Grammatical gender matters

Loup / Loupe

In languages with grammatical gender, like French, you can often get away with getting the genders wrong, although it’s best to try to learn them when you learn nouns. However there are some words that have different meanings in different genders.

An example in French is loup(e): le loup [lu:] (masculine) is a wolf, and la loupe [lu:p] (feminine) is a magnifying glass – the context will clarify what you mean if you get the genders mixed up, and the pronunciation helps as well.

The following French words have the same pronunciation but different meanings in different genders:

- le boum = bang, explosion / la boum = party
- le bout = tip, end / la boue = mud
- le cave = idiot, sucker / la cave = basement, cellar
- le chêne = oak tree/wood / la chaîne = chain, channel
- le col = collar, neck / la colle = glue
- le livre = book / la livre = pound (curreny/weight)
- le manche = handle / la manche = sleeve / la Manche = English Channel
- le mur = wall / la mûre = blackberry
- le rose = pink (colour) / la rose = rose (flower)
- le vase = vase / la vase = silt, mud

More words like this:

One way to avoid getting your genders in a muddle is to talk about everything in the plural.

English, French, Language, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Voices and calls

After writing yesterday’s post I was thinking about the Czech word hlas [ɦɫas] (voice, vote) and realised that it is quite similar to the Welsh word for voice, llais [ɬais]. I wondered it they share the same root.

Hlas comes from the Proto-Slavic *golsъ (voice), from the Proto-Balto-Slavic *galsas (voice), from the Proto-Indo-European *golHsos, from *gels- (to call)

The words for voice in other Slavic languages come from the same root: Old East Slavic: голосъ (golosŭ); Belarusian: голас (hólas); Russian: голос (gólos) and глас (glas – archaic/poetic); Ukrainian: голос (hólos); Old Church Slavonic: гласъ (glasŭ); Bulgarian: глас (glas); Macedonian: глас (glas); Serbo-Croatian: гла̑с; Slovene: glas; Kashubian: głos; Polish: głos; Slovak: hlas; Lower Sorbian: głos; Upper Sorban: hłós.

Also from the same root are the Latin gallas (cockrel); Romani glaso (voice); Romanian glas (voice, vote); Old Norse kalla (to call); English call, Dutch kallen (to chat, talk); German kallen (to scream, talk loudly, talk too much); Lithuanian galsas (sound, echo); Welsh galw (to call) and llais (voice); and possibly the Irish and Scottish Gaelic glaodh (to cry, shout).

Sources: Wiktionary

Czech, Dutch, English, Etymology, German, Irish, Language, Old Norse, Polish, Proto-Indo-European, Romanian, Russian, Scottish Gaelic, Slovak, Welsh, Words and phrases 2 Comments


I learnt a useful Czech expression today – souhlasím – which means ‘I agree; all right; ok(ay)’. The element hlas (voice; sound; vote) I recognise, and I guessed that the prefix sou- might mean together, or something similar.

According to Wiktionary, sou- is akin to the English prefix co- (together, mutually, jointly), so souhlasím might be literally translated as ‘I together-voice’ or ‘I with-voice’.

Examples of usage and related expressions:

- souhlasím s tebou – I agree with you
- souhlasím s dlouhou procházkou – I am quite game for a long walk
- souhlas = agreement; consent; acceptance; approval; consensus
- souhlasit (s) – to agree (with); approve; concure; assent; go along (with)
- souhlasící = agreeable; congruous; consentaneous

Sources:, Dictionary

Czech, English, Etymology, Language, 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 10 Comments

Language, Metaphor and Reality

Here’s an interesting discussion about language, metaphor and reality:

English, Language 1 Comment


I spent last weekend at my mum’s house, along with my brother, sister-in-law and their one-year old daughter. The last time I saw my niece was at Christmas, when she was making some sounds, but not really babbling much. Now she is babbling away all the time and sometimes says recognisable words, or at least utters sequences of sounds that might be words. Her mother, who comes from Russia, speaks mainly in Russian with her, while her father speaks only English with her (he doesn’t speak Russian). I haven’t heard any Russian words among her babbles, but there might be some I don’t recognise – my knowledge of Russian is somewhat limited. They also use some signs with her which they have learnt at baby signing classes, most of which look like standard BSL signs to me.

It’s fascinating to observe her linguistic abilities developing, and it won’t be long before she is using more words and starting put them together.

English, Language, Language acquisition, Russian 1 Comment

Gender differences in language learning?

An article I read in The Times today suggests that women tend to be less confident than men, particularly in work-related situations. Apparently men tend to over estimate their abilities, while women often under estimate their abilities, and women tend to over-prepare and don’t feel ready for a task unless they are 100% sure of it, while men who are around 60% ready for a task tend to think that’s sufficient, and that they can learn the rest as they go along.

Does this ring true for you?

I wondered if these differences, if there is something in them, might affect the way men and women go about learning and using foreign languages. Are men more prepared to jump in and wing it using whatever language they have, even if it’s not perfect? Are women more inclined to wait until they know a language perfectly, or as near as possible to perfect, before they use with others?

What are your experiences?

Has any research been done on gender differences in language learning?

English, Language, Language learning 6 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 13 Comments


The other day I came across the wonderful German word Pfeife, which means whistle or pipe, and comes from the Middle High German pfife, from Old High German pfiffa, from the Vulgar Latin pipa (pipe; tube-shaped musical instrument), from the Classical Latin pipare (to chirp; to peep), which is of imitative origin, and is also the root of the English word pipe, and related words in other European languages.

I particularly notice this word because the initial pf in Pfeife just appeals to me for some reason. It’s one of the consonant shifts (p > pf) that happened in High German, though not in other varieties of German.

Words and expressions related to Pfeife include:

- pfeifen = to blow a whistle; to sough; to whistle; to hoot; to pipe
- Ich pfeife eben darauf = I couldn’t care less about it.
- nach jds. Pfeife tanzen = to dance to sb.’s tune
- jdn. nach seiner Pfeife tanzen lassen = to lead sb. by the nose
- Pfeifkonzert = catcalls
- Er pfeift aus dem letzten Loch = He’s on his last legs (“He pipes from the last hole”)
- Da pfeift es aus einem anderen Loch = That’s a horse of a different color (“He/she pipes from a different hole”)

Sources: Dictionary,, Online Etymology Dictionary

English, German, Language, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Polyglot contest

A challenge has been issued on the Omniglot fan club on Facebook to make a polyglot video of you speak all the languages you know well to see who can speak the most languages. Some have already taken up the challenge, others are seeing it as a bit of fun.

What do you think of the multilingual videos that can be found on YouTube? Have you made any polyglot videos?

Many of the ones I’ve seen are of people talking about how they have learnt various languages in those languages. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would like to see something different – something funny, informative and/or useful – such as interesting factoids about different countries and languages, interesting words and expressions, stories, jokes, tongue twisters and so on.

I have only made monolingual and bilingual videos so far. Since Xtranormal disappeared last year I haven’t made any more videos, but I’ve finally thought of a way to make them – using hand puppets – I prefer not to appear in them myself for various reasons. All I need to do now is find a way to edit videos. Can you recommend any good and easy-to-use video editing software?

Language 2 Comments