Category Archives: Language

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…


How to learn languages – French

Of Latin origin but markedly distinct due to early Germanic influence and subsequently rapid pronunciation change, French is a remarkable language in every sense. Spoken natively by fewer than 125 million souls, thus ahead only of Italian among the four major Western national Latin-based languages, it nevertheless retains a global influence well beyond its numbers and a global prestige which is arguably unparalleled.

French took over from Latin in the modern era as the language of the elite (it was spoken in most European Royal Courts for centuries; Queen Elizabeth II is fluent) and of the educated. From international treaties to global post, French remains instantly recognisable and widespread in government and high culture. It is the foremost administrative language in the European institutions besides English, and is a lingua franca across most of North Africa. Although less prominent than Spanish or Portuguese, it has gone trans-Atlantic, as it is also spoken natively (with marked differences in pronunciation and colloquial vocabulary) in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick.

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Linguistically, French is also outstanding. It largely retains its Medieval spelling system, but pronunciation has developed and reduced dramatically, leading to vast complexities in “liaison” (the pronunciation of letters as words run together). So…


French phonology is a linguistic phenomenon, having developed far further from Latin than any other major Latin-based language. As a consequence of the reduction (and often complete elimination) of sounds, a hugely complex system of “liaison” exists – rules governing how different words are pronounced when placed after each other.

French is free of many harsh or rarer sounds. Thus, for many learners, the initial challenge is its strong and distinctive nasalisation. Like many aspects of the language, the distinction between the pronunciation of the four main nasals (generally written [an], [en], [in] and [on] as well as occasionally [un], with any following dental consonant silent) is contested even by native speakers and exhibits an ongoing pronunciation shift. Some speakers now pronounce many of the low and central nasals similarly, so that grand ‘big’, vent ‘wind’ and ton ‘your’ seem to rhyme, although this is frowned upon by many (and most still certainly distinguish vent).

French is also marked by a series of once complex but now reduced vowel combinations (lieu ‘place’; chevaux ‘horses’; moi ‘me’; haie ‘hedge’). These have changed swiftly through the ages, and can sound notably different in Canada.

However, the stand-out feature is the liaison system, which sees most final consonants (though not all) left silent in most instances. For example, the French number six, once pronounced not far from its modern English equivalent, has three contemporary pronunciations – j’en ai six ‘I have six’ (/s/); six amis ‘six friends’ (/z/); six voyageurs ‘six travellers’ (silent). Three is relatively unusual but most words ending in a consonant (in writing) do have two pronunciations, the citation form with a silent final consonant and a form with the final consonant sounded (and then in most instances as either the voiced or devoiced version of that consonant – so, [t] or [d] are /t/; [s], [x] or [z] are /z/; etc.), but the rules for exactly when it is sounded are complex (and change through time): Comment allez-vous? ‘How are you?’ [liaison]; Comment est-elle voyagée? ‘How did she travel?’ [no liaison on comment].

Related to this is also the concept of enchaînement, which sees the final consonant before an initial vowel in effect pronounced as if it were part of the following word. Conventions also dictate when a final -e is silent or sounded; typically in modern speech it is silent, but in combinations of words it may reappear in one: une grande femme ‘a great woman’ [final –e sounded only in grande].

Another marked development is the switch of initial in Latin to an affricate, written , which has now lost the initial stop sound (thus formerly pronounced as English but now as English ): cheval ‘horse’; chaine ‘chain’.


The Academie Française is perhaps the best known language institute in the world, essentially charged with determining (and promoting) what is and what is not Standard French. Within the French-speaking world (known as la Francophonie), the Standard is perhaps of higher prestige than is typical with other languages, with regional (or any other kind of) variations less tolerated. As ever, this applies particularly to the written language, but it may also apply to spoken French. Particularly in France itself, debate can become remarkably philosophical over the rules of liaison (noted above), general standards of eloquence, and other matters of pronunciation.

Spelling is based on the French spoken in Paris at around the time of the Black Death (as is, coincidentally, the case with English). This was not necessarily easily understood even across the rest of Northern France at the time, and was certainly alien in the South. Even at the time of the French Revolution, a huge range of often mutually unintelligible dialects existed across modern-day France; although no one can be precisely sure, there is evidence that a combination of nationalism and centralisation after the revolution saw these quickly eclipsed and the Academie Standard come to predominate, often even in speech (whereas this only happened with most other European languages upon the invention of broadcasting).

As noted above, the consequence of the Standard being based on the speech of so long ago alongside the remarkable phonological development of the language (at least in Paris) has resulted in an astonishing and in fact quite unstable disconnect between the spoken and written language. Spelling is relatively (though by no means completely) consistent, but guessing spelling from pronunciation is often impossible. This, combined with the complex rules of liaison, makes French an outstandingly hard language to master absolutely – arguably even for its own speakers!

Written accents in French are: the acute (only é) to mark an open pronunciation; the grave (è) to mark closed, or on other letters to mark distinction (‘where’, ou ‘or’; là ‘there’, la ‘the’); the controversial and often now optional circumflex on most vowels to mark distinction or a historical following [s] (hôtel) or [a] (âge); the diaresis to mark separate pronunciation within a would-be diphthong (naïve); and the cedilla to mark soft [c] before a vowel (i.e. pronounced /s/; ça ‘that’).


French vocabulary is predominantly drawn from Latin and thus is aligned heavily with Spanish, Portuguese and most notably Italian.

Key numbers:

  • un; deux; 3 trois; 4 quatre; 5 cinq; 6 six; 7 sept; 8 huit; 9 neuf; 10 dix;
  • 11 onze; 12 douze; 16 seize; 17 dix-sept; 20 vingt; 21 vingt et un;
  • 26 vingtsix; 66 soixante-six; 76 soixante-seize; 96 quatre-vingts-seize;
  • 100 cent; 1000 mille; 456789 quatre-cents cinquante-six mille sept-cents quatre-vingts-neuf.

Above 60, this demonstrates a vigesimal counting system probably borrowed from the Normans, who were originally Norse (Norse, as modern Danish, exhibited similar).

In Belgian and Swiss French, this vigesimal system may be ignored, with 70 septante and 90 nonante preferred instead (also 80 huitante in some Swiss dialects).

However, there are two noteworthy differences. First, as noted above, French phonology is heavily reduced, meaning it is not always obvious which words are related (e.g. chaine ‘chain’; Spanish cadena, Latin catena). Second, what became modern French was influenced much earlier by another major language (the Germanic which became German, Dutch and English), which provided a range of non-Latin vocabulary in certain areas such as orienteering (nord ‘north’), colours (bleu ‘blue’), or warfare (guerre ‘war’) – some of this was later passed on to other Latinate languages.

Key personal pronouns:

  • Singular je/me/moi; tu/te/toi; il/le/lui, elle/la/elle;
  • Plural nous; vous; ils/les/eux, elles/les/elles.

Vous is also used as the polite singular; modern spoken French also makes widespread use of the subject pronoun on, equivalent to English ‘one’ but often used in preference to nous or even occasionally je or tu where these have a general meaning.


French nouns are marked for the plural and are inherently masculine or feminine. Old French retained a case system for a lot longer than ancestors of other major Latin-based languages whereby, in general, masculine singular subject nouns and plural object nouns were marked –s and feminine nouns the exact other way around. Over time this was regularised so that all plurals came to be marked –s (though vestiges of the old masculine singular ending remain in personal names such as Georges or Jacques, and in some exceptional forms such as fils ‘son’) or occasionally –x. In speech, this plural is no longer pronounced in most instances, but is clear from the surrounding words.

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

  • singular chante, chantes, chante;
  • plural chantons, chantez, chantent.

These were taken over from Late Latin and were once clearly distinct from each other in speech except in the first and third person singular, with endings fully pronounced (note was /ts/ as in German). However, in modern spoken French, all of these forms except first and second person plural are pronounced identically (as if there is no further ending beyond the final pronounced consonant).

The infinitive chanter and the past participle chanté are also pronounced alike.

French verbs can be marked for future, conditional or past imperfect (the latter most usually with common verbs); the past preterite is now restricted to formal writing so that almost all past reference otherwise is carried out via the perfect, which requires auxiliaries (avoir ‘to have’ or even être ‘to be’) and the past participle. There is also a present and past subjunctive which, while rarer than in the other major Latin-based languages, remains in common use even in speech. The auxiliary aller ‘to go’ may be used with an infinitive to mark an immediate future. There is no progressive auxiliary, however; other constructions are required to mark continuous action.

Uniquely among major Western Romance languages, French is not pro-drop: every sentence must have a subject, even if it is a dummy subject: tu chantes ‘you sing’; ils finissent ‘they finish’; nous l’avons vu ‘we saw it’; il pleut ‘it is raining’.

Adjectives agree with their noun for gender and number in all instances. They are generally placed after the noun, but may appear before, including with subtle variations in meaning: une grande femme ‘a great woman’; une femme grande ‘a big woman’.

The singular articles are definite le (masculine) and la (feminine), indefinite un and une; definite are reduced to l’ before vowels (or silent h-). The only plural article is definite les. There is also in effect the further article de (du, de la; des) used as in Italian for general quantities: du pain ‘some bread’. Possessives do not require an article: ma chanson ‘my song’.

Common prepositions:

  • de ‘of, from’; à ‘to, at’; en ‘in, at’; avec ‘with’; pour ‘with’; par ‘through, by’.

The first two merge with the definite article in the masculine singular (du, au) and plural (des, aux).

French has an unusual form of mandatory double negation, with the particle ne placed before the main verb and a further particle (most commonly pas) almost always required after: tu ne chantes pas ‘you do not sing’; il ne pleut plus ‘it is no longer raining’. In speech, the ne is frequently dropped.

Peculiarly, French adopted Germanic word order late in the first millennium (verb second regardless of first element), which was replaced by SVO (SOV where object is a pronoun) gradually from around the 15th century, perhaps under the influence of the Southern Latin-based dialects it displaced as it became the language of the whole of France. Some vestiges remain: Peut-être est elle là ‘Perhaps she is there [Perhaps is she there]’. French also exhibits the system of “preceding direct object” in formation of the perfect where a past participle agrees with its object if the object appears before: tu les avais vus ‘you had seen them’; la chanson que nous avons écrite ‘the song we wrote’.


French is closest to Italian among the four major Western Latin-based languages (although it is still in practice more distant from it than any of the other three is from any other), and it does share Italian’s slight preference for noun-based constructions compared to Spanish and Italian.

French speech is marked by an even intonation, with very little stress evident within or even between words. This is exceptionally hard for non-native speakers to master (and generally not enough work is done on it by teachers and tutors because it is essential to the flow); conversely, it marks French speakers out when they speak other languages.

French speech is also marked by the tendency to add particles, a consequence perhaps of having reduced so many sounds, syllables and words. So although French words are themselves often shorter than in Portuguese, Spanish or particularly Italian, there may be additions to clauses and sentences to make them longer: Spanish Qué es? and Italian Cos’è? becomes French Qu’est-ce que c’est? ‘What is it? [What is it that it is?]’

French is notably vocalic, and thus excellent for music (though still not quite as much so as Italian).

What next?

Before moving on to Germanic, it may be useful to take a look next week at what unites Latin-based languages in the 21st century – and thus how knowledge of one can best be used to access the others.

As ever, thoughts and corrections welcome!

Notre Père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié; que ton règne vienne, que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel. Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour. Pardonne-nous nos offences, comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés. Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation, mais délivre-nous du mal.

How to learn languages – Spanish

In the Western World, more people speak Castilian Spanish natively than any other language. That alone makes it a prime candidate for “most useful language to learn” status!

The name of the language is disputed by speakers themselves. Castellano ‘Castilian’ is preferred by some to distinguish it clearly from other “Spanish languages”, such as Catalan, Basque and Galician; others prefer to emphasise the unitary nature of the country or the Spanish-speaking world generally by using Español ‘Spanish’.

The latter is more commonly used by non-speakers, and is thus preferred (without political or constitutional prejudice) here.

Having grown as the administrative language of what was at the time the greatest empire the West had ever known, Spanish then expanded its reach to reach its contemporary position, covering almost the entirety of Central and South America except Brazil. This also has the practical effect of making Spanish a markedly influential language in cultural and economic life within the United States. It can also serve as a gateway to other Latin-based languages, notably Portuguese and Italian.


There is a tendency to distinguish crudely between “Peninsular Spanish” and “Latin American Spanish”. This distinction is somewhat artificial – there is in fact widespread variation within Latin America (with, in particular, the dialects of the Southern Cone being outstandingly distinct in intonation and aspects of grammar), and even within individual countries. Therefore the division is nothing like as straightforward as that between American and British/Commonwealth English.

Spanish is increasingly also the first foreign language in Anglophone countries. So what, immediately, do we need to know to gain some quick proficiency?


Having sounded almost identical to Portuguese with minor exceptions, Old Spanish underwent a dramatic and probably relatively swift consonantal sound shift around its sibilants in the 15th and 16th century (just before its expansion beyond Iberia) to become Modern Spanish. Before this period, combinations had already been simplified (/dz/ to /z/ and /ts/ to /s/). Then, generally, the “hissing” sibilant (represented by <x> in Old Spanish and modern Portuguese and typically by <sh> in modern English) was eliminated entirely; the other voiced sibilant in almost all instances was devoiced (i.e. /z/ to /s/); and the resultant merged or standalone /s/ (usually now written or ) shifted in most Iberian dialects to /θ/ (usually represented in modern English by <th>). Notably, this latter shift did not occur in southern dialects upon which most Latin American varieties are based.

Spanish had already generally lost initial f- in common words (perhaps due to Basque influence), which is now silent but written h– (e.g. hijo ‘son’, hierro ‘iron’; cf. Portuguese filho, ferro; Italian figlio, ferro). Silent initial h– is also now written etymologically in modern Spanish, e.g. haber ‘to have’ (cf. Old Spanish aver; modern Italian avere). This may not apply in compound words: hacer ‘to do’ but satisfacer ‘to satisfy’.

Spanish speech has also merged <v> and <b>, typically written etymologically in the modern language. Like Portuguese but unlike Italian, it also tends towards removing vowels between consonants and vice-versa (ver ‘to see’, pueblo ‘people’; Italian vedere, popolo).

With all those developments with consonants, Spanish vowels have also developed to become remarkably simplified, to just five. However, in certain stressed positions some are diphthongised (<e> to <ie> and <o> to <ue>).


Spanish has an Academy, whose most notable (and widely accepted) intervention was to re-spell the language to reflect modern pronunciation (allowing for some etymological distinction, which has had the effect of catering for some dialect variation) in 1815. Therefore, the writing system is considerably more representative of modern daily speech than is the case for languages such as English and French, while also less complex than Portuguese or Italian.

Unlike Brazilian versus European Portuguese or American versus British English, there are no differences in spelling standards across the Spanish-speaking world. The differences are confined to items of vocabulary and occasionally verb (particularly past participle) forms.

The assumption in standard writing is that words end in a vowel, –n or –s. Where this is the case, stress is consistently applied on the penultimate syllable; otherwise it is on the final; exceptions require the stress to be marked with an acute accent (plátano ‘banana’; fácil ‘easy’; nación ‘nation’). This accent is also used to mark separately pronounced vowels (día ‘day’) or distinction (mi ‘my’; mí ‘me’; this is particularly notable for question words, e.g. donde ‘where’, que ‘which, that’; dónde? ‘where?’, qué? ‘which? what?’). The only other written accents are the conspicuous tilde <ñ>, formerly a double consonant <nn> but now marking a palatisation (typically written <gn> in French and Italian), and the diaresis <ü> used to mark sounding after <g> (e.g. vergüenza ‘disgrace’).


Spanish vocabulary is overwhelmingly from Latin, but Spain’s history both as colonised (predominantly by Arabic speakers) and coloniser (predominantly in the Americas) means it also draws widely from elsewhere.

Key numbers:

1 uno; 2 dos; 3 tres; 4 cuatro; 5 cinco; 6 seis; 7 siete; 8 ocho; 9 nueve; 10 diez;
11 once; 12 doce; 16 dieciséis; 17 diecisiete; 20 veinte; 21 veintiuno; 100 cien;
1000 mil; 456789 cuatrocientos cincuenta y seis mil setecientos ochenta y nueve.

Unlike Italian and Portuguese (and Old Spanish), Modern Spanish distinguishes between the auxiliary haber and main verb tener ‘to have’.

Key personal pronouns:

  • Singular yo, me, mi; tú, te, ti (or vós; polite usted); él/ella, lo/la, le;
  • Plural nosotros, nos; vosotros, os (polite ustedes); ellos/ellas, los/las, les.

The distinction between tú/vosotros and usted(es) (which takes the third person verb) varies between dialects. In many cases (notably parts of Bolivia/Ecuador/Colombia/Venezuela) vosotros is abandoned in the plural but the tú/usted distinction remains in the singular. In the Southern Cone, notably around the River Plate, vós is used as a singular (with its own set of verb forms).

Spanish also exhibits three degrees of distance: este/esta ‘this’; ese/esa ‘that’; aquel/aquela ‘that yonder’.


The Spanish noun, in common with nearly all other Latin-based languages, is either masculine (typically ending -o) or feminine (typically ending -a). Plural form is almost always -(e)s (with very few exceptions, typically direct borrowings from English or Latin). A notable feature of Spanish is the “interpersonal a“; the preposition is required before all “animate” grammatical objects: el agua ayudó a mi hijo ‘the water helped my son’; vimos a Conchita ‘we saw Conchita’. (The origins and purpose of this feature remain a mystery to linguists.)

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

  • canto, (tú) cantas or (vós) cantás, canta; cantamos, cantais, cantan.

Note also “infinitive” cantar; “past participle” cantado; “gerund” cantando.

The verb is not quite as complex as in Portuguese (at least in daily speech), but as in Portuguese separate preterite and imperfect endings run alongside present, future and conditional even in daily speech; there is also a present subjunctive form and bizarrely two past subjunctive forms (which are more or less interchangeable). In addition, the perfect aspect can be formed with the auxiliary haber and an immediate future with ir a ‘to go, to’. Notably the passive is often formed with a reflexive: Español se habla en Venezuela ‘Spanish is spoken [speaks itself] in Venezuela’.

Adjectives agree with their nouns in all circumstances, typically but not always placed after them: una vergüenza loca ‘a crazy disgrace’. Adverbs are relatively rare, but in line with Vulgar Latin and most of its daughter languages add –mente to the feminine form: verdadero ‘true‘; verdaderamente ‘truly’.

The singular articles are masculine el (definite) and un (indefinite), and feminine la and una. Plural are los and unos, and las and unas. Plural indefinite articles are relatively common to mean ‘some’ or ‘a number of’: unos cantadores ‘a number of singers’. There is no elision but, before stressed a-, la rather confusingly switches to el: el agua ‘the water’ (feminine). Unlike in Portuguese, no article is required with possessives: mi canció‘my song’ (although stylistically it may be reinserted if the full possessive adjective is placed after: la canción mía ‘the song of mine’).

Common prepositions:

  • de ‘of’; a ‘to’; por ‘for, through’; para ‘for, towards’.

The first two of these merge in the masculine singular with the article: del ‘of the’; al ‘to the’.

The negative particle is no, simply placed before the verb and any object pronouns: no lo vimos ‘we did not see it’. Double negation is possible and sometimes required: no vimos nada ‘we saw nothing’.

Spanish is consistently a pro-drop language meaning that verbs are used without the subject if the subject is clear: canto ‘I sing’; terminan ‘they finish’; lo vimos ‘we saw it’.

Spanish has a tendency to prefer nouns standing alone where other languages may prefer an adjective: es verdad ‘it’s true [it’s truth]’.

Word order is typically SVO (SOV where the object is a pronoun), but is in fact quite free. VSO is particularly common in subordinate clauses: el hierro que vieron los cantadores ‘the iron that the singers saw [saw the singers]‘. There is no ‘preceding direct object agreement’ in modern Spanish, but any object preceding the subject (or assumed subject if one is absent) must be repeated as an object pronoun: esta canción la hemos escrito hoy ‘This song, we have written it today’.


Spanish is a generally vocalic language (though less so than Italian), but generally has a somewhat flatter intonation. This can vary, of course – some dialects in Argentina and Uruguay do sound quite Italian. It is also quite verbal, often preferring complex verbs or even nouns turned into verbs (e.g. necesitar ‘to need’, solucionar ‘to solve’).

What next?

We continue heading north, to French – a language as theoretically far removed from Latin as Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, but one which in fact appears markedly distinct from them collectively.

Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre; venga a nosostros tu reino; hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo; danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día; perdona nuestras ofensas, como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden; no nos dejes caer en la tentación, y líbranos del mal.


How to learn languages – Portuguese

Portuguese, a significant global language given its predominance in Brazil, comes next among Latinate languages and then we will move back east and north.

But here we have a problem. Because, ahem, a verdade é que não falo Português…

Mind, let us compare that straight away to Vulgar Latin:

  • I had shown words the development of words such as veritate, which developed to Portuguese verdade ‘truth’ (see also here);
  • Late Latin –(i)one generally becomes a full nasal in Portuguese, written –ã(thus, for example, o ‘not’);
  • I had mentioned in Vulgar Latin fabulare had taken on the broad meaning ‘speak’, developing in Portuguese to falar.

So, the above means ‘the truth is I do not speak Portuguese’. Easy…

Actually I do speak a little rusty Portuguese (otherwise I could not write this), having spent some time over several years near Lisbon in my late teens. Nevertheless, how would I or anyone else go about learning it properly?

(In this case, particularly, all corrections welcome…)


For European football fans, Portuguese is the language of the moment after all, so let us take a look!


Portuguese is characterised by distinct nasal sounds, marked variously (nacão ‘nation’, portagem ‘[toll] gate’, muito ‘much’); that of Portugal is additionally particularly recognisable from its slushy sound (<s> before a consonant or at the end of a word is pronounced like English <sh>, e.g. nacões ‘nations’, escola ‘school’; <d> is also somewhat palatalised before <e> or <i>, almost like English <j>, in words such as cidade ‘city’ or dia ‘day’).

Marked also, again particularly in Portugal, is the shortness of vowels. These can almost be clipped between consonants and at the end of words (final <e> is generally silent).

Double consonants are often written etymologically but not pronounced (e.g. passar ‘pass’). Palatised /l/ and /n/ are written with a following <h> (filho ‘son’; Espanha ‘Spain’). A complex series of initial consonant clusters ending <l> in Latin has been reduced to initial <ch> in words such as chover ‘rain’ (< Vulgar Latin plovere), chama ‘flame’ (< flamma), chave ‘key’ (< clavis).

Brazilian and European Portuguese are easily distinguishable – the latter seeming a lot faster due to its slushier and clipped nature (those are, admittedly, not technical terms!)

What in English is known as a “tilde” (e.g. ãõ) was originally a following letter n, marked by both Portuguese and Spanish calligraphers above the previous letter to save space.


Portuguese has a bizarre history well beyond the scope of this blog post, because its first identifiable form came not in modern Portugal at all, but in the now Spanish region of Galicia to the north. Essentially three major modern Latin-based languages spread south from the northern Iberian peninsula – Catalan to the east; Castilian (what most now call “Spanish”) in the middle and Galician to the west. Those Galician speakers heading south during the Reconquista of the Peninsula ended up founding the Kingdom of Portugal (while those who remained in Galicia ended up tied to Spain – in fact, the current Prime Minister of Spain is Galician).

The standardisation of Portuguese, begun when it was recognised as the common language of the people distinct from Latin in the 1290s (at the same time as the foundation of the first university in Portugal, now in Coimbra), was complex. The emergence of literary norms struggled to deal with a significant sound shift in the late Middle Ages. The practical outcome is that the language has far more variations in vowels than neighbouring Castilian Spanish, thus requiring a much wider range of accent marks. (For the record Galician remains a regional language of Spain with its own written system, now linguistically somewhere between Castilian and Standard Portuguese.)

Unusually among European languages, the current Portuguese Standard is primarily the work of one man, Gonçalves Viana, tasked to carry it out at the beginning of the Portuguese Republic shortly before the Great War. Passing this task to one man, and assuming that the main aim was direct phonemic representation, caused its own problems, again beyond the scope of this blog post. Perhaps Portuguese spelling is best described as very complex, but at least quite consistent. (Brazil adopted its own similar but not identical Standard some decades later.)

A controversial spelling reform in the past few years sought to bring the varieties of Portuguese (predominantly “Brazilian” on one hand and “European” on the other; African varieties generally follow “European” literary norms) closer together. Nevertheless, although such things are difficult to quantify exactly, the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese are probably greater than between, for example, American and British English. Not only do some (albeit now fewer) spellings and words vary, but grammar is markedly different. By most accounts the Portuguese have little difficulty understanding Brazilians (as they are used to Brazilian soap operas etc), but the reverse is not always true, particularly when speech becomes more informal and colloquial.


Portuguese vocabulary is largely of Latin origin, though Portugal’s history under Arabic-speaking rule and subsequently as an imperial power in its own right have led to some other influences.

Key numbers:

  • 1 um; 2 dois/duas; 3 três; 4 quatro; 5 cinco; 6 seis; 7 sete; 8 oito; 9 nove; 10 dez;
  • 11 onze; 12 doze; 16 dezesseis; 17 dezessete; 20 vinte; 21 vinte e um; 100 cem;
  • 1000 mil; 456789 quatrocentos e cinquenta e seis mil setecentos e oitenta e nove.

A key word in Portuguese without obvious parallel is ficar ‘be, get’.

Key personal pronouns:

  • singular eu, me (mim); familiar tu, te (ti) or polite você; ele/ela, o/a (lhe);
  • plural nós, nos; vocês; eles/elas, os/as (lhes)


Portuguese nouns have one of two genders, masculine often ending -o and feminine -a (but note feminine -ão). Plural generally adds -(e)s but there are exceptions (and -ão becomes –-ões).

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

  • canto, cantas, canta; cantamos, cantatis, cantam.

Note also “infinitive” cantar; “past participle” cantado; “gerund” candando.

The Portuguese verb is extraordinarily complex. Not only has it endings to mark present, past preterite, past imperfect, future and conditional, it also includes endings for a pluperfect in use in daily speech; it also has the full range of past, present and future subjunctives all in use even colloquially. To this is even added a set of personal infinitives. Portuguese then uses ter (cf. Italian avere, Spanish haber) as the auxiliary verb to form the perfect.

Portuguese is a pro-drop language, meaning verbs can be used without the subject if the subject is clear: canto ‘I sing’; terminam ‘they finish’; o vimos ‘we saw it’.

However in the 21st century, unlike in other Latinate languages, there is a marked growing tendency to include the subject regardless, particularly in Brazil: eu canto; eles terminam; nós o vimos.

Portuguese adjectives agree with nouns in all positions; generally they appear attributively after them.

Portuguese articles are also exceptional as the definite has been reduced to masculine o (plural os) and feminine a (as). This is used before possessives: a meu chave ‘my key’. The indefinite article is slightly more complex, with masculine um and feminine uma also having plural forms uns and umas (used typically to mean ‘some, a number of’; umas chaves ‘a number of keys’).

Common Portuguese prepositions:

  • de ‘of, from’, com ‘with’, a ‘to’, por ‘for, on behalf of’, para ‘for, towards’.

Most of these are combined with the definite article where relevant, sometimes with amendments:

  • da ‘of the’ [feminine singular]; ao ‘to the’ [masculine singular]; pelas ‘for the’ [from para+os; masculine plural]; ás ‘to the’ [from a+as; feminine plural].

Usage of pronouns, particularly personal pronouns, varies between dialects, even within Brazil and Portugal. In some areas, including most of Brazil, você (used typically with a third person verb) has taken over entirely for ‘you’, meaning second-person verb forms are lost entirely.

Word order is typically SVO or SOV where the object is a personal pronoun. However, the exact order of items where personal pronouns appear as objects is complex, and varies also between Brazilian and European usage.


Portuguese is a rhythmically very different language from Spanish or Italian; while structurally very similar to the former, it sounds utterly distinct.

It is a markedly verbal language, with a wide range of subtleties in tense and mood expressed through the huge range of endings (and combinations of auxiliary verbs) available.

What next?

Next week we will stay in Iberia with Castilian Spanish, an apparently similar (but in practice very different sounding) language.

Pai nosso, que estás no céu; santificado seja o teu nome; venha o teu reino; seja feita a tua vontade; assim na terra como no céu; o pão nosso de cada dia nos dai hoje; e perdoai as nossas dívidas; assim como nós perdoamos os nossos devedores; e não nos deixes cair em tentação; mas livrai-nos do mal.

How to learn languages – Italian

Italian, spoken by about 70 million people as a mother tongue and over 100 million in all, is a major European language but, purely in terms of numbers, is not by any means of real global significance.

However, it is probably the best language to learn first of all those derived from Latin (the other relevant Western European national languages being French, Spanish and Portuguese), assuming your intent is to learn them all. This is because its vocabulary is closest to Vulgar Latin, its grammar reflects both French and Spanish (so is something of an intermediary between them), and in general it displays some typically Latinate complexity without being freakishly difficult to learn.


What do we need to know?


It is not for nothing that Italian is regarded as a lyrical and romantic language. With the exception of some common short words, native Italian words must end in vowels. This is what makes it, in every sense, a musical language. Indeed Italian generally lacks characteristically hard sounds.

Double consonants are so pronounced, as they were in Latin (but no longer are in any other major language derived from it).

English speakers are often confused by the <ch> (and to a lesser extent <gh>) spelling, which marks a hard consonant /k/ (or /g/) before a high vowel (<e> or <i>).


“Now we have created Italy, we must create Italians” goes the famous quote from the 1848 Risorgimento. Even now, Italians generally speak of the Italian “languages” (plural), reflecting a wide range of traditional regional dialects.

The standard language, which still allows some significant variation, is based on the Tuscan of Dante, thus with a slightly northern and slightly conservative bias. The standard written form is therefore based on the speech of Florence around 1350, but (unlike English and French) the spoken version is based directly on it. Therefore, despite this conservatism (meaning Italian remains the closest national language to Latin), pronunciation does reflect spelling (in that order).

Italian rules around written accents allow for some variation, but generally only a grave to mark a closed vowel (lattè ‘milk’) or strengthened vowel in a diphthong (più ‘more’) is used.


Italian vocabulary is overwhelmingly of Latin origin, with relatively few other influences. There was a re-influencing from French around and after the Renaissance (as French became the language of High Culture and philosophy across Europe), and there is significant recent influence from English.

Key numbers:

  • 1 uno; 2 due; 3 tre; 4 quattro; 5 cinque; 6 sei; 7 sette; 8 otto; 9 nove; 10 dieci;
  • 11 undici; 12 dodici; 16 sedici; 17 diciassette; 20 venti; 21 ventuno;
  • 100 cento; 1000 mille; 456789 quattrocentocinquantaseimila settecentottantanove.

Italian personal pronouns have shifted markedly in recent centuries. Notably, it has a peculiar and widely used pronoun ci, used both as a dummy subject (e.g. ci sono ‘there are’) and since late Medieval times as a first person plural object (replacing nos as it switched towards ni).

Key personal pronouns:

  • singular io, me, mi; tu, te, ti, lui/lei, gli/le, lo/la; 
  • plural noi, ci; voi, vi; loro, li/le.

Generally feminine third person pronouns (Lei, La; Loro, Le/Li) tend also to be used as polite second.


Italian nouns are one of two genders, marked singular or plural. Masculine nouns often end singular -o plural -i; feminine singular -a plural -e, with another set of either gender ending singular -e plural -i.

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

  • canto, canti, canta; cantiamo, cantate, cantano.

Note also “infinitive” cantare; “past participle” cantato; “gerund” candando.

Verbs are marked for tense (and aspect) and agree with their subject noun; the subjunctive mood is widespread. Non-subjunctive endings may mark present, imperfect, conditional or future tenses (also past, although this is generally reserved for writing); combinations with the verb avere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ may also mark perfect (or general past in speech), pluperfect or future-perfect (he creduto ‘I have believed’; eravamo andati ‘we had gone’; avranno visto ‘We will have seen’). Immediacy can be marked with andare ‘to go’ and progressive aspect with stare ‘to stand’. Fewer tense endings are in use with the subjunctive, although the full range with avere, essere, andare and stare are available.

Italian is a pro-drop language, meaning verbs can be used without the subject if the subject is clear: amo ‘I love’, finiscono ‘they finish’, lo hanno visto ‘We saw it’.

Adjectives agree in number and gender with nouns in all circumstances, with the same endings as for nouns above (uomo piccolo ‘small man’; costa verde ‘green coast’; canzoni italiane ‘Italian songs’). Attributively, they tend to go after the noun, but not always (dolce vita ‘sweet life’).

The singular articles are il/lo and un/uno (masculine), and la and una (feminine); plural i/gli (masculine) and le (feminine) – there is no indefinite plural article although di may be used as a quantifier (vorrei delle mele ‘I would like some apples’). Elided singular forms (masculine and feminine l’ and even feminine un’) are in use.

Prepositions take strong personal pronouns: con te ‘with you’.

Key prepositions:

  • di ‘of, from’, ‘to’, in ‘in’, con ‘with’, per ‘through, by’, da ‘originating from’.

A complex range of preposition+article combinations exist (di+lo=dello; a+la=alla; in+gli=negli etc.)

Word order is typically SVO (but SOV if the object is a pronoun). When forming the perfect, participles agree with any object appearing before them: la hanno vista ‘we saw her’; le canzoni che hanno scritte ‘the songs we wrote’.


Modern Italian is literally a very musical language, for which it is well suited given the predominance of vowels. It is spoken as such, generally towards the back of the mouth with an emphasis towards the end of the clause.

However, Italian does have a perhaps surprising preference for nouns combined with a relatively small number of key verbs (e.g. ho fatto una investigazione del caso ‘I investigated the case’, literally ‘I did an investigation of the case’).

What’s next?

We will move over the sea to Iberia to cover Spanish (and Portuguese) next, as they are fundamentally more similar to Italian than French is.

Padre nosto, che sei nei cieli, sia santificato il tuo nome; venga il tuo regno; sia fatta la tua voluntà, come in cielo, così in terra. Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano e rimetti a noi i nostro debiti, come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori, e non ci indurre in tentazione, ma liberaci dal male.

How to learn languages – story so far

We have established so far that all major national languages in Western Europe are derived from Indo-European, a language which was itself of extraordinary complexity by modern standards. Its phonology was marked by aspiration, strong and various <h> sounds, and probably tonal distinction – making it in many ways quite unlike even its daughter languages such as Classical Latin and Old Norse. Grammatically it was also quite distinct, exhibiting distinction by case, use of postpositions as often as prepositions, distinction primarily by aspect rather than tense, and a wide range of declensions and conjugations. Nevertheless, core vocabulary and basic aspects of grammar are already in some ways familiar.

We took at the oldest script in any Germanic language, the 4th century Bible translation into Gothic, to see how Germanic had developed in the centuries after Christ; and notably we also looked at Vulgar or Late Latin, which itself already demonstrated half the changes from Classical Latin to modern Latinate languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. These languages are more markedly modern phonologically, as they have generally lost tonal distinctions and the range of <h> sounds. They are also grammatically a little closer, distinguishing more definitively by tense rather than aspect and beginning to shift decisively towards using prepositions (rather than postpositions or case). However, they remain strange; in spoken form they would be utterly unrecognisable, and even in written form they look familiar but are still distant.

We also saw, through Middle English, how modern written standards are often based on Medieval pronunciation (we will see how remarkably often this is the case as we go on). Here, as one correspondent noted, we also see how inadequate the so-called “Latin” alphabet really is to represent the complexity and combination of sounds actually used in modern speech. This is so complex that even the invented language Esperanto, with 28 letters, failed to deliver on its own avowed objective of one sound to one letter. We have also seen how social disruption (such as the Black Death) or technological disruption (such as the invention of the Printing Press) can have dramatic effects on language change – either encouraging it or stalling it (although, as one correspondent noted, these effects generally speed up or stall processes already ongoing, rather than causing new ones).

I am always grateful for correspondence on this series – next up, we are moving to the modern day with a look at contemporary Standard Italian.

How to learn languages – Esperanto



Just to test this idea with reference to modern languages, I thought I would start with (supposedly) the most simple widely spoken language in the world – albeit a constructed one.

So, what do we need to know about Esperanto?


Esperanto adheres to the strict rule that each letter has the same pronunciation, regardless of position. It is seriously dubious whether this can strictly be achieved, but nevertheless it does make Esperanto easier to read (and write) than most natural languages.

Esperanto’s rhythm varies depending on the native language of the speaker; some suggest that it should sound something like Italian.

For most learners, Esperanto’s accented letters (the most common of which are usually in fact written <cx>, <gx>, <jx> and <sx> and pronounced respectively as ‘church’, ‘geography’, ‘pleasure’, ‘shop’) are the trickiest to distinguish and use. Also, <c> can catch out most learners, pronounced as if <ts> (in violation of the supposed ‘one letter, one sound’ rule). English speakers also need to note that, from their point of view, <j> is pronounced as if <y>.


The language has a Standard form based on the work of its founder, L. L. Zamenhof, and his work known as the Fundamento published in 1887.

An Academy in effect protects this Standard and applies it to new words (and technology) as required. In practice, some grammatical variation within the ‘Standard’ is permitted.

There is a tendency in Esperanto to reinforce positive responses to “yes/no questions”:

  • Cxu vi vidis tion? – Jes, gxiuste!
  • ‘Do you see that?’ – ‘Yes!’


Esperanto’s vocabulary is mainly Romance (usually directly from Latin, e.g. pluvi ‘to rain’, vidi ‘to see’; or French, e.g. grava ‘important’, preskau ‘almost’; but occasionally also from other languages such as Spanish almenau ‘at least’, Italian ankau ‘also’ or just general granda ‘big’), with a significant minority from Germanic (from English, e.g. jes ‘yes’, birdo ‘bird’; or German, e.g. tago ‘day’, lau ‘according to’) and some also from Slavic (po ‘at a rate of’, prava ‘true, right’). There is even the odd extra (e.g. kaj ‘and’ from Ancient Greek).

Key numbers:

  • 1 unu; 2 du; 3 tri; 4 kvar; 5 kvin; 6 ses; 7 sep; 8 ok; 9 nau; 10 dek;
  • 11 dek unu; 12 dek du; 16 dek ses; 17 dek sep; 20 dudek; 21 dudek unu;
  • 100 cent; 1000 mil; 456789 kvarcent kvindek ses mil sepcent okdek nau.

Esperanto has an innovative (but at first sight unfamiliar) list of ‘correlatives’ which serve most pronoun uses; it also has personal pronouns in a specific class of their own.

Key personal pronouns in Esperanto:

  • singular mi, vi, li/sxi/gxi; plural ni, vi, ili; indefinite oni

This indefinite is widely used to avoid the passive:

  • Oni diras, ke sxi estos tie – ‘It is said that she will be there’

Vocabulary is often built up through a series of meaningful affixes – for example arbo ‘tree’ plus -ar- ‘collection’ gives arbaro ‘forest’.


Nouns are marked by the ending -o; this is amended to -oj for the plural. They can also be in the “accusative” case (when used as objects or to mark motion towards), marked -n.

Verbs are marked for one of three tenses or two moods but not both (“conditional” is generally regarded as a mood rather than a tense in Esperanto, although it does not matter). All verbs in the present are marked -as, past -is, future -os, conditional -us and subjunctive -u. Unlike modern Romance and Germanic languages, tense is relative (i.e. if referring to a future event in the past, use the future).

Esperanto also allows zero subject in certain circumstances (where English typically requires a “dummy subject” such as ‘it’ or ‘there’):

  • pluvas multe ‘it is raining a lot’
  • estas tri arboj tie ‘there are three trees there’

Adjectives are marked by the ending -a and agree with their noun, typically appearing after it, although this is stylistic (arbaro granda ‘big forest’; en arbarojn grandajn ‘into the big forests’). However, words which must appear before the noun, notably the article la ‘the’ and numbers, do not agree (en la tri arbarojn grandajn ‘into the three big forests’). Adverbs are marked by the ending -e; notably, they tend to be used with the verb ‘to be’ (similarly to Slavic languages, but not Romance or Germanic): Estas klare ke mi vidis arbaron grandan ‘It is clear that I saw a big forest’.

In modern Esperanto, adjectives and adverbs can be turned directly into verbs in preference to using the “copula” (esti ‘to be’):

  • Estas grave ke vi ne vidis tion / Gravas ke vi ne vidis tion ‘It matters that you did not see that’
  • Vi laudire estas prava / Vi laudire pravas ‘Apparently you are right’

Exactly when this is deemed “allowable” varies according to usage and style.

The only article is la. The article may be omitted, and must be if it has an indefinite meaning (similar to English ‘a/an’).

Prepositions have very strict meanings which (in theory at least) must not be breached. There is a spare preposition je for when the meaning is unclear.

Key prepositions: case prepositions are de, al, kun; other prepositions include por, en.

Note the accusative is used with motion towards, except with case prepositions:

  • Mi estas en la arbaro ‘I am in the forest’
  • Mi iras al la arbaro ‘I go to the forest’
  • Mi iras en la arbaron ‘I go into the forest’

In modern usage, je is often abandoned and prepositions are increasingly used in line with English:

  • je 1887 / en 1887 ‘in 1887’
  • je la mila fojo / por la mila fojo ‘for the thousandth time’

Word order is generally SVO; but the passive is generally avoided, which can give different word orders (Mi vidis arbaron grandan ‘I saw a big forest’; Arbaron grandan mi vidis ‘A big forest was seen by me’).


Esperanto is deceptively Romance-looking. In fact, its phonology and some of its characteristics (notably the question particle cxu required for “yes/no questions”) are markedly Slavic, a product of its geographical origin.

Adverbs and word-building are a key feature of the language, particularly when combined: mia ‘my’ + opinio ‘opinion’ = miaopinie ‘in my opinion’; plena ‘full, complete’ + Esperanto plenesperante ‘completely in Esperanto’; kontrau ‘against, opposing’ + flanko ‘side’ =  kontrauflanke ‘on the other side’.

What next?

Let us now move on to the natural modern national languages (at last!)

We will go through the Romance ones to start with, starting with Italian (for reasons to be discussed).

Patro nia, kiu estas en la cxielo, Via nomo estu sanktigita. Venu Via regno, plenumigxu Via volo, kiel en la cxielo, tiel ankau sur la tero. Nian panon cxiutagan donu al ni hodiau. Kaj pardonu al ni niajn sxuldojn, kiel ankau ni pardonas al niaj sxuldantoj. Kaj ne konduku nin en tenton, sed liberigu nin de la malbono.



How to learn languages – Middle English

Let us just stop on the way through linguistic history to take a quick glance at Middle English.

It seems astonishing now, but English just before the Black Death in the mid-14th century was a colloquial language of low status. The administrative and high language of England was Norman French (and the ecclesiastical language was Medieval Latin, based on Classical). Furthermore, English was spoken only in England and parts of Wales; the language descending from Anglo-Saxon in use in Scotland was recognised as a separate language, Scots.

The Black Death changed that somewhat, as it was indiscriminate, killing the French-speaking aristocracy in big numbers. As survivors rose up the social scale consequently, so did English; the King’s Speech was presented to Parliament in English for the first time in 1362. Soon, English also had Chaucer, a major literary figure. This, all combined with ongoing wars with France, saw English become the language of late medieval English nationalism. The rest of the rise from there to global status is history.


So what was the language of Chaucer like?


There was no standard English at the time, but of course the bizarre linguistic truth is that modern Standard English spelling reflects it well, being based on the pronunciation of Middle English, not Modern English. This means a word like name ‘name’ was pronounced exactly as it looks (and as it still is in modern German); <e> was never silent. Words such as night were just losing the middle consonant sound (close to IPA /x/, cf. modern German Nacht) at the time of Chaucer. In words such as write, knife or gnat, the initial /w/, /k/ and /g/ were sounded; as was the /l/ in talk.

Anglo-Saxon regarded /f/ and /v/ as the same letter (the distinction was only brought in by the influence of Norman French), and these were still variously pronounced around the country and thus used in writing almost interchangeably in some areas. Scribes also used <v> and <u> interchangeably, treating them as absolutely the same letter.

Early Middle English also retained the letter “yogh” <ȝ>, which is usually (but not always) now /g/; it was pronounced somewhere between /g/ and /y/ before /e/ and /i/ (and similar vowels), but more like a hard /x/ (as in Scottish ‘loch‘) otherwise. It also retained “thorn” <þ>, now a <th>.


In the Middle English period, variations in spelling and usage were widespread, depending on geographical origin, exact time, and even on simply fitting on to the page or the line. People even wrote their own name variously! This mattered less, as proportionately fewer people were literate.

A “chancery standard”, forms to be used by the Civil Service in effect, did develop from the fifteenth century, but widespread standardisation only occurred well after the invention of the printing press into what is regarded as the (Early) Modern English period.


Vocabulary was similarly mixed between Latinate (French and Latin) and Germanic origin as now, although there was a greater awareness of the distinction (the oldest known song in the English language, Sumer is icumen in ‘Summer has arrived’ dates from early Middle English, but its vocabulary is entirely Germanic).

Key numbers:

  • 1 one, 2 tuo/twei, 3 thri, 4, fower, 5 five, 6 six, 7 sevene, 8 eight, 9 nine, 10 ten;
  • 11 eleven, 12 twelve, 16 sixteen, 17 seventeen; 20 twenty, 24 fower-and-twenty;
  • 100 hundred; 1000 thowsand;
  • 456789 fower hundred six-and-fifty thowsand sevene hundred nine-and-eighty

NB: one was pronounced to rhyme with alone.

Ordinal numbers generally added -the, but from thri this was thridde.


Nouns had largely lost the Anglo-Saxon “case” system, although the possessive remained, written -(e)s (no apostrophe). More irregular plurals remained in regular use (e.g. namen ‘names’).

Verbs “agreed” with their subject and had a wider range of endings with which to do so. There were more “strong” verbs (marking past forms by vowel change rather than an ending) than in Modern English; thus irregular help-halp-(i)holpen stood alongside sing-sang-(i)sungen. The i- or y- prefix (cf. German ge-) on participles was generally lost during this period.

Present of liken ‘to like’ (1st, 2nd, 3rd person):

  • Singular I like, thou likest, he/sche/hit liketh;
  • plural we liken, you liken, they liken.

Past participle liked; present participle likand; gerund liking.

Imperative like (singular); liketh (plural).

Past of liken ‘to like’ (1st, 2nd, 3rd person):

  • Singular I likede, thou likedst, he/sche/hit likede;
  • plural we likeden, you likeden, they likeden.

Past of singen ‘to sing’ (1st, 2nd, 3rd person):

  • Singular I sang, thou songe, he/sche/hit sang;
  • plural we songen, you songen, they songen.

Adjectives only “agreed” with nouns by adding -e after the definite article, a possessive or in the plural (but not otherwise): his longe name ‘his long name’, longe namen ‘long names’; a long name ‘a long name’. Adverbs were beginning to be distinguished (usually by the ending -liche, often reduced to -lie).

Pronouns maintained a distinction between the singular þu (later thou; object þe/thee) and plural ye (object you). Singular possessive forms came to be distinguished between mine/thine (the original forms, used latterly only before vowels) and my/thy (used before consonants) – cf. usage even in Modern English of the indirect article an/a.

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

  • Direct: Iþu/thou, he-sche-hit; we, ye, heo/they
  • Oblique: me, þe/thee, him-hir-hit; us, you, hem/them
  • Possessive: mine (my), þin/thine (thy), his-hir-his; oure, your, hire

Prepositions were similar to today, but there were also combined forms with locational pronouns in much wider use that in Modern English: hence ‘from here’; whither ‘where to’. One noteworthy preposition since lost was umbe ‘around’ (cf. modern German um).

Word order was predominantly SVO, and VSO in questions (Likest thou me? ‘Do you like me?’), although there were notable exceptions (the main part of the verb phrase often went to the end in subordinate clauses: whan he hath hire name sungen ‘when he has sung their name’). Negation was predominantly by addition of the particle nat (or similar) after the verb: he singeth nat ‘he does not sing’. This could be supported by a pre-verbal particle ne (effectively meaning doubled negation reinforced the negative): he ne singeth nouȝt ‘he sings nothing’.


Middle English was more quintessentially Germanic in character than the modern language, but much less so than Anglo-Saxon.

Dialects varied but, unlike modern “BBC English”, Middle English was almost certainly spoken with a rising intonation; and it would have been more vocalic than the modern language (notably because /e/ was always pronounced).

What next?

Let us get to the modern day now… but with a twist…

Fader oure that art in heuene, halewed be þi name: come þi kyngdom: fulfild be þi wil in heuene as in erþe: oure ech day bred ȝef us to day, and forȝeue us oure dettes as we forȝeueþ to oure detoures: and ne led us nouȝ in temptacion, bote deliuere us of euel.

How to learn languages – Gothic

Gothic? I mean, come on…


Gothic is important because it is the earliest attestation of a Germanic language – the family which includes German, Dutch (and Afrikaans), the Scandinavian and Insular Nordic languages, and of course English. It offers the best comparison, therefore, between Germanic of the time that Classical Latin became Late Latin (and thus of the ancestor of languages like German and English at the same time as the ancestor of languages like French and Spanish).

The parallel is, unfortunately, not exact. Gothic was an East Germanic language, and in fact has no surviving daughter languages; nevertheless, it would have been largely mutually intelligible with Anglo-Saxon, Old German dialects and Norse and therefore it shows many of their distinct Germanic features.

It is also useful because it is attested in a Bible translation (which makes understanding far easier). This dates from the fourth century and thus, as noted above, from the time of Constantine (when even written Latin began to display some of the features of Late rather than Classical Latin).

What was Gothic like?


Gothic was, fundamentally, not unlike Vulgar Latin phonologically but with a lot more fricatives (/f/, /v/) rather than plosives (/p/, /b/, etc).

The biggest distinction was that Gothic displayed stress generally on the first syllable of the word; Classical Latin had moved this, typically to the penultimate. Thus, in terms of intonation, the two languages would have sounded significantly different. Another marked difference was that Gothic almost certainly maintained a glottal stop before words beginning with a vowel (partially a consequence of its stress system, perhaps), whereas Latin did not.

Otherwise, it had similar sets of consonants and vowels, and numerous diphthongs (although these differed in some ways). The consonants <b> and <d> had much softer sounds in certain contexts, almost like modern English <th>.

Consonants were devoiced at the end of a word (as is still the case in Modern German), but there was no sign yet of rhotacism (switching from /s/ to /r/, which occurred in all other Germanic languages – cf. English ‘lost’ versus ‘forlorn’).


Gothic had no ‘standard form’ as such, and most of its speakers were illiterate. However, written forms are taken from Wulfilas’ Bible translation of the fourth century (to some degree his writing therefore constitutes a ‘standard’ version in retrospect).


Key numbers:

  • 1 a’ins, 2 twa’i, 3 þrija, 4 fidwor, 5 fimf, 6 sai’hs, 7 sibun, 8 ahta’u, 9 niun, 10 tai’hun;
  • 11 ainlif, 12 twalif, 16 sai’hstai’hun, 17 sibuntai’hun; 20 twa’i tigjus, 60 sai’hs tigjus;
  • 70 sibuntehund; 100 taihuntehund; 200 twa’i hunda, 1000 þusundi;
  • 456789 fidwor hunda sai’hsuhfimftai’hun þusundjos sibun hunda niunuhahta’uhund

Vocabulary was almost entirely Germanic in origin, but this meant not always Indo-European – some linguists suggest as much as a third of Germanic vocabulary is of different origin (it is thought that Germanic tribes were the fastest to move west from the Proto-Indo-European homeland).

Gothic contained the verb þulan ‘to tolerate’, which remains in (Ulster) Scots thole


Gothic maintained three genders and the Indo-European declension system (where noun endings were different according to groupings determined by the final vowel), which was also retained to an extent even in Late Latin, but interestingly was probably already largely lost by this time in other Germanic languages (which retained merely a “strong” and a “weak” declension). It also therefore retained three genders and even three numbers (including dual; known in Ancient Greek but not even in early Latin).

Similarly to Latin in all ages, Gothic verbs “agreed” with their subject in person (I, you, he/she/it etc) and number, although there were no distinct 3rd person dual forms. Endings or changes to root vowel could mark one of two voices (active or middle, effectively now passive) or three moods (indicative; optative, effectively now subjunctive; or imperative). Infinitives, present participles or past passive forms could be turned into nouns. Where Gothic verbs were markedly different from Latin was that they could only be marked for two tenses, past and present (or “not past”) – a marked comparative simplification. Gothic verbs were either “strong” (forming their past by way of a vowel change: e.g. bindan ‘to bind’, band ‘bound’) or “weak” (forming their past essentially by adding -d or -t); this division is maintained in all Germanic languages to the modern day, although the number of strong verbs has declined considerably (from probably approaching 1000 in Gothic to under 200 in most Germanic languages and dialects today).

The Gothic verb sōkja ‘to seek’, in the present active indicative (1st, 2nd, 3rd person):

  • singular sōkja, sōkeis, sōkeiþ; dual sōkjōs, sōkjats; plural sōkjam, sōkeiþ, sōkjand

Adjectives “agreed” with nouns for case, gender and number. The subsequent division between “weak” and “strong” endings was not yet relevant.

As with Latin, Gothic made use of clitics to mark whether a question was being asked – Gothic -u was equivalent to Latin -ne. These were lost in all other Germanic languages.

There is some dispute over Gothic word order, which was relatively free but seemingly essentially still SOV.

Key personal pronouns in Gothic (1st, 2nd person, nominative/accusative/genitive/dative):

  • Singular: ik/mik/meina/mis; thu/thuk/theina/thus. 
  • Dual: wit/ugkis/igkara/ugkis; jut/igqis/igqara/igqis.
  • Plural: weis/uns/unsara/uns; jus/izwis/izwara/izwis.

3rd person also existed with singular and plural in all genders (but no dual).


It is hard to assess the character of the language as almost all we have of it is a religious translation.

Although clearly Germanic (displaying many of the sound shifts which typify it), Gothic is remarkably conservative, probably more so than unattested contemporary Germanic languages to the north and west.

Atta unsar þu in himinam, weihnai namo þein, qimai þiudinassus þeins, wairþai wilja þeins, swe in himina jah ana airþai. Hlaif unsarana þana sinteinan gif uns himma daga, jah aflet uns þatei skulans sijaima, swaswe jah weis afletam þaim skulam unsaraim, jah ni briggais uns in fraistubnjai, ak lausei uns af þamma ubilin, unte þeina ist þiudangardi jah mahts, jah wulþus in aiwins.

How to learn languages – Vulgar Latin

What are referred to as “Romance” languages are all derived from Latin. That much most people know.

There is a tendency, therefore, to compare them (the relevant national Western European languages are Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian) to Latin when it was at its most prestigious – which, literary academics ancient and modern would generally agree, was the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar in the century before Christ.

However, Latin remained a coherent, single spoken language for many centuries afterwards. For hundreds of years even after the fall of Rome, people could travel from modern Portugal to modern Romania and still be understood in their native tongue. However, the Latin language in the centuries after the fall of Rome was as distant from Cicero as Modern English is from Chaucer. Not only was there the time difference during which the language changed, but also even in their own day the formal language of Cicero and Caesar was already markedly different from the colloquial language actually spoken in the streets (leaving aside that the prestige language of government and high culture in contemporary Ancient Rome was not Latin at all, but Greek).

Therefore, it is not hugely helpful to compare modern Romance languages with Classical Latin, when there is a later version of Latin which was still in use many centuries later and which is of more practical use for comparison. Around half the changes which took place between Classical Latin and modern Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian had already happened before those languages split. Therefore, this later version, referred to as “Late Latin” or “Vulgar Latin” (linguists dispute the exact distinction between these terms), is the one to focus on.


So what was “Late Latin” like?


Phonologically, final post-vocalic <m>  (and also often <s>) was already lost in all but the most careful speech in Classical times, and the distinction between long and short vowels was soon lost too. This meant that the distinction between, for example, mensa (subject), mensam (object) and mensā (ablative, ‘by’) was already not generally maintained in the speech of citizens of the Roman Republic.

There was significant “palatisation” of consonants (in effect, the subtle pronunciation of a sound written in English as <y> after the consonant) in some positions, particularly before high vowels (usually written <i> or <e>). The most notable instances were /k/ (usually written <c>) and /g/; it also affected /t/, giving it a sound more like /ts/ before high vowels (cf. Classical Latin gratiae, modern Italian grazie ‘thanks’). The exact outcome of this palatisation in different dialects varied (and some insular dialects of Late Latin avoided the change altogether.)

The letter <v> moved from Classical /w/ to more modern-sounding /v/; the letter /h/ was dropped altogether.

Stress became more marked than in Classical Latin, which may have been more pitch-based. Along with the distinction between long and short vowels ceasing to be contrastive, numerous unstressed syllables were lost and various consonant clusters simplified. This meant Late Latin had a considerably more vocalic sound than Classical Latin (although still not as markedly as modern Italian).


Most Late Latin speakers remained illiterate, although a sizeable minority could read and write. What they read and wrote, however, was Classical Latin (at least until around the seventh and eighth century). Speakers would have been aware that there was a marked distinction between the way they spoke and the way they wrote, but that the agreed (Classical) written form was essential to understanding in education and the church. From the eighth century on (although the exact time varied from location to location) there was an understanding that Classical Latin was a long way from the spoken language, and that was when the ‘daughter languages’ (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and others) began to develop as recognisably distinct tongues.


Vocabulary remained overwhelmingly from Classical Latin. However, over time, some words were lost as others expanded their meaning. For example, fabulo ‘I tell stories’ came to be expended to mean simply ‘I speak’; meaning loquor ‘I speak’ was lost; Classical Latin caballus was specifically ‘nag’, but Late Latin caballu meant ‘horse’, meaning equus was lost (or narrowed in meaning to merely ‘mare’).

Key numbers:

  • I unu, II duu, III tres, IV quattor; V cinque; VI ses; VII septe; VIII octu; IX nove; X dece;
  • XI undeci; XVI sedeci; XVII septedeci; XX veinti; XI veinti unu; C centu; M mil.


In theory, nouns retained their “declension” system (the five groupings of Latin nouns, determined primarily by their stem vowel at the end of the word before the ending). However, because of the aforementioned phonological changes (plus, perhaps, some Germanic influence), distinctions between the five core noun cases of Classical Latin were lost, regardless of declension. Initially these were reduced and then, in some dialects, extinguished altogether; for example (using ‘table’) mensa-mensam-mensae-mensae-mensā became simply mensa-mensa-mense-mense-mensa – thus distinguished only between a “general” case mensa on one hand and a combined “possession/indirect object” mense on the other; similarly (though initially not quite identically) Classical fundus-fundum-fundi-fundo-fundo became just fundu-fundi. Ultimately this was reduced to one in most (though not all) dialects, based usually on the accusative (the singular object form which, in Classical Latin, had generally ended in -m). Plural forms varied along a broad West/East split – typically Western dialects adopted the accusative (object) plural form for all cases (mensas, fundos); Eastern dialects effectively maintained the nominative (subject) plural form for all cases (mense, fundi); and there were some exceptions (some northern dialects maintained -s endings in the singular for masculine nouns; some eastern dialects maintained a separate genitive/possessive plural form).

Verbs remained marked primarily for tense; also for voice and mood:

  • the present tense remained a single tense marked almost exactly as in Classical Latin;
  • the past tense retained a distinction between “imperfect” and “perfect” action (repeated action or single action), but endings were shortened;
  • the pluperfect tense (past in the past) was generally lost and came to be expressed in other ways (usually using the past “perfect”, see next point);
  • the present “perfect”, consisting of the verb abere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ followed by a participle form (e.g. cantatu ‘sung’, amatu ‘loved) originally marked a past action affecting the present, but came to be used in general in some dialects to refer to a single action in the past (and, with the past form of abere or essere, it took over entirely as the pluperfect);
  • the future tense was retained but the Classical form was replaced entirely by a form using the “infinitive” form of the verb (ending -re; e.g. cantare ‘to sing’) with the verb ‘to have’ (cf. modern Italian cantare ‘to sing’ plus ho ‘I have’ gives cantaró ‘I will sing’; Spanish cantar plus he gives cantaré the exact same way);
  • an additional near future tense was formed from ire ‘to go’ with the “infinitive” (vas cantare ‘you are going to sing’);
  • the conditional tense was retained by all dialects in varying forms (usually again involving ‘to have’);
  • the imperative (ordering) and subjunctive (counter-factual) mood were retained, and in all tenses (although the past subjunctive became unstable and was replaced in some cases by old pluperfect forms); and
  • passive verb forms were lost, replaced by a construction with essere and the past participle (es cantatu ‘it is sung’) or even a simple reflexive (se cantat).

Verbs did not require subject pronouns – canto on its own meant ‘I sing’, cantas ‘you sing’, and so on, as in Classical.

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

  • canto, cantas, cantat; cantamus, cantatis, cantant

Note also “infinitive” cantare; “past participle” cantatu; “present participle” cantante; “gerund” candandu.

Adjectives continued to agree with nouns in all ways and all cases, tending to be placed after the noun (but this was not compulsory). Contary to Classical Latin, however, adverbs were formed by the feminine singular form of the adjective plus the word mente ‘of mind’; thus lentu ‘slow, tedious’, feminine lenta, adverb lentamente ‘slowly, tediously’. The irregular adverbs bonu ‘well’ and meliore ‘better’ were retained.

However, the most obvious difference with Classical was perhaps the explosion in prepositions, and the introduction of articles. Because nouns were no longer so clearly marked for case, prepositions were required to establish meanings – so words such as de, ad and cum came into much wider use (although not always as prepositions; with pronouns, for example, cum was often a postposition – tecu(m) ‘with you’ [lit. ‘you with’]). For the same reason, the determiner ille/illa/illu ‘this’ expanded its meaning to appear in front of nouns widely, thus generally translated as the definite article ‘the’ (these were also adopted as third person pronouns in most dialects); and the numeral un(us)/una/unu ‘one’ expanded its meaning to become the indefinite article ‘a/an’.

Word order shifted in Late Latin from the SOV of Classical Latin to SVO, but only where the object was a noun (SOV was retained where the object was a pronoun). This generally remained the case for questions, although VSO was also possible. Negation was formed simply, as in Classical Latin, by way of the particle non.

Classical Latin subordinating conjunction quod became que (eventually pronounced without the /w/) during the Late Latin period.


Late Latin was of Latin-Faliscan origin, but unlike Older Latin was spoken at a time that all other Romance languages had been lost.

Late Latin was markedly more vocalic and verbal than Classical Latin. Many of Classical Latin’s complex constructions around nouns were replaced by clauses centring on verbs.

Late Latin remained a solely spoken language (all the forms given here are reconstructed rather than actually attested). Literate people still wrote and preached Classical Latin, albeit with some influences (e.g. more prepositions than in ancient times). Every speaker would have been aware of the different registers. Historical records suggest it was not until into the eighth century that this became a real problem, with Late Latin speakers only then having genuine difficulty understanding sermons (precipitating a growth by the year 800 of the use of the vernacular even in formal contexts).

As noted above, it was at this stage that the commonality of Latin broke down into local dialects, which were then in subsequent centuries rebuilt into the national languages of modern-day Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Romania (with official use in neighbouring countries also).

What now?

Let us have a look at where Germanic languages came from on the same basis next week; then on to the modern day!

Patre nostru, qui es in illi caeli, santificetu es tuu nome. Adveniat tuu regnu. Es tua volunta, sic quomo in ille caelu et in illa terra. Nostru pane quotidianu danos hoie, et nos dimitte nostra debita sic quomo nos dimittimus illi debitori nostri. Et non nos induce in illa tentatione, mae nos libere de ille malu.