Tell Me a Story!

An fear ciúin /  Seán O'Ceapaire

When I was in Ireland last week I heard plenty of stories, including some traditional ones in Irish. There was a night of sean-nós singing, dancing and story telling on Thursday, and afterwards we had a long talk with our sean-nós singing teacher, Gearóidín Breathnach, about various things, including the decline in traditional story telling, and how the Irish language is losing it’s richness, particularly it’s vocabulary.

Gearóidín is a singer and story teller who has passed on her songs and stories to her children, however many of the traditional story tellers in Ireland don’t have children and there are few people who want to learn the stories from them. As a result, traditional oral story telling is disappearing. Gearóidín also believes that people don’t have the patience to sit and listen to long stories any more.

I’ve been thinking about these things since then, and have come to the conclusion that although traditional story telling might be disappearing, we are all still interested in stories. These days we can get our stories from many sources – books, TV, films, computer games, magazines, newspapers, blogs, and each other. There are new kinds of stories and new kinds of story tellers, and many people spend hours every day watching their favourite TV soap operas, reading books and other material, chatting with friends, and generally taking in and sharing stories.

I usually have lunch in the café at the Folk Village (An Cláchán) in Glencolmcille, and in one corner of the café there is a manikin dressed in tweed, sitting at a table, with a pipe in one hand and a fiddle in the other (pictured top right). He used to sit by the fire in the gift shop, along with a female manikin dressed in traditional attire, however that fireplace has been removed and he now sits on his own in the café – I don’t know where the woman has got to.

One day I decided to make up a little story about him, and told it to some of my friends, who embellished it. The man, who I call an fear ciúin (the quiet man) or Seán O’Ceapaire (John Sandwich), came into the café on his way to a music session in 1967, ordered a cup of coffee, and is still waiting for it. Since then he’s met Nora, who works in the kitchen and who he married, and they’ve had five children and 25 grandchildren. When Seán came to the café he didn’t speak a word of Irish, and Nora spoke no English, but now Seán speaks Irish fluently, and Nora has learnt English. There were other details that my friends added, but I don’t remember them all.

Are there any traditional story tellers you know, or have heard of? Is there a tradition of oral story telling where you are, and is it still alive (practised, and passed from generation to generation)?

English, Irish, Language 1 Comment

Learn Korean for free!

90 Day Korean

90 Day Korean have an exclusive offer for Omniglot visitors: three free Korean courses.

The 90 Day Korean web course teaches to you how to have a three minute conversation with a native Korean within 90 days. It’s a beginner Korean course that delivers you PDF and mp3 lessons in your inbox every week with only the essential parts of the language, all explained using psychology and stories so you can’t forget them (even if you tried).

Two winners will receive 90 Day Korean web course scholarships for 30 days. One grand prize winner will receive a 90 Day Korean web course scholarship for 90 days.

The first three people to answer the following questions correctly will receive the scholarships.

1. When was the Korean alphabet invented?
2. What is the second largest city in South Korea?
3. How many hanja do people in South Korea have to learn at school?

Please write to me at feedback[at]omniglot[dot]com with your name and the answers. Do not post them in the comments.

We have a winners of all the courses, so this competition is now finished.

English, Korean, Language, Language learning, Quiz questions 1 Comment

Language quiz

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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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Now, is it you that’s in it?

Now, is it you that's in it? Anois, tusa atá ann?

An interesting Hiberno-English expression I heard today is “Is it you that’s in it?”, which is a direct translation of the Irish “tusa atá ann?“, and is used as a greeting meaning something like, “Hello, how are you?”.

Another Hiberno-English expression that came up in conversation this morning was “Don’t talk to me (about that)”, which is used when agreeing with someone. For example, if someone says to you, “It’s a terrible day today” (referring to the weather), you might reply “Don’t talk to me about that”, meaning something like “It is indeed”.

The word now, and the equivalent in Irish, anois, is also used a lot in Ireland, also well as meaning at this moment, it can be used to express dismay; disbelief; in pubs, shops and restaurants as a way to ask customers what they would like; and when delivering orders in pubs and restaurants – in a similar way to the German word bitte.

English, Irish, Language 4 Comments


This week I came across the wonderful-sounding Irish word – spleoid [sˠpˠlʲodʲ], which appears in expressions like Spleoid ort! (Shame on you!) and Spleoid air! (Hang it! Confound it!). It is also used without the s as pleoid.

Other Irish words beginning with spleo- include:

– spleodar = cheerfulness, vivacity; exuberance, boisterousness
– spleodrach = cheerful, vivacious; exuberant, boisterous
– spleotán = patch of poor land


English, Irish, Language, Words and phrases 2 Comments



I discovered an interesting word in Irish yesterday – súilíní [ˈsˠuːl̪ʲiːn̪ʲiː] – which is a diminutive form of súil [sˠuːl̪ʲ] (eye) and means literally “small eyes”, and actually means eyelets, an aperture-sight, or bubbles. For example, uisce gan súilíní is still water (“water without bubbles”) [source].

More common Irish words for bubbles are bolgán and boilgeog.

The word súilíní is also used in Hiberno-English to mean “bubbles of fat floating on top of a stew or clear soup”, and is also written sooleens [source].

The word súil (eye) comes from *sūli, an alteration of the Proto-Celtic *sūle (suns), the dual of *sūlos, which is the genitive of *sāwol (sun), from the Proto-Indo-European *sóh₂wl̥ (sun). Apparently in Irish mythology the sun was seen as the “eye of the sky”, and the word for sun came to mean eye [source].

The words for sun in other European languages come from the same root, and most start with s, e.g. saũle (Latvian), sol (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese), Sonne (German), etc. There are some exceptions though, including haul (Welsh) heol (Breton), howl (Cornish) and ήλιος (ḗlios – Greek) [source].

Breton, Catalan, Cornish, Danish, English, Etymology, German, Irish, Language, Norwegian, Portuguese, Proto-Indo-European, Spanish, Swedish, Welsh, Words and phrases 7 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?

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The Bold Step

In Hiberno-English (the English spoken in Ireland), children who misbehave are told not to be bold and might be sent to the bold step. I heard this expression being used the other day and it stuck in my mind as I hadn’t heard it before.

In the UK the equivalents are usually naughty and naughty step, which are defined as,

1. A place where a child is sent after misbehaving in order to reflect on their actions: whenever I did something bad, my uncle would make me sit in the naughty corner

2. A situation of public disgrace: the bosses of the unions found themselves on the naughty step

according to the Oxford Dictionaries

Have you heard bold being used in this sense?

Do you have other words to refer to misbehaviour or disobedience (especially in children)?

English, Language, Words and phrases 4 Comments

Gleann Cholm Cille

This week and next week I am in Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolmcille) in Donegal in the north west of Ireland. I’m doing courses at Oideas Gael, an Irish language and cultural centre: a harp playing course this week, and an Irish language and culture course next week.

This is my 11th visit to Gleann Cholm Cille, and the second year I’ve done the harp course. On the harp course page of the Oideas Gael site there are pictures of the harp group from last year – I’m third from the right in the first one, and in the middle at the back in the second one (see also below).

2014 Oideas Gael Harp class
2014 Oideas Gael Harp class

This year we have a different teacher – a music student called Elsa Kelly, who also plays the flute. We’re learning some O’Carolan tunes and some other traditional Irish tunes, and it’s great fun.

I’ve been speaking plenty of Irish with people here – locals and students – and have also spoken bits of German, French, Scottish Gaelic, Dutch, Russian and Czech. People come here from all over the world to study Irish language, music and related subjects, so there are plenty of opportunities to practise languages.

So far the weather has been very mixed – cloudy and windy one minute, warm and sunny the next, then the rain starts, and it can go on all day and all night sometimes and be rather heavy. This is fairly typical for this part of Ireland, but local people are complaining that they haven’t had much of a summer this year yet.

Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Irish, Language, Russian, Scottish Gaelic, Travel 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 2 Comments
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