Category Archives: Language

The unnoticed markers of Ulster English

For all the political furore about Irish and Ulster Scots, we tend to overlook the intricacies of modern Ulster English.

Language is a surprisingly complex social construct. When we speak, we are aware of some of the regionalisms in our speech, and we may even opt to use them intentionally – for the purposes of anything from social solidarity to humour. We may not even be aware of some of them!

There is therefore a distinction between what is sometimes referred to as “Standard Ulster English” and the broader Ulster dialect. The latter is an intentional departure from formal speech, where the former is what we use even in relatively formal contexts provided it does not hinder the comprehension of outsiders. What are the markers of formal Ulster English, versus Standard British English?


A discussion like this often begins with vocabulary (those are, after all, easier for non-linguists to discuss), but many of the most obvious markers are grammatical.

For example, to express ongoing duration Ulster English prefers the present tense/aspect rather than the perfect, making it progressive for all verbs except ‘to be’.

I’m working here all that time (I have been working here all that time)

She’s in Belfast five years now (she’s been in Belfast for five years now)

He’s living there since the flooding (he has been living there since the flooding)

Here, the Ulster usage is more reflecting of all the other languages I know than Standard British English is.

Ulster English can also tend towards preferring the past to the perfect if there is doubt about relevance to the present time:

Were you ever in Cavan? (Have you even been to Cavan?)

This is not universal but in some cases it can be closer to typical American usage than British.

Note also that Ulster English prefers the conjunction where even with reference to time (compare wo in colloquial German): the occasions where this really matters (the occasions when this really matters). 

Subordinate clauses

For questions in a subordinate clause, Ulster English often orders words in line with a normal question, where Standard British English prefers a conjunction followed but non-question word order:

I don’t know is she here yet (I don’t know if she is here yet)

I wonder how many had he scored before that (I wonder how many he has scored before that)

There is a possibility that this hints at an underlying Irish language influence (as do the “verbless subordinate” clauses found in more informal Ulster English: I came in and him just sitting there).


Some non-standard words are in such common use in Ulster English that they can be used even in quite formal situations, often because they defy easy “translation” (thole, scundered).

As in Scotland, wee is a diminutive – more or less equivalent to little in Standard British English but more commonly used. ‘Diminutive’ means not only that it indicates small size but also endearment.

Interestingly, however, some words are also more commonly avoided. Perhaps, anyone or shall (see below) are often avoided, with maybe, anybody or will preferred.

Some words are descriptive of things found more commonly in Ulster and may be unfamiliar to some outsiders, but they are not strictly non-standard: barmbrack, lough, drumlin, traybake.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs are a specific subset of verbs in Germanic languages, deriving typically from verbs whose past form has become present, which mark emotion or attitude (necessity, volition, option etc).

Ulster English barely uses shall or ought to at all, and might tends to be restricted to emphatic statements.

May is used in Ulster English more in the Standard sense of ‘had better’: well, you may be there on time (well, you had better be there on time). Standard English may is usually substituted for a construction involving maybe in Ulster English: she will maybe come but it’s not certain (she may come but it’s not certain).

Ulster English also happily uses will even for collective suggestions: Will we go by train (Shall we go by train).

Ulster English also tends to treat have as a full verb with modal tendencies rather than as a standard verb:

Have you a pen (Do you have a pen/Have you got a pen)

She has ten of them sitting at home (She has got ten of them sitting at home)

Nevertheless, this usage is uncertain and subsequent reference nearly always treats ‘have’ as a standard verb even in Ulster English: Have you a pen – yes I do (now rarely have); you had twelve of them, didn’t (now rarely hadn’tyou.

Some common verbs which are not modal but have similar meaning are made progressive: Are you wanting another table (Do you want another table).

Much of this usage reflects Scottish English.


Some common phrases are different in everyday Ulster usage.

How are you is often used in Ulster English upon first introduction (very formal Standard English has How do you do).

I don’t care is used in Ulster where Standard British English would use I don’t mind; the distinction between ‘care’ and ‘mind’ in these contexts is not maintained in Ulster English.


These are some of the ways in which Ulster English, even in formal situations, varies from Standard British English. Of course, in all cases these represent broad tendencies, but it is noticeable that the distinctions persist even away from more deliberate “dialect speech”.

On mutual intelligibility

Mutual intelligibility in linguistics is basically defined as the level at which two speakers can understand each other. It is a core concept – the very notion of what constitutes a “language” or what constitutes “speaking a language” is founded upon it. Yet it is highly complex.

Those arriving new to language learning or linguistics are inclined to start with the obvious means of assessing mutual intelligibility – are two dialects or languages close enough structurally (in terms of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and so on) to be mutually intelligible? This is relevant of course. Even though they nominally speak different languages, speakers of Scandinavian languages will understand each other to a degree; likewise Dutch (in both its Netherlandic and Belgian forms) and Afrikaans. Conversely, I have seen an Austrian in Hamburg receive a response from a waiter in English on the assumption she was speaking a different language and it may be easier to switch, even though both were in fact speaking “German”; and it is not unusual for speakers even from within the UK to struggle in other parts of the UK, at least when in informal settings.

However, structural similarity is far from the only issue. As with language learning itself, one essential aspect of mutual intelligibility is exposure. For example, people in Portugal (population 10m) are more exposed to the main language of neighbouring Spain (45m) than the other way around; thus the Portuguese can broadly understand Spanish but the Spanish struggle with Portuguese. This is also part of the reason Norwegians understand Swedish better than the reverse; and even that Dutch speakers understand (the much more structurally complex) German language much better than the other way around. In this latter case most notably, what we have are speakers of the less structurally complex language still ending up with higher intelligibility of the more structurally complex language on grounds of exposure, when on structure alone you would expect the reverse. This can even apply within a language, as with the above example of a Northern German struggling with Austrian German (interestingly the specific issue was probably that she had ordered “ein kleines Cola“, which in Germany would be “eine kleine Cola“, as Austrians tend to use neuter for borrowed nouns where Germans prefer to make borrowings ending in a vowel feminine)likewise, the British generally find it easier to understand American English than the other way around.

Another issue can be whether speakers of a given language are used to diversity or not. The example often given here is that of Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. To simplify crudely, Norwegian is structurally more like Danish but is pronounced closer to Swedish, so it is no surprise that Norwegians (who are in the “middle” linguistically) are proven to be better at understanding Danish or Swedish than the other way around. However, the gap is so marked that further studies have shown this is not primarily to do with structural or phonological similarities (although these help), but to do with the fact that a wider range of dialects are spoken and accepted in Norway (to the extent that Norwegians could not agree a single standard form of the language and there are thus two standards, one very close to Danish and one markedly less so). As Norwegians are simply more used, in their daily lives, to “tuning in” to different dialects (with their different words, grammatical features and pronunciation), they find little difficulty in “tuning in” to Swedish or Danish either. The Swedes and Danes, conversely, being more used to a single standard language and spoken variation which can be different (e.g. in Scania or Jutland) but confined to certain settings, are less adaptable and thus (at least in speech) struggle much more with each other’s languages and even with Norwegian than Norwegians do with either of theirs.

Tied finally to this, again as with language learning, is the simple issue of motivation. Someone who is motivated to help someone will try to make communication work; someone less motivated may choose to be deliberately obstructive. Mutual intelligibility is highly flexible, depending on individuals and even potentially individuals’ moods or attitudes.

Mutual intelligibility is therefore yet another aspect of linguistics which should be relatively straightforward, but is in fact a highly complex thing tied as much to social attitudes and experiences as linguistic matters themselves.

Duolingo for language learning?

The free website and app Duolingo has earned quite a cult following, primarily based on its tendency to remind the user by email in no uncertain terms that they have to keep practising to get better. Also, some of the test sentences are amusing, intentionally or otherwise…


So, is Duolingo to be recommended?

I have used it to top up some of my more basic languages (Danish, Irish, Malay/Indonesian) or to revive languages I do not regularly use (Esperanto), so I may not be best places to judge because, primarily, Duolingo is designed to help you from absolute scratch.


Duolingo starts from scratch, which at least means it is clear where you are beginning.

It is then reasonably structured about taking you through the language and introducing vocabulary and grammatical features, albeit allowing a degree of choice to the user so that it does not get boring.

An important element is the interactive “Discuss” feature, in which knowledgeable and/or native speakers can provide guidance (and assurance, as appropriate).

Perhaps most of all, it has character and so it is (usually) good fun as you accept the challenge to move up the levels.


Duolingo starts from scratch, which can be a disadvantage as much as an advantage. Although there is an initial optional test which can advance you a little, there is no way of demonstrating general linguistic knowledge, nor general ability in related languages.

It does not effectively assess speaking ability (with some languages the function does not exist at all), so only three of the four aptitudes are truly tested.

Even more frustratingly, Duolingo assesses only translation ability. It does not enable conversations; it does not allow for general summaries; nor does it do anything to teach general usage (as opposed to fairly literal vocabulary and grammar). This never allows the user to move beyond “translation” either, which is a fundamental element of actual fluency.

Worst of all, Duolingo insists on absolute accuracy (allowing for the odd typo) right from the start. This is a very significant disadvantage. Language learning is absolutely not about perfection, particularly not right from the start, and the real risk is that it could cause users to give up in frustration far earlier than necessary.


So Duolingo is a lot of fun, but it comes with a major health warning. Fundamentally, language learning must not be about absolute accuracy and perfection right from the start; on balance, this will drive people away from it rather than help them along with it.

In some ways, therefore, Duolingo is best seen as a bit (or even a lot) of fun – and it is, of course, free. However, it should not be the focal point of anyone’s language learning strategy.

Advantages of Esperanto

Last weeks’ post, along with some others I have written about Esperanto, was seen as critical of the language. In fact, far from being critical of it, I rather like it.

What I am critical of is the notion, promoted by some Esperantists, that it is uniquely “easy” or lernebla. Put more specifically, it is a simple fact that Esperanto could be easier and more regular than it is, for example by:

  • addressing the inherently sexist nature of its vocabulary, particularly with reference to family terms (for example, Esperanto starts with a word frato meaning ‘brother’ and then derives ‘sister’ and ‘siblings’ from that, rather than starting with ‘sibling’ and deriving ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ from there);
  • removing the “genitive” correlatives (kies, ties etc), which are entirely unnecessary and cannot “agree” with their nouns (thus kiu plumo ‘which pen’, kiuj plumoj ‘which pens’ but kies plumo ‘whose pen’, kies plumoj ‘whose pens’);
  • reducing the number of phonemes (and removing accented letters while doing so) and adhering properly to “one letter, one sound” (including by removing unnecessary consonantal clusters);
  • aligning the personal pronouns and the numeral unu ‘one’ so that they agree and form plural and accusative case regularly;
  • deleting some unnecessary vocabulary items (e.g. if we can derive from vendi ‘to sell’ the word vendejo ‘place of selling, shop’ we do not need the work butiko ‘shop’);
  • tidying up the ending -au perhaps specifying it is for conjunctions;
  • we could live without a future tense (remember, English does…); and
  • taking out some prepositions (do we really need each of el, de and da, for example, when they only result in confusion depending on the semantics of the speaker’s native language?)

Therefore the argument that Esperanto is uniquely placed to become a global second language (as per its pracelo ‘original goal’) is flawed, as a matter of basic fact.

It is in fact its flaws which form part of its charm, because they make Esperanto more “natural” than it would otherwise seem. The very notion that it has some glitches or tricks makes it malpli lernebla but arguably pli lerninda, and in fact could even strengthen the argument for learning Esperanto before any other language (an argument tied to the idea that it is best to teach the recorder before the violin, the piano or the flute).

So, I don’t much care for several aspects of the phonology and some items of vocabulary are frustrating. What do I like?

Word formation

The idea underlying the vocabulary of the language is that a very short word list can be extended, via affixes and suffixes, to create a multitude of extra meanings. This is very clever, as it makes the language instantly both more accessible and more creative.

I have already used some above. The verb lerni ‘to learn’ can have the verbal suffix -i removed and then the suffix -ebl- plus the adjectival suffix -a added to indicate the ‘ability to learn’, thus lernebla ‘learn-able’. If we choose -ind- rather than -ebl- we get lerninda ‘worthy of learning’. Alternatively we could go for -ej- and use the noun suffix -o and we would get lernejo ‘place of learning, school’; or we can try -ad- and get lernado ‘the act of learning’; or with -ant- we arrive at the participle lernanto which can be taken to mean ‘one who is learning, learner’ (cunningly we can even change the tense here: lerninto is one who was learning; lernonto one who will be learning; lernunto one who would be learning).

Likewise, as noted above, if we take vendi  ‘to sell’ we can do similar: vendejo is a ‘sales place, store’ as aforementioned; vendulo is a ‘salesperson’; vendebla would be ‘sellable’, vendinda ‘worthy of selling’ and so on. Verbs can also extend their range using suffixes (e.g. vendigi ’cause to be sold, have sold’) or prefixes (e.g. ekvendi ‘begin selling’, revendi ‘sell again, re-sell’).

With the word celo ‘objective, goal’ we can create celado ‘goal setting’; celeto ‘minor goal’; celego ‘major goal’; celaro ‘group of goals, strategy’; or we can move towards prefixes instead, for example cxef- indicating ‘head’ would give cxefcelo ‘main objective, prime aim’ or as above pra- indicating ‘original’ gives pracelo ‘original goal’.

We can even combine words – so we can have lernceloj ‘learning goals’ or vendceloj ‘sales targets’.

It’s all very clever – and quite fun!

Accusative case

The so-called accusative case, which would probably be better named the “allative” as it marks both the object of a clause and motion towards, is often quoted as a disadvantage of Esperanto. However, for creativity, I find it hugely helpful.

For example, to say (the truth) that I once spoke Esperanto but I am unsure whether I now do, I could word-for-word write:

Mi ja parolis Esperanton, sed cxu mi nuntempe parolas gxin estas alia demando.

I did speak Esperanto, but whether I currently speak it is another question.’

For emphasis, however, this would probably be better stated as:

Esperanton mi ja parolis, sed cxu nuntempe mi parolas gxin estas alia demando.

I can happily place the emphasis on the language name right at the start, marking it as the object with the -n, without any loss of meaning.

The -n can also be used as a useful clarification.

  • En Italio mi feriis means ‘I holidayed [vacationed] in Italy’
  • En Italion mi feriis means ‘I went to Italy on holiday [vacation]’
  • Ili sxatas sxin plu ol lin means ‘They like her more than him’
  • Ili sxatas sxin plu ol li means ‘They like her more than he does’
  • Li traktis lin kiel princo means ‘He treated him like a prince [would treat him]’
  • Li traktis lin kiel princon means ‘He treated him like [i.e. as if he were] a prince’

This also allows prepositional phrases to be turned into adverbs of clear meaning: surtere ‘on the floor’, surteren ‘onto the floor’.

Subjunctive mood

The creator of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof, got a little confused about what was a mood and what was a tense but ultimately he ended up with a verbal system which is marked either for tense or for what is variously called the subjunctive, jussive or volitive mood (we will leave aside whether the conditional is a mood or a tense). The markers are -is past tense; -as present tense; -os future tense; -us conditional; and -u subjunctive.

This is a little more arguable for me; there is clearly an argument against the addition of a mood marker since many languages manage without one.

However, it has its uses.

  • Li volas ki vi iru means ‘he wants you to go’ [close to a demand]
  • Li volas ki vi iros means ‘he would like you to go’ [more a hope]

Therefore, as a language designed purely for international communication, Esperanto probably should not have different verb moods. However, as a language of international expression, perhaps it should?


While perhaps some of the individual number names are a little frustrating, the system is incredibly simple.

1-10 is unu, du, tri, kvar, kvin, ses, sep, ok, nau, dek; 100 is cent; 1000 is mil.

Then you simply combine them. 9876 is naumil okcent sepdek ses.

Now that is easy!

Bridge language

A criticism levelled at Esperanto is that it is too “European”, but at least it tries to cover all of Europe. Most of the vocabulary is Latinate but a lot is Germanic; however, some key words and often the semantic range is more reminiscent of Slavic. Words such as prava ‘correct’, pilko ‘ball’, po (a particle meaning essentially ‘each’) provide a bridge into Slavic; as do the way many words are used (such as the aforementioned po, the preposition el ‘out of’ or perhaps even the prefix ek- ‘begin [doing]’). There are also some subtle nods to Classical Latin (sed ‘but’, tamen ‘however’, apud ‘beside, near’) and even Ancient Greek (kaj ‘and’), so there is a bridge there too.

It’s just quite nice

The reason for Zamenhof’s relative success (for all those dismissals as a “failure”, Esperanto is by far the most successful constructed language ever and has even seen challenged from modified versions of itself, such as Ido) was probably that he was most keenly aware of all 19th century “language inventors” of the need for a community of users, rather than just writing out his new language and hoping it would fly.

However, it is also just, well, quite nice! It looks accessible but also challenging; it sounds pleasant but also neutral; it is generally regular and straightforward but has (perhaps even benefits from) the odd quirk.

As with anything in the modern world, commentary on Esperanto tends towards the extremes – it is either the perfect language of global harmony or it is a complete failure and a joke. The truth, again as with anything in the modern world, is that it has its advantages and its disadvantages; and, as with any minority language, the important thing is to allow those who wish to cherish it to do so, without seeming to force it on anyone. In that sense, yet again, Esperanto teaches us plenty about natural languages – not least because, in large part, it has come to be one.




Esperanto and language change

It is interesting how often discussion of Latin, as per recent blog posts, leads to a mention of Esperanto. It does not seem like a natural follow-on, but ultimately Esperanto was designed to replace Latin as a universal (which, at the time, really meant European) lingua franca.

There are numerous reasons it did not (although it was a lot more successful than any other constructed language). The lack of prestige, natural polity, literary heritage and international cooperation would all have contributed and, in any case, English soon emerged to fulfil the role.

However, one marginal issue was that Esperanto was designed without consideration of language change and, particularly, natural phonological developments which take place under the “principle of least effort”.

Esperanto’s fundamental design is quite effective, despite some peculiarities (such as the inclusion of a case marker applicable even to adverbs or the marking of verbs for tense or mood but not both). Its prime problem is its phonology.

Firstly, Esperanto is designed to adhere to the “one sound, one letter” rule (as Latin generally did originally, in fact), but immediately fails with the pronunciation of the letter [c] as /ts/. In any case, this is not in fact something which can reasonably be achieved. What is considered the same letter (an “allophone”) in one language can be considered a different letter entirely in another (so English treats the [p] in ‘spit’ and ‘pit’ as the same letter distinct from the [b] in ‘bit’, yet distinguishes between /b/ and /v/ is a way Spanish does not). In other words, Esperanto does not take sufficient consideration of the environment in which letters are pronounced.

Secondly, Esperanto simply has too many phonemes (i.e. individual sounds). This inevitably leads to many sounds that are unfamiliar to people regardless of their individual first languages, and differentiation between sounds which simply isn’t heard by some learners whose languages do not make such differentiation (in the same way English speakers struggle with the distinction between /x/ and /k/ in German stechen versus stecken or, as above, Spanish speakers struggle with /b/ versus /v/).

Thirdly, and probably worst of all, there are too many consonantal clusters. Words such as skribi ‘write’ are already bad enough as they contain clusters which are not allowed in many common languages (notably Spanish and French; effectively also German). When you get to scii ‘know’, a common verb which is almost impossible to pronounce fully for those brought up in non-Slavic languages (starting /tss/), it becomes untenable.

The reason these are untenable is not because they are inherently awkward to pronounce. It is specifically because this awkwardness has already led, literally in most languages, to change under the “principle of least effort” so that such awkwardness no longer exists.

Put another way, we can already safely predict that, if Esperanto were a natural language, the cluster skr– would already have been simplified; in practice the initial sc– is already not fully pronounced by most speakers. Even the verb esti ‘be’ has already been shortened by most speakers (the modified version of Esperanto, Ido, switched it to es-). What is most interesting about this, perhaps, is that the “principle of least effort” does not just mean that complex clusters get simplified in time, but also that words containing them may be reduced (or even abandoned) in usage. This has in fact occurred with esti, with the combination esti plus adjective/adverb frequently replaced by verbalising the adjective/adverb: so la pilko estas blua ‘the ball is blue’ may now be la pilko bluas; estas grave ‘it is important’ may simply be gravas; and so on.

We could in fact begin to predict that a word such as scii would be replaced in time, perhaps via semantic extension by koni (currently ‘to be acquainted with’) or even povi ‘to be able’ (cf. French je sais écrire may be translated as ‘I am able to write’).

This brings us to the crux of the linguistic problem with Esperanto. In theory, it is not allowed to change because according to most Esperantists any change could lead to the development of dialects and the breakdown of the unity of the language. However, language change is inevitable – and all the more so under the “principle of least effort” when the phonology is so complex to begin with.

This, therefore, is one of the reasons Esperanto is so interesting – even as a constructed language it can behave as a natural language or, at very least, confirm trends inherent within natural languages.  It would be interesting if Esperanto were simply allowed to develop naturally…

Can you learn several languages at once?

Arising from this outline of the story of Latin in the first millennium, I had some correspondence essentially about how best to use Latin as a link to learn daughter languages.

As I outlined in the article, there are many good reasons for learning Classical Latin but doing so in order to make it easier to learn its daughter languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) is not one. For the reasons outlined, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian are definitely far closer to each other than any is to Classical Latin; and on balance this is probably so even for French and Romanian. Given the additional difficulty that Classical Latin is so alien (with its case endings, odd word order and peculiar structure), and harder to practise, there is no case at all for using it as a linguistic stepping stone.

Of course, as was established in the past few weeks on this blog, Vulgar or Late Latin has a better case to be used as a stepping stone. It is closer to its daughter languages and is much more familiar.

However, there are two obvious problems there. Firstly, Late Latin had no written form and existed at a time of no audio, so it must be linguistically reconstructed. Secondly, opportunities to practise are effectively zero. Therefore, actually learning it is a lot of effort and dedication. Ultimately, it is surely easier simply to learn the modern languages.

Is it preferable, then, to learn several related languages at once? I have in fact developed a course which teaches both basic French and basic Italian at the same time. Intentionally using only common vocabulary at the outset, it is theoretically possible to introduce the basic concepts of each language with minimal misunderstanding. What is interesting, however, is that no one really wants to do it, even when confronted with the materials. Instead, people instinctively want to learn one language at a time.

It is probably correct to say, then, that it should be one language at a time, even if in quick succession. That said, there is no harm in at least reading about the basics of Latin (of any era) to develop a broader understanding of what to expect in its daughter languages, and no doubt a similar case could be made for other language groups.

Classical versus Medieval Latin

I am not a Latinist, but on the basis of a further query directly in this site once again I need to pursue the subject a little further! Fundamentally, the comment concerned “Ecclesiastical Latin”, the form used by the Church (in some cases, as was rightly pointed out, across all services until the 1960s) and still the official language of the Holy See. This is closely linked to “Medieval Latin”.

Medieval Latin

As noted last week, Latin “died” as a living spoken vernacular some time between the late seventh and mid tenth century, depending on location (and exact definition). In other words, by the second millennium, no one regarded themselves to be a native “Latin” speaker and the language had no conversational use.

However, the written language (still based in the form spoken a millennium before by Caesar and Cicero) remained known by educated people, not least in the Church. Through the second millennium it remained a lingua franca, used at least in writing for everything from promulgating laws or international treaties through to medical journals and church services. The key point, however, is that it was written, rather than spoken – on the occasions it had to be spoken, it was recited using the phonological norms of the local vernacular.


Over time, each country (even countries where a Latinate language was not the vernacular) developed a pronunciation of Latin based on its own vernacular. In English- and German-speaking countries this was in fact generally closer to Classical (perhaps because there was no direct influence from an obviously related tongue), but was betrayed by the tendency to pronounce vowels too far back in the mouth (this lax pronunciation is typical of Germanic languages particularly in Northern Europe, but never of Latinate). In countries where a Latinate language was spoken, the most obvious betrayal of origin was the pronunciation of the letters [c] and [g] before a high vowel as in the contemporary vernacular rather than hard as in Classical Latin. Notably also, they generally abandoned phonemic vowel length in line with local vernaculars (thus there was no strict need to distinguish long from short vowels, even though sometimes the inherited vowels were still pronounced differently depending on whether they had been long or short, but as a matter of quality rather than length) and occasionally even diphthongs (e.g. some writers preferred simple [e] to [oe] or [ae], notably from a familiar English language point of view pena not poena “penalty”).

Over the centuries, given the location of the Holy See and also perhaps its predominant role in music as well as the original host of the Latin language, the broadly Italian pronunciation came to take precedence. Meanwhile, in the Victorian Era, an academic battle waged about whether to cede to this later Medieval Italian pronunciation or to try to move closer to the Classical (perhaps German and English-speaking linguists found it easier to argue for the latter as they did not feel the same sense of continuity as Italians in particular). By 1900 English speakers and German speakers had settled on what they thought was a restored Classical pronunciation, the one taught in schools even now.

Consider a simple phrase magnum opus Cicerōnis (“a great work of Cicero”).

Medieval (Italian) has something akin to “mangyum ohpus chicherohnis”

English/German restored is something like “magnum ohpus kikerohnis”

However, Classical pronunciation was likely something more like “mangnw’opus kyeekyerawnis”

Recent debate concerns the elision of a final nasal vowel with a subsequent vowel; and significant doubt as to the previously widespread contention that Latin vowels in Classical times differed not just by length but also by quality. (Note also that consonants were much less stressed than they are in modern German or English – [s] in particular was a bare trill.)


However, it was not just in pronunciation that Medieval Latin varied due to vernacular influence. It also took on semantics, styles and structures at odds from the Classical form (generally unintentionally), notably the tendency towards greater use of prepositions (rather than a reliance solely on case endings), more demonstratives (unus or ille effectively becoming optional articles in some writing) and a shift in subordinate constructions.

What does that last one mean? We can return again to last week. To translate “you believed I ordered wine”, Classical Latin used a raising construction which sounds stilted but not really wrong in the English equivalent to “you believed me to have ordered wine” (but Classical Latin was also typically verb-final):

crēdis mē vīnum mandāvisse

As established last week, this was no longer current in spoken Latin even before it broke up into its daughter languages (and perhaps long before – as it was not written we cannot be absolutely sure when the change occurred), and that was the form used in all daughter languages:

credes que abeo commandatu vinu albu

Therefore authors whose spoken vernacular had adopted the new structure would then replicate it even when writing supposedly Classical-based Latin:

credis quod mandavi vinum

The words and the forms (including an analytic perfect verb ending and an accusative noun case ending) are all Classical, but the structure absolutely is not. The use of quod in such a context was unknown in Ancient Rome at the time of the Republic, and is essentially a back-translation of the later que.

Living Latin

As a result the debate still rages about how Latin should be pronounced or indeed structured when it is taught or recited. However, the debate is perhaps friendlier now that it once was – in many ways, Medieval and Classical Latin are a bit like British and American English, in that they can be understood by anyone using the other one with a bit of common sense.


When did Latin “die”?

Further to my posts on Latin over the past two weeks (an overview here and a discussion of its classical pronunciation here), I ended up involved in further discussion which can probably all be grouped under the question when did Latin “die”? (Essentially, the questions were whether it is worth learning Latin, and whether it is necessary for languages to change, the answers to which I think are naturally tied together.)

Firstly, two concepts are important here.

Language Change

Language change is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It happens for a number of reasons, chief among them changes to the environment in which a language is spoken (perhaps it needs to describe new things or concepts when it moves to a new location, or it “borrows” words and even structures from languages with which it comes into contact) and the “principle of least effort” tied to the simple human desire for regularisation (we can hear this even in the speech of toddlers – “the toy breaked”, “are those oxes?”)

Ultimately, time changes all things. Languages are no different.


Once upon a time, all languages were spoken and heard; in fact, it is still the case that most languages in the world exist solely or primarily in spoken form. However, major national languages have shifted towards being widely written and read. In order to enable this, they undergo a process of “standardisation”, so that everyone across a wide area can learn a single form which can then be widely read and understood without difficulty.

It is this, above anything else, which takes language out of the realm of being solely about communication and also ties it to concepts of social identity and nation building. Ultimately, a state will usually end up deciding what the “standard” form of a language is and insisting that it is upheld. The “standard” refers primarily to the language in its written form, although in some cases standard (or at least recognisably prestigious) spoken forms exist as well.

Change and Standardisation

Language change and standardisation automatically jar. The latter is about agreeing a single prestige form of the language; but the former insists on changing it. Even the constructed language Esperanto has become subject to debate about natural change within the language versus adherence to its fundamental original principles!

Standardisation – that is, the attempt to maintain a particular form of the language (at least in writing) – is assisted by technological breakthroughs. The more people can read a language (say, through the development of literacy or the introduction of paper) and the faster it can be disseminated (say, through the invention of the printing press or the widespread use of the Internet), the more important a standard form becomes to maximise common understanding. Any technological or social innovation which widens people’s exposure to a language enhances the standard and dramatically slows down language change.

The outcome of this clash varies from language to language. We can see in English that the writing of Shakespeare of 400 years ago is relatively accessible to modern speakers, but the writing of Chaucer 200 years before that requires translation or at least some sort of guidance. What is noteworthy was that Chaucer could not be read without guidance even in Shakespeare’s day; in other words, the pace of language change in English dramatically slowed down in between Chaucer (late 1300s) and Shakespeare (late 1500s). The key development, almost exactly in between those two dates, was the introduction to England of the printing press in 1485. This made a standard written form of English essential, and slowed down change to the written language immensely. Alongside the difficulty of agreeing a standard for a language with so many influences on it in the first place (West Germanic influenced by Norse then by Norman-French with significant Latin, etc), it is this near stalling of the written standard shortly after the printing press came into widespread use that accounts for the divergence between how the language is written (based on pronunciation around 1500) and how it is pronounced today.

In France, the process was very similar – with a strong capital city and academic backing, a standard written form (in fact intentionally conservative for the sake of added prestige even by the standards of the time of the first printing press) has been maintained from which the spoken form has diverged massively. What is important here, however, is that not only have the spellings of the standard written form been preserved, but by and large so have the grammatical structures – so the spoken form has diverged in terms of pronunciation, but not in terms of structure.

In Germany and Italy the story is somewhat different, because those countries only emerged in unified form much later (in the mid to late 1800s). As a result, the standard forms in speech and writing are much closer than in the case of English or French, although they are in each case still intentionally conservative. Standard German, based ultimately on the writing of Luther and thus in effect on the educated speech of the central German-speaking area at the time of the Reformation, is pronounced as an overlay of local more north dialects and is thus intentionally closer to the written form. In Italian, arguably, this is even more dramatic – the written standard is intentionally outright archaic, based on Tuscan from the time of Dante around 1300, with Italians expected to pronounce their language in line with the written standard (meaning the pronunciation of the standard language is intentionally conservative and generally much more so than in the local vernacular).

Conversely, Spanish and particularly Dutch have had more recent updates. Spanish is based ultimately on the pronunciation of educated speakers in Castile around 1815; the current Dutch standard is post-War, including an update even to the structures of the language (for example to all but abandon grammatical case in line with contemporary usage). Although there is the odd nod to the past, generally both of these languages have effectively updated their spelling and structures to reflect pronunciation within relatively modern times, compared to other major Western European languages.

Standards do change over time too, it should be noted (for example the recent German spelling reform and the ongoing debates about written accent marks in French), but fundamentally they reflect a version of the written language based on educated speakers not just at a particular place but also at a particular time (Tuscany 1300, Castile 1800, or whatever).

Was this not supposed to be about Latin?

Which brings us to Latin. When we say “Latin”, at least in terms of the language we might learn at school, what we mean is the prestige written form of Latin from the time of Caesar and Cicero – roughly 2100 years ago. While there was no Latin Language Academy or even Government trying to enforce a standard, there was the broad social concept of Latīnitās which provided for the broadly expected form of written Latin (as well as sometimes wider cultural norms). Classicus originally referred to the highest class of citizen (and only later came to mean “exemplary”), and so although the Latin of Caesar and Cicero was not a “standard” in a strictly modern sense, it was a “classical form” which had largely the same effect.

As the Empire grew, Latin expanded as the administrative and commercial language right across Western and into parts of Eastern Europe, and even after the fall of Rome and the breakdown of the Empire in the West, no one in its former territories (with the exception of what we now consider western Germany, northern Belgium and England, where Germanic vernaculars took hold over time) was in any doubt that they spoke “Latin” until at least the late 600s. In theory at least, even 750 years after Caesar and Cicero, you could have travelled from what we now consider western Portugal through central Spain to northern France and then southern Italy and been generally understood, provided there was a bit of good will and common sense. (This is a not dissimilar situation from that which currently exists with regard to Arabic, which has a “Modern Standard” form based on the “Classical” liturgical language, but in fact is spoken in a wide range of local varieties which are all identifiably “Arabic” but in pure form are not necessarily mutually intelligible.)

However, this was not because Latin remained the same for 750 years. Language change affected it, particularly in spoken form. That is where there is perhaps a useful parallel with modern French – what resulted in around 700AD was an archaic written Latin based on pronunciation now seven centuries or so out of date, accompanied by a contemporary spoken form that was considerably distant from it. Yet, in the same way no one in 2019 denies they are speaking French just because their pronunciation does not reflect the written form, few in 700 would have denied they were speaking Latin.

It is worth noting, though, that there was a difference from the modern French comparison. Whereas Standard French has broadly retained its grammatical structures over the centuries, Classical Latin did not, giving way not just in terms of pronunciation but also in terms of vocabulary and grammar to Late Latin. This “Late” Latin maintained a degree of coherence across a wide geographical area for a number of reasons, notable among them that it derived not strictly from Classical Latin (the prestige form) but from Vulgar (or what in fact would probably be better termed “Popular”) Latin spoken by the masses rather than the elite seven or eight centuries before. Where Classical Latin remained petrified in time, Popular Latin continued to change (and regularise).

The key point here is that, if we accept Classical Latin is based on the educated speech of the Rome area in 50BC and Standard Italian is based on the educated speech of the Florence area in 1300, it becomes obvious that far more than half the changes between Classical Latin and Standard Italian had already happened by the year 700 – i.e. before anyone in Italy (or for that matter Iberia or Gaul) believed they were speaking anything other than “Latin”. In fact, given the dramatic slowing of language change after the printing press, it is probably reasonable to say this is also the case with reference to the standard form of any daughter language of Latin (although French and Romanian have specific reasons for having had notable further divergence of their own).

From around 700, it became evident particularly in northern Gaul that the local vernacular could no longer reasonably be described as “Latin”. Local populations became unable to understand even basic church recitals; travellers reported being unable to understand people even when they assumed they spoke the same language; there was in all likelihood the beginning of an awareness that Classical Latin was one thing, and the local dialect was another. By 950 or so, this point was no longer in dispute anywhere in the former Latin-speaking world, not even in Italy itself.

Learning Latin

There are many good reasons for learning (Classical) Latin, but of course it depends on individual interest. It is necessary to study ancient European civilisation; it is a useful exercise in intellectual rigour and discipline; it has useful side effects which help in fields as widespread as medicine and law. Linguistically, Latin also includes some concepts now alien from the modern languages derived from it but shared with other modern languages, so it is useful in ways beyond the obvious.


  • Standard Italian credi che abbia ordinato vino bianco
  • Standard Spanish crees que he ordenado vino blanco
  • Standard French tu crois que j’ai commandé du vin blanc

These sentences, meaning “you believe that I have ordered white wine”, are clearly distinct yet similar.

In each case, we have a word for “believe” clearly of the same origin; the use of “to have” as an auxiliary verb; and obvious linkage around the term for “white wine”. In other words, they betray an obvious common origin.

However, that origin is not directly Classical Latin, as we can see here:

  • Classical Latin crēdis mē vīnum album mandāvisse

Here, credis does indeed show a link to the daughter languages but after that the structure, involving an “accusative infinitive” construction, is entirely different and only one further word (vinum) is identifiably similar. The verb-final literal translation of “you believe me wine white to have ordered” (or even the more direct “you believe me to have ordered white wine”), with the inclusion of case endings (-um) and a past infinitive marker (-avisse), is completely alien to speakers of any of the daughter languages.

Yet, there is a more obvious origin:

  • Vulgar Latin credes que abeo commandatu vinu albu

This is not attested (no one wrote Vulgar Latin apart from on the odd wall), but it is a reasonable reconstruction of spoken Latin after the fall of Rome but before Charlemagne. It looks a lot more familiar (and would be even more so if we included the Germanic borrowing blancu rather than albu for “white” which came in towards the end of the common Latin period).

Typically of all the daughter languages, we have here: h-dropping (abeo not habeo); removal of final post vocalic -m (and unstressed -s); lowering of -i to -e (actually also in que, derived from quid); prioritisation of a word form with a prefix (commandare not mandare); and most of all an identifiably modern structure using a subordinate clause ordered subject-verb-object.

In other words, this is clearly Latin – yet it is at the same time closer to its daughter languages of centuries later than the Classical form of centuries before.

However, the case presented for learning (Classical) Latin as a window to the modern languages derived from it is not clear cut. In fact, all other things being equal (which admittedly they are not always), the logical progression from Late Latin being nearer to its daughter languages than to the classical form is that each of the daughter languages is nearer to any of the other daughter languages than any is to Classical Latin.

If we could learn Late Latin, of course, that would be another matter…



How do we know what the Romans sounded like?

Last week’s piece on Classical Latin, particularly the phonology, triggered a reasonable and obvious question: how do we know what they sounded like?

Without recorded voices of any kind, of course, we cannot know absolutely precisely. However, because we can reconstruct languages from what came after (modern languages such as, in this case, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) and indeed what went before, we can merge this with direct historical evidence of what the Romans said about their own speech to gather a very accurate picture.


Firstly, the Romans were lucky because, although their alphabet mimicked Greek (and thus Phoenician), it was in fact designed specifically for Latin. No modern Western European language has that advantage – all of them use the Latin alphabet and then have to make it fit around a different language from the one it was designed for.

Initially, the Romans required just 18 letters – five litterae vōcāles (of voice; A, E, I, O, U) and 13 cōnsonantēs (with sound; B, C, D, F, H, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T). I and U could be semi-vocalic; in fact Q was used only before U as QU to indicate this was the case (versus CU, when it was not).

In time the Romans added G to distinguish from C; X for the combination CS or GS; and K, Y and Z for words borrowed from Greek (although some writers ignored K while others came to use it more widely to replace C even in native words in particular instances, such as frequently before A).

Fundamentally, however, the Latin alphabet remained one letter for one sound, with just the odd exception (notably X and arguably QU; with greater Greek influence this came to change a little more, but we will come to that). This makes it quite straightforward to work out, for the most part, how it was pronounced because there is no reason to believe that each letter would have been pronounced significantly differently from its modern equivalent, assuming such an equivalence can be made.


The contention that we can assume most letters were pronounced as today is backed up by studies of the Proto-Indo-European language from which Latin (and also Old Irish, Old Church Slavonic, Gothic, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and others) was derived. However, comparisons across the language sets do tell us some things.

The plosives (B, C and P) were pronounced more softly probably even than in modern Italian (and considerably more so that in English or German); B frequently switched to F in Latin in certain environments, suggesting the sounds were not far apart. Furthermore, two distinct C (actually broadly /k/) sounds were inherited by Latin and it seems odd that these were merged only to de-merge again in Late Latin (and thus in all daughter languages) – hence my own contention that C (and subsequently G) was always pronounced slightly differently before a high vowel than before a low vowel (before a high vowel I suggest it was slightly palatalised, with a hint of a y-glide; that some chose to distinguish in writing between K and C may provide further evidence but most speakers probably did not think about it for long enough to consider there was a distinction, in the same way English speakers do not consider the ‘c’ in ‘care’ to be any different from that in ‘scare’).

The letter D was pronounced much more briefly than today (just a short flap), as we know it was unstable – converting initially to B in some instances (even now ‘dual’ versus ‘binary’) and being lost altogether finally except in the most common words (e.g. classical ablative mēnsā or fundō were originally mēnsad, fundod).

H was also destined to be unstable right from the start, deriving from a complex series of Indo-European laryngeals. It was already clearly lost in all but the most careful educated speech well before the time of Christ. (Note that it is conceivable that it came and went; /h/ was lost from English entirely by Shakespeare’s time but was then recovered in learned speech in the centuries after).

We know M and N were already nasal at the end of words as they emerged from Indo-European because they were often not preceded by a vowel; this changed in Latin, which placed vowels before final nasals.

S was likely pronounced as a brief tap (as in many modern Spanish dialects, see below) as it frequently developed into (and occasionally even from) R. This again was an Indo-European thing, as the S/R switch is common to many Indo-European languages (cf. English ‘was/were’, ‘lost’ but ‘forlorn’).

Given its confusion with B but rarely F, as well as other factors, V was pronounced as /w/ or at least somewhere between /w/ and /ß/ (so potentially close to modern Spanish [b] and [v] between vowels).

Indo-European tells us much less about vowels, which change much more through time. One thing we can note throughout the history of Latin is the instability between O and U and, to a lesser extent, between E and I.

Daughter languages 

We can tell much about Latin pronunciation by reconstructing it from daughter languages, most obviously Italian and Spanish.

Italian, based in conservative Tuscan, gives us many of the modern sounds as there is no reason for them to have changed. The most notable shifts are the loss of distinctive vowel length (vowel quality clearly came to be definitive in the Late Latin period as that is the case in all daughter languages) and the switch of the palatalised /k/ and /g/ (i.e. the aforementioned C or G before a high vowel in Classical Latin) to a new affricate sound (equivalent to English [ch] and [j]). Word stress has clearly shifted on some short words in Italian, but there is no reason to believe it is significantly different (even though, as the language is now more vocalic, its rhythm is somewhat different).

Notably, Italian also gives us the most likely location for pronunciation. Generally, the further south you go in Europe the further forward in the mouth pronunciation occurs (just compare a Dutch person or Dane speaking English versus an Italian or a Spaniard). There is no reason to believe this was notably different in ancient times – Latin was surely articulated towards the front of the mouth, thus lacking the lax vowels of Germanic languages.

Spanish in some ways is closer to Late Latin phonologically, and to many of the “errors” Romans themselves noted. It frequently displays [e] where Latin had I just as was apparent in colloquial or lower class speech even by the time of Christ; thus Latin and Italian lingua are Spanish lengua; Latin vices (note Pompeian graffiti veces) is Spanish veces. Spanish also exhibits AU/AL to [o] which was also a marker of lower class or rustic speech in and around Rome 2000 years ago (e.g. Latin alterum, Italian altro, Spanish otro).

Note that Spanish (as well as Sardinian, the most conservative Latinate language) contains only five basic vowel sounds. This is not absolute proof, but it strongly suggests that Classical Latin had only five too.

Contemporary writing

As noted above, Romans themselves often noted “errors” creeping into speech, or commented on how peasants or immigrants spoke. These give us a clear idea of how the language was changing. Many inscriptions themselves contain these “errors” (perhaps most commonly omitting initial h– or post-vocalic final –m) and thus reflect contemporary speech.

On top of this, the meter of Roman poetry also gives us a clear idea about elision. Notably, we can tell from this that final and initial vowels (or nasals or h-) ran into each other consistently in Latin poems, and there is no evidence other than that this was a simple representation of how Latin was actually pronounced.

This is, for the record, a fundamental point because with some exceptions it was the ending rather than the initial sound which was lost in the elision – and thus often the bit containing the grammatical coding (which makes Latin so distinct fundamentally from its daughter languages). Yet studies of Latin literature have shown that this is crucial to understanding in only a minuscule proportion of combinations, and that even then there is no doubt about the meaning from the context. This suggests that in fact one driver of Romans’ choice of word order was the determination to avoid losing a grammatically crucial ending (e.g. if it going to be unclear that you mean agricolā erat nauta ‘by the farmer was a sailor’ rather than agricola erat nauta ‘the farmer was a sailor’ or agricolae erat nauta ‘the farmer’s was a sailor’ because without the ending pronounced in the first word they all sound the same, just say agricolā nauta erat – which indeed was the most common word order). This remains a remarkably understudied aspect of Latin syntax.

Ultimately, all of these allow us to reconstruct very accurately the speech of Caesar. Not that he ever said et tū Brūte, of course – indeed he would likely have appealed to Brutus in Greek…

How to learn languages – Classical Latin

I put up my review of how to learn languages (which itself contains links to the languages I had referred to and the introduction to the overall project from two years ago) on social media recently, and was asked why I had included Late Latin but not Classical Latin.

To answer that question, well, I really need to do a page on Classical Latin…


Classical Latin, by which here I mean the Golden Age Latin of Cicero (i.e. that spoken and written by the educated classes around 2100 years ago) whose grammatical and broad orthographical norms are still what is understood to be “Latin” when it is taught. This was the direct ancestor of Late Latin, the spoken vernacular of much of western Continental Europe which, although it had variations, still constituted even in the minds of its speakers a single “Latin” language at least until 700AD (and in some areas almost until the end of the first millennium). Furthermore, Classical Latin remained a single written lingua franca throughout the medieval era, particularly in ecclesiastical, philosophical and scientific life, and is still widely known and learned (and in some cases, typically at specific conferences, spoken) in its Golden Age form.

Latin itself was originally the language of a small tribe based in and slightly to the south (i.e. within easy modern commuting distance) of Rome in the region which eventually became known as Latium (modern Italian Lazio); to the north was spoken the closely related Faliscan, and around it were other Italic languages alongside some tongues of non-Proto-Indo-European origin and Ionian Greek (well to the south along the coast). Latin spread across the Italian peninsula, largely displacing all other languages by the Golden Age Period and completely displacing them by around 100AD (another Italic language, Oscan, is particularly well attested because it was still in use alongside Latin in Pompeii at the time of its destruction but was extinct soon after it); sermō vulgāris or “Vulgar Latin” was brought to all corners of the Empire by legionaries. After the conquest of any individual province, Latin was not formally enforced but in practice administrators would always operate in either Latin or Greek (and the former was almost always preferred).


The phonology of Classical Latin has been subject to much debate. In time it gave way to daughter languages, sometimes sharing phonological developments with each other and sometimes displaying their own. Speakers of those languages, and even of English and German, came to pronounce even Classical Latin according to their own contemporary norms, and it was not until the 20th century that classical pronunciation was largely re-established in education (although Italian pronunciation, known as Lingua Latīna Ecclēsiastica or Ecclesiastical Latin, is still preferred by the Church and, mostly, in music).

Even then, aspects of that classical pronunciation remain contested (or indeed in subsequent decades have proven to be plain wrong).

Some key points of agreement among current linguists include:

  • from around 250BC, word stress shifted from the first syllable typically to the penultimate or antepenultimate depending on the length of the vowel and consonant/vowel pattern of the penultimate syllable (with some exceptions where final letters had been dropped);
  • as is often forgotten in education but now agreed by philologists, vowel length was essential (for example ancient Romans viewed short [A] and long [Ā] as two fundamentally different letters, even though they were based in the same pronunciation and often written the same way);
  • consonants were softer (less plosive) than in some modern languages such as English;
  • the pair [I] and [J] were regarded as the same letter, as were [U] and [V];
  • [M] and [N] after vowels were nasalised (even though this is rarely recognised in education).

Points of minor contention include:

  • [C] and [G] (originally regarded as the same letter but clearly distinguished by the Golden Age period) were always pronounced hard, but there is some evidence that before high vowels ([E], [I] and in practice by the Golden Age period also [AE] and [OE]) they were always pronounced with a “y-glide” (i.e. as occurs after the [n] of British English ‘news’);
  • English- and German-speaking linguists often posit a seven-vowel system (typically with [E] and [Ē] and [I] and [Ī] exhibiting not just distinct length but distinct quality) but this seems at odds with subsequent development and Southern European linguists assume only five (i.e. all five vowels had simply long and short forms; albeit six if including the [Y] in borrowings from Greek);
  • [V], while certainly closer to English [w] than modern Italian [v], may have been somewhere between /ß/ (as in Spanish vivir) and /w/ rather than purely /w/ as is often taught, particularly between vowels;
  • the third person form est ‘is’ and et ‘and’  may have been strongly elided (i.e. to something approaching ‘st/’t) in speech at all times (and not just in poetry or common speech), particularly after vowels and nasals; and
  • in common speech, where a word ended in a vowel or a nasal it was often elided (by omission or conversion into a semi-vowel) if the next word began with a vowel or h-.

The result was a language from which harsher and slushier sounds (e.g. German [ch] /x/ or English [sh] /ʃ/) were entirely absent; however, it would have been markedly less vocalic than modern Italian (or even Late Latin), and when read aloud its rhythm sounds quite alien even to speakers of its daughter languages, given its unstressed final syllables and frequent long vowels (and also long consonants, retained only in Italian among today’s major national languages descended from it). Late Latin, which distinguished previously long versus short vowels only by quality rather than length and generally dropped final nasal consonants, would sound much more familiar to speakers of daughter languages, particularly Italian and Spanish.

There is, however, little doubt that Classical Latin was, like its daughter languages, pronounced forward in the mouth – this is a key point often overlooked in reconstructions of its pronunciation.


Before the age of printing or even paper (although they had papyrus, a word itself borrowed from Greek), Latin did not require a written standard. However, in effect it developed one in the centuries before Christ through literature (such as Terence and Plautus) and particularly the form adopted by Cicero and Julius Caesar himself. This came to be recognised as the “classical” (understood to mean “first class”) form which has been used among the educated and in education ever since.

The Romans of Caesar’s time were generally aware that their language had developed and changed through time. Many knew that older competing grammatical inflections had in time been dropped, amended or regularised; in some cases minor confusion remained (for example initial du– became b– over a period probably during the second or third century BC, so duenos ‘good’ became bonus, but in some cases such as duo ‘two’ the du– was retained; hence even English ‘dual’ but ‘binary’). Romans of Caesar’s time were not of the view that their Latin was in any way superior linguistically to that which had gone before or to any other language – indeed, if anything, quite the opposite (educated upper classes in Ancient Rome in fact chose to speak to each other in what they regarded as the true language of high culture, namely Greek).

Latin was written with an alphabet ultimately derived from Phoenician, of 23 familiar letters. [K] was by some writers considered the same as [C]; [G] and [X] were borrowed from Greek after Latin was first written but before the Golden Age of its literature; [Y] and [Z] were only used in words of Greek origin (initially so were the digraphs [CH], [PH], [RH] and [TH], which clarifies that consonants were softer in Latin than Greek); there was no U/V or I/J distinction and no [W]. Albeit with the notes above, it was largely written as spoken although already by 100BC [AE] and [OE] were merging even sometimes in educated speech to [E]. Some conservative orators, conversely, occasionally retained [O] where [U] was written (notably equus ‘horse’ was often pronounced as if *equos).

In ancient times, Latin was written only in capitals. An acute mark, now more commonly a horizontal accent mark (e.g. [Ā] above), was occasionally used to mark long vowels (or even in some instances consonants); long consonants were usually marked by doubling.


Vocabulary was inherited largely from Proto-Indo-European, likely with other additions from non-Indo-European languages spoken in the Italian peninsula. There were also significant borrowings from Greek.

Key numbers:

  • I ūnus, II duo, III trēs, IV quattuor; V quinque; VI sex; VII septem; VIII octō; IX novem; X decem;
  • XI ūndecim; XVI sēdecim; XVII septendecim; XVIII duodēvīgintī; XX vīgintī; XI vīginti ūnus; C centum; M mille.

Note that although Latin allowed counting in standard tens (so 19/XIX could be decimnovem) the last two numbers in each ten were more commonly reverse-counted (thus ūndevīgintī, literally ‘one from twenty’); this applied all the way up (e.g. 99/XCIX was most commonly ūndēcentum). Later numbers could also be counted unit first (so 24/XXIV could be vīgintī quattuor or quattuor et vīgintī ‘four and twenty’).


Latin is renowned for its complex grammar, but in fact even two millennia ago it was no more complex than what went before and was in many ways as straightforward as many modern languages such as Russian or even German.

Nouns endings changed depending on grammatical case, of which there were in practice five plus vestiges of two more (down from Proto-Indo-European’s likely eight or nine); most nouns fell into one of five ‘declensions’ which dictated the pattern by which they did this. Nouns were also one of three genders, which dictated how adjective or determiner endings also changed to ‘agree’ with them. Thus ille puer ‘this boy’, illa puella ‘that girl’, illud vallum ‘this wall’, puer bonus ‘good boy’, puella bona ‘good girl’, vallum bonum ‘good wall’; but also illum puerum ‘that boy’ (accusative; direct object), illā puellā ‘(by) that girl’ (ablative), illī vallī ‘(to) that wall’ (dative); illōs puerōs ‘those boys’ (accusative), illārum puellārum ‘(of) those girls’ (genitive), etc; unfortunately adjective and noun endings do not always match so neatly (e.g. Italiā borealī ‘from Northern Italy’, ablative).

Verbs were marked for tense/aspect (ranging from pluperfect to future, we including conditional with different aspect), voice (active and medio-passive)  and mood (indicative, subjunctive and imperative), mostly synthetically (i.e. by changing endings) with additional supine, gerunds (verbal and adjectival forms) and various infinitive markers coded for voice and tense. They typically fell into one of four classes, but common verbs were often irregular.

The basic regular verb endings in the present tense were familiar even to speakers of modern Latinate languages (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person; singular then plural):

  • cantō, cantās, cantat; cantāmus, cantātis, cantant.

However, even a verb as simple as cantāre ‘to sing’ could have over 100 more different forms (more than twice as many as even the most verbally complex modern West European national language), among them cantābimus ‘we will sing’, cantābant ‘they were singing’, cantāvistis ‘you [plural] sang’, cantāverat ‘she had sung’, cantātur ‘it is sung’, cantābantur ‘they were sung’, cantābitur ‘it will be sung’, cantēs ‘you [singular] may sing’ [subjunctive], cantāremus ‘we may have been singing’, cantāverint ‘they may have sung’, cantāvissem ‘I may have sung before’, cantētur ‘it may be sung’, cantārentur ‘they may have been sung’ plus cantā ‘sing!’ [singular],  cantātōte ‘you shall sing!’ [plural], cantātor ‘it shall be sung!’ and cantāre ‘to sing’, cantāvisse ‘to have sung’, cantārī ‘to be sung’ [all infinitives], cantandum ‘singing’ [gerund/noun], cantāns ‘singing’ [gerundive/adjective], cantātus ‘sung’ [past participle], , etc.

Adjectives also had their own three declensions; with the first two, regular adverbs were formed by the suffix –ē (vērē ‘truly, really’) and in the third by –iter (fortiter ‘strongly, bravely’); some were outright irregular (e.g. bene ‘well’).

Notably Latin lacked articles (particularly noteworthy as contemporary Greek had them) and, given its case endings already carried so much meaning, it made considerably less (and arguably more specific) use of prepositions than its daughter languages.

Latin word order was most often SOV but was much freer than in its daughter languages, with the predominant consideration not the parts of speech but the emphasis. Not only could clauses be ordered more or less as the speaker/author desired, but due to agreement of adjectives/determiners and nouns elements could even be separated – magnam vidi nocte in caelō stellam ‘I saw a big star in the sky by night’ / ‘Big was the star that I saw in the night sky’.


Classical Latin is, therefore, instantly recognisable and in some ways weirdly familiar, and yet at the same time utterly alien. The way words are marked and clauses are constructed requires an entirely different thought process from that used for the most widely spoken modern Western European languages; and the sound and rhythm of the language, particularly with its distinctive word stress and the frequency of long vowels and consonants, is wholly unfamiliar to modern ears.

The reason I had not included Classical Latin originally is that it is in character so different from any national Western European language we could want to learn today. What I referred to as Vulgar Latin (actually, to be precise, Late Latin) is the direct ancestor of Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian, not Classical Latin, and Late Latin just sounds that bit more familiar and obviously close to us in the modern day; therefore Late Latin is the more relevant to contemporary language learning, all other things being equal.

Of course, arguably, all other things are not equal. Unfamiliar though it looks and alien though it sounds, the echoes of Classical Latin are with us every hour of every day. Indeed, Classical Latin (with some neologisms) is perfectly capable of being used in the modern world, in speech as well as writing. Its study at once opens up a window to our heritage, but also to linguistics in general and thus to language learning of any kind. Learning Classical Latin is in some ways like getting to know a family member you have just met and didn’t previously know existed – sometimes it is bizarre and frustrating and yet there is this strand of familiarity which connects us in some ways to the ancients and in some ways to each other.

Classical Latin, of course, did not stop at one point in time as a language in spoken use, even if it did at a written classical language. Already in the Golden Age period it is apparent that [AE] and [OE] were levelling to merge with [E] and within a few centuries some speakers also merged [I] as well; there was also some confusion between [O] and [U] among uneducated speakers particularly in rural areas. In the centuries after, at least in common speech, the combination [AL] became vocalised (effectively as [AU]) and both merged with [O]. Generally speaking, the more common, rural form was the one taken by the legionaries ad Hispaniam, and thus became Spanish (cf. Spanish lengua ‘language’ and otro ‘other’, versus Italian lingua, altro – although these are tendencies, not universals). The case system also came under pressure both from the merger of vowel combinations and the elision of case endings (noted above), and so prepositions were notably more common even by Constantine’s time, often broadening their meaning (e.g. modern de/di derives from the Latin meaning ‘about, concerning’ but came to encompass ‘of, from’).

Across what was the Western Roman Empire, speakers of daughter dialects still regarded themselves to speak “Latin” at least until the end of the seventh century. However, by the middle of the eighth century in modern-day France it was becoming impossible for speakers of the local vernacular to understand even simple Church readings in Latin; by the ninth century diplomatic missions became difficult because Latin was pronounced so differently across the Continent; by the end of the first millennium no one anywhere (even in Italy itself) was in any doubt that the local vernacular speech constituted a different language from the Latin of the Church. The story of the modern “Romance Languages” had thus begun.

So, should Classical Latin be learned as a starting point to modern languages? Nōn necesse est per sē. Sed carpe diem. Quod erat dēmōnstrandum.

Pater noster quī es in caelīs, sanctificētur nōmen tuum; adveniat regnum tuum; fīat voluntās tua; sīcut in caelō et in terrā; pānem nostrum cotīdiānum dā nōbis hodiē; et dīmitte nōbis dēbita nostra; sīcut et nōs dīmittimus dēbitōribus nostrīs; et nē nōs indūcās in tentātiōnem; sed līberā nōs ā malō.