Dystopias and Utopias

Why is it that so many films and novels set in the future are dystopian?

I thought about this after watching The Hunger Games last night, and tried to think of any stories of utopian futures. The only films I could think featuring non-dystopian futures of were Back to the Future II and Bicentennial Man. Can you think of any others?

The word dystopia combines the Ancient Greek δυσ (dus – bad), and τόπος ‎(tópos – place, region) with the Latin/Ancient Greek suffix ia/ία ‎(-ía). It was derived from the word utopia, which was coined by Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia. The u part of utopia comes from the Greek ou (οὐ – not) and by the 17th century was used to refer to a place or society that was considered perfect or ideal. The prefix ou possibly got confused with εὖ ‎(eû, – well, good). Dystopia was first used by J. S. Mill in a parliamentary speech in 1868 [source].

English, Greek, Language, Words and phrases 6 Comments

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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Matignon and other metonyms

Last night I discovered that the French equivalent of “Number 10”, which in the UK refers to the British Prime Minister, is Matignon or L’Hôtel de Matignon, the official residence of the French Prime Minister.

Number 10 is shorthand for Number 10 Downing Street, is the official residence and office of the British Prime Minister, and the headquarters of the executive branch of the British Government. The British Government is also referred to as “Westminster”, from the Palace of Westminster where the British Parliament meets.

The Scottish Parliament is informally referred as “Holyrood” – named after the area of Edinburgh where it meets, while in Northern Irish Assembly is referred as “Stormont”, after the Stormont Estate where the main government buildings are. Stormont comes from the Stoirmhonadh, (place for crossing the mountains) and is named after a district in Perthshire in Scotland. The National Assembly of Wales / Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru is referred to as the Assembly in English, and y Cynulliad or y Senedd (the Senate) in Welsh. I don’t know of any particular metonyms for it.

Using the name of a place or building to refer to an institution or other organisation is known as metonymy, from the Greek μετωνυμία (metōnymía) – a change of name. Other examples include using Hollywood to refer to the US film industry, and Silicon Valley to refer to the US high-tech sector.

Are metonyms used to refer to governments, prime ministers, or other government institutions in other countries?

English, French, Language, Words and phrases 9 Comments

Flan cupboards

A Welsh plygain song I’ve been learning recently with some friends (Carol y Swper) features the word fflangell in the line “Ein Meichiau a’n Meddyg dan fflangell Iddweig”.

We weren’t sure what it meant at first, and guessed that it was some kind of container for a flan or a flan cupboard. A fflan is a flan, and cell means cell or bower, and in compound words can mean a container or building. For example oergell (cold cell) is a fridge, rhewgell (frost/ice cell) is a freezer, and llyfrgell (book cell) is a library.

So we thought the line meant something like “Our arms and doctor under the Jewish flan cupboard.” Hilarity ensued. It actually means “Our Surety and Healer under the Jewish scourge.”

You can hear the whole song at:

We will be singing in a plygain service in Bangor cathedral starting at 7pm on Friday 15th January as Parti Min Menai.

Do you have any examples of mistranslated or misheard song lyrics?

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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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Big fun!

A friend of mine who is learning Welsh likes to translate Welsh expressions literally and then use them in English. One Welsh equivalent of goodbye is hwyl fawr [hʊɨl vaur], which he translates as “big fun”, which sounds quite funny in English. Do any other languages have a phrase used when parting that has a similar meaning?

The Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru explains hwyl fawr as “a valediction, roughly equivalent to ‘All the best!’, or ‘Cheers!’. Which should not be confused with yr hwyl fawr, which is ‘the principal sail of a ship, mail-sail or main-sheet.’

hwyl can also mean:
– sail (of ship, windmill, etc), sheet, covering, pall
– journey, progress, revolution, orbit, course, route, career, rush, assault, attack
– healthy physical or mental condition, good form, one’s right senses, wits; tune (of musical instrument); temper, mood, frame of mind; nature disposition; fervour, ecstasy, gusto, zest
– merry-making, hilarity, jollity, mirth, gaiety, amusement, fun, humour

Some expressions featuring hwyl include:
– am hwyl = for fun, by way of a joke
– hwyl dda = fine state of health; good spirits, good mood
– hwyl ddrwg = physical indisposition; bad mood
– cael hwyl = to have fun, enjoy oneself, make good progress
– cael hwyl am ben (rhywun) = to make fun of (someone)
– pob hwyl = similar to hwyl fawr

Do you use literal translations of foreign expressions in your own language like this?

English, Language, Translation, Welsh, Words and phrases 5 Comments

New Year’s resolutions for language learners

This is a guest post by Izabela Wisniewska

Learning a new language is one of the more typical New Year’s resolutions we see and often, one of the most flippant. Though the desire to learn a new language is genuine actually getting motivated to do something about it is another thing entirely. If you are seriously considering learning a new language in 2016 then you should think about focusing your New Year’s resolutions on this. To help get you started, here are some of the top New Year’s resolutions for language learners in 2016:

1. One of the most difficult things to do when learning a new language is knowing where to start. Signing up to an online learning course or downloading a learning app will help you to structure your learning and give you an idea where is a good place to begin, while also giving you an introduction into the new language.

2. Schedule in some time every day when you can focus on your language learning, even if it is only 15 or 20 minutes this will keep the new language fresh in your mind. If possible try to fit two short learning lessons into your day, or one longer period where you can really focus.

3. Make use of online tools and mobile phone and tablet/iPad apps. Firstly, you can download and use productivity hacks designed to help you to become focused and work more efficiently, this will help you to organise your time and set deadlines to help ensure your learning progresses. Secondly, there are plenty of language teaching apps, vocabulary testing tools and dictionaries etc. that can prove invaluable aids in learning a new language.

4. When you start to learn a new language, speak it as much as you can, practice at home and to yourself or speak with other people you know who also speak the language. This will not only help you to feel less self-conscious and more confident, but it will also help you to remember the vocabulary and refine your pronunciation.

5. Your long term goal is to learn a new language, but starting out this can seem like a massive and overwhelming task. Instead of focusing on the long term goal, break it down into a series of short term, manageable goals and aim to reach these instead.

6. Consider saving some money and taking a trip abroad so that you can communicate native speakers of the language you are learning. This will really help you with your pronunciation and will highlight where there are differences in the language used in practice and in accents and dialects of native speakers.

7. Allow yourself to enjoy your accomplishments and the progress you have made. It is easy to reach a short term goal and immediately move onto accomplishing the next, keeping in mind you still have a bigger, long term goal to achieve, but try not to do this. Instead enjoy reaching your goals, show off your new skills to your loved ones and give yourself a pat on the back, encourage your own learning.

8. Know your limitations and don’t expect too much of yourself. You may see websites that claim to teach you a language within three months, but this does not necessarily apply to everyone and you may not be able to replicate the same results. If you are limited in time, you have a shorter attention span or you have more pressing things to do, keep this in mind when you set yourself goals and deadlines. If you expect too much of yourself you set yourself up for failure which can end up demotivating you.

Follow these resolutions and you should find it much easier to start and enjoy your language learning process.


Do you have any language-related resolutions for this year?

I plan to continue learning Russian, and would like to learn more Czech, and some Greek.

English, Language, Language learning 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?

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How short is your pastry?

While eating one of my mum’s delicious mince pies yesterday, I asked what makes them different to the ones you buy in shops. Apparently it’s the pastry – my mum uses shortcrust pastry, and shop-brought ones use sweet pastry. This got us wondering what the short in shortcrust actually means.

Shortcrust pastry is made with flour, fat and water. The fat might be lard, butter, margarine, or shortening, which is a vegetable-based fat [source].

It seems the short in shortcrust comes from shortening, which can also refer to butter or other fat used in baking, and comes from shorten, in the sense of “to make crumbly”, from short, which can mean “easily crumbled”. The same short appears in shortbread and shortcake [source].

In case you’re not familiar with British Christmas foods, a mince pie is a small sweet round pie containing dried fruit, suet and spices. Such pies did once contain minced meat and were larger, and oblong in shape, but these days they don’t contain any meat [source].

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Why Weihnachten?

Have you every wondered where the German word for Christmas, Weihnachten, comes from? I have, as it is so different from words for Christmas in other European languages. So I decided to investigate.

Weihnachten comes from the Middle High German wīhenahten ‎(Christmas), from a dative plural ze den wīhen nahten ‎(in the holy nights). The oldest form (1170) is a singular diu wīhe naht (the Holy Night). It came to refer to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day collectively somewhat later.

Source: Wiktionary

Another source states that Weihnachten first appeared as ze wîhen naht in a song by the minstrel Spervogel, who lived in the 12th Century: “Er ist gewaltic unde starc (…) der ze wîhen naht gebórn wárt. (…) daz ist der heilige Krist, (…) jâ lobt in allez, daz dir ist”. It is perhaps a translation of the Latin nox sancta.

More about German Christmas vocabulary and traditions:

English, Etymology, German, Language, Words and phrases 1 Comment
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