Are you a phenom?

I came across an interesting word in an article about hyperpolyglots I read today (it’s an old article, but I only just found it) – phenoms, which appears in the following sentence:

TIME spoke to Erard about phenoms who can speak more languages than they have fingers, whether anyone can do it and where the upper limits of human potential lie.

According to, phenom [fɪˈnɒm] is an abbreviation of phenomenon and refers especially to a young prodigy. The definitions are “a person or thing of outstanding abilities or qualities” (informal), or “A phenomenally skilled or impressive person; a performing wonder, esp in sports”.

Apparently it comes from US baseball slang, and was first recorded in 1890.

Merriam-Webster defines a phenom as “a person who is very good at doing something (such as a sport)” or “a person of phenomenal ability or promise”.

Have you come across this word before?

English, Language, Language learning, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Language quiz

Hôtel Le St-James, Vieux Montréal

Today’s quiz is a bit different. The question is, what do you call the (red and black) canvas canopies over the windows in the photo?

I could easily google the answer, but just want to see if any of you know it without googling. If you don’t know, why not make something up?

I don’t know what these things are called in English or any other language, so I’m interested to see what you come up with.

This photo is of Hôtel Le St-James in Vieux Montréal. You can see a larger version here.

Language, Quiz questions, Travel 8 Comments

Les chuchoteuses

Lindsay et les chuchoteuses

On Rue Staint-Paul in Vieux Montréal there’s a statue of three women having a gossip. It’s known as Les chuchoteuses or ‘The whisperers’. It’s also known as the “fat ladies talking statue”. It’s by Rose-Aimée Bélanger, a sculptor from Ontario, and was installed as part of a 2006 initiative to highlight some of Old Montreal’s forgotten spaces.

The word chuchoteuses [ʃyʃɔtø:z] comes from chuchoter [ʃy.ʃɔ.te] (to whisper; to rustle), which is of imitative origin. Related words include chuchoterie (whispering), chuchotis (faint whispering), chuchotement (a whisper / murmur, rustling).

I like the sound of this word, and of the words for whisper in other languages:

– Italian / Portuguese / Spanish: sussurro, from Latin susurrus ‎(a humming, whispering)
– German: Flüstern
– Dutch: fluistering
– Welsh: sibrwd

What about in other languages?

The photo is one I took while exploring Montréal with Linsday Dow of Linsday Does Languages, who features in it.

Sources: Wiktionary and Reverso

Dutch, English, Etymology, French, German, Italian, Language, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Travel, Welsh, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Stuck in Paris

I had a pleasant wander around Montreal yesterday morning, and a nice lunch in Vieux Montréal, then headed to the airport. It wasn’t very busy, so I got through security in no time, and didn’t have too long to wait for the plane.

On the flight from Montreal to Paris I was sitting between two Tunisians – a old guy who I think lives in Paris, and a young woman who recently moved to Montreal to study in a university there. We chatted a bit in French, and he occasionally switched to Tunisian Arabic. I watched the Shawshank Redemption and really enjoyed it. I’d heard good things about it before, but hadn’t seen it. We arrived in Paris CDG at 5am local time (11pm Montreal time), and I’m feeling very tired as I didn’t manage to sleep much on the plane.

Unfortunately my flight to Manchester, which should have left at 7:20am this morning has been cancelled due to the strike, so they’ve re-booked me on a flight that leaves at 6:20pm, so I’ve only got another 11 hours or so to wait. I could pop into Paris for the day, I suppose, but don’t really feel like it. I’ll just do some work on Omniglot, and read. There’s even a piano here that I could play a few tunes on – someone is currently playing a rather nice classical piece that I don’t recognise. Air France has generously given me two vouchers to buy food and drink up to the value of €24.

So I should be home by about 11pm tonight – only 11 hours late!

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Book hunting in Montreal

Yesterday I spent the morning hunting for interesting language books with Lindsay Dow, of Lindsay Does Languages, Benny Lewis, of Fluent in 3 months, Steve Kaufmann, of lingq, and Josh Koehn from California.

The first book shop we went to had a good selection of books in and about a wide variety of languages, including Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Breton and Sanskrit. I resisted buying anything as I have no spare space in my bag, and already have plenty of language-related books at home.

After wandering around Vieux Montréal for a while we had lunch in a nice café, then Lindsay and I went to meet Moti Lieberman of The Ling Space, where there are videos which explain and discuss linguistic and language-related topics in an accessible way. I hadn’t heard of this site before, but will definitely have a look at some of the videos. It sounds very interesting.

In the evening we met up with Kris Broholm of Actual Fluency, Oli Richards of I will teach you a language, and some local friends of theirs for dinner in a vegetarian place on Rue Saint-Denis.

I’m taking it easy this morning, and after lunch will head to the airport – my plane leaves at 16:45, and I’ll arrive in Manchester at 07:50 tomorrow morning, as long as my flight from Paris isn’t affected by the planned strike by Air France staff.

English, Language, Linguistics, Travel 1 Comment

Multilingual Montreal

Yesterday was the second and final day of the symposium. Although it was only two days, it felt like more as we packed a lot into those days. There were some very interesting talks, including one about raising children multilingually, one about being a polyglot in Latin America, and another about the linguistic diversity of one of the colleges here, were students and staff speak some 83 languages and dialects between them.

Those were the ones I went to. There was also talks about using social media and video to learn languages, living abroad, and introductions to Wolof, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic, Greek, Italian and Papiamento.

Dr Conner Quinn, a linguist at University of Southern Maine in Portland, gave a very interesting and useful talk about language and linguistics. He told us that in order to pronounce a language in a native-like way, you need to pay attention to its rhythm and melody (prosody), and start by trying to imitate this. Then when learning pronunciation, its best to learn combinations of sounds, especially when learning a tonal language like Mandarin or Vietnamese. For grammar you can memorise sentences which illustrate various grammatical structures. He also explained that language is basically about things, events, the relationships between them, and how they relate to the current conversation.

In the evening we gathered in Parc La Fontaine for a picnic, which was good fun. Today I’m meeting a few other polyglots and visiting some of the book shops that have lots of language-related books and courses.

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Polyglotting in Montreal

Yesterday was the first day of the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal. It’s taking place at Concordia University, which has two campuses – one downtown, and one quite a way out of town. I went to the out of town one by mistake, and walked a few miles to get there from the nearest Metro stop. When I got there I couldn’t any signs of the Symposium, and after wandering around for a while, I found someone to ask and they said it was probably at the other campus.

Fortunately as I was leaving a taxi was dropping someone off, so I jumped in and headed back into town. I arrived about 10 minutes before my presentation, the first of the day, was due to start. The presentation went well with some good discussion and quite a few people have told me that they found it interesting.

There were other presentations on various language-related topics yesterday, which were all quite interesting. One was in French, the rest were in English. The one in French was by a local guy with a strong Quebecois accent, which was a bit difficult to follow, but I was getting most of it by the end.

In the evening many of us trekked up Mont Royal, which has great views from the top. On the way down it rained quite heavily and people split up and wandered off in different groups. We eventually met up at a Spanish restaurant for tapas.

I met quite a few people I know from previous polyglot events, and plenty of new people, and I had conversations in English, French, Esperanto and Scottish Gaelic, and spoke bits of Russian, Portuguese, Japanese and Mandarin.

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Tomorrow I’m off to Montreal for the North American Polyglot Symposium, which takes places on Saturday and Sunday (23/24) at Concordia University.

I’m giving a talk on the origins of language. This is a subject that we can only really speculate about, unless someone invents a time machine, so I’ll discuss the various theories that have been proposed.

This will be my first visit to Canada, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m also looking forward to catching up with my polyglot friends, and making some new ones.

Language, Travel 5 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?

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Are you sturggled?

You may think I have misspelled the title of this post, and in a way I have, but I did so deliberately. The other day when typing struggle I accidentally typed sturggle. I thought that it looked like an interesting word, and wondered what it might mean.

Apparently I’m not the first person to come up with this word – according to the Urban Dictionary, sturggle means:

To be afflicted with a debilitating hangover to the point where you cannot speak.

I’ve never been sturggled in this sense.

Do you have any other suggestions as to what sturggle might mean?

Have you accidentally come up with any other new words?

English, Language, Words and phrases 1 Comment
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