Byd bach (Small world)

Yesterday I met some Russians who are in Bangor for Celtic-Slavic language conference. They both speak Welsh and one of them teaches Welsh in Moscow. We got chatting, mainly in Welsh, and it turned out that they know friends of mine who are studying or doing research in Aberystwyth, and they also know Russians I met while studying Irish in Donegal in Ireland. The world of Celtic studies is quite small, and the world of Slavo-Celtic studies is even smaller, so these connections weren’t a great surprise.

One advantage of learning lesser-studied languages like Welsh and Irish is that you can become part of relatively small communities of learners, and can possibly become part of small native speaker communities as well. People who learn such languages come from many different countries, so while the languages themselves may only be spoken in particular parts of particular countries, by learning them you can become part of a world-wide community of learners. So if you meet other learners or native speakers on your travels, it’s quite likely that they will know some of the same people you know. At the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, for example, I met a Swedish guy who has studied Irish in Donegal, and found we had friends and acquaintances in common.

There are also links between different minority and endangered language communities. For example, Manx-speaking musicians, singers and dancers regularly take part in inter-Celtic festivals, such as the annual one in Lorient in Brittany, and have contacts with Sámi-speaking communities in Norway, and with Jèrriais speakers in Jersey.

English, Irish, Language, Welsh Leave a comment


The word interesting can have a variety of meanings, depending on how you say it and the context in which you use it. At least it does in British English.

The basic definition is “inspiring interest; absorbing” [source]. It comes from the noun interest (legal claim or right; concern; benefit, advantage), from the Anglo-French interesse (what one has a legal concern in), from the Medieval Latin interesse (compensation for loss), from the Latin verb interresse (to concern, make a difference, be of importance, or literally “to be between”), from inter- (between) and esse (to be) [source].

If you are asked your opinion on something, such as a film, play, concert, etc, that you didn’t like or enjoy, you might, if you’re British and don’t want to be negative, describe it as “interesting” and maybe praise an aspect of it that did appeal to you. Maybe you liked the costumes, the venue, the lighting, or whatever. You could also use this description for a person, place, thing or other event. This could be taken at face value, or as indirect criticism, if you read between the lines – damning with faint praise. This shouldn’t be confused with typical British understatement.

Other words you might use to describe something you didn’t like or enjoy include different, challenging and unusual. Do you have any others?

Is interesting used in this way in other varieties of English? How are equivalent words used in other languages?

English, Etymology, French, Language, Latin, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Language quiz

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

Churches and Cells

Today I discovered that the Welsh word llan (church, parish), which is used mainly in place names, such as Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, has cognates in the other Celtic languages: lann in Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and Manx, and lan in Breton. These words all come from the Proto-Indo-European root *lendʰ- (land, heath) [source].

Another word church-related word that is used mainly in Irish and Scottish place names is kil(l), as in Kildare (Cill Dara), Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh) and Kilmarnock (Cill Mheàrnaig). It means church or graveyard and comes from the Irish cill (cell (of a hermit), church, burial place), from the Old Irish cell (church), from the Latin cella [source] (a small room, a hut, barn, granary; altar, sanctuary, shrine, pantry), which comes from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱelnā, which is made up of *ḱel- (to cover) and a suffix -nā.

The Welsh word cell (cell); the Scottish Gaelic cill (chapel, church yard, hermit’s cell); the Manx keeill (church, cell); and the Breton kell (cell) all come from the same root.

The more commonly-used words for church in the Celtic languages are: eglwys (Welsh), eaglais (Irish and Scottish Gaelic), eglos (Cornish), iliz (Breton) and agglish (Manx). These all come from the Latin ecclēsia (church), from the Ancient Greek ἐκκλησία (ekklēsía – church).

Breton, Cornish, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases 7 Comments

High Stones

A photo of Harlech castle and town

I spent yesterday in Harlech [ˈharlɛx] with a friend looking round the castle, exploring the village and wandering along the beach. We wondered where the name Harlech comes from, so I thought I’d find out. According to Wikipedia, there are two possible sources: from the Welsh ardd (high; hill) llech (stone) or from hardd (beautiful) llech (stone). Apparently it was referred to as ‘Harddlech’ up until the 19th century in some texts, so the second derivation might be more likely.

The word ardd is not used in modern Welsh – high is usually uchel and hill is bryn. There are cognates in the other Celtic languages: arth (hill) in Cornish; arz (high) in Breton; ard (head; ascent; incline; high; height; senior; advanced) in Irish; àrd (high, lofty, tall; great; loud; chief, eminent, superior, supreme) in Scottish Gaelic; and ard (high, towering, tall, big, loud, height, high place, fell, incline) in Manx.

These all come from from the Proto-Celtic *ardwos (high), from the Proto-Indo-European *h₁rh₃dh-wo- (high, steep), which is also the root of the Latin words arduus (lofty, high, steep, tall, elevated) and arbor (tree, mast, javelin), the Ancient Greek word ὀρθός (orthós – straight), the English word arduous, [source].

Breton, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Manx, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases 3 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments

Blackberries and Walls

The French words mur (wall) mûr (ripe; mature) and mûre (blackberry; mulberry) are written differently but pronounced the same – [myʁ], so are only distinguished by context in speech.

The word mur (wall) comes from the Latin mūrus (wall), from the Old Latin *moerus/*moiros, from the Proto-Indo-European *mei (to fix, to build fortifications or fences) [source].

The word mûr (ripe; mature) comes from the Latin mātūrus (mature; ripe; early), from the Proto-Indo-European root *meh₂- (to ripen, to mature) [source].

The word mûre (blackberry; mulberry) comes from the Vulgar Latin mora (mulberry), from the Latin mōrum (mulberry) from the Ancient Greek μόρον (móron – mulberry; blackberry) from the Proto-Indo-European *moro (mulberry; blackberry). [source].

One Welsh word for wall, mur [mɨ̞r/mɪr], comes from the same root as the French word mur, probably via Norman or Latin. Another word for wall in Welsh is wal, which was probably borrowed from English. The word pared is used for interior walls, though only in literary Welsh. This probably comes from the Latin pariēs (wall) from the Proto-Indo-European *sparri (wall), which is also the root of the Spanish word pared (wall), the Portuguese parede (wall), and similar words in other Romance languages [source].

The word wall comes from the Old English weall (wall, dike, earthwork, rampart, dam, rocky shore, cliff), from the Proto-Germanic *wallaz/*wallą (wall, rampart, entrenchment), from the Latin vallum (wall, rampart, entrenchment, palisade), from the Proto-Indo-European *wel- (to turn, wind, roll) [source].

English, Etymology, French, Greek, Language, Latin, Portuguese, Proto-Indo-European, Spanish, Welsh, Words and phrases 3 Comments

Differently polite

I discovered the other day that in Chinese families it is considered impolite to say the equivalents of please and thank you, as this is seen as distancing yourself from other members of the family, so within a family such words are apparently rarely used. Is this correct? Does it vary between families?

Although I lived in Taiwan for more than five years, I never spent much time in family homes – I shared flats/apartments with locals and people from other countries – so I didn’t see enough of normal family life to notice the lack of pleases and thank yous.

To a British person the idea of not saying please and thank you in such circumstances seems bizarre and wrong, but it is just a different way of being polite.

Are there situations where you wouldn’t use please and thank you? If so, is this because they are considered distancing, as in the Chinese case, or just unnecessary?

Chinese, English, Language 8 Comments

српски (Serbian)

Last week I started learning Serbian (српски) in preparation for the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad in Serbia in October. Whenever I visit a country whose language I don’t already speak I learn at least the basics of their language, so I couldn’t go to Serbia without learning some Serbian.

I’m using online materials, such as Serbian Lessons and an app I download to my web tablet – any suggestions for other online resources would be welcome. I am listening to online Serbian radio most days as well.

I’ll be trying some of the language learning methods discussed in Gabriel Wyner’s book, Fluent Forever, which I started reading recently.

I will also be making little videos using the Serbian I’m learning. Here’s the first one:

If you speak Serbian and spot any mistakes in the dialogue or subtitles, please let me know.

English, Language, Language learning, Serbian 3 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments