In the World of Invented Languages

In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius

Last week I read Arika Okrent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius, which I found very interesting.

The book covers the history of language invention from Hildegard of Bingen’s Lingua Ignota; through philosophical languages like the one John Wilkins devised; International Auxiliary languages like Esperanto and Volapük; logical languages like Loglan and Lojban; to fictional languages like Quenya, Sindarin and Klingon. The author tells the stories behind these languages and the people who invented them, meets some of the inventors who are still around, learns some of the languages, and goes to meet ups for some of them.

One thing that struck me was the fact that many language inventors, especially those of philosophical, universal, logical and international auxiliary languages, believed that it was possible to make perfect, unambiguous and/or totally regular languages, and that natural languages were flawed because they contain irregularities, ambiguity and unnecessary complexities. Okrent argues that these are features, not flaws, and they give languages flexibility. I would add to this that the built in redundancy in languages helps ensure that messages get across even if some of the content is lost due to noisy conditions, unclear pronunciation of the speaker, inattention of the listener, or other factors.

Conlangs, Language 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 9 Comments

Cuckoo bells

Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

I discovered this week that in Welsh bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are known as Clychau’r Gog (“cuckoo bells”), which I really like the sound of. They are also known as Bwtias y Gog (“cuckoo’s boots”), Croeso Haf (“welcome summer”), Cennin y Brain (“crows’ leeks”), Clychau’r Eos (“nightingale’s bells”), Glas y Llwyn (“green blue of the grove”), hosanau’r Gwcw (“cuckoo’s socks”).

In Breton bluebells are known as bokidi-koukou (“cuckoo flowers”) or pour-bran (“crows’ flowers/pears”).

In French they are known as jacinthe des bois (“wood hyacinths”) or jacinthe sauvage (“wild hyacinths”).

Other names for them in English include common bluebell, English bluebell, British bluebell, wild hyacinth, wood bell, fairy flower and bell bottle.

Do they have interesting names in other languages?

Breton, English, French, Language, Welsh, Words and phrases 7 Comments

LOL @ 25

According to an article I found in The Guardian today the accronym LOL (laughing out loud) first appeared 25 years ago in the International FidoNet Association Newsletter dated 8 May 1989.

The article mentions a few equivalents in other languages: “ㅋㅋㅋ” (KKK) in Korean; MDR or mort de rire (died of laughter) in French; and 555 (ห้า ห้า ห้า / haa haa haa) in Thai. Do you know or use any others?

LOL is not related to the Welsh word lol, which means “nonsense, foolery, bosh, bunkum, gammon, moonshine, rigmarole, rot, rubbish, tomfoolery or twaddle”; or to the English word loll (to hang down loosely; to droop, dangle), an expression that, according to the OED, has a sound suggestive or rocking or swinging, and might be connected to the Middle Dutch lollen (to sleep) – found in Modern Dutch in lollebanck (couch, sofa).

English, Language, Words and phrases 4 Comments

Code talkers

The role of the Navajo and other Native American tribes played in secret communications or code talking in World War II is fairly well known, and today I found out on the BBC News magazine that members of Choctaw Nation played a similar role in World War I. They communicated military information via phone, and to the Germans who tapped the phone lines Choctaw, and the other Native American languages that were used, sounded utterly baffling – they apparently thought the the US had invented a contraption to speak underwater.

Very few people knew about this until recently as in Choctaw culture one doesn’t boast about one’s achievements, so those involved rarely mentioned it, even to their own families. At the same time Choctaw, and other Native American, children were being punished for speaking their mother tongues in schools.

Do you know of other languages used for secret communications like this?

Endangered languages, Language 1 Comment

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 12 Comments

Knock Cnoc

The element Knock is quite common in place names in Ireland, e.g. Ballyknock, Castleknock, Gortknock, Kilknock and Knockaderry [source]. There’s also quite a few places called simply Knock, the best known of which is the Knock in County Mayo in the west of Ireland , which is known as An Cnoc (the hill) or Cnoc Mhuire (Hill of (the Virgin) Mary) in Irish.

The Irish word cnoc (hill), from which Knock comes, is pronounced [kn̪ˠɔk] in Munster, [knˠɔk] in Aran, and [kɾˠɔk] in Galway, Mayo and Ulster. It comes from the Old Irish cnocc (hill, lump, swelling), from the Proto-Celtic *knokko(s) (hill), which is also the root of:

- Scottish Gaelic cnoc [krɔ̃xg] = hill, hillock, knoll
- Manx cronk [krɒnk] = mount, tor, hill
- Welsh cnwc [knʊk] = hillock, bump, lump, butte
- Cornish knegh [knɛx] / knogh [knɔx] = hillock

A similar, though unrelated, English word is knoll [nəʊl], a hillock or mound, which comes from the Old English cnoll (hill-top, cop, summit, hillock), which is cognate with the Dutch knol (clod, ball, turnip); the German Knolle (bulb, tuber); and the Swedish knöl (lump; bump; hump) [source].

English, Etymology, French, Irish, Language, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases Comments Off

I’m full / J’ai trop mangé

When you’ve finished a meal and are asked if you’d like any more, in English you might decline the offer by saying “Thanks, but I’m full”; “No thanks, I’ve had plenty”; “No, I’d better not, thank you”; “Thanks, but I couldn’t eat another thing”; “No thanks, I’m stuffed”, or even “No thank you, I have had an elegant sufficiency and any more would be a superfluous indulgence.” Other ways to express this are discussed on this page.

In French you might say “J’ai trop mangé” (“I’ve eaten too much.”), “Je suis rassasié” (I’m satisfied), or “Je n’en peux plus” (“I can’t [take] any more.”) . One phrase to avoid, at least in France, is the literal translation of “I’m full” – Je suis plein – which means I’m pregnant or I’m drunk. Apparently in French-speaking parts of Belgium and Quebec Canada it’s fine to use it as it does mean “I’m full” [source].

How would you decline the offer in your language?

Is it polite to do so in your culture?

Language 6 Comments

Logoburroo and other place names

If an Australian visitor to the UK asked you for directions to somewhere they called Logoburroo [lɔgɜʉbəˈrʊː] would you know what place they were referring to?

A friend of mine heard an Australian pronouncing Loughborough, a town in Leicestershire in central England, in this way and thought it was an interesting attempt at the name. The usual pronunciation is [ˈlʌfbərə] (luff-buh-ruh) or [ˈlʌfbrə] (luff-bruh).

Loughborough features in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as ‘Lucteburne’, which possibly comes from the name Lehedeburh, “the town of Lehede” (named after someone called Lehede) [source].

Burh is variant form of the Old English word burg (city, town, fort, stronghold, dwelling place), which comes from the Proto-Germanic *burgz (fortification, stronghold, fortified city), from the Proto-Indo-European *bʰərgʰ- (fortified elevation), from *bʰerǵʰ- (to rise; high, lofty; hill, mountain) [source].

Borough, burgh, brough and bury, which all come from the Old English burg, are common elements in English place names, e.g. Loughborough, Canterbury and Middlesbrough; and are also found in Scottish place names as burch and burgh, e.g. Edinburgh and Jedburgh. Related words are also found in Dutch (burcht, burg, borg – castle, borough), French (bourg – market townn), German (burg – castle, fortifcation), and the Scandinavian languages (borg – castle, city).

The Proto-Indo-European root *bʰerǵʰ- (hill) is also the root of the Proto-Celtic word *brixs (hill), from which we get the Brythonic word *brigā, which is part of the name Brigantī, the Celtic tribe that occupied a large part of northern Britain at the time of the Roman invasion (43 AD). The element briga also appears in Gaulish place names; and from the same root is bre, an obsolete word for hill in Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Scottish Gaelic (also bré/brí in Irish).

Hill is usually bryn in Welsh, cnoc in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and torgenn in Breton; and the elements brae/bray/bre appear in some English, Irish and Scottish place names.

Incidentally, Leicestershire is pronounced [ˈlɛstəʃə] (lestuh-shuh).

English, Etymology, German, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Words and phrases 12 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