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

More news from Lowender Peran

Yesterday I learnt some Scottish step dancing with Joy Dunlop in the morning, which was a lot of fun and quite tiring, then in the afternoon there were performances from Cornish and Breton groups.

Cornish singing workshop

I also went to a Cornish shanty session with the Aggie Boys Choir, Tir Ha Tavas and Matt Blewett, and a Cornish tunes session hosted by Richard Trethewey of The Grenaways and The Rowan Tree. I didn’t know any of the tunes, but did my best to pick up bits of them. I also recorded some, and may try to learn them and introduce them to sessions in North Wales.

I even heard a few conversations in Cornish between fluent speakers, understood quite a bit of them, and even took part in a few conversations in Cornish myself. At the concert in the evening, which featured groups from Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, the introductions to the groups were in Cornish and English, and I found that I could follow quite a lot of the Cornish.

Towan Beach, Newquay

This morning I had another explore of Newquay and went down to Towan Beach, which seems to be very popular with surfers. Later today there will be more workshops in dancing and singing, readings of poetry and stories in Cornish, and more performances and dances.

Lowender Peren

This weekend I’m in Newquay in Cornwall for the Lowender Peren festival of Celtic music and dance. This is the first time I’ve been to this particular festival, but I have been to pan-Celtic festivals in the Isle of Man before. There are performers and visitors here from all the Celtic lands – Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. I know quite a few of the people from the Isle of Man who are here, and a few from Scotland.

Lowender Peren

The name Lowender Peren means ‘Perran’s Mirth’ in Cornish. The word perran features in some Cornish places names, including Perranporth (Porthperan in Cornish), Perranzabuloe (Pyran yn Treth in Cornish) and Perranarworthal (Peran ar Wodhel in Cornish). It comes from Saint Piran (Peran in Cornish), a 5th century Cornish abbot who became the patron saint of tin miners, and is regarded as the patron saint of Cornwall.

The festival was offical opened last night with a speech in Cornish, and English, by a member of the Gorsedh Kernow, the Gorsedh of the Bards of Cornwall, possibly the Grand Bard herself. Gorsedh is ‘a meeting of bards’. She sounded fairly fluent, and I could actually understand some of the Cornish. I haven’t found anyone else here who speaks Cornish, apart from a few phrases.

Last night there was dancing to a local band, and then a trio of singers, members of the Lorho-Pasco family from Brittany, sang for us in Breton, and we improvised some dances. It was the first time I’d heard that style of Breton music. It works well for dancing, though I’m not sure if I’d want to listen to it for too long on its own.

I also spoke a bit of Manx with people I know from the Isle of Man, and some Scottish Gaelic with Joy Dunlop, a dancer and singer from Scotland who I know from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Newquay

This morning there was an interesting talk about the history of Newquay. Then I went for a wander around the town. This afternoon we went for a guided walk around Newquay seeing some of the things that were mentioned in the talk.

There will be a lot more music, singing and dancing over the next few days. There was even a music session going on in the hotel where the festival is taking place when I went past not long ago.

Language quiz

This week the quiz is a bit different. As I’m currently at the #PolyglotGathering, I thought I’d come up with a question related to the event.

So, the question is, can you guess which of these languages has not been talked about here (in one of the talks or lectures): Ukrainian, Warlpiri, Rapa Nui, Southern Sami, Manx, Tunica, or Shanghainese.

No cheating by looking at the program now 🙂

Yesterday was a good day with some interesting talks and conversations. At the International Culutural Evening I sang a Welsh folk song (Gwcw Fach) on my own, and two songs with a few others – one in Spanish (Cielito Lindo), and one in Māori (Ngā iwi e).

Linguistic adventures

This week I have been speaking quite a bit of Irish. Even though I rarely speak it at home, it is usually there when I need it. When trying to understand songs or poems in Irish, I realise that there are plenty of gaps in my vocabulary, but I can at least get the gist of them.

On Monday night there was a little Russian-speaking corner in the pub made up of three Belarusians, a Bulgarian, and me. I was able to understand quite a bit of what the others were saying in Russian, and to join in occasionally.

Yesterday I learnt a bit about Finnish language and culture from the Finnish guy who is doing the harp course. He told me that Finns tend to be less talkative than people from other countries, but that there is a lot of non-verbal communication between them.

I have also had opportunities to speak a bit of German, and have learnt a bit about German musical terms. For example, in German musical notes are not A to G, but A to H – H refers to B, and B refers to B♭, which is slighly confusing to someone used to the English system.

Do musical notes have other names in your language, or in other languages you know?

Magic Café

Circe's Diner

Tonight I will mainly be listening to the band Circe’s Diner at Blue Sky Café. I haven’t heard them before, but their reviews are good. Also playing tonight is the Ewan Macintyre band.

When I saw the name, I naturally wondered how to pronounce circe, and where the word came from.

According to Wikipedia, circe is pronounced (/ˈsɜːrsiː/ (sursee), and comes from the Greek Κίρκη (Kírkē) [kírkɛ͜ɛ]).

In Greek mythology Circe is a goddess of magic, or a nymph, witch, enchantress or sorceress, daughter of the sun god Helios, and Perse, an Oceanid nymph.

The Ewan Macintyre Band

Harmony-loving chorus

Last night I went to an excellent concert at the Pontio Arts Centre featuring the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the brilliant harpsichordist, Mahan Esfahani.

As well as enjoying the concert, I started thinking about the word philharmonic – what it means, where it comes from, and why it features in the names of many orchestras.

According to Wiktionary, philharmonic means “appreciative of music, but especially to its performance” or “A full-size symphony orchestra”. It comes from the French, philharmonique, from the Italian filarmonico (loving harmony), from the Greek φίλος (phílos – dear, beloved) + αρμονικός (armonikós – harmonic, harmonious) [source].

The name philharmonic was adopted by the Royal Philharmonic Society, which was established in London on 6th February 1813 by a group of thirty professional musicians. Its aims were to promote performances of instrumental music, and to build an orchestra, which initially played at the Argyll Rooms on Regent Street. Before then there were no permanent orchestras in London. After the Society was formed, other orchestras started to the word philharmonic to their names.

The word orchestra comes from the Greek ὀρχήστρα (orchistra), which was the area in front of the stage in an ancient Greek theatre reserved for the chorus, and comes from the word ὀρχοῦμαι (orkhoûmai – to dance).

The word symphony (an extended piece of music of sophisticated structure, usually for orchestra) comes from the Old French simphonie (musical harmony; stringed instrument), from Latin symphonia (harmony, symphony; a kind of musical instrument), from Ancient Greek συμφωνία (sumphōnía – symphony; a concert of vocal or instrumental music; music; band, orchestra; type of musical instrument), from σῠν- (sun – with, together) +‎ φωνή (phōnḗ – sound) [source].

Tuning into languages

Yesterday I did an interview on Skype with a student of linguistics in Germany who is writing a thesis about acquiring native-like pronunciation in foreign languages. I talked about the methods I used to try to do this – listening, mimicing, learning about the phonology of a language, recording my voice and comparing to native speakers, and so on.

While we were chatting, it occured to me that speaking a foreign language is somewhat like playing a musical instrument, or to singing in tune with others. It particularly resembles playing an instrument like a violin or a trombone, which require you to constantly monitor whether the notes you’re playing are in tune with each other, and with other instruments, if you’re playing in an orchestra or other group, and to make adjustments as necessary.

Your voice is your instrument, and learning to pronounce a foreign language is like tuning your instrument. It’s not something you can do once then forget – to acquire native-like pronunciation you need to do a lot of listening and make lots of little adjustments to your pronunciation. It also helps if you understand how the sounds are produced, especially ones that don’t occur in your mother tongue – studying phonetics and phonology can help.

Even if you know nothing about music, you can probably hear when an instrument or voice is very out of tune. It just sounds wrong and clashes with the other instruments / voices. Similarly if your pronunciation of a foreign language is very different from native speakers, i.e. you have a strong accent, it will sound odd to them, and they may have trouble understanding you. The closer you can get to native-like pronunciation, the easier it will be to communicate.

Do you aim for native-like pronunciation in languages you’re learning?

How to go about this?