Spreading Sweetness

Foods, and the words that describe them, can travel around the world. For example, tea comes from China, and so do words for tea in many languages. Similarly, avocado, chocolate, tamale, tomato come from Mexico (both the words and the foods).

Those words came to Europe from other continents, and I recently discovered some words that travelled from Europe, or Western Asia, to many other parts of the world.


It started with the Proto-Indo-European word *médʰu (honey, mead), which spread throughout Europe and Asia, and possibly as far as China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam [source].

Descendants of *médʰu include:

  • մեղու [meʁú] = bee in Armenian
  • мед (med) = honey in Bulgarian
  • mõdu [mjøːd] = mead in Estonian
  • Met [meːt] = mead in German
  • μέθη (méthi) = drunkenness in Greek
  • מותק (mótek) = sweetness in Hebrew
  • मॊदुर / مۆدُر (modur) = sweet, tasty, delicious in Kashmiri
  • medus [mædus] = honey, mead in Latvian
  • މީރު [miː.ɾu] = pleasant, sweet, agreeable, savoury in Maldivian
  • medveď [ˈmɛdvɛc] = bear (“honey-eater”) in Slovak
  • mjöd [mjøːd] = mead in Swedish
  • மதுரம் [mɐd̪ʊɾɐm] = sweetness in Tamil
  • medd [meːð] = mead, and meddw [ˈmɛðu] = drunk in Welsh

The Irish name Méabh (Maeve) also comes from the same roots, via Middle Irish medb (intoxicating) [source]. For more details of related words in Celtic languages, see this Celtiadur post: Honey Wine

It also reached China, where it became mīt (honey) in Tocharian B, and was possibly borrowed into Old Chinese as *mit (honey), which became (mì – honey) in Mandarin, (mat6 [mɐt˨] – bee, honeybee) in Cantonese, (mitsu – honey, nectar, moasses, syrup) in Japanese, (mil – beeswax) in Korean, and mật (honey, molasses) and mứt (jam) in Vietnamese [source].

Evolution of the Chinese character for honey (蜜)

Evolution of the Chinese character for honey (蜜)

See also: https://hanziyuan.net/#蜜

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Polyglot Conference – Day 1

The Polyglot Conference officially started today. There were talks and workshops all day on all sorts of interesting topics. I went to talks on Slovenian, linguistic relavtivity, Romani, the Cathars, and audiolinguistics. They were all interesting, especially the linguistic ones.

There was plenty of time between the talks to talk to other participants, and I managed to make some recordings in quite a variety of languages for the next episode of my podcast. I hope to make more recordings tomorrow.

I had conversations in English, Welsh, French, Irish, German, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, and tried to speak a few other languages.

They are preparing Ljubljana for the Ljubljana Marathon tomorrow, and quite a few streets are being lined with barriers. I hope I’ll be able to get to the conference venue tomorrow.

What a foofaraw!

Have you ever come across the word foofaraw? If not, can you guess what it means?

I stumbled on it in a book I’m reading at the moment, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper. It is used in the following context:

“Dictionaries, he explained, were records of the language as it is used, and so we must set aside our disdain for the adverb “good” [..] and record its long use in our dictionaries in spite of the rather pointless foofaraw around its existence.”

The reference to the use of good as an adverb is illustrated by the phrase “I’m doing good”, which pedants would tell you should be “I’m doing well”.

Foofaraw - definition

Merriam-Webster defines it as “frills and flashy finery; a disturbance or to-do over a trifle.”

Dictionary.com defines it as “a great fuss or disturbance about something very insignificant; an excessive amount of decoration or ornamentation, as on a piece of clothing, a building, etc.”

According to Wiktionary it means “Overly excessive or flashy ornamentation or decoration; Fuss over something of little importance.” It’s pronounced [ˈfu.fəˌɹɔ], was first used in writing in the 1930s, and is of uncertain origin.

Dictionary.com suggests that it may be related to the French word fanfaron (boasting, boaster), which is either imitative, or could come from Arabic فَرْفَار‎ (farfār), which is possibly the origin of fanfare in French and English. The word fanfaron is an obsolete English word for a bully, boaster or braggart [source].

I might use the word hoo-ha instead of foofaraw. It means “a fuss, uproar, commotion or stir; hype; brouhaha, hullabaloo”, and is also written hoohaa, hoohar, hoo-haa, hoo-har or hoo-hah. It possibly comes from the Yiddish הו־האַ‎ (hu-ha – a hullabaloo) [source].

Do you know other words with a similar mean to foofaraw or hoo-ha?

Working like a horse

Working like a horse

The other day I learnt an interesting Russian idiom (via Duolingo) – Работать как лошадь [rɐˈbotətʲ kak ˈloʂətʲ], which means literally “to work like a horse”, and is used to indicate that you are working hard. For example, Сегодня я работаю как лошадь (Today I am working like a horse).

You can also work like an ox in Russian: работать как вол.

The English equivalent is to work like a dog, as in the Beatles song, A Hard Day’s Night. Are there other English idioms with a similar meaning?

In French you can also work like a dog, or travailler comme un chien.

In Hebrew you work like a donkey: לעבוד כמו חמור (la’avod kmo khamor).

In Italian you work like a mule: Lavorare come un mulo.

What about in other languages?

Personally I prefer to work like a cat.

Source: WordReference.Com

Neither fur nor feather

Ни пуха, ни пера

Today I came across an interesting Russian idiom in the book I’m reading (Moon Seed, by Stephen Baxter): Ни пуха, ни пера (Ni púkha, ni perá). It means literally “neither fur nor feather” and is used to wish someone good luck.

The phrase was originally used by Russian hunters in a sarcastic/ironic way. The feathers referred to birds, and the fur to animals, so they were saying that they hoped that the other hunters wouldn’t catch any birds or animals.

The usually reply to this phrase is К чёрту (K chëtu), which means “to the devil” or “go to hell”, and is saying “the hell I won’t”.

Source: http://www.linguajunkie.com/learning/russian-proverbs-sayings

An equivalent of this phrase in English is “break a leg”, which is traditionally said to actors to wish them luck before they go on stage, especially on the opening night. According to theatrical superstition it’s bad luck to wish someone good luck.

This phrase first appeared in writing in May 1948 in the The Charleston Gazette as:

“Another [superstition] is that one actor should not wish another good luck before a performance but say instead ‘I hope you break a leg.”

There is a similar phrase in German, Hals und Beinbruch (break your neck and leg), which was apparently used by the Luftwaffe during WWII. This might come from the Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha‘ (success and blessing), which might have made it’s way into English via German and Yiddish.

Source: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/break-a-leg.html

Are there idiomatic ways to wish people luck in other languages?

Reflections on the Polyglot Gathering

Polyglots dancing at the Slaughterhouse in Berlin

I got back from the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin late on Monday night. I travelled by train the whole way, which is a bit more expensive than the plane, and takes a few hours longer, but I prefer to travel this way, and you see more. The journey went smoothly, apart from the train from London, which was an hour late getting into Bangor. Fortunately I got a partial refund on my ticket. On the Eurostar I talked to a interesting lady from Vancouver, and on the train to Bangor I talked, mainly in Welsh, to a doctor from Felinheli.

This year’s Gathering was as much fun as previous years – it was my third. I arrived in Berlin quite late on Wednesday evening the day before it officially started, and missed out on most of the polyglot games that were going on in the afternoon and evening. Next year I might arrive a day or two before the start to give me a chance to explore more of Berlin – this year I spent most of my time in the venue and didn’t go exploring.

Over the next four days I learnt about many things, including Portuguese-based creoles, Greek, minimalism, Sardinian languages and dialects, why many language learners don’t acquire native-like accents, metaphors in native Canadian languages, language mentoring, how musical techniques can be applied to language learning, the stagecraft of multilingualism, and much more. I got to know old friends better, met lots of new ones, and I spoke lots of different languages. My talk on Manx went well, as did the introduction to Welsh that I helped with.

The talks were mainly in English, with some in French, Italian, German, Esperanto, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Indonesian, and in various combinations of these.

Between us we polyglots speak quite a few different languages. The most common (i.e. those with quite a few speakers / learners) include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Finnish, Hungarian, Welsh, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Swahili. There were also speakers and learners of Wolof, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Romani, Tamil, Latin, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Breton, Sardinian, Luxembourgish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Albanian, Basque, Tagalog, Turkish, Navajo, Toki Pona, Klingon, and probably other languages.

I’m looking forward to the next polyglot event – the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal in July. I’ll be doing a talk on the origins of language there, so should get working on it.

Some things I learnt from the Gathering

There are many ways to learn languages, and no single way will work for everyone. Some like to focus on one language at a time until they have reached a level they are happy with, then move on to the next language; others like to study many different languages at the same time. Some learn grammar and vocabulary first, then learn to speak; others start using their languages straight away, or soon after they start studying. Some like to study on their own; others like to study in a class and/or with a private tutor. Some combine many of the above and more, to varying degrees – I certainly do.

From Malachi Rempen’s talk on cartooning, minimalism and language learning (Less is More: What Silly Doodles Can Teach Us About Fluency), I learnt that you can do a lot with a little. He showed how he can make his Itchy Feet character express a wide variety of emotions with just a few lines, and suggested that the same can be applied to languages – you can communicate even if you know only a little of a language. He also argued that fluency means different things to different people, and might not be the best thing to aim for.

Tim Keeley, professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka, explained that the idea that only children can acquire native-like accents in foreign languages is wrong – the brain is flexible throughout live and you can learn to perceive and produce foreign sounds. However there are emotional barriers which stop many people from sounding ‘native’. When learning another language you can also take on or create a new identity, and those who are willing and able to do this are most likely to sound more like native speakers. You also shouldn’t worry about mimicking people. In fact that is a good way to acquire native-like pronunciation.

Michael Levi Harris, an actor and polyglot from New York, talked about parallels between learning a part and learning a language. He explained that actors tend to exaggerate speech and physical mannerisms when learning a part, then make them more subtle, and that language learners can try the same things – exaggerate the pronunciation, gestures, etc. until they become second nature, then tone them down. He also talked about taking on different identities when speaking different languages and with different accents. If you can find a native speaker of a language whose voice and mannerisms appeal to you, then you can create your character in that language based on them.

The extend to which you take on a new identity in a new language depends on how much you want to integrate into a new culture. If you want to be taken for a native, then you need to sound and act like them. Alternatively you could try sounding like a native, perhaps with a bit of a foreign accent, but not worry so much about acting like them. If you spend a lot of time in a different county interacting and observing the natives, you’re likely to pick up at least some of their behaviour anyway.

Fiel Sahir, an Indonesian-American musician and polyglot who currently lives in Germany, talked about applying musical techniques to language learning. He explained how practice is the key to music and language, but it has to be intelligent practice that focuses on areas that you find difficult. This might be particular passages in a piece of music, or particular tenses or noun declensions in a language. By focusing like this, you can make a lot of progress.

Focus is something that I find difficult sometimes. I can and do focus, but often get distracted. I was thinking about how I’ve been dabbling with a variety of languages recently and not making a lot of progress in any of them. So my plan is to focus on one, or two, languages for the next year – Russian and Czech – and learn as much as I can in them. I will keep my other languages ticking over, but not spend much time on them.

Polyglot Gathering 2016

I’m currently at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. I arrived here on Wednesday evening and have been speaking and hearing lots of different languages. So far I’ve had conversations in English, French, Welsh, German, Irish and Mandarin, and spoken bits and pieces of Spanish, Italian, Russian, Czech, Portuguese, Toki Pona and Esperanto. I’ve also heard some Finnish, Punjabi, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Slovak, Sardinian, Dutch, Hebrew, Indonesian, Norwegian, Swedish and other languages that I didn’t recognise.

Yesterday I went to talks on Portuguese Creole languages, Greek, language learning and linguistics, how to achieve advanced language competence, and on connections between cartoons and language learning. This morning I’ve been to talks on teaching multiple languages simultaneously, and languages and dialects of Sardinia. All the talks I’ve been to so far have been in English, apart from the Sardinian one, which was in Italian.

I’ve met lots of people I know from previous polyglot events, and lots of new people too. I might try to explore a bit more of Berlin at some point as well.

Hebrew phrases

Yesterday I received an email telling me that there shouldn’t be Hebrew versions of Merry Christmas and Happy Easter among the Hebrew phrases on my site as,

“the Hebrew language is a holy language” and that “if you say Happy Easter, or Merry Christmas in Hebrew you pretty much burn to death in the spot if you’re a Jew.”.

He also states that,

“Most of the people who will be reading your Hebrew section are either Jewish and will be offended, or will think they can say those things to Jewish people, and they will offend the Jewish people they speak to.”

I’m aware that Jews do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, and that the majority of people who speak Hebrew are Jews. However I understand that there are around 350,000 Hebrew-speaking Christians in Israel [source] who probably do celebrate these festivals and use these phrases – I’ve added a note to the Hebrew phrases page along these lines. I’ve had similar comments about the Somali versions of these phrases.

Do you think that my correspondent is right about this?

Golems and trolls

I’ve always thought that the word golem was pronounced /ˈgɔləm/ with a short o as in doll, probably influenced by Tolkein’s gollum, and my preference for northern vowels. Yesterday however, while watching Going Postal, a film based on the Terry Pratchett’s book by the same name, I noticed that some other people pronounce it /ˈɡoʊləm/.

According to Wikipedia, golem /ˈɡoʊləm/ comes from Hebrew and appears as גלמי in the Bible (Psalms 139:16) and means ‘my unshaped form’. This became the Yiddish word גולם (goylem), and in Modern Hebrew גלמ (golem) means “dumb” or “helpless”.

According to the OED, golem is pronounced /ˈgəʊləm/ or /ˈgɔɪləm/ and comes from Hebrew גלמ (gōlem – shapeless mass) via the Yiddish גולם (goylem).

I pronounce troll /tɾɔl/, rhyming it with doll, whereas I’ve heard other people pronounce it /tɾəʊl/, rhyming it dole.

Troll /trəʊl/, a being from Norse mythology, comes from the Old Norse trǫll, though only arrived in English, probably from Swedish, during the 19th century.

How do you pronounce golem and troll?

Cross-lingual puns

Today we have a guest post from Sol Klein:

While not paying in Latin class recently, I started thinking about a phrase I used to hear a lot of back in elementary school, when half of my educational day was conducted in Hebrew and half in English. The phrase is:

“כי פתח דלת. לא פתח תשובה”, which translates word-for-word to ” ‘because’ opens door. Does not open answer,” and more loosely translated means “the word ‘because’ opens a door. It does not open an answer.”

Which is of course nonsense when translated literally. The phrase, however, is a pun, and works on the assumption that the audience speaks both English and Hebrew. The word for “because” in Hebrew is the first word in the sentence, “כי,” pronounced /ki/, homophonically identical to English “key.” Taking this pun into account, the phrase can be translated in two different ways: “A key opens a door. It does not open an answer,” or “the word ‘because’ opens a door. It does not open an answer.”

This phrase was used to scold us for not answering “why” questions in complete sentences. For example, if we were asked “למה האיש שמח,” “why is the man happy,” we would be expected to reply with “האיש שמח כי הוא אוכל גלידה,” “the man is happy because he is eating ice cream,” rather than simply “כי הוא אוכל גלידה,” “because he is eating ice cream.” If we answer in the lazy latter fashion, we begin our answer with “כי,” /ki/, “because,” making our answer not a complete sentence. Thus our teacher would say to us “(’כי,’ /ki/, or ‘key’) opens a door, not an answer,” and we would groan and rephrase our answer in a complete sentence.

Anyway, I hope I’ve explained this at least somewhat clearly. I realize it would make infinitely more sense to a Hebrew speaker. My question is if you or any of your readers know of any other similar “cross-lingual” puns, where the funny bit depends on an audience’s knowledge of two separate languages, particularly two languages as distinct as English and Hebrew.