La plume de ma tante

La plume de ma tante

I wrote a new song last week based on the phrase ‘la plume de ma tante‘ (My aunt’s quill/pen/feather). This phrase cropped up in a conversation I had with friends a few weeks ago when we were talking about learning languages, and how languages are taught.

According to Wikipedia this phrase possibly appeared in French textbooks in the 19th century and early 20th century, and was designed to teach people French vowel sounds. Other phrases used in a similar way include Le petit bébé est un peu malade (the little baby is slightly ill), and Un bon vin blanc (a good white wine). An equivalent phrase, which appeared in the first Assimil English course for French speakers, is My tailor is rich.

While it’s unlikely you would often use such phrases in everyday conversation, they do have their uses: to illustrate aspects of pronunciation, to practise using various grammatical structures, and to learn vocabulary. Moreover they tend to be easier to remember if they are silly and/or bizarre. My song could be used to learn family words, how to say where things are, or are not, and words for furniture, clothes, animals, etc.

Here are the lyrics, a recording and a translation of my song:

La Plume de Ma Tante

Où est la plume de ma tante ?
Dis-moi si tu sais où elle est.
Je l’ai vue ce matin je pense,
Mais maintenant elle a disparu.

Ce n’est pas sur la chaise de mon oncle,
Et c’est pas sous la table non plus.
Ce n’est pas dans le piano de mon grand-père,
Et ce n’est pas dans le seau de ma sœur.


Ce n’est pas dans le frigo de mon frère
Et ce n’est pas dans sa poche non plus
Ce n’est pas dans le manteau de ma grand-mère,
Et ce n’est pas entre le marteau et l’enclume.


Ce n’est pas derrière la dinde
Et ce n’est pas au-dessus du dromadaire
Ce n’est pas dans la piscine de mon papa
Et ce n’est pas dans le nez de ma nièce.


My Aunt’s Quill

Where is my aunt’s quill?
Tell me if you know where it is.
I saw it this morning, I think,
But now it has disappeared.

It’s not on my uncle’s chair,
And it’s not under the table either.
It’s not in my grandfather’s piano,
And it’s not in my sister’s bucket.


It’s not in my brother’s fridge
And it’s not in his pocket either.
It’s not in my grandmother’s coat
And it’s not between the hammer and the anvil.


It’s not behind the turkey,
And it’s not over the dromedary.
It’s not in my dad’s swimming pool,
And it’s not in my niece’s nose.


The expression entre le marteau et l’enclume, which literally means “between the hammer and the anvil”, is the French equivalent of the English expressions ‘between a rock and a hard place’, and ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ – i.e. in a difficult situation.

There is also a musical entitled La Plume de ma Tante written and directed by Robert Dhery, and at least one other song that incorporates this phrase.

English, French, Language, Language learning, Music, Songs 4 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 8 Comments

Little donkey bridges


I learnt an interesting word in Dutch today – ezelsbruggetje (“little donkey bridge”), which means a mnemonic, which associates words and other things you want to remember with images.

A number of possible origins for this word are given on, my favourite of which is that when donkeys were commonly used in the countryside they would go across gaps and ditches on temporary plank bridges, as they fear water, but not heights, and would thus take a short cut to their destination. The meaning then came to apply to memory tricks that give you a short cut to memorising things.

Do mnemonics have interesting names in other languages? Can you remember?

Dutch, English, Language, Words and phrases 3 Comments


I came across an interesting German word today – quatschen – which means to gab; to piffle; to talk rubbish; to chew the fat; to shoot the breeze; to blab; to yak; to squelch; to squidge [source].

It appears in a blog post in the sentence:

Aber da fragt auf dem Gathering auch niemand mehr, ob Esperanto ok ist, da wird einfach losgequatscht.

This means something like “But at the Gathering nobody asks any more if Esperanto is OK, they simply start yakking in it.” The Gathering in question was the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, which I went to last week, and the post is about the languages most commonly used there. It mentions that apart from English, many people there spoke German, French, Spanish, Italian and/or Portuguese, and Esperanto, and that we switched between them frequently. This was certainly my experience – those were the most commonly-spoken languages there. I also met quite a few speakers and learners of Welsh, Dutch and Mandarin.

The related word (der) Quatsch means nonsense or rubbish, and the LEO dictionary gives a long list of English synonyms for this word:

folderol/falderol/falderal; balderdash; blah; blatherskite; flubdub; jabberwocky; malarkey; nonsense; nuts; punk; rubbish; taradiddle/tarradiddle; tommyrot/tommy-rot; guff; hoke; poppycock

I’ve come across some of these before, but not blatherskite, hoke, taradiddle, tommyrot or flubdub, and I haven’t heard punk used in this sense. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, a blatherskite is “a person who talks at great length without making much sense.”, and is referred to as a Quatschkopf in German, and a taradiddle is a petty lie.

There are also some related quatschian expressions:

– Quatsch! = My chin! Balls! That’s all my eye and Betty Martin.
– So ein Quatsch! = My eye! My foot!
– Das ist Quatsch! = That’s hokey!
– Mach keinen Quatsch! = Don’t be silly!
– Red keinen Quatsch! = Don’t talk nonsense!
– So ‘n Quatsch! = My ass!

English, German, Language, Words and phrases 6 Comments

Ceceando (lisping)

Last night there was some discussion between some of my Spanish and Colombian friends about why the letters z and c (when followed by e or i) are pronounced /θ/ – like the th in thin – in most of Spain, apart from in Andalusia and the Canary Islands, and as /s/ in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.

Pronouncing the c and z like this is known as ceceo/cecear in Spanish, which also means to lisp, and pronouncing them as /s/ is known as seseo/sesear.

There’s a legend that a Spanish king, specifically Pedro of Castile, spoke with a lisp, and that this pronunciation became fashionable among the rest of the population. While it’s true that Pedro did have a slightly lisp, as mentioned in the chronicle of López de Ayala, he reigned in the 14th century, and the /θ/ pronunciation emerged during the 16th century. Moreover, a lisp would apply to all instances of the /s/ sound, not just those written with c or z.

In the 15th century c before e and i, and ç before a, o and u was pronounced /t͡s̪/, z was pronounced /z̪/ and s was pronounced /s̺/, or /z̺/ between vowels. By the end of that century c/ç was being pronounced /s̪/, which later became /θ/. The pronunciation of the other letters changed as well, although not in all parts of Spain.

Spanish people began colonising the Americas in the 16th century, and many of them came from southern Spain, where the /θ/ sound was not used. To this day their descendants do not make the distinction between s, c and z that is made in the Spanish of Spain.

More details can be found on:

English, Language, Spanish 5 Comments

Jacob’s join

Yesterday I discovered a term for a potluck meal (one at which each guest contributes some food or drink) which I hadn’t heard before – Jacob’s join. My mum used it, and told me that it’s commonly used in Lancashire, where she lives. I don’t remember hearing this when I was growing up there, but then we didn’t go to many such meals.

According to World Wide Words, this term is used in and around Lancashire (in the north west of England), however nobody knows where it comes from. It might have some connection to Jacob in the bible.

Other ways to refer to a Jacob’s join apparently include potluck dinner, spread, Jacob’s supper, faith supper, covered dish supper, dish party, bring and share, dutch, pitch-in, bring-a-plate, dish-to-pass, fuddle [source]. I haven’t heard of many of these before. Have you?

Does this tradition exist in your country/area?

If so, what do you call it?

English, Language, Words and phrases 6 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

Social aspects of language learning

In a paper I read recently – The Contemporary Esperanto Speech Community by Adelina Solis – the idea that female language learners tend to prefer going to language classes, as this gives their studies a social aspect, and that male language learners are more likely to learn on their own, is discussed. This was based on a survey of 13 Esperanto learners – not a large sample, and not necessarily representative of language learners as a whole, but it is an interesting observation.

In my own experience I’ve found that language classes often have more female students than male students, and friends I’ve mentioned this to have said the same.

Do you think there is any substance in this?

Do you know of any studies or surveys on this?

Language, Language learning Leave a comment

Polyglot Gathering Berlin 2015

I got back from the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin about an hour ago. I took the train all the way from Berlin to Bangor, via Cologne, Brussels, London, Crewe and Chester, leaving Berlin just before 7am this morning, and arriving in Bangor just after 9pm this evening. On the way there I also travelled by train, though I had to stay in Brussels for one night, and continued the next day. It cost slightly more than flying (only about £20 more) and took a bit longer (about 2 hours – more on the way there), but I saw so much more, and went through parts of France and Germany I hadn’t been before, and visited Belgium for the first time. The engineers on German railways started a 5-day strike today, and I was worried that my trains might not be running. Fortunately they did run, and were more or less on time.

The gathering was bigger than last year with about 350 participants from many countries. There were many people there I knew from last year’s gathering, and from the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad, and I met lots of new people. I had conversations in all the languages I know well, and most of the ones I know less well. There was a Breton speaker there, though I didn’t get to talk to him, as well as speakers of Welsh, Irish, Cornish and Scottish Gaelic. Like last year, there were plenty of Esperanto speakers, and I had quite a few conversations in Esperanto, which I brushed up a bit beforehand. There were a number of people who had studied sign languages there, including BSL, ASL, Dutch Sign Language (Nederlandse Gebarentaal / NGT) and Slovak Sign Language (Slovenský posunkový jazyk / SPJ), and the Slovak signer demonstrated how she interprets songs in SPJ, which was fascinating to watch.

The talks and lectures were really interesting, and I went to quite a few introductions to languages, including Northern Sami, Navajo, Arabic, Hebrew, Milanese, Gottlandic, Finnish, Greek and Basque. I don’t intend to learn any of these languages just yet, but it was fascinating to find out more about them. My own presentation, on the History of Writing, was well received, and I got lots of positive comments.

Some of the polyglots at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in May 2015
Some of the polyglots at the Polyglot Gathering – from right to left: Richard Simcott, Alex Rawlings, Christopher Huff, Jimmy Melo, and me – between us we speak at least 20 or 30 languages, to varying degrees.

The evening activities included a polyglot games evening, an international culinary festival – I took some Welsh cakes and bara brith, which were popular – a book fair, a polyglot game show, a concert with the multilingual French singer JoMo, who sang in 25 different languages, and an international cultural evening, at which I sang a Scottish Gaelic waulking song (Ceud soiridh soiridh bhuam) and one of my own songs – A Hen in My Hat (in 5 languages). After the cultural evening there was a little Irish and Scottish music session – I had a couple of tin whistles with me, and a few other people had instruments.

So now I’m back in Bangor and will start to catch up with the work I couldn’t do while away due to time constraints and internet connection issues.

Breton, Chinese, Cornish, Czech, Dutch, English, Esperanto, French, German, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Language, Language learning, Manx, Portuguese, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Sign language, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Taiwanese, Welsh 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 2 Comments
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