Archive for the ‘languages’ Category


The Lord’s Prayer in Swahili:

Baba yetu uliye mbinguni,
jina lako litukuzwe.
Ufalme wako ufike.
Utakalo lifanyike duniani mbinguni.
Utupe leo mkate wetu wa kila siku.
Utusamehe makosa yetu,
kama tunavyowasamehe na sisi waliotukosea.
Usitutie katika kishawishi,
lakini utuopoe maovuni.

Swahili (900- ), also called Kiswahili, is a common second language in East Africa. Only 5 million speak it as their first language, but probably over 100 million speak it as a second language, in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern D.R. Congo.

The top languages of Africa as a first or second language:

  1. Arabic: 170 million speakers
  2. English: 130m
  3. French: 115m
  4. Swahili: 100m, with estimates ranging from 55m to 140m.
  5. Berber: 50m
  6. Hausa: 50m

Worldwide, Swahili is #12. By 2100, it will probably be #4.

East Africa is divided into hundreds of languages. The governments of Kenya and Tanzania, like the British before them, push Swahili as a common language of instruction and lower-level government. Because it is a Bantu language like most languages in the region, it is way easier for most East Africans to learn than English. English is still used at universities and, in Kenya, in the media and at the top levels of government.

History: Bantu languages, starting somewhere near Nigeria 2,000 years ago, spread east and south across much of Africa. They reached the east coast by 500 AD. The Bantu language of those who traded with Arabs along the coast became Swahili. The name comes from the Arabic word for coast: sahel. While the grammar and most everyday words in Swahili are Bantu, a third of all words come from Arabic. Like Latin words in English, the Arabic words are often the high-sounding ones.

From 1000 to 1500 Swahili-speaking Muslim city-states sprang up, like Mombasa, Mogadishu and Kilwa. After 1500, the Portuguese and later other Europeans took over the sea trade: East Africa became a poor backwaters. After 1800, Swahili began to spread inland.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s European empires and their missionaries pushed Swahili as a common language. They wrote it with Roman letters instead of Arabic ones. Words for Western things were taken mainly from English, like mashine (machine), keki (cake) and penseli (pencil).

Swahili also has words from other languages, like German (shule, school), Persian (chai, tea) and Portuguese (pesa, money).

Standard Swahili, the kind taught at school, is based on the Swahili of Zanzibar.

A dialect hated by schoolteachers, one that uses more English words than most, is Sheng. The “eng” in Sheng is for English. It started in the slums of Nairobi and is used by rappers, the young and the fashionable.

If you watched the Disney film “The Lion King” (1994) you already know some Swahili words:

  • hakuna matata – no problem
  • simba – lion
  • rafiki – friend
  • nala – gift
  • pumbaa – careless
  • shenzi – barbarous

Some names from Swahili (some come from Arabic):

  • Aaliyah – the very highest
  • Aisha – hope
  • Akila – wise
  • Baraka – blessing
  • Imani – faith
  • Jahleel – noble
  • Jamela – beautiful
  • Latifah – kind
  • Nbushe – godly one
  • Nia – will
  • Rashida – rightly guided
  • Sanaa – art
  • Taraji – expectations
  • Uhura – freedom

– Abagond, 2010.

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Transatlantic accent

cary-grant-philly_lThe Transatlantic accent, also called a Mid-Atlantic accent,  is a way of speaking English that is halfway between American and British. It makes you sound like you have a good education but no one can tell quite where you are from. You hear it in old Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s. It is the accent of Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, William F Buckley and (at least in some films) God.

There is no town in the world where people grow up speaking English that way. Instead you get the accent in one of three ways:

  1. Learn the accent on purpose (actors used to do that).
  2. Grow up or live on both sides of the Atlantic (but that can lead to even stranger accents, like those of Loyd Grossman and Madonna).
  3. Pick it up at a top boarding school in America before the 1960s.

The accent comes from American boarding schools in New England where students were taught to speak English in more of an RP or high-class British way.

In the 1930s and 1940s it was seen as a good accent to use in film and theatre since it sounded universal and not from any particular part of the world. That makes it a good accent for God and creatures from outer space. You do not hear it much any more because people have grown used to the general American accent, thanks in part to Humphrey Bogart and the extremely Middle American John Wayne.

Transatlantic English goes something like this:

  1. Start with a mainstream American accent.
  2. Drop your r’s at the end of words, like in “fear” and “winner”.
  3. Say all your t’s as t’s not d’s (like in “water” and “butter”).
  4. Use RP (British) vowels. So “dance” becomes “dahns”.

If you start from a British accent the rules are different. It is an Americanized RP accent.

It is a very particular accent. There is even a book, now out of print, called “Teach Yourself Transatlantic: Theatre Speech for Actors” (1986) by Robert L. Hobbs.

It is a hard accent to do – people will laugh at you  if you do not get it right. So it takes plenty of practice. But for the British it is an easier accent to master than a general American one.

It is a good accent for those foreign to English, strangely enough: since no one grows up speaking it, you will not sound to anyone like you have a foreign accent! Some learn it to go into business overseas.

Examples of the accent (or something close to it): Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Julia Child, William F Buckley (in his own way), Peter Jennings, Vincent Price, Anthony Hopkins, Darth Vader, Princess Leia (when speaking formally), Niles and Frasier on “Frasier”, the millionaire and his wife on “Gilligan’s Island”, Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”, the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”, Mr Burns and Sideshow Bob on “The Simpsons”, Paige Sinclair (“Bojack Horseman”), Effie Trinket in “The Hunger Games” (pictured above), the Evil Queen in “Snow White”, Gayne Whitman, Alexander Scourby in the old National Geographic television specials, and most British actors who try to sound American (but not, of course, Idris Elba or Hugh Laurie of “House”).

– Abagond, 2009, 2021.

Update (2021): In 1953 Alexander Scourby read the entire King James Bible for the blind in a Transatlantic accent – and it is on YouTube! Just search on YouTube for “Alexander Scourby” and the book of the Bible you want to hear and you will see it (as of 2021).

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Studying Latin

When you study Latin in America you mainly study the Latin of Caesar, Virgil, Ovid and Cicero – as if Latin died out soon after them. But, in fact, Latin continued to be the high language of the West throughout the later Roman Empire, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, clear up until the 1600s. That is why English has so many Latin words and why knowing Latin helps you to know English.

So there are other ways to go about studying Latin.

C.S. Lewis says you should start by reading the Vulgate, the Latin Bible. The Latin is easy and the stories are familiar. So is the wording and style of speaking: “Oh ye of little faith”, “born in a manger”.

From there (as he told Dorothy Sayers):

  • For an intelligible narrative poem, what about a chunk out of “Waltharius”, by Ekehard of St. Gall (tenth century). See a delightful account of it in W. P. Ker’s Dark Ages.
  • For prose:
    • “Saxo Grammaticus” (has the the Hamlet story);
    • Jordanes (or Jornandes) “De Rebus Geticis” (lots about Attila);
    • Gregorius Turonensis “Historia Francorum”;
    • the anonymous “Gesta Francorum” (on the First Crusade);
    • Geoffrey of Monmouth (some Arthurian bit);
    • The “Somnium” of Kepler for some Renaissance science fiction

The idea here being that Medieval Latin is much easier and allows you to get comfortable before taking on the harder stuff of Cicero and the Renaissance.

“Latina Pro Populo” by the Humez brothers gives a good overview of Latin, its history and grammar. They also say you should start with the Vulgate and the Middle Ages.

The Latin reader “38 Stories” is also good. The stories parallel the chapters of  Wheelock’s grammar, so you can look there if you get stuck.

The Vulgate is worth reading in its own right: it is far sharper and closer in meaning to the Greek of the New Testament than anything in English. That is partly because it is much easier to turn Greek into Latin than into English. But it is also because the fashion these days is to make Bibles easy to read rather than faithful in meaning. Reading the Vulgate opened my eyes to that.

Latin dictionaries, by the way, are lacking. They only have the Latin of Cicero’s time. There are many words in the Vulgate, for instance, that are not found in ordinary Latin dictionaries (most of them seem to come from Greek from the sound of them).

A good Latin dictionary would not just cover Latin from -150 to +150, but instead from -150 to 2008. Not just all the Medieval and Renaissance words, but scientific terms (scientific papers were being written in Latin up to at least the 1800s) and commonly accepted words like telephonum for all the latest stuff.

But do not let that stop you from reading the Vulgate since you can always look at a (more imperfect) English translation if you get stuck. But do that only as a last resort because otherwise you wil not learn much Latin.

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thecolorpurpleEbonics (1600s- ) or Black English is what the Wikipedia calls African American Vernacular English (AAVE), meaning the street English of blacks in America. Since the 1940s much of American slang has come from Black English, some of it becoming part of Standard English, like put down, corny and cool.

Ebonics is different than Standard English. Standard English is the English you learn at school, the kind you find in books. It is universal: it is the same the world over – in America, Britain, Nigeria, Jamaica, India, even China. That is what is so great about it.

But Standard English is not “natural”. It started in the 1400s in the government offices in London. It has spread by education and books, especially the King James Bible. It was heavily affected by Latin. It did not become a common way of speaking among white Americans till the 1800s. With the rise of public education they were taught that it was good English, that anything else was bad.

It was good only in the sense that it was universal, but otherwise it was no better than any other English in terms of grammar, beauty or its power to express thought and feeling.

Black English, certainly, is just as powerful and often far more beautiful. But you cannot use it everywhere because not everyone understands it and many, both black and white, will think you lack education or even intelligence.

Black English is not an unlettered form of White English. It is not that simple.

When blacks were brought to America from Africa as slaves they spoke to their masters and each other in a very simple form of English called pidgin English. Many slaves spoke pidgin Wolof too. Wolof was the language of an old empire in Africa. It died out in America in the 1700s, but some of its words have lived on, like banana, honky, guy, bug out, hip (cool), dig (understand) and maybe even wow.

Slaves born in America knew only pidgin English. They made it into a full language known as Creole English. Unlike a pidgin, it has the full power of ordinary English.

Creole English used English words, mostly, but put them in a different and simpler order. It had  more tenses too. It was very much like the Jamaican patois you hear on the streets of Kingston and in some reggae songs.

Creole English became what we know as Black English. Over time it has become more and more like Standard English, something that is still going on.

Nearly all black Americans over a certain age know and understand both Black English and Standard English. Some will use only one or the other, but most will change between them depending on circumstances, something called code switching.

Ebonics made the news in 1997 when Oakland, California wanted to use it to help black schoolchildren learn Standard English. The idea was killed.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Special English

Special English (1959- ) is a simple form of English that the Voice of America (VOA) uses in its radio broadcasts to reach the 700 million who have studied English as a foreign language. Most of them cannot understand the BBC or CNN.

It is simpler than native English in three ways:

  1. It uses only 1500 different words.
  2. Its sentences are short and simple. They are rarely more than 20 words long.
  3. It is spoken slowly enough so that each word is spoken separately (about two-thirds the speed of ordinary English).

These changes double the number of people who can understand a broadcast in English. About 1500 million people know some English, but for half of them it is a foreign language they studied in school.

Here is an example of Special English:

This year’s Nobel Prize in medicine will go to three researchers who found a way to learn about the duties of individual genes. They discovered how to inactivate, or knock out, single genes in laboratory animals. The result is known as “knockout mice.”

The VOA produces a new 30-minute show in Special English every day. You can hear it on short wave radio or the Internet. You can even download it to your iPod and listen to it on the bus!

While the VOA sees Special English as a way to reach more people, most listeners see it as a way to practise their English! This is especially true in China.

The VOA website says Special English has only 1500 words, but in practice it is more like 1700 words: their Word Book uses 1700 different root words to give the meaning of the chosen 1500. Among the 200 stepchildren are some very simple words like eye, ear and else.

On top of that the list of 1500 is not that strict: because it has history, popular and influence, for example, you are allowed to use historical, popularity and influential.

And other words tend to make their way into reports. The example I gave above uses the word gene. It is not one of the 1500 words nor does the piece go on to say what a gene is! You can use words like that so long as you make their meaning clear.

Special English is not a general purpose language. It has plenty of words you need to report the news, like campaign, crisis and climate, but it is missing some very ordinary, everyday words, like cake, courage and cup.

It keeps up with the times: every ten years words are dropped while others are added.

Special English does not come from Basic English. Although some of the same ideas went into the design of both languages, Basic English is general purpose while Special English is not.

Specialized English, on the other hand, comes straight from Special English. It is Special English with a slightly different mix of words, one more suited to spread the word of Christ. It drops words like dictator, diplomat and dissident and adds words like deserve, devote and divorce.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Hindi:

Hindi (933- ) is the largest language in India and the largest in the world after Chinese and English. It is also spoken in Fiji and the Caribbean, where the British Empire sent contract workers in the 1800s.

Hindustani, used by Gandhi, Bollywood films and schools, is the best understood dialect.

Urdu, a form of Hindustani, is spoken mainly by Muslims, especially those who fled to Pakistan when India became independent. Unlike other forms of Hindi, it is written with Persian letters and has more words from Persian and Arabic. It is a language of government in Pakistan.

About half the people in India know Hindi, a fourth as their first language. Most young people with education know it.

The Hindi heartland is New Delhi and the upper Ganges river, the area that stretches between Bengal and Punjab.

Hindi, like most of the other languages of northern India, comes from Sanskrit. Sanskrit is like the Latin of India: an ancient language which gave birth to many of its present-day languages, besides having a huge body of important works written in it. Just as Latin became Italian, French and Spanish, so Sanskrit became Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and the other languages of the north.

This means that Hindi is easy for northerners to learn: if they do not speak Hindi itself as their mother tongue, they speak a language that is close to it.

But in the south the languages do not come from Sanskrit. They are no closer to Hindi than they are to English. Since they feel the north already has too much power, they tend to favour English.

In India you have a choice of whether to receive your education in your mother tongue, in Hindi or in English. Most choose to receive their education in Hindi over their mother tongue because you can use it anywhere in the country.

But those who aim higher choose English: the highest levels of education are in English since the best and latest books in most fields are written in English, not Hindi. English is also understood throughout India, especially in the cities.

Apart from Urdu, Hindi is written in devanagari. The characters sometimes stand for letter sounds, sometimes for syllables. They are joined together into words by a line that runs across the top. Like the the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, it comes from the Aramaic alphabet of South West Asia.

Is Hindi hard to learn? If all you know is English, it is much easier than Latin but harder than, say, French.

The grammar will seem somewhat familiar since long ago English and Hindi were once the same language, Proto-Indo-European.

Hindi works mainly by word endings. The prepositions come after the word so they are called postpositions: you do not say “the dog on the table” but “the dog the table on”. Nouns have gender, male and female, but not neuter. Even verbs have different male and female forms!

– Abagond, 2007, 2015.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Romanian:

Tatăl nostru care eşti în ceruri,
sfinţească-se numele Tău,
vie împărăţia Ta,
facă-se voia Ta, precum în cer aşa şi pe pământ.
Pâinea noastră cea de toate zilele
dă-ne-o nouă astăzi
şi ne iartă nouă greşelile noastre
precum şi noi iertăm greşiţilor noştri.
Şi nu ne duce pe noi în ispită,
ci ne izbǎveşte de cel rău.

Romanian (587- ) is the main language of Romania and Moldova. About 24 million people speak it. The Moldovans call it Moldovan, but it is the same language.

Romanian, as you might expect from the name, comes from the language of the Romans: Latin. In the eastern Roman Empire most people spoke Greek, but what now is Romania – and back then was called Dacia – was settled by Romans soldiers. In time their Latin became Romanian.

Romanian is the oldest of the Romance languages, the languages that came from Latin. Probably because Dacia was cut off from Rome early: the Roman forces left 200 years before the fall of Rome.

The first signs of Romanian are from a Byzantine war story from 587 in which someone shouts, “Torna, torna fratre” as bags are falling.

Even though it is the oldest, its noun ending are the most like Latin. It still has cases: nouns have different endings according to their relationship to the rest of the sentences. Romanian even still has the neuter in addition to the feminine and masculine genders.

Romanian is closest to Italian. Like Italian – and Latin – it forms the plural not with an s but by changing the vowel at the end of the word.

Unlike other Romance languages, h did not become silent and short u was not changed into o. The Latin c and qu becomes p in Romanian: aqua becomes apa and octo, opt.

Most now write Romanian with Roman letters, even in Moldova, but before the 1700s it was written in Cyrillic letters, like Russian.

Romanian added four letters:

  • ş– sounds like sh
  • ţ – sounds like ts
  • î – sounds like a short Russian i (ы)
  • â – sounds like a short Russian i (ы)
  • ă – sounds like uh

Many Romanians know French and in the 1800s French words poured in so that now almost a fourth of the Romanian words come from French.

In ancient times foreign words came mainly from neighbouring Slavic languages. One word in five was from Slavic, but many of them died out so that now it is only one in seven.

Old words are mostly about country life, new words about city life.

Of the oldest words of all, 300 do not come from Latin, but some look like the same words in Albanian. This has led some to suppose that Romanians are Albanians who took on Roman ways, that the ancient language of Dacia was some kind of Albanian. But there is no solid proof of what language the Dacians spoke before Latin.

Romanian looks strange not just because of those four letters it added, but also because the sound changes that turned it from Latin into Romanian are not the sort you see in the west:

English Latin Italian Romanian
sing cantare cantare cânta
goat capra capra capra
cheese caseus formaggio brânză
key clave chiave cheie
night noctem notti noapte
place platea piazza piaţă
bridge pontem ponte pod

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Top languages

Most lists of the top languages list languages by the number of native speakers. This one lists the top languages by the number people who speak a language regardless of when or how they learned it. The numbers (the latest as of 2012) are in millions and should be regarded as approximations:

  1. English (1200)
  2. Mandarin Chinese (1025)
  3. Hindi/Urdu (570)
  4. Arabic (526)
  5. Spanish (390)
  6. Russian (250)
  7. Bengali (250)
  8. French (200)
  9. Portuguese (193)
  10. Malay  (180)
  11. Punjabi (144)
  12. Swahili (140)
  13. Japanese (123)
  14. German (118)
  15. Persian (110)
  16. Wu (90)
  17. Tagalog (89)
  18. Telugu (87)
  19. Vietnamese (86)
  20. Javanese (85)
  21. Marathi (84)
  22. Turkish (83)
  23. Korean (72)
  24. Tamil (71)
  25. Yue (Cantonese) (70)
  26. Italian (62)
  27. Min (60)
  28. Pashto (60)
  29. Thai (60)
  30. Burmese (56)
  31. Gujarati (54)
  32. Hausa (53)

By 2100, the top ten will probably look something like this:

  1. English (1989)
  2. Arabic (866)
  3. Mandarin Chinese (803)
  4. Swahili (789)
  5. Hindi/Urdu (704)
  6. French (607)
  7. Spanish (448)
  8. Bengali (250)
  9. Portuguese (281)
  10. Hausa (278)

According to United Nations projections, Africa will boom while the world greys. Even China and India will be shrinking after 2050. That favours Africa’s largest languages:

  • Swahili and Hausa join the top ten, pushing out Russian and Malay.
  • Arabic, English and French enjoy a second wind because of their position in Africa.

Sources: Wikipedia, CIA Factbook for India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, BangladeshTagalog = 96% of the population of the Philippines as per the Tagalog article in the Wikipedia. All sources retrieved on September 25th 2012. Where there were several estimates I generally picked the highest one as most of these numbers are understated as it is. For example, Hindi does not count those who know it in Bangladesh, where Hindi-language film and television does better than Bengali programming. In 2014 I added the projection for 2100. That is mostly based on GeoHive (for the 2012 revision of the UN numbers) and the Wikipedia (retrieved in 2014 for the proportion of English speakers in different countries).

– Abagond, 2007, 2014.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Italian:

Padre Nostro, che sei nei cieli,
Sia santificato il tuo nome.
Venga il tuo regno,
Sia fatta la tua volontà,
Come in cielo, così in terra.
Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano,
E rimetti a noi i nostri debiti,
Come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori.
E non ci indurre in tentazione,
Ma liberaci dal male.

Italian (960- ) is the main language of Italy and southern Switzerland. About 70 million people speak it. It is also spoken in Savoy, Nice and Corsica, parts of France that Italy once ruled, as well as in Istria in the east, now divided between Slovenia and Croatia.

Millions of Italians have moved overseas to North and South America and Australia. Yet few of their children and grandchildren – like Madonna, Rudy Giulilani or Eva Longoria – can speak Italian.

The largest overseas Italian-speaking area is in the wine country of Rio Grande do Sul, the part of Brazil near Uruguay.

Italian seems like Spanish. But Italian words are closer to Latin. Like in Latin and unlike Spanish, double consonants still matter in Italian and plurals are made by changing the vowel at the end, not by adding an s.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Latin continued to be spoken in Italy, but it slowly changed into Italian. It first appears in court testimony in the 960s:

Sao ko quelle terre per quelle fini que qui contene trenta anni le possette parte sancti Benedicti.

which you would now say as:

So che quelle terre per quei confini che qui sono contenuti per trenta anni le possedette la parte di San Benedetto.

But until the 1800s Italy was divided into city-states, each with its own sort of Italian. Worse still, the Italian of the north could not be understood in the south.

In other countries, the language of the capital became the language of government and education. Not so in Italy: Rome did not become the capital of Italy till the 1800s. Too late.

By the late 1500s Italian writers, no matter where they came from, wrote in the Italian of Tuscany, made famous by the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Through the work of Pietro Bembo and the Accademia della Crusca in Florence, the Italian of Petrarch and Boccaccio – but not Dante – became the model of pure, written Italian. It helped that Tuscan Italian is halfway between northern Italian and southern Italian.

Why not Dante too? Dante did not write in pure Tuscan Italian. He put southern words into his writing so that he could be understood throughout Italy.

In the 1800s Alessandro Manzoni brought that model up to date. It became the Italian of government and education, being spread by the schools, the army, television and films.

Half of all Italians – mostly those who are young and have an education – speak it as their main language. Older people still speak in the dialect of their part of Italy.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Haitian Creole:

Papa nou ki nan sièl la,
Nou mandé pou yo toujou réspékté non ou.
Vi-n tabli gouvènman ou,
pou yo fè volonté ou so latè,
tankou yo fè-l nan sièl la.
Manjé nou bézouin an, ban nou-l jòdi-a.
Padonnin tout mal nou fè,
minm jan nou padonnin moun ki fè nou mal.
Pa kité nou nan pozision pou-n tonbé nan tantasion,
min, délivré nou anba Satan.

Haitian Creole (1700- ), also known as simply Creole or even Kreyol, is the main language of Haiti. About 8 million speak it. Most live in Haiti but some live in Miami, Cuba and elsewhere.

Creole grew out of the broken French of the African slaves in Haiti. The slaves came from different parts of Africa and had no common language other than pidgin French, the simple sort of French that the slaves masters spoke to them in. But the French was too simple to use as a full language. The children of the slaves, growing up knowing nothing else, made it into a full language, making pidgin French into creole French. This became Haitian Creole.

Haitian Creole can do anything that French can do. But because it is the language of the poor in Haiti – the rich speak French – many look down on it.

Haitian Creole is like French but much simpler. The grammar does away with things like gender and word endings that make French hard to learn. It is more like English: word order and short little words put here and there help you to make sense of it.

Most words come from French:

English Latin French Creole
sing cantare chanter chante
goat capra chevre kabrit
cheese caseus fromage fromaj
key clave clef kle
night noctem nuit nuit
place platea place kote
bridge pontem pont pon

The difference is not as bad as it seems on paper: Creole spelling is way more up to date than French spelling.

What makes Creole different is the way these words are put together.

It is no more bad French than French is bad Latin. French itself is simpler than Latin in many of the same ways that Creole is simpler than French. It merely takes French one step further.

But is it a separate language? Some, out of pride for the Haiti they grew up in, say that it is. And because the grammar is so different, it is hard to think of it as French. Yet if you go by the simplest test to tell if two languages are the same – whether a speaker of one can understand the other – then Creole is, in fact, just a form of French.

It is a form of French by its very nature: for society to function those at the top, who spoke French, had to be able to understand it, even if they could not speak it themselves.

If you speak French, you will not understand Creole right away, but once you hear it enough you will. It is not like learning a whole new language, but rather getting used to a different form of a language you already know.

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The Lord’s Prayer in French:

Notre Père, qui es aux cieux,
que ton nom soit sanctifié,
que ton règne vienne,
que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel.
Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour.
Pardonne-nous nos offences
comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés.
Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation,
mais délivre-nous du mal.

French (842- ) is the main language of France, where it is the mother tongue of 61 million people. It is the first language of at least a million people in Canada (7.3m), Belgium (4.2m), Switzerland (1.8m) and the US (1.3m). Another 137 million or so use it daily as a second language, most of them in Africa. French is one of the six languages of the United Nations.


Where French is spoken as a first or second language. The darker the shade of blue, the more commonly it is used.

Of the languages that came from Latin, Spanish and even Portuguese have more speakers. French, though, is more common on the Internet.

French comes from the Latin spoken in the streets of Paris. Over time Latin slowly changed into what we know as French. It was already noticeably French by the 800s. But it became the universal language of France only in the 1800s when everyone had to learn the French of Paris in school. The top people and the best writers used it. The other sorts of French and the other languages of France – Breton, Basque, Occitan and Catalan – have been slowly and sadly dying out. Occitan, not French, was the language of the troubadours in the 1100s.

From the 1000s to the 1300s the top people in England spoke French. They spoke a English full of French words. In time it became the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

I wrote this in English, yet it would have been hard to do without these words from French:

language, people, nation, region, notice, form, change, universal, use, sort, rule, power, pure, perfect, common, slave, push, prefer, glory, banker, shop, paint, dance.

Even the -s ending for plurals comes from French!

In the 1700s in Haiti another language full of French words won the day: Creole. It grew out of the broken French of the African slaves. Creole is made of French words with some from Africa, but the words are put together in a way that is not French at all. Some argue it is a dialect of French, others say it is a separate language.

In the 1700s and 1800s French became the top language of the West, pushing aside Latin. Anyone with self-respect and a good education knew it. In Tolstoy you can read how even in Russia many preferred French to their own language. Marie Curie learned it in Poland and later went to France to make her mark in the world. So did Picasso from Spain and Josephine Baker from America.

But in the late 1900s the glory days came to an end. English, a language of bankers and shopkeepers, not of painters and dancers, became the top language in the West.

– Abagond, 2007, 2015.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Catalan:

Pare nostra del cel,
sigui santificat el teu nom;
vingui el teu Regne;
faci’s la teva voluntat,
com al cel,
així també a la terra.
Dóna’ns avui el nostre pa de cada dia;
i perdona’ns les nostres ofenses,
com també nosaltres hem perdonat els qui ens ofenen;
i no deixis que caiguem en la temptació,
ans deslliura’ns del Maligne.

Catalan (900- ) is a language spoken in Barcelona and eastern Spain by about 11 million people. It is also spoken in Andorra, the Balaeric Islands, in bits of France near Spain and in Alguer, a town on the Spain-facing side of Sardinia.

The heartland of Catalan is Catalonia and Valencia on the east coast of Spain. Yet it is not a dialect of Spanish. In fact, it is less like Spanish than Portuguese is. You can think of it as being something like Spanish yet also something like French. It grew out of Latin just as they did, but took a road of its own.

The language that it is most like is Occitan, the old language of the south of France in which the troubadours once sang. The sort of Occitan they used was called Provencal.

Occitan and Catalan are so close that some argue they are two dialects of the same language. If you know one you can pretty much make out what people are saying in the other. They are certainly much closer to each other than either are to French or Spanish:

English Latin Spanish Catalan Occitan French
sing cantare cantar cantar cantar chanter
goat capra cabra cabra cabra chevre
cheese caseus queso formatge formatge fromage
key clave llave clau clau clef
night noctem noche nit nuèit nuit
place platea plaza plaça plaça place
bridge pontem puente pont pont pont

Catalan and Occitan are regarded as two separate languages more because they are spoken in two separate countries than anything else.

The glory days of both Occitan and Catalan were in the High Middle Ages, in the 1200s and 1300s. Catalan was then a language of trade in the Mediterranean and a language of court for the kings of Valencia and Aragon. Prose writers of the time called it Catalan. Poets, however, wrote in the dialect of the troubadours: it was understandable, but no one talked like that. Something that poets can get away with.

In time Catalonia and Valencia fell under Spanish rule. Ferdinand and Isabelle, who ruled Spain in the time of Columbus, wanted everyone to speak Spanish. In 1500 most books printed in Valencia were still in Latin or Catalan, but by 1600 most were in Spanish. From 1600 to 1800 Catalan had few serious writers.

The laws against Catalan did not ease till after the death of Franco in the 1970s. Now it can be taught at school, though everyone still has to learn Spanish so it still has the advantage.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Portuguese:

Pai nosso, que estais no céu
Santificado seja o Vosso nome,
Venha a nós o Vosso reino,
Seja feita a Vossa vontade,
Assim na terra como no céu.
O pão nosso de cada dia nos dai hoje.
Perdoai as nossas ofensas,
Assim como nós perdoamos a quem nos tem ofendido.
E não nos deixeis cair em tentação,
Mas livrai-nos do mal,

Portuguese (1290- ) is the main language of Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and some other bits of the old Portuguese empire. More people speak Portuguese than French, but not as many as speak Spanish. It is spoken by half of all Latin Americans and by more Africans than Europeans.

Portuguese is like Spanish, but it has sh and zh sounds, more z and oy sounds and, like French, is partly spoken through the nose. The spelling is also different. But if you know one, the other is easy to learn: many of the words are the same in both. Some people who speak Portuguese can understand spoken Spanish, but it does not work the other way round.

They both come from Latin. If history had been a bit different, they might have been one language.

Some see Galician of north-western Spain as a dialect of Portuguese. That is a matter of debate: while those in northern Portugal can understand it, those in the south have trouble.

What is certain is that they both came from the same language in the Middle Ages: Galician-Portuguese. It was the language of choice for poets in the 1200s and 1300s, even in the court of the Spanish king. But later Galicia fell under Spanish rule while Portugal had its own kings who made Portuguese a language of learning.

The main dialects of Portuguese are those of Portugal, Africa and Brazil. African and European Portuguese are closer to each other than either is to Brazilian Portuguese.

Africa: Portuguese has taken root in Angola. It is not merely the language of those at the top with good educations – like, say, English in Pakistan. It has become the native language of a third of Angolans and is understood by most of them. It has also taken root in Sao Tome and Principe. It is also widely understood in Mozambique, though less than one in ten speak it as a native language. Portuguese is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world.

Brazil: While the written language that everyone learns in school is close to that of Portugal, the Portuguese that you hear in the street is almost another language.

The Portuguese in Europe can understand spoken Brazilian Portuguese because they are used to hearing it in television shows and songs from Brazil. But some Brazilians have a hard time understanding Portuguese the way it is spoken in Europe.

Countries with a million or more Portuguese speakers:

186m: Brazil
11m: Portugal
9m: Angola
8m: Mozambique
2m: America
2m: Germany
1m: France
1m: South Africa

Some would add the 4 million Galicians to this list.

– Abagond, 2007.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Galician:

Noso Pai que estás no ceo:
santificado sexa o teu nome,
veña a nós o teu reino
e fágase a túa vontade
aquí na terra coma no ceo.
O noso pan de cada día dánolo hoxe;
e perdóano-las nosas ofensas
como tamén perdoamos nós a quen nos ten ofendido;
e non nos deixes caer na tentación,
mais líbranos do mal.

Galician (1200- ) is a language spoken in north-western Spain by about 4 million people. It is taught at schools there (but so is Spanish) and has its own television station. Galician grew out of the everyday Latin spoken in that part of Spain back in Roman times.

Some say Galician is just a sort of Portuguese with Spanish spelling; others say it is a language in its own right.

When you see Galician and Portuguese written out, they look like different languages, but if you wrote Galician according to Portuguese spelling rules they look almost the same. Galician seems like Portuguese with some Spanish words added.

For example, the Portuguese word for “old” is velho while the Galician word is vello. Different, right? But the ll is the Spanish way of writing the lh sound of Portuguese. So if you wrote the Galician word according to Portuguese rules, it would become velho!

In fact, people in northern Portugal have no trouble understanding Galician, though people in the south do.

Galician and Portuguese both came from the same language in the Middle Ages: Galician-Portuguese. It was spoken in what is now north-western Spain and northern Portugal. It had so many good poets in the 1200s and 1300s that even the poets of Madrid wrote in it instead of their own Spanish.

Some who spoke Galician-Portuguese stayed put and fell under Spanish rule. They became the Galicians. Others moved south as land was taken back from the Muslims. They founded the country of Portugal and became the Portuguese.

No one questions the standing of Portuguese as a language. It has had a country of its own for hundreds of years and now many countries speak it. Galician has not had that. It has become an ugly stepchild.

When Isabella and Ferdinand brought all Spain under their rule in 1492, most people stopped writing in Galician. The best and brightest of Galicia now went to study in Toledo and wrote in Spanish. Even today Spanish remains the road to success in Galicia.

There are two schools of thought about the way forward for Galician:

  1. Isolationists: Galician is fine the way it is and should be seen as a language in its own right, equal to Portuguese and Spanish.
  1. Reintegrationists: Galician should use Portuguese spelling and take its rightful place as a dialect of Portuguese, on an equal footing with Brazilian or African Portuguese. Forget Spain: Galicians should become part of the wider Portuguese-speaking world.

So the very way you spell Galician tells people which side you are on. It is not an innocent act.

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Half the world

Half the world follows one of two religions:

  1. Christianity
  2. Islam

Half the world speaks one of eight languages (as a first or second language)

  1. Mandarin Chinese
  2. Hindi
  3. English
  4. Spanish
  5. Russian
  6. Arabic
  7. Bengali
  8. Portuguese

Half the world lives in one of six countries:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. America
  4. Indonesia
  5. Brazil
  6. Pakistan

– Abagond, 2007.

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