Tell Similar Languages Apart
This page should help you to tell similar languages apart, even if you do no speak these languages.
- If you know some of these (or other) languages, please try to explain their differences, come up with sentence-examples or straight-up grammar rules that make the distinction between languages easier to decipher for those of us not speaking those languages.
- 1 Scandinavian Languages
- 2 East Asian Languages
- 3 Latin Languages
- 4 Germanic Languages
- 5 Slavic Languages
How do I tell if something is Norwegian, Danish, or Swedish?
This is pretty much a touch and go case, but take for example the sentence: "Until night becomes day"
|Danish:||Indtil nat bliver dag|
|Norwegian:||Til natt blir dag|
|Swedish:||Tills natt blivit dag|
Table of Pronouns and Articles
|English (for comparison)||Danish||Norwegian Bokmål||Norwegian Nynorsk||Swedish|
|I (me, my)||jeg (mig, min/mit/mine)||jeg (meg, min/mi/mitt/mine)||eg (meg, min/mi/mitt/mine)||jag (mig, min/mitt/mina)|
|you (you, your)||du/De (dig/Dem, din/dit/dine/Deres)||du (deg, din/di/ditt/dine)||du (deg, din/di/ditt/dine)||du (dig, din/ditt/dina)|
|he (him, his)||han (ham, hans)||han (han/ham, hans)||han (han/honom, hans)||han (honom, hans)|
|she (her, her)||hun (hende, hendes)||hun (henne, hennes)||ho (ho/henne, hennar/hennes)||hon (henne, hennes)|
|it (its)||den/det (dens/dets)||den/det (dens/dets)||han/ho/det (hans/hennar/dess)||den/det (dess)|
|we (us, our)||vi (os, vores/vor/vort/vore)||vi (oss, vår/vårt/våre)||me/vi (oss, vår/vårt/våre)||vi (os, vår/vårt/våra)|
|you (you, your)||I (jer, jeres)||dere (dere, deres)||de (dykk, dykkar)||ni (er, er/ert/era)|
|they (them, their)||de (dem, deres)||de (dem, deres)||dei (dei, dera/deires)||de/dom (dem/dom, deras)|
|the1||den/det / -en/-et||den/det / -en/-a/-et||den/det / -en/-a/-et||den/det / -en/-et|
1 Note that definiteness is usually indicated by a suffix, not a separate article like English “the”. Example: hund, hunden (Danish/Norwegian/Swedish) ‘dog, the dog’. A separate definite article is used before adjectives, however: den sorte hund (Danish), den svarte hunden (Norwegian), den svarta hunden (Swedish) ‘the black dog’.
Other notable differences
- Danish and Norwegian have the vowel letters æ and ø, but Swedish has ä and ö. All of them have å.
- æ is much more common in Danish than in Norwegian, where it is often replaced by e.
- Norwegian has (more) diphthongs, and Nynorsk especially so.
- Letter combinations ch and ck and letters q and x are common in Swedish, while in Danish and Norwegian they only occur in new loanwords and foreign names.
- Letter combinations kk and ks are common in Norwegian and Danish, but not in Swedish.
- Letter combinations kj and sj are more common in Norwegian than in Danish or Swedish.
- Letter combinations ld and nd are much more common in Danish than in Norwegian or Swedish.
- -a is the usual suffix vowel in Swedish, -e in Danish and Bokmål. Nynorsk has both (but in different places).
- Danish doesn’t have double consonants word-finally (Danish kat vs. Norwegian/Swedish katt ‘cat’).
- Letters g, b, d word-finally are more common in Danish than in Norwegian or Swedish (which often have k, p, t instead: Danish båd vs. Norwegian/Swedish båt ‘boat’).
- Norwegian (and especially Nynorsk) uses accent marks more than the others (òg ‘also’, blót ‘sacrifice’, fór ‘drove, went’, fòr ‘furrow’, fôr ‘fodder’, én ‘one (stressed)’, lêr ‘leather’, vêr ‘weather’). In Danish and Swedish, only é is semi-usual.
East Asian Languages
How do I tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Indonesian?
Telling the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean isn’t difficult if you know what to look for.
Chinese is written entirely in Chinese characters (also known as Han characters or hanzi in Chinese). These are the most complex fullwidth characters. If there are no hiragana, katakana or hangul used, it’s highly likely that it’s Chinese.
There are two sets of Chinese charcters in use: traditional characters are used mainly in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao while simplified characters are used in mainland China and Singapore. Traditional characters have more strokes and look more complex than their simplified variants. Note however that many characters are the same in both systems.
聽媽媽的話 別讓她受傷 (a verse from Jay Chou’s Listen to Your Mother; traditional characters)
听妈妈的话 别让她受伤 (the same verse in simplified characters)
Japanese also uses Chinese characters (known as kanji in Japanese), but hiragana and katakana are also used. Both hiragana and katakana only have 46 basic characters each, so you’re more likely to see the same characters used more than once.
Korean now uses very few Chinese characters (none at all in North Korea) and it would be quite rare to find Korean CDs with Chinese characters. Instead, Korean uses hangul. Although the number of actual characters is rather high like with Chinese characters, hangul syllables are made up of letters in a way which is rather like playing Tetris with your letters. For example, ㅅ (s) and ㅏ (a) give 사 (sa) and adding ㅇ (ng) gives 상 (sang).
The characters for the word of are usually rather common, they are 的, の and 의 in Chinese, Japanese and Korean respectively.
Vietnamese is written in the latin alphabet with many accent marks and diacritics. Each word is generally fairly short and represents a single syllable.
Example: Một con vịt xoè ra hai cái cánh (the first verse of a children’s song by the same name).
Indonesian & Malay
Indonesian and Malay are also written in the Latin alphabet but do not use accents or diacritics and the words tend to be longer. Be careful with assuming either, however, unless you know the origin of the artist, since written Indonesian is very similar to Malay/Malayan; especially in partial sentences such as song titles. Wikipedia has a useful list of vocabulary differences.
How do I tell if something is Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Catalan or Romanian?
French and Catalan uses pronouns a lot more than Spanish. Below is a table with pronouns in latin languages. If you speak a latin language that is not in the table, please add it.
French can have a cedilla on the c (ç), an accute accent on e (é), a grave accent on a, e and u (à, è, ù) or a diaeresis or circumflex on any vowel (ä, ë, ï, ö, ü, â, ê, î, ô, û). Also, no verbs that I can think of end in -o (like the Spanish 1st person singular present tense).
Apart from grammar, distinguishing Italian could be quite simple: almost all (in fact all) words end with a vowel (a e i o u or à è ì ò ù). Words in other Latin languages often end differently.
In Catalan, you can find the ç (like in French), and accute accents over é í ó ú, and grave accents on à è ò. Diaeresis only on ï and ü. Sometimes you can find a point between l letters (l·l), some people use (incorrectly) the normal point in this case (l.l), please, avoid them.
Table of Pronouns and Articles
|English (for comparison)||French||Spanish||Portuguese||Italian||Romanian||Catalan|
|I||je, me, moi, m’||yo||eu||io||eu||jo, mi|
|you||tu, te, toi, t’||tú, usted||tu, você||tu||tu||tu, vosté, vos|
|he, she, it||il, elle, se, s’, lui||él, ella||ele, ela||lui, lei, esso||el, ea||ell, ella|
|we||nous, on||nos, nosotros||nós||noi||noi||nosaltres, nos|
|you (plural)||vous||vos, vosotros, ustedes||vós, vocês||voi||voi||vosaltres, vos|
|they||ils, elles||ellos, ellas||eles, elas||loro, essi||ei, ele||ells, elles|
|the||le, la, les, l’||el, los, la, las||o, os, a, as||il, lo, la, gli, l’||-ul, -a, -i, -le||el, la, l’, els, les, sa, so, s’, ses, en, na, n’|
|a||un, une||un, una||um, uma||un, uno, una||un, o||un, una, uns, unes|
|not||ne ... pas, n’... pas||no||não||non||nu||no, ... pas|
Note that in Romanian the definite article is a suffix (like for Scandinavian languages, see above), but it’s similar to the articles of Italian. Also, it’s often easy to spot Romanian because it uses only normal Latin letters together with ă, â, î, ş and ţ (Those are a with breve, a and i with circumflex, and s and t with comma below, though cedilla is often used instead). A common preposition is în, meaning ‘in’. Adjectives are usually after the nouns, and more often than not connected by prepositions or articles, like de, cu, al.
How do I tell if something is German (German, Austrian, and Swiss), Dutch or Afrikaans?
Dutch is spoken in the Netherlands and the northern part of Belgium. It can be distinguished by the use of the words de (de vrouw), het (het huis) and een (een persoon), meaning ‘the’ (the woman), ‘the’ (the house) and ‘a’ (a person) (or ‘one’ (one person)), respectively. It’s not unusual for words to have more than 2 vowels in a row. e.g. ’s Nachts na tweeën. Also the letter combination ij is a tip for the text being Dutch. More hints at Capitalization Standard Dutch.
Afrikaans developed from Dutch and is spoken in South Africa. It looks like a somewhat simplified form of Dutch (with new words thrown in occasionally). Obvious differences from Dutch include y instead of ij and sk instead of sch, in addition the letters c, q, x and z (almost) never occur outside loanwords (Dutch c, ch, qu, x and z are replaced by k, g, kw, ks and s, respectively).
Table of Pronouns and Articles
|English (for comparison)||German||Dutch||Afrikaans|
|you||du||jij, je, u||jy, u|
|he, she, it||er, sie, es||hij, zij, het||hy, sy, dit|
|we (us)||wir (uns)||wij (ons)||ons (ons)|
|you (plural)||ihr||jullie, u||julle, u|
|the||der, die, das||de, het||die|
How do I tell Germanic languages from Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish...)? See Scandinavian Languages.
How do I tell if something is Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian...?
Table of Pronouns and Articles
|English (for comparison)||Russian||Russian (transliterated)||Slovak||Czech||Serbian/Bosnian Cyrillic||Serbian/Bosnian Latin and Croatian|
|I||я||ja / ya||ja||já||ја||ja|
|you||ты||ti / ty||ty||ty||ти||ti|
|he, she, it||он, она, оно||on, ona, ono||on, ona, ono||on, ona, ono||он, она, оно||on, ona, ono|
|we||мы||mi / my||my||my||ми||mi|
|you (plural)||вы||vi / vy||vy||vy||ви||vi|
|they||они||oni||oni||oni||они / оне / она||oni / one / ona|
|and||и / а||i / a||a||a||и / а||i / a|
|the||not used||not used||not used||not used||not used||not used|
|a||not used||not used||not used||not used||not used||not used|
Serbian (and to a lesser extent Bosnian) use both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, while Croatian only uses the Latin. Wikipedia has a large page on the differences between standard Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. Montenegrin is not currently listed as a separate language at MusicBrainz so should be listed as Serbian.