The Right To Read, The Right To Write

Today we have a guest post by Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets Project

An text in Hmong in the Pahawh Hmong script carved into a wooden block

As those of us in the United States head into the long weekend that celebrates the country’s independence from colonial authority (yes, as a Brit I have to accept my birth country’s history!), the Endangered Alphabets’ Mother Tongue initiative is especially significant.

Take a look at the photo, for example. The Hmong were, and to some extent still are, a disadvantaged minority in many of the countries of their native southeast Asia. The fact that they did not have their own written language was seen as a sign of how uncivilized they were. When Shong Lue Yang, an unlettered farmer, created this script for his people it gave them such a strong sense of identity that the majority cultures of the region were disturbed – so much so that soldiers were sent to assassinate him.

I’d like to suggest we think of Independence Day not just in terms of nations but in terms of people and cultures, and the right of all peoples to their own culture, history, identity and language. That’s what our Mother Tongue exhibition will be all about.

Please take a moment to back our Kickstarter this weekend.

And then go back to celebrating independence!


Tim Brookes

PS I learned about most of this on Omniglot, of course!

Endangered languages, English, Language, Writing Leave a comment

Say Something in Manx

There’s a new course on the SaySomethingin website: Manx (Gaelic). There are currently 10 free lessons in this introductory course, which follow the same format as the other languages on the site, as far as I can see, and 8 more lessons will be available soon.

I heard about this course at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in May from Ivan Baines, who was testing it at the time. It has now been launched.

I’m still working on SaySomethingin Cornish. So far I’ve got to lesson 5 and feel like I’ve learnt quite a lot and can say a variety of things.

The vocabulary for each lesson is now available on the lesson pages – previously it was only available on the forum. The design of the site has also improved, and it works well on smaller screens.

Cornish, English, Language, Language learning, Manx 2 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 9 Comments


Does anyone know if there is a word for words that have the same length and constituent letters, but are not anagrams, such as bee and ebb, and aloof and offal.

I received an email from Peter Hewkin today who suggests the word magrang (a magrang of anagram) for such words.

Do you have other suggestions?

Can you think of other examples?

English, Language, Words and phrases 4 Comments

Savouring sapient and savvy saphiophiles

An interesting new word I came across recently is sapiophile [seɪpɪofaɪl/sapiofaɪl]. When I first saw it I wasn’t sure what it meant, but as soon as I looked it up it made sense. It means “someone who is (sexually) attracted to intelligence / intelligent people” [source]. It comes from the Latin sapiō and the Ancient Greek φιλέω (phileō – I love) [source].

Sapiō is a form of sapiēns, as in homo sapiens, which means wise, discreet; wise man, philosopher, man of taste. Related words include sapienter (wisely, sensibly), and sapientia (wisdom, discernment; philosophy; knowledge).

The English word sapient (wise), comes from the Old French sapient, from the Latin sapientem (nominative sapiēns), the present participle of sapere (to taste, have taste, be wise), from the Proto-Indo-European root *sep- (to taste, perceive) [source]. Alternatively it comes from the Proto-Indo-European *sh₁p-i- ‎(to notice), from the Proto-Indo-European *seh₁p- ‎(to try, to research). This is also the root of words meaning to know in quite a few languages, including: savoir (French), sapere (Italian, Sardinian), saber (Portuguese, Spanish, Galician, Catalan, Asturian, Occitan), and of the English words to savour and savvy (shrewd, well-informed and perceptive) [source].

A number of women on dating sites say they are a saphiophile – that’s where I stumbled on the word. A lot of women on such sites are looking for someone who is genuine, which can mean various things, including “belonging to, or proceeding from the original stock; native; hence, not counterfeit, spurious, false, or adulterated; authentic; real; natural; true; pure” [source]. Which of these meanings is meant I’m not sure.

Genuine comes from the Latin genuinus ‎(innate, native, natural), from gignere, from the Old Latin genere ‎(to beget, produce), from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵénh₁os ‎(race), from *ǵenh₁- ‎(to produce, beget) [source].

So maybe I should mention on Match and POF that I’m seeking a savvy, single, multilingual saphiophile – try saying that a few times quickly, it’s a bit of a tongue twister.

On Match you can search for people by the language(s) they speak. So, for example, you could search for someone who speaks French, Welsh, Kazakh, Swahili, Nepalese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Esperanto, or quite a few other languages. The list of languages is a bit random and looks like users were able to enter languages at some stage, so it includes Bable (Asturian), Euskera (Basque), Chinese, Chinese Traditional, Gallero (?), Indian (?), Iranian (?), Mallorquin, Valenciano and Visayan (Cebuano).

There are currently 651 Welsh-speaking women on Match, for example, 65 Esperanto speakers, and 42 Taiwanese speakers. However, in your profile you can only choose three languages – on Plenty of Fish (POF) you can only choose one second language, and you can only search one language at a time. These sites are obviously not set up with polyglots in mind.

English, Etymology, French, Greek, Language, Latin, Proto-Indo-European, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a multilingual sign I saw on a café at Oxford Road station in Manchester yesterday. Can you identify and translate the languages on it?

Multilingual sign on café

Click on the photo to see a larger version.

This should be an easy one.

Language, Quiz questions 6 Comments

Multilingual Manchester

Part of the Manchester Day Parade 2016

I had a multilingual day in Manchester today – I spent part of it listening to choirs and other groups performing as part of the Manchester Day celebrations. They sang in English, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Maori, Hebrew and Yiddish, and I also watched the Manchester Day parade.

Part of the Manchester Day Parade 2016

I also went to the Polyglot Pub, a meet-up arranged by Kerstin Cable of Fluent Language. The seven of us who turned up spoke in English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and Swedish, plus odd bits of Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Japanese, Finnish and Estonian. This was the first Polyglot Pub in Manchester, and hopefully won’t be the last.

Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service Pipe Band

You can see more photos on Flickr

There will be a language quiz tomorrow, by the way.

English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Language, Language learning, Portuguese, Russian, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Swedish, Welsh Leave a comment

Suburban bans

In French the word banlieue [bɑ̃.ljø] can refer to:

1. Circonscription territoriale qui s’étendait à une lieue hors de la ville et dans laquelle un juge pouvait exercer sa juridiction.
(Territorial division that stretched a mile out of town and in which a judge could exercise jurisdiction).

2. Territoire et ensemble des localités qui environnent une grande ville.
(Territory and all the communities that surround a large city).

This word comes from the Medieval Latin banleuca (the space within a mile of a city to which extended the ban in feudal society). The word ban in this context refers to the jurisdiction of an overlord in which he could call vassals for war. It comes from Old French, from the Frankish *ban.

Sources: le Trésor de la langue française informatisé and Wiktionnaire

The word banlieue is also used in English to refer to “The outskirts of a city, especially in France, inhabited chiefly by poor people living in tenement-style housing” [source].

The English word banns, as in banns of marriage, probably comes from the same root as the French ban, but the English word ban (to forbid, prohibit), comes from the Middle English bannen, from the Old English bannan ‎(to summon, command, proclaim, call out), from the Proto-Germanic *bannaną ‎(curse, forbid), from the Proto-Indo-European *bʰeh₂- ‎(to say) [source].

English, Etymology, French, Language, Latin, Words and phrases Leave a comment

The elusive illusive

Sometimes you think you know a word, but when you check it, you discover that you’ve mixed it up with a similar-sounding word. That’s what happened to me this week with the words elusive and illusive. Without looking them up, do you know what they mean?

When you’re searching for something but have trouble finding it, that thing is elusive. According to the Collins English Dictionary, it means:

1. difficult to catch (an elusive thief)
2. preferring or living in solitude and anonymity
3. difficult to remember (an elusive thought)

So something that is elusive might difficult to find, describe, remember, or achieve.

Illusive, on the other hand, means illusory or unreal.

So something that is illusive could also be elusive.

Elusive comes from the Latin elus-, the past participle stem of eludere (to elude, frustrate) plus the -ive ending. Elude comes from ex- (out, away) and ludere (to play) [source].

Illusive comes from illusion + -ive. Illusion comes from the Old French illusion (a mocking, deceit, deception), from the Latin illusionem (a mocking, jesting, jeering; irony), from the past participle stem of illudere (mock at), from in- (at, upon) and ludere (to play) [source].

English, Etymology, Language, Words and phrases 3 Comments

Interview with Mango Languages

A while ago I did a interview with Mango Languages in which I talk about Omniglot and how and why I learnt my languages. If you’re interested you can hear it here:

There’s a related blog post here:

General, Language Leave a comment
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