I’m currently in Bratislava in Slovakia for the 2019 Polyglot Gathering, which starts tomorrow, although there was an opening ceremony this evening.

The Polyglot Gathering 2019 begins

Today I went on a tour taking in three countries – Slovakia, Hungary and Austria. I had conversations in English, French, German, Mandarin, Spanish and Irish, and spoke odd bits of Czech, Slovak, Russian, Scots, Hungarian, Portuguese, Welsh, Esperanto and Swedish.

Hainburg Castle

I probably won’t have much time for blogging with all the intensive polylgotting that’s going on. Normal service will be resumed next week.

Blah blah English blah blah

Blah blah

A Danish friend came to visit Bangor this week. He makes the ActualFluency podcast, and is one of the people behind such courses as Italian Uncovered.

We talked a lot about websites and marketing, particularly email marketing, which I haven’t done before, but am going to try.

As well as Danish and English, he also speaks Russian and Hungarian, and has studied other languages. He doesn’t know any Welsh though, and I was curious to find out what Welsh sounded like to him. As I speak and understand Welsh, I can’t get an outsider’s perspective on it. To him it sounded very foreign – something like “blah blah blah blah English word blah blah blah blah”.

When I listen to languages I don’t know, they may sound like that to me. Mostly mysterious sounds with occasional recognisable words. The recognisable words are borrowed from English, or from another language I know, or are the names of places or people.

When listening to languages related to ones I know, I can usually understand more, or at least recognise more words.

What do unknown languages sound like to you?

The hieroglyphs in the image mean “The cat dances when the crocodile hides” (iw ib(A) miw imn msH), and come from

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.

Honey eaters, brown ones and tramplers

A Eurasian brown bear

In many European languages the words for bear have their origins in taboo avoidance. It is thought that people who spoke Proto-Indo-European (PIE) believed that if you called a bear by its true name, it would hear you and may harm you. So instead they used different names when referring to bears [source].

The words for bear in Germanic languages can be traced back to the PIE *bʰer- (brown), via the Proto-Germanic berô (bear).

Examples include bear (English / West Frisian), beer (Dutch / Afrikaans), Bär (German), Bier (Luxembourgish), björn (Icelandic / Swedish), and bjørn (Norwegian / Danish / Faroese) [source].

In Slavic languages the words for bear can all be traced back to the Proto-Slavic word medvědь, from *medu-ēdis, from medъ (honey) &‎ *(j)ěsti (to eat), so could be translated as “honey eater”.

Examples are медведь (Russian), médved (Slovenian), medvěd (Czech), niedźwiedź (Polish). The Hungarian word for bear, medve, possibly comes from the same root [source].

In Baltic languages the words for bear from the Proto-Baltic *talk-, *tlāk-, from Proto-Indo-European *tel-k-, *tl-ek- (to push, to hit, to kick, to trample), and could be translated as “trampler”, “stomper”, “pounder”, [source]. In Latvian the word is lācis, and in Lithuanian it’s lokys.

The PIE word for bear was *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, which is possibly related to destroying or destruction – another taboo avoidance? This is the root of *artos in Proto-Celtic, άρκτος (árktos) in Greek, ursus in Latin and ari in Albanian, and related words in modern Celtic and Romance languages [source].

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.

New languages to learn?

Recently I have acquired quite a few new language courses: as a sponsor of the Polyglot Conference in New York I received 10 new Colloquial language courses in Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian. I also bought a Glossika Russian course with the special offer given to conference participants, and bought a Basque course from Assimil with affiliate commission from Amazon France.

My new language courses

I learnt a little Hungarian many years ago, and am currently working on Czech and Russian, but haven’t studied any of the other languages before. I’d love to know at least the basics of all of them, though have no particular need or desire to learn them at the moment. Also, I already have courses in a number of languages that I have only glanced at so far – Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, Scots and Cornish.

Do you sometimes get carried away with acquiring language courses and other materials?

Do you think you will get round to learn all those languages one day?

Extreme Polyglottery

The Polyglot Gathering in Berlin last week was fantastic and I enjoyed everything about it. The organizers did an excellent job and everything went well, with only minor hitches. Many other people helped things to run smoothly, and gave talks and/or arranged discussions and language practise sessions.

The A&O Hauptbahnhof hostel/hotel where the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin took place in June 2014

The venue was a huge hostel/hotel near Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (main station), and not far from famous places like the Reichstag (home of the German parliament) and the Brandenburg Gate. It was equipped with hotel and hostel-style rooms, a dining hall in the basement, a reception area with seating and a games section on the ground floor, and a roof-top bar on the 5th floor. The gathering itself took place mainly in function rooms on the 5th floor, with a large room for the talks and activities and two smaller rooms for discussions and talks. One of the smaller rooms also served as a tea room – Gufujo (owl room in Esperanto) – in the evenings for those looking for somewhere quieter than the bar for a chat. There were also spontaneous outbreaks of polyglottery in other parts of the venue, and outside as well.

The program for the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 2014

The program included lectures, talks, discussions, games, and plenty opportunities to practise languages and to talk about language learning, language and languages – or polyglottery as I like to call it. The talks and discussions ran from 9am to 1pm, with two hours for lunch, and from 3-6pm. In most time spots there were two or three things going on at the same time, so you couldn’t go to everything. Fortunately the talks were all videoed and the videos will appear online when they have been edited, so I can watch the ones I missed, and those who weren’t there can watch all the ones that interest them. The program booklet was printed several months before the gathering, so there were some changes, and people filled in empty spots with talks on a variety of language-related topics, and other activities.

The talks I went to include ones on Proto-Indo-European, careers for polyglots, neuroscience and language learning, practising languages in virtual words, Scots and Scottish English, Welsh; and discussions on passive v active learning, and synesthesia; and introductions to Indonesian, Toki Pona and Macedonian. Some talks were quite academic, others were more informal. All were interesting.

On the first evening there was an international culinary festival with food and drink from many different countries. There were polyglot games on the subsequent two evenings, and an international culture evening with songs and poems in many different languages on the final evening. I started it off with a song in Welsh – Lisa Lân, and my Manx/English song about seagulls and chips – Spollagyn son tey / Chips for tea, and finished it with my song Everyday Adventures, which all went down well.

Here’s me singing Lisa Lân and Spollagyn son tey / Chips for tea (videoed by David J. James):

The most impressive contribution was Richard Simcott singing Let it Go from Frozen in some 20 different languages from memory:

There were some 230 participants there from all over the world ranging in age from teenagers to pensioners. All spoke at least two languages, and many spoke quite a few more – I think the average number of languages spoken there was around four or five, with a number of people who speak ten or more languages. There were plenty of students there who are studying languages, and many other subjects, as well as people who run language-related businesses, or work as translators, writers, journalists, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and many other professions. Whatever our background, we all shared a passion for languages, and were interested in finding out about other peoples, countries and cultures.

A group photo of most of the participants in the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 2014

Meeting so many other polyglots and being able to talk in many different languages and about languages and language learning was wonderful. I don’t often get to do this as I only know a few other polyglots where I live, so the gathering was fantastic for me. I didn’t need to suppress or hold back any of my enthusiasm for languages, as I usually do to varying degrees when talking to people who don’t share my passion. Everyone was friendly, interesting, and had different stories to tell, and I now feel like a part of the polyglot community. Before the gathering I had watched videos and read blogs and forum posts, and even commented from time to time, so I was familiar with a number of polyglots with an online presence, but felt that I was kind of on the periphery of the community. Few people recognised me, but many were familiar with Omniglot, and were happy to meet the guy behind it.

I found the talks, discussions and other activities interesting and fun, especially the discussions on synesthesia, and on raising bi/multilingual children – I don’t have any kids, but my niece is being raised bilingually in English and Russian, and quite a few of my friends are raising their kids with two or more languages, especially English and Welsh.

I would recommend this kind of event to anybody interested in languages, and I’m looking forward to the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad in Serbia in October.


The other day I discovered that the Hungarian word szia [sijɑ], which is used as a informal hello and goodbye, like ciao in Italian and ahoj in Czech and Slovak, possibly comes from the English expression ‘see you’ / ‘see ya’, at least that’s what a Hungarian friend believes. I hadn’t noticed the similarity between the two phrases before, and if I had, I would have assumed that it was a coincidence.

Another possible origin for this word is the Austria greeting/parting word servus, which is written szervusz in Hungarian, and which somehow became szia. This is the etymology given by Zaicz Gábor in the Etimológiai szótár (Etymology Dictionary) according to this discussion.

Does anybody know more about the origins of this word?