Finnish Language Day

Apparently today is Finnish Language Day or Suomen kielen päivä. It is the anniversary of the death of Mikael Agricola (c. 1510-1557), a clergyman who is known as the “father of literary Finnish” – he translated religious works into Finnish, including the New Testament, and modern Finnish spelling is based on his work. Before then there was no standard form of written Finnish [source].

It is also my birthday – Ta mee shey bleeaney as daeed d’eash jiu.

English, Finnish, General, Language, Manx 2 Comments


I came across the wonderful word snollygoster [ˈsnɒlɪˌɡɒstə] today. It is defined as follows:

– One, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than by consistent, respectable principles.
– A politician who cares more for personal gain than serving the people (Slang, USA)

From: The Free Dictionary.

– A shrewd person not guided by principles, especially a politician

Etymology: from 19th-century American English. Possibly from snallygaster, a mythical beast that preys on poultry and children, possibly from the Pennsylvania German schnelle geeschter, from the German schnell (quick) and geist (spirit).

From: Wiktionary.

– a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.
Columbus Dispatch, Ohio, 28 Oct. 1895

From: World Wide Words

It doesn’t seem to be used much any more, perhaps because it isn’t needed as there isn’t anybody who behaves like this, especially not politicians.

Here’s an interesting TED talk about this and other political vocabulary:

Are there any similar words in other languages?

English, German, Language, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Throats and trees

One Scottish Gaelic expression I learnt last week was “Tha craobh air mo sgòrnan” or literally “There’s a tree on my throat”. This is the Gaelic equivalent of “There’s a frog in my throat”, which is used when you are rendered temporarily speechless due to a small amphibian taking up residence in your oesophagus, or when you have a sore throat. Fortunately I don’t have one now, but I did have one just before I went to Scotland.

In Irish you might say:

tá sceach i mo scornach = there’s a hawthorn / thornbush in my throat
tá piachán i mo sceadamán = there’s a pain in my throat
tá ciach orm = there’s a hoarseness on me
tá slócht orm = there’s a hoarseness, throatiness on me
tá sceadamán / scornach nimhneach orm = I have a sore throat

Sources: focló and Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla Ó Donaill

In Manx you might say: ta cred orrym = there’s a grunt / cough / roughness / tickle on me [source].

The equivalent is Welsh is Dw i’n gryg/gryglyd/crygu [source] – gryg and gryglyd come from cryg, which means “hoarse, harsh, raucous”, and crygu means “to grow/make hoarse; to stammer” [source].

Are there equivalent idioms in other languages?

English, Irish, Language, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, 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

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

This week I am doing a course in Scottish Gaelic songs at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye. While all the songs I’m learning are in Gaelic, the class it taught mainly in English, so I don’t get to speak much Gaelic in class. Outside class there are plenty of opportunities to speak Gaelic with college staff and other students, who are doing courses in language, fiddle or step dancing.

This is my fifth visit to the college, and each time my Gaelic gets a bit better. I rarely speak it at home, apart from to myself, but do listen to online Gaelic radio and occasionally read things in Gaelic. I tend to mix Irish and Scottish Gaelic a bit as I know a lot more Irish, and if I don’t know how to say something in Scottish Gaelic I try it in Irish. Sometimes it works.

On the way here and in the college I’ve heard and/or spoken quite a few different languages – plenty of English and Gaelic, and also Spanish, Italian, French, Irish, Welsh, Mandarin, Japanese, Russian and German. So this is a good place to practice a variety of languages.

English, French, German, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Language, Language learning, Music, Russian, Scottish Gaelic, Songs, Spanish, Travel, Welsh 1 Comment

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here are recordings of songs in the three different flavours of Gaelic: Manx (Gaelg), Irish (Gaeilge) and Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig). Your challenge is to identify which Gaelic is which.

Recording 1

Recording 2

Recording 3

Language, Quiz questions 6 Comments


Last night I saw an excellent group called Rag Mama, a duo from England who live in France and play American music, particularly blues and jazz. One of the songs they sang was Cab Calloway’s Minie the Moocher, which includes some scat singing in the chorus.

Wikipedia defines scat singing as “vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all.” It dates back probably to the early 20th century in the USA. The word scat in this context is probably of imitative origin [source].

In other musical traditions, such as in West Africa and South India, percussive rhythms can be sung and different types of drum beats are associated with particular syllables, but there is little or no improvisation.

Waulking songs (òrain luaidh) in Scottish Gaelic use meaningless syllables or vocables in their choruses, but there seems to be only a relatively small selection to choose from. I’ll be learning some waulking songs next at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, where I’m doing a course in Scottish Gaelic songs. Here are some I’ve learned before.

Does anything like scat singing exist in other musical traditions?

English, Language, Music, Songs 4 Comments

Which are the most learned languages?

When up-dating the Which language should I learn? page on Omniglot this week I decided to try and find out not only which languages have the most speakers, and also which ones have the most learners.

The top ten languages in terms of overall number of native (L1) and second language (L2) speakers are:

Language L1 speakers L2 speakers Total speakers
Mandarin Chinese 850 million 180 million 1,030 million
English 340 million 510 million 840 million
Arabic 240 million 250 million 490 million
Spanish 400 million 90 million 490 million
Hindi 260 million 120 million 380 million
Russian 150 million 110 million 260 million
Portuguese 215 million 35 million 250 million
French 80 million 140 million 220 million
Bengali 190 million 20 million 210 million
Indonesian/Malay 60 million 140 million 200 million


If you count Hindi and Urdu speakers together, as I’ve done with Indonesian and Malay, the number of L1 speakers is 324 million, L2 speakers number 214 million, and the total number of speakers is 438 million. This doesn’t change the rankings of other languages.

The languages with the most learners are English (600 million), French (100 million), and Spanish (21 million). If you add these figures to the above totals, English moves into first place, French into seventh place, and Spanish into fourth place.

The most popular languages to study in the USA are Spanish, French, American Sign Language (ASL), German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Latin and Russian [source].

In Europe the most studied foreign languages are English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian [source].

I couldn’t find any figures for the number of Chinese learners, but there were 234,275 takers of the Chinese Proficiency Tests in 2012 [source]. I suspect that the total number of people learning Chinese isn’t huge, but it has increased over the past few years.

Do you have details of which languages have most learners in other countries?

Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Language, Language learning Comments Off on Which are the most learned languages?

La Journée internationale de la Francophonie

Aujourd’hui est la Journée internationale de la Francophonie, une célébration de la langue et culture française dans les 70 États et gouvernements de l’Organisation internationale de la francophonie (OIF).

Today is International Francophonie Day, a celebration of French language and culture in the 70 states and governments of the International Organization of La Francophonie.

Here’s a cartoon provided by frantastique about the challenges faced by Gérard Therrien, the Director of the Agence Intergalactique de la Francophonie (AIGF) – the made-up organisation that features in their French lessons.


– Maurice, I swear …
– It’s not easy being the boss
– We want a raise
– We don’t have any more money
– I’m pregnant
– Where’s my office?
– You see … it’s hell
– Fortunately you’re there, Maurice
– Can I take Monday off?

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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
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