ага (aga)

A useful Russian word I learnt recently is ага (aga) [ɐˈɡa/ɐˈɣa], it is an interjection similar to yep, yeah, aha and uh-huh in English. It shows that you’re listening, but don’t necessarily agree with the speaker.

Here are some examples of usage:

– Окей, ага, круто = Okay. All right. That’s cool.
– Ага, я так и думала = Here, I’ll show it to you.
– Ага, я слышу тебя = Uh yeah, I can hear you.
– Вероятно, лучше думать таким образом, ага = It’s probably best to think of it that way, yeah.

Synonyms include:

– да (da) = yes, but, really
– так (tak) = so, thus; like that; so much; just so, then, well, yes
– угу (ugu) = yep, yeah

Sources: Wiktionary, Reverso, bab.la

English, Etymology, Language, Russian, Words and phrases 1 Comment

A load of old claptrap

Claptrap is a great word that means ’empty verbiage or nonsense’. A claptrap was a also device that produced a clapping sound and was used in theaters to encourge applause from audiences. It can also mean ‘a trick or device to gain applause; humbug’. Synonyms include waffle, hot air and palaver.

The word apparently comes from Theatre slang and refers to theatrical techniques or gags used to incite applause.

It first appeared in print in Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1721, which defined it as, “A Clap Trap, a name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them get off with: as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap, by way of applause from the spectators at a play.”

Over time the meaning of claptrap expanded to showy or insincere platitures or mawkish sentimetality, and from there to mean rubbish or nonsense.

Sources: Wiktionary, World Wide Words

Do similar words exist in other languages?

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

Horse horse tiger tiger

馬馬虎虎 (mǎmǎhǔhǔ)

In Mandarin Chinese there’s an idiomatic expression that translates literally as “horse horse tiger tiger”. What do you think it means?

There is some interesting discussion about this idiom on the podcast Global Pillage, where they discuss idioms and customs from around the world. Suggestions for the meaning of this idiom included “social classes don’t mix”, “only date within your tax bracket”, “you wait for a bus for ages, and three come along at once”, “six of one, half a dozen of the other”

This expression is written 马马虎虎 [馬馬虎虎] (mǎmǎhǔhǔ) and means “careless,casual, vague, not so bad, so-so, tolerable, fair” and is a reduplicated version of 马虎 [馬虎] (mǎhǔ) “careless, sloppy, negligent, skimp”.

Here are some examples of how it’s used:

– 你的中文讲得好棒啊 (Nǐ de zhōngwén jiǎng de hǎo bàng a) = You speak Chinese well
– 马马虎虎,马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ, mǎmǎhǔhǔ) = Just so-so

– 那家餐馆的服务马马虎虎 (Nà jiā cānguǎn de fúwù mǎmǎhǔhǔ) = The service at that restaurant is so-so
– 他马马虎虎地做事 (Tā mǎmǎhǔhǔ de zuòshì) = He does his work carelessly
– 他这个人做事比较马虎 (Tā zhège rén zuòshì bǐjiào mǎhǔ) = He’s a sloppy / rather careless person

The origins of this phrase are uncertain. The earliest known use was during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). It might be related to 模糊 (móhu – unclear, fuzzy) or 麻糊 (máhú – careless), or it might have been borrowed from the Manchu mahu (wry, face) or lahū (not adept, unskilled [especially at hunting and dealing with livestock]; scoundrel, hoodlum).

I remember reading somewhere, though I can’t find any confirmation, that this phrase is borrowed from the Sanskrit word मोह (moha), which means ‘magic employed to bewilder, error, bewilderment, foolishness, wonder, infatuation, delusion, confusion, amazement, distraction, inability to discriminate, perplexity, ignorance, loss of consciousness, hallucination’. Has anybody else read or heard this theory?

Here’s an alternative story about its origins.

Source: MDBG Dictionary, Wiktionary, Sinoglot, Sanskrit Dictionary for Spoken Sanskrit, Learn a Chinese Charachter a Day, StakeExchange.

Chinese, English, Idioms, Language, Words and phrases 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 5 Comments

Sweet dreams are made of snov

Спокойной ночи и сладких снов (Good night and sweet dreams

The most common way to say good night in Russian is спокойной ночи (spakóynay nóchi). Which is a contraction of the phrase Желаю тебе спокойной ночи (I wish you a quiet night).

Спокойной is a form of спокойный, which means ‘calm, gentle, pacific, secure, sober, collected, cool, level, quiet, settled, tranquil, cosh, comfortable, immovable, peaceful, sedate, steady, reposeful, cool-headed, orderly, restful, smooth, unruffled, sober-blooded, composed, imperturbable, placid, serene, still, douce’.

Related expressions include:

– спокойная жизнь = a restful life
– спокойная вода = calm water
– спокойное море = serene
– спокойные цвета = quiet colours
– спокойный нрав = even temper
– спокойствие духа = peace of mind

Ночи is a form of ночь, which means night.

Related expressions include:

– ночной столик = bed-side table
– ночной сторож = watchman
– ночной цветок = night-flower

Other ways to wish someone a good night in Russian include:

– Доброй ночи = Good night
– Сладких снов = Sweet dreams
– Приятных снов = Pleasant dreams

Сладких is a form of сладкий, which means ‘honeyed, sweet, luscious, mellow’.

Снов is a form of сон, which means ‘sleep, dream, slumber, rest, repose, shut-eye’.

Приятных is a form of приятный, which means ‘acceptable, sweet-tempered, goodly, likable, palatable, soft, kindly, good, grateful, lovesome, pleasing, satisfactory’.

Are there other ways to wish someone a good night in Russian?

Sources: bab.la, Quora

English, Language, Russian, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Synesthesia and Language Learning

I came across an interesting article today about a possible link between synesthesia and language learning.

The article reports a survey of students in Prague and British Columbia which found that those who learn a language or languages after reaching school age are somewhat more likely to have synesthesia than those who are bilingual from birth or a very early age.

The article speculates that synesthesia might be a learning aid that is particularly useful for people learning “opaque” languages. That is languages with complex spelling systems, like English, and not so useful for “transparent” languages like Czech, where the links between spelling and pronunciation are much more straightforward.

The English orthography is described as “a hot mess of weird rules, exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions”.

Do you think this is a fair description?

Do any of you have synesthesia?

If so, does it help with learning languages?

English, Language, Language learning 4 Comments

Plains, pianos and floors

Flat piano on a wooden floor

The Welsh word llawr [ɬau̯r] means floor, deck, gallery, stage, platform, cellar, basement, ground, face, and a few other things. I discovered today that it has cognates in all the other Celtic languages:

leur (Cornish) = floor, ground
leur (Breton) = area, ground, floor, soil
lár (Irish) = ground, floor, middle, centre
làr (Scottish Gaelic) = floor, ground, storey
laare (Manx) = storey, deck, floor, bottom, flat, set, sill, level

These words all come from the Proto-Celtic *ɸlārom (floor), which comes from the Proto-Indo-European *pleh₂rom or *ploh₂rom, from *pleh₂- ‎(to be flat).

THe PIE word *pleh₂- is the root of many other words, including:

– The English piano, plain, plan, floor and flake
– The Dutch vloer (floor, ground, surface)
– The German Flur (hall, hallway, corridor, stairwell)
– The Italian piano (flat, level, smooth, plane, softly, quietly)
– The Spanish llano (even, flat, level, plain) and plano (plain, level, flat)
– The Latvian: plats, plašs ‎(wide, broad)
– The Lithuanian: platus ‎(wide, broas)
– The Russian плоский (flat, plain, level)

Sources: Wiktionary, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, Maga Cornish Dictionary / Gerlyver Kernewek, Dictionnaires bilingues de Francis Favereau, teanglann.ie, Am Faclair Beag, On-Line Manx Dictionary, Reverso

Breton, Cornish, Dutch, English, Etymology, German, Irish, Italian, Language, Manx, Proto-Indo-European, Russian, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Welsh, Words and phrases 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 6 Comments

Cold Wintry Wind

凩 (kogarashi) cold wintry wind

I learnt an interesting Japanese word and kanji today – 凩 (こがらし / kogarashi), which means ‘cold wintry wind’ or ‘the cold wind that reminds us winter is coming’. It is also written 木枯し or 木枯, and is considered ‘untranslatable‘ by some.

The character 凩 is a 国字 (こくじ / kokuji), that is one that was made in Japan rather than being borrowed from Chinese. It combines 几 (ki – armrest, desk, table, screen), which can also mean ‘to envelope; to wrap around’, with 木 (ki / moku – tree, shrub, bush, wood).

Other kokuji include:

– 凧 (いかのぼり; たこ – ikanobori; tako) = kite
– 凪 (なぎ; な.ぐ / nagi; nagu) = lull; calm
– 働く (はたらく / hataraku) = work
– 峠 (とうげ / tōge) = mountain peak; mountain pass; climax; crest
– 杢 (モク / moku) = woodworker
– 杣 (そま / soma) = timber; lumber; woodcutter

In Welsh there is a word that is similar to 凩: rhewynt, meaning an ‘ice-cold wind’, from rhew (frost, ice) and gwynt (wind, breath). There are also a number of other interesting wind-related expressions:

gwynt carthen = breeze created by shaking a blanket (said comtemptuously of a preacher’s artificial eloquence)
gwynt coch Amwythig = the east wind (“the red / sorching wind of Shrewsbury”)
gwynt y creigiau = north-west wind (“wind of the [Snowdonian] rocks”)
gwynt ffroen yr ych = the east wind (“the wind the ox’s nostril”)
gwynt pilyn = breeze created by shaking a sack in order to separate the chaff from the grain when wwinnowing (“wind of a garment”)
gwynt traed y meirw = the east wind (“the wind of dead men’s feet” – refers to the custom of burying people with their feet to the east)

Sources: http://www.sljfaq.org/afaq/kokuji-list.html, Geiriadur yr Academi, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru

Are there equivalents of 凩 (kogarashi) in other languages?

Or other interesting wind-related expressions?

English, Japanese, Language, Welsh, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Wheels with teeth

An illustration of cog(wheels)

I discovered last night that in French a cog is a une dent, which also means a tooth, or une dent d’engrenage (“tooth gear”), and a cog wheel is une roue dentée (a toothed wheel), which is kind of a cog looks like.

The English word cog, meaning a tooth on a gear, or a gear or a cogwheel, comes from the Middle English cogge, from the Old Norse kugg (notch), from the Proto-Germanic *kuggō (cog, notch), from the Proto-Indo-European *gugā ‎(hump, ball), from *gēu- ‎(to bend, arch).

A cog can also refer to an unimportant individual in a greater system, e.g. He’s just a cog in the machine, which in French would be Il n’est pas qu’un rouage de la machinerouage is another word for cog or gearwheel, and also means part. Les rouages means machinery, as in les rouages de l’État (the machinery of state) or les rouages de l’administration (the wheels of government).

In German a cog is Zahn (tooth) and a cogwheel is Zahnrad (toothwheel). He is only a cog in a machine is Er ist nur ein Rädchen im Getriebe (“He is only a little wheel in the works/gears/gearbox”), or Er ist nur eine Nummer unter vielen (“He is only a number among many”).

Are there similar expressions in other languages about being a cog in a machine?

Sources: Reverso, Wiktionary, WordReference.com and giantbomb.com

English, Etymology, French, German, Language, Old Norse, Proto-Indo-European, Words and phrases 3 Comments
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