Meaningful Nonsense

A new song came to me the other day. I’d been thinking of writing something in a made up language, and spent some of last week speaking to myself in made up words. The words were all open syllables (consonant plus vowel) and most were two syllables.

I wrote the song down and sent it to my singer-songwriter friends. One of them put it into Google Translate, which identified the language as Chichewa, a Bantu language spoken mainly in Malawi.

These are the original words with their Chichewa meanings (according to Google Translate):

Oba mmta uku kitu (Bow and find something)
Tika kuta dupa fu (Tika walls dupa fu)
Fitu mmdu bapi kati (What is the difference between)
Taku mipa untu li (Taku barrels)

Oba mmba undu fitu (Be very serious)
Tepu pimi mmdu ku (Tape pima mmdu to)
Kata tifu uko kibi (Cut off live)
Bifu bafu taku ni (The bath tub taku is)

Kula tupa muta pitu (Eating discarded)
Katu tiku lafu lu (We are already dead)
Lipa lupa pula puli (Pay the pula plum)
Talo tilu lopa mi (So this is the story of my life)

I then played around with the words until they all meant something in Chichewa, and came up with the following:

Oba mpa katu kitu (Pray for nothing)
Tuka kuta taku du (Exit the walls)
Fitu mbu bapi kati (Where’s the mosquito repellent)
Tala mipa untu li (Color your bodies)

Oba mba undu fitu (Pray now and then)
Tafu pima ndu ku (Find out how to)
Kata tifu uko kibi (Cut off live)
Bifu bafu tata ni (The master bath complex is)

Kula tupa muta pitu (Eating discarded)
Katu tiku lafu lu (We are already dead)
Lapa lupa pula puli (The family is raining)
Talo tilu lopa mi (So this is the story of my life)

So I accidentally managed to write a song in a language I don’t know at all. It may be mostly nonsense, but it’s sort of meaningful nonsense.

Do any of you speak Chichewa? If so, is this a good translation?

Have you ever written some nonsense like this, and found that it meant something in a language you don’t know?

This sounds like something from the brilliant YouTube channel Translator Fails, on which songs, and sometimes other things, are put through Google Translate too many times and become thoroughly mangled. Here’s a recent example:

The Secret Language of Basses

I sing bass in several choirs, and quite a few of the bass parts involve us going dm dm dm, or do do do, or something similar. Until recently I thought it was just meaningless sounds we were making, and that maybe the composers / arrangers of the songs just couldn’t be bothered to write words for us basses.

Now I can exclusively reveal here that I have uncovered the Secret Language of Basses. They are not in fact meaningless sounds, but actually hidden messages in Morse Code.

Alternatively they might be in a secret constructed language known only to a few composers.

New Year

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:

… and much more.

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.

I haven’t made a good recording of my most recent song, but here’s one I wrote in November / December 2019:

Since 2014 I’ve been to a number of polyglot events, including the Polyglot Gathering and the Polyglot Conference. At most of these I’ve given talks or run workshops.

Polyglottery

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.

Gaelic Song / Òrain Gàidhlig

My course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig finished today, and I’ll be leaving tomorrow. I’ll stay at my Mum’s for a few days on the way home, and should be back in Bangor next Monday.

The course has been a lot of fun, and Joy Dunlop is a really good teacher. She’s strict about getting the pronunciation right, which is important, and uses interesting ways to describe the particular sounds of Scottish Gaelic. If we all knew phonetics and the IPA, it would be much easier.

We learnt 16 songs altogether in 5 days, which is plenty – in previous years here we’ve learnt over 30 songs in a week, which was maybe slightly too many. I like all the songs we did this time, and plan to continue singing at least some of them.

There were 16 of us in the class, although not everyone was there every day. I already knew some of the people from other courses I’ve done here, and it was nice to see them again, and to meet new people. Most were from Scotland, and other parts of the UK, plus two from Ireland, one from France and one from the Netherlands. We got on well together, and I think singing together is a great way to bond.

The class was taught mainly in English, with some bits of Scottish Gaelic now and then, and only a few of us speak much Gaelic. Outside the class I got to speak quite a bit of Gaelic with people who were studying and working here. I also spoke some French, Irish and Dutch.

Here are a few photos and videos from this year and previous years at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig:

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

This coming week I will be at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, doing a course in Argyll Gaelic Song / Òrain Earra-Ghàidheal with Joy Dunlop. I think this is the eighth time I’ve been to the college, and I’m looking forward to it very much.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

Tonight I’m staying in Glasgow, and tomorrow I’ll get the train along the West Highland Line to Mallaig, a very scenic journey, the ferry to Armadale, and then hopefully there’ll be a bus to the college.

Glasgow / Glaschu

On the train from Glasgow to Crookston, the suburb of Glasgow where I’m staying, I heard some Italian tourists talking to the guard. They didn’t seem to speak much English, and they had the wrong tickets, or they’d got on the wrong train. They asked the guard in Italian if he spoke Italian, and fortunately for them he did. It sounded to me like his Italian was very fluent, and everything was quickly sorted out. You never know when language skills might come in handy.

I haven’t heard any Scottish Gaelic yet, though I have seen it on some signs.

Slán abhaile

My week in Gleann Cholm Cille comes to an end today and I’m off to Limerick. I’ll stay there tonight, then travel back to Bangor tomorrow via train and boat.

It’s been a very enjoyable week. I learnt some new songs, met some interesting people and caught up with old friends, and got to practise various languages, especially Irish, French and Swedish.

The weather has been very variable, as it usually is here, with blue skies and sunshine one minute, and heavy rain the next.

Last night there was a great concert with John Spillane, a singer-song writer from Cork. He sang songs that most of us know, and we all joined in. He also told some very interesting and funny stories about the songs – he calls himself a song detective, or bleachtaire amhrán in Irish.

After that I went to a singing circle / coircal amhránaíochta in Carrick / An Charraig, the nearest town, with some friends.

On Thursday we were treated to an evening of sean-nós, which involved music, singing, dancing and story telling. The sean-nós class took part, as did the set dancing class, and it was great fun.

You can see photos from this year and previous years in Gleann Cholm Cille on Flickr.

I haven’t managed to do much work on Omniglot while I’ve been here, but normal service will be resumed next week.

By the way, Omniglot now lives on a new, faster and more powerful server, so hopefully there won’t be any more problems like there have been over the past few weeks.

In case you’re wondering about the title of this post, slán abhaile means “safe home” in Irish. It’s what you say to people who are leaving a place.

Gleann Cholm Cille

I arrived safely in Glencolmbcille (Gleann Cholm Cille) on Saturday night. As we went further west the skies got darker, and when we arrived in Donegal the heavens opened, and it rained almost non-stop until this morning. I don’t come here for the fine weather, but this was a bit extreme, even for this part of the world. Today the sky cleared for a while, and the sun even put in a welcome appearance.

Irish language classes started yesterday afternoon, and the cultural workshops started this afternoon. I’m doing the sean-nós singing, as usual, and am enjoying it, and the Irish classes very much.

There are plenty of people here who I know from previous visits, and quite a few new faces as well. So far I spoken a lot of Irish, and bits of French, Breton, Swedish, German and Czech – people come here from all over the world, so it’s a great place to practise languages.

Last night we were treated to some excellent music and poetry from Bríd Harper and Diarmuid Johnson. Here they are playing some Welsh tunes. Tonight there is some more poetry, this time from Áine Ni Ghlinn.

Instrumental Idioms

trampa i klaveret

The other day I learnt an interesting Swedish idiom – nu trampade jag verkligen i klaveret, which means “I really put my foot in it” or literally “now I really stepped (heavily) on the accordion / piano / keyboard”.

According to the Svenska Akademiens Ordböcker, trampa i klaveret means “göra en social tabbe” (to make a social mistake). Apparently it comes from the phrase “Det låter, sa bonden/klockaren, trampade i klavere” (It sounds, said the farmer / watchman, like trampling on the keyboard” [source].

To put one’s foot in it means “to say or do something tactless or embarrassing; commit a blunder or indiscretion.” [source]. The origins of this phrase are not known.

Other idioms involves musical instruments, or instrumental idioms, include:

  • rhoi’r ffidl yn y to = to give up / throw in the towel (“to put the fiddle in the roof)
  • to play second fiddle = to take a subordinate position to someone was is more important
  • to blow one’s own trumpet = to boast about your own sucesses
  • to blow the whistle (on sth/sb) = to report illegal / unacceptable activities

Do you know any more?

Echoes on the Tongue

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.

Crotchets & Quavers

An illustration of musical notes

Yesterday I finally worked out how to create musical scores on my computer (using musescore). It’s something I’ve tried before, but couldn’t get the hang of. So now I’m going write out all the tunes I’ve composed. As I’m doing this, I thought I’d look into the names of some musical notes and their origins.

The commonly-used types of musical notes are shown in the image. Their names are different in British English and American English. The American English names are self-explanatory, and a bit boring. The British English ones are more interesting, so let’s look at where they come from:

  • A semibreve is the longest note in common-use. The breve, or double whole note, does exist, but is quite rare. The word breve comes from the Old French brieve / breve (brief), from the Latin brevis (short) – in medieval music the brevis was one of the shortest notes. A semibreve is half the length of a breve.
  • A minim is half the length of a semibreve, and comes from the French minime (minimal), from the Latin minimus (smallest, shortest, youngest), a superlative of minor (smaller) from the Proto-Indo-European *mey- (few, small).
  • A crotchet is half the length of a minim, and comes from the Old French crochet (little hook), a diminutive of croc, from the Frankish *krōk (hook) or from Old Norse krókr (hook, bend, bight), from the Proto-Germanic *krōkaz (hook), from Proto-Indo-European *gerg- (tracery, basket, twist).
  • A quaver is half the length of a crotchet, and comes from the Middle English quaveren, a form of quaven / cwavien (to tremble), from quave (a shaking, trembling)

A semiquaver is half the length of a quaver, and a demisemiquaver is half the length of a semiquaver. Shorter, and less commonly-used notes include:

  • Hemidemisemiquaver or 64th note
  • Semihemidemisemiquaver or quasihemidemisemiquaver or 128th note
  • Demisemihemidemisemiquaver or 256th note

Sources: Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Online Etymology Dictionary