Suo Gân

We are learning the traditional Welsh lullaby Suo Gân [sɨɔ ɡɑːn] in one of the choirs I sing in at the moment. It’s a lovely song that was first written down in 1800, but was probably composed around before then.

When I first saw the words Suo Gân I thought they might be Mandarin Chinese – I knew that gân is mutated version of the Welsh word for song, cân, but suo doesn’t look like Welsh. In fact suo is a variant spelling of sïo, which means “to hum, whizz or murmur”, so suo gân could be translated as “humming / murmured song”.

Here’s a recording of Bryn Terfel singing this song:

The words suo [suɔ] and gan [kan] have many meanings in Chinese, but there are only a couple of expressions I can find that combine both of them:

– 锁杆 [鎖桿] (suǒgǎn) = locking bar
– 所感 (suǒgǎn) = one’s impression of something

Chinese, English, Language, Music, Songs, Welsh, Words and phrases 3 Comments

In the cold light of day

An interesting expression I noticed recently is in the cold light of day. It is used to indicate that you are thinking about something calmly and clearly, and you might feel foolish, sorry or ashamed for thinking or doing that something. For example “The next morning, in the cold light of day, Sam realized that his ideas, which seemed so brilliant the night before, were complete nonsense.”

I hadn’t thought about it much before, but when I came across it today it struck me as slightly odd – can light be cold?

According to, “This expression transfers the illumination of daylight to rational understanding and uses cold to emphasize the lack of passion.”

On AnswerBag it’s suggested that this phrase originates in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, published in 1894-5. A similar phrase certainly does appear in that book in the following extract, from the beginning of chapter 5:

“Oh, I don’t want any! I fear I ought not to have run away from that school! Things seem so different in the cold light of morning, don’t they? What Mr. Phillotson will say I don’t know! It was quite by his wish that I went there. He is the only man in the world for whom I have any respect or fear. I hope he’ll forgive me; but he’ll scold me dreadfully, I expect!”

Do you know of any earlier uses of this phrase?

Are there equivalents of this phrase in other languages?

English, Language, Words and phrases 1 Comment

Northern and Southern Korean

Today I found an interesting article about difference between the Korean spoken in North Korea and South Korea. Apparently the Korean spoken in North Korean has a different accent, archaic vocabulary, and lots of loanwords from Chinese and Russian, while in South Korea they have a lot of English loanwords. To South Koreans the Korean of North Korea sounds old fashioned and quaint. Some also see it as ‘pure’ as it has few loanwords from English.

The article mentions an app called Univoca, short for “unification vocabulary”, that is being developed to help North Korean defectors in South Korea to learn the Southern version of Korean.

Have you ever tried to learn a different dialect or regional variety of your language?

Have you changed your accent to fit in?

Korean, 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 3 Comments

Dobbing in

If you heard or read that someone had been dobbed in, would you know what that meant?

It’s an expression used mainly in the UK, Australian and New Zealand that means to inform on someone to the authorities – i.e. the police, parents, teachers, etc. For example, if a member of a criminal gang told the police about the illegal activities of the gang, perhaps in the hope of a reduced sentence, or of escaping prosecution altogether, he or she could be said to be dobbing in the other members of the gang.

Other expressions with similar meanings are to grass someone up, and to grass on someone, both of which mean to inform on someone. You could also tell on someone, turn someone in, or report someone. Are there other ways to say the same thing?

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, you can also dob something in, that is “to contribute money to a common cause” (everyone dobbed in a few dollars), and to dob someone in can mean “to impose on someone to do something” (I dobbed him in to do the cleaning). I haven’t heard either of these uses before, have you? Wiktionary states that they are mainly used in Australia, and that to dob someone in can also mean “To nominate a person, often in their absence, for an unpleasant task.” Moreover, a dobber is someone who dobs people in.

The word dob is apparently a dialect word meaning “to put down abruptly” or “to throw something at a target”. The Phrase Finder says that dob might come from the dialects of Kent and/or Nottinghamshire in England, and first appeared in writing in the 1950s. There are also examples of dob in the dialects of Cornwall, Northamptonshire and Cheshire.

A Dictionary of the Kentish Dialect and Provincialisms (1888), defines dob as “to put down [something]”.

English, Language, Words and phrases 3 Comments

As pretty as a truck

Un beau camion

An interesting French expression I learnt last week is beau comme un camion, which literally means “pretty as a truck/lorry”, and actually means pretty, cute or beautiful.

Apparently this idiom appeared around the middle of the 20th century and was at first ironic, as few people find trucks pretty. However it came to mean graceful and beautiful, and the use of the word camion (truck/lorry) emphasizes the importance of the word beau (pretty, beautiful) [source].

Here are some equivalents of this phrase in other languages:

– pretty as a picture
– easy on the eye(s)
– cute as a button

– estar como un tren = to be like a train

– een lust voor het oog = a pleasure for the eye

– een ‘stoot’ zijn = a punch in the gob
– zo mooi als een madonna / plaatje = pretty like a madona/picture
– als een vlag op een modderschuit = like a flag on a barge filled with mud
– beeldschoon = pretty as a picture
– een plaatje = a photo

– a fi rupt din soare = to be detached from the sun

– lep k’o slika = pretty as a picture

– vacker som en dag = pretty as a day


What about in your language(s)?

Dutch, English, French, Language, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Words and phrases 2 Comments

French adventures

Bangor Community Choir and Coastal Voices in Oloron-Sainte_Maire

My trip to France last week with members of Bangor Community Choir and Coastal Voices choir from Abergele was fantastic, and though it was only five days, it felt much longer as we fitted so much into our time there.

We left Bangor at 6am on Wednesday morning and travelled to Birmingham airport by coach, picking people up in Abergele on the way. We flew from Birmingham to Bordeaux, then got another coach from there to Issor in the Barétous valley – a delightful place in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We stayed there for two nights in gîtes just outside the village of Issor which are owned by a member of the French choir we were visiting. Both nights we were there we had meals outside one of the gites, and members of the French choir came to join us, and there was much singing and merriment.

Le chateau de Pau

On the second day – Thursday – we visited a vineyard near Monein, part of the Jurançon wine region, and sampled their wine – at least the others did – I don’t drink, but was interested to see how the wine is made. We also visited Pau and Navarrenx, both of which are attractive and interesting towns, and of course we sang in each of these places.

Before I went to Pau I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. Now I know that it’s pronounced /po/ in French, and /paw/ in Bearnese and Basque. The origins of the name are uncertain.

Navarrenx is pronounced /nabarēŋs/, and was known as Navarrensis in the 11th century. Since then there have been a number of versions of the name. In Bearnese it is known as Nabarrenx or Nabarrencx. This area was traditionally known as Lower Navarre (Nafarroa Beherea or Baxenabarre in Basque, Navarra Baisha in Bearnese, and Basse-Navarre in French) and was part of the Kingdom of Navarre until the 11th century. The name Navarre is thought to come either from the Basque word nabar (brownish, multicoloured, or from the Basque words naba (valley, plain) and herri (people, land) [source].

Canfranc International Railway Station / Estación Internacional de Canfranc - photo by Tony Doggett

On Friday we popped over to Jaca in Spain going through the tunnel under the mountains on the way there, and coming back over the mountains. We spot a pleasant morning there, then headed back to France, stopping at Canfanc on the way to see the amazing railway station (see above). We had a picnic in a village whose name I don’t remember, then went up into the hills to Lescun, where we sang in the church and had a meal with the French choir and other local singers. Unfortunately it was too foggy to see the apparently spectacular views of the mountains. Coming down the mountain was quite an experience in the fog on a very windy road. We were driven by a member of the French choir, who knows the road well and is a very good driver, so we never felt unsafe.

On Saturday we explored Oloron-Sainte-Maire, particularly the old parts of the town, which are very picturesque, and learnt a bit about the local sports, such as various forms of Basque pelota, which has similarities to squash, and Bearnese quilles de neuf, a kind of skittles. We spent the afternoon wandering around and relaxing, and performed in the cathedral in the evening. The concert went really well. We had two encores and standing ovations, and raised over €2,000 for a charity that’s helping a village in Nepal to rebuild after the recent earthquake.

All three choirs sang first – a Russian Orthodox hymn in Church Slavonic called Tebe Poem (Тебе поем) (We sing to you). Here’s a recording

Then the French choir, le Chœur Sensible, did their set, which included songs in French, Bearnese, Basque, Zulu, English, Georgian, Spanish, Guadalopean Creole and other languages. Here are some recordings from the French choir’s set, made by Rod Armstrong:

Ave Maria

Gloria (not sure about the title of this one)

Amazing Grace – based on a Christian hymn published in 1779, with words written by the English poet and clergyman John Newton (1725–1807): more info.

Not sure about the title of this one

À la Claire Fontaine (By the clear fountain) – a traditional French song dating at least from the early 17th century: more info.

Adieu foulard, adieu Madras – a song from Guadeloupe in the local creole language dating from 1769, attributed to François Claude de Bouillé1, who was governor of Guadeloupe from 1769 to 1771: more info.

Ts’mindao ghmerto (წმინდაო ღმერთო) – a Georgian version of a Trisagion, a standard hymn of the Divine Liturgy in most of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches and Eastern Catholic Churches: more info.

Le Temps des cerises – written in France in 1866, with words by Jean-Baptiste Clément and music by Antoine Renard: more info.

Then we did our set, and we sang a few more songs together. I was hoping to record the whole of the concert, but unfortunately the batteries in my recorder didn’t last. Other people did record the concert, and I hope to get hold of those recordings soon.

We left Oloron on Sunday morning and returned to Abergele and Bangor via coach, plane and coach, arriving in Bangor just after 9pm. On the way we sang a song or two in most of the places where we stopped, including Bordeaux and Birmingham airports.

I spoke plenty of French during the trip, and a bit of Spanish when we were in Jaca. A few other members of our choirs speak French to varying degrees, and some speak Spanish. Most of the French choir know at least basic English, and some speak it very well. Some also speak Bearnese, Basque and/or Spanish, so we were able communicate with them without too much difficulty. Some of choir members from Wales started speaking English with outrageous French accents amongst ourselves, and this soon spread to the whole choir, much to our amusement.

Basque, English, Etymology, French, Language, Music, Occitan, Songs, Spanish, Travel Leave a 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 7 Comments



Tomorrow I’m going to Oloron-Sainte-Maire in the south west of France with members of the Bangor Community Choir, and the Coastal Voices choir from Abergele. We’ll travel by coach to Birmingham aiport, fly to Bordeaux, and then continue by coach to Oloron. While we’re there we will visit interesting places around the area, such as Issor, Lucq-de-Béarn, Monein, Pau, Jaca (in Spain) and Lescun, and will probably sing in most of them. We’ll also perform in a concert with a local choir, la chœur sensible, in Sainte-Marie Cathedral on Saturday evening. This choir came to visit us in Wales last year and invited us to visit them this year, so this trip is a sort of choir exchange.

We will sing in a variety of languages, as usual, including English, Welsh, Zulu, Church Slavonic, Czech, Northern Ndebele, Xhosa, Croatian and Mingrelian, and we’ve learnt a French song especially for this trip – Belle qui tiens ma vie, pavane written in 1589.

This will be my first trip to France in 15 years, and my first time in this part of France. The region is known as Béarn, part of the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and half the local people speak Béarnese, a dialect of Gascon, which is considered by some to be a variety of Occitan. When la chœur sensible visited us last year they sang a number of songs in Béarnese, which was interesting to hear. Béarn is also neighbour to the Basque provinces ofLabourd (Lapurdi), Lower Navarre (Basse-Navarre / Nafarroa Beherea), Soule (Zuberoa), and I think some members of la chœur sensible come from those provinces and speak Basque.

We’ll be back in Wales on Sunday (31st), so from tomorrow to Sunday I probably won’t have time to answer emails and work on Omniglot.

Basque, English, French, Language, Music, Songs, Travel Leave a 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 4 Comments
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