Category Archives: Indo-European

How Do Literary Authors of Small Languages Survive?

One wonders how a literary author of a small language could possibly survive, but they do. The following nations at the very least have, good, thriving publishing industries in their native languages, however, they do not have huge, world-class publishing industries.

Tier 1:

Albania (Albanian)

Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro (Serbo-Croatian)

Bulgaria (Bulgarian)

Burma (Burmese)

Czech Republic (Czech)

Denmark (Danish)

Finland (Finnish)

Georgia (Georgian)

Greece (Greek)

Iceland (Icelandic)

Hungary (Hungarian)

Iran (Persian)

Macedonia (Macedonian)

Norway (Norwegian)

Poland (Polish)

Romania (Romanian)

Slovenia (Slovenian)

Sweden (Swedish)

The Netherlands (Dutch)

Ukraine (Ukrainian)

Tier 1 are relatively small languages, but authors writing in those languages, especially novelists, can probably sell a lot of books simply because the market is rather small. All of those countries have thriving publishing industries.

Further, many of these languages are translated into German. More books are probably translated into German than any other continental language. Germany is basically a clearinghouse for translations from smaller European countries. If your work in say Czech gets translated into German, it will get much wider readership because many Europeans even outside of Germany speak German. German is one of the main lingua francas of Continental Europe.

Books in Albanian, Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, French, Georgian, Gikuyu, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Kannada, Korean, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Norwegian, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and Ukrainian are often translated first into German and then into other languages. Germany is often the first stop for a foreign translation from a big author from Continental Europe, and a German translation often comes before an English one.

The other big language that Continental European books get translated into is French. French of course is a huge language in Continental Europe and is spoken even by many people outside of France. If you publish in your small language first, you often wish to take it to France to get your first or second translation done. France, like Germany, specializes in translations of good authors of small Continental languages.

Books in Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Basque, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Catalan, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Kannada, Korean, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malayalam, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu and Vietnamese often receive a French translation, though a German translation is more common.

Works in Albanian, Arabic, Basque, Bengali, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian, Sanskrit, Swedish and Turkish are sometimes translated into Spanish. Works in Albanian, Arabic, Basque, Bengali, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and Ukrainian are sometimes translated into Italian.

Works in Macedonian are typically translated first into French.

Most Albanian works also go into French first.

Some Persian works are translated first into Urdu.

Other languages have thriving industries of all sorts of published materials:

Tier 2:

China (Chinese)

Italy (Italian)

Japan (Japanese)

Korea (Korean)

Portugal and Brazil (Portuguese)

Russia (Russian)

Spain and Latin America (Spanish)

Turkey (Turkish)

Tier 2 are huge languages in their own right with vast publishing industries in their native languages. In addition, works in these languages are often translated into German and French.

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Filed under French, German, Language Families, Linguistics, Literature

What Is a Group of Cats Called?

A group of cats is known as a glaring, a clowder, or a clutter of cats. Glaring may have a sort of shaded meaning in that it is sometimes defined as a group of cats who don’t exactly get along with each other or who live in some sort of a tenuous peace with each other.

Glaring at least is from 1450, Middle English. Exact etymology is not known, but it may be a Gaelic borrowing.

Clowder is related to clutter. Clutter is a Welsh borrowing. Both are from around the same time period as glaring.

There used to be all sorts of collective nouns for many common species, but most of these words have dropped out of the language. A very interesting one is a murder or crows -> a group or flock of crows. We still have herd for cows, pack for dogs, school for fish and flock for birds, but most of the rest are gone.

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Filed under English language

Are Persian and Kurdish Mutually Intelligible?

The answer is not at all. There is no mutual intelligiblity (MI) between the two – the intelligibility figure is essentially 0%.

One commenter said that Persian-Kurdish MI is about the same as between English and Spanish.

What is odd is that Kurdish and Persian have a lexicostatistics rating of 80% of a 41 word Swadesh basic vocabulary list. That is, 80% of the words are cognates on that list. That list is not so good for judging MI though. For that, I would go with a Swadesh-215 list, including borrowings. You should get quite a bit lower numbers on the Swadesh-215 list than on the Swadesh-41 list as basic vocabulary tends to change less between any two related languages.

So you see that even in languages where 80% of the core vocabulary consists of similar words, they can’t understand a word of each other’s speech when they talk to each other. How fascinating.

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Filed under Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Indo-Iranian, Indo-Irano-Armenian, Indo-Irano-Armeno-Hellenic, Language Families, Linguistics

What Is the Intelligibility of English with Spanish and Other Romance Languages?

I would the regard the mutual intelligibility (MI) of English with not only Spanish but Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian to be 0%. Sure there are similar Latinate cognates in English via Latin borrowings in the Middle Ages, but that won’t be enough to make a conversation intelligible. I meet English speakers all the time who tell me they can’t speak or understand a word of Spanish. They never say, “Well, you know, English and Spanish are so similar that, even though I don’t speak Spanish, I can still get a lot of the conversation.”

I also meet monolingual Spanish speakers around my town all the time. I start speaking English to them, and they just wave their hands and say, “No speak English.” So I shift to Spanish with them, and they look like they just saw God. Sometimes I shift back to English again in the conversation, and that baffled look returns to their face. It’s obvious that they don’t understand a word of it.

Even though I have had four years+ of Spanish in school, and I started studying Spanish when I was six years old, I am typically befuddled by in vivo native Spanish speakers. Around town here, I am around native Spanish speakers all the time. Even if they are standing right next to me, I often cannot understand one single word that they say. Now if I talked to them and got them to slow down their Spanish, we could have a bit of a conversation, but as is, forget it.

I have heard French audio on the Net and in my former town, there were French tourists who came into town a lot. I would often be buying coffee and French speakers would be blabbing away all around me. I can never understand one single word of spoken French.

I haven’t heard much Italian in vivo, but I have heard quite a bit of it on Internet audio and video. Spoken Italian is simply gibberish to me to a large degree. It makes no sense whatsoever.

Usually you can understand a language in audio or video better than in vivo, because speakers on audio and video are more professional speakers and are trained to speak slowly and clearly whereas in vivo, most speech is much more rapid and less clear.

I have also heard Italian on a Youtube video, and it made no sense to me.

Now this is all coming from a guy who is advanced in Spanish.

So obviously I would say that English has 0% intelligibility with all of the Romance languages.


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Filed under Balto-Slavic-Germanic, English language, French, Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Italian, Italic, Italo-Celtic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Linguistics, Romance, Spanish

Mutual Intelligibility Chart for the Slavic Languages

Look at how close they are!

Look at how close they are!

This chart is based on lexicostatistics. The best way to do this is with a Swadesh-215 list with borrowings included. You really need to include borrowings when testing mutual intelligibility (MI) because borrowings are frequently used in conversation, and with MI, you are testing whether or not people can understand each other. A Swadesh-215 list is better because more similarities will show up than with a Swadesh-100 list, and there is no need to limit your words when testing MI because people don’t limit their speech to simple vocabulary, except in this slum where I live.

As you can see, once you start getting over 90% cognates (see Ukrainian-Belorussian and Czech-Slovak) you are very close to the same languages. At the very least, you have two very closely related languages, and I do believe that Belorussian is separate from Ukrainian and Czech is separate from Slovak and MI tests show this to be true (MI 82% between Czech and Slovak).

Note that MI is apparently lower between Belorussian and Russian than between Belorussian and Ukrainian. That is interesting because many Russian nationalists say that Belorussian is a Russian dialect. Note also that Bulgarian and Macedonian, often said to be one language, have fewer cognates than between Czech and Slovak. Based on this chart, Bulgarian and Macedonian surely appear to be separate languages, as far apart as Polish and Slovak.

Note how close both Czech and Slovak are to Polish and Slovenian! Note also how close Serbian is to Slovenian and Macedonian.

It is also interesting how close Upper and Lower Sorbian are to each other. I wonder what the MI is like between them.

It is really amazing how closely related the Slavic languages are to each other.


Filed under Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Bulgarian language, Czech, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Linguistics, Polish, Russian, Slavic, Slovak

Yola Is a Dialect of English?

I will show you that video of a man singing in the Yola language once again to see if you can figure out WTH he is talking about.

There you go. Do you have any idea WTH he is singing about, for God’s name? Of course you don’t. So how in the heck is that a dialect of English? It’s only a dialect of English if you can basically understand the person.

If you can’t understand them, they aren’t speaking English -they’re speaking a foreign language.

That’s as clear as air.

Here is a section of text written in the Yola language from 1836:

MAI’T BE PLESANT TO TH’ECCELLENCIE, – Wee, Vassalès o’ ‘His Most Gracious majesty’, Wilyame ee Vourthe, an, az wee verilie chote, na coshe and loyale dwellerès na Baronie Forthe, crave na dicke luckie acte t’uck neicher th’ Eccellencie, an na plaine grabe o’ oure yola talke, wi vengem o’ core t’gie ours zense o’ y gradès whilke be ee-dighte wi yer name; and whilke we canna zei, albeit o’ ‘Governere’, ‘Statesman’, an alike.

Yn ercha and aul o’ while yt beeth wi gleezom o’ core th’ oure eyen dwytheth apan ye Vigere o’dicke Zouvereine, Wilyame ee Vourthe, unnere fose fatherlie zwae oure diaez be ee-spant, az avare ye trad dicke londe yer name waz ee-kent var ee vriene o’ livertie, an He fo brake ye neckares o’ zlaves. Mang ourzels – var wee dwytheth an Irelonde az ure genreale haim – y’ast, bie ractzom o’honde, ee-delt t’ouz ye laas ee-mate var ercha vassale, ne’er dwythen na dicke waie nar dicka.

Wee dwyth ye ane fose dais be gien var ee guidevare o’ye londe ye zwae, – t’avance pace an livertie, an, wi’oute vlynch, ee garde o’ generale reights an poplare vartue. Ye pace – yea, we mai zei, ye vast pace whilke bee ee-stent owr ye londe zince th’ast ee-cam, proo’th, y’at wee alane needeth ye giftes o’generale rights, az be displayth bie ee factes o’thie goveremente. Ye state na dicke daie o’ye londe, na whilke be nar fash nar moile, albeit ‘constitutional agitation’, ye wake o’hopes ee-blighte, stampe na yer zwae be rare an lightzom.

Yer name var zetch avancet avare ye, e’en a dicke var hye, arent whilke ye brine o’zea an dye craggès o’noghanes cazed nae balke. Na oure gladès ana whilke we dellt wi’ mattoke, an zing t’oure caulès wi plou, wee hert ee zough o’ye colure o’ pace na name o’ Mulgrave.

Wi Irishmen ower generale houpes be ee-boud – az Irishmen, an az dwellerès na cosh an loyale o’ Baronie Forthe, w’oul daie an ercha daie, our meines an oure gurles, praie var long an happie zins, shorne o’lournagh an ee-vilt wi benisons, an yersel and oure gude Zovereine, till ee zin o’oure daies be var aye be ee-go to’glade.

For God’s sake, what in the Lord’s name is he going on about anyway? If that’s written in English, how come I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about because I don’t know what the words he is using mean? If you can’t understand someone’s lexicon, they are not speaking your language. Period. No debate on that.

As linguists, we definitely do not like the idea that there are dialects of a Language X that many Language X speakers can’t make heads or tails of. That doesn’t make sense. If Language X can’t understand Dialect Y of Language X then that means that that “dialect” is no longer a dialect of Language X; in fact, it is a separate language altogether. Call it Language Y then.

By the same token, we really don’t like the idea that you can have speakers of two separate languages that more or less understand each other. Forget that. If speakers of Language X and Language Y can pretty much understand each other, then they are not speaking separate languages. They are speaking a dialect of a single language.

There are all sorts of ideas of where you draw the dividing line at dialect vs. language, but I would put it as 90%.

Below 90% = two different languages.

90%+ = dialects of a single tongue.

This seems to be where Ethnologue chops them up, and I think they do a good job.

Between 80-90%, you have two very closely related languages; so closely related in fact, that speakers often think they are both speaking the same language. For instance, Swedish has 87% intelligibility of Norwegian, which is pretty good. Norwegian comedians sometimes appear on Swedish TV speaking Norwegian with no subtitles.

At around 80%, things start to get a lot dicier. At 80% intelligibility, you can have conversations about day to day quotidian things, but you cannot have conversations about difficult or complex topics. That is, you can talk about the weather and whatnot, but you can’t talk about the political issues of the day in any sort of depth.

Here is the talk page where they decided that Yola wasn’t a language after all, but instead was merely a “dialect of English.” The page was then moved from Yola Language to Forth and Bargy Dialect. Apparently, what they called the Forth and Bargy dialect of Hibernian English was spoken in the area of Forth and Bargy, Ireland perhaps until recently. Books about this “dialect” were written in the 1800’s.

Yola was indeed probably intelligible with Middle English as spoken in England around 1200-1300. That means it was an English dialect, right? Wrong! Middle English isn’t English, or it isn’t Modern English. In other words, Modern English and Middle English are two completely separate languages. Old English is another language altogether.

So each one gave either gave birth to another or was a descendant of another? So what? Ancestor languages and descendant languages are not the same language. For instance, yes, your parents gave birth to you and their grandparents gave birth to them. They are the descendants of their grandparents and you are the descendant of both your parents and your grandparents. Does that mean that you, your parents and your grandparents are all the same person because you gave birth to one another. Come on!

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Filed under Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Dialectology, English language, Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

A Look at the Slovene Language

From here.

A look at how difficult the Slovene language for an English speaker to learn. Slovene is a hard language, but probably a few other Slavic languages are harder. One nice thing about Slovene is that it has quite a few German loan words, so there is more familiar vocabulary. Despite its complexity, Slovene is a beautiful language.

Slovenian or Slovene is also a very hard language to learn, probably on a par with Serbo-Croatian. It has three number distinctions, singular, dual and plural. It’s the only major IE European language that has retained the dual. Sorbian has also retained the dual, but it is a minor tongue. However, the dual may be going out in Slovenia. In Primorska it is not used at all, and in the rest of Slovenia, the feminine dual is not used in casual speech (plural is used instead), but the masculine dual is still used for masculine nouns and mixed pairs of masculine and feminine nouns.

In addition, there are six cases, as Slovene has lost the vocative. There are 18 different declensions of the word son, but five of them are identical, so there are really only 13 different forms.

   Singular Dual       Plural 
1. Sin      Sina       Sini
2. Sina     Sinov      Sinov
3. Sinu     Sinovoma   Sinovom
4. Sina     Sinova     Sinove
5. O sinu   O sinovoma O sinovih
6. S sinom  Z sinovoma Z sini

There are seven different ways that nouns decline depending on gender, but there are exceptions to all of the gender rules. The use of particles such as pa is largely idiomatic. In addition, there is a lack of language learning materials for Slovene.

Some sounds are problematic. Learners have a hard time with the č and ž sounds. There are also “open” and “closed” vowels as in Portuguese.

Here is an example of a word that can be difficult to pronounce:


However, Slovene has the past perfect that is the same as the English tense, lost in the rest of Slavic. In addition, via contact with German and Italian, many Germanic and Romance loans have gone in. If you know some German have some knowledge of another Slavic langauge, Slovene is not overwhelmingly difficult.

Some people worry that Slovene might go extinct in the near future, as it is spoken by only 2 million people. However, even this small language has 356, 881 headwords in an online dictionary. So it is clear that Slovene has plenty enough vocabulary to deal with the modern world.

Slovene is easier than Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Czech or Slovak.

Slovenian gets a 4 rating, extremely hard.


Filed under Applied, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Slavic

A Look at the Serbo-Croatian Language

From here.

A look at the Serbo-Croatian language to see how hard it is to learn fro an English speaker. Serbo-Croatian is legendary for its difficulty. Whether it is harder than Czech or Polish is somewhat up in the air, but probably Czech and Polish are harder. Few L2 speakers ever attain anything near native speaker competence. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating language.

Serbo-Croatian, similar to Czech, has seven cases in the singular and seven in the plural, plus there are several different declensions. The vocative is still going strong in Serbo-Croatian (S-C), as in Polish, Ukrainian and Bulgarian. There 15 different types of declensions: seven tenses, three genders, three moods, and two aspects. Whereas English has one word for the number 2 – two, Serbo-Croatian has 17 words.

Case abbreviations below:
N = NAV – nominative, accusative, vocative
G = Genitive
D = Dative
L =Locative
I = Instrumental

Masculine inanimate gender
N dva
G dvaju
D L I dvama

Feminine gender
N dve
G dveju
D L I dvema

Mixed gender
N dvoje
G dvoga
D L I dvoma

Masculine animate gender
N dvojica
G dvojice
D L dvojici
I dvojicom

N dvojka
G dvojke
D L dvojci
I dvojkom

The grammar is incredibly complex. There are imperfective and perfective verbs, but when you try to figure out how to build one from the other, it seems irregular. This is the hardest part of Serbo-Croatian grammar, and foreigners not familiar with other Slavic tongues usually never get it right.

Serbian has a strange form called the “paucal.” It is the remains of the old dual, and it also exists in Polish and Russian.  The paucal is a verbal number like singular, plural and dual. It is used with the numbers dva (2), tri (3), četiri (4) and oba/obadva (both) and also with any number that contains 2, 3 or 4 (22, 102, 1032).

gledalac            viewer
pažljiv(i)          careful
gledalac pažljiv(i) careful viewer

1 careful viewer  jedan pažljivi gledalac 
2 careful viewers dva pažljiva gledaoca   
3 careful viewers tri pažljiva gledaoca   
5 careful viewers pet pažljivih gledalaca

Above, pažljivi gledalac is singular, pažljivih gledalaca is plural and pažljiva gledaoca is paucal.

As in English, there are many different ways to say the same thing. Pronouns are so rarely used that some learners are surprised that they exist, since pronimalization is marked on the verb as person and number. Word order is almost free or at least seems arbitrary, similar to Russian.

Serbo-Croatian, like Lithuanian, has pitch accent – low-rising, low-falling, short-rising and short-falling. It’s not the same as tone, but it’s similar. In addition to the pitch accent differentiating words, you also have an accented syllable somewhere in the word, which as in English, is unmarked. And when the word conjugates or declines, the pitch accent can jump around in the word to another syllable and even changes its type in ways that do not seem transparent. It’s almost impossible for foreigners to get this pitch-accent right.

The “hard” ch sound is written č, while the “soft” ch sound is written ć. It has syllabic r and l. Long consonant clusters are permitted. See this sentence:

Na vrh brda vrba mrda.

However, in many of these consonant clusters, a schwa is present between consonants in speech, though it is not written out.

S-C, like Russian, has words that consist of only a single consonant:


Serbo-Croatian does benefit from a phonetic orthography.

It is said that few if any foreigners ever master Serbo-Croatian well. Similar to Czech and Polish, it is said that many native speakers make mistakes in S-C even after decades of speaking it, especially in pitch accent.

Serbo-Croatian is often considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. It is harder than Russian but not as hard as Polish.

Serbo-Croatian gets a 4.5 rating, extremely difficult.


Filed under Applied, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Serbo-Croatian, Slavic

A Look at the Polish Language

From here.

A look at Polish to see how difficult it is for an English speaker to learn. Polish is probably the hardest I-E European language of all. Its only competition might be Albanian. Among non-IE European languages, we are looking at Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian as competition. The Poles are quite proud of their langauge and even take pride in its difficulty. It is certainly an amazing language.

Polish is similar to Czech and Slovak in having words that seem to have no vowels, but in Polish at least there are invisible vowels. That’s not so obviously the case with Czech. Nevertheless, try these sentences:

  1. Wszczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie.
  2. Wyindywidualizowaliśmy się z rozentuzjazmowanego tłumu.
  3. W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.

I and y, s and z, je and ě alternate at the ends of some words, but the rules governing when to do this, if they exist, don’t seem sensible. The letter ť is very hard to pronounce. There are nasal vowels as in Portuguese. The ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, sz, cz, dz, , sounds are hard for foreigners to make. There are sounds that it is even hard for native speakers to make as they require a lot tongue movements. A word such as szczescie is hard to Polish L2 speakers to pronounce. Polish written to spoken pronunciation makes little sense, as in English – h and ch are one sound – h, ó and u are the same sound, and u may form diphthongs where it sounds like ł, so u and ł can be the same sound in some cases.

Kura (hen) and kóra are pronounced exactly the same way, and this is confusing to Polish children. However, the distinction between h/ch has gone of most spoken Polish. Furthermore, there is a language committee, but like the French one, it is more concerned with preserving the history or the etymology of the word and less with spelling the word phonemically. Language committees don’t always do their jobs!

Polish orthography, while being regular, is very complex. Polish uses a Latin alphabet unlike most other Slavic languages which use a Cyrillic alphabet. The letters are: AĄ B CĆ D EĘ FGHIJK LŁ M NŃ OÓ QPRSTUVW XY ZŹŻ.

Further, native speakers speak so fast it’s hard for non-natives to understand them. Due to the consonant-ridden nature of Polish, it is harder to pronounce than most Asian languages. Listening comprehension is made difficult by all of the sh and ch like sounds. Furthermore, since few foreigners learn Polish, Poles are not used to hearing their language mangled by second-language learners. Therefore, foreigners’ Polish will seldom be understood.

Polish grammar is said to be more difficult than Russian grammar. Polish has the following:

There are five different tenses: zaprzeszły, przeszły, teraźniejszy, przyszły prosty, and przyszły złozony. There are seven different genders: male, feminine, neuter, animate and inanimate in the singular and animate and inanimate in the plural. Male nouns have five patterns of declension, and feminine and neuter nouns have six different patterns of declension. Adjectives have two different declension patterns. Numbers have five different declension patterns: główne, porządkowe, zbiorowe, nieokreślone, and ułamkowe. There is a special pattern for nouns that are only plural.

There are seven different cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, vocative, and the genitive case is irregular. Verbs have nine different persons in their declensions: ja, ty, on, ona, ono, my, wy, oni, one. There are different conjugation patterns for men and women. There are 18 different conjugation patterns in the verb (11 main ones). There are five different polite forms: for a man, a woman, men, women and men and women combined. There are four different participle forms, three of which inflect. There are four different participles, three of which inflect.

Polish has seven cases, including the vocative which has gone out of most Slavic. Although the vocative is becoming less common in Polish, it is still used in formal situations, and it’s not really true that it is a dying form.

In an informal situation, a Pole might be more like to use nominative rather than vocative:

Cześć Marek! (Nom.), rather than
Cześć Marku! (Voc.)

However, in a more formal situation, the vocative is still likely to be used:

Dzień dobry panie profesorze/doktorze! (Voc.), rather than
Dzień dobry pan profesor/doktor! (Nom.)

Case declension is very irregular, unlike German. Polish consonant gradation is called oboczność (variation).

It also has seven genders, five in the singular and two in the plural. The genders of nouns cause the adjectives modifying them to inflect differently.

matka   mother (female gender)
ojciec  father (male gender)
dziecko child (neuter gender)

Modifying Adjective
brzydkiugly ugly

brzydka matka    ugly mother
brzydki ojciec   ugly father
brzydkie dziecko ugly child

brzydkie matki   ugly mothers
brzydcy ojcowie  ugly fathers
brzydkie dzieci  ugly children

Gender even effects verbs.

I ate (female speaker) Ja zjadłam
I ate (male speaker)   Ja zjadłem

There are two different forms of the verb kill depending on whether the 1st person singular and plural and 2nd person plural killers are males or females.

I killed     zabiłem/zabiłam
We killed    zabiliśmy/zabiłyśmy
They killed  zabili/zabiły

The perfective and imperfective tenses create a dense jungle of forms:

kupować - to buy

Singular  Simple Past         Imperfect
I (f.)    kupiłam             kupowałam
I (m.)    kupiłem             kupowałem
you (f.)  kupiłaś             kupowałaś
you (m.)  kupiłeś             kupowałeś
he        kupił               kupował
she       kupiła              kupowała
it        kupiło              kupowało

we (f.)   kupiłyśmy           kupowałyśmy
we (m.)   kupiliśmy           kupowaliśmy
you (f.)  kupiłyście          kupowałyście 
you (m.)  kupiliście          kupowaliście
they (f.) kupiły              kupowały
they (m.) kupili              kupowali

The verb above forms an incredible 28 different forms in the perfect and imperfect past tense alone.

The existence of the perfective and imperfective verbs themselves is the least of the problem. The problem is that each verb – perfective or imperfective – is in effect a separate verb altogether, instead of just being conjugated differently.

The verb to see has two completely different verbs in Polish:


WidziałemI saw (repeatedly in the past, like I saw the sun come up every morning).
ZobaczyłemI saw (only once; I saw the sun come up yesterday).

Some of these verbs are obviously related to each other:


But others are very different:


This is not a tense difference – the very verbs themselves are different! So for every verb in the language, you effectively have to learn two different verbs. The irregular forms may date from archaic Polish.

In addition, the future perfect and future imperfect often conjugate completely differently, though the past forms usually conjugate in the same way – note the -em endings above. There is no present perfect as in English, since in Polish the action must be completed, and you can’t be doing something at this precise moment and at the same time have just finished doing it. 95% of verbs have these maddening dual forms, but for 5% of verbs that lack a perfective version, you only have one form.

It’s often said that one of the advantages of Polish is that there are only three tenses, but this is not really case, as there are at least eight tenses:

Indicative         grac       to play
Present            gram       I play 
Past               gralem     I played
Conditional        gralbym    I would play
Future             będę grać  I will play
Continuous future  będę grał  I will be playing
Perfective future  bogram     I will have played*
Perf. conditional  pogralbym  I would have played

*Implies you will finish the action

There is also an aspectual distinction made when referring to the past. Different forms are used based on whether or not the action has been completed.

Whereas in English we use one word for go no matter what mode of transportation we are using to get from one place to another, in Polish, you use different verbs if you are going by foot, by car, by plane, by boat or by other means of transportation.

In addition, there is an animate-inanimate distinction in gender. Look at the following nouns:

hat      kapelusz
computer komputer
dog      pies
student  uczen

All are masculine gender, but computer and hat are inanimate, and student and dog are animate, so they inflect differently.

I see a new hatWidze nowy kapelusz
I see a new student
Widze nowego ucznia

Notice how the now- form changed.

In addition to completely irregular verbs, there are also irregular nouns in Polish:


Let us look at pronouns. English has one word for the genitive case of the 1st person singular – my. In Polish, depending on the context, you can have the following 11 forms, and actually there are even more than 11:


Numerals can be complex. English has one word for the number 2 – two. Polish has 21 words for two (however, only 5-6 of them are in common use):

dwa (nominative non-masculine personal male and neuter and non-masculine personal accusative)
dwaj (masculine personal nominative)
dwie (nominative and accusative female)
dwóch (genitive, locative and masculine personal accusative)
dwom (dative)
dwóm (dative)
dwu (alternative version sometimes used for instrumental, genitive, locative and dative)
dwoma (masculine instrumental)
dwiema (female instrumental)
dwoje (collective, nominative + accusative)
dwojga (collective, genitive)
dwojgu (collective, dative + locative)
dwójka (noun, nominative)
dwójkę (noun, accusative)
dwójki (noun, genitive)
dwójce (noun, dative and locative)
dwójką (noun, instrumental)
dwójko (vocative)
dwojgiem (collective, instrumental)

Polish also has the paucal form like Serbo-Croatian. It is the remains of the old dual. The paucal applies to impersonal masculine, feminine and neuter nouns but not to personal masculine nouns.

Personal Masculine

one boy    jeden chłopiec
two boys   dwóch chłopców
three boys trzech chłopców
four boys  czterech chłopców
five boys  pięciu chłopców
six boys   sześciu chłopców
seven boys siedmiu chłopców
eight boys ośmiu chłopców

Impersonal Masculine

one dog    jeden pies
two dogs   dwa psy
three dogs trzy psy
four dogs  cztery psy
five dogs  pięć psów
six dogs   sześć psów
seven dogs siedem psów
eight dogs osiem psów

In the above, two, three and four dogs is in the paucal (psy), while two, three or four men is not and is instead in the plural (chłopców)

Polish, like Hungarian and Finnish, can also have very long words. For instance:


is a word in Polish (There is no dash in the word – I was just dividing the line).

A single noun can change in many ways and take many different forms. Compare przyjacielfriend

                           Singular       Plural
who is my friend           przyjaciel    przyjaciele
who is not my friend       przyjaciela    przyjaciół
friend who I give s.t. to  przyjacielowi  przyjaciołom
friend who I see           przyjaciela    przyjaciół
friend who I go with       z przyajcielem z przyjaciółmi
friend who I dream of      o przyjacielu  o przyjaciołach
Oh my friend!              Przyajcielu!   Przyjaciele!

There are 12 different forms of the noun friend above.

Plurals change based on number. In English, the plural of telephone is telephones, whether you have two or 1,000 of them. In Polish, you use different words depending on how many telephones you have:

two, three or four telefony, but
five telefonów.

Sometimes, this radically changes the word, as in hands:

four ręce, but
five rąk.

There are also irregular diminutives such as

psiaczek -> słoneczko

Polish seems like Lithuanian in the sense that almost every grammatical form seems to inflect in some way or other. Even conjunctions inflect in Polish.

In addition, like Serbo-Croatian, Polish can use multiple negation in a sentence. You can use up to five negatives in a perfectly grammatical sentence:

Nikt nikomu nigdy nic nie powiedział.
Nobody ever said anything to anyone

Like Russian, there are multiple different ways to say the same thing in Polish. However, the meaning changes subtly with these different word combinations, so you are not exactly saying the same thing with each change or word order. Nevertheless, this mess does not seem to be something that would be transparent to the Polish learner.

In English, you can say Ann has a cat, but you can’t mix the words up and mean the same thing. In Polish you can say Ann has a cat five different ways:

Ania ma kota.
Kota ma Ania.
Ma Ania kota.
Kota Ania ma.
Ma kota Ania.

The first one is the most common, but the other four can certainly be used.

In addition, Polish has a wide variety of dialects, and a huge vocabulary. Similar to Hungarian, there may be many different words for the same thing. There are 43 different words for ladybird. The following are 30 separate lexical items (not case-inflected terms) for ladybird, for which the main word is biedronka:

maryszepka, sarynka, katrynka, petronelka, skobrunek, skrzipeczka, panienka, makówka, letewka, kruszka, kropelniczka, guedzinka, motilewka, matoweczka, dzegotka, podlecuszka, maleneczka, pągwiczka, popruszka, markowiczka, parzedliszka, prochowniczka, krówka jałowiczka, karkukuczka, rączepiórka, borowa matinka, motuszka kruszka, marianna, mróweczka, and boża krówka.

Although Polish grammar is said to be irregular, this is probably not true. It only gives the appearance of being irregular as there are so many different rules, but there is a method to the madness underneath it all. The rules themselves are so complex and numerous that it is hard to figure them all out.

It is said English-speaking children reach full adult competency in the language (reading, writing, speaking, spelling) at age 12. Polish children do not reach this milestone until age 16. Even adult Poles make a lot of mistakes in speaking and writing Polish properly. However, most Poles are quite proud of their difficult language (though a few hate it), and even take pride in its difficult nature.

On the positive side, in Polish, the stress is fixed, there are no short or long vowels nor is there any vowel harmony, there are no tones and it uses a Latin alphabet.

Polish is one of the most difficult of the Slavic languages. It is probably harder than Russian but not as hard as Czech, though this is controversial.

Polish gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.


Filed under Applied, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Polish, Slavic

A Look at the Albanian Language

From here.

A look at the Albanian language from the viewpoint of how hard it is to learn for an English speaker. Albanian is an ancient Indo-European language and it is said to be very hard to learn. Albanian may be up there with Polish as the hardest European language.

Albanian is another obscure branch of Indo-European. Albanian nouns have two genders (masculine and feminine), five cases including the ablative, lost in all other IE. Both definite and indefinite articles are widely used, a plus for English speakers. Most inflections were lost, and whatever is left doesn’t even look very IE. The verbal system is complex, having eight tenses including two aorists and two futures, and several moods, including indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conjunctive, optative and admirative. The last three are odd cases for IE. The optative only exists in IE in Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Manx. Active and passive voices are used.

Similarly to Gaelic, Albanian is even harder to learn than either German or Russian. Albanian may be even harder to learn than Polish.

Albanian is rated 5, hardest of all.


Filed under Albanian, Applied, Balkan, Illyrian, Illyro-Venetic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics