Multilingual musicians

A Sardinian friend of mine, Elena Piras, knows six languages (Sardinian, Italian, English, Scottish Gaelic, French and Spanish) and sings in most of them, plus a few others, including Scots, Bulgarian and Georgian.

Here’s a recording of a performance from earlier this year in which she sings in Sardinian, Scots, English, Scottish Gaelic and Bulgarian.

Elena aims to sing each language in as close to a native accent as possible, and I think she does this very well.

Another multilingual singer is Jean-Marc Leclercq or JoMo, who holds the world record for singing in the most languages in one performance: 22. I heard him doing this at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in May this year. His pronunciation in the languages I know didn’t sound entirely native-like, and it sounded like he had a strong French accent in the other languages.

Do you know other singers who sing in multiple languages?

How well do they pronounce them?

I myself sing in various languages, and try to pronounce as well as I can, but know I could do better.

Here’s a recording of a song I wrote earlier this year in the five languages I know best (English, French, Welsh, Mandarin and Irish):

Bulgarian, English, French, Georgian, Italian, Language, Music, Pronunciation, Sardinian, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Songs, Spanish 2 Comments

Squibs and squabs

When an event is not very successful, you could say that it went off like a damp squib, or even a damp squid, as a friend mistakenly said last night.

A squib is obviously something that does not work properly when it’s wet, and I had an idea that it was some kind of explosive.

According to Reverso, a squib is:

1. a firework
2. a firework that does not explode because of a fault; dud
3. a short witty attack; lampoon
4. an electric device for firing a rocket engine
5. an insignificant person (obsolete)
6. a coward (Aus/NZ slang)

And a damp squib is “something intended but failing to impress”.

Etymology: probably imitative of a quick light explosion.

An unrelated, but similar-sounding word is squab, which is:

1. a young unfledged bird, esp. a pigeon
2. a short fat person
3. a well-stuffed bolster or cushion; a sofa
4. (of birds) recently hatched and still unfledged
5. short and fat

Etymology: probably of Germanic origin; compare Swedish dialect sqvabb (flabby skin), sqvabba (fat woman), German Quabbe (soft mass), Norwegian kvabb (mud)


Squib, squab and squid are all good words for Scrabble.

Are there equivalents of damp squibs in other languages?

English, Etymology, Language, Words and phrases 3 Comments

eesti keel

Last night I had an interesting chat with an Estonian student who is studying in Bangor about Estonia and the Estonian language. I knew a little about the language already, but realised that I didn’t know any words or phrases in Estonian, apart from its native name – eesti keel – and I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce that: [eːsti.keːl].

When I meet someone who speaks a language I haven’t studied, yet, quite often I know at least how to say hello or other phrases in their language, which usually impresses them, but I haven’t met any Estonians before, as far as I remember, and on this occasion I couldn’t think of a single word. I had an idea that hello was something like terve, but wasn’t sure – this is actually hello in Finnish. In Estonian it’s tere. So now I do know a few words in Estonian.

One thing we talked about was the number of Russian speakers in Estonia – they make up about 20% of the population – and the fact that Estonia is quite a good place to learn Russian. I have considered this, and if I were to do a Russian language course there, I would try to learn some Estonian as well.

Do you try to use whatever you know of a language when you meet someone who speaks it, even if you only know a word or two?

English, Estonian, Language 1 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 6 Comments


The other day I listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 with an unusual title – Wysinnwyg. When I first saw the title of immediately thought it was a Welsh word, although not one I’d come across before, and I tried to work out what it might mean. I couldn’t find it in any Welsh dictionary, so assumed it was a made-up word. After listening to the programme I realised it was a variation on wysiwyg (what you see is what you get), which also looks Welsh, and means “what you see is not necessarily what you get”.

There aren’t very many Welsh words that start with w, in fact, and many of them are loanwords from English. Here are some examples:

– waldio [ˈʊaldɪɔ] = to beat, to thrash
– wb [ʊb] / wbwb [ˈʊbʊb] = wi! oh! alas!
– wedi[ˈʊɛdɪ] = after
– wedyn [ˈʊɛdɨn] = afterwards
– weithiau [ˈʊɛɪθɪaɨ] = sometimes
– wele [ˈʊɛlɛ] = behold!
– wfft [ʊft] = fie! for shame!
– wfftian [ˈʊftɪan] = to flout
– wit-wat [ˈʊɪtʊat] = fickle
– wtio [ˈʊtɪɔ] = to boo
– wrth [ʊrθ] = by, with, to, compared with, because
– wy [ʊɨ] = egg
– wyneb [ˈʊɨnɛb] = face, surface
– wyth [ʊɨθ] = eight
– wythnos [ˈʊɨθnɔs] = week (eight-night)

Do you ever see acronyms or made-up words and think they are from a particular language? Or see words in one language and think they’re really from another language?

Whenever I see words with w’s and y’s and double l’s I think of Welsh. So Amarillo looks like a Welsh place name to me.

English, Language, Welsh, Words and phrases 4 Comments

New languages to learn?

Recently I have acquired quite a few new language courses: as a sponsor of the Polyglot Conference in New York I received 10 new Colloquial language courses in Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian. I also bought a Glossika Russian course with the special offer given to conference participants, and bought a Basque course from Assimil with affiliate commission from Amazon France.

My new language courses

I learnt a little Hungarian many years ago, and am currently working on Czech and Russian, but haven’t studied any of the other languages before. I’d love to know at least the basics of all of them, though have no particular need or desire to learn them at the moment. Also, I already have courses in a number of languages that I have only glanced at so far – Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, Scots and Cornish.

Do you sometimes get carried away with acquiring language courses and other materials?

Do you think you will get round to learn all those languages one day?

Basque, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Language, Language learning, Polish, Russian 3 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 7 Comments


Recently I was sent a link to an infographic containing some apparently untranslatable words for love, and this got me wondering if there really is such a thing as an ‘untranslatable’ word or concept.

The words featured in lists of ‘untranslatable’ words are often given poetic-sounding meanings, and other more ordinary and common meanings they have are ignored.

In some languages a single word might represent a meaning that translates as a phrase in other languages, and there are some culture concepts which can be hard to translate – that is the words themselves can be translated but the meanings they represent might be specific to a particular culture.

The Dutch word gezelligheid (“the warmth of being with loved ones”), is an example from the infographic, which has an equivalent in German: geborgenheit, so it isn’t completely untranslatable.

Are there any words in languages you know that you believe to be untranslatable?

Dutch, English, German, Language, Translation, Words and phrases 5 Comments

Pip pip!

In English, at least the English I speak, the seeds you find in fruit have different names depending on the kind of fruit. Those found in citrus fruit, grapes, apples and pears I would call pips, while those found in peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries and apricots and similar kinds of fruit I would call stones. The seeds found in soft fruit like raspberries, blackberries and strawberries I would call seeds.

What names do you use?

Do you have a counting rhyme for the pips/seeds/stones?

The one I know is “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief” – whichever one you end on is what you’re going to be. Do such rhymes exist in other languages?

Apparently peaches, plums and similar fruit are known as drupe or stone fruit, which have fleshy part consisting of skin (exocarp) and flesh (mesocarp) surrounding a hard shell (a.k.a. pit, stone, pyrene) which contains a seed or kernel. Raspberries and blackberries are made up of multiple small drupes, or drupelets [source].

English, Language, Words and phrases 6 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 2 Comments
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