World Museum

World Museum in Liverpool

Information panel from the World Museum in Liverpool with Inuktitut syllabics

Last Sunday I went to Liverpool for a polyglot meet-up. Before the meet-up I went to the World Museum, which is fascinating and well worth a visit.

Among the artifacts and exhibits, there are examples of languages and scripts from around the world, including Cuneiform tablets from Sumeria, a Mayan codex and other artifacts with Mayan writing, and a collection of artifacts from the arctic with Inukutitut syllabics on the information panels (see photo).

English, Language, Travel, Writing Leave a comment

What is fluency?

There’s an interesting post on the lingualift blog today entitled “What is fluency in a language?”, which includes ideas and discussion of what it means to be fluent from various polyglots and language enthusiasts, including me.

How do you define fluency?

Which languages do you consider yourself fluent in, and which ones would you like to be fluent in?

How many languages do you think it’s possible to be fluent in (based on your definition of fluency)?

English, Language, Language learning Leave a comment

Unions and alliances

While listening to Russian language radio yesterday I finally worked out the meaning of a word that kept on coming up: союз (soyuz) [sɐjˈʉs] , which is often used in the expressions Европейский союз and Евросоюз (European Union, EU).

It was obvious once I realised they were talking about Europe, and the word Soyuz is familiar as the name of the Russian spacecraft, and of the Russian version of the USSR, though I didn’t recognize it at first with it’s Russian pronunciation.

Союз means union, alliance, league or conjunction, and appears in expressions like:

– союзник = ally
– союзный = allied; conjunctive
– профсоюз = trade / labor union
– студенческий союз = students’ union
– Союз композиторов = Musicians’ Union
– Союз Советских Социалистических Республик (СССР) = Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)

English, Language, Russian, Words and phrases 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 3 Comments

Bow, shake hands or kiss?

When visiting a foreign country, or even of different region of your own country, you may notice that people greet each other in different ways. For example, in the UK we generally shake hands when meeting people for the first time, especially in formal situations, but in informal situations, and with friends and acquaintances, there’s quite a bit of variation. We may just say hello, hi or something similar, we may kiss one another on the cheeks a few times (this is becoming more common), we may hug, or use a combination of these.

Language textbooks teach you what to say when greeting people, but few go into much detail about the gestures and actions you use, which are just as important. Some greeting practices are rather complex and difficult to learn if you haven’t grown up in the country / culture where they’re used, but it will usually be appreciated if you at least try to use them.

I already have phrases in many languages on Omniglot that include greeting and parting expressions, but it would be great to have more details of how they’re used and any rituals, gestures and actions associated with them.

You can help with this by explaining how to greet people in your language / culture / country / region.

– What words do you use to greet people?
– Are there different expressions depending on the time of day, age, sex, social standing, familiarity, or other factors?
– Do you shake hands, bow, kiss, hug, or use another gesture or action?
– If you kiss on the cheek, for example, how many times and on which side do you start? Do people of all ages and sexes do the same?
– How do you initiate a conversation with a stranger?
– What topics are acceptable for such a conversation, for example, the weather, food, etc.
– When leaving what words, gestures and/or actions do you use?

There are some online guides to this, but I don’t know how accurate they are:

English, Language, Language learning 3 Comments

Could you care less?

Which sounds right to you?

– I couldn’t care less about sport.
– I could care less about sport.

To me the first makes sense and sounds right. It also applies to me – I have no real interest in sport. So I couldn’t care any less about it, because I don’t care about it at all.

The second one sounds a bit strange to me. I would interpret it as meaning that I’m not really into sport, but do care at least a little about it.

Do you use one or both of these expressions? If not, what would you say instead?

How do you express these ideas in other languages?

English, Language, Words and phrases 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 6 Comments

A few tips about tips

TIPS box - not genuine

I heard some discussion on Radio Cymru this about the origin of the word tip(s). They said that in 18th century England there were boxes in pubs with the letters T.I.P.S. on them, which stood for “To Insure Prompt Service”. Gratuities were put into the boxes and became known as tips.

According the, a fact checking website, this is folk etymology, i.e. wrong. No such boxes existed, and the first appearance in writing of the word tip, meaning gratuity, dates back to the early 18th century, and the word tip, meaning to give a small sum of money intelligence on horse races or the latest silly joke dates back to 1610, and was used in thieves cant (slang).

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that the word tip, meaning to knock down or overturn, is of uncertain origin, and possibly comes from Scandinavian languages – in Swedish tippa means to tip or dump.

The word tip, as in the end or point of something, comes from Middle Low German or Middle Dutch tip (utmost point, extremity, tip).

The story about tip being an acronym for “To Insure Prompt Service”, “To Insure Promptitude” or “To Insure Promptness” comes from Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England by Frederick W. Hackwood, which was published in 1909.

There is more fact checking of popular sayings on

English, Etymology, Language, Welsh, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Reasons to learn minority languages

I came across an interesting article today which discusses some of the benefits of learning a minority language like Manx. The writer, a fluent Manx speaker, is currently studying French and Linguistics at Oxford University, and has found that her knowledge of Manx has enabled her to make all sorts of connections, and has opened many doors. She was also in Gleann Cholm Cille studying Irish, though in July during the week I’m usually there, and I heard that Adrian Cain had been there teaching Manx that week – it’s a shame I missed it.

When you learn a language with a small number of speakers like Manx, it is possible to get to know quite a few of them and feel part of the community, and there is quite a lot of interest in such languages among linguists and language enthusiasts. I’ve certainly found this with all the Celtic languages, and whenever I meet someone who speaks one or more of them, I feel an instant connection. In Gleann Cholm Cille, for example, I met an English lad who is doing Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth University, and we found we have some mutual friends, and chatted away happily in Welsh, though I was in Irish mode that week, so sometimes mixed in a bit of Irish with my Welsh.

Does the same kind of thing happen for other minority and endangered languages?

One of my classmates in Gleann Cholm Cille, a gentleman from Oklahoma, mentioned that he had studied some Cherokee, but that the Cherokee people are suspicious of outsiders learning their language, so it can be hard to find material to learn the language and people to practice with.

Endangered languages, English, Irish, Language, Language learning, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh Leave a comment

Irish Tongue-Twisters

Last week I learnt some new tongue-twisters (rabhlóga) in Irish. To those not familiar with Irish, almost an sentence in Irish might appear to be a bit of a tongue-twister, but these ones are particularly tricky.

Seacht sicín ina seasamh sa sneachta lá seaca.
Seven chickens standing in the snow on a frosty day.

Fear feargach ag faire na farraige fuaire.
An angry man watching the cold sea.

Cheannaigh cailín cliste ceanúil císte.
A clever, affectionate girl bought a cake.

Cearc ag piocadh piobair de phláta Pheadair.
A chicken is picking peppers from Peter’s plate.

Bhí bean bheag bhocht breoite bruite leis an bhfuacht.
The poor little sick women was scaled with the cold.

Rinne Máire gáire gan náire ag an fhaire i nDoire anuraidh.
Mary laughed shamelessly at the look-out in Derry last year.

I have made recordings of my attempts to say them. If you can do better, please contact me.

You can see more of these on:

English, Irish, Language, Words and phrases Leave a comment
%d bloggers like this: