Languages of London

Last night I went to the first Languages of London meetup – it’s the same group I’ve been going to for a few months (the Polyglot Pub), but with a new name and venue, and more participants.

Some happy polyglots at the Languages of London meet-up in the Wellcome Collection café

The meetup was supposed to take place in the Institute of Education in UCL, which is a good location in central London near Russell Square and Euston. Unfortunately they were closed for the Easter holidays, even though they had confirmed in advance that the venue would be available. So we had to find somewhere else in a hurry. Fortunately we found a good alternative in the café in the nearby Wellcome Collection.

There were more people there last night than have been at any of the Polyglot Pub meetups I’ve been to, from various countries. We chatted about languages, and other things, in a variety of languages, and generally had a good time. I had conversations in English, Welsh, French and Japanese, and spoke odd bits of Spanish and Portuguese. There were also conversations in Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Thai and a few other languages.

These meetups happen once a month and if you’re in London for the next one. Do come along. They’re for anybody who is learning a language or two, who speaks a few languages, and/or is interested in languages.

Special offer from Rocket Languages

Rocket languages

This week Rocket Languges are celebrating their 13th Anniversary with a 4-day sale starting today and continuing until Friday 17th March, or until they’ve sold 1,000 courses.

During this time you can get 60% off any of their online language courses, which include: French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese (Mandarin), German, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, ASL, Korean, Portuguese and English (for Spanish or Japanese speakers).

The coupon code to receive the discount is ANNIVERSARY

They also offer online piano courses, in case you fancy a break from your language studies.

I have tried and reviewed their Hindi and Japanese courses, and think they are definitely worth a look. Since then they have added some new languages – Russian and Portuguese – and I’m tempted to try their Russian course, even though I already have plenty of other Russian courses and learning materials. Can you ever have too many language learning materials?

Note: I am a Rocket Languages affiliate, and will receive commission if you buy any of the courses via the links above.

Needle Mouse and the Clockwork Octopus

Hedgehog (針鼠/針ねずみ/蝟/ハリネズミ)

There’s a Japanese word that means ‘needle mouse’ when literally translated. What kind of animal do you think it is?

It is in fact a hedgehog. It is written 針鼠 and pronounced harinezumi: 針 (hari) means needle, pin, hook, stinger; thorn, hand (of clock), pointer or staple. 鼠 (nezumi, nezu, shi, sho) means rat, mouse or dark gray. Harinezumi can also be written 針ねずみ, 蝟 or ハリネズミ.

In Mandarin Chinese the character 蝟 (wèi) means hedgehog, and also vulgar, wanton, low, many, varied or porcupine. The simplified version is 猬. Another Chinese word for hedgehog is 刺猬 [刺蝟] (cì​wei) – 刺 (cì​) = stab, prick, irritate or prod.

The word 針鼠 is not used in Chinese, as far as I know, and appears to be a Japanese coinage.

I was inspired to write this post after reading about the needle mouse / hedgehog in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, which I finished yesterday. It’s an interesting book that I enjoyed very much, and that includes references to Japanese language and culture, and elements of history, fantasy, sci-fi and magical realism, and also a clockwork octopus, and other clockwork creatures.

The Japanese for clockwork octopus is ぜんまい仕掛けの蛸 (zenmaijikake no tako) or 時計仕掛けの蛸 (tokeijikake no tako). In Chinese it’s 发条章鱼 [發條章魚] (fātiáo zhāngyú).

Sources: Jisho, MDBG Chinese dictionary

This is a tune I wrote called “The Clockwork Octopus” – the title came first, then I wrote the tune:

Cold Wintry Wind

凩 (kogarashi) cold wintry wind

I learnt an interesting Japanese word and kanji today – 凩 (こがらし / kogarashi), which means ‘cold wintry wind’ or ‘the cold wind that reminds us winter is coming’. It is also written 木枯し or 木枯, and is considered ‘untranslatable‘ by some.

The character 凩 is a 国字 (こくじ / kokuji), that is one that was made in Japan rather than being borrowed from Chinese. It combines 几 (ki – armrest, desk, table, screen), which can also mean ‘to envelope; to wrap around’, with 木 (ki / moku – tree, shrub, bush, wood).

Other kokuji include:

– 凧 (いかのぼり; たこ – ikanobori; tako) = kite
– 凪 (なぎ; な.ぐ / nagi; nagu) = lull; calm
– 働く (はたらく / hataraku) = work
– 峠 (とうげ / tōge) = mountain peak; mountain pass; climax; crest
– 杢 (モク / moku) = woodworker
– 杣 (そま / soma) = timber; lumber; woodcutter

In Welsh there is a word that is similar to 凩: rhewynt, meaning an ‘ice-cold wind’, from rhew (frost, ice) and gwynt (wind, breath). There are also a number of other interesting wind-related expressions:

gwynt carthen = breeze created by shaking a blanket (said comtemptuously of a preacher’s artificial eloquence)
gwynt coch Amwythig = the east wind (“the red / sorching wind of Shrewsbury”)
gwynt y creigiau = north-west wind (“wind of the [Snowdonian] rocks”)
gwynt ffroen yr ych = the east wind (“the wind the ox’s nostril”)
gwynt pilyn = breeze created by shaking a sack in order to separate the chaff from the grain when wwinnowing (“wind of a garment”)
gwynt traed y meirw = the east wind (“the wind of dead men’s feet” – refers to the custom of burying people with their feet to the east)

Sources:, Geiriadur yr Academi, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru

Are there equivalents of 凩 (kogarashi) in other languages?

Or other interesting wind-related expressions?

もしもし (moshi moshi)

When answering the phone in Japanese the phrase you usually used is もしもし (moshi moshi). I received an email from a Japanese guy today saying that this doesn’t mean hello, so I thought I’d find out what it actually means.

According to Tofugu, this phrase comes from the verb 申す (mōsu), which a humble equivalent of 言う (iu) – to say. Originally the phrase used was 申し上げます (mōshiagemasu) = “I’m going to say (talk)”, which was commonly used during the Edo period to talk to people of higher status. Over time it got shortened.

Another explanation of why moshi moshi is used on the phone is because it’s hard for 狸 / たぬき (tanuki) to say. Tanuki, a type of fox or racoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides), are tricksters in Japanese stories, and you can tell if one is on the other end of the phone if they don’t say moshi moshi back to you.

Another explanation is that when the telephone was introduced to Japan in 1890 only rich people could afford it, and they said おいおい (oi oi) when making calls. This means something like “Hey you!”, and people replied はい、良うございます (Hai, yō gozaimasu), which means roughly “Yes, I’m ready”. People thought this was too abrupt and started using 申し上げます (mōshiagemasu), which was shortened to 申す申す (mōsu mōsu) for male telephone operators, and 申し申し (mōshi mōshi) for females.

In 1889 Shigenori Katougi (加藤木重教), an electrician for the Ministry of Engineering, went to the USA to study their telephone system. He was asked how people answer the phone in Japan, and wasn’t sure how to explain the complexities involved, so just said that they use moshi moshi, which means hello. He brought the idea back to Japan, and it became the standard way by 1902.

Moshi moshi is mainly used on the phone, but occasionally in other contexts. For example, if someone is spaced out and you want to get their attention you say moshi moshi.

Here’s Tofugu’s video about this:

Mony a mickle maks a muckle

There’s a Scots saying Mony a mickle maks a muckle, or Many a mickle makes a muckle, which means “A lot of small amounts, put together, become a large amount”.

The word muckle certainly means large, and also big, great; much, a great deal of, a lot of; grown-up, mature, adult; of great social consequence, of high rank, great; captial (letter).

In the context of the saying you’d expect mickle to mean small. However it is actually a variant form of muckle. The original version of the saying was apparently “Mony a pickle maks a muckle” – pickle means “A grain of oats, barley, wheat; a small particle of any kind, a grain, granule, speck, pellet.” It’s possible that pickle became mickle to make the saying more alliterative.

Another source states that this phrase was first recorded in writing in 1614 as “many a little made a mickle” and the Scots version was “A wheen o’ mickles mak’s a muckle”.

I came across a Japanese equivalent of this saying today: ちりも積もれば山となる or 塵も積もれば山となる (Chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru), which means something like “Piling up dust/garbage makes a mountain”, and is translated as “many a little makes a mickle”. I thought that’s wrong, mickle means a little, but now I know better, possibly.

Related sayings in English include:

– Save a penny, save a pound
– Little strokes fell great oaks
– Little and often fills the purse
– Every little helps
– Little drops of water, little grains of sand, make a mighty ocean and a pleasant land

Do you know any others in English or other languages?

Sources: Dictionary of the Scots Language / Dictionar o the Scots Leid, The Scotsman, jisho, Stake Exchange, Wordwizard

Eating sideways

An interesting Japanese word I came across today in an article on ‘untranslatable’ words is 横飯 (yokomeshi) which is used to describe the stress of speaking a foreign language.

It comes from 横 (yoko – horizontal) and 飯 (meshi – boiled rice, a meal, food), and could be translated as ‘a meal eaten sideways’. This refers to the fact that Japanese is often written vertically, while most other languages are written horizontally.

Are there words of expressions in other languages that have a similar meaning?

Polyglotting in Montreal

Yesterday was the first day of the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal. It’s taking place at Concordia University, which has two campuses – one downtown, and one quite a way out of town. I went to the out of town one by mistake, and walked a few miles to get there from the nearest Metro stop. When I got there I couldn’t any signs of the Symposium, and after wandering around for a while, I found someone to ask and they said it was probably at the other campus.

Fortunately as I was leaving a taxi was dropping someone off, so I jumped in and headed back into town. I arrived about 10 minutes before my presentation, the first of the day, was due to start. The presentation went well with some good discussion and quite a few people have told me that they found it interesting.

There were other presentations on various language-related topics yesterday, which were all quite interesting. One was in French, the rest were in English. The one in French was by a local guy with a strong Quebecois accent, which was a bit difficult to follow, but I was getting most of it by the end.

In the evening many of us trekked up Mont Royal, which has great views from the top. On the way down it rained quite heavily and people split up and wandered off in different groups. We eventually met up at a Spanish restaurant for tapas.

I met quite a few people I know from previous polyglot events, and plenty of new people, and I had conversations in English, French, Esperanto and Scottish Gaelic, and spoke bits of Russian, Portuguese, Japanese and Mandarin.

Multilingual Manchester

Part of the Manchester Day Parade 2016

I had a multilingual day in Manchester today – I spent part of it listening to choirs and other groups performing as part of the Manchester Day celebrations. They sang in English, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Maori, Hebrew and Yiddish, and I also watched the Manchester Day parade.

Part of the Manchester Day Parade 2016

I also went to the Polyglot Pub, a meet-up arranged by Kerstin Cable of Fluent Language. The seven of us who turned up spoke in English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and Swedish, plus odd bits of Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Japanese, Finnish and Estonian. This was the first Polyglot Pub in Manchester, and hopefully won’t be the last.

Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service Pipe Band

You can see more photos on Flickr

There will be a language quiz tomorrow, by the way.

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.