Petty Things

In the French conversation group I take part in, the word petit, which means small or little, is often mispronunced [pɛti] rather than [pə.ti], which annoys the founder of group. This might seem a rather petty thing to worry about, but pronunciation is quite important – not so much within the group, but for when we talk to actual native speakers of French.

Petit fours

Petit means small, little, minor, slight, short, mean, child, little one, youngest, young (of an animal).

Some related words and expressions include:

  • mon petit = dear (used ironically), son
  • ma petite = dear, young lady, sweetheart
  • les petits (enfants) = small children
  • les tout-petits = the little ones, the tiny tots, the toddlers
  • pauvre petit = poor little thing
  • faire des petits = to have kittens / puppies
  • petit à petit = little by little, gradually
  • petit ami = boyfriend
  • petit déjeuner = breakfast
  • petit doigt = little finger, pinky
  • petit-fils = grandson
  • petite amie = girlfriend
  • petit caisse = petty cash
  • petite-fille = granddaughter
  • petite phrase = catch phrase
  • petite sortie = stroll

Petit comes from the Vulgar Latin *pitittus (small, little), from *pit- or *pittus/*piccus (small, little), possibly from the Proto-Celtic *pett- (part, bit, piece) or from *bikkos (small, little) [source]. When I noticed the possible Celtic connection I decided to write this post, as such connections interest me a lot. The Proto-Celtic word *bikkos is the root of words for small in all the modern Celtic languages, such as bach in Welsh and beag in Irish. [More details].

The word petit also exists in English and is pronounced [ˈpɛti] or [pəˈtiː] in the UK, and [ˈpɛdi], [pəˈti] or [pəˈtit] in the American English. It means small, petty or minor [source]. In it’s feminine form, petite, it usually refers to a woman who is short and small.

Both petit and petite come from the Old French word petit (small, little, worthless, poor (quality)). Petit was used in surnames from 1086, and as an adjective meaning small, little, minor, trifling or insignificant, from the 14th century. Petite was used from the 18th century, at first to mean little or small in size, usually when referring to a woman or girl, and from the early 20th century it came to refer to a size of women’s clothing.

Petit became petty in most cases, except in certain expressions, such as petit bourgeois (conventional middle-class), petit mal (a mild form of epilepsy), petit four (small, fancy cake – see above) [source].

Petty originally meant small, little or minor. By the early 16th century it was being used to mean “of small or minor importance, not serious” and by the 1580s it came to mean “small-minded” [source].

If you are a petty person, or one who is mean or ungenerous in small or trifling things, you might have petty grievances, which are of little importance or consequence, and maybe a petty mind, or narrow ideas and/or interests, and you might like to take petty revenge. Maybe you are in charge of the petty cash (a cash fund for paying small charges), and you might be a a petty officer (a minor officer on a merchant ship, or a noncommissioned officer in the US Navy) [source].

May Day

Beltane

Today is the first day of the month of May, or May Day, when spring festivals are traditionally held in many countries. It is also International Workers’ Day. Apparently the origins of the spring festivities go back at least to the Roman festival of Floralia, in honour of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers (and magarine*). This was held from 27 April – 3 May during the Roman Republic era [source].

*Flora is a brand of margarine found in the UK, other parts of Europe, and Australia and New Zealand.

The word May came from the Old French mai (May), from the Latin māius (May) which was named after Maia, a Roman earth goddess [source].

Incidentally, the emergency call mayday mayday mayday! has nothing to do with May or May Day, but was in fact thought up in the 1920s by Frederick Stanley Mockford, who was officer-in-charge of radio at Croydon Airport in London. It is based on the French phrase m’aidez (help me) [source].

May Day is known as Calan Mai (1st day of May) or Calan Haf (1st day of summer) in Welsh. Traditionally celebratations would begin on the eve of Calan Haf, or Nos Galan Haf with bonfires, and the gathering of hawthorn and flowers to decorate houses. Celebrations on May Day itself might include dancing and singing [source].

I can’t find any examples of May carols (carolau mai / carolau haf), but here’s the Welsh band Calan:

May Day is known as Lá Bealtaine in Irish, Là Bealltainn in Scottish Gaelic and Laa Boaldyn in Manx, and the month of May is known as Bealtaine or mí na Bealtaine in Irish and Boaldyn in Manx. These all refer to the old Celtic festival of Beltane/Beltain, which is held on the 1st May and marks the beginning of summer when cattle would be traditionally driven to their summer pastures. Celebrations include lighting large bonfires and leaping over them, and/or walking and driving cattle between them [source].

The word Beltane/Beltain possibly comes from the Proto-Celtic *belo-tanos / *belo-te(p)niâ (“bright fire”) [source].

Beltane

Honeyed Words

Yesterday I came across an interesting idiom in Scottish Gaelic: mil air do bheul, which means “that’s wonderful/excellent news” or literally, “honey on your mouth”. Perhaps this was coined when honey was difficult to obtain, so having honey on your mouth would be considered good thing.

Honey Harvest

Meanwhile, in Welsh if you have honey on your sandwich or bread, or mêl ar dy frechdan/fara, it is considered a source of pleasure, which makes sense to me. Also, having honey on your fingers, or mêl ar dy fysedd, is music to your ears, or taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, or in other words, indulging in schadenfreude.

In Irish if there is honey on your every word, or tá mil ar gach focal agat, then you are speaking sweetly, perhaps with honeyed words. If you really enjoy your food, you could say that there is honey on your food, or tá mil ar an mbia agat. If you cover someone with honey, or duine a chlúdach le mil, you are showering them with kindness, and if there is honey on your tall-stemmed grass, or tá mil ar chuiseogach agat, then you are having a delightful time.

Sources: https://www.faclair.com/, https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/mil

More honeyed words in Celtic languages can be found on the Celtiadur.

Do you know any other interesting honey-related idioms?

Milestones

A Manx milestone

Yesterday I added details of a language called Akawaio (Ka’pon) to Omniglot. It’s a Cariban language spoken mainly in northern Guyana, and also in northern Brazil and eastern Venezuela, by about 6,380 people.

You may be wondering why I mention this. What’s so special about this language? Well, it just happens to be the 1,500th language I’ve written about on Omniglot, and it feels like a significant milestone to me. There are many more languages out there: 7,139, according to Ethnologue – so only another 5,639 to go! That should keep me busy for a while.

Of the languages on Omniglot, the majority (1,107) are written with the Latin alphabet. There are also 126 written with the Cyrillic alphabet, 75 written with the Arabic alphabet, 72 written with the Devanagari alphabet, and smaller numbers of languages written with other alphabets and writing systems. [More language and writing stats]

It’s becoming increasingly challenging to find information about languages that don’t yet appear on Omniglot. About 4,065 of the world’s languages have a written form, although many are rarely written, and the remaining 3,074 are probably unwritten [source]. There is little or no documentation for many languages, and what documentation there is can be difficult to find. Inspite of this, I will continue to add new language profiles to Omniglot, and appreciate any help you can offer.

An Omniglot minion

I’ve been working on Omniglot on my own since 1998 – there are no minions or other assistants to help me. However, many other people have contributed to Omniglot, by sending me corrections, new material, suggestions, donations and so on, and I am profoundly grateful to all of them.

This is the 3,414th post I’ve written on this blog since launching it in March 2006. At first I tried to write something every day, but soon realised that was too much. At the moment I aim to write two posts a week, plus the language quiz on Sundays.

In April 2007 I started uploading videos to YouTube. Some of the videos feature silly little conversations in languages I’m learning. Others involve music-related events I’ve taken part in, and tunes and songs I’ve written. In 2021 I started uploading videos more regularly, particularly videos about words and etymology, and some songs as well. As well as the Adventures in Etymology videos I upload on Sundays, I plan to make videos featuring alphabets, phrases, etc in a variety of languages. Here’s one I made of the Danish alphabet:

Since June 2018 I’ve made 42 episodes of the Radio Omniglot Podacast, and 5 episodes of Adventures in Etymology, a new series I started in March 2021. It started as a series of videos I made for Instagram and Facebook, then I posted them on Youtube as well, and decided to add them to the Radio Omniglot site. I have ideas for other series I could make for Radio Omniglot, and would welcome any suggestions you may have.

In September 2018 I launched the Celtiadur, a blog where I explore connections between Celtic languages. This is based the Celtic cognates part of Omniglot. So far I’ve written 227 posts, and add a new one every week.

Since 1998 I’ve become fluent in Welsh and Irish, regained my fluency in French, maintained my fluency in Mandarin Chinese, more or less, and have learned enough Esperanto, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Spanish, Swedish, Danish and Dutch to have at least basic conversations. I’ve also learnt quite a bit of Russian and Czech, and some Romanian, Cantonese, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, Icelandic, Faroese, British Sign Language, Breton and Cornish.

I’m currently concentrating on Spanish, Swedish, Danish and Dutch, while trying to maintain my other languages, particularly French and Welsh. For the past 4 years or so I’ve studied languages every day on Duolingo – my current streak reached 1,369 today. I’ve also been using Mondly and Memrise. [More about my language learning adventures].

While not working on Omniglot or learning languages, I like to sing, play musical instruments and write songs and tunes. My musical adventures started long before Omniglot, but for many years after leaving school I only really listened to music. In 2005 I started going to Ireland every summer to learn Irish language, and also Irish songs, tunes and dances. This inspired me to take up music again. Since then I’ve learnt to play the guitar, mandolin, ukulele, cavaquinho and harp, and started playing the recorder, piano and tin whistle again. I’ve learnt songs in many different languages, and written quite a few songs and tunes.

Here’s a song I wrote in 33 different languages:

Enough of this shameless self-promotion. What about you? Have you reached any significant milestones recently?

Penny Pouches

An interesting Danish word I learnt today is pung, which means purse, wallet, pouch or scrotum. It comes from the Old Norse word pungr (purse) [source], and appears in words like:

  • punge = to pay (a large) sum of money
  • pengepung = wallet, purse, budget, pockets, funding (“money-pouch”)
  • pungdyr = marsupial (“pouch-animal”)
  • pungdjævel = Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
  • pungulv = Thylacine, Tasmanian tiger/wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus)
  • pungbrok = hernia [source]

Pengepung

The word penge [ˈpʰɛŋə / ˈpʰɛŋŋ̩] means money, and was originally a plural of penning (coin), from the Old Danish pænning, Old Norse peningr (coin, penny, piece of property, article) [source], which was borrowed from the Old Saxon penning or the Old English penning/peniġ, from the Proto-Germanic *panningaz (coin) [source].

Some related expressions include:

  • pengeafpresning = extortion, extraction
  • pengekat = neck pouch
  • pengepolitik = monetary policy
  • pengeseddel = bill, banknote [source]

From the same root we get the English words penny and pence, the Irish word pingin (penny), the Dutch penning (medal, commemoration coin; money, cash), the German Pfennig (pfennig, penny), the Swedish words penning (coin, penny, money, cash), pengar (money) and peng (coin, money), and related words in other Germanic languages [source].

I carry my cash, cards and other bits and bobs in a wallet. How about you? If you use a pecunary receptacle, what do you call it, and what do you keep in it?

Small Trinkets

If you mislay your bijou bijous you could say that have a bijou problemette.

bijoux

The word bijou can mean small and elegant (of a residence – often ironic),
intricate or finely made, or a jewel, a piece of jewellry; a trinket or a small intricate piece of metalwork. In the above sentence bijou bijous means ‘finely made jewelery’, and a bijou problemette means ‘a little problem’, an example of British understatement.

Bijou, as jewellery, comes from the French bijou (a piece of jewellery), from the Breton bizoù (ring), from biz (finger), from the Proto-Celtic *bistis (finger) [source].

Bijou, as in small and elegant, etc, comes from the Mediterranean Lingua Franca (Sabir) bijou, from the Occitan pichon (small, little), from the Late Latin pitinnus, possibly from Proto-Celtic *kʷezdis (piece, portion) [source], which is also the root of peth (thing, object) in Welsh, cuid (part portion) in Irish, and related words in other Celtic languages.

Yulemonth

As today is the first day of December, I thought I’d look into the origins of the names for this month in various languages.

December comes from the Middle English December/Decembre, from the Old French decembre, from the Latin december, from decem (ten) and the adjectival suffix -ber. December was the tenth month in the Roman calendar, which started in March [source]. The days between December and March were not included in the calendar as part of any month. Later they became January and February and were added to the beginning of the calendar [source].

hoar frost

In the Old English December was known as Ġēolamonaþ/Gēolmōnaþ/Iūlmōnaþ (“Yule month”) or ǣrra ġēola (“before Yule”). The word Yulemonth apparently exists in modern English, although is rarely used [source]. December is associated with Yuletide / Christmas in a few other languages: mí na Nollag (“month of Christmas”) in Irish, Mee ny Nollick (“month of Christmas”) in Manx, and joulukuu (“yule month”) in Finnish and Võro.

In many languages the name of this month is a version of December, but there are some exceptions.

In Aragonese December is abiento, in Asturian it’s avientu, in Basque it’s abendu and in Occitan it’s abén. These all come from the Latin adventus (arrival, approach, advent), from adveniō (arrive) and the suffix -tus [source].

In Belarusian December is снежань (sniežań) [ˈsʲnʲeʐanʲ], which comes from снег (snjeh – snow) [source]. The Cherokee name for December is also related to snow: ᎥᏍᎩᎦ (vsgiga) or “snow moon” [source].

In Proto-Slavic the month after the Winter solitice was known as *prosinьcь. There are a number of possible roots for this word: *siňь (gray), *sijati (to shine, glow – referring to the winter solstice) or *prositi (to pray – referring to Christmas). Descendents in modern Slavic languages include prosinec (December) in Czech, просинац (December) in Serbian, and prosinec (January) in Slovenian.

In Welsh December is Rhagfyr [ˈr̥aɡvɨ̞r / ˈr̥aɡvɪr] (“foreshortening”), because it’s a time when days get shorter [source].

December is “twelve month” or “month twelve” in Chinese: 十二月 (shí’èryuè), Japanese: 十二月 (jūnigatsu), Korean: 십이월 (12월/十二月/12月 – sipiweol), and Vietnamese: tháng mười hai (𣎃𨑮𠄩).

Are there other interesting names for December in other languages?

You can find the names of months in many languages here.

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.

Cheesy Juice

Today’s etymological adventure starts with the word ost, which means cheese in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. In Danish it’s pronounced [ɔsd̥], in Swedish and Norwegian it’s pronounced [ust] [source]. It also means east, but we’re focusing on the cheesy meaning today.

Ost

Ost comes from the Old Norse ostr (cheese), from Proto-Germanic *justaz (cheese), from Proto-Indo-European *yaus-/*yūs- (sap, juice, broth), from *yewH- (to blend, mix (food), knead).

The Old Norse ostr is also the root of words for cheese in Icelandic and Faroese (ostur), in the Sylt dialect of North Frisian (Aast), in Finnish (juusto), in Estonian (juust), in Northern Sami (vuostá), in Skolt Sami (vuâstt), and in other Finnic and Sami languages [source].

From the PIE root *yaus-/*yūs- we get the Latin: iūs (gravy, broth, soup, sauce, juice), from which we get the English word juice, which was borrowed into Faroese and Icelandic (djús), Swedish and Danish (juice), and other languages [source].

The Welsh word for porridge, uwd [ɨ̞u̯d/ɪu̯d], comes from the PIE root *yaus-/*yūs-, via the Proto-Celtic *yut-/*yot- [source]. The Russian word уха (ukha – a kind of fish soup) comes from the same PIE root [source].

From the Latin iūs, we also get (via French) the English word jus (the juices given off as meat is cooked). The Dutch word jus (gravy) comes from the same French root [source].

The English word cheese comes from the Middle English chese (cheese), from Old English ċīese (cheese), from the Proto-West Germanic *kāsī (cheese), from the Latin cāseus (cheese), from Proto-Indo-European *kwh₂et- (to ferment, become sour) [source].

Words for cheese in other West Germanic language come from the same Germanic root, including: kaas in Dutch and Afrikaans, Käse in German, Kjees in Low German and tsiis in West Frisian [source].

From the Latin cāseus we also get words for cheese in such languages as Spanish (queso), Galician (queixo), Portuguese (queijo), Irish (cáis), Welsh (caws) and Breton (keuz) [More on Celtic words for cheese]. The Swedish word keso (cottage cheese) was borrowed from Spanish [source].

Another word for cheese in Late/Vulgar Latin was fōrmāticum, an abbreviation of cāseus fōrmāticus (form cheese), from fōrma (form, mold) and cāseus (cheese). From this we get words for cheese in French (fromage), Italian (formaggio), Breton (formaj), and similarly cheesy words in various other languages [source].

Are you sitting comfortably?

One of the words that came up this week in the French Conversation Group I’m part of was chaire [ʃɛʁ], which means chair (a professorship), pulpit, rostrum or throne.

Here are some examples of how it’s used:

  • chaire épiscopale = bishop’s throne
  • chaire pontificale = papal throne
  • être titulaire d’une chaire = to have a personal chair / to be a professor
  • sans chaire = untenured

Source: Reverso

Chaire comes from the Middle French chaire (chair (item of furniture)), from the Old French chaiere, chaere, from the Latin cathedra (armchair, ceremonial chair, the office or rank of teacher or bishop), from Ancient Greek καθέδρα (kathédra – seat; chair; rower’s seat; posterior, bottom; base of a column; sitting posture; teacher’s / professor’s chair; imperial throne), from κατά (katá – down) and ἕδρα (hédra – seat) [source].

The English words chair and chaise come from the same root, via the Old French chaiere, chaere [source].

Cathedral comes from the the Late Latin ecclesia cathedralis (church of a bishop’s seat), from the Latin cathedra [source].

Cathedrale de Metz

Sit comes from the Old English sittan (to sit), from the Proto-Germanic *sitjaną (to sit), from the Proto-Indo-European *sed- (to sit), which is also the root of the Ancient Greek word ἕδρα (seat) [source].

Other words from the same root include:

  • Bengali: কেদারা [ˈke.d̪ä.ɾäˑ] = chair
  • Irish: cathaoir = chair; seat, throne; stool, stump (of tree)
  • Italian: cattedra = desk (of a teacher); teaching post; throne (of a bishop): chair, professorship, chair (archaic)
  • Portuguese: cadeira = chair, subject, stall, post, hip
  • Scottish Gaelic: cathair = chair, seat, bench throne; town, city
  • Spanish: cadera = hip
  • Welsh: cadair = chair, seat; (bishop’s) throne; cathedral; professorship

Source: Wiktionary