The word Britain is used to refer to the island of Great Britain, and is also to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or UK. As it’s the place I’ve lived most of my life, I thought I’d look into the origins of this word.
Britain comes from the Middle English Breteyn (Britain, Brittany), from the Old English Bryten/Breoton (Britain), from the Latin Britannia (the British Isles, Great Britain, the Roman province of Britain) – the land of the Britanni (Britons), from the Proto-Brythonic *Prɨdėn (Britain), from *Pritanī, which is possibly related to *Prɨdɨn (Picts), and the Ancient Greek Πρεττανική (Prettanikḗ – British Isles). The name Brittany comes from the same root [source].
Until the 1st century BC Britain was known as Albion in Latin, which comes from the Proto-Celtic *Albiū (luminous world, upper world, high mountain, alp, alpine pasture, Britain), from the Proto-Indo-European *albʰós (white) – possibly refering to the white chalk cliffs along the south coast of Britian [source].
After the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, the name Britannia was used to refer to the Roman province of Britain, which consisted of what is now England and Wales and part of southern Scotland [source].
In Welsh, Britian is referred to as Ynys Prydain (The Island of Britain) or Prydain Fawr (Great Britian). These words, along with Prydyn (Scotland, (land of the) Picts), come from the same Proto-Brythonic root as Britain [source].
In Cornish, Britain is Breten and Great Britain is Breten Veur [source].
In Breton, Great Britain is Breizh-Veur and Brittany is Breizh.
The Irish name for Wales is An Bhreatain Bheag (“Little Britain”), while Great Britain is An Bhreatain Mhór, and Brittany is An Bhriotáin [source].
In Scottish Gaelic, A’ Bhreatainn Bheag is Brittany, Wales is a’ Chuimrigh, which comes from the Welsh name for Wales, Cymru and Great Britain is A’ Bhreatainn Mhór [source].
I’ve been asked to let you know about IndyLan (Mobile Virtual Learning for Indigenous Languages), a new EU-funded app developed to promote Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Northern Saami, Basque and Galician languages and the cultures.
It’s available on iOS and Google Play, and the developers are looking for users who speak these languages to test it. Can you help?
According to The Phrase Finder, the phrase the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence:
expresses the idea that other people’s situations always seem better than one’s own. The proverb carries an implied warning that, in reality, the grass is equally green on one’s own side and that you should be satisfied with what you have.
Other versions of the phrase appeared before then. For example, in The New York Times in June 1853:
It bewitched your correspondent with a desire to see greener grass and set foot on fresher fields.
However, according the English Language & Usage, the ideas expressed by the phrase are a lot older than that. For example, in Ovid’s poem Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) Book I Part IX, which was written in 2 AD, he says:
Fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris,
Vicinumque pecus grandius uber habet.
Translations of this include:
The crop of corn is always more fertile in the fields of other people;
and the herds of our neighbours have their udders more distended. [source]
The seed’s often more fertile in foreign fields,
and a neighbour’s herd always has richer milk. [source]
A larger crop adorns our neighbour’s field,
More milk his kine from swelling udders yield. [source]
Here are versions of the expression in other languages [source].
l’herbe est plus verte ailleurs the grass is greener elsewhere
l’herbe est (toujours) plus verte de l’autre côté de la montagne the grass is (always) greener on the other side of the mountain
l’herbe est toujours plus verte dans le pré du voisin the grass is always greener in a neighbour’s field
l’herbe est toujours plus verte chez le voisin the grass is always greener at the neighbour’s
el pasto siempre es más verde del otro lado the grass is always greener on the other side
la hierba parece más verde al otro lado de la valla the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence
la gallina de mi vecina más huevos pone que la mía my neighbor’s hen lays more eggs than mine
la gallina de mi vecina siempre es más gorda que la mía my neighbor’s hen is always fatter than mine
a grama é sempre mais verde do outro lado the grass is always greener on the other side
a galinha da minha vizinha põe mais ovos que a minha my neighbor’s chicken lays more eggs than mine
a cabra da minha vizinha dá mais leite que a minha my neighbor’s goat gives more milk than mine
mae’r glaswellt yn lasach ar yr ochr arall bob tro the grass is always greener on the other side
man gwyn man draw white spot over there
Is glas iad na cnoic i bhfad uainn The far away hills are green
Is milse gcónaí arian na gcomharsan The neighbour’s money is always sweet
‘S e miann na lacha an loch air nach bi i The duck prefers the loch where it isn’t
남의 떡이 더 커 보인다 (nam-ui tteog-i deo keo boinda) someone else’s cake looks bigger
Are there interesting equivalents of this phrase in other languages?
The English word ruche [ɹuʃ] means a gathered ruffle or pleat of fabric used for trimming or decorating garments [source], or to flute, pleat or bunch up (fabric) [source].
It comes from the French word ruche [ʁyʃ], which means a (bee)hive, ruffle or flounce, and comes from the Middle French rusche (beehive), from the Medieval Latin rusca (bark), from the Gaulish *ruskā, from the Proto-Celtic *rūskos (bark, beehive) [source], from the Proto-Indo-European h₃rewk- (to dig (up), till) [source].
What do the words care and garrulous have in common?
Well, care comes from the Middle English care (grief, sorrow), from the Old English caru/ċearu (worry, anxiety, care, sorrow, grief), from the Proto-West-Germanic *karu (care, worry), from the Proto-Germanic *karō (complaint, lament, grievance, moan, worry, sorrow, care, concern), from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵeh₂r- (to shout, call, cry; voice) [source].
Garrulous (excessively or tiresomely talkative) comes from the Latin garrulus (talkative), from garriō (I chatter, prattle), from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵeh₂r- (to call, cry), which is apparently of imitative origin [source].
Pictured above is a Eurasian Jay, also known as Garrulus glandarius – the garrulus part means chattering/noisy and the glandarius part means “of acorns”.
So, they come from the same PIE root, via different paths. Other words from the same root include [source]:
Italian: garrire [ɡarˈrire] = to chirp (of birds); to flutter, flap, wave (of flag)
Portuguese: garrir [ɡɐˈʁiɾ] = to resound, gossip, shine
Irish: gair [ɡaɾʲ] = to call, summon, invoke, name, proclaim, inaugurate, acclaim; and gáir [ɡɑːɾʲ/ɡæːɾʲ] = cry, shout, report, fame, notoriety; to shout, laugh
Welsh: gair [ɡai̯r] = word, speech, phrase, greeting, salutation
Cornish: ger = word
Breton: ger = word, speech, question
The English word slogan also comes from the same root, or at least part of it does. It comes from sloggorne/slughorn(e) (battle cry), from the Scottish Gaelic sluagh-ghairm [ˈsl̪ˠuəɣərəm] (slogan, war cry), from the Old Irish slúag/slóg (army, assembly, crowd) and gairm (call, cry).
The Irish word ceolchoirm [ˈcʲolˠ.xorʲəmʲ] means concert. It is made up of ceol (music) and coirm [korʲəmʲ] (feast, banquet, ale, beer). There are similar words in Scottish Gaelic (cuirm-chiùil), and Manx (cuirrey kiaull) [source].
The word coirm comes from the Old Irish word coirm (ale, beer), from the Proto-Celtic *kurmi (beer). Words for beer in the Brythonic Celtic languages come from the same root: cwrw in Welsh, and korev in Cornish and Breton [source].
The Latin word cervēs(i)a [kerˈu̯eː.si.a], which means beer made of wheat, especially of higher quality, comes from the same Proto-Celtic root, as do words for beer in some Romance languages, including cervexa in Galician, cervesa in Catalan and Occitan, cerveza in Spanish and cerveja in Portuguese [source].
From the same Proto-Celtic root we get the French word cervoise [sɛʁ.vwaz], which was a kind of ale or beer made from barley or wheat and without hops during the Middle Ages [source]. The archaic Italian word cervogia [t͡ʃerˈvɔ.d͡ʒa] (beer, ale made from barley or oats) was borrowed from the Old French cervoise [source].
The usual French word for beer is bière [bjɛʁ], which was borrowed from the Middle Dutch bier/bēr (beer), from the Old Dutch *bier, from Frankish *bior (beer), from the Proto-Germanic *beuzą (beer) [source].
Words for beer is some Germanic languages come from the same root, including Bier in German, bier in Dutch, and beer in English [source].
The Italian word for beer, birra, was borrowed from the German Bier, and the Greek word μπίρα (bíra – beer, ale) was borrowed from Italian, as were words for beer in Arabic, بِيرَا (bīrā), Maltese, birra, and Turkish, bira [source].
The Irish word beoir (beer) comes from the Middle Irish beóir (beer), from Old Norse bjórr (beer), which also has descendents in Scottish Gaelic (beòir), Manx (beer), Icelandic (bjór) and Faroese (bjór) [source].
Another word for beer or ale in North Germanic languages is øl (in Danish, Faroese, Norwegian) / öl (in Swedish and Icelandic). This comes from the Old Norse word ǫl (ale, beer), possibly from the Proto-Norse ᚨᛚᚢ (alu – ale), from the Proto-Germanic *alu (beer, ale), from Proto-Indo-European *h₂elut- (beer) [source].
Words for beer in Finnic languages possibly come from the same Proto-Germanic root, including õlu in Estonian, olut in Finnish, Igrian, Karelian and Veps, and oluq in Võro [source].
In Slavic languages words for beer come from the Proto-Slavic *pȋvo (drink, beer, beverage), including пиво (pivo) in Russian, Rusyn, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian, pivo in Slovenian, Czech and Slovak, and piwo in Polish and Sorbian [source].
Here’s a map of words for beer in European languages:
The other day I came across an interesting Dutch word – klimop [‘klɪ.mɔp], which means ivy (Hedera helix).
It comes from opklimmen (to climb up, become greater, become larger), and literally means “climb-up”, which seems like a good name for a plant the climbs up walls and other things [source].
Klimop also features in Afrikaans, and similar words are used in Low German (Klimmop) and Papiamentu (klemòk) [source].
Klimmen (to climb, go up) comes from the Middle Dutch climmen (to climb, rise, to go up, increase), from the Old Dutch *climban (to climb), from the Proto-Germanic *klimbaną (to climb) [source].
The English word climb comes from the same root, via the Middle English climben [ˈkliːmbən/ˈklimbən] (to climb, scale, ascend, soar), and the Old English climban [ˈklim.bɑn] (to climb). In Late Middle English the b was no longer pronounced, so climben became [ˈkliːmən/ˈklimən]. Then the i became a diphthong and the -en ending fell off, resulting in the pronunciation [klaɪm] [source].
The English word ivy comes from the Middle English ivi (ivy), from the Old English īfiġ [ˈiː.vij] (ivy), from the Proto-Germanic *ibahs (ivy), from the Proto-Indo-European *(h₁)ebʰ- [source].
From the same root we get words for ivy in Danish (efeu), German (Efeu) and Norwegian (eføy) [source], and words for yew (trees) in Celtic languages, including iúr in Irish and iubhar in Scottish Gaelic [more details]
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 came across an interesting idiom in Scottish Gaelic: mil air do bheul, which means “that’s wonderful/excellent news” or literally, “honey on your mouth”. Perhaps this was coined when honey was difficult to obtain, so having honey on your mouth would be considered good thing.
Meanwhile, in Welsh if you have honey on your sandwich or bread, or mêl ar dy frechdan/fara, it is considered a source of pleasure, which makes sense to me. Also, having honey on your fingers, or mêl ar dy fysedd, is music to your ears, or taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, or in other words, indulging in schadenfreude.
In Irish if there is honey on your every word, or tá mil ar gach focal agat, then you are speaking sweetly, perhaps with honeyed words. If you really enjoy your food, you could say that there is honey on your food, or tá mil ar an mbia agat. If you cover someone with honey, or duine a chlúdach le mil, you are showering them with kindness, and if there is honey on your tall-stemmed grass, or tá mil ar chuiseogach agat, then you are having a delightful time.
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?