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

Coasts and competitors


Sometimes when I see new words in English or other languages I can immediately break them down into their component parts and work out their roots, but other times I just accept words as whole entities without trying to work out their derivation.

One such word in Welsh is arfordir, which I hadn’t tried to analyse before. Last weekend, however, I was explaining some Welsh words to a friend who recently moved to Cardiff and who wants to learn Welsh, so I was in the right frame of mind, and the probable etymology of that word jumped out at me – ar (on, by) + môr (sea) + tir (land), so it’s “land by the sea” or the coast. This is correct, according to the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru.

Another etymology I discovered today is the word competitor, which comes from the Middle French compétiteur (rival, competitor), from the Latin competītor (rival, competitor, adversary, opponent; plaintiff), from con (with) and petītor (seeker, striver, applicant, candidate, claimant, plaintiff, suitor, wooer).

Petītor comes from petere (to make, seek, aim at, desire, beg, beseech), from the Proto-Indo-European *peth₂- (to fall, fly), which is also the root of the English word petition, and the Spanish word pedir (to ask for) [source]

English, Etymology, French, Language, Latin, Proto-Indo-European, Spanish, Welsh, Words and phrases Leave a comment

Meads and Meadows

Taffs Mead Embankment

I was in Cardiff last weekend and one of the places I walked along was the Taffs Mead Embankment, which runs along the River Taff. I’ve seen the word mead in the name Thamesmead, a district of south east London, but hadn’t thought about what it might mean.

Mead in this context means meadow and comes from the Old English mǣd (meadow), and is cognate with West Frisian miede, and the Low German Meed and Mede. These all come from the Proto-Germanic *mēdwō (meadow, pasture), as does meadow [source].

Language 5 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

Marmosets, cheese and gargoyles

IL y a un ouistiti sur le fromage ! (There's a marmoset on the cheese!)

When French-speaking photographers want people to smile, they might say Le petit oiseau va sortir (The little bird is going to come out) or Souriez! (smile), or might ask them to say pepsi! or ouistiti! (marmoset), just as English-speaking photographer get people to smile by asking them to say “Cheese!”

The word ouistiti [ˈwistiti] means marmoset in French, and is apparently imitative of the animal’s cry.

Another French word for marmoset is callitriche, which comes from callithrix, a genus of monkeys found in South America that includes some species of marmoset, and which comes from the Greek kallos (beautiful) and thrix (hair). The callithrix are part of the Callitrichidae family, which includes all marmosets and tamarins found in South America. The marmoset in the photo above is a Pygmy marmoset, or Cebuella pygmaea.

The word marmoset comes from the Middle French marmouset (gargoyle; small child), which probably comes from marmouser (to mumble) [source].

Other equivalents of “Say cheese!” can be found on: – additions and corrections are welcome (as always).

What do you say when you want people to smile?

English, Etymology, French, Greek, Language 2 Comments

Post-vernacular languages

In an article I read today – Sustaining languages: An interview with Peter Austin, I came across an interesting idea – post-vernacular languages.

A vernacular language is one you use in your everyday life, while a post-vernacular language is one you may not want to use in your daily life and as means of communication, but may learn to connect or reconnect with your heritage, culture and heritage, for fun, out of interest, or for other reasons.

An example given in the article is of Jewish people in the USA who use English as their everyday language, but decide to learn some Yiddish as it was the language of their parents or grandparents. Some may just learn a few words and phrases, others may learn more of the language, but few will use it as a vernacular language.

Here is an interesting video which discusses the status of Yiddish as a post-vernacular language:

There is also a book which discuss the phenomenon: Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture by Jeffrey Shandler

My learning and use of languages is mostly post-vernacular – I learn them mainly for fun and out of interest, and while I do sometimes use them to communicate with others, that isn’t necessarily my primary goal. I have used languages in a vernacular way when living in other countries, and I do currently life in Wales, in an area where the majority of people speak Welsh, and I use Welsh quite often, though not necessarily every day.

Endangered languages, English, Language, Language learning Leave a comment

Hmyz and Hums


I came across an interesting Czech word today – hmyz, which means “insect, ant, bug, creepy-crawly”.

It appears in my Czech phrasebook in the sentence, “V našem pokoji je hmyz” (There are insects in our room).

It sounds like the sounds insects make, but there are other words for hum in Czech – bzučet, vrčet, hučet (verbs); bzukot, šum, hukot (nouns).

Related words include:

– hmyzožravec = insectivore
– hmyzožravý = insectivorous
– repelent proti hmyzu = insect repellent


Czech, English, Language, Words and phrases 1 Comment

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

Fosses and Sextons

At the French Conversation Group last night one of the people had an old French language textbook from the 1950s which contains lots of stories in French. One of them contains the word “Le Fossoyeur” in the title, which is translated as “The Sexton”. As this wasn’t a word I’d come across before, I thought I’d find out more about it.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, a sexton is:

A person who looks after a church and churchyard, typically acting as bell-ringer and gravedigger.

Sexton is a Middle English word that comes from the Anglo-Norman French segrestein, from medieval Latin sacristānus (sacristan), which comes from the Latin sacer/sacr- (sacred).

A sacristan is person in charge of a sacristy and its contents, and a sacristy is a “room in a church where a priest prepares for a service, and where vestments and articles of worship are kept.”

The French word fossoyeur can also mean “personne ou chose qui ruine, détruit” (sb or sth that ruins or destroys) [source], and comes from the word fosse (pit, grave), from the Latin fossa (ditch, trench), from fodiō (dig out, excavate) from the Proto-Indo-European Proto-Indo-European *bʰedʰ- (to pierce, dig) [source].

The word fosse / foss also exists in English and means a ditch or moat, but is rarely used, except by archaeologist, for whom it means “a long, narrow trench or excavation, especially in a fortification.” [source]. Fosse also appears in the name of the old Roman road from Lincoln to Exeter – the Fosse Way.

English, Etymology, French, Language, Latin, Proto-Indo-European, Words and phrases 2 Comments

How to you?

An interesting structure that came up in the Russian lesson I worked on today is Как тебе …? (Kak tebe …) or literally “How to you …”), which means “What do you think of …?”. The example in the lesson is Ну, как тебе пельмени? (Nu, kak tebe pel’meni?), which means “So, what do you think of pelmeni*?”. The reply is Очень вкусно! (Ochen’ vkusno!) = “Very tasty!”.

This illustrates the fact that you often use fewer words in Russian sentences than in other languages like English. In some ways this makes Russian easier as there are fewer words to worry about in sentences like this. Although if you’re trying to translate from English to Russian you have to remember to leave half the words out.

Do any other languages use a similar structure?

*Pelmeni are a kind of dumpling, usually filled with meat, or sometimes with vegetables or fish.

English, Language, Russian, Words and phrases 5 Comments
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