We are all guilty in “post-truth” society

The year is not very old, but this is probably the most important and challenging article you will read during it:

The Death of Expertise

The problem is, we all know the “Death of Expertise” is going on around us, yet few of us recognise it afflicts us ourselves.

For example, I have now seen well educated, highly able, very professional people sharing this picture (originating, I believe, from the Bernie Sanders campaign) countless times:

denmark

In the words of Blackadder: “There is just one problem with it. It’s b*****ks.”

Excuse the extreme language, but in this case it is necessary. We are, as human beings, inclined to believe what we want to believe. The “Death of Expertise” article above notes the essential point here: it is not that we are lying, it is that we are all engaging in the fallacy that the world is as we think it ought to be. It is not.

To re-emphasise, there is nothing at all accurate about the above. The average Danish worker works a 37-hour week; there is no minimum wage (industries negotiate with trade unions for what is in effect a voluntary living wage in certain sectors, which is typically around $11); universities, health care and child care are not free but are paid for through extremely high taxes (many people may over half their income in tax, plus everyone faces a VAT rate of 25%).

There are many reasons Denmark is the fantastic country it is, but it is simply unacceptable to say “Here is my political platform; here is a happy country; here is the utterly deceptive pretence that that country is happy because of my political platform”.

And highly educated, well respected, professional people (the “Guardian-reading lefty liberals” as well as the Mail-reading white van man) can be just as likely to fall for it. That, perhaps, is the most scary part of all in the “death of expertise”.

Never Waste a Good Crisis (II) – the Speaker

 

By Richard Price:

The office of speaker is no mere procedural position. The role of the speaker goes beyond simply chairing plenary meetings of the Assembly. The speaker should act as the champion of the legislature and if needed, adjudicate in the interests of Assembly, over that of the Executive. The RHI scandal has exposed this, yet in a potentially helpful way.

The second opportunity provided by the RHI scandal is to elect a new speaker who understands and lives the full remit of the role, and will be a champion of reform to Stormont procedures to ensure the legislature is all that it can be.

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, isn’t everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. But the argument that he has elevated and asserted what the role of a speaker/Presiding Officer in an elected chamber is, in comparison to his immediate predecessor, must surely be hard to counter.

His championing of reform, his promotion of scrutiny tools such as urgent questions, his quest for order in proceedings at all times, has earned him respect, even if given begrudgingly, from all who cherish the position of the House of Commons at the centre of our national political system.

Sadly, Stormont has yet to see any such Speaker in the modern era. A speaker who takes it as their goal to elevate the status and operation of the legislature, heedless of past party loyalties, or potential complaints from the Executive. It has also become clear that that person will not come in the form of Robin Newton MLA.

Whilst the circumstances of December’s RHI Statement and Adjournment ‘pantomime’ might have provided a test to any presiding officer, all the same, the test was not met.

Where procedure should not have permitted the First Minister to provide a Statement without the Deputy First Minister’s support, strange allowances in favour of his old party colleague were afforded.

Added to the charge sheet has been a conflict of interest in ruling against legitimate public interest questions on funding for Charter NI.

Then we should recall that under another of Stormont’s “quirks” (failings?), unlike John Bercow, Mr Newton (presumably) remains a fully paid up of the DUP with intention to run for election under the party’s colours again.

Up with this we can no longer put.

The Chamber should elect from its number an individual committed to upholding the needs of Assembly debate and scrutiny, over and above those of any erstwhile political friends in Government.

The Assembly further requires a Bercow-style champion of continuous improvement of the House’s procedural structures, including:

  • Proper opposition debate time and speaking rights.
  • Greater facility for urgent questions.
  • Speedy reform of the broken ‘petition of concern’ mechanism.
  • A plan for long term removal/diluting of ‘community designation’ and its importance.
  • A truly independent speaker who breaks ALL ties with their former party.

Northern Ireland needs a speaker who puts the legislature first, the Executive second. A speaker with an appetite for reform. A speaker who feels the dismay of the public at broken systems and takes it as an impetus for transformation. A speaker who has a plan for taking the Assembly from its present nadir of public esteem, to a place where it can hold its head high against any western counterpart*.

It is still possible that the fallout from #RHI could achieve that. Let us hope so.

(*And wouldn’t John McCallister have made an excellent candidate. Sigh…)

What comes after #AE17?

During the campaign, if there is one, I do not intend to post further on political opinion until eve of poll, but will occasionally post on matters of political structure and likely political (not electoral) outcomes.

3 March 2017. After the “brutal” election campaign, the DUP and Sinn Féin have been returned as the largest parties in their respective designation, and have a majority of the 90 Assembly seats between them. There are three weeks to get a functioning Executive up and running.

What next?

It is essential we are realistic about the answer to this question. Forget the #StormontIWant hashtag, what happens next will be based on what suits the DUP and Sinn Féin.

I would guess two things would go a long way to helping re-establish the institutions in that eventuality:

  • an “arrangement” around the Petition of Concern (an initial review of its operation plus perhaps some agreement not to use it in certain areas apparently in line with “A Fresh Start”) – this would enable at least some of the issues in Mr McGuinness’s resignation letter to be dealt with while also moving in the direction of stated DUP policy; and
  • a commitment from the UK Government urgently to introduce an Irish Language Act (which would take the form of placing a duty on public authorities to ensure respect for the language at all times, maintenance of Charter obligations, and certain other rights particularly in education) – this would cover this St Andrews obligation and secure the respect agenda, but would enable the DUP not to have to legislate.

Although there would be other things to iron out (like a Justice Minister, the speed of the “RHI Inquiry” and, not least, damaged personal relationships), such an agreement would at the very least make it difficult for either party to justify the continuing and worsening instability of a second election.

Of course, such a deal could be done NOW, so it may not be so easy.

3 March 2017. After a “brutal” election campaign in which it became apparent that both Executive parties are guilty of appalling financial mismanagement (RHI meet Welfare Reform delay; dodgy office costs meet inactive cultural societies; community hall grants meet agricultural subsidy blunders; United Airlines meet Ballykelly relocation; NAMA meet, well, NAMA… oh, and they don’t seem to have fallen out over SIF, funnily), the DUP and Sinn Féin are returned as largest parties in their respective designations but weakened so that they no longer command an overall majority between them. 

What next?

Noting that they, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP do have a narrow majority, the Alliance Party proposes (via a combination of its 1988 Governing With Consent and 2004 Agenda for Democracy documents) that the three parties clearly could form a power-sharing Executive which would command a majority in the Assembly. It would clearly be a nonsense not to proceed on that basis.

Initially by changing the time limit for appointment of First and deputy First Minister to 28 days rather than 14, the Secretary of State has time to introduce emergency legislation making the Executive a separate institution from the Assembly (as in Scotland and Wales) and allowing him, in practice in consultation with the Government of Ireland as a fellow guarantor of the Agreement, to nominate a full Executive consisting of all three designations which may then be approved as a whole by simple majority in the Assembly.

That is what should happen. Remember, if this unnecessary election does come pass, YOU decide…

That issue of “Parity”

There remains some confusion as to quite why the Renewable Heat Incentive ended up being financed as it was.

Necessarily, this is a somewhat simplified explanation.

Essentially, there are two types of public spending in the UK – that falling under “Departmental Expenditure Limits” (budgeted, in other words) and that falling under “Annually Managed Expenditure” (estimated, in other words). [The former is also split between “capital” and “revenue” spending, but that is not relevant here.]

Education, for example, is budgeted – a budget is set for the financial year (or financial years) and that is deemed the Departmental Expenditure Limit.

Welfare, for example, can only be estimated – it depends ultimately on how many claimants there are. A marked economic decline (as, for example, in 2008/9) can mean the amount required goes up swiftly and otherwise unpredictably. This, therefore, has to be “annually managed”.

In the case of DEL expenditure, because it can be budgeted, the UK Treasury allocates the money for “geographically identifiable issues” (health, education, infrastructure) to each devolved Finance Department in advance. In the case of AME, however, the UK Treasury pays (albeit via a local Department) as the expenditure is accrued.

However, “parity” applies. This is the concept that the UK Government will cover all spending (whether DEL or AME) on the same basis, provided no part of the UK seeks an advantage either by changing main taxation or by changing policy in an area funded under AME. Where such a change is made by a devolved Government or Department, any extra expenditure must be paid from its own devolved Budget. As is well known, that is the issue with corporation tax and welfare reform.

Schemes encouraging a particular behaviour, for example the use of renewable heat, would fall under the latter – as you do not really know how many claimants there will be, you cannot put in place a “budget” as such. The idea is, provided the scheme is properly managed, that it will reap long-term benefits (though, say, improved energy efficiency, or improved public health due to lower pollution or cleaner power).

That is why, when you operate such a scheme without being able to budget, you implement appropriate cost controls and annual reviews. With regards to a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, it would therefore be the height of lunacy in Northern Ireland to remove cost controls from the model legislation and not ensure annual reviews were implemented. Not least since it thus renders and policy different and breaches parity, and thus it falls to the people of Northern Ireland to pick up the tab, which was the whole reason we had to implement welfare reform after all…

How to learn languages – Indo-European

So, following on from last Friday’s general introduction, let us start at the beginning.

imageThis is the “family tree” of Indo-European languages. It is slightly simplistic, as it does not take account of languages which have been heavily influenced by other languages (not least English!)

This means that over 400 languages, including all national languages in Europe bar Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, are derived from a single tongue spoken around 5000 years ago, probably in or near modern Ukraine, which we now call “Proto-Indo-European” (PIE). Half the world’s population speak a daughter language PIE natively. PIE then broke up over the centuries into different dialects as tribes moved geographically and language changed (for a range of reasons from basic language change to coming across new things to describe and, of course, coming into contact with other languages).

So a good start is to have some idea what PIE was like.

Phonology

Clearly, we do not know precisely what PIE sounded like.

However, we can, through reconstruction, work out that it had a lot of various sounds similar to those typically represented by modern English <h> and <l>. Most of these have been lost, but we can tell they existed from the way words developed subsequently.

We can reliably guess more about consonants than vowels, although we do know the most commonly occurring vowels were /e/ and /o/. Consonants were distinguished not just by “voiced” (e.g. /b/) and “voiceless” (e.g. /p/), but also “aspirated” (as Classical Latin <ph>). There would also have been considerably more of these (i.e. individual consonant sounds) than in most modern languages.

Most noteworthy of all, perhaps, is the clear indication that PIE relied on pitch rather than stress; and that this was applied at the start of words (perhaps with the exception of words with prefixes, which were exempt). This would have given it a markedly more different sound from any Western European language now.

Standardisation

Proto-Indo-European speakers had not, of course, developed the technology of writing. Written forms of the language are, therefore, the reconstructions of academic linguists.

Vocabulary

Most of our vocabulary originates from PIE (though in fact this figure is lower for Germanic languages such as English than it is for Romance languages derived from Latin).

Key numbers:

  • 1 hoi-no-; 2 dwo-; 3 trei; 4 kwetwor-; 5 penkwe; 6 sweks; 7 septm; 8 oktou; 9 newn.; 10 dekm.

Note also k’m.tóm ‘a large number, a hundred’

PIE did have nouns, verbs and adjectives (this is not the case for all languages worldwide). However, other classes were less clear – what are now prepositions in most daughter languages were often postpositions or simply affixes, for example.

Grammar

Nouns in PIE had eight, perhaps nine, cases – marked by endings to distinguish whether they were being used as subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor, recipient and so on. They had three numbers (singular, dual, plural) and three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and fell into a number of classifications. Some were further grouped – those ending -r, for example, often marked family relationship (and generally still do).

Verbs were marked, either by changes to the root vowel or by an ending (or both), primarily for aspect (rather than tense, as such) – whether something is relevant to the present or not. There were also complex moods – essentially marking whether something was certain, optional, counter-factual, and so on. Verbs could also be marked directly for mediopassive – the passive (effectively switching the subject and object around) or reflexive (making the subject also the object). They came in four classes – marked by the stem vowels (i.e. those generally appearing before the ending) /a/, /e/, /i/ or none – and were themselves classified by aspect (as being stative, reflecting a state; imperfective, reflecting something ongoing; or perfective, reflecting something complete – thus, where in English it is correct to say both ‘I boil the water’ and ‘The water boils’, PIE would not have allowed the same form for both).

Common (thematic) verb endings (1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • Singular: -oh,-esi, -eti 
  • Plural: -omos, -ete, -onti

Dual also existed, but is not relevant to modern Western European languages.

All adjectives agreed with nouns; it is unclear how much distinction there was between adjectives and adverbs.

Pronouns were markedly different from how we currently understand them. For example, there were first and second person pronouns (‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’) but not third person (no ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘they’).

Key personal pronouns (in nominative/accusative) were:

  • singular h,eg’oH/h,me’, tuH/twe’; plural wei/nsme’, yuH/usme’

Word order was generally SOV, although the range of cases (and other marker particles) would have allowed significant variation for emphasis and there was a shift in some dialects late on to SVO. The key negative particle was ne.

Character

Clearly, it is hard to assess the character of a language spoken thousands of years ago.

We do not know exactly what its own origins were, and whether they were shared with any other language tree (this is keenly debated by linguists, but seems unlikely to me).

We know something about the culture. We can tell from the language that society was clearly patriarchal, for example. Much of this too, however, remains keenly debated.

What now?

Let us move forward then to the earliest “Romance” and “Germanic” languages.

 

Business has to think again about NI political preferences

A few months ago I appeared on Nolan to argue that the retail sector can only go so far in delivering jobs and growth, and that the focus needs to shift somewhat towards real exports. Understandably there was an opposite number from the retail sector arguing his case – but then, rather less understandably, he went on to heap praise on the DUP/SF Executive (in a kind of ‘I haven’t always agreed with them in the past but now they’re wonderful’ way).

It continued to be striking subsequently how few organisations, particularly though not exclusively in business, would dare criticise the Executive after it was formed in late May. Private conversations sometimes revealed some wariness, but this was always followed by a ‘But you have to understand…’

Well no actually I don’t have to understand. For example, all business organisations who polled their members found them majority opposed to Brexit in Northern Ireland (this went as high as 81% in one case), yet in the face of the DUP no outright campaigning was to be seen at all. ‘Ah but corporation tax…’

Ah but nothing. Left to its own devices the simple fact is, by a selfish determination to protect its Leader at all costs and a distinct lack of grace towards others, ‘Arlene’s candidates’ have taken just eight months to deliver catastrophic instability – at just the very time business (including retail) could not afford it.

Business organisations have a stake in Northern Ireland and now they must finally find a voice. The unstable situation brought on by the current Executive is intolerable; businesspeople have a vote; and they must use that vote to punish those who brought it about.

After all, that’s how democracy is supposed to work.

Liofa funding real cause of collapse

I appeared briefly in BBC Talkback yesterday and no sooner had I emphasised yesterday’s point that the Secretary of State should not proceed to an immediate election but probably would, he stood up in the Commons and confirmed he would.

The DUP is now swiftly retreating from previous positions in order to appear not responsible for an election for which it is clearly responsible. Why is a public inquiry the right thing now when it “wasn’t going to happen” on 19 December?

What I did not get to say was that something much worse for power-sharing occurred four days later. DUP Communities Minister Paul Girvan withdrew funding from the Liofa programme, helping poor children learn Irish in the Gaeltacht. The amount was minuscule but what it said to Irish Nationalists, indeed to non-Unionists, was massive. At just the moment bridges needed to be built and respect needed to be shown, the DUP opted for the opposite. It was an appalling act – along with “leprechaun language”, “curry my yoghurt” and a boat renaming, it was yet another needless and gratuitous assault on a language which, though not widely spoken, is at the heart of many Northern Irish people’s national identity.

It is that act more than any, just before Christmas, which made it impossible for Irish Republicans to stay in the Executive as per the “status quo”.

The DUP could yet escape an election by announcing a new bursary and that it would not stand in the way of a reasonably cost-neutral Irish Language Act. It would be free to dress this up under the recognition that, after all, “Presbyterians saved the Irish language”. This would in fact come at no financial or political cost whatsoever.

Yet the DUP probably does not even realise that such a move is necessary, and would probably be too arrogant to pursue one even if it did.

We could be in, resultantly, for a completely unnecessary and nasty election – or even two.

It is simply ludicrous.

Why there absolutely must not be a snap Assembly election

The DUP and Sinn Féin are hopeless at government but very good at politics. Any immediate snap election will be on their terms, in effect electing negotiators for St Andrews II (or Good Friday III or Sunningdale IV) which will inevitably push people to the extremes to “keep themmuns in their place”. This is how Northern Ireland operates.

(These extremes no doubt now consist of three rather than two leaders, with polling and media bids showing rational people fed up with “Unionists” and “Nationalists” are increasingly turning to Naomi Long. I am not objective, but it is fair to say anyone objective would agree her party would probably do quite well too.)

Therefore allowing an immediate snap election, while jobs are at risk due to no Budget, lives are at risk due to lengthening waiting lists, education is at risk due to a teachers’ pay dispute and so on, would be the height of lunacy. There is no justification for allowing two parties running away from these issues then to set the terms of an election, not least when that may well be an election to nothing.

Instead, the Secretary of State should use the “reasonable” time period he has before having to call an election to leave the Assembly in place and convene reform talks involving those elected to it only eight months ago for a five-year term. He should note that he can pass emergency legislation to remove the requirement for an election at any moment, since one would be pointless.

And he should note that, at any time, he can also pass legislation restricting the use of the Petition of Concern.

Remove the abuse of the Petition of Concern, and you essentially remove the entire problem. Arlene Foster would be censured; same-sex marriage would pass; relevant inquiries could be set up; Irish language bursaries could be guaranteed; necessarily tough Budgets and reforms would be easier to get through.

Those talks should be the next step, not an election. And civic society should lose no time in saying so.

Arlene Foster’s delusions of grandeur

We perhaps should not blame Arlene Foster for calling herself “Leader of Northern Ireland” when the BBC itself has been calling her “First Minister of our country”. She is in fact neither, and it’s an important distinction.

The office of “Prime Minister of the United Kingdom” is one which is traditionally recognised by convention rather than law – the very title “Prime Minister” did not appear in any law until 1939. It continues to attract no salary (the salary being paid instead to the “First Lord of the Treasury”, who has been the same person for the past century). Initially the title was understood to mean the Minister without portfolio who chaired the Cabinet – “primus inter pares” (first among equals). Since the War it has become much more of a Leadership role, with convention now dictating that the Prime Minister may overrule other Ministers.

Scottish devolved government was set up with a “First Minister” who held much the same role at devolved level – not just Chair, but actually Director. There, the Scottish Executive (now Government) was set up as a separate body from the Scottish Parliament just as the UK Cabinet is separate from the UK Parliament, and Directorates were set up within it (for Education, Health, Justice etc).

Wales and Northern Ireland, however, were set up differently. In their case, the Executive is a Committee of the Assembly. The role of “First Minister” (shared in effect by two Ministers in Northern Ireland) is much more the older one – Chair of the Committee of Ministers. There is no overrule function.

Thus, as the outset, Scotland had a “First Minister of Scotland” but Northern Ireland and Wales had a “First Minister of the Assembly” – a clear distinction in title for a clear distinction in function.

Wales changed its system after a referendum in 2011 and now its Government, as in Scotland, is a separate entity from its Assembly. Its First Minister now has a role more akin to Scotland’s.

Northern Ireland has not gone that way, however, and it is an important distinction. In Northern Ireland, unlike in Scotland or Wales, each Department is an independent legal entity. Its Ministers are thus Heads of Department and are responsible for that Department (unlike their equivalents in Scotland and Wales, now known as Cabinet Secretaries, who are part of a single entity known as the “Government”).

The role of First and deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, therefore, has no “leadership” function beyond that of the Executive Office itself (whose functions are now extremely limited). The role is in fact a representative and a chairing one. In other words, unlike in Scotland and Wales, the First Minister(s) in Northern Ireland are not responsible for the conduct of the devolved Government as a whole, only for their own Office and the Executive Committee itself.

It is to be hoped that Arlene Foster understands this, as it not only means that she is not responsible for other Departments now (and is thus not “Leader of Northern Ireland”), but she was responsible for the conduct and decisions of any Department of which she was Minister while she was Minister.

And, at the very least, we should expect the joint Chair of the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly to understand what her role is – and isn’t.

How to learn languages – General

This list of vocabulary items proved popular among a number of correspondents.

image.jpeg

So I intend to run a trial series on Fridays on how best to learn other Western European languages – please participate (and correct me where appropriate)!

The idea is to give an absolutely basic grounding, from which you can develop knowledge in the ways I have suggested in the past. Remember, motivation is essential!

Here is one absolute essential: the trick to speaking a language is not to know everything, but to get around what you do not know. That is what this is about!

Phonology

To speak any language, you will of course need to know how it is pronounced. You need only the basics to start with – most consonants are pronounced the same way in any language, so you will need to know the vowels, probably the diphthongs (two vowels pronounced together), and perhaps some awkward consonant clusters (consonants appearing together).

Over time, it pays to mimic the rhythm and intonation of the target language. To speak Italian like a Cockney or French with an Ulster accent is like trying to learn the words of a song without the tune. You will never get it absolutely perfect, but you want to get to the stage where you are not immediately identifiable as an English speaker (not least because that makes it hard to practise if the other person knows, or thinks they know, English).

As a quick tip: not all letters are entirely individual. Many are actually closely related to each other, and this can have an impact on how they change from language to language. For example, pairs such as /b/ and /p/, /v/ and /f/, /g/ and /k/ or /z/ and /s/ are in each case voiced and voiceless versions of what is otherwise the same letter; some languages may distinguish them, others may not.

Standardisation

Standardisation is an essential part of this – each modern Western European national language has a written standard. Such standards have developed in different ways – some gradually through time through constant updating, some based on deliberately conservative usage of a particular geographical dialect, some as deliberate mergers of dialects. Exactly how deliberately standards were developed and how widely accepted they are varies from case to case – but knowing something about how a standard developed will always help guide a learner to a general understanding of the interconnection between the spoken and written language. (Of course, some learners may specifically wish to focus on specifically on spoken or specifically on written – a decision worth making at the outset.)

Vocabulary

Firstly, you will want to have a basic idea where most of the vocabulary comes from. This is often quite easy – most Italian words come from Latin. However, it can be tricky – English is a Germanic language, yet much of its vocabulary is directly or indirectly from Latin. Knowing this means you can take a reasonable guess even at vocabulary you do not know (remember – the trick is to get around what you do not know).

Secondly, you will want a reasonable list of pronouns/determiners (including articles) and prepositions – in English, such words include ‘that’, ‘the’ and ‘to’. Such words do not directly translate from language to language (remember, no vocabulary does!!), but it is absolutely necessary at least to recognise many of them at the outset, and then begin to use them by mimicking the patterns you hear.

Thirdly, you will want the above list. What is it? It is a list of what I have found to be “core vocabulary”; words which are essential to saying things. Remember, again, the key is to “work around” what we do not know – for example, we do not need to know the word ‘often’, provided we can say ‘nearly always’ or ‘sometimes’. The above list is the ultimate “work around”!

Grammar

Unfortunately, you cannot get anywhere without grammar. This is often dreaded because it tends to be taught in too much detail. To start with, you need only the basics (and to know which quirks to watch out for); the detail can come freely once you are using the language.

Firstly, you will want to know how nouns work – they or the words around them may or may not be marked for number (in English, singular or plural), gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) or case (in English, direct ‘they’ versus oblique ‘them’; many languages have far more than this).

Secondly, you will want to know how verbs work – they may or may not be marked for (or supported by other words to mark) tense (in English, past or present), aspect (whether ongoing and/or relevant, e.g. ‘I have been’, ‘I am being’) or to “agree” with the subject (‘I like’, ‘she likes‘). They may also be marked directly for mood (in English, indicative or subjunctive) or voice (active or passive).

It is worth noting that tense is a peculiarly Indo-European thing; languages around the world often have verbal systems which indicate the evidential basis of the action (whether I felt it; saw it; heard about it first-hand; heard about it from other sources; etc), and some have no concept of time within their structure or vocabulary whatsoever. The comparative obsession with tense is itself a relatively recent innovation within Indo-European – originally, the focus was more on mood and aspect (essentially on relevance rather than particularly time).

Thirdly, you may want to know how adjectives work – they may or may not “agree” with nouns; and they may or may not take the same form as adverbs.

Fourthly, you will want to know at least basically how clauses are structured, including the main word order (English generally is “SVO” – subject, verb, object), negation, and connecting words (‘He came but you stayed’, ‘I like that she was here’, etc).

There will also be other particles to deal with – how to link things together, express questions or exclamations, and so on.

This seems like a lot, but you can do it in stages – work out how nouns work, then verbs (and put those together), then adjectives (and add those in), and then structure, picking up the particles as you go along.

Character

Character? I think knowing a language’s character before you begin is as relevant as anything.

Firstly, you want to know the background to the language. Where does it come from? What influences are contained within it? For example, English is a Germanic language heavily influenced by Norman French, marked also by a significant sound shift from around 1350-1600. Knowing this means you can make sense of why the vocabulary is the way it is (with basic words generally Germanic, and high culture words French or Latin), why the spelling appears so odd, and even to some extent why the grammatical structure is relatively simple.

Secondly, you may want to know generally whether the language is predominantly nominal or verbal – in other words, does it build clauses predominantly around nouns (facts) or verbs (actions)? This is general, and no language is absolutely one way or the other, but knowing this gives you a real feeling for how the language is used.

Thirdly, languages are not standalone things – they are products of a culture. You will need to learn something about the character of those who speak them too. (However, steer clear of stereotypes, which are often unfair and unhelpful!)

What now?

So, let us try this with a few languages over the next few Fridays – we will go back in time to start with, to touch on this final “character” point (and also make us realise how lucky we are that languages simplify over time). Then we will try some modern Western European languages.