French adventures

Bangor Community Choir and Coastal Voices in Oloron-Sainte_Maire

My trip to France last week with members of Bangor Community Choir and Coastal Voices choir from Abergele was fantastic, and though it was only five days, it felt much longer as we fitted so much into our time there.

We left Bangor at 6am on Wednesday morning and travelled to Birmingham airport by coach, picking people up in Abergele on the way. We flew from Birmingham to Bordeaux, then got another coach from there to Issor in the Barétous valley – a delightful place in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We stayed there for two nights in gîtes just outside the village of Issor which are owned by a member of the French choir we were visiting. Both nights we were there we had meals outside one of the gites, and members of the French choir came to join us, and there was much singing and merriment.

Le chateau de Pau

On the second day – Thursday – we visited a vineyard near Monein, part of the Jurançon wine region, and sampled their wine – at least the others did – I don’t drink, but was interested to see how the wine is made. We also visited Pau and Navarrenx, both of which are attractive and interesting towns, and of course we sang in each of these places.

Before I went to Pau I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. Now I know that it’s pronounced /po/ in French, and /paw/ in Bearnese and Basque. The origins of the name are uncertain.

Navarrenx is pronounced /nabarēŋs/, and was known as Navarrensis in the 11th century. Since then there have been a number of versions of the name. In Bearnese it is known as Nabarrenx or Nabarrencx. This area was traditionally known as Lower Navarre (Nafarroa Beherea or Baxenabarre in Basque, Navarra Baisha in Bearnese, and Basse-Navarre in French) and was part of the Kingdom of Navarre until the 11th century. The name Navarre is thought to come either from the Basque word nabar (brownish, multicoloured, or from the Basque words naba (valley, plain) and herri (people, land) [source].

Canfranc International Railway Station / Estación Internacional de Canfranc - photo by Tony Doggett

On Friday we popped over to Jaca in Spain going through the tunnel under the mountains on the way there, and coming back over the mountains. We spot a pleasant morning there, then headed back to France, stopping at Canfanc on the way to see the amazing railway station (see above). We had a picnic in a village whose name I don’t remember, then went up into the hills to Lescun, where we sang in the church and had a meal with the French choir and other local singers. Unfortunately it was too foggy to see the apparently spectacular views of the mountains. Coming down the mountain was quite an experience in the fog on a very windy road. We were driven by a member of the French choir, who knows the road well and is a very good driver, so we never felt unsafe.

On Saturday we explored Oloron-Sainte-Maire, particularly the old parts of the town, which are very picturesque, and learnt a bit about the local sports, such as various forms of Basque pelota, which has similarities to squash, and Bearnese quilles de neuf, a kind of skittles. We spent the afternoon wandering around and relaxing, and performed in the cathedral in the evening. The concert went really well. We had two encores and standing ovations, and raised over €2,000 for a charity that’s helping a village in Nepal to rebuild after the recent earthquake.

All three choirs sang first – a Russian Orthodox hymn in Church Slavonic called Tebe Poem (Тебе поем) (We sing to you). Here’s a recording

Then the French choir, le Chœur Sensible, did their set, which included songs in French, Bearnese, Basque, Zulu, English, Georgian, Spanish, Guadalopean Creole and other languages. Here are some recordings from the French choir’s set, made by Rod Armstrong:

Ave Maria

Gloria (not sure about the title of this one)

Amazing Grace – based on a Christian hymn published in 1779, with words written by the English poet and clergyman John Newton (1725–1807): more info.

Not sure about the title of this one

À la Claire Fontaine (By the clear fountain) – a traditional French song dating at least from the early 17th century: more info.

Adieu foulard, adieu Madras – a song from Guadeloupe in the local creole language dating from 1769, attributed to François Claude de Bouillé1, who was governor of Guadeloupe from 1769 to 1771: more info.

Ts’mindao ghmerto (წმინდაო ღმერთო) – a Georgian version of a Trisagion, a standard hymn of the Divine Liturgy in most of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches and Eastern Catholic Churches: more info.

Le Temps des cerises – written in France in 1866, with words by Jean-Baptiste Clément and music by Antoine Renard: more info.

Then we did our set, and we sang a few more songs together. I was hoping to record the whole of the concert, but unfortunately the batteries in my recorder didn’t last. Other people did record the concert, and I hope to get hold of those recordings soon.

We left Oloron on Sunday morning and returned to Abergele and Bangor via coach, plane and coach, arriving in Bangor just after 9pm. On the way we sang a song or two in most of the places where we stopped, including Bordeaux and Birmingham airports.

I spoke plenty of French during the trip, and a bit of Spanish when we were in Jaca. A few other members of our choirs speak French to varying degrees, and some speak Spanish. Most of the French choir know at least basic English, and some speak it very well. Some also speak Bearnese, Basque and/or Spanish, so we were able communicate with them without too much difficulty. Some of choir members from Wales started speaking English with outrageous French accents amongst ourselves, and this soon spread to the whole choir, much to our amusement.

Basque, English, Etymology, French, Language, Music, Occitan, Songs, Spanish, Travel Leave a comment

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 7 Comments



Tomorrow I’m going to Oloron-Sainte-Maire in the south west of France with members of the Bangor Community Choir, and the Coastal Voices choir from Abergele. We’ll travel by coach to Birmingham aiport, fly to Bordeaux, and then continue by coach to Oloron. While we’re there we will visit interesting places around the area, such as Issor, Lucq-de-Béarn, Monein, Pau, Jaca (in Spain) and Lescun, and will probably sing in most of them. We’ll also perform in a concert with a local choir, la chœur sensible, in Sainte-Marie Cathedral on Saturday evening. This choir came to visit us in Wales last year and invited us to visit them this year, so this trip is a sort of choir exchange.

We will sing in a variety of languages, as usual, including English, Welsh, Zulu, Church Slavonic, Czech, Northern Ndebele, Xhosa, Croatian and Mingrelian, and we’ve learnt a French song especially for this trip – Belle qui tiens ma vie, pavane written in 1589.

This will be my first trip to France in 15 years, and my first time in this part of France. The region is known as Béarn, part of the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and half the local people speak Béarnese, a dialect of Gascon, which is considered by some to be a variety of Occitan. When la chœur sensible visited us last year they sang a number of songs in Béarnese, which was interesting to hear. Béarn is also neighbour to the Basque provinces ofLabourd (Lapurdi), Lower Navarre (Basse-Navarre / Nafarroa Beherea), Soule (Zuberoa), and I think some members of la chœur sensible come from those provinces and speak Basque.

We’ll be back in Wales on Sunday (31st), so from tomorrow to Sunday I probably won’t have time to answer emails and work on Omniglot.

Basque, English, French, Language, Music, Songs, Travel Leave a comment

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 4 Comments

Take the frog and run!

Tirelire grenouille

Yesterday I came across the interesting French word grenouiller, which literally means “to frog” and actually means “to indulge in shady dealings”, and seems to refer specifically to political intrigues, according to Le Dictionnaire.

A related expression is manger / bouffer la grenouille (literally, “to eat the frog”) = to scoop the till; to clean out the till; to take the money and run

According to until the 18th century French piggy banks (les cochon tirelires / les tirelires cochon) were usually in the shape of frogs (grenouilles), rather than pigs (cochons), and the word grenouille came to be associated with money that had been set aside by a group or association. So manager la grenouille came to mean taking that money.

An alternative explanation from the same source is that manger is a synonym for croquer, which means to crunch or munch, and also means to squander an inheritance or sum of money. The grenouille in this expression comes from the slang term grenouiller, which was used until the 19th century, meaning to carouse in taverns, and to spend ill-gotten gains.

Is grenouiller still used? If not, are there alternative expressions meaning the same thing?

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

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
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