Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

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

Language, Quiz questions 3 Comments

Polyglot Conference, New York

This weekend I am in New York for the 2015 Polyglot Conference. I arrived yesterday afternoon after an uneventful flight from Manchester. It took a couple of hours to get out of the airport, and another hour or so to Manhattan.

Last night I met up with some other polyglots near the Stattan Island ferry terminal – we were planning to take the ferry over to Stattan Island, but unfortunately it started raining heavily and we decided to postpone the trip. We explored Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village for a while, then I went home, while the others went on to a bar.

The conference started this morning at the SVA Chelsea Theater, which is just around the corner from where I’m staying. There were talks all day about a variety of interesting subjects, including Forensic Linguistics, Proto-Indo-European and Lakota language revival. There are plenty of people here who I know from previous polyglot events, and I’ve met lots of new people.

So far I’ve spoken English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Esperanto and Toki Pona, and have met people who speak various other languages.

The conference continues tomorrow, and then I have a couple of days of sightseeing before returning to the UK.

Chinese, Conlangs, English, Esperanto, French, German, Irish, Japanese, Language, Manx, Portuguese, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Taiwanese, Toki Pona, Travel, Welsh Leave a comment

Irish and Ndebele

Yesterday I went to Global Café, a group for international students which I’ve been going to on and off since I was a student myself. I use it as a chance to meet people and practise my languages, and I got to speak quite a few different languages last night, including Welsh, French, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese and German. There were also speakers of Vietnamese, Arabic, Malay, Northern Ndebele, and probably other languages.

The most linguistically interesting person I met there was a guy who grew up in Ireland where he spoke Northern Ndebele at home, and was educated through the medium of Irish. He also learnt English and French at school, and is currently working on Mandarin and Welsh. His parents come from Zimbabwe, and his dad speaks about 10 languages. He had a bit of trouble with my Ulster Irish, but we managed to communicate okay. I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who speaks a Bantu and a Celtic language before.

What is the most unusual combination of languages you’ve come across?

Arabic, Chinese, English, German, Irish, Language, Malay, Welsh 2 Comments

Hi. Keefak? Ça va?

Hi. Keefak? Ça va?

What language(s) do they speak in Beirut?

According to an interesting programme and article I came across today, many people in Beirut speak Arabic, French and English, and frequently switch between them, often using two of them, or all three in the same sentence.

While some might see this kind codeswitching as a sign that people haven’t learnt any of the languages completely, others believe it is a way people express their Lebanese identity. In fact, codeswitching requires a good knowledge of all the languages you’re switching between, especially when it occurs within sentences.

Are there other places where most people regularly codeswitch between three of more languages like this?

In Wales codeswitching between English and Welsh is common, and with some of my friends we add French, and/or other languages, into the mix.

Arabic, English, French, Language, Welsh 2 Comments

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

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

Language, Quiz questions 4 Comments

Language learning – better, easier, quicker

People who make language learning apps, online language courses and similar sometimes contact me asking me to review their apps/courses, and to link to them / promote them on Omniglot. This is often in exchange for free use of their courses for a certain period. This is exactly the kind of thing I hoped might happen when I set up Omniglot. Well, actually I hoped that language schools might offer me free or reduced rate courses in other countries – back in 1998 there weren’t so many online courses about, and no language learning apps – and I thought that one day I would be going from country to country learning languages, at least part of the time.

In the course descriptions for these apps/courses they say that they will teach you the real language that you need to know, and often promise that the course won’t bore you with complex grammar or befuddle you with grammatical terms. They also might say that their courses provide new, innovative, never-before-seen ways to learn languages quickly and easily.

I’ve tried quite a few of these apps and courses, and generally they are variations on the same basic model: you learn a bunch of phrases, often travel-related, maybe with pictures, and are tested on them, often using some kind of spaced repetition system. Some courses give you a chance to make sentences using the words you’ve learnt. Some include a bit of grammar as well, but not too much, as that’s boring and might scare the horses.

I’m not trying to belittle all the work that goes into these courses, and the people who make them do seem to believe that their courses are truely innovative. However I rarely find anything genuinely new in them.

One app I heard about recently is Smigin, which is free and available for iOS and Android. It teaches you basic travel-related phrases, and has a neat feature that you can construct your own phrases and hear them spoken. The recordings give you an idea of pronounciation, but as each part is recorded separately they do not give you the best model for how to pronounce the whole phrase. The people at Smigin are also planning to create an app to teach you more language beyond the travel phrases – Smigin Pro, which looks like it will be an expanded version of the travel app, with a few extra features, like a way to practise conversations virtually, and videos. Most importantly it is “without the hassle of grammar rules.”

After trying Smigin Travel I starting thinking about how a similar system might be used to teach you those dreaded grammar rules. I’m not sure exactly how, but have a few ideas.

English, Language, Language learning Leave a comment

sina toki ala toki e toki pona?

Toki Pona in the Toki Pona script

Last week I started learning Toki Pona, the language consisting of just 120 words created by Sonja Lang in 2001. I’ve been thinking about giving it a try since the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin last year, when I went to talk about the language and met people who speak it, and Sonja herself.

It’s an interesting language, and as the vocabulary is so small, most words have multiple meanings, and you have to think creatively to express things not in the vocabulary. The structure is also interesting – it’s an isolating language with grammatical particles somewhat like Japanese, and word order is the most important thing, as words do not conjugate or decline or change in any way.

I’ve mainly been using the online lessons at:

I have also discovered that there’s a signed version of Toki Pona, which is the first constructed sign language I’ve come across, though you may know of others.

Do you speak toki pona, or have you dabbled with it? What are your experiences?

By the way, the title of this post means “Do you speak Toki Pona?” (literally, “you talk not talk [direct object particle] toki pona?”)

English, Language, Language learning, Toki Pona 3 Comments

Language quiz

Language quiz image

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

Custard sandwiches and pancakes

Sniglet - any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should

The Welsh word for sandwich is brechdan [ˈbrɛxdan], which comes from the Irish word brechtán (butter, fat), according to the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru.

However according to MacBain’s Dictionary, is related to the Scottish Gaelic word for pancake, breacag, which is related to breachdan (custard), which comes from the Middle Irish breachtán (a roll), which is related to the Welsh words brithog (mottled, variegated, multi-coloured, speckled, fine) and brith (marked with different colours, variegated, coloured, chequered, mottled, pied, spotted, speckled, brindled, grey), which are related to the word word breac (speckled) in Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

According to the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, brechdan is a sandwich, and also a slice of bread and butter; sandwich; cake or shortbread.

There are also a number of interesting types of sandwich in Welsh:

– brechdan fawd / gorddi = slice of bread on which butter is spread with the thumb
– brechdan gaerog / ddwbl / linsi / fetal / deiliwr = an oatcake on a slice of buttered white bread or between two slices of white bread
– brechdan grasu = toast, toasted sandwich
– brechdan i aros pryd = slice of bread and butter to carry on with until the next meal, snack
– brechdan doddion = slice of bread spread with dripping
– brechdan driagl / driog = slice of bread spread with treacle

For details of the origins of the word sandwich, see Sandwiches and Portsmouths

English, Irish, Language, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases Leave a comment


I learnt an interesting word today – retronym – a new name for something that already existings that distinguishes the original from a more recent version. For example, ebooks are becoming increasingly popular, so there’s a need for a new word for non-ebooks. On the program I heard the word retronym, Word of Mouth, they suggested pbooks, paper books or printed books for the non-electronic version. Do you have any other suggestions?

They also discussed phones – since the default phone for most people these days is a mobile/cell phone, there’s a need to a different word for a non-mobile phone. Home phone or landline were suggested. Do you have other words?

For more information about retronyms, see: and

English, Language, Words and phrases 1 Comment
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