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.

In Hot Water

While making the lastest episode of the Radio Omniglot Podcast this week, I noticed that there are several words for water in Japanese – something I knew but had forgotten.

  • 水 (mizu/sui) = water (esp. cool, fresh water, e.g. drinking water)​, fluid, liquid, flood(waters)
  • 湯 (yu/tō) = hot water, bath, hot spring
  • 潮 (shio/ushio/chyō) = tide, salt water, opportunity
  • ウォーター (wātā) = used in foreign placenames

If you count the different ways to pronounce the kanji as separate words, you could say that there are eight different words for water in Japanese. Mizu, yu, shio and ushio are native Japanese words, sui, tō and chyō were borrowed from Chinese, and wātā might possibly come from English.

仁王尊プラザ温泉

Here are some examples of how they’re used.

  • 水曜日 (suiyōbi) = Wednesday (“water day”)
  • 水素 (suitso) = hydrogen
  • 水族館 (suizokukan) = aquarium
  • 水路 (suiro) = waterway, canal, channel, aqueduct
  • 水切り (mizukiri) = straining, draining; strainer, colander
  • 水車 (suishō) = water wheel, hydraulic turbine
  • 水辺 (mizube) = waterside, waterfront
  • 湯気 (yuge) = steam, vapour
  • 湯沸かし (yuwakashi) = kettle
  • 湯船 (yubune) = bathtube (“hot water boat”)
  • 湯水 (yumizu) = hot and cold water​; abundant / plentiful item
  • 潮流 (chōryū) = tide, tidal current​, tendency, drift, trend​
  • 潮水 (shiomizu) = seawater
  • 潮力 (chōryoku) = tidal energy

I suppose it makes sense that in a land where hot water is readily available from the many hot springs, that hot water is be seen as something different to cold water.

In Mandarin Chinese 水 (shuĭ) means water or liquid, and 汤 [湯] (tāng) means soup or hot water.

Do any other languages have separate words for cold water and hot water, or other types of water?

You could say that there quite a few words for water in various states: ice, rain, snow, sleet, hail, mist, fog, clouds, water vapour, and so on.

Source: Jisho.org

Edinburgh

I am currently in Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Language Event, brought to you by the people behind the Polyglot Conference. It’s a smaller than other polyglot events I’ve been to, with only 100 or participants, and the main focus is languages of the Isles, or the British Isles and Ireland, if you prefer.

The Language Event, Edinburgh

I arrived earlier this evening, and eventually found the AirBnB I’m staying in after a few wrong turns. Then I discovered that my phone charger was no longer in my bag – it must have dropped out somewhere, probably on the train. So by the time I found my accommodation, it had only 3% charge. I hope to borrow someone’s charger tomorrow, or I might have to buy a new one.

I met up with some of the other participants at a large bar in the centre of Edinburgh. Some I know already from previous such events, and others I didn’t know before. Most of the conversations were in English, but I also spoke some Welsh, Russian, Swedish, Mandarin and Japanese.

The event starts tomorrow morning, and I’ll be giving a talk about connections between Celtic languages tomorrow afternoon. I know there are speakers of Welsh, Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic here, and there may even be some Cornish and Breton speakers.

More photos from Edinburgh:

Edinburgh / Dùn Èideann

Christmas

Christmas tree / Coeden nadolig

Did you get any language-related goodies for Christmas?

Are you planning to start learning any new languages next year?

I got a British Sign Language (BSL) course, The Accidental Dictionary by Paul Anthony, and a t-shirt with hello on it in many languages.

I plan to concentrate on improving my knowledge of the languages I already know, rather than starting any new ones. Whether I stick to this remains to be seen.

Oh and Merry Christmas
Nadolig Llawen
Joyeux Noël
Nedeleg Laouen
Frohe Weihnachten
Nadelik Lowen
聖誕快樂
Nollaig shona
メリークリスマス
Nollick Ghennal
¡Feliz Navidad!
Nollaig Chridheil
С Рождеством
God jul
Veselé vánoce
Glædelig jul
Ĝojan Kristnaskon

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.

One language

Omnigot logo

Yesterday I say a post in the Silly Linguistics Community on Facebook challenging people to write a sentence in all the languages they speak. This is what I came up with:

Tha e duilich writing une phrase ym mhob språk atá agam, pero ich 試試 red ennagh symoil を書く, kaj nun я хочу říct že il mio tomo tawa supa está cheio de țipari.

This means “It is difficult writing a sentence in every language I speak, but I will try to write something interesting, and now I want to say my hovercraft is full of eels”.

The languages, in order, are Scottish Gaelic, English, French, Welsh, Swedish, Irish, Spanish, German, Chinese, Manx, Japanese, Esperanto, Russian, Czech, Italian, Toki Pona, Portuguese and Romanian.

It’s not the best sentence ever, perhaps, but I enjoyed the challenge of putting it together. It also got me thinking about how many languages and writing systems I could use in a version of my motto “one language is never enough“. This motto appears on some versions of my logo, such as the one above, and I usually try to write it in several difficult languages.

Here are some versions I came up with today. The first version incorporates some of the languages I speak and am learning, plus a few others.

Une singură 语言 är nikdy недостаточно – languages = French, Romanian, Chinese, Swedish, Czech / Slovak, Russian.

Ett seule 言語 ist nunca yn ddigon – languages = Norwegian / Swedish, French, Japanese, German, Portuguese / Galician / Spanish, Welsh.

Jeden lingua er niemals suficiente – languages = Czech / Polish / Slovak / Rusyn, Asturian / Chamorro / Corsican / Galician / Italian / Latin / Sicilian / Interlingua, Danish / Faroese / Icelandic / Norwegian, German, Spanish / Asturian.

Can you incorporate more languages and/or writing systems into this phrase?

Lend me a word

English is a bit of a mongrel. It is basically a West Germanic language, but contains words from many other languages, especially French, Latin, Greek and Old Norse. In fact, only about 26% of English vocabulary is Germanic, 29% is from French, 29% from Latin, 6% from Greek, and the rest from many other languages [source].

When English borrows words from other languages, which it does all the time, most people see the process as a positive one that expands and enriches English vocabulary.

There will always be some who object to the adoption of certain words, however, within a few generations, or even a few years, those words can become fully integrated in the language, and people might not even be aware they were borrowed in the first place.

Japanese is also open and accepting of foreign words, mainly from Chinese and English. These loan words are changed to fit Japanese phonetics, and some are shortened and combined to make original new words, such as リモコン (rimokon) = remote control, and オープンカー (ōpun-kā) = convertible car.

Borrowing between languages is common around the world where languages come into contact. The borrowing often flows from large languages, like English or Spanish, into smaller languages, such as regional, minority and endangered languages.

When smaller languages borrow from bigger languages, some believe the smaller languages suffer in the process, becoming corrupted, impoverished, polluted, etc. Such sentiments are much less common when talking about borrowing from smaller languages into bigger languages.

There seems to be a double standard here.

Borrowing will happen, even though language regulators, such as the Académie française, might object and try to stop it. Languages change and influence one another. They can borrow many words from other languages without losing their identity, and without breaking down into incomprehensible grunts.

What do you think?

Do languages benefit from borrowing?

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.

Heim aftur / Home again

The Polyglot Conference is over now for another year, and I arrived back to Bangor yesterday. Although the conference only lasted two days, a lot was packed into that time.

On the Friday I went on a Golden Circle tour with two coach loads of other polyglots. Unfortunately it was a wet, cloudy and cold day, so the views were not great, but the landscape we could see was rather fine.

The first stop was Þingvellir (Thingvellir), a World Heritage Site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It is also where the Iceland parliament (Alþingi) met from AD 930 until 1798.

Þingvellir / Thingvellir

Next we went to Geysir, and area of volcanic activity with a number of sprouting hot springs, including the famous Great Geysir, which is currently inactive, and Stokkur, which erupts every few minutes (see photo below). We also had lunch here – there are a number of eating places and souvenir shops in the complex near the hot springs. I was expecting the whole place to stink of sulphur, but it didn’t really.

Þingvellir / Thingvellir

Our final stop was Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”), waterfalls in the canyon of Ölfusá river. They were spectacular, and well worth seeing.

Gullfoss

In the evening, after we arrived back in Reykajvik, I went for dinner at an Indian restaurant with a few other polyglots.

The conference started on Saturday morning with interesting speeches by Dr Sebastian Drude, the director of the Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding, and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former President of Iceland and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for languages.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir opening the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik

Then there were talks on a variety of topics, with themes including Icelandic language and culture, bilingualism and autism, and maintaining ‘small’ languages. Some of the speakers were lecturers or researchers in universities, others were language enthusiasts. The talks I found most interesting were the one by Daniel Tammet and Sigriður Kristinsdóttir about how he learnt Icelandic in a week with her help; one about bilingualism and autism, one about the cognitive effects of language learning, and one about Mongolian.

The 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik

There was plenty of time between the talks and at lunch to catch up with old friends, meet new ones and practise languages. During my time in Iceland, I had conversations in English, Welsh, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese and Irish, and spoke bits of Czech, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Manx, Swedish and Icelandic.

Lunch was provided – small sandwiches and wraps, though didn’t appeal to me, so I bought something else in a supermarket.

A panel discussuion at the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik

There weren’t any organised activities in the evenings, as there are at the Polyglot Gatherings. Instead babbles of polyglots went off to do their own thing. I went for dinner with some polyglot friends and had very interesting discussions about all sorts of things, not all of which were related to languages – we do have other interests.

The annoucement of where the Polyglot Conference will be in 2018

The next Polyglot Conference will be in Ljubljana in Slovenia from 5-7 October 2018 (as you might have guessed from this photo). So next year I will learn some Slovenian before the conference in Ljubljana, and some Slovak before the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava in Slovakia.

On Monday I did some work on Omniglot in the morning, explored Reykjavik a bit, had lunch in a restaurant in the old harbour area of Reykjavik, did some more work, then explored a bit more with the two Russian teachers who were staying in the same place as me.

Iceland is a very expensive place, which I expected. Meals in restaurants cost at least twice as much as in the UK, as do most other things. It wasn’t as cold as I expected – about 7-10°C during the day and 2-5°C at night. All the locals I met speak very good English, but if you speak Icelandic, they’re happy to speak it with you. There are apparently quite a few people who have moved to Iceland recently for work, most don’t speak Icelandic. On a clear, dry day, the scenery is spectacular. Even on grey, wet days, it’s still impressive and dramatic.

There are some more photos on Flickr:

Iceland / Ísland