This page, maintained by John Cowan, “comprises a list of 736 ‘essentialist explanations’ of the form ‘Language X is essentially language Y under conditions Z’.” [N.b.: 1080 as of August 2018.] I think quoting a few samples will give you the idea:

English is essentially bad Dutch with outrageously pronounced French and Latin vocabulary.
English is essentially Pictish that was attacked out of nowhere by Angles cohabiting with Teutons who were done in by a drunk bunch of Vikings masquerading as Frenchmen who insisted they spoke Latin and Greek but lacked the Arabic in which to convey that.
Danish is essentially Norwegian spoken with a sore throat.
German is essentially a philosophical cough.

Lots of funny stuff there. (Thanks, Thandi!)


  1. Language Hat,
    Thanks for posting this page of sayings about languages by John Cowan. They are always fun to read no matter how true, false, debatable or stupid they are. Most of them are ones I have not heard. A few related sayings regarding languages I’ve heard, however, are:
    “French is just Celtic with a heavy overlay of Vulgar Latin.”
    “Spanish is basically just a crude form of Vulgar Latin jazzed up with a little Basque and Arabic. ”
    “Portuguese and Galician are hayseed dialects of Spanish”
    “They say if you’re speaking bad Spanish, you’re speaking Portuguese but I didn’t find that to be true!”
    “Portuguese is Spanish spoken with a French accent” (Not really true since the nasals in Portuguese are different than those in French).
    “Esperanto is colloquial Italian.”
    “English is a marriage between German and French.”
    “If you wake a Britisher up at five in the morning, he’ll sound like a human being.”
    “Yiddish and Romanian are aberrant dialects of German and Italian with some Slavic modifications.”
    “The Hungarians have given the world two things: its most beautiful women and its most difficult language.”

  2. Hello
    Sorry to intrude but Bill Poser over at Language Log has me left me no option. He also provided no email address so since ye’re all related..
    “A native speaker would not say recent week instead of past week “(perhaps..) …The construction We recommend you to follow… is not English. “(????!)
    what is he on?
    how could say that such a construction is not English ! Could someone please tell me?or do many people agree with me?
    and what is this about?
    “There’s the use of a comma at the end of the salutation in place of a colon”
    A (native) speaker of English

  3. And of course, we now have Ghil’ad Zuckerman saying with great sincerity that Modern Hebrew is essentially Yiddish with Semitic lexification.

  4. I’m not a native speaker of English, but I figured out how to contact Bill Poser (provided that his website, which Language Log links to without much ado) is up to date:
    Permanent email address: billposer AT alum DOT mit DOT edu
    It’s a clickable link on his site, but alas, it’s safer to make things more complicated because of the spambots Poser was talking about. Bill Poser isn’t trying to make it hard to contact him – he only neglected to leave his e-mail at the end of his post. But Language Log is just a blog. Much like this one. (They are both excellent blogs, but you can’t expect someone who has a day job to edit all the entries in their blog 24/7.)
    The other day I got a very similar message to the one he wrote about, and I had the same question: does spam work even if it’s highly ungrammatical? (I won’t take up any individual points here because the message I got really was very remote from the kind of English I am used to reading, including texts or messages written by people whose native language is not English.)
    Apparently the spammers think that I’m more virile now that I’m 31. I get fewer messages about certtain blue pills (the language filter won’t let me be more specific) or penile enlargements these days. Instead they are trying to get me to gamble online. (Edited again because the language filter won’t even let me mention places where people can wager money on silly games, knowing that the house always wins, but hoping they will beat the odds. Will I have to edit again because I said “odds”? The cyber nanny won´t let me say ka-see-know if I spell it right. I don’t blame language hat, but it’s sad that it’s come to this.
    Back on topic: according to a common cliché, Swiss German or Dutch or both are considered “German spoken with laryngitis” in the Federal Republic of Germany. If you ask someone why they think so, they will say “Well, there are too many /x/ sounds!”
    Although I’m a native speaker, I never understood why some people say that the German language is the best choice if you want to talk about philosophy. I don’t see what makes German “more precise” than other languages. Philosophy has its own jargon. If you’re a native speaker of German, you have to learn how the philosophical terms are defined. Philospophical texts aren’t more accessible in German than they are in English. But I can see why this particular myth about language is popular in Germany.

  5. A lot of the essentialist sayings seem like deliberate jokes parodying the real “urban legend” essentialist sayings.
    I think that German IS the best language for writing page-long sentences. In Kleist and Nietzsche I like it, but not otherwise.

  6. brian’s quote “The Hungarians have given the world two things: its most beautiful women and its most difficult language” made laugh … as it something I have heard often as a child, and in Hungarian, to boot.

  7. Portuguese? Well, I’m in Lisbon right now. Portuguese seems to me a kind of contact language formed from Spanish and… more Spanish!

  8. Portuguese seems to me a kind of contact language formed from Spanish and… more Spanish!
    That made me laugh.

  9. Maria, how do you say it in Hungarian? (And I’m not just asking that to flatter a beautiful Hungarian woman!)
    More seriously: it’s funny that Hungarian has this reputation for being difficult. Though it’s not Indoeuropean, it has a reasonably Indoeuropean “feel” to it. Leafing through my Hungarian textbook, there’s nothing that seems particularly challenging. Argument-marking on transitive verbs is the only thing I can see that would really make one stop and scratch one’s head for a moment.
    Navajo, now…

  10. A hilarious collection links,
    My favourite would have to be: “English is ssentially Low German plus even lower French minus any sense of culture. –Danny Weir ”
    May I add my own, English is l33t with the numbers replaced by letters
    Sanskrit is Tamil with aspiration and voice, with borrowings from PIE.

  11. DD, I’m not sure what the problem is. Bill’s point is that there are many things in that spam message that no native speaker of English would write. By saying they’re “not English” he means that they were not generated by a grammar of English that a native speaker of standard English would have acquired.

  12. Oh, and I have to add, given that no one else is going to, “Nyulnyul is essentially Bardi with no final vowels.”

  13. I was just about to say that!

  14. Noetica, I hoped Portuguese is a contact language made from English plus American …(I’ll be in Lisboa on Sunday)

  15. we now have Ghil’ad Zuckerman saying with great sincerity that Modern Hebrew is essentially Yiddish with Semitic lexification.
    Though that’s not what he’s saying.
    Anyway, I always say that German is essentially bastardized Yiddish.

  16. I’ll be in Lisboa on Sunday
    Yes? Alas, I’ll be in Porto, or somewhere in the Douro Valley, I predict. Or in Spain. Good luck – and try the sardines. They’re delicious.

  17. “American is essentially British with decent cooking” ?
    now that i’ve that out of my system. . . . i’ve a morphology class that’s just starting. toward the end of the first lecture tuesday, we got a chart listing the cases of Hungarian. That was impressive. . . .

  18. Michael Farris says

    I’m curious as to what the chart looks like. In my experience, Hungarian cases don’t lend themselves to charts the same way some languages do since there are some iffy cases (pun intended). The grammars I’ve seen don’t list cases in table form the way that is done for most languages with cases and a number of them don’t seem to have settled names (the main textbook I used didn’t even talk about cases, just ‘endings’).
    I’ve come up with a provisional categorization of three kinds of cases for Hungarian and a leftover class that may or may not represent some cases:
    1. noun ending not really related to pronominal form
    (Nominative/genitive, accusative, on-locative)
    2. noun ending related to pronominal form (the rest of the local cases, dative, commitative/instrumental), some others
    3. non-personal cases, for example -ig and -ul that don’t have pronominal forms (that I’m aware of)
    4. are they really cases, some endings, mostly or entirely restricted to numbers and some that appear to be more derivational than anything else.
    And addressing an earlier poster, there is a lot of IE influence in Hungarian (understandable since Hungarian speakers are surrounded by various IE languages and significant portions of the population have had to learn various IE languages at various times). But the more I’ve examined it, the less IE it appears (Hungarian subordination looks like they tried to borrow the idea of subordination from IE but didn’t quite get the hang of it).

  19. Are you people mad?
    Portuguese is a dialect of Latin; it is similar to Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, and French.
    By the way, don’t you mean Spanish is a bad Portuguese since Portuguese was one of the first written Latin dialects?
    Do me a favor and stop insulting my intelligence by writing gibberish when all you have to do is brush up on your history.

  20. Are you people mad?
    Yes, did you doubt it?
    Reread the post; it’s all in the word “funny”.

  21. *sigh*

  22. Thanks, all. These entries will go in the queue for the next time I get a chance to add them to Essentialist Explanations.

  23. John, on behalf of all of us, you are welcome.

  24. are any of you native speakers of brasilian portugues? miguel is right…also i am a native speaker of both brasilian portuguese and english due to a black mother and brasilian father just thought i might add that in there

  25. Now at the 16th edition with 1078 explanations.

  26. Mike Taylor says

    John, what happened to your website to which I essentially contributed many years ago. It’s been knicked by Chester County and they have no sense of humo(u)r.

  27. CCIL’s last user-accessible machine was on the verge of going blooey, so they moved all email-only users (the vast bulk of them nowadays) to a Gmail for Non-Profits site. The few remaining web users were just out of luck. So still works fine, but my web site does not. I’m working on its restoration at a different address.

  28. marie-lucie says

    Brazilian Portuguese and French

    I think I have mentioned this at some point: in the 60’s, living in Vancouver (BC) and listening to English Canadian radio, I once heard a song which puzzled me greatly. It sounded like my way of speaking French, but I could not understand any of it. I reflected that it could not be Canadian French, in which many sounds would be different from mine but I would understand most of the words, while this song had apparently French sounds but not French words. It sounded like someone had taken a tape of French speech, cut it up into syllables and reassembled it at random. As I was listening more intently, still at a loss about how to identify the language, I suddenly heard something that sounded familiar: it could have been spelt couraçon! Not a French word, but (spelling apart) the Portuguese word for ‘heart’. I had been hearing one of the Brazilian songs popular at the time.

    About the difference between French and Portuguese nasal vowels: in both languages the European and American varieties use somewhat different nasal vowels. At least in France, “Parisian” nasal vowels have changed quite perceptibly in my lifetime, and are still changing, something that strikes me when I travel to France although the ‘natives’ (including my family members) do not seem to notice it.

  29. Can you update the link here to point to instead of Thanks.

  30. “The requested URL /~cowan/essential.html was not found on this server.” Give me the actual URLs you want me to use and I’ll change ’em.

  31. Huh. It’s .

  32. David Marjanović says

    That’s ominous.

  33. “Looked good leaving here”, as they say in the satellite TV biz.

    < >

  34. Done!

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