Novi Sad Catholic Cathedral

Yesterday morning I met up with other conference participants and after a bit of a wander around the city, we had lunch then went to the opening ceremony a reception. In the after we had a little guided tour of Novi Sad seeing some interesting buildings, including the Catholic or Orthodox Cathedrals, and the fortress. There are some rather attractive buildings here, wide, pedestrianised café-lined streets, some nice parks and generally a relaxed kind of atmosphere.

In the evening we all went to a restaurant about 4 or 5km from the city centre for dinner. I walked there with a few others, and the rest went by bus or taxi. We had a nice dinner with lots of polyglot chat, then some people started dancing, and others carried on chatting.

Novi Sad town hall

Today there were lectures and talks on a variety of topics including sound symbolism, the magic of metaphors, language coaching, and acting and humour in a foreign language.

So far I’ve had conversations in about 10 languages and spoken bits and pieces of maybe 10 others. In some cases this was only a few words (all I know), in others it was a bit more. There are even two guys here who are learning Scottish Gaelic, one of whom also speaks a bit of Manx, and another who is learning Irish.

Novi Sad

Novi Sad / Нови Сад

As I’m going to the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad (Нови Сад) [nôʋiː sâːd] in October, I thought I should find out what Novi Sad actually means – it’s the kind of thing I like to know. I guessed that Novi probably means new, but had no idea what Sad might mean.

According to this dictionary, нови means new and сад means ‘plantation’.

Wikipedia translates the name as ‘New Garden’, and gives versions of the name in a number of languages used in local administration:

– Serbian: Нови Сад, Novi Sad
– Hungarian: Újvidék (‘new territory/region/land’)
– Slovak: Nový Sad
– Rusyn: Нови Сад (Novi Sad)

In Latin it’s known as Neoplanta, and as Novi Sad in Croatian and Romanian.

The word сад / sad comes from the Proto-Slavic *saditi (to plant), and means vessel, container or dish in Macedonian; garden, orchard or park in Russian and Ukrainian; orchard in Czech and Polish; fruit in Lower Sorbian; and garden, orchard or plantation in Slovak.

Sources: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/сад and http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sad

Extreme Polyglottery

The Polyglot Gathering in Berlin last week was fantastic and I enjoyed everything about it. The organizers did an excellent job and everything went well, with only minor hitches. Many other people helped things to run smoothly, and gave talks and/or arranged discussions and language practise sessions.

The A&O Hauptbahnhof hostel/hotel where the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin took place in June 2014

The venue was a huge hostel/hotel near Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (main station), and not far from famous places like the Reichstag (home of the German parliament) and the Brandenburg Gate. It was equipped with hotel and hostel-style rooms, a dining hall in the basement, a reception area with seating and a games section on the ground floor, and a roof-top bar on the 5th floor. The gathering itself took place mainly in function rooms on the 5th floor, with a large room for the talks and activities and two smaller rooms for discussions and talks. One of the smaller rooms also served as a tea room – Gufujo (owl room in Esperanto) – in the evenings for those looking for somewhere quieter than the bar for a chat. There were also spontaneous outbreaks of polyglottery in other parts of the venue, and outside as well.

The program for the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 2014

The program included lectures, talks, discussions, games, and plenty opportunities to practise languages and to talk about language learning, language and languages – or polyglottery as I like to call it. The talks and discussions ran from 9am to 1pm, with two hours for lunch, and from 3-6pm. In most time spots there were two or three things going on at the same time, so you couldn’t go to everything. Fortunately the talks were all videoed and the videos will appear online when they have been edited, so I can watch the ones I missed, and those who weren’t there can watch all the ones that interest them. The program booklet was printed several months before the gathering, so there were some changes, and people filled in empty spots with talks on a variety of language-related topics, and other activities.

The talks I went to include ones on Proto-Indo-European, careers for polyglots, neuroscience and language learning, practising languages in virtual words, Scots and Scottish English, Welsh; and discussions on passive v active learning, and synesthesia; and introductions to Indonesian, Toki Pona and Macedonian. Some talks were quite academic, others were more informal. All were interesting.

On the first evening there was an international culinary festival with food and drink from many different countries. There were polyglot games on the subsequent two evenings, and an international culture evening with songs and poems in many different languages on the final evening. I started it off with a song in Welsh – Lisa Lân, and my Manx/English song about seagulls and chips – Spollagyn son tey / Chips for tea, and finished it with my song Everyday Adventures, which all went down well.

Here’s me singing Lisa Lân and Spollagyn son tey / Chips for tea (videoed by David J. James):

The most impressive contribution was Richard Simcott singing Let it Go from Frozen in some 20 different languages from memory:

There were some 230 participants there from all over the world ranging in age from teenagers to pensioners. All spoke at least two languages, and many spoke quite a few more – I think the average number of languages spoken there was around four or five, with a number of people who speak ten or more languages. There were plenty of students there who are studying languages, and many other subjects, as well as people who run language-related businesses, or work as translators, writers, journalists, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and many other professions. Whatever our background, we all shared a passion for languages, and were interested in finding out about other peoples, countries and cultures.

A group photo of most of the participants in the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 2014

Meeting so many other polyglots and being able to talk in many different languages and about languages and language learning was wonderful. I don’t often get to do this as I only know a few other polyglots where I live, so the gathering was fantastic for me. I didn’t need to suppress or hold back any of my enthusiasm for languages, as I usually do to varying degrees when talking to people who don’t share my passion. Everyone was friendly, interesting, and had different stories to tell, and I now feel like a part of the polyglot community. Before the gathering I had watched videos and read blogs and forum posts, and even commented from time to time, so I was familiar with a number of polyglots with an online presence, but felt that I was kind of on the periphery of the community. Few people recognised me, but many were familiar with Omniglot, and were happy to meet the guy behind it.

I found the talks, discussions and other activities interesting and fun, especially the discussions on synesthesia, and on raising bi/multilingual children – I don’t have any kids, but my niece is being raised bilingually in English and Russian, and quite a few of my friends are raising their kids with two or more languages, especially English and Welsh.

I would recommend this kind of event to anybody interested in languages, and I’m looking forward to the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad in Serbia in October.

Voices and calls

After writing yesterday’s post I was thinking about the Czech word hlas [ɦɫas] (voice, vote) and realised that it is quite similar to the Welsh word for voice, llais [ɬais]. I wondered it they share the same root.

Hlas comes from the Proto-Slavic *golsъ (voice), from the Proto-Balto-Slavic *galsas (voice), from the Proto-Indo-European *golHsos, from *gels- (to call)

The words for voice in other Slavic languages come from the same root: Old East Slavic: голосъ (golosŭ); Belarusian: голас (hólas); Russian: голос (gólos) and глас (glas – archaic/poetic); Ukrainian: голос (hólos); Old Church Slavonic: гласъ (glasŭ); Bulgarian: глас (glas); Macedonian: глас (glas); Serbo-Croatian: гла̑с; Slovene: glas; Kashubian: głos; Polish: głos; Slovak: hlas; Lower Sorbian: głos; Upper Sorban: hłós.

Also from the same root are the Latin gallas (cockrel); Romani glaso (voice); Romanian glas (voice, vote); Old Norse kalla (to call); English call, Dutch kallen (to chat, talk); German kallen (to scream, talk loudly, talk too much); Lithuanian galsas (sound, echo); Welsh galw (to call) and llais (voice); and possibly the Irish and Scottish Gaelic glaodh (to cry, shout).

Sources: Wiktionary

How does my language sound to you?

Yesterday I learnt that to Polish speakers Czech can sound cute, as quite a few Czech words sound like diminutives in Polish. For example cat is kot in Polish and kočka in Czech. Polish diminutives of kot are kotka and kociątko. A Czech diminutive of kočka is koťátko.

What do closely related languages or varieties of your language sound like to you?

Do any of them sound cute like Czech to Polish speakers?

How does Polish sound to Czech speakers?

Tag questions, innit!

Tag questions or question tags are interrogative fragments (tags) added to statements making them into sort of questions. They tend to be used more in colloquial speech and informal writing than in formal writing, and can indicate politeness, emphasis, irony, confidence or lack of it, and uncertainty. Some are rhetorical and an answer is not expected, others invite a response.

In English they come in various forms, for example:

– I like coconut, don’t I?
– You’re tall, aren’t you?
– He’s handsome, isn’t he?
– She said she’d be here, didn’t she?
– It’ll rain tomorrow, won’t it?
– We were away, weren’t we?
– You’d gone, hadn’t you?
– They’ll be there, won’t they?

A simpler tag question used is some varieties of English in innit, a contraction of isn’t it, which could be used for all the examples above. Other English tags include right? and eh? – do you use any others?

Tag questions in Celtic languages can also have quite complex forms which depend on the verb and the subject in the main clause, particularly in Welsh.

T’eh braew jiu, nagh vel? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
Hie ad dys y thie oast riyr, nagh jagh? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
Bee oo goll magh mairagh, nagh bee? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)

Tá sé go breá inniu, nach bhfuil? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
Chuaigh siad go dtí an teach tábhairne aréir, nagh ndeachaigh? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
Beidh tú ag dul amach amárach, nach bheidh? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)

Scottish Gaelic
Tha i brèagha an diugh, nach eil? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
Chaidh iad dhan taigh-òsta an-raoir, nagh deach? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
Bidh thu a’ dol a-mach a-màireach, nach bi? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)

Mae’n braf heddiw, on’d ydy? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
Mi aethon nhw nhw’n mynd i’r dafarn neithiwr, on’d wnaethon? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
Fyddet ti’n mynd allan yfory, on’ fyddet? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)

I’m not sure about how tag questions work in Breton and Cornish.

In other languages things can be simpler:

– Czech: že?
– French: n’est-ce pas? non?
– German: nicht wahr? nicht? oder?
– Italian: no? vero? (positive), non è vero? (negative)
– Polish: prawda? (positive), nieprawdaż? (negative)
– Russian: да? (da?)
– Spanish: ¿no? ¿verdad?

Can you provide other examples?

Język polski w Anglii i Walii (Polish language in England and Wales)

The 2011 UK census found that Polish is the third most-spoken language in England and and Wales, after English and Welsh, and the second most-spoken language in England after English. According to a report in The Guardian, there are 546,000 speakers Polish in England and Wales, which is compared with the 562,000 people who report that they speak Welsh in Wales.

Statisticians who analysed data from the census found that in response to the question “what is your main language?” 104 different languages were listed, and 49 of them have 15,000 or more speakers. In England and Wales 8% of the population, or 4.2 million people, speak a language other than English as the main language. The most spoken languages after English, Welsh and Polish are Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati. There are also significant numbers of Arabic, French, Chinese and Portuguese speakers. Of the Chinese speakers, most list Hakka, Hunanese or other Sinitic languages as their main language, and fewer list Mandarin or Cantonese. There were found to be particularly concentrations of Gujarati speakers in Leicester, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers in Manchester, Lithuanian speakers in Boston in Lincolnshire, Punjabi speakers in Slough, and Somali speakers in Brent in northwest London.

So if you’re in the UK and considering learning a foreign language, Polish might be a good choice, or maybe another language that is widely spoken in the area where you live. In London you have a choice of over 100 languages in most boroughs.

Another article I found in The Guardian today talks about a primary school in Peterborough where 20 different languages are spoken among the pupils, but none of them speaks English as a mother tongue. The headmistress, who has worked in Pakistan and speaks Urdu, doesn’t see this as a problem but rather celebrates the diversity of the school and does everything possible to ensure that children do well. Many of the teaching assistants in the school are bilingual; new pupils are paired with older pupils who speak their language in a buddy system, and there are arrangements with other local schools where the pupils can learn alongside others who speak English as a native language.

Languages in the UK

Today I found maps on the Guardian website which show the percentages of speakers of languages other than English in a number of major UK cities. It is based on data from the 2011 census and shows where the speakers are concentrated. For example, the main concentration of Bengali speakers is in East London around Mile End, while Arabic speaks are concentrated mainly along Edgeware Road. Meanwhile in Cardiff there are Polish speakers in most parts of the city with a particular concentration between Newport Road and Broadway.

This kind of map might be useful if you’re looking for people to practice your languages with.

Do you know if similar maps are available for other cities or countries?

Best languages to study

According to an article I came across in the Daily Telegraph today, the best / most useful languages to study, for those in the UK, are:

1. German
2. French
3. Spanish
4. Mandarin
5. Polish
6. Arabic
7. Cantonese
8. Russian
9. Japanese
10. Portuguese

The reasons why each language is useful vary quite a bit. For example Brazil is the sixth largest economy in the world and will be hosting the next (football) World Cup and Summer Olympics; apparently Russia is the UK’s fastest-growing major export market; and Poland is the largest consumer market in the EU. Languages valued by UK employers includes German, French, Spanish, Polish and Mandarin.

If a language is useful or in demand by employers, that’s quite a good reason to study it, but if you that’s your only reason for choosing a particular language, studying it might seem like hard work. If you also have an interest in the language itself, the culture of those who speak and/or the places where it’s spoken, you’re more likely to enjoy your studies and became proficient in the language.

Have you studied any languages solely because you thought they might be useful?

One of the comments on the article suggest that it is better to study a vocational subject such as science, medicine or law and to study a language as a secondary subject, rather than just focusing on a langauge. Another comment states that a university in a language or languages isn’t particular useful if you don’t have other skills.


There was quite a bit of talk about ventriloquism on an episode of QI I watched recently, mainly because one of the guests was a ventriloquist. The word ventriloquism comes for the Latin words venter (stomach, belly, womb) and loquī (to speak) so it means “to speak from the stomach”. It was known as εγγαστριμυθία (gastromancy) in Greek, which means the same thing.

In other languages the word for ventriloquist is either from the Latin, e.g. ventriloquia (Spanish), ventriloque (French), ventriloquo (Italian), or a calque of the word: Bauchredner (German – ‘belly speaker’), Brzuchomówstwo (Polish – ‘belly speaker), 腹語術 (Chinese – ‘belly language art/skill’). In Welsh though, the word is tafleisydd, from tafle (to throw), llais (voice) and -ydd (suffix for a person or tool), so it means ‘voice thrower’.

Ventriloquism apparently started a religious practice. Ventriloquists were thought to be able to speak to the dead and predict the future, and the voices that seemed to come from the stomachs were thought to be those of the dead. By the 19th century ventriloquism became a form of entertainment and people started using dummies, at least in the West. In other parts of the world, such as among the Zulu, Inuit and Maori, ventriloquism is used for religious and ritual purposes.

Ventriloquism involves talking without moving your lips to make it appear that the words are coming from elsewhere. It is also known as throwing your voice, though no throwing is involved. To make bilabial sounds such as /m/ and /b/ without lip movement the trick is apparently to substitute similar sounds – /n/ and /g/. If you say them fast your listeners’ brains will hopefully hear the letters you want them to – we tend to hear what we expect to hear anyway. Then again, you could just use other words without the troublesome letters. More details.

Have you tried ventriloquism?

I can sort of do it, though would need more practice to do it convincingly.

What I wonder is whether it is easier to ventriloquise in some languages or accents than in others, and whether there are many bilingual/polyglot ventriloquists who speak one language themselves and have their dummy or dummies speaking others. That might be a fun way to practise languages and interpretation skills.