Why is German more complex than Spanish?

I have written many times before on how German (as a Germanic language) is more closely related to English than any Latinate language (like French, Italian or Spanish), and is indeed fundamentally the same. In some ways, this makes it easier to learn.

However, much though professional linguists will dispute my claiming this so definitively, the fact is German is a harder language to learn than Spanish for the average English speaker. How and why?

Consider the Spanish phrase:

con el perro

Here, my core vocabulary as even a novice would tell me that “con” is a preposition meaning something like “with”, and “el” is an article, “the”, marking masculine singular in this case (as, like most Latinate languages, Spanish distinguishes between two genders, masculine and feminine). We may also know, or be able to work out from the context, that “perro” in most instances means “dog”.

The advantage with Spanish is we now know not only what the word “perro” means but also how to use it. Nearly all words ending in –o are masculine and the plural in Spanish is formed by -(e)s, so we not only know that “dog” is “perro” but also that “dogs” is “perros“. This is the same regardless of the use of the word (whether it is a subject, and object, comes after a preposition, or whatever).

If we turn to German, life suddenly becomes a lot more complex.

mit dem Hund

For similar reasons to the above, we can work out that this means “with the dog”. We know from this what it means, and in particular what the word “Hund” (cognate with English “hound”, to make things even easier) means. However, we have a problem – we still have no idea how to use the word!

Firstly, even the article “dem” tells us only that “Hund” is masculine or neuter (German nouns have three genders, unlike in any other major Western European language). Secondly, worse still, we have no idea what the plural form is – it could be “Hund“, “Hünd“, “Hunde” (which is fact it is), “Hünde“, “Hunder“, “Hünder“, “Hunden“, conceivably “Hünden” or maybe even “Hunds“. This may be before we have come to learn that the dative plural (German also has four cases, two of which in the modern spoken language may be used after prepositions) generally adds –n – so, notwithstanding the above, the plural form would actually be “Hunden” in this case (literally!)

The immediate difficulty with German, therefore, is that it is not as easy to “absorb” in a way which means you can then use it accurately. Spanish has a much clearer and simpler set of markers than German has, making it more instantly accessible to learners.

This is not to say that Spanish is straightforward. The average verb in Spanish has over 50 distinct forms (invariably approaching 40 in common use), compared to just four in English and six in German. The point is, however, that once the patterns and irregularities are learned, they are clear; whereas in German, particularly with nouns, there are simply fewer reliable patterns and things like gender or plural form just have to be learned individually (even if some can be reasonably guessed).

That is the “how”. What about the “why”?

The reason that German has been more conservative with nouns and less so with verbs than Latinate languages such as Spanish (and indeed more conservative than other Germanic languages generally) is not easy to determine.

Broadly, German is a more noun-based language, which may explain why it has retained its complexities predominantly around them (effectively retaining only partially predictable “noun classes”), while simplifying verbs.

Nevertheless, there is no clear reason why German is quite so conservative, even versus similar languages such as Dutch. It was not a deliberate ploy around the time of standardisation (as it was for Italian), nor has German been particularly isolated (like Icelandic).

That German is tougher to reproduce accurately than Spanish for English speakers despite its closer family links may simply by luck of the linguistic draw.


Labour debacle remains far more serious than most realise

The Conservatives got a jibe in during the week that they were trying to unite the party while Labour was splitting up even among itself. We will see just how cocky the Tories are a year or two from now when they have collapsed the economy pursuing a completely pointless exit from the EU, but their point stands.

What is happening in the Labour Party is being described in terms of “splits” and “realignment”) – standard political talk, in other words. However, it is far from standard. The party’s MPs, activists and supporters are now three entirely different sets of people and the consequence is that the party has ceased to be a serious competitor for government.

Corbyn’s Labour is a mere left-wing pressure group now. This has serious ramifications for the Left, and for politics in the UK in general.

The failure of the Corbynites’ analysis is simple: they believe Labour is a left-wing party. However, it was never that. It was a centre-left party – i.e. a home for everyone from centre to left, not just left. Once it ceases to be that, it cannot seriously compete for office at Westminster. This does not mean it loses relevance completely – it will continue to compete for urban city halls across England and Wales and perhaps for office in devolved government in the latter – but it does mean it is not a political influencer at the same level as the Conservatives.

Indeed, as the Conservatives fail to deliver the “Hard Brexit” many thought they were voting for, UKIP will make a comeback to the same level of influence as Labour – and with a similar level of coherence.

The game has changed. Quite what the outcome of that change is, is anyone’s guess. But it will be a long time before anyone even slightly to the left of centre will be occupying Number 10 – and all democrats should be concerned about that.

Questions over SF’s “industrial wages”

Sinn Fein’s accounts came in for scrutiny this month. Among some peculiarities were the fact (arising logically from them) that its press team cannot possibly be being paid the living wage (thus Sinn Fein is acting illegally by paying slave wages), and that it is simply not apparent where its MLAs (and by extension TDs) pay in their contribution to the party which would mean they were taking home merely the “average industrial wage”.

To be clear, as it is not secret, many parties ask their elected representatives to make a contribution back to the party, on the basis that that elected representative would not have been elected without the party label. This sum, which operates a little like a traditional “tithe”, of course then appears in the party’s accounts.

Sinn Fein claims that it uses this system, and that its elected representatives make a contribution which means that, in effect, they earn only the “average industrial wage”. Already, however, it has become apparent that this is not the case – in fact, Sinn Fein MLAs take home the average pre-tax industrial wage – i.e. several thousand pounds more each year than the average industrial worker takes home after tax. This sounds reasonable to me, except that Sinn Fein should not claim its MLAs take home the average industrial wage when they do not.

However, it is also unclear from the party’s accounts that any money is paid by MLAs into the party’s purse, as that money simply does not appear on the balance sheet. To make matters worse, in fact the sum MLAs would have had to contribute to the party’s funds in order to take home the “average industrial wage” is in fact more than the party received at all, from all sources. In other words, Sinn Fein’s own accounts show that its total income was less than the contribution due from each MLA to add up to each taking home the “average industrial wage”. Since more than half its claimed income was accounted for, this would appear to indicate MLAs simply are not contributing to the party at all. More likely, of course, is that they are contributing to a different bank account (the one which, perhaps, pays the press office’s real salaries which also do not add up, as noted above). However, surely the voting public should know about this?

It is all a little odd, and the days when Sinn Fein did not get asked such awkward questions have surely passed in this glorious new Executive versus Opposition era. Perhaps a coherent Opposition response would be a good start, Messrs Nesbitt and Eastwood?

What exactly is wrong with the UK’s current trade deals?

One of the main “Leave” claims during the referendum campaign was that leaving the EU would enable the UK to “do its own trade deals”.

To be specific, leaving the EU Customs Union (which is not obligatory even if the UK leaves the EU) would mean this.

However, that raises an obvious question. What precisely is wrong with the trade deals the UK currently has as an EU member state?

(I notice, by the way, that no one attempted to answer last week’s question, which was: What happens if the other party in the trade deal with the UK simply breaks it unilaterally?)

What is a language?

Actually there is perhaps one question more scary for a linguist (professional or amateur) than “How many languages do you speak?

It is, simply: what is a language?

As noted in the above-linked article, in the same way astronomers cannot really define an apparently simple term like “planet”, linguists cannot really define an apparently simple term like “language”.

In any attempt to answer it, it is worth re-emphasising a core point at the outset. When we refer to “English”, usually (particularly when we refer to the language in teaching or administration) we in fact mean “the standard dialect of English based on the form deriving from the variety spoken by the educated classes in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle at around the time of the invention of printing”. French has a similar story to the area around the Sorbonne; Spanish to Salamanca; Portuguese to Coimbra; Italian a notably complex one back a little further in time but based around Florence; German an even more complex one involving Frankfurt (written) and Hanover (spoken). Regardless of the exact history in each case, in most cases we are generally referring to an agreed “standard” written variety and how that variety is reproduced in contemporary speech. There is, notably, a degree of artificiality to this, and yet any “standard” could not survive if it did not represent a variety of the language widely understood and accepted by its users.

Then, in most of Europe (and most places which speak languages of European origin) and parts of the Indian Subcontinent at least, it is worth noting that nearly all “languages” derive from a common source, most likely somewhere in modern Ukraine around 4000-5000 years ago. At that time, in that location, there was a tribe which spoke what we now refer to as “Indo-European”, which was of course never “standardised”. As that tribe broke out, notably westward (from a European point of view) and southward (from an Indian), its language dispersed. As speakers entered new areas, they had to describe different things (new types of tree, sorts of landscape, or even shades of colour, for example); and they came across other tribes from whom they borrowed words and who influenced grammar and pronunciation. The real issue here is that the difference between languages is not just one of space (notably through modern mutual intelligibility), but also time. At some stage Indo-Europeans were speaking a single language, and later they were speaking Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit; later still Italian/Romanian/French/Spanish/Portuguese, Modern Greek and Hindustani.

Additionally, at certain times but in very different epochs we find the first written examples of each tree, and then the first published examples – all of which may have an impact of our perception and sense of what is and is not a language. The issue here is that our instinctive Western bias towards defining “language” very closely alongside “Standard written variety” is problematic. Did “Latin” only exist once it was written? Did “German” only exist once it was published? Do Amazonian tribes with no concept of writing not speak “languages”? In future we may find generations rejecting any language which does not have at least 1,000,000 Wikipedia articles as evidence of its existence!

We also have to consider further the distinction between written and spoken varieties. Clearly, they are connected. However, they are also differentiated in ways which to many of us are simply intuitive. How often do you use the word “therefore” in daily speech, for example? If we take this further, we find that a majority of people globally in fact do not only switch between spoken versus written and/or formal versus informal registers, but actually between languages. A rural dweller in Morocco, for example, may well speak Berber at home, Arabic at the market, and French in education and government dealings. Does that person speak three languages, when they are not each used in all contexts? Indeed, if Berber is never used for commerce, education or administration (and is never written), is it a “language” at all? And then, if that person meets a trader from Syria who also purports to speak “Arabic” but they cannot understand each other at all, who is speaking what and are they different “languages”?

Most of the terminology around this issue is in fact borrowed from German – Abstand refers to language differentiation by linguistic distance (“Irish” is clearly linguistically different from “English” but not from “Gaelic”; “English is clearly different from “Irish” but not from “Scots”); Ausbau is the notion of how far a language is deliberately developed (not just towards written standards, but that is an obvious issue); Dachsprache is essentially a person’s sense of which language they are speaking (or writing) regardless of context (so a northwestern German farmer may linguistically speak something closer to Standard Dutch than Standard German at home, but if he regards himself to be speaking German then, arguably at least, by definition he is); and Halbsprache is a term used for a linguistic variety which is not fully developed as a written standard language of a community or communities, but has some sense of development and commonality (perhaps, for example, in literature) which goes beyond a perfectly regular non-standard regional dialect or similar.

It is here that we find “language” status, in the West at least, is an intensely political thing – the old maxim is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. At the time of the French revolution, Parisian French would have been easily understood by only a minority of the population, many of whom spoke completely different languages (from Breton to Dutch) and most of whom spoke a different variety originating from Latin; at the time of Italian unification it was openly admitted “We have created Italy; now we have to create Italians”. Of course, this political-linguistic emphasis can go the other way too – the successful revivals of Catalan and Welsh are tied, with different levels of connection and comfort, to nationalist/separatist political movements (as are many rather less successful ones). Countries such as Spain generally struggle with the challenge of so many languages at different levels of development and with different levels of popular support.

What is the solution to all of this? I have no idea! However, I would suggest the best solution I have seen is a language pyramid:

Spanish Arabic French
Japanese Russian German Hindi Indonesian
Thai Swahili Polish Dutch Gujurati Korean Wolof
Kannada Zulu Irish Catalan Afrikaans Papiamento Belarussian Maori Icelandic

Here, we can see (if formatting allows!) that English has a unique status as the foremost language of global trade, knowledge and diplomacy. Even here, this presents challenges, however. How different are the varieties and should we specify which one (American, British, or even a different non-native version) predominates? For how long has English had this unique status? Which language had it before and how did it lose it?

In the next level, purely by way of example, I include three languages of unquestionable global reach and cultural relevance. That said, even here they have attained this status by different means. Spanish has it by weight of numbers; Arabic due to its religious role; and French due to its previous role as the high language of Royal elites and global diplomacy. Some of these may not stand the test of time.

At the next level we have significant national languages, not only because they are spoken by a lot of people in globally relevant economies, but also because they have some degree of reach (Pokemon, vodka, Vorsprung durch Technik, guru, nasi goreng etc.). Even here, we have some challenges. What exactly does Russian cover? Do we allow for Austrian German in any way? Is Hindi to be considered distinctly from Urdu, and why? Is Indonesian to be considered alongside Malay, and does this affect its status?

At the next level we have significant national languages which perhaps do not have quite the same reach, or significant international trading languages in particular regions. These are quite distinct issues, and we are now touching on just how far our Western bias towards “Written Standards” takes us, versus the practical reality of trading and living in some form of “lingua franca” for hundreds of millions of people.

At the final range we have a lot of distinction: established regionally significant languages, national languages in restricted use but of historical significance, growing regional languages in large economies, languages in administrative use in regional powers, significant inter-regional trading languages, national languages whose status distinct from other languages is disputed, national languages within nations, and linguistically significant national languages of small countries. Maybe these do not all belong at the same “level”, but they show a range of uses and challenges in terms of definition of a “language” and why it may (or may not) be so defined – globally, nationally, regionally; socially, politically, economically; never mind linguistically!

Of course, most of the world’s languages would not even make it on to the above pyramid. From tribal languages of restricted range to languages of uncertain status (Ulster Scots anyone?), the challenges only multiply below the pyramid! This is to say nothing of constructed languages such as Esperanto or Klingon; or indeed codes or systems which meet some of the common definitions of “language”.

We may, in practice, never be able to agree on the definition of a “language”. We should at least reach some agreement, however, on the complexities which surround the challenge of agreeing that definition!




102 years on, we have learned nothing from WW1

The lights went out across Europe this day 102 years ago. A generation never saw them lit again.

The tragedy is not just the 17 million lives lost in that war and the 50 million lost in the one directly consequent to it. The tragedy is we have not learned.

I wish I could disagree with Tobias Stone in this article about how history is bound to repeat itself. Indeed, I have written similar myself, though not as effectively.

I am not by nature particularly a pessimist, but 102 years on the lights are about to go out again. Post-factual eras where people ignore those who actually know what they are talking about and turn to strong men always turn out the same way – in revolution and war. We can only hope it will not take as long this time for the light to return.

Northern Ireland must prepare for sovereignty

David McWilliams was making mischief again in his recent article on the simple fact Northern Ireland does not pay for itself.

I do not agree with all of his working, but I do agree with his ultimate conclusion – not only does Northern Ireland not pay its way, but there is an ever dwindling number of people willing to pay for it.

This is yet another reason the DUP was so foolish to play footsie with English Nationalists six weeks ago; and why it is so ludicrous that Irish Nationalists cannot (indeed, refuse to come up with) a workable plan for Irish unity. In other words, public opinion is shifting against, both in the jurisdiction which does pay for Northern Ireland and in the alternative one which would.

After all, when there is an ever decreasing amount of money to go around, it does not matter who you are, why would you hand it to another jurisdiction for no apparent gain?

The DUP and other idiots completely forgot to ask why anyone would pay £200m a week to Northern Ireland (particularly when you have just voted to stop paying exactly that amount to the EU)? Would that money, currently raised from English taxpayers, not be better spend on the NHS in England? Most residents of England would not take too long to give a decisive answer to that one!

So Northern Ireland can no longer reliably depend on England’s taxpayers’ money; nor on southern Ireland’s. It is going to need to move towards a position where public spending and welfare in Northern Ireland is allocated on the basis of revenue (taxes) raised in Northern Ireland.

In an increasingly crazy world, Northern Ireland needs to prepare to look after itself. It needs to prepare for sovereignty, in other words.

About these “Trade Deals”…

… if the UK does “its own Trade Deal” with, say, the United States or China, tell me this: what happens in practice if the United States or China simply doesn’t adhere to it?

Promise of PfG will be lost without NI Civil Service reform

A number of third sector lobbyists in Northern Ireland are getting very excited about the Programme for Government Framework document, which was generally agreed by all the parties before the Assembly Election and upon which consultation closed on 22 July. Unfortunately, this excitement is unlikely to be matched by the practice, because Northern Ireland’s bureaucracy remains fundamentally and culturally incapable of managing reform – not least reform of itself.

The Framework consists of outcomes and indicators (with measurements) and theory behind it is an “outcomes-based approach” (as opposed, in effect, to a “functions-based approach”). To try to give an obvious example of what this may mean: in future, legislation may set out “statutory outcomes” for public bodies to achieve, rather than “statutory functions”, in theory thus devolving considerably more power to the public body to determine how those outcomes are best delivered in practice. Notably, that body would be free to use any resource to deliver the outcome, because it no longer holds functions as such – for example, hearing tests could be devolved to Boots or Specsavers, rather than GP surgeries or Health Centres. Fundamentally, as long as the outcome is achieved, the means of achieving it are irrelevant. It would also have an impact on budgeting – budgets may be devolved outwards, enabling greater control over small sums of money to be handed to more junior public servants or even to local community groups or social enterprises.

This approach was first adopted in the US State (“Commonwealth”) of Virginia in 2000, and was introduced in Scotland in 2007.

So far, so good. However, there are two significant problems with it – politicians and civil servants.

Politicians continue to believe that merely because they have a “mandate”, they somehow know best. Actually, last month’s referendum and the general electoral chaos ongoing across Europe and the United States should show us that politicians have failed fundamentally to relate to people’s lives and grasp the social challenges which lie ahead in a post-economic collapse world. Parked in a bubble, few really have any practical sense of what is required, and thus the outcomes and indicators are bland and often miss the point.

Civil servants too, particularly in Northern Ireland, seem to be culturally incapable of moving beyond process. Even basic, easy projects – for example in services for ethnic minority children or to prevent diabetes – are held up catastrophically by endless meetings, paperwork and, frankly, holidays. Even now, with the chaos of “Brexit” looming and the severe potential impact on Northern Ireland, the notion of restricting leave or any such thing will not have entered anyone’s head. Some might suggest Northern Ireland’s bureaucracy seems to allow itself ten months of process, two months of no process, and no months of actual delivery every year. Is that how Singapore got so successful?

Hence, the Framework falls at the first hurdle – the outcomes themselves. A staggering fourteen of these have been identified, and it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that some of them overlap and others are not actually outcomes at all (a problem, when the whole thing is meant to be “outcomes-based”).

For example, only a politician or civil servant could seriously believe “high quality public services” are an outcome. Indeed, the fact it appears under “outcomes” shows that the whole point of an “outcomes-based approach” has been missed. The issue is not “service” or function, it is delivery and outcome.

Many more are essentially the same outcome – a “strong, competitive economy” will inevitably also be an “innovative, creative society” and create “better jobs” for “more people”; a society where we “respect diversity” will surely be one in which we “respect each other”; and it will surely be impossible to create a “place where people want to live, work and visit” without being an “welcoming, outward-looking society”. There is no need for these to be separate. Indeed, it is essential for any “outcomes-based approach” to identify which of those phrases are “drivers” and which are actual “outcomes”.

The truth is the whole Framework has been developed by politicians and civil servants with the only attempt at engagement (and even then not a particularly meaningful one) occurring after development. In fact, experts from the real world (not the one politicians or civil servants inhabit, as noted above) should have been involved from the outset. They would immediately have spotted the overlaps and ill-definitions in the so-called “outcomes”, and thus enabled a far better Framework to be established from the beginning.

Now that we know there is a two-party Executive, there would be no harm in starting again with the outcomes. Let us see around five meaningful outcomes, and then link some meaningful indicators to them. And let us accompany that with a root-and-branch reform of the NI Civil Service (and Health and Education administration), including outside expertise, to make it fit for delivering meaningful outcomes not process-based functions. The principle of the “outcomes-based approach” is fine. The practice will require a fundamental re-think.

Executive needs to realise it is single unit

I joked shortly after the referendum that no one would have believed, in mid-2016, that Northern Ireland would have a stable government and opposition and England would have neither.

Northern Ireland’s problem remains, however, that neither the government nor the opposition has worked out it has to function as a single unit. That is how democratic legislatures work. This means not only that the opposition must function as a coherent unit in order to deny the DUP/SF coalition a majority at the next Assembly election (and thus force a change of Executive), but also that the Executive must so function.

What we now have in Northern Ireland is close to normality. As the First Minister kept reminding us, her party won the election alongside Sinn Fein (admittedly she omits that last bit, but she would do well to remember she cannot govern without her coalition partners!) and thus it has a mandate to govern alongside Sinn Fein (whose seats provide it with the majority in the legislature). That means the Executive must function as a single unit, as it has an Assembly majority on that basis. Just as Scotland’s minority government and Wales’ Lib-Lab coalition provide a single government position on every issue, so must Northern Ireland’s.

Quite obviously, that includes the European Union. The Executive’s job now, taking account of the referendum result both across the UK and within Northern Ireland, is to take a collective position on what Northern Ireland wants from the UK-EU negotiations about to take place. It has failed to do this.

Thus far, we have seen a Finance Minister join the Scottish and Welsh Finance Ministers to suggest some form of united front (no one is quite sure for what, however); and we have had the somewhat embarrassing farce of Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister going to the EU with a begging bowl saying how vital EU funding is for farmers here despite having advocated a vote to leave. It is an incoherent mess (and there is, at last, some hint of the SDLP and Alliance working together at least to point that out).

The First Minister and deputy First Minister may lead different Assembly teams but they share the same office – an office which has responsibility for European Union affairs as they impact on Northern Ireland. So what is the settled view of that office? It has no entitlement to present more than one view. Its role is to reach consensus on what precisely Northern Ireland wants from the forthcoming negotiations, and then to argue for it using all the channels available. There is no reason, for example, that my own proposals should cause either party any significant problem (after all, even a Sinn Fein Minister has muttered about Corporation Tax now having to go lower than in the rest of the island for it to be worthwhile).

Whatever, a single coherent Executive position is necessary. Now.


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