Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

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Language, Quiz questions 6 Comments

Churches and Cells

Today I discovered that the Welsh word llan (church, parish), which is used mainly in place names, such as Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, has cognates in the other Celtic languages: lann in Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and Manx, and lan in Breton. These words all come from the Proto-Indo-European root *lendʰ- (land, heath) [source].

Another word church-related word that is used mainly in Irish and Scottish place names is kil(l), as in Kildare (Cill Dara), Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh) and Kilmarnock (Cill Mheàrnaig). It means church or graveyard and comes from the Irish cill (cell (of a hermit), church, burial place), from the Old Irish cell (church), from the Latin cella [source] (a small room, a hut, barn, granary; altar, sanctuary, shrine, pantry), which comes from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱelnā, which is made up of *ḱel- (to cover) and a suffix -nā.

The Welsh word cell (cell); the Scottish Gaelic cill (chapel, church yard, hermit’s cell); the Manx keeill (church, cell); and the Breton kell (cell) all come from the same root.

The more commonly-used words for church in the Celtic languages are: eglwys (Welsh), eaglais (Irish and Scottish Gaelic), eglos (Cornish), iliz (Breton) and agglish (Manx). These all come from the Latin ecclēsia (church), from the Ancient Greek ἐκκλησία (ekklēsía – church).

Breton, Cornish, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases 7 Comments

High Stones

A photo of Harlech castle and town

I spent yesterday in Harlech [ˈharlɛx] with a friend looking round the castle, exploring the village and wandering along the beach. We wondered where the name Harlech comes from, so I thought I’d find out. According to Wikipedia, there are two possible sources: from the Welsh ardd (high; hill) llech (stone) or from hardd (beautiful) llech (stone). Apparently it was referred to as ‘Harddlech’ up until the 19th century in some texts, so the second derivation might be more likely.

The word ardd is not used in modern Welsh – high is usually uchel and hill is bryn. There are cognates in the other Celtic languages: arth (hill) in Cornish; arz (high) in Breton; ard (head; ascent; incline; high; height; senior; advanced) in Irish; àrd (high, lofty, tall; great; loud; chief, eminent, superior, supreme) in Scottish Gaelic; and ard (high, towering, tall, big, loud, height, high place, fell, incline) in Manx.

These all come from from the Proto-Celtic *ardwos (high), from the Proto-Indo-European *h₁rh₃dh-wo- (high, steep), which is also the root of the Latin words arduus (lofty, high, steep, tall, elevated) and arbor (tree, mast, javelin), the Ancient Greek word ὀρθός (orthós – straight), the English word arduous, [source].

Breton, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Manx, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases 3 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments

Blackberries and Walls

The French words mur (wall) mûr (ripe; mature) and mûre (blackberry; mulberry) are written differently but pronounced the same – [myʁ], so are only distinguished by context in speech.

The word mur (wall) comes from the Latin mūrus (wall), from the Old Latin *moerus/*moiros, from the Proto-Indo-European *mei (to fix, to build fortifications or fences) [source].

The word mûr (ripe; mature) comes from the Latin mātūrus (mature; ripe; early), from the Proto-Indo-European root *meh₂- (to ripen, to mature) [source].

The word mûre (blackberry; mulberry) comes from the Vulgar Latin mora (mulberry), from the Latin mōrum (mulberry) from the Ancient Greek μόρον (móron – mulberry; blackberry) from the Proto-Indo-European *moro (mulberry; blackberry). [source].

One Welsh word for wall, mur [mɨ̞r/mɪr], comes from the same root as the French word mur, probably via Norman or Latin. Another word for wall in Welsh is wal, which was probably borrowed from English. The word pared is used for interior walls, though only in literary Welsh. This probably comes from the Latin pariēs (wall) from the Proto-Indo-European *sparri (wall), which is also the root of the Spanish word pared (wall), the Portuguese parede (wall), and similar words in other Romance languages [source].

The word wall comes from the Old English weall (wall, dike, earthwork, rampart, dam, rocky shore, cliff), from the Proto-Germanic *wallaz/*wallą (wall, rampart, entrenchment), from the Latin vallum (wall, rampart, entrenchment, palisade), from the Proto-Indo-European *wel- (to turn, wind, roll) [source].

English, Etymology, French, Greek, Language, Latin, Portuguese, Proto-Indo-European, Spanish, Welsh, Words and phrases 3 Comments

Differently polite

I discovered the other day that in Chinese families it is considered impolite to say the equivalents of please and thank you, as this is seen as distancing yourself from other members of the family, so within a family such words are apparently rarely used. Is this correct? Does it vary between families?

Although I lived in Taiwan for more than five years, I never spent much time in family homes – I shared flats/apartments with locals and people from other countries – so I didn’t see enough of normal family life to notice the lack of pleases and thank yous.

To a British person the idea of not saying please and thank you in such circumstances seems bizarre and wrong, but it is just a different way of being polite.

Are there situations where you wouldn’t use please and thank you? If so, is this because they are considered distancing, as in the Chinese case, or just unnecessary?

Chinese, English, Language 8 Comments

српски (Serbian)

Last week I started learning Serbian (српски) in preparation for the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad in Serbia in October. Whenever I visit a country whose language I don’t already speak I learn at least the basics of their language, so I couldn’t go to Serbia without learning some Serbian.

I’m using online materials, such as Serbian Lessons and an app I download to my web tablet – any suggestions for other online resources would be welcome. I am listening to online Serbian radio most days as well.

I’ll be trying some of the language learning methods discussed in Gabriel Wyner’s book, Fluent Forever, which I started reading recently.

I will also be making little videos using the Serbian I’m learning. Here’s the first one:

If you speak Serbian and spot any mistakes in the dialogue or subtitles, please let me know.

English, Language, Language learning, Serbian 3 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments

When is a language not a language?

One perennial problem in linguistics is how to decide whether a language is a language or dialect. In the fascinating book, Speak: A Short History of Languages, which I read recently, Tore Janson argues that a language can be considered a language when those who speak it decide that it is one, and they give it a name. This often happens when a language acquires a standard written form, and/or becomes the language of a state of other political entity.

He gives the example of Italian in the Chapter Did Dante Write in Italian?: Dante is said to be one of the first authors to write in Italian rather than Latin, however he didn’t see Latin and Italian as separate languages, but just different forms of the same language. Dante refers to Classical Latin as Grammatica (Grammar), the colloquial language of Italy as Latium vulgare (popular/vulgar Latin), and he calls the language he wrote in Latino (Latin). Italian only started to be called italiano or lingua italiana not long after Dante’s death.

Janson gives the another example of the Khoisan languages of South Africa, which have many different names. Speakers of these languages, when asked, might use the name of their area, tribe or some other name for their language – but generally don’t have a particular name for their form of speech. Several hundred names have been collected by linguists, and as a result nobody is quite sure how many Khoisan languages there are and how they are related to one another. None of these languages have a standard written form, and speakers rarely, if ever, write them.

English, Italian, Language, Latin, Linguistics 2 Comments

Brushing up languages

Last week in Scotland I tried to speak Scottish Gaelic as much as possible, and had a number of good conversations. At first though, I was adding quite a lot of Irish Gaelic into the mix, which works sometimes as the two languages are close, but not always. Last year I had a month between my visits to Ireland and Scotland, so had time to get my brain in Scottish Gaelic mode before going to Scotland. This year I only had a week, which wasn’t really enough. By the end of the week in Scotland my Scottish Gaelic was coming back.

Sometimes words that are spelt the same but pronounced differently in the two languages trip me up: for example man is fear, which is [fəuɾˠ] in Irish, and [fɛr] in Scottish Gaelic, which sounds like the Irish word for hay/grass, féar [feːɾˠ], which is feur [fiər/fjɔːrʲ] in Scottish Gaelic – not to be confused with fior (true, genuine, real) [fiər].

Do you need a while to brush up languages you don’t use very often? How do you go about it?

I generally listen and read a lot, and practise speaking to myself. Last year I also wrote something on my other blog every day in the language I was focusing on.

English, Irish, Language, Language learning, Scottish Gaelic 1 Comment