Language Puzzles

The Language Lover's Puzzle Book

Recently I was sent a copy of a new book by Alex Bellos – The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book: Lexical complexities and cracking conundrums from across the globe, and agreed to write a review of it.

According to the blurb:

Crossing continents and borders, bestselling puzzle author Alex Bellos has gathered more than one hundred of the world’s best conundrums that test your deduction, intuition and street smarts.

The first chapter focuses on computer-related puzzles, including a regex-based crossword, soundex codes and a bad translation puzzle. To find out what these things are, you could buy the book. I had to read the explanations several times to understand them.

Other chapters contain puzzles based various languages, writing systems and counting systems from around the world. Some give you some examples words or phrases in a particular language, and then challenge you to work out how to write other words or phrases, or to identify aspects of the grammar of that language. There are also number-based puzzles using a variety of number systems.

Ancient, modern and constructed languages and writing systems are included, such as Welsh, Irish, Esperanto, Toki Pona, Javanese, Inuktitut, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Phoenician, Khipu, Ogham, Linear B, Old Norse, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Georgian, Greek and Cherokee.

Some of the puzzles look relatively easy to me as they involve languages and writing systems I’m familiar with. Others look quite difficult. Fortunately there are answers and explanations for all the puzzles at the back of the book. In fact the answer section takes up almost a third of the whole book.

I think I’ll have fun trying to solve them, and anybody reading this with an interesting in languages and writing might do as well.

You can also find a language quiz every Sunday on this blog, of course, and occasional writing-based puzzles on my Instgram.

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.


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.

One language

Omnigot logo

Yesterday I say a post in the Silly Linguistics Community on Facebook challenging people to write a sentence in all the languages they speak. This is what I came up with:

Tha e duilich writing une phrase ym mhob språk atá agam, pero ich 試試 red ennagh symoil を書く, kaj nun я хочу říct že il mio tomo tawa supa está cheio de țipari.

This means “It is difficult writing a sentence in every language I speak, but I will try to write something interesting, and now I want to say my hovercraft is full of eels”.

The languages, in order, are Scottish Gaelic, English, French, Welsh, Swedish, Irish, Spanish, German, Chinese, Manx, Japanese, Esperanto, Russian, Czech, Italian, Toki Pona, Portuguese and Romanian.

It’s not the best sentence ever, perhaps, but I enjoyed the challenge of putting it together. It also got me thinking about how many languages and writing systems I could use in a version of my motto “one language is never enough“. This motto appears on some versions of my logo, such as the one above, and I usually try to write it in several difficult languages.

Here are some versions I came up with today. The first version incorporates some of the languages I speak and am learning, plus a few others.

Une singură 语言 är nikdy недостаточно – languages = French, Romanian, Chinese, Swedish, Czech / Slovak, Russian.

Ett seule 言語 ist nunca yn ddigon – languages = Norwegian / Swedish, French, Japanese, German, Portuguese / Galician / Spanish, Welsh.

Jeden lingua er niemals suficiente – languages = Czech / Polish / Slovak / Rusyn, Asturian / Chamorro / Corsican / Galician / Italian / Latin / Sicilian / Interlingua, Danish / Faroese / Icelandic / Norwegian, German, Spanish / Asturian.

Can you incorporate more languages and/or writing systems into this phrase?

Heim aftur / Home again

The Polyglot Conference is over now for another year, and I arrived back to Bangor yesterday. Although the conference only lasted two days, a lot was packed into that time.

On the Friday I went on a Golden Circle tour with two coach loads of other polyglots. Unfortunately it was a wet, cloudy and cold day, so the views were not great, but the landscape we could see was rather fine.

The first stop was Þingvellir (Thingvellir), a World Heritage Site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It is also where the Iceland parliament (Alþingi) met from AD 930 until 1798.

Þingvellir / Thingvellir

Next we went to Geysir, and area of volcanic activity with a number of sprouting hot springs, including the famous Great Geysir, which is currently inactive, and Stokkur, which erupts every few minutes (see photo below). We also had lunch here – there are a number of eating places and souvenir shops in the complex near the hot springs. I was expecting the whole place to stink of sulphur, but it didn’t really.

Þingvellir / Thingvellir

Our final stop was Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”), waterfalls in the canyon of Ölfusá river. They were spectacular, and well worth seeing.


In the evening, after we arrived back in Reykajvik, I went for dinner at an Indian restaurant with a few other polyglots.

The conference started on Saturday morning with interesting speeches by Dr Sebastian Drude, the director of the Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding, and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former President of Iceland and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for languages.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir opening the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik

Then there were talks on a variety of topics, with themes including Icelandic language and culture, bilingualism and autism, and maintaining ‘small’ languages. Some of the speakers were lecturers or researchers in universities, others were language enthusiasts. The talks I found most interesting were the one by Daniel Tammet and Sigriður Kristinsdóttir about how he learnt Icelandic in a week with her help; one about bilingualism and autism, one about the cognitive effects of language learning, and one about Mongolian.

The 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik

There was plenty of time between the talks and at lunch to catch up with old friends, meet new ones and practise languages. During my time in Iceland, I had conversations in English, Welsh, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese and Irish, and spoke bits of Czech, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Manx, Swedish and Icelandic.

Lunch was provided – small sandwiches and wraps, though didn’t appeal to me, so I bought something else in a supermarket.

A panel discussuion at the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik

There weren’t any organised activities in the evenings, as there are at the Polyglot Gatherings. Instead babbles of polyglots went off to do their own thing. I went for dinner with some polyglot friends and had very interesting discussions about all sorts of things, not all of which were related to languages – we do have other interests.

The annoucement of where the Polyglot Conference will be in 2018

The next Polyglot Conference will be in Ljubljana in Slovenia from 5-7 October 2018 (as you might have guessed from this photo). So next year I will learn some Slovenian before the conference in Ljubljana, and some Slovak before the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava in Slovakia.

On Monday I did some work on Omniglot in the morning, explored Reykjavik a bit, had lunch in a restaurant in the old harbour area of Reykjavik, did some more work, then explored a bit more with the two Russian teachers who were staying in the same place as me.

Iceland is a very expensive place, which I expected. Meals in restaurants cost at least twice as much as in the UK, as do most other things. It wasn’t as cold as I expected – about 7-10°C during the day and 2-5°C at night. All the locals I met speak very good English, but if you speak Icelandic, they’re happy to speak it with you. There are apparently quite a few people who have moved to Iceland recently for work, most don’t speak Icelandic. On a clear, dry day, the scenery is spectacular. Even on grey, wet days, it’s still impressive and dramatic.

There are some more photos on Flickr:

Iceland / Ísland

Reflections on the Polyglot Gathering

Polyglots dancing at the Slaughterhouse in Berlin

I got back from the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin late on Monday night. I travelled by train the whole way, which is a bit more expensive than the plane, and takes a few hours longer, but I prefer to travel this way, and you see more. The journey went smoothly, apart from the train from London, which was an hour late getting into Bangor. Fortunately I got a partial refund on my ticket. On the Eurostar I talked to a interesting lady from Vancouver, and on the train to Bangor I talked, mainly in Welsh, to a doctor from Felinheli.

This year’s Gathering was as much fun as previous years – it was my third. I arrived in Berlin quite late on Wednesday evening the day before it officially started, and missed out on most of the polyglot games that were going on in the afternoon and evening. Next year I might arrive a day or two before the start to give me a chance to explore more of Berlin – this year I spent most of my time in the venue and didn’t go exploring.

Over the next four days I learnt about many things, including Portuguese-based creoles, Greek, minimalism, Sardinian languages and dialects, why many language learners don’t acquire native-like accents, metaphors in native Canadian languages, language mentoring, how musical techniques can be applied to language learning, the stagecraft of multilingualism, and much more. I got to know old friends better, met lots of new ones, and I spoke lots of different languages. My talk on Manx went well, as did the introduction to Welsh that I helped with.

The talks were mainly in English, with some in French, Italian, German, Esperanto, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Indonesian, and in various combinations of these.

Between us we polyglots speak quite a few different languages. The most common (i.e. those with quite a few speakers / learners) include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Finnish, Hungarian, Welsh, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Swahili. There were also speakers and learners of Wolof, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Romani, Tamil, Latin, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Breton, Sardinian, Luxembourgish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Albanian, Basque, Tagalog, Turkish, Navajo, Toki Pona, Klingon, and probably other languages.

I’m looking forward to the next polyglot event – the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal in July. I’ll be doing a talk on the origins of language there, so should get working on it.

Some things I learnt from the Gathering

There are many ways to learn languages, and no single way will work for everyone. Some like to focus on one language at a time until they have reached a level they are happy with, then move on to the next language; others like to study many different languages at the same time. Some learn grammar and vocabulary first, then learn to speak; others start using their languages straight away, or soon after they start studying. Some like to study on their own; others like to study in a class and/or with a private tutor. Some combine many of the above and more, to varying degrees – I certainly do.

From Malachi Rempen’s talk on cartooning, minimalism and language learning (Less is More: What Silly Doodles Can Teach Us About Fluency), I learnt that you can do a lot with a little. He showed how he can make his Itchy Feet character express a wide variety of emotions with just a few lines, and suggested that the same can be applied to languages – you can communicate even if you know only a little of a language. He also argued that fluency means different things to different people, and might not be the best thing to aim for.

Tim Keeley, professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka, explained that the idea that only children can acquire native-like accents in foreign languages is wrong – the brain is flexible throughout live and you can learn to perceive and produce foreign sounds. However there are emotional barriers which stop many people from sounding ‘native’. When learning another language you can also take on or create a new identity, and those who are willing and able to do this are most likely to sound more like native speakers. You also shouldn’t worry about mimicking people. In fact that is a good way to acquire native-like pronunciation.

Michael Levi Harris, an actor and polyglot from New York, talked about parallels between learning a part and learning a language. He explained that actors tend to exaggerate speech and physical mannerisms when learning a part, then make them more subtle, and that language learners can try the same things – exaggerate the pronunciation, gestures, etc. until they become second nature, then tone them down. He also talked about taking on different identities when speaking different languages and with different accents. If you can find a native speaker of a language whose voice and mannerisms appeal to you, then you can create your character in that language based on them.

The extend to which you take on a new identity in a new language depends on how much you want to integrate into a new culture. If you want to be taken for a native, then you need to sound and act like them. Alternatively you could try sounding like a native, perhaps with a bit of a foreign accent, but not worry so much about acting like them. If you spend a lot of time in a different county interacting and observing the natives, you’re likely to pick up at least some of their behaviour anyway.

Fiel Sahir, an Indonesian-American musician and polyglot who currently lives in Germany, talked about applying musical techniques to language learning. He explained how practice is the key to music and language, but it has to be intelligent practice that focuses on areas that you find difficult. This might be particular passages in a piece of music, or particular tenses or noun declensions in a language. By focusing like this, you can make a lot of progress.

Focus is something that I find difficult sometimes. I can and do focus, but often get distracted. I was thinking about how I’ve been dabbling with a variety of languages recently and not making a lot of progress in any of them. So my plan is to focus on one, or two, languages for the next year – Russian and Czech – and learn as much as I can in them. I will keep my other languages ticking over, but not spend much time on them.

Polyglot Gathering 2016

I’m currently at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. I arrived here on Wednesday evening and have been speaking and hearing lots of different languages. So far I’ve had conversations in English, French, Welsh, German, Irish and Mandarin, and spoken bits and pieces of Spanish, Italian, Russian, Czech, Portuguese, Toki Pona and Esperanto. I’ve also heard some Finnish, Punjabi, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Slovak, Sardinian, Dutch, Hebrew, Indonesian, Norwegian, Swedish and other languages that I didn’t recognise.

Yesterday I went to talks on Portuguese Creole languages, Greek, language learning and linguistics, how to achieve advanced language competence, and on connections between cartoons and language learning. This morning I’ve been to talks on teaching multiple languages simultaneously, and languages and dialects of Sardinia. All the talks I’ve been to so far have been in English, apart from the Sardinian one, which was in Italian.

I’ve met lots of people I know from previous polyglot events, and lots of new people too. I might try to explore a bit more of Berlin at some point as well.

Polyglot Conference, New York

This weekend I am in New York for the 2015 Polyglot Conference. I arrived yesterday afternoon after an uneventful flight from Manchester. It took a couple of hours to get out of the airport, and another hour or so to Manhattan.

Last night I met up with some other polyglots near the Statan Island ferry terminal – we were planning to take the ferry over to Statan Island, but unfortunately it started raining heavily and we decided to postpone the trip. We explored Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village for a while, then I went home, while the others went on to a bar.

The conference started this morning at the SVA Chelsea Theater, which is just around the corner from where I’m staying. There were talks all day about a variety of interesting subjects, including Forensic Linguistics, Proto-Indo-European and Lakota language revival. There are plenty of people here who I know from previous polyglot events, and I’ve met lots of new people.

So far I’ve spoken English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Esperanto and Toki Pona, and have met people who speak various other languages.

The conference continues tomorrow, and then I have a couple of days of sightseeing before returning to the UK.

sina toki ala toki e toki pona?

Toki Pona in the Toki Pona script

Last week I started learning Toki Pona, the language consisting of just 120 words created by Sonja Lang in 2001. I’ve been thinking about giving it a try since the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin last year, when I went to talk about the language and met people who speak it, and Sonja herself.

It’s an interesting language, and as the vocabulary is so small, most words have multiple meanings, and you have to think creatively to express things not in the vocabulary. The structure is also interesting – it’s an isolating language with grammatical particles somewhat like Japanese, and word order is the most important thing, as words do not conjugate or decline or change in any way.

I’ve mainly been using the online lessons at:

I have also discovered that there’s a signed version of Toki Pona, which is the first constructed sign language I’ve come across, though you may know of others.

Do you speak toki pona, or have you dabbled with it? What are your experiences?

By the way, the title of this post means “Do you speak Toki Pona?” (literally, “you talk not talk [direct object particle] toki pona?”)