Language Puzzles

The Language Lover's Puzzle Book

Recently I was sent a copy of a new book by Alex Bellos – The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book: Lexical complexities and cracking conundrums from across the globe, and agreed to write a review of it.

According to the blurb:

Crossing continents and borders, bestselling puzzle author Alex Bellos has gathered more than one hundred of the world’s best conundrums that test your deduction, intuition and street smarts.

The first chapter focuses on computer-related puzzles, including a regex-based crossword, soundex codes and a bad translation puzzle. To find out what these things are, you could buy the book. I had to read the explanations several times to understand them.

Other chapters contain puzzles based various languages, writing systems and counting systems from around the world. Some give you some examples words or phrases in a particular language, and then challenge you to work out how to write other words or phrases, or to identify aspects of the grammar of that language. There are also number-based puzzles using a variety of number systems.

Ancient, modern and constructed languages and writing systems are included, such as Welsh, Irish, Esperanto, Toki Pona, Javanese, Inuktitut, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Phoenician, Khipu, Ogham, Linear B, Old Norse, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Georgian, Greek and Cherokee.

Some of the puzzles look relatively easy to me as they involve languages and writing systems I’m familiar with. Others look quite difficult. Fortunately there are answers and explanations for all the puzzles at the back of the book. In fact the answer section takes up almost a third of the whole book.

I think I’ll have fun trying to solve them, and anybody reading this with an interesting in languages and writing might do as well.

You can also find a language quiz every Sunday on this blog, of course, and occasional writing-based puzzles on my Instgram.

Portugal oranges and Chinese apples

An orange

In Romanian the word for orange (the fruit) is portocală [portoˈkalə]. This comes from the Greek πορτοκάλι (portokáli – orange), from the Venetian portogallo (orange), from the Italian Portogallo (Portugal).

An number of other languages get their word for orange from the same root:

– Albanian: portokall
– Amharic: ብርቱካናማ (biritukanama)
– Arabic: برتقال (burtuqaal)
– Azerbaijani: portağal
– Bulgarian: портокал (portokal)
– Georgian: ფორთოხალი (p’ort’okhali)
– Macedonian: портокал (portokal)
– Persian (Farsi): پرتقال (porteghâl)
– Turkish: portakal

Portuguese merchants were probably the first to introduce oranges to Europe, hence the link between oranges and Portugal.

In some languages oranges are known as “Chinese apples”: Apfelsine (German), appelsien / sinaasappel (Dutch), apelsin (Swedish), etc. This makes sense as oranges were first cultivated in China in about 2,500 BC.

Words for oranges in some Slavic languages come from the Old French pomme d’orenge: pomeranč (Czech), pomaranča (Slovene), pomarańcza (Polish).

The word orange derives from नारङ्ग (nāraṅga) – “orange tree” in Sanskrit, which is probably of Dravidian origin. The word for orange in Portuguese, laranja, comes from this root.

The colour orange was named after the fruit. In Old English the colour orange was referred to as ġeolurēad (yellow-red), or ġeolucrog (yellow-saffron) [source].

Souces: Wiktionary,, Google Translate, Wikipedia, Flickr

Sounds good to me

Have you ever learnt a language just because you like the way it sounds?

This is one of the reasons for learning a language discussed by John McWhorter is this TED talk:

He talks about the joys of getting your tongue round the sounds of other languages, and mentions Khmer, with its large inventory of vowels.

Which languages sound good to you?

Are there any particular sounds or combinations of sounds that really appeal to you (in any language)?

I like listening to languages with clicks, such as Xhosa and Zulu, and also to ones with ejectives, such as Georgian. I also like listening to and speaking tonal languages, like Mandarin and Cantonese.

At the moment, my favourite language in terms of sounds, is Swedish.

Other sound favourites include Japanese, Finnish, Italian, Icelandic and Swahili.

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):

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