Can’t do it for toffee

There’s an interesting idiom in British English that means that you are bad at doing something – you can’t do it for toffee. Apparently a US equivalent is can’t do something for beans.

The equivalent of this phrase in French is il n’est pas fichu de faire qch and in Welsh it’s nid yw’n medru gwneud rhywbeth am ffortiwn.

Are the similar idioms in other varieties of English, and in other languages?

English, French, Language, Welsh 1 Comment

Multilingual esprit de l’escalier

Last night I went to Global Café, a gathering of international and local students, and had chances to use quite a few different languages, including Czech, Hindi, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish, and also English. Apart from English and Mandarin, I don’t speak any of these languages well, and I only know bits and pieces of some of them. When I was trying to speak them I soon ran out of things to say, and was thinking that there wasn’t much more I could say.

Afterwards I came up with quite a few other things I could have said, and realised that I know more of these languages then I thought, especially Czech and Spanish, which I’ve been studying on and off for many years, but rarely speak. One thing that tends to hold me back from saying more is uncertainty about how to say things correctly. I don’t mind making mistakes, but I prefer to get things right, or at least not too wrong. I try to get the words in the right order, even if some of the verb conjugations and noun declensions are wrong.

Do you suffer from multilingual esprit de l’escalier?

Does fear of making mistakes stop you from speaking any of your languages?

Chinese, Czech, English, Hindi, Language, Spanish, Taiwanese 7 Comments

Da mad math

In Welsh and Cornish the usual word for good is da [daː], while in the other Celtic languages words for good are: Breton – mat [maːt˺], Irish – maith [mˠa(ɪ)(h)], Manx – mie [maɪ], and Scottish Gaelic – math [ma]. I’ve wondered for a while whether there were cognates in Welsh and Cornish for these words.

Last week I found that there are: mad in Welsh and mas in Cornish. The Welsh word, which means good, seemly, lucky, appears in the phrase: a wnêl mad, mad a ddyly (one good turn deserves another), but isn’t otherwise used, as far as I can discover. The Cornish word doesn’t appear in the Cornish dictionaries I’ve checked so I think it is probably not used any more.

These words all come from the Proto-Celtic *matis (measure), possibly from the Indo-European (measure, consider) [source], which is also the root of the Irish word meas (judgement, opinion, respect) [source], and possibly of the Welsh meddwl (to think), and the English mete (measure).

Breton, Cornish, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases 11 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 4 Comments


I came across an interesting word in my Welsh dictionary – maeldy [ˈmaːɨldɨ̬ / ˈmaildɪ] – which is an old word for shop. The normal Welsh word for shop is siop, which sounds like shop. I had wondered if there was a another word for shop other than the one borrowed from English, now I know.

Maeldy comes from mael (gain, profit) and (house). Other old words for shop are maelfa, which combines mael and ma (place, spot, plain), and masnachdy – masnach = trade, commerce.

Related words include:
– maeler = trader [masnachwr]
– maelera; maeliera; maelio = to trade; to profit [masnachu]
– maeleriaeth = trade; commerce [masnach]
– maelged = tribute; tax [rhodd; treth]
– maeliant = gain [lles; elw]
– maelier = merchant [marsiandïwr]
– maelwr = shop-keeper; trader [siopwr; masnachwr]

These are all archaic and I don’t think they’re used any more. The words currently used in their places are shown in [brackets].

English, Language, Welsh, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Neo-eisimeileachd / Unthirldom / Independence

As there’s an independence referendum in Scotland today I thought I’d look at a few relevant words in Scottish Gaelic and Scots:

Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) Scots English
reifreann [rʲɛfərʲɛn̪ˠ] referendum referendum
rneo-eisimeileachd [n̪ˠʲɔ eʃɪmələxg] unthirldom independence
neo-eisimeileach [n̪ˠʲɔ eʃɪmələx] unthirlit independent
bhòt [voʰt̪] vote vote

neo-eisimeileachd: from neo- (un-), from Irish neamh-/neimh-, from Middle Irish nem, from Old Irish neb-, neph-; and eisimeil (dependence, obligation), from Middle Irish esimol [source]

referendum: from the Latin referendum (“that which must be referred” or lit. “thing brought back”), from referre (to bring or take back), from re- (back) and ferre (carry) [source].

independent: from in- (not, opposite of) and dependent, from French indépendant, from dépendant, the present participle of dépendre (to hang down; to depend), from Latin dependentem, from dēpendēo (to hang down/from; to depend on) from pēndēre (to droop, to hang (from), to slope, to slant) [source]

vote: from Latin vōtum (promise, dedication, vow; determination, will, desire; prayer), a form of voveō (I vow/promise; dedicate/devote to a deity; I wish/desire.), from Proto-Indo-European *h₁wogʷʰ-. [source]

Independence in Scots is either independence or unthirldom, a word I found on Spawk. It also appears on Wikipedia, along with unthirlt (independent) in the sentence:

“Scots unthirldom is the poleetical muivement that thinks Scotland shoud poleetical sinder itsel frae the Unitit Kinrick, an become an unthirlt kintra wi ane govrenment an a sovereign pairlament.”

(Scottish independence is the political movement that thinks Scotland should politically separate itself from the United Kingdom, and become an independent country with its own government and a sovereign parliament.)

unthirldom and unthirlit come from unthirl = land outside the Sucken* or Thirl** of a particular mill; the dues paid to a mill for the grinding of corn grown on land not restricted to it [source]

– unthirlit also means not enslaved or subjugated (to another)

* Sucken [′sʌkən] = the lands of an estate on which there was an obligation to grind corn at a certain mill, or the totality of the tenants of such lands [source]

** Thirl [θɪrl] = To lay under a certain obligation or restriction, specifically in Scots Law: to bind the lands of an estate or their tenants by the terms of lease to have the grain produced on the lands ground at a certain mill, to astrict the grinding of corn [source].

English, Etymology, French, Language, Latin, Proto-Indo-European, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Words and phrases Leave a comment

Grammatical correctness and standard languages

I got thinking standard languages and grammars today after reading an old post on Michal Boleslav Měchura’s blog Young, Single, Multilingual in which differences between standard and non-standard Irish language and grammar are discussed.

One example is the use of the tag question ní tá instead of the standard nach bhfuil – the equivalent of isn’t it?, aren’t you?, etc. This is used mainly in and around Cloch Chionnaola in the north west of Ireland. According to Michal, “from the Standard-Irish point of view, it breaks all the rules, combining the wrong words in ungrammatical ways. But it is reportedly very common among native speakers in the area …”

A standard language is one particular form of a language that is chosen, from among many, for linguistic, political and social reasons, to be the main language used in education, media and in formal contexts. When this happens other forms of that language may start to be viewed as non-standard, substandard, or plain wrong, and such judgements are often applied to speakers of those forms as well, though that’s a separate issue. Standards are maintained by official bodies, schools, publishers and so on, or at least they try to do so.

A grammar can be a description of the standard form of a language which is seen as the model speakers and writers should adhere to, or aim for. Alternatively a grammar might try to describe how people actually use a language and may include non-standard and informal usage, which would be judged wrong by a prescriptive grammar.

In the real world of everyday language few people speak exactly like the standard form of the language. We stumble over words, get words mixed up, make grammatical ‘mistakes’ and so on. At least this is the case for English and Irish. What about for other languages? How big is the difference between the standard language, if one exists, and colloquial language(s)? Do people complain about grammatical ‘mistakes’ made by others?

English, Grammar, Irish, Language 1 Comment

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 3 Comments

All mouth and no trousers

The idiom all mouth and no trousers came up last night at the French conversation group. We were actually looking for a French equivalent of all fur coat and no knickers and couldn’t find one, but did find an equivalent of all mouth and no trousers, which has a somewhat similar meaning.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, to be all mouth and no trousers is to “tend to talk boastfully without any intention of acting on one’s words, while all fur coat and no knickers means to “have an impressive or sophisticated appearance which belies the fact that there is nothing to substantiate it” [source].

According to Wiktionary all mouth and no trousers comes from northern England, was originally all mouth and trousers, and refers to someone who is “superficial, engaging in empty, boastful talk, but not of real substance.” Apparently a US equivalent is all hat and no cattle, and there are many other idioms with the same meaning:

  • all bark and no bite
  • all bluff and bluster
  • all crown, no filling
  • all foam, no beer
  • all hammer, no nail
  • all icing, no cake
  • all shot, no powder
  • all sizzle and no steak
  • all talk
  • all talk and no action
  • all wax and no wick
  • all show, no go

An equivalent in Welsh is pen punt a chynffon dima (“pound head and halfpenny tail”). Are there similar idioms in other languages?

English, French, Language, Welsh 3 Comments


Recently I’ve been learning Serbian, Russian and Czech with free apps produced by Hallberg Ryman, who make them for quite a variety of languages for Andriod and iPhone/iPad. They are working well for me and I would definitely recommend them.

They use a flashcard/SRS-based system to teach you vocabulary arranged into categories such as numbers, colours, clothing, food, etc. Within each category you learn individual words, and then see them in various sentences, which you’re tested on by filling in blanks, or by assembling sentences from a bunch of random words.

One blank filling exercise involves typing the missing words – in the other you just select the words – and I find this the most difficult, especially for Russian. It is also the most useful because I have to think about spelling and the grammar.

The other day I was doing a lesson on colours in Czech and in the typing exercise was having trouble remembering the endings for each word. I tried to memorise them for each sentence, but found this tricky, then I thought that there must be a pattern to them. I soon realised that they were agreeing with the gender of the nouns they accompanied. Once I spotted the pattern, it was easy to remember and apply it. I’m sure this aspect of Czech grammar has come up before in my Czech studies, but I hadn’t internalised it. Now that I’ve worked it out for myself through observation and experiment, I won’t forget it.

When learning grammar, are you able to take it in and remember it just from grammatical descriptions, or do you need to see lots of examples?

Czech, English, Grammar, Language, Language learning, Russian, Serbian 1 Comment