How to learn languages – German

German is the most published language in the world after English – and thus a near requirement for anyone studying anything from linguistics to great philosophers. It is also the most spoken native language in Europe, and is economically global. Only Chinese and English speakers collectively export more to the rest of the world than German speakers.


Regional dialects remain comparatively strong in German-speaking Europe. Peculiarly, the German of Berlin as traditionally spoken is arguably as close to Standard Dutch as modern Standard German.

German is, however, both seemingly alien (not being derived from Latin) and harsh (with its consonants, hard sounds, and glottal stops). It is also perceived to be considerably more complex than other languages.

How true are the stereotypes?


German is, unquestionably, a harsh language. It is markedly consonantal and exhibits harsh sounds, notably /x/ (usually written [ch]).

However, the phonology is relatively straightforward and accessible for speakers of most other Western languages. The vowels are relatively simple, the diphthongs uncomplicated, and most consonants straightforward. Stress is generally on the first syllable of the word (or the first syllable after any prefix). The challenge for many speakers is simply the length of words, and knowing where to place stress within them.

German is noted also for strong fairly aspirated pronunciation of consonants, the placement of glottal stops before initial vowels, and the devoicing of any final consonants in the modern language (so, for example, Tod is pronounced identically to tot).

The standard language is based on dialects which generally underwent a second consonantal sound shift in the late first millennium. This notably moved [t] to <(t)s> and [p] to <(p)f>, thus English ‘water’ (Dutch water) and ‘ten’ (Dutch tien) become German Wasser and zehn; English ‘pepper’ (Dutch peper) becomes German Pfeffer.


The standardisation of German was complex, but the outcome in terms of the written language was pleasingly regular. There remains no specific spoken standard – German newsreaders happily betray their general geographical origins.

Given the lack of unity across German-speaking lands until the late 19th century, dialect variation was a constant feature throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern era. Generally these were split into “Low” (northern) and “High” (southern) dialects. Luther’s Bible translation formed the basis for what, over a period, became Standard Written German, and it veers towards “High”. Over time, this predominantly southern form took over from Low German in the north, meaning that dialect variation there is now much less marked than in the south. Thus, even though they are geographically distant from the basis for the written standards, northern dialects (particularly those around Hanover) are often regarded as the nearest to a standard spoken form.

German displays umlauts on low vowels to mark fronting (<ä>, <ö>, <ü>), usually where a high vowel once followed (or still follows) a subsequent consonant (England ‘England’; Englände‘Englishman’); the distinction may be a grammatical marker (Mutter ‘mother’; Mütter ‘mothers’).

German is also noted for the scharfes S, the <ß> character originally representing [sz] but now seen as a specific letter in its own right (except in Switzerland).

German also marks all nouns with an initial capital letter, a practice which was once widespread in other Germanic languages but which is now exclusive to German.

Markedly, German is strict about separating clauses with commas: ich sehe, dass er da ist ‘I see that he is here’.

Austria and Switzerland have their own standard languages (and “Swiss German” is a separate story even from those). Although orthographical standards are agreed across all three countries and the standard versions are mutually intelligible, these can exhibit some grammatical differences (a tendency in Austria and Switzerland towards forming the past with the auxiliary verb rather than an ending; some differentiation in genders particularly in new words to do with technology; minor differences in prefixes particularly in Switzerland) and significant differences in vocabulary (most obviously around food – words for everything from ‘horseradish’ to ‘carrot’ are different).

German underwent a minor but controversial spelling reform in the late 1990s, aimed at regularising certain points of orthography.


German vocabulary is hugely of Germanic origin, thus close to older languages such as Old High German, Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Gothic. It is thought that up to 30% of Germanic vocabulary is not ultimately Indo-European.

Key numbers:

  • 1 eins, 2 zwei (zwo), 3 drei, 4 vier, 5 fünf, 6 sechs, 7 sieben, 8 acht, 9 neun, 10 zehn;
  • 11 elf, 12 zwölf, 16 sechzehn, 17 siebzehn, 20 zwanzig, 24 vierundzwanzig; 
  • 100 hundert, 1000 tausend;
  • 456789 vierhundertsechsundfünfzigtausendsiebenhundertneunundachtzig.

Allowing for the Second Consonantal Sound shift noted above, this means that core German vocabulary is close to English and Dutch:

  • hier ‘here’; das ‘that’; uns ‘us’; haben ‘(to) have’; Apfel ‘apple’; vergeben ‘forgive’.

Key personal pronouns (1st, 2nd, 3rd person; nominative, accusative, dative):

  • singular ich, mich, mir; du, dich, dir; er/sie/es, ihn/sie/ihn, ihm/ihr/ihm;
  • plural wir, uns; ihr, euch; sie, sie, ihnen.

The polite ‘you’ form is the third person plural in all instances (at least in the modern language), capitalised in writing (Sie, Sie, Ihnen).

German has a well known tendency to group nouns (and sometimes adjectives) together as a single word:

  • Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung ‘speed limit’, Überwachungsverein ‘oversight authority’, kostenpflichtig ‘at own cost’.


By the standards of Western languages, the German noun is remarkably conservative and thus extraordinarily complex. It, or its supporting words, is marked for singular or plural (there are no fewer than seven common ways of doing this), three genders and four cases. Masculine plural tends to be marked -e or not at all with or without umlaut (Wagen-Wagen ‘car-cars’; Apfel-Äpfel ‘apple-apples’; Tag-Tage ‘day-days’; Floh-Flöhe ‘flea-fleas’); feminine in –(e)n (Frau-Frauen ‘woman-women’; Zeitung-Zeitungen ‘newspaper-newspapers’); neuter in –er with or without umlaut (Haus-Häuser ‘house-houses’; Felder-Felder ‘field-fields’). Even with these complex generalisations, exceptions abound and in many cases dialectal variations are allowed (for example the alternative plural Wägen is allowable in the South). There is also a set of ‘weak’ masculine nouns (and effectively one neuter) which mark all cases except the nominative (subject) singular in -(e)n, occasionally with other exceptional modifications (Held ‘hero’; Helden ‘hero [object]; to hero; of hero; heroes’); all other masculine and neuter nouns mark their singular genitive in –(e)s – this has merged with the dative for feminine nouns and is in the process of doing so with all nouns in spoken German. The singular masculine and neuter dative ending –e is in the process of being lost even in the written language, restricted almost exclusively to set phrases (auf dem Lande ‘in the countryside’).

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

  • lache, lachst, lacht; lachen, lacht, lachen.

Infinitive is lachen; past participle gelacht; rare gerund lachend.

Verbs are marked for present or past; they may also be marked for subjunctive or conditional (which are often, but not always, the same form), although generally these forms are restricted to very common verbs (sein ‘to be’, haben ‘to have’ and auxiliaries) in all but the most formal language. Most verbs mark the past by adding a dental suffix: ich lache ‘I laugh’; ich lachte ‘I laughed’; with the exception of third person singular, endings are retained for both (du lachst ‘you laugh’, du lachtest ‘you laughed’; sie lachen ‘they laugh’, sie lachten ‘they laughed’; but er lacht ‘he laughs’, er lachte ‘he laughed’). As in English, irregular verbs are typically (but not always) “strong”, i.e. they form the past by changing the root vowel – ich singe ‘I sing’, ich sang ‘I sang‘ (some also exhibit changes in the second and third person singular: ich sehe ‘I see’, du siehst ‘you see’). Many speakers even avoid the past form for all but the most common verbs, particularly in the south, preferring auxiliaries (usually haben or, typically to mark motion, sein) plus past participle: du hast gelacht ‘you (have) laughed’, du bist gefahren ‘you have travelled’; the passive is similarly formed with the auxiliary werden ‘to become’, which is possible even with the neuter dummy subject es: es wird gelacht ‘there is laughing [it is laughed]’. Other meanings – future, conditional, potential, obligation and so on – are expressed through auxiliaries plus the infinitive, with changes to word order: ich muss ihm vergeben ‘I must forgive him’ (note also that some verbs, such as vergeben, take an object in the dative rather than the accusative case).

At least in the formal written language, all German main verbs must have a subject (unlike most Latin-based languages).

Prepositions may merge with articles, particularly in the masculine/neuter: in + dem = im; in + das = ins; zu + der = zur etc. They govern the accusative or dative case (or either, depending on motion towards), or very exceptionally in formal German the genitive: ich gehe ins Kino ‘I go into the cinema’; ich bin im Kino ‘I am in the cinema’; wegen des Wetters [modern spoken wegen dem Wetter] ‘because of the weather’.

Key prepositions:

  • in ‘in(to)’; zu ‘to(wards)’; an ‘at, to’; mit ‘with’; durch ‘through’; gegen ‘against’.

Only masculine singular nouns mark a distinction between subject (nominative) and object (accusative). Weak nouns mark both the article/determiner/adjective and the noun itself – subject der gute Herr versus object den guten Herrn ‘the good gentleman’; strong nouns do not mark the noun itself – subject der gute Mann versus object den guten Mann ‘the good man’. Adjectives also have two sets of endings depending essentially in whether the case is already apparent: ein guter Mann, der gute Mann. Adjectives do not agree with nouns predicatively: der Mann ist gut ‘the man is good’. Modern German generally marks only one level of gradation: dieser Mann ‘this/that man’. Adverbs are unmarked, as in most other Germanic languages: sie hat es klar gehört ‘she heard it clearly’.

Word order is strict and complex. German is fundamentally an SOV and V2 language. In interrogative clauses the main verb goes first and in main clauses it specifically goes second: ich habe gehört, dass sie darüber lachen konnten ‘I heard that they were able to laugh about it [I have heard, that they about it to laugh were able]’; hast du gesehen, ob er da war ‘Did you see if he was there?’ This “verb-second” rule applies regardless of what comes first, even if it is another clause: Gestern hast du darüber gelacht ‘Yesterday you laughed about it [Yesterday have you about it laughed]’; Als du ihm vergeben hast, habt ihr darüber gelacht ‘When you forgave him, you laughed about it’. There are also strict rules about the order of other phrases, including the positioning (towards the end of the clause) of the negative particles nicht: Gestern habe ich gehört, dass wir darüber nicht lachen konnten ‘Yesterday I heard that we were not able to laugh about it’.


German is a generally noun-based language. Phrases are based on nouns: Bei schlechtem Wetter, bleiben wir zuhause ‘If the weather is bad [By bad weather], we will stay at home’.

German can also show a preference for a degree of precision deemed irrelevant by other languages. For example, linguistic concepts such as Dachsprache or philosophical concepts such as Dasein cannot be adequately translated, and are often carried over exactly as they are into other languages. German is known even for modern terms, notably almost always nouns, which have no adequate translation: Schadenfreude, Weltmüdigkeit, Gemütlichkeit and many others.

What next

Nearest to German is Dutch…

Vater unser im Himmel, geheiligt werde dein Name; dein Reich komme; dein Wille geschehe; wie im Himmel so auf Erden. Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute. Und vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern; und führe uns nicht in Versuchung, sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.

“Liberals” fail another media test

A notable rag of a newspaper last week ran a front page picture which focused on two political leaders’ legs.

Liberal social media went ballistic. And, thus, missed the point yet again.

For getting the Liberal social media to go ballistic was the whole point. Yet again a raft of left-liberals ranted, as if a logical position was going to persuade this particular paper of the error of its ways.

Meanwhile, the paper itself is the second most profitable globally, outstripping any competition in the UK several-fold.

What it had done successfully was move the whole story away from the real issues, all while allowing its own Conservative/Brexiteer readership to enjoy the spectacle of the “other side” retreating into righteous (but actually pointless) indignation.

No one needed to be told why the picture and the headline were wrong. By commenting so widely on it, left-liberals yet again left Conservatives/Brexiteers to frame the debate exactly the way they wanted.

Yet again also, it would pay to note that Conservatives/Brexiteers are the voting majority in the UK and have been for some time. Left-liberals really should have worked out by now that what they are doing is wrong. We know the definition of those who do the same thing and expect a different result.

Righteous indignation in social media does not deliver actual real-world social change. Securing real power and influence means framing the debate the way you want it and working hard to earn the trust even of people who do not agree with you on every point. When will the supposedly better educated left-liberals work that one out?!

History should not be too kind to Mike Nesbitt

I never really fancied being a politician, but I was always attracted to the notion of being an ex-politician. It is a great time – everyone speaks well of you and emphasises what you did well while overlooking what perhaps was not quite so good. Sir John Major is loving it, as an obvious example.

It is important not to be too kind, however, otherwise we risk missing lessons which should be learned. This is so in the case of Mike Nesbitt.

Mr Nesbitt is now earning plaudits for his journey on same-sex marriage and cooperation with Nationalists, and I have long commended politicians willing to change their mind. I would be generous enough to suggest, on balance, that supporting progressive social policy and cooperating with Nationalists is Mr Nesbitt’s true position.

The issue is I do not believe it was ever otherwise. This means that Mr Nesbitt failed to back same-sex marriage and endorsed sectarian Unionist pacts even when he was himself wary of them. In other words, he was willing to put electoral advantage ahead of his own core beliefs. Although all politics is compromise, I am afraid I am inclined to be less generous about that.

Mr Nesbitt also lacked an understanding of the vulnerability of Northern Ireland’s political process. Quickly, and again primarily for electoral gain, he moved into Opposition (without telling anyone else) last May. It is unlikely the Stormont Executive would have fallen had all the parties remained in it, however. That move had costly ramifications – for people in the voluntary sector now unsure about their jobs, for people on waiting lists, for parents awaiting new school builds, and so on. That the DUP and Sinn Fein will fall out is an inevitable reality – the role of other parties, if they really care about country before party, is to ensure such fall-outs are not terminal.

Even during the last election, Mr Nesbitt vastly overstretched by suggesting Arlene Foster should resign (rather than just stand aside). Then, during the campaign, there was simply had no need to specify his second preference would go to the SDLP (potentially costing his party five seats in the border area in one fell swoop while saving only one), nor arguably had he any need to resign immediately while the count was still ongoing.

He led the Ulster Unionists into sectarian pacts and then into cross-community linkages; he led them to conservative social policy while trying to be liberal; and he left the stage with his party reduced to just 10 Stormont seats and in utter disarray having never solved the basic conundrum of why the party actually exists at all. We now look over the abyss into a potential second election which his party will enter effectively leaderless and which will only cause harm to the “country” as well as the “party”.

There is no harm in wishing Mr Nesbitt well in whatever he chooses to do next. But let us be under no illusions about the outcome of his stint at the helm of the Ulster Unionists.

British humiliating themselves internationally

I have written many times about how the world would be a better place if politicians could admit they got things wrong.

The simple fact – and it is a fact – is that those who proposed “Brexit” on the basis that the EU would be bound to give the UK a good deal plainly got it wrong. Now they should simply admit it.

From the very start, on these pages, I warned that entering negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship on the basis that at the end of those negotiations the UK would 100% have to leave was simply ludicrous. It hands all the cards over the EU and means – as is now happening – that the EU will simply dictate the terms of the UK’s exit. As Lord Heseltine said, this is not taking back control but ceding it.

A much more sensible route would have been for the UK to identify the reasons for the “Leave” vote and then propose a new relationship based, quite possibly, on greater border control (mind, it already has a lot more control of its border than it likes to admit) and perhaps even a reduced budget contribution (perhaps, for example, by separating UK aid to the developing world from EU aid). Whether that relationship was technically “in” or “out” would have been almost irrelevant – it would have maintained a free trading relationship with our closest allies, while also taking full account of the referendum result (i.e. of the reasons for it). The UK would have had a strong negotiating position, as other EU states would have been keen for the outcome to be “technically in” in order for no one else to be tempted to leave. The UK chose to ignore this sensible route.

And so it is that all the claims the Leave side made are proving false; and indeed many of the warnings the Remain side made are proving correct. Most of these claims and warnings involved finance, but in fact the most startling example thus far (and we are only a few days in!) came in the form of a bizarre comment by a Conservative and former Leader that the UK would go to war over Gibraltar if it came to it.

The whole point of the EU, its advocates constantly pointed out, is that it removes the need for petty nationalism and thus drastically decreases the prospect of war. If people in the UK, Spain and Gibraltar all have EU passports, agree EU standards and trade under EU rules, it frankly does not much matter whether Gibraltarians regard themselves as British or Spanish. If, on the other hand, this is made to matter by the UK not just leaving the EU but in fact even leaving the Single Market and Customs Zone, then conflict will inevitably ensue. It is, of course, utterly ludicrous for anyone to suggest that conflict will take the form of a ‘war’, but it will inevitably see tensions between the UK and Spain rise – noting that 26 other European states will have it in their interests to take Spain’s side.

This all simply leaves the British utterly humiliated. Far from a “modern” or “global” Britain, we now have buffoons hinting at war with Spain and restoring imperial measurement units (that no one else uses). The country is split down the middle – between those who want to live in the 1950s and those who want to live in the 1590s.

The whole thing is utterly ludicrous and demands an immediate rethink, before the UK’s delusions do some real damage – noting that such damage will only be to itself.

Removal of Belfast traffic lights right move

No doubt the callers to BBC Nolan won’t like it, but the decision by our administrator government to remove Belfast’s traffic lights is welcome.

For once, Belfast will now be ahead of the curve. Self-driving vehicles won’t need traffic lights anyway. It will only be a few years of chaos before the wisdom of the move becomes apparent.

In any case, traffic lights are expensive. Maintaining them is a pain. The money will be much better spent in keeping open half-used courthouses and training extra teachers who end up working in supermarkets.

The biggest advantage will be that the gridlock so caused will encourage even civil servants out of their cars and into public transport. The positive environmental impact will last almost as long as cars we drive ourselves.

Plenty of Dutch villages now manage without traffic lights, and so will Belfast. Ignore the negative naysayers.

How to learn languages – Danish

The Germanic languages are split into North and West (East, represented notably by Gothic, has died out).

North Germanic excludes Finnish, which is not Indo-European at all. Historically, they were themselves split into Western (Norwegian, Faroese, Icelandic) and Eastern (Swedish, Danish and some other regional varieties). Nowadays, the split is considered more Insular (Icelandic, Faroese) versus Scandinavian (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish), although exact terminology varies.

Norwegian is a peculiar case. Over centuries of rule from Copenhagen, the language of administration in Norway was effectively Danish (albeit spoken with a Norwegian accent and generally referred to in Norway as “Norwegian”), and over time this was adopted in formal settings by many educated speakers in the Oslo area. However, traditional spoken dialects were barely affected, particularly in remote fjord areas to the west, and they remained more Western (i.e. more similar to insular languages such as Icelandic rather than to Danish). Upon independence, Norway was left with no option but to adopt two standards – one representing the traditional rural dialects known as Nynorsk “New Norwegian”, and another representing the previous administrative language initially often referred to as “Dano-Norwegian” but officially known as Bokmål ‘Book Tongue’. The latter is predominant, but both retain equal status nationally.

Of the three largest Scandinavian populations, Norwegians are used to dialect variation (even internally) and are thus the best at understanding either of the other two. Broadly, Norwegian (at least in Oslo) is closer to Danish in writing but to Swedish in speech. Danes and Swedes struggle to understand each other’s spoken languages, although with a bit of effort on behalf of both speaker and listener there is some mutual comprehension between eastern Danish and southern Swedish dialects (either side of the Oresund). Scandinavians have little difficulty reading each other’s languages.


Swedish is the major Scandinavian language – its near 10 million speakers account for half the total. However, it is not one in which I have any active competence – which brings us to Danish…


Among Germanic languages, Danish is the French of the operation – remarkably phonologically reduced.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is stød, whereby syllables may be separated by a “creaky voice”, a break feature similar to but not quite the same as a soft glottal stop, often accompanied by an apparent change in pitch. This is not always reflected in writing: læser ‘read(s)’ (the verb form) exhibits stød before the -er suffix, but læser ‘reader’ does not. No one quite knows how or when this developed (although it was certainly present by 1600), and it is not found in traditional southern dialects.

Danish also vocalises some consonants after vowels; e.g. dag ‘day’ (pronounced similarly to English ‘die’), skov ‘forest’.

A notable feature also is the softness of consonants (voiced consonants are frequently softened to become devoiced and those which were initially devoiced are softened further), particularly medially; e.g. the first syllable of at hedde ‘to be called/named’ is not much different from English ‘hell’, and the <b> in at købe ‘to buy’ is actually close to an English /w/.


Danish was distinct from Swedish by the time it began to be written down around 1200 (until then the administrative language of Denmark, which at the time included part of what is now southern Sweden, was in fact Latin).

Particularly from the 17th century, Danes played a disproportionate role in the development of linguistics and took a keen interest in the grammar of their own tongue. Gradually they codified a standard language, based generally on the educated Copenhagen dialect.

Nevertheless, the rapid changes in pronunciation in Danish mean that several common words (notably some personal pronouns) are spelled irregularly.

The Danish alphabet adds the letters æ, å and œ, which often mark the equivalent of umlaut (i.e. are grammatically distinctive). Officially clauses must be separated by commas, but in practice usage varies.


Danish (and, broadly, Scandinavian) vocabulary is overwhelmingly Germanic, deriving from the Norse spoken by the Vikings.

However, notably, it was reinforced by trading terms from Low German (i.e. what are now traditional dialects of northern Germany and the Netherlands somewhere between Standard German and Standard Dutch) in the Middle Ages, meaning that business and economic terminology is very often similar to German or Dutch (with the Norse-derived terms displaced).

The Danish numbering system retains the vigesimal (i.e. twenty-based) system used by the vikings – Danish is the only Scandinavian language which retains it. This means that higher numbers are marked not by the number of tens, but by the number of twenties; this includes halves, and halves are counted to the next whole: in effect, therefore, 90 is based on ‘half-to-five-times-twenty’.

  • 1 en/et; 2 to; 3 tre; 4 fire; 5 fem; 6 seks; 7 syv; 8 otte; 9 ni; 10 ti;
  • 11 elleve; 12 tolv; 15 femten; 16 seksten; 20 tyve; 21 enogtyve;
  • 30 tredive; 40 fyrre; 50 halvtreds; 60 tres; 70 halvfjerds; 80 firs; 90 halvfems.
  • 100 hundrede; 1000 tusind; 456789 fire hundrede seksoghalvtreds tusind syv hundrede niogfirs.

Another peculiarity is that Danish counts singular or plural according to the last number – so, for example, 101 or 4001 takes a singular.

Swedish and Norwegian use a ten-based counting system and place ones after tens: thus 92 is nittiotvå [‘ninetytwo’] in Swedish but tooghalvfems [‘twoandhalftofive(times twenty)’] in Danish.

In the modern language, there is little resistance to borrowings from English (given the high proficiency Scandinavians have in it), including even occasionally of entire phrases.

Interviews in English are very often shown on Danish television without subtitles or dubbing, and indeed English is often the language of communication across Scandinavian borders (for example, it is the language of Nordic MTV).


In the Standard language, Danish nouns may be one of two genders (“common” or “neuter”), and are generally marked for the plural in -(e)r (with another smaller group of short words, usually common gender, in -e). However, in the absence of any preposition (in some instances), adjective or determiner, any definite article appears joined to the noun as a suffix: common –(e)n, neuter -(e)t and plural –ne; thus hund ‘dog’, hunden ‘the dog’, hunde ‘dogs’, hundene ‘the dogs’. Aside from in archaic set phrases, there are no case markings in modern Danish, although possession is marked by a clitic -smin fars hus ‘my father’s house’.

In Swedish and Norwegian, the definite article suffix appears even where the noun is supported by an adjective or determiner: Danish det gamle hus, Norwegian det gamle huset ‘the old house’.

Both Norwegian Standards maintain three genders; Standard Swedish has just common and neuter, as Danish.

Danish main verbs, fundamentally, are marked for present (-(e)r) or past (generally –te or –de, although as in English there is a group of “strong” verbs which mark their past forms by changing the root vowel); notably, in all modern Scandinavian languages, these are not marked to agree with their subject in the modern language. There is also a specific habitual passive marker (which can be used in any tense) -(e)s; bogen læses ‘the book is read’ [generally]. Verbs also have participle forms (typically in –t), which may be used with the common irregular verbs at være ‘to be’ or at blive ‘to become’ to form a passive (used typically for one-off action) or at have ‘to have’ to form the perfect aspect (for completed action). Aside from in deliberately archaic phrases, there is no distinct subjunctive/optative mood in modern Danish.

Key prepositions:

  • ‘to, at’, til ‘to, towards’, ‘in’, med ‘with’, mod ‘against’.

As in most Germanic languages, adverbs are unmarked. Adjectives, however, have varying forms depending on whether they are used attributively (in which case they are placed before the noun) or predicatively and, in the former case, what their environment is. In most circumstances (when indefinite or used predicatively) adjectives agree with their noun by adding –t for the neuter singular or –e for plurals (there is no change for common singular): en stor bog ‘a big book’, et stort hus ‘a big house’, store boger ‘big books’; bogen er stor ‘the book is big’, huset bliver stort ‘the house gets big’. Definite attributive adjectives always add –e: den store bog ‘the big book’, det store hus ‘the big house’. Generally, no -e is required with adjectives already ending in a vowel; some adjectives also display other irregular modifications. In practice, this means adjectives often appear in the -t form in general use because after  det ‘that’ the neuter form is required: det er fint ‘that is fine’.

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

  • Singular: jeg, mig; du, dig; han/hun, ham/hende (impersonal den and det)
  • Plural: vi, os; I, jer; de/dem.

Danish also distinguishes between the third person possessive adjective hans/hendes ‘his/her’ and the reflexive sin/sit/sine: hans bog ‘his (someone else’s) book’; sin bog ‘his (own) book’.

Danish did previously have De/Dem as polite second person forms (both singular and plural), but since the ’70s these have dropped almost completely out of use.

Scandinavian languages are fundamentally SVO and V2 languages. The verb phrase stands as the second element in the clause, regardless of what the first element is; this is the case even if the first element is itself a clause: Da jeg boede i det hus, havde jeg hunder ‘When I lived in that house, I had dogs [When I lived in that house, had I dogs]’. The negative particle ikke generally follows the verb: jeg havde ikke hunder ‘I did not have dogs’.


In general, Scandinavian languages initially appear quintessentially Germanic, with a focus around the noun. This is reflected in Danish speech, where the emphasis is placed firmly on nouns.

Danish is noted for its remarkable phonology; it can almost appear as if words are scarcely pronounced at all. On the other hand Swedish, and to a lesser extent Norwegian, stand out among West European languages for their almost tonal system of pronunciation.

What next?

Time to get to West Germanic (which includes, of course, English)…

Fader vår, du som er i Himlene, helliget vorde ditt navn, komme ditt rike, skje din vilje, som i Himmelen, så og på jorden. Gi oss i dag vårt dagelige brød, og forlat oss vår skyld, som vi og forlater våre skyldnere, og led oss ikke inn i fristelse, men frels oss fra den onde.

What about a “Commission Executive”?

At the height of the banking crisis and after a period when it had been suffering a generation of low economic growth anyway, Italy faced total financial and political collapse. It became impossible to find a government, because anyone in government would face an unfeasible situation and an inevitable set of unpopular decisions ahead. At least, it became impossible to find a government made up of politicians…

So Italy effectively skipped the politicians and appointed an academic, Mario Monti, as Prime Minister. He took some tough decisions, and while all is still far from well in the country, its finances stayed afloat (and it even remained within the Eurozone). The politicians are now back in control and normal service (admittedly rarely a good thing in Italy) has been resumed.

What about that for an idea, at least to get a local Executive up and running while talks are ongoing?

In effect, a group of expert Commissioners would be appointed to hold Ministerial responsibilities (with perhaps Executive Office temporarily subsumed within the NIO) and manage at least the Budget and public policy. It would not even be necessary to cover each Department with a single “Commissioner-Minister”. The Health “Commissioner-Minister” could be one of Bengoa’s or Compton’s expert panel; the Finance or Economy “Commissioner-Minister” an expert from the defunct ERINI or a think tank; and so on. Assembly Committees would remain in place to scrutinise Budget and policy, and even to pass any absolutely necessary legislation (for example around implementation of Health Reform).

That would put a government in place, and allow talks to continue to restore “proper devolution” through reformed and improved institutions.

A thought, anyway?

All-party peace talks now…

“All-party peace talks now” was the Sinn Féin slogan 20 years ago – but no more. During the recent shambolic process not a single all-party meeting took place. Anyone would think, given it is still devoting time to voter registration, that Sinn Féin just wants a second election.

Because there were no all-party talks, it was hard to challenge Sinn Féin on exactly what a solution to their problem looks like. It is unclear whether Sinn Féin knows. Because Unionists decided to spend most of the time just talking to each other, they showed no real willingness to deliver a resolution either. Because the UK Government is a player around legacy issues and an Irish Language Act (the past Agreement commits the UK Government to introduce one), it was never going to be seen as an impartial Chair anyway.

If there is to be a resolution, it will take structured talks establishing what the parties’ motivations are, what principles can be signed up to, and then an implementation programme.

There will also need to be a recognition that there are three distinct (if linked) sets of talks to get through:

1. Implementation of Past Agreements (this needs an independent Chair because the UK Government is a player here) – an implemention plan on Legacy, NI Executive influence on Brexit, and reserved Irish Language issues (broadcasting).

2. Institutional Reform – this could be chaired by the UK Government which is not a “player” in this case but which may need to legislate, including agreement on how to promote “respect”, use of Petition of Concern and enforcement of Ministerial Code (this may require an Act).

3. Establishment of Executive – a purely devolved issue with perhaps a local Chair, including agreement on devolved Ministers, a Programme for Government, a Budget and a programme of Health Transformation (this latter requires all-party agreement).

The Assembly itself in effect now becomes the Forum for such talks.

To be frank, this must be done properly and thus it may take some time (maybe as long as the RHI inquiry), but it is clearly do-able unless someone chooses to be deliberately obstructive.

So let’s do it. (We’ll come to how to deliver government in the meantime tomorrow.)

Petition of Concern reform key to progress

It will take some time to determine exactly where we are on how we can restore devolution, or indeed any sort of government, in Northern Ireland.

The key is reform of the Petition of Concern. Anybody serious about progress (and it remains to be seen who is serious about it and who is not) would recognise that.

Many of the current stalling points – the Irish Language Act, same-sex marriage and so on – would be solved by reforming the Petition of Concern. The key point here is that there will inevitably also be sticking points in future – and those too will be solved by reforming the Petition of Concern.

It is simply not possible to deal with such issues on a straight black versus white basis. That is what we have the Assembly for – assessing the grey and reaching compromise. Once that compromise is reached, has an Assembly majority, and does not impinge on anyone’s equality of opportunity or constitutional rights, then it should be carried through.

That is how democracy works. We should try it.

How to learn languages – Latinate languages

Over the past four weeks, we have looked at individual Latinate (or “Romance”) languages, all deriving from Latin, and specifically from the Vulgar Latin of the eighth century. The importance of Late/Vulgar Latin has become apparent; it bears repeating that half the changes between Classical Latin and any modern Standard national Latin-based language had already happened by the time the later Latin dialects based on the “vulgar” (colloquial spoken rather than high written) form broke up geographically. Therefore, modern Latinate languages are clearly linked to that Late Latin.

Very broadly, we can split Latin’s daughter languages into “Iberian” (Spanish and Portuguese) and “Italo-Gallic” (French and Italian), at least in their Standard varieties. Nevertheless, largely because of its dramatic phonological development (and partly because of the consequent impact on grammar), French is the outlier – although Italian is geographically and in some ways idiomatically closer to French, it is in fact overall closer to Iberian than to French.

Phonologically all Latin-based languages broadly prefer soft sounds, they are more vocalic than Classical Latin was, and they exhibit significant changes to pronunciation of vowels and the letters <c> and <g> (which have softened, in divergent ways, before high vowels usually written <e> or <i>). There have been some divergences, particularly affecting medial letters (i.e. consonants surrounded by vowels or vowels surrounded by consonants). French has moved by far the fastest with its remarkably complex system of liaison; followed by Spanish and Portuguese and then by Italian, whose Standard is the most conservative form (i.e. closest to Latin).

Grammatically, the Latin-based languages discussed have all reduced three genders to two, continuing to mark them on words surrounding or referring to the noun; and they exhibit “agreement” of the adjective with the noun in all circumstances (and in each language adjectives generally follow nouns, with some minor exceptions). They are perhaps most interesting because of their treatment of the verb, however. They all mark verbs for three tenses (past, present and future) plus the conditional. These three tenses are assumed to be “normal” by many people across the Western world, but actually they are a clear marker of Latin-based languages (as we will find out, Germanic languages actually only have two tenses, and many other languages globally do not primarily mark tense at all). Additionally, most Latin-based languages continue to differentiate between imperfect and perfect aspect in the past (at least in writing). Through use of auxiliaries (usually those meaning or derived from ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, or occasionally ‘to stand’ and ‘to go’), a wide range of tense and aspect combinations is available. Notably, even though it has receded in some, all Latin-based languages continue to mark the subjunctive mood to some extent even in informal speech, at least in the present and the past. None marks for case (preferring prepositions instead) except with personal pronouns; and notably all are fundamentally SVO except if the object is the personal pronoun, in which case they are SOV.

We have, of course, not looked at a fifth national Latin-based language, namely Romanian, nor at some important regional languages such as Catalan and Sardinian. Romanian is notable because the definite article follows the noun; it also derives significant vocabulary and some grammatical forms from the Slavic languages which now surround it almost entirely. Catalan is significantly reduced phonologically (although not to the same extent as Standard French), and exhibits some marked distinction in the use of articles and the prominent form of some prepositions (e.g. amb ‘with’). Sardinian is the most conservative Latin-based language of all, maintaining even the hard <c> (i.e. /k/) sound in all circumstances, as Classical Latin did (e.g. Classical Latin Caesar was pronounced as modern German Kaiser).

Because much language study in the English-speaking world has been focused on the Classics, and particularly Latin, a lot of assumptions about languages are made based on it – which is peculiar, because English is a Germanic, not a Latinate, language. Notions such as three tenses, two genders, subjunctives, personal pronoun objects preceding verbs and so on are indeed common to a lot of the first languages English speakers learn (most obviously Spanish and French), but they are not in fact the norm and they are not a feature of Germanic languages (such as English itself).

Speaking of which, let us start on those next week…