Colour clashes becoming ridiculous in top-level football

In next week’s “Super Bowl”, a toss-up will decide which team wears white and which team wears a colour. The teams will be easily distinguishable even where reception is poor or even in black and white.

Sheffield Wednesday in black, with the goalkeeper in purple, defend against Chelsea in blue. How “easily distinguishable” are these colours?!

Yesterday’s FA Cup tie between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday was yet another example of (association) football failing to do the bleedin’ obvious. Blue faced black with one goalkeeper in purple. None of these was easily distinguishable, as required by Law 4, particularly the visiting goalkeeper from his own team mates. It was ridiculous.

It used to be so much easier. Referees wore black, goalkeepers generally wore green (or generally yellow in the unlikely event that a team chose to wear green), and teams were easily distinguished. This was managed despite each club maintaining only two kits for outfielders.

These days, despite clubs being allowed three or sometimes more kits, colour clashes are common, particularly between dark colours (black versus blue or claret, for example). Goalkeepers often wear shirts which are barely distinguishable from their own team – Arsenal’s has even contrived to wear dark pink at home, blatantly clashing with red. Even if the referee is satisfied at the distinction (and I would not be), the viewers at home can hardly be. What is more, it is all so unnecessary.

In the name of rampant commercialism, we have made a simple thing complicated. If goalkeepers wore green and referees wore black, one team could wear a predominantly dark colour (just not black or green) and the other light. Why make it all so hard?!

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How to learn languages Review (repost)

Every Friday this year, I have run through how to learn the major Western European languages.

General

It is important to emphasise that, in terms of learning, the story starts with this general vocabulary list and overall introduction. Without it, the other introductions to each individual language and language group make sense, but have limited value.

Indo-European

Then we need to note that all the languages referred to – the entirely of  both the Romance/Latinate and the Germanic language family (as well as many others) – derive from a single language known by modern linguists as Proto-Indo-European.

Esperanto

Anyone embarking on learning several languages – particularly if these are Romance/Latinate, Germanic and/or Slavic – may consider first learning the constructed language Esperanto. This is relatively simple, but offers some introduction to the principles and complexities/challenges/fun of language learning (from tricky phonology to the subjunctive mood, alongside some unintentional irregularities). It can also be useful for vocabulary, drawn as it is largely from Latin or Latin-based languages but also in significant part from Germanic and Slavic.

Romance/Latinate

What are usually referred to as “Romance” languages are those derived from Latin – among national languages, this means (from west to east in Europe) Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian. They all carry over complex verb systems (with three tenses and a range of moods, and full verbal agreement) and two noun genders (with full adjectival agreement). In fact, almost half the linguistic change between Classical Latin and each of those languages had occurred by the time they split apart; thus they are not only derived from the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar but in fact from the Late Latin still in some use at the time of Charlemagne – having some comprehension of that late version (also known as “Vulgar Latin”) is a huge advantage to anyone wishing to learn any Romance language, and particularly to anyone wishing to learn more than one.

All other things being equal, perhaps the best Romance language to start with is Italian. It is the most conservative of the main national Romance languages, and therefore includes most of the features found in the others.

On the basis that it is easier to learn a relatively complex language before a structurally more straightforward one, next may be Portuguese. From a purely European point of view, this one seems marginal, but the growing role of Brazil as a regional power perhaps gives it as much significance as any other in the modern world.

Structurally more straightforward (comparatively) is arguably the most useful foreign language for English speakers to learn, Spanish. The main complication is that the phonology of Spanish has changed markedly since the Golden Age, although spelling has (broadly at least) kept up. With almost half a billion native speakers worldwide, and a significant role also within the United States, this is rapidly becoming the first language in schools in the English-speaking world with good reason. Its only drawback is that learning other languages having learned Spanish generally takes longer than the other way around.

For all that, in the British Isles French generally remains the first foreign language, with its remarkable cultural power and astonishing phonological development. This is not particularly linguistically helpful, however, as its distinct phonology (a product, at least in part, of notable early Germanic influence) means French is further from the other three modern Romance languages looked at here than any of the other three is from any of the others.

Germanic 

Germanic languages derive from what is referred to by linguists as “Proto-Germanic”, spoken at the same time as Classical Latin. They display simpler verb forms (with only two tenses, rare use of subjunctive mood and even in some cases elimination or near elimination of verbal and some adjectival agreement) but a broadly more complex noun (albeit simplified in some modern standards), with the neuter case maintained at least in some form across the board. The first major written text in Germanic is in fact in the now extinct East Germanic language of Gothic, contemporaneous with the Roman emperor Constantine.

The first written version of any Germanic language still in existence was in fact the West Germanic language of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, from which modern English (and also Scots) is derived. Old English bears almost no more relation to modern English than Gothic does, but the intermediate period gave us the language of the first great English literary figure, Chaucer. This is known as Middle English, but is markedly further removed from the modern language that the Early Modern English of Shakespeare as the speed of language change slowed down after the invention of the printing press.

Modern English is, of course, something of a hybrid given the influence on it of Latin, Norman French and other languages; like French, it is complicated by the fact it is written to reflect medieval rather than modern pronunciation, and there has been a sound shift since. The most widely spoken West Germanic language other than English, and the most conservative and obviously Germanic language still widely used, is German, with the remarkable ongoing complexity of its noun system; it is grammatically complex, but at least its written form reflects its sound shifts.

Another less complex West Germanic language is Dutch, interesting in its own right but also because of its even more grammatically reduced daughter language spoken in Southern Africa, Afrikaans. This is the nearest national language in existence to English (but the reverse does not apply).

There is also a group of North Germanic languages, split between the Western or Insular ones (Icelandic, Faroese and arguably one standard of Norwegian) and the Eastern or Scandinavian ones (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish). To some degree each group of these is mutually intelligible (they are significantly more conservative as you move northwest), but Danish is outstanding for its remarkably reduced/progressed phonology.

Review

It has been my contention throughout that tying the knowledge of the basic vocabulary at the outset to an overall historical overview and then a fundamental grammatical outline gives us a much faster route to becoming at least proficient in several foreign languages without having to learn each from scratch. This way, language learning need not be such a chore, and in fact takes on a much more interesting route.

Nevertheless, as ever, I am open to any corrections, queries or contrary views!

#Brexit thread from November 2017

A Twitter thread I wrote on 16 November 2017 has begun attracting attention again – probably because so little of the Government’s thinking has meaningfully changed since! It ran like this…

This evening in Germany, David Davis has demonstrated a frankly humiliating misunderstanding of even the basics of the EU. A quick thread. 1/

Firstly, even if somehow Angela Merkel were scared that the German economy could be crippled by, er, not being able to export freely to a smaller country like the UK, she cannot intervene to offer the UK a special deal. No one can. 2/

Let us repeat: the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU. Let us also repeat: the Single Market is a market of *rules*. This is the fundamental point David Davis has still failed to grasp. 3/

For that reason, participation in the Single Market by any non-EU State is determined by which rules that State is willing to adopt. And that is the end of it.

(Norway adopts nearly all of them, for example; Moldova just a few.) 4/

David Davis therefore still hasn’t grasped that this negotiation is not “We give a bit, you give a bit”. It is essentially “Here are the rules of the Single Market; tell us which ones you no longer wish to apply and that will determine your level of participation in it.” 5/

This really should be obvious. How otherwise could a 27/28-member bloc function if it did not have *rules*? And those rules cannot be amended other than with the support of the whole bloc. 6/

This is all to leave quite aside that David Davis vastly overstates the UK’s economic importance. Germany sells many multiples more cars in China and the US, for example. That is a basic matter of fact. 7/

UK really should have worked out by now, more than halfway between Referendum Day and Brexit Day, that this whole “They’ll bend to our will” stuff is a *myth*. It can’t happen – and wouldn’t, even if it could. 8/

And for any UK Minister to go anywhere else and tell the locals not to put “politics before prosperity” is, right now, to set a new world record in gross hypocrisy. For that is precisely and embarrassingly what the UK alone is doing with #Brexit. 9/

David Davis’ call for co-operation in the interests of mutual prosperity was met with an obvious first question from a German journalist.

“If that is what you want, why are you leaving?”

Quite.

10/10

UK has profound crisis of government which goes beyond Brexit

I have pulled this blog from retirement again because I remain unsure that media coverage of the latest political farce really does justice to the scale of the breakdown. Brexit is merely a symptom of a much larger problem in the UK – the political system is broken, and quite profoundly.

This is for a number of reasons which include, but are far from limited to:

  • a “London bubble” – from the Civil Service to the broadcast media, the focus is astonishingly biased towards London, which leads to a very genuine sense in much of the rest of England of being distant from power (hence “take back control” resonated so strongly);
  • coverage as a “soap opera” – there is a tendency to cover politics rather than government, and to promote to positions of media prominence people are are entertaining in preference to those who are knowledgeable (and to cover issues in terms of their political rather than social consequences, hence even Brexit becomes all about jostling for position rather than educated debates about its impact on food on shelves, welfare budgets or health recruitment);
  • a farcical education system – which, as The Economist puts it, means positions in senior office all too often go to people from a small number of schools and universities whose position is in fact based on pure confidence and bluster rather than on actual competence and knowledge;
  • a lack of civic input and engagement – that same education system also does not teach people even the basics of politics and government, meaning people all too often leave it to others;
  • the electoral system – which, in England at least, promotes two large parties unable to respond to the range of complex interests which now exist in plain view across the country.

The result is that we need to ask far more profound questions even than “Who will lead the Conservative Party?” or “What sort of Brexit will we have?”

We are now in a position where neither large party can ever conceivably be coherent enough to form a parliamentary majority of MPs with genuine confidence in its Leader. There is literally not a single MP who could command the confidence of the House of Commons now. Even a new election would be little use. For as long as the electoral system remains as it is, each party will remain a grossly unstable coalition unable practically to govern with any coherence. Only a German-style PR system, allowing MPs to form coalitions after the election based on the priorities of the day, can restore any coherence. Yet there is scant prospect of that.

Thus the only hope is to return decision making to the people, but even this is fraught with danger given the aforementioned point that, in the UK, the people are not used to such decisions (“They didn’t do enough to inform us” was a familiar cry in 2016 – which should immediately make you wonder who “they” are who should be doing the “informing”). Returning decision making to the people requires tools other than just crude binary referendums. Cititzens’ Conventions and other forms of local deliberative democracy are surely necessary to counter the distance and gridlock of Westminster.

This is a deep and profound crisis not just of politics but of Government itself. In fact, bluntly, the UK has become ungovernable. It will take radical thinking and an ability to work across partisan lines for the greater good to overcome this.

 

Remainers need to *think*

I have largely retired this blog, but I did feel it necessary to write one brief piece stating my concern that far too few people on either side of the Brexit debate are actually thinking.

Brexit is a far more profound shift than, for example, Suez, with which it is often equated. If carried out, it marks a complete change in direction for the UK from its foreign and trade policy since the War. It will have a profound impact on everything from recruiting staff for the Health Service (making a purely taxpayer-funded service an impossibility) to satellite navigation systems. It may well force the UK itself to break up.

Yet in public debate it is still seen too often like a football match, with “fans” of “Leave” and “Remain” debating it in much the same way as Arsenal and Spurs fans or Liverpool and Everton fans debate the outcome of Sunday’s derby matches. All that matters is winning, and never mind the practical social and economic consequences for millions of people up and down the country. A lot of people are to blame for that – from a media which seem intent on reporting politics like a soap opera to politicians themselves who are so caught up in the Westminster bubble they have lost all connection with the daily lives of the citizens they claim to represent (witness this weekend’s incredible episode of Conservative MPs visiting foodbanks to applaud rather than bemoan their existence). It is worth noting that Brexit is in fact a symptom of a gradual political failure, not the cause of it.

One reason the whole thing has become so ludicrous is that it has become so tribal – and each side merely blames the other for making it so, rather than taking responsibility for the necessary “de-tribalisation”. Here, generally speaking, the broadly “Remain” side is guilty too; this is something it will need to fix if it is ultimately to save us from the calamity lying ahead.

Having a go at Leavers for being stupid on social media does not constitute a serious (or successful) campaign strategy. Many people voted Leave with good reason – ranging from a very genuine concern about the distance of decision makers in Brussels from those affected by the decisions, to a more emotional but no less genuine one about the scale of immigration into an already very densely populated country. It is not wrong to be concerned about the quality of democracy when it is so distance (although I do think it is hypocritical to be so without being concerned about the quality of democracy in London, which is “distant” from most parts of the UK); nor is it even wrong to ask a question about whether levels of immigration into such a densely populated country are sustainable (although I look at it the other way around; the UK needs to invest hugely in infrastructure, particularly housing, in order to accommodate what will, inevitably, be a rapidly growing population). A bit of understanding – and remembering that we have two ears and one mouth and we should probably use them in that proportion – would do no harm.

Most fundamentally, whatever we think of the lies told during the campaign or indeed of the illegal funding activity around it, the fact will always remain that a clear snapshot of public opinion in the UK in June 2016 returned a majority preference for not being in the EU. There is little doubt, for me, that that was a fair reflection of the public view, however unfairly I think it was arrived at, because there were also people who voted “Remain” not particularly because they loved the EU but because they wanted to avoid chaos (ahem, how right they were).

Yet it looks as though the “Remain” side may be on the verge, whether through luck or skill, of securing a further vote of some kind. However, in just the same way that Leavers had not thought through the detail of what leaving would actually entail and how it should look, I have heard little detail from Remainers about what exactly the next vote should ask.

The assumption, at this stage (and assumptions are always dangerous), is that the Prime Minister’s deal will not clear the Commons. I am a hugely reluctant convert to the case for a further referendum (in a democracy with parliamentary supremacy I am unclear what purpose any referendum is supposed to serve), but if the Prime Minister’s deal fails it is clear too that Brexit has failed. In June 2016 people may have voted to leave the EU, but only a tiny minority thought this meant doing so with absolutely no future relationship in place; and it is not unreasonable to suggest that had “Leave” specifically meant leaving with no such relationship, more than the few hundred thousand necessary to switch sides for a “Remain” victory would have done so (and of course if there is any doubt about that, it is reasonable to test it now – the very case for a further referendum).

However, it would be as ludicrous as anything else to go back to the people with a straightforward second choice of “Remain” versus “Leave” where the former means continued membership of the EU with no further questions asked and the latter means leaving with no arrangements at all in place (to secure not just future trade, but also relationships in all kinds of other areas from aviation to health research). Those two options are simply far too far apart for either of them to be a reasonable way forward likely to earn a broad consensus of support.

For me, the question has to be more clearly something like this:

The UK is negotiating a new relationship with the EU. To enable the basis for this negotiation to continue, should the UK now:

REMAIN in the European Union

LEAVE the European Union

This clearly states that the status quo ante is not an option and that consideration will continue to be given to the outcome in 2016 (as no such renegotiation would be necessary without that vote having gone the way it did). However, it also offers the people the frankly safer choice of remaining in the EU while a new relationship is sorted, with the people able to assess whether they are happy about that renegotiation at future elections.

It is just a first thought and I could well be persuaded from it, but the key point is this – both sides need to stop trying to “win”, and instead start to think.

Ryder Cup 2018 was an annihilation – US need game to go global

The 2018 Ryder Cup was in some ways the most one-sided since the current format (28 matches with Europe) was introduced in 1979.

Europe in fact won 29 more holes than the United States (more than one per individual match), the biggest gap ever under the format. Typically, a gap of that nature would have seen the largest ever match score, of around 19-9. In other words, 17-10 was comprehensive – but actually kind to the Americans.

In this sense, the competition has changed and now Europe is unquestionably the dominant team. In five Ryder Cups staged in Europe this century, not only have the Americans lost all five but they have in fact been thrashed four times.

This is different from thirty years ago or so when, even though Europe won on several occasions, the Americans were still in general equal to or even better than their opponents. In fact, from 1987 thru 1999, the Americans actually won more holes in every single Cup (even though they lost three times out of seven and tied once). What was happening then was that the Americans were in fact scoring marginally better, but the Europeans performed better under pressure in clutch situations (thus tending to win the huge majority of close matches).

It remains a quirk that Europe has never lost the Ryder Cup having won more holes, but has quite often won or at least retained it while losing more.

With the extraordinary exception of 2012 (the Miracle or Meltdown at Medinah, depending on your view) when the Americans actually won in terms of holes more heavily than they had since 1981 but contrived to lose overall, this century has belonged clearly to the European side no matter how you calculate it, and is becoming more so. The team which has won more holes has also won the Cup on every single occasion otherwise (and that has been Europe six times in eight) and the overall match score has rarely been close (whereas the previous seven and eight of the previous nine had been settled by two overall match points or fewer).

Why is this? The most obvious reason, which has already been discussed, is that the American locker room had a reminder to “leave egos at the door” but as ever it was the Europeans who actually did so. Tied to this is, however, the potential reason that the Americans are not actually as good as the rankings suggest.

We should remember that three of the four majors and most of the other biggest tournaments (world championship events, the Tour Championship etc) are hosted in the United States. These carry the highest ranking points, with Americans having an in-built advantage of playing at home.

The Americans have to consider, therefore, whether it would be good for the global game and even for their own Ryder Cup team if more high-ranking events (including all World Golf Championship events and quite possibly the PGA Championship) were hosted away from the United States. This would take Americans out of their comfort zone if they want to earn the big rankings points, and would get them used to playing away from home. Such a move would surely then give them the experience required so that no future United States team goes an entire generation without winning a Ryder Cup in Europe…

Worst thing Brexit demonstrates? Rampant “classism”

I still intend to make very little political comment on this blog, as there is very little more about it to say. Any rational person can see that the English-speaking world has succumbed to crazed populism, and every further issue – from what to do about mobile roaming charges to how to restore the Northern Ireland Executive, derives from that basic problem.

However, for me the most appalling thing brought home by all of this in the UK has been the British media’s rampant classism (is that a word? It is now).

Ultimately, there used to be a basic deal with the media that they would report the words of senior MPs because it was reasonable to assume they carried some expert weight. Perhaps this deal was always an illusion. Now, it is obviously ridiculous.

Almost all of the Conservative back-bench MPs given prominence by the media on the subject of Brexit speak with upper-class accents. Not one has a single iota of expertise to offer on the subject. Nor will any suffer the consequences.

So why are they covered? At all?

Indeed, last week, a “research report” from a group of them was covered as lead story on the news. It is a basic fact that the report was complete rubbish. That fact was not reported.

In fact, it was reported rather ludicrously that “economists [plural, even though only one was cited] see benefits of Brexit” and that a “customs expert [one Dutch lad whose actual experience was never outlined” had been involved in some research about technology. Actually not a single economist believes Brexit will cause anything other than damage to the UK economy; indeed, not a single person with even an ounce of common sense (quite obviously if your main competitors can trade freely and you can’t, you will be at a disadvantage). Not a single customs expert believes customs frontiers can be managed solely through “technology”, and again anyone thinking about it can see why not and understands that not a single customs frontier works that way with good reason.

Why, therefore, are MPs with no expertise and no basic understanding of society wheeled out and given priority by the media for comment? The common link is that they all speak with upper-class accents.

Underlying this, therefore, is the notion that because someone speaks with an upper-class accent, they must have something expert to contribute (and conversely, that those who do not speak with such an accent should not be given priority and should therefore yield the air waves to those who do). This is plainly not the case. In fact, in the case of Brexit, those given such priority have not the first clue what they are talking about – zero experience, zero expertise, and actually zero interest (the outcome is of no concern to them after all).

They also tend to be men, by the way. Indeed, referendum coverage saw men given 84% of the air time. Is that not a scandal?

It would make for a much more interesting public debate if MPs you constantly hear of were not given priority media coverage, and instead others – with different accents, and a few women – actually were. You may then receive real expert input, and encourage a meaningful discussion.

As it is, the media continue to report this as an upper-class soap opera. We have Downton Abbey for that. The issues around Brexit are of profound concern to millions of people. We need a proper debate, involving people who actually know what they are talking about. Is that not what we pay the licence fee for?

Glider will work – but not always for rational reasons

Last Friday I had some work to do and I was in the eastern part of Belfast City Centre. I decided to do it in a coffee shop – in Ballyhackamore.

Why? Well, because I could via the new Glider. I would do it again too – I met three people I knew while there and that led to some useful additional points for the research work I was doing. Ballyhackamore is a hub – and it will only become more so because it is now so obviously easy to get to.

It is not, of course, that it wasn’t already easy to get to. The Glider, as one traveller put it on the BBC, “is only a bus at the end of the day”. The reason it will succeed is more emotional than rational.

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Ultimately, the basic reason may be the simple map above. Compared to the Belfast Metro (Citybus) network, it is a lot simpler. People choosing locations to go, as I was, will choose from the map. Next week I may well choose the Kennedy Centre; the following Dundonald; and so on.

Comfort matters too. The bus is newer and more spacious – for example, people can bring on prams at off-peak times without any disturbance, as they could on a train but not on a double decker.

Part of it is pure branding. I overheard one child expressing delight at the very notion of “gliding”.

This is not to discount the rational reasons for liking it, from the at-level platforms to the USB ports. But in the end it plays to emotion rather than reason. For that, it will likely succeed.

 

Serena needs to stop hiding behind accusations which harm her supposed cause

On Friday evening I popped along to Carrickfergus Amphitheatre to watch the home ladies hockey team, Castle, take on Irish hockey league side Ards. This was an opportunity, in the land of the World Cup Finallists after all, to see the game played at a very high level. Ten minutes before the game started, it emerged they were short of one umpire, and so it fell to me to help out.

Hockey has a four-warning system – verbal warning, two-minute suspension (green card), longer suspension (yellow card), and permanent expulsion (red card). My personal preference even with top-level teams is to try to avoid using the cards at all, if possible, managing the game as best I can by friendly chats rather than disciplining.

Here is the thing, however: if a player ever referred to me as a “liar”; ever suggested I had “stolen” something from them; or ever suggested I “owed an apology”; or certainly ever said they would see to it that I “never umpired on [their pitch] again”; I would have the red card out in an instant.

This brings us, of course, to Serena Williams. On Sunday, in a major final, she used each and every one of those terms – having already been correctly warned for coaching, and then correctly docked a point for breaking her racquet.

Unfortunately Serena, rightly a role model for many good reasons, is frankly being untruthful. She did not lose a game for using the word “thief”; she lost a game because of a series of warnings (for coaching, breaking a racquet and then verbal abuse) and the warning for verbal abuse came after a litany of outrageous accusations directed at an umpire powerless to answer back other than through the warning system. She was also untruthful even with what she said as she launched her abuse at the umpire – in fact, she had looked at her coach by her own admission, but caught on camera he had no option but to confirm he had not given her a “thumbs up” as she claimed.

Therefore, Serena is entirely responsible for a gross lack of discipline and an outrageous lack of respect for one of the most senior and respected officials in the history of the game. As she is a role model, this is worrying. It is inevitable that others will adopt a similar tone, and believe that they too can launch abuse at an umpire, over and over again, and somehow expect not to be penalised (to the extent even of dictating who umpires their matches). Nor, unfortunately, is this even the first instance within the current season of a senior woman player suggesting that a particular umpire should not be allowed to officiate her matches ever again – an appalling notion.

To try then to dress this all up as “sexism” is then a further outrage, not because sexism is not a problem in the game but rather because it absolutely is. Serena herself raised some legitimate examples post-match and there was much truth in Billie Jean King’s tweeted response in support of Serena noting differential coverage and reaction to female players versus men. However, to try to present outrageous abuse of an official as somehow part of a battle for women’s rights is offensive to those who are battling for women’s rights. It is also a shift in Serena’s position, from initially denying she had received coaching  to claiming instead that she had but somehow was treated differently for having received it. This specific case had nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with a senior player trying to abuse her position to attack an official and have the crowd join in. We may only be thankful that her opponent, Naomi Osaka, was not put off and went on to claim a thoroughly deserved victory.

There is another important issue here. What we saw on Saturday night was utterly inappropriate abuse of an umpire. It is no surprise, therefore, that tennis and indeed other sports like hockey are struggling to bring through officials (as evidenced by my own call into action on Friday) – who on earth would take on a role which, when done correctly, sees you accused of stealing, lying and sexism all while being treated as a pantomime villain?

Serena is plainly not a fundamentally bad person, as her post-match defence of her opponent showed. She still has time to put this right by simply apologising to the umpire and accepting publicly that her conduct was unacceptable and should not be held up as an example to anyone. However even if she does not, everyone else must come to terms with the fact she stepped well, well over the line on Saturday – not least because the cause of tackling sexism in sport deserves better than a nonsensical association with poor behaviour, and because sport itself simply cannot be played without umpires.

French (and Italian) grammatical “absurdity”

Two Belgian ex-teachers in the French-speaking part of the country published an article (in French) seeking to achieve what is surely the impossible – to change a ‘rule’ of French grammar. They are doing so because, they claim, the rule is ‘absurd’.

The rule concerned is usually known in English as the “Preceding Direct Object” rule. It is a peculiar rule and one which will have caused some consternation among most who studied French to advanced level.

The rule concerns the agreement of the past participle in the perfect aspect (the usual way of indicating the past in spoken or all but the most formal written French). In a straightforward sentence when the main auxiliary verb is avoir ‘to have’, such as j’ai acheté les chaussures ‘I (have) bought the shoes’ the basic (actually masculine singular) form of the participle (acheté) is used.

However, if the verb requires être ‘to be’, used with certain verbs which are intransitive (cannot have a direct object), the participle ‘agrees’ with the subject: il est monté but elle est montée (and ils sont montéselles sont montées).

This also applies to reflexives: elle s’est lavée ‘she washed herself’. This means in effect that the participle is ‘agreeing’ with the direct object as well as the subject (in a reflexive clause they are the same).

However, the notion of the participle ‘agreeing’ with the direct object is then carried over in the modern language to include when the direct object is a pronoun (in which case it appears before the verb): thus j’ai acheté les chaussures but je les ai achetées (assuming we are still referring to chaussures). In fact, French has since the 17th century at least adopted an outright rule that the participle ‘agrees’ with any direct object preceding the verb in the sentence. Thus it is even: les chaussures que j’ai achetées.

The fundamental principle is sometimes said (by prescriptive grammarians) to be that a participle with avoir after the direct object is in effect an adverb (and thus unchangeable), whereas one after a direct object or the subject of être is an adjective (and thus ‘agrees’). Quite where this idea came from is unclear.

The Belgian teachers’ argument here is that for all this complication (and it took long enough to write the above), there is generally no difference in pronunciation whatsoever (with minor exceptions: the participle in j’ai pris les chaussures ‘I took the shoes’ is pronounced differently, at least in careful speech, from the participle in les chaussures que j’ai prises; but this is a rarity). Their argument, therefore, is that the whole thing is basically an unnecessary complication, an irrelevance, and in any case an aberration borrowed for no particular reason from Italian.

They unquestionably have a point. Spanish, for example, manages perfectly well constructing its perfect through the auxiliary verb haber and an invariable past participle: he comprado las zapatas; las he comprado; las zapatas que he comprado. No difference. Easy. (It was not ever so, however, and in fact we still see vestiges of the old system of ‘agreement’ in modern Spanish: it is still the case that if tener is used as the principal verb rather than haber to emphasise the change of state, the participle agrees with the participle: tengo compradas las zapatas ‘I’ve got the shoes bought’; however, this is regular because the participle agrees regardless of the position in the sentence of the direct object.)

What is interesting, however, is that if the rule was borrowed from Italian, it was probably borrowed in error. Modern Italian, with some minor exceptions, does not require (although it does permit) agreement of the participle with a preceding direct object as in French; and it is questionable whether it ever did.

Modern Italian does require ‘agreement’ with a third person direct object pronoun: ho comprato le scarpe; le ho comprate. The reason for this is understandable; in speech, the third person direct object pronoun sounds the same before any form of avere ‘to have’, and thus it is the participle which indicates the actual form: l’ho comprato is masculine singular; l’ho comprata feminine singular; li ho comprati masculine plural and le ho comprate feminine plural – in each case, in general speech, the only difference clearly heard between each of those is the final letter.

Otherwise, however, Italian does not require ‘agreement’; some speakers prefer ci hai visti (with agreement) and others ci hai visto ‘you have seen us’. Generally, in fact, Italian prefers non-agreement if the direct object is not a pronoun: le scarpe che ho comprato would be preferred by most speakers to le scarpe che ho comprate, although neither would be seen as an error.

Italian, therefore, has maintained the preceding direct object rule as an option, but absolutely requires it only where it specifically assists understanding by enabling a clear distinction in pronunciation. French, on the other hand, insists on maintaining the rule in all circumstances, despite the fact that in almost all cases it makes no difference to pronunciation whatsoever (and thus cannot be decisive to understanding).

The Belgian teachers clearly have a point, therefore. There appears no reason whatsoever, therefore, that French would not in fact adopt the Spanish rule over the Italian one, not least because the Italian one is not even a rule but rather an option! However, it is unlikely much will change – the fact is we as human beings become very accustomed to grammatical rules, even the plainly ‘absurd’ ones!

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