Category Archives: Indo-Hittite

A Look at the Norwegian Language

From here.

This is a look at the Norwegian language from the POV of an English speaker trying to learn it. The truth is that Norwegian is probably one of the easiest languages for an English speaker to learn.

Norwegian is fairly easy to learn, and Norwegian is sometimes touted as the easiest language on Earth to learn for an English speaker.

This is confusing because Danish is described below as a more difficult language to learn, and critics say that Danish and Norwegian are the same, so they should have equal difficulty. But only one Norwegian writing system is almost the same as Danish the Danish writing system. Danish pronunciation is quite a bit different from Norwegian, and this is where the problems come in.

Nevertheless, Norwegian dialects can be a problem. Foreigners get off the plane having learned a bit of Norwegian and are immediately struck by the strangeness of the multiplicity of dialects, which for the most part are easy for Norwegians to understand, but can be hard for foreigners.

There is also the problematic en and et alternation, as discussed with Danish. Norwegian has an irrational orthographic system, like Swedish, with silent letters and many insensible sounds, both consonants and vowels. It has gone a long time without a spelling reform. It has the additional orthographic issues of two different writing systems and a multitude of dialects. Norwegian, like Danish and Swedish, has a huge vowel inventory, one of the larger ones on Earth. It can be confusing and difficult to make all of those odd vowel sounds: 18 contrasting simple vowels, nine long and nine short , , ɛː, ɑː, , , ʉ̟ː, , øː, ɪ, ɛ, a, ɔ, ʊ, ɵ, ʏ and œ.

Norwegian has very little inflection in its words, but the syntax is very difficult. Norwegian also has “tonemes” which distinguish between homophones.

tankenthe tank
the thought

have two different meanings, even though the stress and pronunciation are the same. The words are distinguished by a toneme.

However, Norwegian is a very regular language.

Norwegian gets a 2 rating, moderately easy to learn.


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

A Look at the Italian Language

From here.

A look at the Italian language from the POV of an English speaker trying to learn it. Compared to other Romance languages, Italian is about average in difficulty.

Italian is said to be easy to learn, especially if you speak a Romance language or English, but learning to order a pizza and really mastering it are two different things. Foreigners usually do not learn Italian at anywhere near a native level.

For instance, Italian has three types of tenses, simple, compound, and indefinite. There are also various moods that combine to take tense forms – four subjunctive moods, two conditional moods, two gerund moods, two infinite moods, two participle moods and one imperative mood.

There are eight tenses in the indicative mood – recent past, remote pluperfect, recent pluperfect, preterite (remote past), imperfect, present, future, future perfect. There are four tenses in the subjunctive mood – present, imperfect, preterite and pluperfect. There are two tenses in the conditional mood – present and preterite.

There is only one tense in the imperative mood – present. Gerund, participle and infinite moods all take only present and perfect tenses. Altogether, using these mood-tense combinations, any Italian verb can decline in up to 21 different ways.

Italian has many irregular verbs. There are 600 irregular verbs with all sorts of different irregularities. Nevertheless, it is a Romance language, and Romance has gotten rid of most of its irregularity. The Slavic languages are much more irregular than Romance.

Counterintuitively, some Italian words are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. There are many different ways to say the:





Few Italians even write Italian 100% correctly. A problem with Italian is that meaning is inferred via intonation. If you mess up the intonation of your utterance, you’re screwed and will not be understood. However, there is no case in Italian, as in all of Romance with the exception of Romanian.

Italian is still easier to learn than French, for evidence see the research that shows Italian children learning to write Italian properly by age six, 6-7 years ahead of French children. This is because Italian orthography is quite sensible and coherent, with good sound-symbol correspondence. Nevertheless, the orthography is not as transparent as Spanish’s.

Italian has phrasal verbs as in English, but the English ones are a lot more difficult. The Italian ones are usually a lot more clear given the verb and preposition involved, whereas with English if you have the verb and the preposition, the phrasal verb does not logically follow from their separate meanings. For instance:

andare fuorito go + out  = get out
andare giù
to go + down = get down

However, in a similar sense, Italian changes the meaning of verbs via addition of a verbal prefix:





In these cases, you create completely new verbs via the addition of the verbal prefix to the base. Without the prefix, it is a completely different verb. Italian is somewhat harder to learn than Spanish or Portuguese but not dramatically so. Italian has more irregularities than those two and has different ways of forming plurals, including two different ways of forming plurals that can mean different things depending on the context. This is a leftover from the peculiarities of the Latin neutral gender.

Italian pronunciation is a straightforward, but the ce and ci sounds can be problematic.

Italian gets a 3 rating, average difficulty.

Often thought to be an Italian dialect, Neapolitan is actually a full language all of its own. Neapolitan is said to be easier than Standard Italian. Unlike Italian, Neapolitan conjugation and the vocative are both quite simple and any irregularities that exist seem to follow definite patters.

Neapolitan gets a 2.5 rating, fairly easy.

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Filed under Applied, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Italian, Italic, Italo-Celtic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Romance

A Look at the Icelandic Language

From here.

A look at Icelandic from the view of how hard it is to learn for an English speaker. Icelandic is often considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn.

Icelandic is very hard to learn, much harder than Norwegian, German or Swedish. Part of the problem is pronunciation. The grammar is harder than German grammar, and there are almost no Latin-based words in it. The vocabulary is quite archaic. Modern loans are typically translated into Icelandic equivalents rather than borrowed fully into Icelandic.

There are four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive – as in German – and there are many exceptions to the case rules, or “quirky case,” as it is called. In quirky case, case can be marked on verbs, prepositions and and adjectives. The noun morphology system is highly irregular. Articles can be postfixed and inflected and added to the noun. In fact, Icelandic in general is highly irregular, not just the nouns.

Verbs are modified for tense, mood, person and number, as in many other IE languages (this is almost gone from English). There are up to ten tenses, but most of these are formed with auxiliaries as in English. Icelandic also modifies verbs for voice – active, passive and medial. Furthermore, there are four different kinds of verbs – strong, weak, reduplicating and irregular, with several conjugation categories in each division.  Many verbs just have to be memorized.

Adjectives decline in an astounding 130 different ways, but many of these forms are the same.

The language is generally SVO, but since there is so much case-marknig, in poetry all possibilities – SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS – are allowed. There is also something odd called “long distance reflexives,” which I do not understand.

In addition, Icelandic has the typical Scandinavian problem of a nutty orthography.

Icelandic verbs are very regular but the sounds change so much, especially the vowels, that the whole situation gets confusing pretty fast. In addition, there are three different verbal paradigms depending on the ending of the verb:


Icelandic verbs are commonly cited as some of the hardest verb systems around, at least in Europe. Even Icelandic people say their own verbs are difficult.

Icelandic has a voiceless lateral l. This can be a hard sound to make for many learners, especially in the middle of a word. In addition, there are two alveolar trills (the rolled r sound in Spanish), and one of them is voiced while the other is voiceless. Learners say they have problems with both of these sounds. In addition to voiceless l‘s and r‘s, Icelandic also has four voiceless nasals – , , ɲ̊, and ŋ̊ – the n, m, ny (as in Spanish nina), and ng sounds.

There are also contrasts between aspirated and nonaspirated stops including the odd palatal stops and c. In addition, there is a strange voiceless palatal fricative ç (similar to the h in English huge). In addition, Icelandic has a hard to pronounce four consonant cluster strj- that occurs at the beginning of a word.

Icelandic does have the advantage of being one of the few major languages with no significant dialects, so this is a plus. Icelandic has been separated from the rest of Scandinavian for 1,100 years. Icelandic is spoken over a significant region, much of which has inhabited places separated by large expanses of uninhabitable land such as impassable glaciers, volcanoes, lava flows,  geysers and almost no food. How Icelandic managed to not develop dialects in this situation is mysterious.

Icelandic has traditionally been considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn.

Icelandic gets a 5 rating, hardest of all to learn.


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

A Look at the Romanian Language

From here.

A look at Romanian from the viewpoint of an English speaker trying to learn the language.  Romanian is one of the hardest languages to learn in the Romance family.

Surprisingly enough, Romanian is said to be one of the harder Romance languages to speak or write properly. Even Romanians often get it wrong. One strange thing about Romanian is that the articles are attached to the noun as suffixes. In all the rest of Romance, articles are free words that precede the noun.

English  telephone the telephone
Romanian telefon   telefonul

Romanian is the only Romance language with case. There are five cases – nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, vocative – but vocative is not often use, and the other four cases combine as two cases: nominative/accusative and dative/genitive merge as single cases.

Nominative-Accusative aeroportul
Genitive-Dative       aeroportului

The genitive is hard for foreigners to learn as is the formation of plurals. The ending changes for no apparent reason when you pluralize a noun and there are also sound changes:

brad (singular)
brazi (plural)

Many native speakers have problems with plurals and some of the declensions. Unlike the rest of Romance which has only two genders, masculine and feminine, Romanian has three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter (the neuter is retained from Latin). However, neuter gender is realized on the surface as masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural, unlike languages such as Russian where neuter gender is an entirely different gender.

The pronunciation is not terribly difficult, but it is hard to learn at first.

Romanian is harder to learn than Spanish or Italian and possibly harder than French. However, you can have odd sentences with nothing but vowels as in Maori.

Aia-i oaia ei, o iau eu?
That’s her sheep, should I take it?

It may have the most difficult grammar in Romance. Romanian has considerable Slavic influence.

Romanian gets a 3 rating, average difficulty.

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Filed under Applied, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Italic, Italo-Celtic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Romance

A Look at the French Language

From here.

A look at the French language from the viewpoint of an English speaker trying to learn the language. French is one of the hardest Romance languages to learn.

French is pretty easy to learn at a simple level, but it’s not easy to get to an advanced level. For instance, the language is full of idioms, many more than your average language, and it’s often hard to figure them out.

One problem is pronunciation. There are many nasal vowels, similar to Portuguese. The eu, u and all of the nasal vowels can be Hell for the learner. There is also a strange uvular r. The dictionary does not necessarily help you, as the pronunciation stated in the dictionary is often at odds with what you will find on the street.

There is a phenomenon called liaisons, or enchantainment in French, which is similar to sandhi in which vowels elide between words in fast speech. There are actually rules for this sort of thing, but the rules are complicated, and at any rate, the liaisons themselves are either obligatory, permitted or forbidden depending on the nature of the words being run together, and it is hard to remember which category various word combinations fall under.

The orthography is also difficult since there are many sounds that are written but no longer pronounced, as in English. Also similar to English, orthography does not line up with pronunciation. For instance, there are 13 different ways to spell the o sound: o, ot, ots, os, ocs, au, aux, aud, auds, eau, eaux, ho and ö.

In addition, spoken French and written French can be quite different. Spoken French uses words and phrases such as c’est foututhe job will not be done, and on which you might never see in written French.

The English language, having no Language Committee, at least has an excuse for the frequently irrational nature of its spelling.

The French have no excuse, since they have a committee that is set up in part to keep the language as orthographically irrational as possible. One of their passions is refusing to change the spelling of words even as pronunciation changes, which is the opposite of what occurs in any sane spelling reform. So French is, like English, frozen in time, and each one has probably gone as long as the other with no spelling reform.

Furthermore, to make matters worse, the French are almost as prickly about writing properly as they are about speaking properly, and you know how they are about foreigners mangling their language.

Despite the many problems of French orthography, there are actually some rules running under the whole mess, and it is quite a bit more sensible than English orthography, which is much more chaotic.

French has a language committee that is always inventing new native French words to keep out the flood of English loans. They have a website up with an official French dictionary showing the proper native coinages to use. Another one for computer technology only is here.

On the plus side, French has a grammar that is neither simple nor difficult; that, combined with a syntax is pretty straightforward and a Latin alphabet make it relatively easy to learn for most Westerners. In addition, the English speaker will probably find more instantly recognizable cognates in French than in any other language.

A good case can be made that French is harder to learn than English. Verbs change much more, and it has grammatical gender. There are 15 tenses in the verb, 18 if you include the pluperfect and the Conditional Perfect 2 (now used only in Literary French) and the past imperative (now rarely used). That is quite a few tenses to learn, but Spanish and Portuguese have similar situations.

French is one of the toughest languages to learn in the Romance family. In many Internet threads about the hardest language to learn, many language learners list French as their most problematic language.

A good case can be made that French is harder to learn than Italian in that French children do not learn to write French properly until age 12-13, six years after Italian children.

This is due to the illogical nature of French spelling discussed above such that the spelling of many French words must be memorized as opposed to applying a general sound-symbol correspondence rule. In addition, French uses both acute and grave accents – `´.

French gets a 3 rating for average difficulty.

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Filed under Applied, French, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Italic, Italo-Celtic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Romance

A Look at the Greek Language

From here.

A look at the Greek language from the POV of how hard it is for an English speaker to learn it. The truth is that Greek is a very hard language to learn, and Ancient Greek is probably one of the most Godawful languages on Earth to learn.


Greek is a difficult language to learn, and it’s rated the second hardest language to learn by language professors. It’s easy to learn to speak simply, but it’s quite hard to get it down like a native. It’s the rare second language learner who attains native competence. Like English, the spelling doesn’t seem to make sense, and you have to memorize many words. Further, there is the unusual alphabet. However, the orthography is quite rational, about as good as that of Spanish. Whether or not Greek is an irregular language is controversial. It has that reputation, but some say it is not as irregular as it seems.

Greek has four cases: nominative, accusative, genitive and vocative (used when addressing someone). There are three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Nouns have several different declension patterns determined by the ending on the noun. Verb conjugations are about as complicated as in Romance. Greek does retain the odd aorist tense. Greek syntax is quite complicated.

Greek gets a 5 rating, extremely difficult to learn.

Classic or Ancient Greek is worse, with a distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, a pitch accent system and a truly convoluted, insanely irregular system of noun and verb inflection. It has a dual number in addition singular and plural and it has a very difficult optative case. Irregular verbs have one of six different stem types. The grammar is one of the most complex of all languages and the phonology and morphology are truly convoluted.

Classic Greek gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.

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Filed under Applied, Greek, Hellenic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Indo-Irano-Armeno-Hellenic, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics

A Look at the Swedish Language

From here.

A look at Swedish from the POV of how hard it is for an English speaker to learn it. Compared to other languages, Swedish is pretty easy to learn.

Swedish has the disadvantage of having hundreds of irregular verbs. Swedish also has some difficult phonemes, especially vowels, since Swedish has nine vowels, not including diphthongs. Pronunciation of the ö and å (and sometimes ä, which has a different sound than å) can be difficult. Swedish also has pitch accent. Pronunciation is probably the hardest part of Swedish.

Words can take either an -en or an –ett ending, and there don’t seem to be any rules about which one to use. The same word can have a number of different meanings.

Swedish, like German, has gender, but Swedish gender is quite predictable by looking at the word, unlike German, where deciding which of the three genders to use seems like a spin of the Roulette wheel.

Word order is comparatively free in that one can write a single sentence multiple ways while changing the meaning somewhat. So I didn’t know that can be written the following ways:

det visste jag inte
det visste inte jag
jag visste inte det
jag visste det inte
inte visste jag det

The different ways of writing that sentence depend on context. In particular, the meaning varies in terms of topic and focus.

There is a 3-way contrast in deixis:

den här
den där

Swedish also has the same problematic phrasal verbs that English does:

att slå -  beat/hit

slå av     turn off
slå fast   settle/establish
slå igen   close/shut
slå igenom become known/be a success
slå in     wrap in, come true
slå ner    beat down
slå på     turn on
slå runt   overturn
slå till   hit/strike/slap, strike a deal
slå upp    open (a book), look s.t. up

Swedish orthography is difficult is learning how to write it, since the spelling seems illogical, like in English. The sj sound in particular can be spelled many different ways. However, Swedish spelling is probably easier than English since Swedish lacks a phonemic schwa, and schwa is the source of many of the problems in English. Where allophonic schwa does appear, it seems to be predictable.

One nice thing about Swedish grammar is that it is similar to English grammar in many ways.

Swedish can be compared to a tube in terms of ease of learning. The basics are harder to learn than in English, but instead of getting more difficult as one progresses as in English, the difficulty of Swedish stays more or less the same from basics to the most complicated. But learning to speak Swedish is easy enough compared to other languages.

Swedish gets a 2.5 rating, easy to average difficulty.

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A Look at the Bulgarian and Macedonian Languages

From here.

A look at how hard the Bulgarian and Macedonian languages are to learn from the POV of an English speaker.

It’s controversial whether Bulgarian is an easy or hard language to learn. The truth is that it may be the easiest Slavic language to learn, but all Slavic language  are hard. Though it is close to Russian, there are Russians who have been living there for 20 years and still can’t understand it well.

It has few cases compared to the rest of Slavic. There are three cases, but they are present only in pronouns. The only case in nouns is vocative. This is odd because most Slavic languages have either lost or are in the process of losing the vocative, and in Bulgarian it is the only case that has been retained. Compared to English, Bulgarian is well structured and straightforward with little irregularity. In addition, Bulgarian has more Romance (mostly French) and Greek borrowings than any other Slavic languages. Romance came in via the Vlahs who lived there before the Slavs moved in and Greek from the Byzantine period. In recent years, many English borrowings have also gone in.

And in Bulgarian you can always tell if a word is a noun, a verb or an adjective. Compare to English, where dance can be either a a verb, a noun or an adjective, and all are spelled the same way:

I will dance (verb)
I like this dance (noun)
I have dance lessons (adjective)

Bulgarian has a suffixed general article that is not found in the rest of Slavic but is apparently an areal feature borrowed from Albanian. The stress rules are nightmarish, and it seems as if there are no rules.

Bulgarian has grammatical gender, with three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter. In addition, adjectives must agree with the gender of the noun they are modifying. In English, adjectives are invariable no matter what the noun is:

pretty man
pretty woman
pretty horse
pretty table

However, the Bulgarian alphabet is comparatively simple compared to other Slavic alphabets. Since 1945, it has only had 30 letters. Compare this to the 70 letters in Polish. There are only six vowels, and it has the easiest consonant clusters in Slavic. The orthography is very regular, with no odd spellings. The Cyrillic alphabet is different for those coming from a Latin alphabet and can present problems. For one thing, letters that look like English letters are pronounced in different ways:

В is pronounced v in Bulgarian
E is pronounced eh in Bulgarian
P is pronounced r in Bulgarian

There are a number of Bulgarian letters that look like nothing you have ever seen before: Ж, Я, Ь, Ю, Й, Щ, Ш, and Ч. Bulgarian handwriting varies to a great degree and the various styles are often difficult to map back onto the typewritten letters that they represent.

While Bulgarian has the advantage of lacking much case, Bulgarian verbs are quite complex even compared to other Slavic languages. Each Bulgarian verb can have up to 3,000 forms as it changes across person, number, voice, aspect, mood, tense and gender. Bulgarian has two aspects (perfect and imperfect), voice, nine tenses, five moods and six non infinitival verbal forms.

For instance, each verb has at two aspects – simple and continuous – for each of the tenses, which are formed in different ways. Onto this they add a variety of derivatives such as prefixes, suffixes, etc. that change the meaning in subtle ways:

Aorist or Perfect:

да прочетаto read in whole a single text/book/etc (viewed as fact, that is the duration of the action does not interest us)
да изчетаto read every book there is on the subject (viewed as fact, that is the duration of the action does not interest us)
да дочетаto finish reading something (viewed as fact, that is the duration of the action does not interest us)
да изпоизчетаto read every book/article/etc there is on the subject (humorous) – (viewed as fact, that is the duration of the action does not interest us)

Continuous or Imperfect:

да четаto be reading (viewed as an action in progress)
да прочитамto read in whole a single text/book/etc (viewed as an action in progress)
да изчитамto read every book there is on the subject (viewed as an action in progress)

Mood is very complicated. There are different ways to say the same idea depending on how you know of the event. If you know about it historically, you mark the sentence with a particular mood. If you doubt the event, you mark with another mood.

If you know it historically but doubt it, you use yet another mood. And there are more than that. These forms were apparently borrowed from Turkish. These forms are rare in world languages. One is Yamana, a Patagonian language that has only one speaker left.

Bulgarian is probably the easiest Slavic language to learn.

Bulgarian gets a 4 rating, very difficult.

Macedonian is very close to Bulgarian, and some say it is a dialect of Bulgarian. However, I believe that is a separate language closely related to Bulgarian. Macedonian is said the be the easiest Slavic language to learn, easier than Bulgarian. This is because it is easier to pronounce than Bulgarian. Like Bulgarian, Macedonian has lost most all of its case. But there are very few language learning materials for Macedonian.

Macedonian gets a 3.5 rating, above average difficulty.

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

A Look at the Celtic Languages

From here.

A look at the Celtic languages from the point of view of how hard they are to learn for an English speaker.

Insular Celtic

The verbal system in Old Irish is one of most complicated of all of the classical languages.

Irish students take Irish for 13 years, and some take French for five years. These students typically know French better than Irish. There are inflections for the inflections of the inflections, a convoluted aspiration system, and no words for yes or no. The system of initial consonant mutation is quite baffling. Noun declension is mystifying. Irish has irregular nouns, but there are not many of them –

the womanan bhean
the women
na mná

and there are only about 10 irregular verbs. There are dozens of different declension types for verbs. The various phonological gradations, lenitions and eclipses are not particularly regular. There are “slender” and “broad” variants of many of the consonants, and it is hard to tell the difference between them when you hear them. Many learners find the slender/broad consonants the hardest part of Irish.

Irish and Old Irish get 4.5 ratings, extremely difficult.

Both Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are written with non-phonetic spelling that is even more convoluted and irrational than English. This archaic spelling is in drastic need of revision, and it makes learners not want to learn the language. For instance, in Scots Gaelic, the word for taxi is tacsaidh, although the word is pronounced the same as the English word. There are simply too many unnecessary letters for too few sounds. Of the two, Scots Gaelic is harder due to many silent consonants.

Irish actually has rules for its convoluted spelling, and once you figure out the rules, it is fairly straightforward as it is quite regular and it is actually rational in its own way. In addition, Irish recently underwent a spelling reform. The Irish spelling system does make sense in an odd way, as it marks things such as palatalization and velarization.

Scottish Gaelic and Manx have gone a long time with no spelling reforms.

Scottish Gaelic gets a 4.5 ratings, extremely difficult.

Manx is probably the worst Gaelic language of all in terms of its spelling since it has Gaelic spelling yet uses an orthography based on English which results in a crazy mix.

Manx gets a 4.5 ratings, extremely difficult.

Common Byrthonic

Welsh is also very hard to learn, although Welsh has no case compared to Irish’s two cases. And Welsh has a mere five irregular verbs. The Byrthonic languages like Welsh and Breton are easier to learn than Gaelic languages like Irish and Scots Gaelic. One reason is because Welsh is written with a logical, phonetic alphabet. Welsh is also simpler grammar-wise, but things like initial consonant mutations can still seem pretty confusing and are difficult for the non-Celtic speaker to master and understand. Verbal declension is irregular.

caraf   I love
carwn   we love

cerais  I loved
carasom we loved

The problem above is that one cannot find any morpheme that means 1st person, 3rd person, or past tense in the examples. Even car- itself can change, and in connected speech often surfaces as gar-/ger-. And carwn can mean I was loving (imperfect) in addition to we love. There are no rules here, and you simply have to memorize the different forms.

Welsh and Breton get a 4 rating, very hard to learn.

Breton is about in the same ballpark as Welsh. It has a flexible grammar, a logical orthography and only four irregular verbs.

On the other hand, there are very few language learning materials, and most of those available are only written in French.

Breton gets a 4 rating, very hard to learn.


Filed under Applied, Celtic, Gaelic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Irish Gaelic, Italo-Celtic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics

A Look at the English Language

From here.

A look at the English language from the POV of how hard it is for a speaker of another language trying to learn English as a second language.

People often say that English is easy to learn, but that is deceptive. For one thing, English has anywhere from 500,000-1 million words (said to be twice as much as any other language – but there are claims that Dutch and Arabic each have 4 million words), and the number increases by the day. Furthermore, most people don’t understand more than 50,000, and a majority might only understand 30,000 words. Yet your average person only uses 5,000 at most.

Actually, the average American or Brit uses a mere 2,500 words. As we might expect, our cultivated Continentals in Europe, such as Spaniards and French, probably have twice the regular vocabulary of English speakers and far more colloquial expressions.

In addition, verbal phrases or phrasal verbs are a nightmare. Phrasal verbs are probably left over from “separable verbs” in German. In most of the rest of IE, these become affixes as in Latin Latin cum-, ad-, pro-, in-, ex-, etc.. In many cases, phrasal verbs can have more than 10 different antagonistic meanings.

Here is a list of 123 phrasal verbs using the preposition up after a verb:

Back up – to go in reverse, often in a vehicle, or to go back over something previously dealt with that was poorly understood in order to understand it better.
Be up – to be in a waking state after having slept. I’ve been up for three hours. Also to be ready to do something challenging. Are you up for it?
Beat up
– to defeat someone thoroughly in a violent physical fight.
Bid up – to raise the price of something, usually at an auction, by calling out higher and higher bids.
Blow up – to explode an explosive or for a social situation to become violent and volatile.
Bone up – to study hard.
Book up – all of the booking seats have been filled for some entertainment or excursion.
Bottle up – to contain feelings until they are at the point of exploding.
Break up – to break into various pieces, or to end a relationship, either personal or between entitles, also to split a large entity, like a large company or a state.
Bruise up – to receive multiple bruises, often serious ones.
Brush up – to go over a previously learned skill.
Build up – to build intensively in an area, such as a town or city, from a previously less well-developed state.
Burn up – burn completely or to be made very angry.
Bust up – to burst out in laughter.
Buy up – to buy all or most all of something.
Call up – to telephone someone. Or to be ordered to appear in the military. The army called up all males aged 18-21 and ordered them to show up at the nearest recruiting office.
Catch up
– to reach a person or group that one had lagged behind earlier, or to take care of things, often hobbies, that had been put off by lack of time.
Chat up – to talk casually with a goal in mind, usually seduction or at least flirtation.
Cheer up – to change from a downcast mood to a more positive one.
Chop up – to cut into many, often small, pieces.
Clam up – to become very quiet suddenly and not say a thing.
Clean up – to make an area thoroughly tidy or to win completely and thoroughly.
Clear up – for a storm to dissipate, for a rash to go away, for a confusing matter to become understandable.
Close up – to close, also to end business hours for a public business.
Come up – to approach closely, to occur suddenly or to overflow.
Cook up – to prepare a meal or to configure a plan, often of a sly, ingenious or devious nature. They cooked up a scheme to swindle the boss.
Crack up
– to laugh, often heartily.
Crank up – elevate the volume.
Crawl up – to crawl inside something.
Curl up – to rest in a curled body position, either alone or with another being.
Cut up – to shred or to make jokes, often of a slapstick variety.
Do up – apply makeup to someone, often elaborately.
Dream up – to imagine a creative notion, often an elaborate one.
Dress up – to dress oneself in formal attire.
Drive up – to drive towards something, and then stop, or to raise the price of something by buying it intensively.
Drum up – to charge someone with wrongdoing, usually criminal, usually by a state actor, usually for false reasons.
Dry up – to dessicate.
Eat up – implies eating something ravenously or finishing the entire meal without leaving anything left.
End up – to arrive at some destination after a long winding, often convoluted journey either in space or in time.
Face up – to quit avoiding your problems and meet them head on.
Feel up – to grope someone sexually.
Get up – to awaken or rise from a prone position.
Give up – to surrender, in war or a contest, or to stop doing something trying or unpleasant that is yielding poor results, or to die, as in give up the ghost.
Grow up – to attain an age or maturity or to act like a mature person, often imperative.
Hang up – to place on a hanger or a wall, to end a phone call.
Hike up – to pull your clothes up when they are drifting down on your body.
Hit up – to visit someone casually or to ask for a favor or gift, usually small amounts of money.
Hold up – to delay, to ask someone ahead of you to wait, often imperative. Also a robbery, usually with a gun and a masked robber.
Hook up – to have a casual sexual encounter or to meet casually for a social encounter, often in a public place; also to connect together a mechanical devise or plug something in.
Hurry up – imperative, usually an order to quit delaying and join the general group or another person in some activity, often when they are leaving to go to another place.
Keep up – to maintain on a par with the competition without falling behind.
Kiss up – to mend a relationship after a fight.
Knock up – to impregnate.
Lay up – to be sidelined due to illness or injury for a time.
Let up – to ease off of someone or something, for a storm to dissipate, to stop attacking someone or s.t.
Lick up – to consume all of a liquid.
Light up – to set s.t. on fire or to smile suddenly and broadly.
Lighten up – to reduce the downcast or hostile seriousness of the mood of a person or setting.
Listen up – imperative – to order someone to pay attention, often with threats of aggression if they don’t comply.
Live up – to enjoy life.
Lock up – to lock securely, often locking various locks, or to imprison, or for an object or computer program to be frozen or jammed and unable to function.
Look up – to search for an item of information in some sort of a database, such as a phone book or dictionary. Also to admire someone.
Make up – to make amends, to apply cosmetics to one’s face or to invent a story.
Man up – to elevate oneself to manly behaviors when one is slacking and behaving in an unmanly fashion.
Mark up – to raise the price of s.t.
Measure up – in a competition, for an entity to match the competition.
Meet up – to meet someone or a group for a get meeting or date of some sort.
Mess up – to fail or to confuse and disarrange s.t. so much that it is bad need or reparation.
Mix up – to confuse, or to disarrange contents in a scattered fashion so that it does not resemble the original.
Mop up – mop a floor or finish off the remains of an enemy army or finalize a military operation.
Move up – to elevate the status of a person or entity in competition with other entities- to move up in the world.
Open up – when a person has been silent about something for a long time, as if holding a secret, finally reveals the secret and begins talking.
Own up – to confess to one’s sins under pressure and reluctantly.
Pass up – to miss an opportunity, often a good one.
Patch up – to put together a broken thing or relationship.
Pay up – to pay, usually a debt, often imperative to demand payment of a debt, to pay all of what one owes so you don’t owe anymore.
Pick up – to grasp an object and lift it higher, to seduce someone sexually or to acquire a new skill, usually rapidly.
Play up – to dramatize.
Pop up – for s.t. to appear suddenly, often out of nowhere.
Put up – to hang, to tolerate, often grudgingly, or to put forward a new image.
Read up – to read intensively as in studying.
Rev up – to turn the RPM’s higher on a stationary engine.
Ring up – to telephone someone or to charge someone on a cash register.
Rise up – for an oppressed group to arouse and fight back against their oppressors.
Roll up – to roll s.t. into a ball, to drive up to someone in a vehicle or to arrest all the members of an illegal group. The police rolled up that Mafia cell quickly.
Run up
– to tally a big bill, often foolishly or approach s.t. quickly.
Shake up – to upset a paradigm, to upset emotionally.
Shape up – usually imperative command ordering someone who is disorganized or slovenly to live life in a more orderly and proper fashion.
Shoot up – to inject, usually illegal drugs, or to fire many projectiles into a place with a gun.
Show up – to appear somewhere, often unexpectedly.
Shut up – to silence, often imperative, fighting words.
Sit up – to sit upright.
Slip up – to fail.
Speak up – to begin speaking after listening for a while, often imperative, a request for a silent person to say what they wish to say.
Spit up – to vomit, usually describing a child vomiting up its food.
Stand up – to go from a sitting position to a standing one quickly.
Start up – to initialize an engine or a program, to open a new business to go back to something that had been terminated previously, often a fight; a recrudescence.
Stay up – to not go to bed.
Stick up – to rob someone, usually a street robbery with a weapon, generally a gun.
Stir up – stir rapidly, upset a calm surrounding or scene or upset a paradigm.
Stop up – to block the flow of liquids with some object(s).
Straighten up – to go from living a dissolute or criminal life to a clean, law abiding one.
Suck up – to ingratiate oneself, often in an obsequious fashion.
Suit up – to get dressed in a uniform, often for athletics.
Sweep up – to arrest all the members of an illegal group, often a criminal gang.
Take up – to cohabit with someone – She has taken up with him. Or to develop a new skill, to bring something to a higher elevation, to cook something at a high heat to where it is assimilated.
Talk up – to try to convince someone of something by discussing it dramatically and intensively.
Tear up – to shred.
Think up – to conjure up a plan, often an elaborate or creative one.
Throw up – to vomit.
Touch up – to apply the final aspects of a work nearly finished.
Trip up – to stumble mentally over s.t. confusing.
Turn up – to increase volume or to appear suddenly somewhere.
Vacuum up – to vacuum.
Use up – to finish s.t. completely so there is no more left.
Wait up – to ask other parties to wait for someone who is coming in a hurry.
Wake up – to awaken.
Walk up – to approach someone or something.
Wash up – to wash.
Whip up – to cook a meal quickly or for winds to blow wildly.
Work up – to exercise heavily, until you sweat to work up a sweat. Or to generate s.t. a report or s.t. of that nature done rather hurriedly in a seat of the pants and unplanned fashion. We quickly worked up a formula for dealing with the matter.
Wrap up
– To finish something up, often something that is taking too long. Come on, let us wrap this up and getting it over with. Also, to bring to a conclusion that ties the ends together. The story wraps up with a scene where they all get together and sing a song.
Write up
– often to write a report of reprimand or a violation. The officer wrote him for having no tail lights.

Here are  phrasal verbs using the preposition down:

Be down  – to be ready to ready to do something daring, often s.t. bad, illegal or dangerous, such as a fight or a crime. Are you down?
Burn down
– reduce s.t. to ashes, like a structure.
Get down – to have fun and party, or to lie prone and remain there. Get down on the floor.
Drink down
to consume all of s.t.
Kick down – Drug slang meaning to contribute your drugs to a group drug stash so others can consume them with you, to share your drugs with others. Often used in a challenging sense.
Party down – to have fun and party
Pat down – to frisk.
Take down – to tackle.
Cook down – to reduce the liquid content in a cooked item.
Run down – to run over something, to review a list or to attack someone verbally for a long time.
Play down – to de-emphasize.
Write down – to write on a sheet of paper

There are figures of speech and idioms everywhere (some estimate that up to 20% of casual English speech is idiomatic), and it seems impossible to learn them all. In fact, few second language learners get all the idioms down pat.

The spelling is insane and hardly follows any rules at all. The English spelling system in some ways is frozen at about the year 1500 or so. The pronunciation has changed but the spelling has not. Careful studies have shown that English-speaking children take longer to read than children speaking other languages (Finnish, Greek and various Romance and other Germanic languages) due to the difficulty of the spelling system. Romance languages were easier to read than Germanic ones.

This may be why English speakers are more likely to be diagnosed dyslexic than speakers of other languages. The dyslexia still exists if you speak a language with good sound-symbol correspondence, but it’s covered up so much by the ease of the orthography that it seems invisible, and the person can often function well. But for a dyslexic, trying to read English is like walking into a minefield.

Letters can make many different sounds, a consequence of the insane spelling system. A single sound can be spelled in many different ways: e can be spelled e, ea, ee, ei, eo, ey, ae, i, ie, and y. The k sound can spelled as c, cc, ch, ck, k, x, and q.

The rules governing the use of the indefinite, definite and zero article are opaque and possibly don’t even exist. There are synonyms for almost every word in a sentence, and the various shades of meaning can be difficult to discern. In addition, quite a few words have many different meanings. There are strange situations like read and read, which are pronounced differently and mean two different things.

English word derivation is difficult to get your mind around because of the dual origins of the English language in both Latin/French and German.

See and hear and perceptible and audible mean the same thing, but the first pair is derived from German, and the second pair is derived from Latin.

English word derivation is irregular due for the same reason:

assumeassumption (Latin)
childchildish (German)
buildbuilding (German)

In English we have at least 12 roots with the idea of two in them:


However, English regular verbs generally have only a few forms in their normal paradigm. In this arrangement, there are only five forms of the verb in general use for the overwhelming majority of verbs:

present except 3rd singular  steal
3rd person singular          steals
progressive                  stealing
past                         stole
perfect                      stolen

Even a language like Spanish has many more basic forms than that. However, coming from an inflected language, the marking of only the 3rd singular and not marking anything else may seem odd.

The complicated part of English verbs is not their inflection – minimal as it is – but instead lies in the large number of irregular verbs.

There is also the oddity of the 2nd person being the same in both the singular and the plural – you. Some dialects such as US Southern English do mark the plural – you all or y’all.

There are quite a few dialects – over 100 have been recorded in London alone. English prepositions are notoriously hard, and few second language learners get them down right because they seem to obey no discernible rules.

While English seems simple at first – past tense is easy, there is little or no case, no grammatical gender, little mood, etc., but that can be quite deceptive. In European countries like Croatia, it’s hard to find a person who speaks English with even close to native speaker competence.

The problem with English is that it’s a mess! There are languages with very easy grammatical rules like Indonesian and languages with very hard grammatical rules like Arabic. English is one of those languages that is simply chaotic. There are rules, but there are exceptions everywhere and exceptions to the exceptions. Grammatically, it’s disaster area. It’s hard to know where to start.

However, it is often said that English has no grammatical rules. Even native speakers make this comment because that is how English seems due to its highly irregular nature. Most English native speakers, even highly educated ones, can’t name one English grammatical rule. Just to show you that English does have rules though, I will list some of them.

*Indicates an ungrammatical form.

Adjectives appear before the noun in noun phrases:

Small dogs barked.
*Dogs small barked.

Adjectives are numerically invariant:

the small dog
the small dogs
The dog is small.
The dogs are small.

Intensifiers appear before both attributive and predicative adjectives:

The very small dog barked.
*The small very dog barked.

The dog was very small.
*The dog was small very.

Attributive adjectives can have complements:

The dog was scared.
The dog was scared of cats.

But predicative adjectives cannot:

The scared dog barked.
*The scared of cats dog barked.

Articles, quantifiers, etc. appear before the adjective (and any intensifier) in a noun phrase:

The very small dog barked.
*Very the small dog barked.
*Very small the dog barked.

Every very small dog barked.
*Very every small dog barked.
*Very small every dog barked.

Relative clauses appear after the noun in a noun phrase:

The dog that barked.
*The that barked dog.

The progressive verb form is the bare form with the suffix -ing, even for the most irregular verbs in the language:



The infinitive verb form is to followed by the bare form, even for the most irregular verbs in the language:

to be
to have
to do

*to was
*to are
*to am.

The imperative verb form is the bare form, even for the most irregular verb in the language:



All 1st person present, 2nd person present, and plural present verb forms are equivalent to the bare form, except for to be.

All past tense verb forms of a given verb are the same regardless of person and number, except for to be.

Question inversion is optional:

You are leaving?
Are you leaving?

But when inversion does occur in a wh-question, a wh-phrase is required to be fronted:

You’re seeing what?
What are you seeing?

*Are you seeing what?

Wh-fronting is required to affect an entire noun phrase, not just the wh-word:

You are going to which Italian restaurant?
Which Italian restaurant are you going to?

*Which are you going to Italian restaurant?
*Which Italian are you going to restaurant?
*Which restaurant are you going to Italian?

Wh-fronting only happens once, never more:

What are you buying from which store
Which store are you buying what from?

*What which store are you buying from?
*Which store what are you buying from?

The choice of auxiliary verb in compound past sentences does not depend on the choice of main verb:

I have eaten.
I have arrived.

*I am eaten.
*I am arrived.

cf. French

J’ai mangé.
Je suis arrivé.

English can be seen as an inverted pyramid in terms of ease of learning. The basics are easy, but it gets a lot more difficult as you progress in your learning.

While it is relatively easy to speak it well enough to be more or less understandable most of the time, speaking it correctly is often not possible for a foreigner even after 20 years of regular use.

English gets a 3 rating for average difficulty.


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