In some ways yes; in others, no. I would say that, overall, my Spanish is marginally better, but it is hard to calculate. So let us cop out and call it “proficient” too.

Now, the real chaos starts. As a fluent speaker of German with a degree in Linguistics, I find another West Germanic language like Dutch (and Afrikaans, but let us stay in Europe) relatively easy to read, and in many contexts also to understand. I have glanced at a few “Teach Yourself” books, so would have some written and spoken proficiency, given German gives you such a head start anyway. Of course, opportunities for use are scarce, given the vast majority of Dutch and Flemings speak fluent English (and often German). So where on earth does that fit? Er… “limited proficiency”?

Then, as a proficient speaker of Spanish and maybe French, there is an obvious window to Italian and Portuguese. I now visit Italy relatively frequently, find I can get by for everything from ordering meals to discussing football, and have attained a government qualification in it online; however, there are still major gaps in vocabulary (which I often just have to guess) and grammar (I am fine in the present tense but past and future are a little trickier). I used to visit Portugal and find Portuguese easier to read (it looks closer to Spanish than Italian) but harder to understand (it has a certain slushing sound which means “tuning in” for someone familiar with Spanish takes a while longer than it does with Italian – oddly, I find this a particular difficulty with European Portuguese, but less so with Brazilian). I would claim, therefore, what we may call “limited proficiency” in Italian, but would currently claim nothing for Portuguese aside from the potential to attain it some time.

Then, there is Scandinavian. Scandinavian languages are Germanic, but the split with German/Dutch happened even earlier than it did in the case of English. They still look more like German not only because they did not have the French-Latin overlay that English had, but also because they did have a German-Dutch overlay (mainly technical trading and transport terms in the late Middle Ages from “Low German”, a West Germanic variety somewhere in between the speech of Vienna and Amsterdam). I have had the opportunity to visit the Nordic countries regularly, particularly Denmark, both for business and pleasure, over the past decade. As in the Netherlands and Belgium, it is impossible to practise the spoken language (as the locals all speak English). However, as a regular reader of Danish in newspapers and websites I do have some reading proficiency, which vaguely applies also to Swedish, and even some written ability, but almost no spoken capability whatsoever (like French, Danish is in any case notoriously difficult to pronounce). So, er… let us not claim those at all, but no doubt some would!

How many languages to I speak? No idea. But three thoughts:

  • just like anyone can learn to drive a car, anyone can learn a language given determination and the right links/tools;
  • beware of some of the outlandish claims some people about the number of languages they really speak; and
  • if you do embark on a linguistic journey yourself, recognise that the quest for perfection will never truly be fulfilled but is very, very addictive!

Vocabulary and the mysterious subconscious

I hate vocabulary lists.

One of the many reasons is that the brain does not function on a one-to-one basis, and indeed words are generally found lurking in the brain without conscious thought.

An extreme example: I arrived five years ago one lunchtime at Hamburg Central Station for a stag night. This meant that I had to find somewhere to put my case, knowing that it would probably be 24 hours before I saw it again.

Being a keen rather than talented linguist, I find I have consciously to switch language when arriving in German-speaking Europe, but as I walked towards the information point I had determined (in German, insofar as you “think” in any particular language) that I did not have the word for “locker”.

So I resolved to ask the gentleman at the info point:

  • Gibt es hier in der Nähe irgendwo, wo ich meinen Koffer lassen kann?”
  • “Is there somewhere nearby where I can leave my case?”

This is in many ways the fundamental skill of linguists. It is not that they know the word for everything, but that they have enough of the language to get around any such problems. (This actually applies in any individual language – there is a body of evidences which suggests educated English speakers are not so much better spellers than uneducated English speakers, but better at finding ways to avoid the word they cannot spell without affecting comprehension.)

So I approached the gentleman and said:

  • Wo sind die Schließfächer?
  • “Where are the lockers?”

Wait. Where did that come from?!

Consciously I was fully resolved to say the first sentence, not knowing the word for “locker”; and yet what actually came out was the second sentence, containing the word “Schließfach”, “locker”, in its plural form.

Evidently somewhere, in my brain’s hard drive on a file I had consciously ignored but which was subconsciously somehow available, I did in fact have the German word for “locker”. It was almost as if my brain had performed a reverse-definition function – that by determining how I would define what I was looking for, the brain then presented me with the headword.

This case is prominent in my recollection because it was so bizarre – it was the one time I remember clearly determining to say one thing and then saying another! However, it was an example of how language works – we do not spend a lot of time thinking about which words we use, we just operate from the store.

This is yet another reason I vehemently dislike vocabulary lists! Put them in a Schließfach and throw away the key…

Ulster Scots will never cum on, an aye claucht tae the Airis

The Depairtment Cultur in Norlin Airlan is cam tae the view, at the oncum o the Ulster-Scots tongue wad lyk be best taen awa frae it. Wha nou coud “beir the gree for aa that”?!

Coud it be, but, at the mukkil problem here isna whaur the oncum o the tongue gaes on, but whit hit bes ettilt at?

Thar a notion, at the oncum o Ulster Scots wad aye be ettilt at the ae thing as the Airis. In Norlin Airlan, aabodie kens richtlie, hou this wad be! But thar nae pynt tae siclyk. Ulster Scots isna the lyk thing, an haesna the lyk things nott for its oncum (for a wheen reasons, as kythes on this steid an ithergaets).

An aye claucht tae the Airis, Ulster Scots will lyk juist win tae naewhaur. Thar ither, better ensaumpils athort Europe o whit Ulster Scots soud be ettilt at. Laich Saxon, Swiss German, ein Catalan an ithers shaws a road, at wad ansuer tae Ulster Scots (an Scots aagaets) – tongues, as bes the lyk o the staundart langage, as fowk forordinar taaks mair nor wryts, an as wis aince richtlie unner threit.

An thinkan mair on whitwey fowk coud mak uiss o the tongue (for ensaumpil in new music or leiteratur), mair fowk wad tak a interest – an no sae monie wad fash thairsels, anent wad it be a langage in its ain richt or no!

A langsom collogue anent “status” an whitwey Ulster Scots gets on agin the Airis is nae road foerairts. It is tym for a chynge in our wey o gaein. We maun wirk thenou for the guid o the tongue, an it leivan yet.

Hae yeirsels a braw Burns Nicht!

The meaning of “to see”

I have written many times before of the need to throw away vocabulary lists when learning languages. Languages do not consist of sequences of words on lists which translate exactly to each other; but rather they consist of words and combinations which have a range of meanings depending on context. That range varies significantly (as explained in the linked article). The consequence of this is that our language learning becomes stilted, and the target language seems to be nothing more than a type of formula to be dryly learned consecutively as we go through a school textbook, rather than a real living means of communicating things, ideas and feelings.

To which you may respond: “Oh, I see.”

Which is interesting, because what, precisely, do you see?

To pursue this further, we are taught that in French “I see” is “Je vois”, but you could not possibly respond to the above with “Je vois”! Genuine misunderstanding would inevitably ensue, as the French speaker demanding to know exactly what it is that falls within your line of vision!

By the way, why do I appear to me putting random words in italics? Sequence, consequence, consecutive, pursue and ensue are among many words in the English language which derive ultimately from the Latin sequor “I follow”, either more or less directly in the first three cases (and indeed absolutely directly in the legal/logical term non sequitur), or via French in the latter two (modern French has suivre).

What has this to do with see? Well, see ultimately shares the same Indo-European origin as sequor, and therefore has the fundamental meaning of “follow”. It was only later than Germanic languages came to assign the more specific meaning in most contexts of “follow, with the eyes”.

Do you see now?!

Stop it, for the sake of you and me!

There is an advert on the television at the moment that uses the term “to you and I”.

Every day I see some similar phrase: “to you and I”, “from you and I”, “between you and I”, even “between him and I”.


It is “to me” and “from me“, so why on earth would it be “to you and I“?

English uses the oblique pronoun (“me, him, her, us, them”) as a general object form, including universally after prepositions (“from, to, of, between” etc).

The direct personal pronoun forms (“I, he, she, we, they”) are only ever used as the subject of the sentence.

The confusion arises around “you”, whose direct and oblique forms are identical in Modern English. That does not excuse such grammatical carnage.

The rule is incredibly simple. So let us keep it that way, eh? For the sake of you and me… and us and them…

NI politics, and why language matters

I kicked off a bit of a firestorm on Twitter the other day – it so happened in opposition to an MLA who is also a personal friend – on the SDLP’s use of the term “the north” in response to the UK Chancellor’s Autumn statement.

This is a subtle thing and some people thought raising it was churlish. I understand why they felt this, but I believe they are missing a fundamentally important issue. Language is about a lot more than pure, rational communication. Our daily language is littered with markers – of who we are and who we are not, of what we approve of and what we do not, of what our background is and is not, and everything in between.

“The north” is of course in widespread use by Nationalists to refer to Northern Ireland even when it is not clear from the context that Ireland is being referred to. It is of course a means of firmly positioning Northern Ireland within an exclusively Irish context (arguably while hinting at the assumed illegitimate and/or temporary nature of the jurisdiction), and hence it is used in this way only by Nationalists. Its use is a deliberate identifier, notably by Nationalist parties and the Irish News, of Nationalism and the user’s innate comfort with and preference for Nationalism. It identifies the “in group”, and thus the “out group”, and is thus deliberately exclusive of non-Nationalists (even if inadvertently).

This exclusivity is further marked by those defending the phrase being unable to identify its equivalent, which is not “Northern Ireland” (the official name) or “Norn Iron” (derived from the official name used often with reference to the football team).

Its equivalent, widely used by Unionists and the News Letter, is in fact “Ulster” (used to refer to six counties only). Like “the north”, “Ulster” is deliberately used to place Northern Ireland in a particular political context, in this case outside “Ireland” altogether. Like “the north”, “Ulster” is confusing out of context, as in other contexts (notably history and sport) it clearly refers to nine counties, not six. Like “the north”, “Ulster” thus identifies an “in group” and an “out group”, and is thus deliberately exclusive of non-Unionists (again, even if inadvertently).

Infrequent use of “the north” or “Ulster” to mean Northern Ireland is not a serious problem, of course, but users should be (and frankly are) aware that such terms always identify an “in group” and an “out group”, and are thus exclusive. Occasional use will be regarded (as one correspondent rightly suggested) as inoffensive, but determined use of such phrases will always be taken as deliberately exclusive and insensitive by those in the “out group” – and rightly so, because it is.

Most notably, those genuine about making NI work and carrying forward the required compromises around identity (as well as the required promotion of both British and Irish identity) cannot hope to do so if in their very phraseology promotes only one particular worldview and identity (placing is firmly Ireland or removing us entirely from Ireland) while ignoring all others. If even moderates cannot agree on the need for inclusive labels and phrases, there is simply no agreed, shared foundation on which to build an agreed, shared future.

It is notable that impartial organisations, most obviously the BBC and UTV, do not use either “the north” or “Ulster” for the very reason that they are loaded one way or the other. (For the record, the BBC dropped “the Province” to refer specifically to Northern Ireland some years ago for the same reason.)

Fundamental to this is an underlying problem with Northern Ireland’s still not sufficiently advanced community relations. Overuse, for example, of exclusive symbols by public agencies or councils is in fact illegal, monitored in the interests of inclusivity and fair play by the Equality Commission. Overuse of exclusive phrasing by political parties falls into the exact same area – it is at best carelessly exclusive, and at worst deliberately disrespectful. And telling people to ignore it, however liberally and politely, is just like telling them to ignore symbols.

That isn’t the aforementioned fundamental problem with community relations, however. The fundamental problem is that we remain, no matter how we refer to Northern Ireland, too willing to demand respect and legitimacy for ourselves, and too unwilling to offer that respect to others. Even moderates see fit to ignore the need to show the basic generosity necessary – for example by avoiding overuse of symbols or exclusive terminology – without demanding something in return. Language, like symbols, comes to define “in groups” and “out groups” – and denials of this obvious fact come across as frankly devious.

This is not exclusive (!) to Northern Ireland by any means. Across the UK, for example, use of “Europe” to refer to the Continent can be seen by some as irksome and is a clear hint at British exceptionalism. The predominantly German-speaking Italian province of South Tyrol is referred to in German as “Südtirol” (the rest of “Tirol” is in Austria) but in Italian officially as “Alto Adige” (to avoid the Austrian link; although interestingly since I was there in 2000 apparently many younger Italian speakers in the area now use “Tirolo del Sud” as a marker of regional solidarity). Referring to the Spanish language in Spanish itself as “Español” (from the name of the state) or “Castellano” (from the name of the originating region, and also the one used in the Spanish Constitution) is a marker of preference and grouping; as is the use of “Moldovan” or “Romanian” to refer to the official national language of the Republic of Moldova (which is identical to Romanian but referred to constitutionally merely as the “national language”). There are many more such examples – the point being that language is just as sensitive and symbols. If we are aware of this, we may well choose to use it as a tool to annoy a certain “out group” and emphasise our credentials within a certain “in group”. If we are not aware of it, we probably need to be…

We have a responsibility in our use of language, just as with symbols, to behave sensitively and not to place our fellow citizens in an “out group” (at least, if we are serious about making NI work for all its people). It is time we respected that responsibility – in the north of Ulster and elsewhere…

“At the present time” and other unnecessarily long horrors…

I agree with every one of these…

This list of

This list of “deflating inflated phrases”, originally from South Africa, is circulating the Internet.

Yet they are, to some extent, inevitable. It is a constant feature of language change that words and phrases shorten through time, only to re-lengthen when they become so short as to be easily missed altogether.

Interestingly, in French (derived from Latin) and German (derived from proto-Germanic, spoken at the same time as Latin), this process has applied coincidentally to the very same phrase.

In Classical Latin the common word for “today” was hodie, itself derived from the phrase hoc die (an ablative form; roughly: “with this day”). At the same time, around the birth of Christ, in proto-Germanic we can fairly guess it was hiu tagu (an instrumental form, roughly “by this day”).

Over time hodie became hoje in Portuguese (of obvious derivation); oggi in Italian (which is actually pronounced similarly to Portuguese, even though it looks different); the even further reduced hoy in Spanish; and then, as ever most reduced of all, hui in French.

Likewise hiu tagu became the single modern German word heute, typically now pronounced heut’ (modern Dutch uses vandaag, a complete replacement meaning “of day”, but retains the adjective huidig).

Interestingly, in German, studies have shown that since the War newspapers have increasingly come to use am heutigen Tag (therefore literally “at this-day’s day”) in preference to merely heute. This would appear to be at least as daft an aberration as “at the present time” in place of simply “now” in English.

However, French has done precisely the same thing – indeed it did it earlier and has now formalised it fully. Finding hui inadequate, over time people came to say (and eventually write) “at the day of today” or, of course, aujourd’hui.

Etymologically, therefore, aujourd’hui is nonsensical and unnecessary. Despite this, it matches almost precisely the same coincidental development in German, and it is fully part of the French language at the present time…

The origin of the term “try”

The Rugby World Cup continues to draw in the crowds, with the “bonus point” system adding to the interest because it becomes potentially important to score four “tries”.

So why is it called a “try”?

Essentially the original game of “football”, once it moved from entire towns on to a field, consisted most often (though it varied from town to town and school to school) of two posts placed at either end. The aim was simply to manoeuvre the ball through the posts, initially by almost literally any means, to score a “goal”.

This was, evidently, madness – one French diplomat said that if “football” was the English at play, he would not like to see them at war!

Thus, various clubs and schools came to adopt different restrictions about how the ball may be moved. Eventually, by the mid-Victorian era, many had come to follow the rules adopted by Rugby School said to have originated in 1823, which had various moves outlawed but allowed handling by all players; others followed the rules of an association of schools adopted in London in 1863, which came to allow handling only by one player in his own half. Hence were born Rugby Football (colloquially “rugger”), and Association Football (colloquially “soccer”).

Both codes and all major successor forms of “football” except Aussie Rules eventually adopted a crossbar (which was initially, in fact, merely a piece of tape but later came to be a horizontal pole similar to the vertical ones forming the posts), with a “goal” in Rugby Football and its successor Gridiron codes scored above the bar, and in Association Football below. (Gaelic Football, of course, cunningly allowed both – the scoring value for below the bar settled on three times the value of over the bar just over a century ago, having initially been higher.)

The Rugby code came to have four distinct ways of kicking a “goal”. One was a field kick, straight from the ground in play (ultimately this was effectively replaced by the penalty kick, taken from the ground after a major foul); a second was (and is) a dropped kick, taken from free play; a third was a kick from a mark, a dropped kick taken after a fair catch (fair catches can now only be called inside a team’s own 22, and this method of scoring was formally abolished in any case forty years ago); and a fourth was a placekick taken after touching the ball down (officially “grounding the ball”) in the opposing team’s in-goal area (in line with the touchdown location). Thus, when a team touched the ball down on or over the opponents’ goal line, they were said to have a “try” at goal – noting that initially the goal was only scored if the kick was successful, and the touchdown itself had no scoring value.

Different schools and clubs moved at slightly different speeds in practice, but within decades the unfairness of the worthless “try” became apparent. Thus, a “goal” of any sort became worth five points, but a “try” even without a successful kick was awarded two points (thus, effectively, towards the end of the 19th century a “try” was two points and a “conversion” three, with any other goal worth five).

Ever since, of course, the “try” has increasingly been seen as the most exciting method of scoring, and has thus increased in value to become the main means of adding points (as well as a prominent tiebreaker between teams on equal points in league rankings), as other kicked goals have consequently been reduced in value. This has happened, albeit to varying degrees, in all successor codes – Gridiron and Rugby League as well as Rugby Union. Nevertheless, in the Rugby codes, the name “try” remains, a vestige of when it was in itself worthless!

That is why a “try” is called a “try”.

Why is a “touchdown” in Gridiron called a “touchdown” when you don’t have to touch the ball down? No idea – I’ll leave that to the readership…!

Hypothetical doubt in German and Spanish

Following last month’s article on the subjunctive, a peculiarity I spotted many years ago but was never able to follow up.

As in French (but not Italian), Spanish uses the subjunctive after a verb of opinion used as a negative or interrogative (expressing a doubt, therefore) but not when used as a positive – I use Spanish as the example because the difference is clear in modern speech for all verbs.

Creo que lo tiene la pelota – “I think that he has the ball” [without subjunctive]

No creo que tenga la pelota – “I do not think that he has the ball” [with subjunctive]

There is a peculiar comparison with modern spoken (not written) German. German places the verb second in the clause in main clauses (such as “I think” above), but finally in subordinate clauses (such as “he has the ball”). However, such subordinate clauses must be introduced by a subordinating conjunction (such as “that” above); in certain circumstances in spoken German (as in spoken and written English) this conjunction may be omitted but, if it is, the word order returns to as it would be in a main clause.

Consider, therefore:

Ich glaube, dass er den Ball hat – “I think that he has the ball” [formal, written German – subordinating conjunction and word order used]

One instance where the omission of the conjunction and return to main clause word order would be allowed in spoken German is:

Ich glaube, er hat den Ball – “I think he has the ball” [informal, spoken German – subordinating conjunction and word order omitted]

However, it may not be used if the main clause is negative:

Ich glaube nicht, dass er den Ball hat – “I do not think that he has the ball” [both formal/written and informal/spoken – subordinating conjunction and word order always used]

In the case of clauses dependent on main clauses expressing opinion, this means that spoken German requires subordinate word order in the same circumstances as Spanish requires the subjunctive; but it does not require the subordinate word order where Spanish does not require the subjunctive.

It is as if there is something in the linguistic arrangement which distinguishes automatically between confidence and doubt, and shifts the grammar away from “normal” in the case of confidence (word order or verb forms) to “different” to emphasise doubt (through, in one case, a different word order; and in the other, a different verb form).

I think this is probably a complete coincidence, of course; but I do not think I sure be could…

Ulster should reform languages department, not close it

Ulster University’s decision to close its Modern Lamguages department is not totally ludicrous – and I say that as a committed linguist.

Firstly, as I have written many times before, language teaching in schools is totally inadequate (using techniques which are utterly outdated), meaning that Universities arguably do not have a supply of advanced linguists to make departments worthwhile; secondly, if the fundamental purpose is to learn a language proficiently, this does not require a University course (it really is one for FE colleges); and thirdly, the government’s focus is entirely on “STEM” subjects. In other words, if the University has to save money (and, let us be clear, it is an outrage that it is being asked to), closing its Modern Languages is not a ludicrous thing to do.

This focus on STEM, however, is understandable but slightly flawed. Northern Ireland’s monolingual status has serious consequences – language learning directly improves the potential for trade and exchange of knowledge, and indirectly improves the ability to be culturally aware and tolerant of different ways of doing things. Closing a School of Modern Languages sends out the wrong message, of course – indicating that we are closed to trade and to the wider world. Nevertheless, the solution to our monolingualism is not a School of Modern Languages, but a reformed approach to language learning. University is, in fact, too late to make a real difference here – but Universities could help.

The biggest problem Northern Ireland has faced language-wise in the past decade is not the closure of German at Queen’s or of Modern Languages at Ulster, but the withdrawal of funding for the introduction of languages in primary schools. As with musical instruments, the time to learn languages is early. No successful country, linguistically, leaves it any later than age 8 to start; given our relative lack of exposure to different languages on TV and radio, we would if anything need to be earlier than that.

It is for that reason that Ulster University should perhaps have considered not closing the School entirely, but radically revising its purpose. Universities are research centres, and the way we learn languages in schools is obviously a complete failure. A School of Language Learning, where new techniques could be trialled, would be a valuable contribution to solving that problem – at very little cost, with potentially significant benefits.


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