Diacritics used to represent tones in Vietnamese

There’s an interesting article about tonal languages in The Atlantic that I came across today. It explains that most tonal languages are found in East and Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa;, and in Mexico, and speculates that this might have something to do with climate – I think that unlikely.

It also explains how words can come to be distinguished by tones. In some dialects of Khumu, an Austroasiatic language spoken in parts of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and China, tones are used, while in other dialects they aren’t.

In the Khmu Rook dialect of northern Laos, for example, there are six tones. In other dialects pok means “bite” and bok means “to cut down a tree” – there may be a slight difference in intonation between them, but this is not used to distinguish them. In Khmu Rook b and p have merged and these words are only distinguished by tones: pok with a high tone means “bite,” and with a low tone means “to cut down a tree”.

The process by which a language acquires tones is known as tonogenesis.

More about tones in languages

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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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Why is it I and not i?

ı ı I - an illustration of how the first person pronoun in English got stretched

Have you ever wondered why the first person pronoun in English (I) is always written as a capital letter?

I was asked about this the other day and though I would investigate.

According to a blog post on, it came about as a bit of an accident. In Old and Middle English the equivalent of I was ıc [iʧ], which was written uncapitalized. Its pronouncation changed over time and the c disappeared. On its own the ı looked weak, so scribes started writing it a bit taller, and by the 14th century is was typically capitalized.

According to a post on English Language & Usage, i was originally written without a dot as ı. It started to be written as slightly elongated when on its own or in Roman numerals when the last of several ı’s. This might have been to avoid confusion with punctuation marks, or with u, n or m.

A dot, or tittle, started to be used in manuscripts during the 11th century to distinguish i and j from other letters. Originally it was larger, but shrunk over time.

More information:

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Scratching cartoons

Cartoon cat scratching

The first cartoons, in the sense of humorous or satirical drawings, appeared in the magazine Punch in 1843, however the word was used from the 1670s to mean “a drawing on strong paper (used as a model for another work)”.

Cartoon can also mean:

– An artist’s preliminary sketch.
– An animated film
– A diagram in a scientific concept.

Cartoon comes from French carton (cardboard, carton, cardboard box, target, sketch; cartoon, inset map, card), from the Italian cartone (cardboard, paperboard, a carton, a box, a cartoon (an artist’s preliminary sketch or an animated cartoon)), from the Latin charta (paper, map, menu), from the Ancient Greek χάρτης ‎(khártēs – papyrus, paper), from χαράσσω ‎(kharássō – I scratch, inscribe), from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰer- ‎(to scratch).

A series of cartoons is known as a comic strip or strip cartoon, and the section of a newspaper containing cartoons and comic strips is apparently known as the funnies, the funny papers or the funny papers, at least in some English-speaking countries – I wouldn’t use these words, and might call it the cartoon section. How about you?

Comic comes from Latin comicus (comic, comedy, comedian), from the Ancient Greek κωμικός ‎(kōmikós – relating to comedy), from κῶμος ‎(kômos – carousal).

Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary and Wiktionary

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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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Unfolding developments

The word for to develop in Welsh is datblygu, which is a combination of dad (un-) and plygu (to fold), so Welsh developments “unfold”.

Datblygu also means “to evolve; reveal, disclose, display. to unfold, unwrap, unfurl, unroll, spread out.”

Plygu means “to (cause to) bend, deflect, bow, stoop, refract (light); fold, wrap. to subdue, subjugate, overcome; apply twist (meaning), distort, pervert; submit, yield, waver.”

Plygu comes from the Latin plicō (to fold, coil), from the Proto-Indo-European *pleḱ- ‎(to plait, to weave). The Latin word also means to arrive, which comes from sailors folding their ship’s sails when arriving somewhere.

Plygu is also found in:

amblygu = to wrap around, surround, wrap together, lap, envelop, cover. (am = around).
atblygu = to unfold, refold, fold back (at- = to(wards))
arblygu = to apply, adapt (ar- = fore, opposite)
darblygu = to deflect (dar- = intensifer)
diblygu = to unfold explicate, unravel (di- = negative)
goblygu = to bend, bow, nod, fold, wrap up, leap, cover, hide. to conquer; imply, involve, implicate (go- = sub-)
gwrthblygu = to bend back, fold back; reflect; pervert (gwrth = against, contra-)
– ymblygu =to bend, bow, stoop (ym- = reflexive)

Source: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru and Wiktionary

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Parched torrents

Heavy rain and floods in North Wales - from the Daily Post

Quite a lot of rain has fallen over the past day or so in the UK, thanks to Storm Angus, so I thought I’d look at the origins of some rain-related words.

The word rain comes from the Old English rēn/reġn ‎(rain), from the Proto-Germanic *regnaz ‎(rain), possibly from the Proto-Indo-European *Hreǵ- ‎(to flow) or from *reg- (moist, wet).

When rain falls heavily it might be called torrential – it certainly was yesterday – a word which comes from torrent (rapid stream), from the Middle French torrent, from Latin torrentem from torrēns (rushing, roaring (of streams); a rushing stream), a word which originally meant “roaring, boiling, burning, parching, hot, inflamed”, and which is the present participle of torrere (to parch).

With heavy rain you get floods, a word which comes from the Old English flōd (a flowing of water, tide, an overflowing of land by water, a deluge, mass of water, river, sea, wave)”, from the Proto-Germanic *floduz (flowing water, deluge), from the Proto-Indo-European root *pleu- (to flow, float, swim), which is also the root of flow.

Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary, Wiktionary, Daily Post

Here’s a video of the sea being rather lively at Colwyn Bay (from the Daily Post).

It wasn’t just raining cats and dogs, but elephants and hippopotamuses too – that’s what it felt like anyway.

More idioms for heavy rain in various languages.

Do you know any interesting expressions for heavy rain?

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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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A Piece of Theatre

An photo from the Ballet Lorent production of Snow White, which I saw in Bangor last week

In French the word for play, as in a theatrical production, is pièce or pièce de théâtre.

Pièce also means:

– a room
– a part (of a mechanism or machine)
– a coin
– a patch (on clothes)
– a document
– a piece, as in a one-piece swimsuit or a twelve-piece dinner service.

The word pièce comes from the Old French piece (piece, bit, part), from the Vulgar Latin *pettia, from the Gaulish *pettyā, from the Proto-Celtic *kʷesdis ‎(piece, portion).

Over expressions featuring pièce include:

– pièce à conviction = exhibit
– pièce d’eau = ornamental lake, ornamental pond
– pièce de rechange = spare part
– pièce de résistance = pièce de résistance (main dish, masterpiece; outstanding event or item)
– pièce détachée = spare part, spare
– en pièces détachées = in kit form
– pièce d’identité = ID
– pièce montée = tiered cake

Source: Reverso, Wiktionary

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Today I came across word that’s new to me – bants – which, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, means:

Playfully teasing or mocking remarks exchanged with another person or group; banter.

It’s also written bantz, and is an abbreviation of banter, a word of unknown origin which first appeared in writing in 1676 in a play by Thomas D’Urfey called Madam Fickle, and is thought to come from London street slang.

Banter has a number of meanings:

1. To engage in banter or playful conversation.
2. To play or do something amusing.
3. To tease (someone) mildly.
4. To joke about; to ridicule (a trait, habit, etc.).
5. To delude or trick; to play a prank upon.
6. To challenge to a match (US, Southern and Western, colloquial)

Apparently it originally meant “to tease or ridicule, usually in an aggressive manner”, and the banter became more friendly over time.

Sources: Wiktionary, World Wide Words, OneStopEnglish

Are there words with a similar meaning in other languages?

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