Category Archives: Language

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.

The subjunctive – what’s that all about?

Verb forms and combinations can demonstrate a number of things. Most commonly in Western languages they are marked for “tense” (when something occurs), “aspect” (whether something is complete or progressive) and, perhaps most mysteriously for English speakers, “mood”.

“Mood” is tricky, because it can mark a huge range of things depending on the language (and, arguably, underlying culture). In the case of languages closest to English speakers (Germanic languages like German or Dutch, or Latinate languages like French or Spanish), the most common issue is that of the “subjunctive mood”, typically used to express something which is counterfactual, hypothetical or assumptive.

The subjunctive mood is in decline in almost every one of those languages, particularly in spoken use. It is hard to measure precisely, but the problem arises because it has probably declined further in English (and, specifically, British English).

Firstly, the subjunctive does have a common use in all languages as a means of expressing a desire, particularly in set phrases: “Long live the Queen!” is also subjunctive in French (“Vive la reine!”; also commonly “Vive la France!“), Spanish (“¡Viva la reina!”; also commonly “Viva España”), and German (“Hoch lebe die Königin!”) among others, including actually Esperanto (“Vivu la regxino!“).

Secondly, however, its usage, particularly in contemporary speech, varies hugely otherwise. In Spanish and (even more so, perhaps) Italian, it is a constant feature of the daily language, particularly in subordinate clauses (usually introduced in Spanish by que and Italian by che, although not all of these require the subjunctive). The subjunctive is compulsory to indicate objective, often translated by the infinitive (“to be”, “to do”, “to like” etc):

La LFP enviará entrenadores españoles a China para que trabajen en colegios – “The LFP [football league] will send Spanish coaches to China to work in colleges.” [El Periódico, 4 August 2015]

It is also used to indicate desire or obligation:

Espero que vengas a visitarnos – “I hope you come to visit us” [Word Reference, 19 August 2015]

Hay que tú lo hagas – “It is necessary that you do it” [RTVE Text, 18 August 2015]

It can indicate hypothesis, including in very broad terms:

Lo importante es que te gusta a ti – “The important thing is that you like it” [Coca Cola advert, RTVE, February 1998]

It can also mark something which is clearly counterfactual, effectively changing the meaning of an introducing phrase:

Aunque sea bueno, no le seleccionan – “Even if he is good, they don’t select him” [subjunctive]

Aunque es bueno, no le seleccionan – “Even though he is good, they don’t select him” [not subjunctive]

In Spanish, the present subjunctive is also used to indicate uncertainty in the future (other languages often use a future tense here):

Hasta que salga el sol – “Until the sun goes out” [song title, Don Omar, 2012]

Again, there is a distinction in meaning here:

Lo hacemos cuando vienes – “We do it when you come” [i.e. habitually]

Lo haremos cuando vengas – “We’ll do it when you come” [i.e. once, in future]

Away from subordinate clauses, it can also indicate generalisation, again changing the meaning of the introducing word:

Gane quien gane – “Whoever wins, wins” / “I don’t care who wins” [both subjunctive]

Closest to English, there is also a past subjunctive (actually with two different forms used more or less interchangeably, but we’ll not go into that…) used to indicate hypothesis, particularly in conditional clauses:

Si yo fuera rico – “If I were a rich man” [translation of song title]

Numerous verbs are also followed by the subjunctive only in the negative or interrogative (as this expresses a counterfactual situation, whereas the positive does not):

Creo que lo sabes / No creo que lo sepas / ¿Crees que lo sepa yo? – “I believe you know / I don’t believe you know / Do you believe I know?”

Spanish also theoretically has a future subjunctive, although this is now restricted to literary or legal usage (not so in Portuguese, in fact, where it is still heard in speech).

French in theory uses the subjunctive in much the same way as Spanish. However, in daily speech, it often manages without the subjunctive, except for more formal situations or particular phrases.

Obligation takes the subjunctive, even typically in daily speech:

Il faut que tu le fasses – “It is necessary that you do it”

However, desire is less certain:

J’espère que tu viens [or viennes] rendre visite – “I hope you come and visit” [not subjunctive, at least in common parlance – there is uncertainty even among native speakers about such cases]

French typically does distinguish between the positive (factual) and negative (counterfactual), as with Spanish above:

Je crois que tu le sais / Je [ne] crois pas que tu le saches / Crois tu que je sache? – “I believe you know / I don’t believe you know / Do you believe I know?”

Unlike Spanish, French uses the future in clauses with “when”:

Nous le ferrons quand tu arriveras – “We will do it when you come”

German, however, not being Latinate, uses the “subjunctive” (often known as “conjunctive”) is a completely different way, most markedly to express “reported speech”:

Frau Merkel habe besondere Vorteile in der seinerzeitigen DDR genossen – “[It is said that] Ms Merkel enjoyed special privileges in the East Germany of the time / Ms Merkel [reportedly] enjoyed special privileges in the East Germany of the time” [Chronik Berlin, 2005]

There are also particular set usages to indicate something obviously counterfactual:

Er guckte mich an, als käme ich von einem anderen Stern – “He looked at me as if I came [from the moon]”

There are also mixed conditional usages which may or may not be deemed “subjunctive”. However, unlike Spanish, Italian and (formal) French, there is no subjunctive for wish or desire:

Ich hoffe, dass du besuchen kommst – “I hope you come to visit” [no subjunctive]

So, what about English? I touched on it in the second half of this article, which I recommend you read. Ahem, see what I did there? “Read” is in fact subjunctive in that sentence…

The subjunctive is used in English more often than we sometimes believe, but in many cases (such as the last paragraph) its form is the same as it would be otherwise and therefore we do not notice. However, if we change this to “which I recommend she read”, or even “which I recommend be read”, we can see the subjunctive form.

This can be critical. Compare “He insists she pays” with “He insists she pay”; the first means that he is insistent that she (habitually) pays; the second that he was insistent that she pay in a particular instance.

Of course this is, as in French, a formal thing – in modern speech “He insists she pays” is the more likely form with the distinction left to context.

As in German, the subjunctive of desire is largely lost, although there are vestiges in the use of past subjunctive forms after certain verbs or in set phrases (“Wish you were here”, “Would that they had” – both present meaning, actually subjunctives).

Modern English also gets around subjunctives, either by other modal verbs (“I will carry out his recommendations, whatever they may be”) or, arguably, by the infinitive (“I want you to be there”).

So, thirdly, if English largely gets by without the subjunctive, surely languages could just do away with it? It seems this is not so easy. If this were the case, for example, you certainly would not complicate an invented language designed to be regular with a subjunctive. Yet one exists in Esperanto, with usage somewhat akin to French (even if it is seen as more optional than complisory in some instances).

Necesas, ke vi faru gxin – “It is necessary that you do it” [optional subjunctive]

Mi esperas, ke vi venos viziti – “I hope you come to visit” [subjunctive generally not used]

Fundamental distinctions in meaning can be illustrated by the subjunctive, even in Esperanto:

Mi diris al vi, ke vi iros Belfaston – “I told you you would go to Belfast” [not subjunctive, statement of fact]

Mi diris al vi, ke vi iru Belfaston – “I told you to go to Belfast” [subjunctive, statement of command (but possibly not fact)]

In conclusion, the subjunctive mood has wildly varying usages and is in wildly different states of decline in the major European languages. Yet even in English, the world language where that decline is perhaps most marked, it remains in use; and even in Esperanto, an invented language set up to be regular and uncomplicated, it has a clear role.


Why do we pronounce “one” as “won”?

Why do we pronounce “one” and “won” the same way? After all, they are not remotely the same word!

To take the latter first, there is some instability in the pronunciation of the letter <o>, particularly before a nasal (typically <n> or <m>); it is frequently pronounced as if it were <u>. This is partly because it is only recently that (British) English moved to lip rounding on the letter <o> (even old Pathé news clips will show this lacking, as remains the case in American), so <o> and <u> were once more similar. The other reason, bizarrely, is simply orthography – some calligraphers did not like to write <u> before <n> or <m> because it could run together and become unclear, so they switched to <o>. The winning version in Standard Written English was chosen almost at random – hence we have “win-won” but “sing-sung”; and “son” and “sun” are pronounced identically. It was not completely random, etymology also had something to do with it – hence, for example, “London”.

What about “one”, why is it pronounced the same way?

Until the fifteenth century across England, and indeed later in most English-speaking areas, “one” was pronounced as you would expect, to rhyme with “stone” and close to modern southern English “own”. Of course, this remains in related words such as “only”, “(a)lone(ly)” and even in fact “atone”. Modern Scots does pronounce the direct equivalent ane “one” (cf. stane “stone”) as you would expect (Scots actually has a “y-glide” in such circumstances, thus it sounds like “yin”, but this is entirely predictable); and of course Dutch has een (cf. steen “stone”) and German has ein (cf. Stein).

So what happened to make English the lone (ahem) exception?

Well, nobody knows! Some things in language are just mysterious. This is just, well, one…

Ancient Indo-Europeans may have counted in eights

Following on from last week’s blog, one correspondent asked about the peculiarity that all Western Latin-derived languages change their means of counting around the number 16-17.

To explain again specifically: for the numbers 15-18, Classical Latin had quindecim, sedecim, septendecim, duodeviginti – derived literally from ‘five-ten’, ‘six-ten’, ‘seven-ten’ but then ‘two-from-twenty’.

French and Italian have, respectively, quinze/quindici, seize/sedici, dix-sept/diciasette, dix-huit/diciotto – in each case literally ‘five-ten’, ‘six-ten’ but then (unlike Latin) ‘ten-seven’, ‘ten-eight’.

Spanish changes order one further back: it has quince, dieciseis, diecisiete, dieciocho – thus ‘five-ten’ but ‘ten-six’, ‘ten-seven’, ‘ten-eight’.

Here, it is over to you – why did all three shift from Latin, with Spanish shifting one further?

One thing which is immediately apparent, however, is that most Indo-European languages show a common trait around the number ‘nine’. This is, in French, Italian and Spanish respectively, neuf, nove, nueve. It is no coincidence that this is similar to the word for ‘new’: neuf, nuovo, nuevo. As far back as Proto-Indo-European, from which Classical Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Proto-Germanic were derived, the word for ‘nine’ showed a striking resemblance to the word for ‘new’. The reason is quite simple: it was a new digit. Originally, Indo-European speakers counted only to ‘eight’.

It is thought we now use Base Ten as our counting system because that is the number of fingers we have (including thumbs), but the linguistic evidence is that millennia ago we ignored the thumbs. Counting in Base Eight is fairly logical after all – it allows for constant doubling, from two to four to eight to sixteen as so on; computer scientists, no less, typically use Base Eight or Base Sixteen (or simply Base Two, i.e. binary).

(It should be noted no specific evidence has been found in Eurasia for ancients having counted in Base Eight; though there is none that they counted in Base Ten either. There is evidence from the Americas of humans counting in Base Eight; alongside significant evidence of Base Twelve and even a system based around Sixty used by the Babylonians.)

What is interesting is that the subsequent moves in Latinate languages towards a shift in order around the number sixteen demonstrates that there is still something innately important about that number. It is also just about possible that although Classical Latin was consistent from 11-17 (including, unlike its daughter languages, 17 itself), spoken Latin was not and that there was always a split in the spoken language around 16.

Any thoughts on this more than welcome!

Random notes on Spanish versus Italian

Spanish and Italian are so similar that the untrained linguist can, on occasions, struggle to tell them apart. This does make it relatively easy to attain reasonable competence in one having learned the other; although it can also make this difficult, because there are also fundamental differences which mean that the initial apparent similarity can be deceptive.

Naples - an Italian city once administered by the Spanish

Naples – an Italian city once administered by the Spanish

Four Western European national languages (which between them have around 200 million mother-tongue speakers in Europe and even more than that in the Americas) are descended from Latin – Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Of these, it is no surprise that Spanish and Portuguese have multiple common traits not shared with the others, although Portuguese is somewhat more challenging for a variety of reasons (discussed here).

Leaving aside Portuguese, geography would dictate that French should be the “middle” of the three, but this is not the case. In fact, the reality that travel was historically easier over water (i.e. around the Mediterranean) than land already makes French the isolate; and French is in any case an immediate exception because of its early contact with Germanic, discussed here.

Thus although Italian is closer to French than Spanish is, there is no dispute that Spanish and Italian have much more in common with each other, at least structurally and phonologically, than either has with French. So how can the Spanish speaker maximise their knowledge of Italian, and vice-versa?


Both Italian and Spanish are derived from Latin, and did not have the Germanic intervention that French had. Both specifically derive from “Vulgar Latin”, the spoken dialects of less educated people some centuries after Christ (notably, in the case of Spanish, Roman soldiers from all over the Empire who used Latin typically as a common second language). However, the differences between them arise in large part from the method of standardisation.

Essentially, modern Standard Spanish is a later standardisation than modern Standard Italian. In the case of Spanish, the basis is the language of the central Iberian Peninsula which moved southwards to encompass the entirety of Andalusia; “Golden Age Spanish” was the language of El Cid and of imperial Spain, but the spelling system was further adapted subsequently to take account of further phonological changes. Thus, Standard Written Spanish is designed fairly accurately to reflect the way the modern language is spoken.

In the case of Italian, there was effectively a “re-standardisation” to an earlier version, based around the Tuscan city of Florence (home of the medieval author Dante). This means that the Standard is somewhat more prescriptive – rather than reflecting how people speak, it asks people who speak a wide variety of ways to write a separate version for the sake of common understanding across the Italian Peninsula. The practical outcome is firstly that the “Standard” is in fact based on an older version of Italian (thus closer to Latin) than Spanish is; and, secondly, that spoken dialects of Italian are further removed from that “Standard” (although they are now swiftly converging towards it).

There has also been some linkage between the two languages over the centuries; most notably, Spanish administrators controlled much of southern Italy in the late Golden Age (although some of these would have spoken Catalan – that is one for another blog!)


Although Italian has more mother tongue speakers in Europe than Spanish (roughly 70 million to 50 million), Spanish is the more global language and is thus seen as the “bigger” of the two. This has practical modern consequences, in that Italians are more acquainted with Spanish than vice-versa. As just one of many cultural examples, it is common for Spanish-language songs to succeed in Italy (in fact both Number 1 and Number 2 in the Italian charts at time of writing are in Spanish); not only is the reverse impossible, but it is in fact the norm for Italian singers to record albums both in Italian and Spanish to maximise the market (the likes of Alessandro Safina, Eros Ramazotti and Laura Pausini all do this as a matter of course).

Therefore, the linguistic similarities (alongside historical links) allow a broad and wide-ranging cultural exchange – but this cultural exchange happens almost exclusively in Spanish.


The structural similarities between the languages are obvious. Fundamentally they are vocalic languages relying heavily on verbs. Both are:

  • “pro-drop” languages (the subject pronoun may be dropped – for example, amo in Italian, Spanish and Latin conveys the meaning on its own of ‘I love/adore’);
  • “masculine-feminine” languages (nouns may be one of two genders, masculine or feminine, and the markers are often -o and -a – thus Italian/Spanish amico/amigo ‘friend’ is masculine; amica/amiga is specifically a female friend);
  • “post-attributive” languages (most obviously, adjectives typically follow nouns although common ones may precede – un buon’amico/un buen amigo ‘a good friend’ but la terra verde/la tierra verde ‘the green land’);
  • typically “synthetic” languages (particularly with verbs – amava/amaba on its own carries the meaning of ‘I/he/she used to love’); and
  • SVO (but SOV with pronouns) – thus vedo la terra/veo la tierra ‘I see the land’ but la vedo/la veo ‘I see it’, although word order is relatively free in each (more so in Spanish).

There are other similarities too, although these can mask some differences. Both languages, even in modern form, make significant use of the subjunctive mood, but usage varies slightly – for example, Italian has credo che sia and non credo che sia for ‘I believe/don’t believe he/she is’ (both with subjunctive), whereas Spanish has creo que es and no creo que sea (thus subjunctive only with preceding negative).

Other areas are subtly different, particularly where Italian is similar to French. For example:

  • Modern Spoken Italian tends to use the perfect with avere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ to refer to the past at all, whereas Spanish distinguishes between perfect and preterite – thus in Italian ho perduto means both ‘I have lost’ and ‘I lost’; but Spanish distinguishes between he perdito and perdí;
  • Furthermore, this distinction between avere and essere for the perfect is not retained in Spanish – thus sono venuto ‘I have come’ (literally: ‘am come’) but he venido ‘I have come’; Italian also displays preceding object agreement whereas Spanish does not, thus Italian la ho vista ‘I have seen it [feminine]’ but Spanish la he visto; or
  • Italian must refer back using extra pronouns to mark case, whereas Spanish does not – thus ci sono tre amici qui ‘there are three friends here’ but ci ne sono tre ‘there are three [of them] here’, but hay tres amigos aquí and hay tres [no further reference word required].

Italian also has a markedly more complex set of preposition-article mergers. Where modern Spanish only has del (from de + el) and al (from a + el), and thus none at all for the feminine or plural (de la, a la; de los, a los; de las, a las), Italian has a vast range covering masculine, feminine, singular and plural – del, dello, della, dell’, dei, degli, delle; al, allo, alla, all’, ai, agli. alle; also nel, nello, nella, nell’, nei, negli, nelle and so on. It may be noted, however, that this is arguably not a structural difference, but an orthographical one (I do not intend to deal with orthography specifically in this piece) – the two languages have simply chosen to reflect these mergers in different ways.

The single most fundamental difference between Italian and Spanish (or any other Latinate language) is that Italian almost always requires words to end in a vowel – this is a tendency in Spanish, but is much less required. This has implications for verbs (thus ami/amano ‘you [singular]/they love’ versus Spanish amas/aman, Latin amas/amant), common word formation (dieci ‘ten’, Spanish diez) and, most markedly of all, the formation of the plural.

In Standard Italian (and all Italian dialects to the south of Florence), the plural is formed by changing the final vowel of the noun (or adjective): thus amico-amici ‘friend-friends’; terra-terre ‘land-lands’; campione-campioni ‘champion-champions’ (note also common borrowings which look common in one form but not the other, such as panino-panini, capuccino-capuccini, graffito-graffiti, pizza-pizze). On the other hand, Spanish does this in line with other Latinate languages and English – amigo-amigos, tierra-tierras, campeon-campeones. This applies equally to adjectives: canzoni italiane ‘Italian songs’, Spanish canciones italianes.


Italian and Spanish do sound similar to the untrained ear because they are structurally similar and quite vocalic (compare German or Dutch, which have considerably more consonants, particularly at the end of words). They also pronounce all the letters written – there is, for example, no silent final –e as there is in modern spoken French and Portuguese (and English).

However, as noted above, there are significant differences, primary among them Italian’s greater insistence on final vowels; perhaps as a consequence, its intonation is also markedly different (somewhat more up-and-down – whereas Spanish is quite flat, at least outside Argentina where there is considerable Italian influence).

Another easy marker is that Italian generally retains intervocalic voiceless consonants where Spanish voices them (as amicversus amigabove; also gelat‘ice cream’ versus helado, etc).

Another Spanish development is the range of diphthongs (i.e. double vowels) in stressed syllables which Italian either has not developed or has developed differently (as Italian terra versus Spanish tierra from Latin terra; or buono versus bueno above from Latin bonus).

Italian does not share the Spanish requirement before consonants for e- before s-: scola ‘school’ versus escuela; Spagna ‘Spain’ versus España. Italian also allows more clusters, particularly with initial s-: svegliare ‘to wake’; scudetto ‘championship’. Spanish allows some of these combinations with other initial letters, but even then not all; and does not use even those it does allow as often.

To the untrained ear, there is one obvious sound which exists in Italian and not in Spanish, and vice-versa. Italian has a strong [ts] sound in words such as ragazzo ‘mate’ or even pizza, for which there is not even a remotely close approximant in Spanish (though there was, in fact, until around 300 years ago). In return, modern Spanish has a [x] sound similar to Scottish ‘loch‘ which does not exist at all in Italian; it is variously spelled, but most commonly now -j- as in hijo ‘son’, jefe ‘boss’, or occasionally g– as noted below.

A marked difference tied to this is the treatment of the letters c– and g- before a high vowel (typically –e or –i). In Latin this was always pronounced [k] and [g], but it softened in Vulgar Latin and then went in various directions. In Italian, c– is now [tsh] as in English ‘chin’; in Spanish it is typically merged with [s], so as English ‘sin’, although Standard European Spanish has [th] as in English ‘thin’ – thus the first syllable of Italian cinque or Spanish cinco ‘five’ is pronounced ‘chin’ in Italy, ‘sin’ in Latin America (derived from parts of southern Spain), and ‘thin’ in most of Spain. In Italian, soft g– is now [dsh] more or less as in English ‘gel’; in Spanish, as noted above, this is a hard [x] – thus Italian gemello ‘twin’ has a first syllable as the English ‘gem’, but the first sound of the Spanish gemelo sounds similar to the last sound in ‘loch’. (I do not wish to focus on orthography in this article, but the marking of any retained hard c- and g- before a high vowel is an obvious marker in writing: Italian add the letter –h in each case; whereas Spanish switches c– to qu– and g– to gu-: the most obvious example is Italian che versus Spanish que).

Modern Italian generally does not allow –l after an initial plosive, replacing it typically with the vowel –i – thus ciaro versus Spanish claro ‘clear’ (though see also below re chi-); piazza versus plaza ‘square’; bianco versus blanco ‘white’.

The letters b and v have merged, effectively, in modern Spanish, and the modern written standard selects them seemingly at random. Italian retains the clear distinction from Latin. Spanish also does not like initial f-, which is silent (though written h-) particularly in common words – thus Italian ferro versus Spanish hierro ‘iron’; also in fact fare versus hacer ‘to do’. Italian does not write initial silent h-: thus avere versus haber ‘to have’ (note also b/v merger); Olanda versus Holanda ‘Holland’.

As the gemello/gemelo example also indicates above, Italian retains double consonants, pronounced as such. Spanish does this only for the rolled –r– in words such as perro ‘dog’.

Spanish does have ll– but considers it distinct letter; the same sound is written gl– in Italian, although in fact it often equates to ch(i)– or pi– deriving from Latin cl-/pl– – thus, Latin clamare ‘to call’ gives Italian chiamare but Spanish llamar; Latin clavis ‘key’ gives Italian chiave but Spanish llave; Latin pluire ‘to rain’ gives Italian piovere but Spanish llover. This general palatisation is apparent in the –tt– versus –ch– combination too – e.g. Latin noctem ‘night’ gives Italian notte versus Spanish noche; octo ‘eight’ gives otto versus ocho.

There are of course many more parallels like these – they can easily be picked up.


As can be seen thoroughout this article already, a lot of vocabulary is similar, and differences are predictable or at least reasonably guessable: terra versus tierra ‘land’; amico versus amigo ‘friend’; perdere versus perder ‘to lose’; canzone versus cancion ‘song’; bianco versus blanco ‘white’; ferro versus hierro ‘iron’; piovere versus llover ‘to rain’.

Many words are, of course, identical: La luna grande solo ama la cosa con la costa verde ‘The big moon only likes the thing with the green coast’ is an entire sentence which is theoretically identical in Italian and Spanish.

This is misleading, of course. Nothing is that easy!

Firstly, there are simple words which are just completely different. My list of core vocabulary demonstrates some. Other key words which are not remotely similar include Italian ripostare versus Spanish contestar ‘to answer’; volere versus querer ‘to want’; imparare versus aprender ‘learn’; scegliere versus elegir ‘to choose’; posto versus lugar ‘place’; fino a versus hasta ‘until’; vietato versus prohibido ‘forbidden’; tavolo versus mesa ‘table’; or camara versus habitación ‘room’.

Secondly, there are many examples of where the same or a similar word exists in each language but is not used identically or even similarly. Italian avere ‘have’ covers both Spanish haber and tener; then Spanish de ‘of, from’ covers both Italian di and da. Italian comprendere covers ‘infer’ and even ‘include’ but not directly ‘understand’ (for which it has capire); Spanish comprender covers more ‘understand’ but not so much ‘infer’ (for which it has entender). There are countless examples of this – indeed it is the norm, in practice.

Thirdly, there are words which, while available in both, are simply more commonly used in one language than the other. For example, devere ‘to have to’ is widely used in Italian, but its Spanish equivalent deber is less so (Spanish often prefers a construction such as tener que). The adjective necessario ‘necessary is used in Italian alongside necesario in Spanish, but the verb necesitar is exclusive (at least in regular modern usage) to Spanish.

As a general note, because the Italian standard is based on an older version of the language, much of its vocabulary is longer and/or closer to the original Latin. Thus Italian settimana ‘week’ becomes much shorter Spanish semana; or Italian numbers such as undici ‘eleven [literally one-ten] and dodici ‘twelve [literally two-ten]’ become the more clinical Spanish once, doce. (Interestingly, with numbers between 11-20, Spanish switches order one later than Italian – for 15-17 Italian has quindici [five-ten], sedici [six-ten] and then diciasette [ten-seven], which is in line with Latin; Spanish has quince [originally five-ten] but then dieciseis [ten-six] and diecisiete [ten-seven].)


These are literally random observations as a rusty Spanish speaker who recently spent some time in Italy. They are not designed to reach any particular conclusion.

Nevetheless, they do reinforce my long-held view that we are wasting our time teaching languages individually in schools, as if they all have to be approached separately from each other. The simple fact is that knowledge of Spanish is a vast advantage in Italy; and vice-versa no doubt. Yet it is also a frustration – you can come to think you can say and write more than you actually can; some basic grounding is still necessary.

The historical background is helpful to aid the switch from one to the other, as is the basic vocabulary linked to above. However, most important of all are the patterns which enable structures and vocabulary to be reasonably guessed at. Becoming familiar with those is like becoming familiar with the controls of a car while learning to drive – they look intimidating at first, but once you learn to use them they become second nature.

Most of all, adventures in comparing Italian and Spanish are adventures in the most prominent linguistic culture of them all, descending obviously as they both do from Latin. It is sometimes easy, sometimes frustrating, sometimes challenging – but always fun!

Who is ‘indigenous’?

In response to a recent piece, two correspondents came back asking some very interesting questions about what is “indigenous”.

I do not like the word “indigenous” at all. It does very little justice to our history, particularly in Europe. We are also inclined to tie together Ethnic and Linguistic terms (as one correspondent noted), which is unhelpful.

Let us take the north of Ireland in the 15th century. The Normans had come and integrated, so we are really at a stage when the “indigenous Irish” are all at peace living happily together all speaking Irish Gaelic.

Except, well, that was not remotely the case. It was in fact far more interesting than that. To the far north east, the McDonnells had become the dominant clan in the Glens – they were Gaelic speaking, but had in fact come over from Scotland within the last couple of centuries (where some of them remain – the McDonalds). To the west was “The Route”, dominated by the McQuillans, of Cambro-Norman origin (literally “west Brits” by origin within the previous few centuries). Well over to the west were the Sweeneys and other groups in Donegal who had also settled from Scotland, and would also have had little trouble doing so as Catholic Gaelic speakers, other than in that they were blatantly taking someone else’s land. Even to the south east, we find the barony of “Mourne”, inhabited by “indigenous Irish” who had been on the island probably for millennia. Except they had in fact taken over that territory only in the previous few centuries, hence giving it the name also given to “Monaghan” in preference to the name of the tribe previously “indigenous” at that location, the Boirche. This is all leaving aside the ongoing Anglo-Norman settlements scattered along the east coast – in Carrickfergus, Ards and Lecale – which were in fact of longer standing than some of the Gaelic settlements.

The problem is that throughout Irish history people have moved to and from the island – after all, St Patrick himself had been brought over from western Britain a millennium beforehand. They have also moved within the island – the largest death toll in any conflict in the island’s history was in fact in a battle about territory and overlordship near Moira in AD 637, before even the Viking invasions, never mind the Norman.

Then of course, there is the linguistic issue. Here, in fact, there is a better case for applying the words “Gaelic” and “indigenous”, although even there they are far from perfect. “Gaelic” initially refers to “raiders”, a name applied to a group who brought a Celtic language (specifically Q-Celtic, unlike Welsh which is P-Celtic) to the island of Ireland. There is no reason to believe that they took over or even dramatically altered the ethnic mix (a recent survey showed that neither the Vikings nor the Normans significantly altered British genes), but they did change the language spoken and the most unifying feature of pre-Viking, pre-Norman or pre-plantation Ireland was that its inhabitants spoke that language (albeit, of course, in hugely varying dialects and in common with many people in northern and western Scotland). This linguistic and ethnic separation, of course, applied with the subsequent dominance of the (Germanic) English language; it has not changed the ethnic mix particularly either.

The divisions/diverse identities this has brought about are even political, and not just in the obvious way. Even to this day, the broad (cultural, not ethnic) split brought about by the Norman invasion (never mind the Scottish settlements and the plantation nearly half a millennium later) still applies – people with Norman surnames are more likely to vote Fine Gael and less likely to vote Fianna Fail than people with Gaelic surnames, for example.

There is therefore something fundamentally wrong with people who seek to suggest that Ireland is somehow purely Gaelic, either ethnically or culturally. That is not to say that “Gaelicism” is not a significant, even the most significant, identity on the island. But to focus on it alone is to miss the diversity that makes Ireland what it is – complete not just with the influence of Vikings (who founded Larne and Dublin), Normans (who account for nearly a quarter of all surnames), or Ulster Scots and planters (who industrialised the north east); but also with smaller stories of movements from one part to the other, or interconnections with Scotland, Wales or the west of England (and further afield) which are all a vital part of the story. Throw all that into the mix, and not only is no one truly “indigenous”, but no one wanting to reflect the entirety of Ireland’s story would want to be, as it would be left incomplete.

I guess one man’s division is another man’s diversity. We probably need to stop creating the former, and start celebrating the latter.


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