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].
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.
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.
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:
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?
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].
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?
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 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].
Today while looking into the origins of the Dutch word for pencil – potlood [pɔt.loːt] – I found some interesting connections to words other languages.
Potlood also means crayon, and comes from pot (jar, pot) & lood (lead, plumb bob). Apparently it was originally a name for graphite, and was used for glazing pots, but was misidentified as a form of lead [source].
Other words featuring pot include:
potloodetui = pencil case
potloodslijper = pencil sharpener
bloempot = flower pot, planter
doofpot = cover-up (“deaf pot”)
potdoof = stone deaf, completely deaf
fooienpot = tip jar, stock pot
kookpot = cooking pot, saucepan, cauldron
stamppot= stew, mash, stamppot (a traditional Dutch dish made of potatoes mashed with one or several vegetables)
Lood comes from the Middle Dutch lôot (lead), from Old Dutch *lōt, from Proto-Germanic *laudą (lead), from the Proto-Celtic *loudom (lead), ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *plewd- (to fly, flow, run) [source].
For the same Proto-Celtic root we get luaidhe, which is lead in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, leoaie (lead) in Manx, the English word lead, and related words in other Germanic languages [source].
Words for lead in Welsh (plwm), Cornish (plomm / plobm) and Breton (plom), come from the Latin plumbum (lead (metal), lead pipe, pencil), which is also the root of the English words plumb, plumber and plumbing [source].
A plumber in Dutch is a loodgieter [ˈloːtˌxi.tər] and plumbing is loodgieterswerk – a gieter [ˈɣi.tər] is a person who pours, e.g. a caster, or a watering can, so a loodgieter is someone who pours lead or a lead caster [source].
In Dutch a garden or yard is a tuin [tœy̯n]. When I learnt this yesterday I wondered whether it was related to the English word town.
Tuin comes from the Middle Dutch tuun (hedge), from the Old Dutch tūn (an enclosed piece of ground), from the Proto-Germanic *tūną (fence, enclosure), from the Proto-Celtic *dūnom (stronghold, rampart) [source].
Related words include:
achtertuin = backyard, back garden
betuinen = to enclose, fence, hedge
dierentuin = zoo
kindertuin = kindergarten
kruidentuin = herb garden
moestuin = vegetable / kitchen garden
speeltuin = children’s playground
tuinen = to practice agriculture or horticulture
tuinier = gardener
tuinieren = gardening
tuincentrum = garden centre
tuinslang = garden hose (“garden snake”)
voortuin = front yard
From the Proto-Germanic word *tūną we also get such words as town, the German Zaun (fence), the Icelandic tún (hayfield), the Faroese tún (forecourt, way between houses, street in a Faroese village), and the Norwegian tun (courtyard, front yard, farmstead) [source].
The Russian word тын (fence, especially one made of twigs) comes from the same root [source].
Words for dune in Germanic language possibly come from the same root as well [source].
Directly from the Proto-Celtic word *dūnom we get such words as the Irish dún (fort, fortress, haven), the Scottish Gaelic dùn (fortress, heap, hill), the Manx doon (fort, fortress, stronghold), the Welsh dyn (hill, height, fortification) and dinas (city, town), and the Cornish din (fort) [source]. More about this on Celtiadur
Yesterday while looking into Celtic words bear, I found some interesting ones in the Goidelic languages: mathúin [ˈmˠahuːnʲ] in Irish, mathan [ˈmahan] in Scottish Gaelic and maghouin in Manx. These come from the Old Irish mathgamain [ˈmaθɣəṽənʲ], from math (good) and gamuin (calf).
So bears were called “good calves” – this is possibly an example of taboo naming, that is using an alternative name for a dangerous animal rather than naming it directly, in the belief that this might it less likely to attack you.
In the Brythonic languages words for bear are arth (Welsh & Cornish) and arzh (Breton), which come from the Proto-Celtic *artos (bear), from the Proto-Indo-European h₂ŕ̥tḱos (bear). This is also the root of English word Arctic, and words for bear in Romance and other European languages.
There are no bears in the Anglo-Celtic Isles these days, except in zoos, but there were bears in Britain and Ireland until about 3,000 years ago. The Celtic languages were spoken back then.
The main theme of the Language Event I went to last weekend in Edinburgh was the languages of the Isles. The Isles in question include the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, and about 6,000 other islands. The Isles are also known as the British Isles, but at the event the term ‘The Isles’ was used to be more inclusive.
The term “British Isles” is controversial in Ireland, where some object to its usage. The Government of Ireland does not officially recognise the term, and its embassy in London discourages its use. Britain and Ireland is used as an alternative description, and Atlantic Archipelago is also used to some extent by academics [source].
Other suggested names for these isles include the Anglo-Celtic Isles, the British-Irish Isles, the Islands of the North Atlantic, the West European Isles, the Pretanic Isles, or these islands [source].
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK), made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is one of the countries on these isles. The Republic of Ireland takes up most of the island of Ireland and some small offshore islands. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are self-governing British Crown dependencies, and not part of the UK.
The earliest mentions of the isles are found the writings of Diodorus Siculus (c.90-30 BC), a Greek historian living in Sicily. He referred to the isles as Prettanikē nēsos (the British Island), and to the inhabitants as Prettanoi (the Britons). Strabo (c.64 BC-24 AD), a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian who lived in Asia Minor, referred to the isles as Βρεττανική (Brettanike), and Marcian of Heraclea called them αἱ Πρεττανικαί νῆσοι (the Prettanic Isles).
It is thought that the names used by Greek and Latin writers for these isles were based on the Celtic names for them
In Welsh these isles are known as Ynysoedd Prydain, or yr Ynysoedd Prydeinig (the British Isles). The name Prydain [ˈprədai̯n] (Britain) comes from the Middle Welsh Prydein, from early Proto-Brythonic *Pritanī, from the Old Irish Cruthin (Picts), perhaps from the Proto-Celtic *Kʷritanī / *Kʷritenī, from the Proto-Indo-European *kʷer- (to do).
The Welsh word Prydyn / Pryden, meaning (people of) Scotland, or (land of the) Picts, is related [source].
In Cornish these isles are knowns an Enesow Bretennek (the British Isles). In Scottish Gaelic they’re known as Eileanan Bhreatainn (British Isles). In Scots they’re known as Breetish Isles, and in Manx they’re known as Ellanyn Goaldagh (British Isles) [source].
In Irish these isles are known as Éire agus an Bhreatain Mhór (Ireland and Great Britain), Oileáin Iarthair na hEorpa (Islands of Western Europe) or Oileáin Bhriotanacha (British Isles), although the latter is not much used (see above) [source].
I had a great time at the Language Event, meeting old friends and making news ones, listening to some interesting talks, practising my languages, and exploring bits of Edinburgh. Similar events will be held in Auckland and Melbourne soon, but the next polyglot / language-related event I’m planning to go to is the Polyglot Gathering in Tersin in Poland at the end of May.
It seems that a new year, and indeed a new decade has started, so Happy New Year / Decade!
I’ve noticed that some people are looking back at what they’ve done / achieved, etc over the past decade, so I thought I’d do something similar.
Back in 2009 I was studying for an MA in Linguistics at Bangor University, while working on Omniglot in my spare time, and writing for a couple of other websites. I finished my course in September of that year, though didn’t officially graduate until the following year, and have been working full-time on Omniglot since then.
Over the past decade Omniglot has grown quite a bit – I add something new, or make improvements, almost every day. The site now contains:
Since 2009 Omniglot has been visited by 176 million people, who have made 234 milion visits and viewed 407 million pages. There have been visitors every single country and territory, even Antarctica and North Korea. The top ten countries vistors come from are USA, India, UK, Canada, Philippines, Australia, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa. The most spoken languages of visitors are: English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Dutch, Russian, Chinese and Polish.
Over the past decade I’ve studied and dabbled with a few languages, including: Breton, BSL, Cornish, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Icelandic, Irish, Latin, Manx, Romanian, Russian, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Toki Pona. I also started creating my own language: Laala, and made some con-scripts such as Crymeddau and Curvetic.
I joined a French conversation group back in 2009, and have been going almost every week since then. This has really helped to improve my French and I feel a lot more confident about using it now. When I can, I also go to a Welsh conversation group, and for a while I tried to run a polyglot conversation group.
Every summer I’ve been to Ireland to do courses in Irish language, traditional Irish songs, harp and/or bodhrán playing. I’ve also been to Scotland quite a few times to do courses in Scottish Gaelic songs.
In 2012 I started writing songs and tunes, and have written quite a few since then, especially in 2019, when I wrote a new song almost every month and several new tunes. I also started to write out the music for my tunes and songs, and to make new arrangements of them.
The first song I wrote was The Elephant Song, which came to me after going to a poetry writing workshop.
In 2018 I started the Radio Omniglot Podcast, and have made 27 episodes so far. I try to make two episodes per month, but don’t always manage it.
In 2018 I also launched the Celtiadur, a collection of Celtic cognates, where I explore links between modern and ancient Celtic languages. This is an extension of the Celtic Cognates section on Omniglot.
Wow! Putting it together like this makes me realise that I haven’t been entirely idle.
Many years ago I went to a fascinating talk by David Crystal in Bangor University about endangered languages. One of the things he said was that a good way to spread the word about the plight of such languages might be for creative people to make art, or to write songs, stories, poems, etc about them.
Since then I’ve been thinking about writing a song about this topic, and finally got round to it a few weeks ago. Today I made a recording of it, with harp accompaniment. It’s called Echoes on the Tongue, and is written from the perspective of the words of an endangered language that has never been written down, and has only a few elderly speakers.
At the end of the recording I’ve added the phrase “we are still here” spoken in endangered languages – currently Welsh, Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. If you can translate this phrase into other endangered languages, and ideally make a recording of it, please do. Recordings can be sent to feedback[at]omniglot[dot]com.