What do you do?

What do you do?

Language courses usually have lessons that explain how to talk about your job / profession / work. The examples they give might include jobs like doctor, nurse, teacher, secretary, engineer, architect, writer, ninja, etc. These are all mentioned in lessons I’ve done on Duolingo (and other apps).

If you tell someone you’re a teacher or a doctor, they probably have at least some idea of what that entails. However, there are many jobs and other ways to make a living that are more difficult to define and explain, even in your native language. I’ve never come across a language lesson that includes unusual or difficult-to-define jobs like influencer, game tester, snuggler, bounty hunter or youtuber, for example.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend and he asked how my business is doing. I’ve told him what I do before, and have shown him Omniglot and explained what the site is about, but he thinks that it involves translation in some way. He’s not the only one to think this.

I wouldn’t usually call myself a translator or interpreter, although I did do a bit of translating and interpreting many years ago, mainly between Mandarin and English. These days I sometimes translate mysterious inscriptions and other bits of writing sent to me by Omniglot visitors, and occasionally help friends with translations, mainly between English and Welsh.

Sometimes I say that I’m a linguist. This usually leads to questions about which languages I speak and/or teach. I might try to explain what linguistics is all about and what I mean by linguist, but often I don’t bother. It depends on the situation.

I did teach English for a short while in Taiwan, and occasionally I teach people juggling and other circus skills. Does that make me a teacher? I don’t think so – I have no teaching qualifications, and only limited experience.

Sometimes I say that I’m a writer, and when they hear this, people assume that I write books and ask where they can find them. Maybe one day I will write books, but in the meantime I have written about more than 1,800 languages and writing systems, over 3,500 blog posts, and some silly dialogues and a short story that I’ve made into videos.

I could call myself a musician, singer-songwriter, composer and/or arranger as I have written 80+ songs and tunes. I do this because I enjoy it, and don’t earn anything from it. I share my songs and tunes online and with my friends, and occasionally perform in public.

Sometimes I say that I run my own company, or that I run a language-related business. This is true, but the company consists of just me. I am the director, secretary, marketing and sales department, and everything else.

On Twitter I call myself a Wordherder, Tunesmith and Gravityweaver.

When trying to explain this in other languages, I might just say that I’m a linguist, writer, translator, depending on which of these words I know in the relevant language. If I’m asked for more details, I direct people to Omniglot.

In case you’re not sure what I do, and how I make a living from it, you can read about it here, and/or listen to my podcast about it.

Do you have a difficult-to-define or unusual job or way to make a living?

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?

Universal Human Rights Initiative

Universal Human Rights Initiative (UHRI) logo

Yesterday I got an email from one of the founders of the Universal Human Rights Initiative (UHRI), a project to record native speakers reading all 500+ translations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

One aim of the project is to make the UDHR more accessible, especially to people who are illiterate or visually impaired. They already recordings of the UDHR in over 85 languages

You can see the translations and hear the recordings on their web app. You can also submit recordings.

This site could also be useful to language learners, as it provides texts and recordings in many different languages. You can read and listen to the texts on the UHRI site, with parallel texts in other languages on this site.

Big fun!

A friend of mine who is learning Welsh likes to translate Welsh expressions literally and then use them in English. One Welsh equivalent of goodbye is hwyl fawr [hʊɨl vaur], which he translates as “big fun”, which sounds quite funny in English. Do any other languages have a phrase used when parting that has a similar meaning?

The Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru explains hwyl fawr as “a valediction, roughly equivalent to ‘All the best!’, or ‘Cheers!’. Which should not be confused with yr hwyl fawr, which is ‘the principal sail of a ship, mail-sail or main-sheet.’

hwyl can also mean:
– sail (of ship, windmill, etc), sheet, covering, pall
– journey, progress, revolution, orbit, course, route, career, rush, assault, attack
– healthy physical or mental condition, good form, one’s right senses, wits; tune (of musical instrument); temper, mood, frame of mind; nature disposition; fervour, ecstasy, gusto, zest
– merry-making, hilarity, jollity, mirth, gaiety, amusement, fun, humour

Some expressions featuring hwyl include:
– am hwyl = for fun, by way of a joke
– hwyl dda = fine state of health; good spirits, good mood
– hwyl ddrwg = physical indisposition; bad mood
– cael hwyl = to have fun, enjoy oneself, make good progress
– cael hwyl am ben (rhywun) = to make fun of (someone)
– pob hwyl = similar to hwyl fawr

Do you use literal translations of foreign expressions in your own language like this?


Recently I was sent a link to an infographic containing some apparently untranslatable words for love, and this got me wondering if there really is such a thing as an ‘untranslatable’ word or concept.

The words featured in lists of ‘untranslatable’ words are often given poetic-sounding meanings, and other more ordinary and common meanings they have are ignored.

In some languages a single word might represent a meaning that translates as a phrase in other languages, and there are some culture concepts which can be hard to translate – that is the words themselves can be translated but the meanings they represent might be specific to a particular culture.

The Dutch word gezelligheid (“the warmth of being with loved ones”), is an example from the infographic, which has an equivalent in German: geborgenheit, so it isn’t completely untranslatable.

Are there any words in languages you know that you believe to be untranslatable?

Lyrics Translate

The other day I came across a useful site called Lyrics Translate, where you can find, submit and request translations of songs. It currently contains translations between a wide range of languages, including English, German, Russian, Turkish, Spanish, Polish and so on, and the site itself can be viewed in a variety of languages. There is also a forum for translators, as well as articles and videos.

So it look like a good place to practise languages you’re learning – you can find songs in those languages, either originals, or translated from other languages, and you could even have a go at translating songs yourself.

I have submitted translations of Cockles and Mussels (Molly Malone) in Irish and Manx – not my own translations admittedly, and just found a song in Breton with a translations in English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, and a video. There are quite a few other songs in Breton too.

New Finnish Grammar

I’m currently reading New Finnish Grammar, an English translation of Diego Marani’s novel Nuova grammatica finlandese. It is the story of a man who is found unconscious with a serious head injury on a street in Trieste and who is cared for by a Finnish doctor, who believes he is Finnish as his jacket has a name tag with the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen. When the mystery man regains conscious he has no memory or language so has no idea who he is, where he’s from or how he ended up in Trieste. The doctor does his best to teach Sampo, the name he adopts, to speak Finnish, then later arranges for him to continue his treatment in Helsinki.

It’s a really good translation that reads as if it was originally written in English, the language used very expressive and interesting, and there are lots of interesting bits about language acquisition and about the Finnish language. Here is a selection:

“In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative.

Is this true?

In the Finnish sentence the words are grouped around the verb like moons around a planet, and whichever one is nearest the verb becomes the subject. In European languages the sentence is a straight line, in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens.

Is this a good description of Finnish sentences?

I was beginning to be able to express myself, even if somewhat stiltedly. I would learn the words already declined, a different one for each case, and when I did not know how to put them together I made do with saying them at random, hoping that intonation and gesture would go some way towards making up for lack of syntax. And yet, while still lacking firm banks, the Finnish language was gradually carving itself out a bed in the quicksands of my mind, with the words that I had tamed coursing down it and gradually informing me of the meaning of others. Branching out and joining up, they sent the thousand drops of sound which make up a language into circulation, watering and strengthening my awareness, my ability to sense the boundaries of meaning.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but am enjoying it so far and would certainly recommend it.

Bones of earth

A composer called Daniel J Hay contacted me today asking for help with a piece he’s working on entitled Tears For Earth. In the first movement, Bones of Earth, he wants to have a chorus of speakers in counterpoint to the tenor solo repeating the phrase “bones of earth” (or “the bones of the earth”) in various languages. Could you help with this?

The translations should ideally be in the Latin/Roman alphabet and have notes on how to pronounce them.

Here are a few that I came up with:

– Welsh: esgyrn y ddaear (esgeern uh they-yar)
– Irish: cnámha an domhain (craavuh un down)
– Mandarin: diqiu de gutou (dee chee-oh duh goo-toe)
– Japanese: chikyuu no hone (chee-queue no hoe-nay)

Other translations already received.


This sentence in Judeo-Arabic was sent in by a visitor to Omniglot who would like to know what it means.

האדא כלאמהום. אלדי יגאוובון עלא האדה מסלכהום. ומא ענדנא גוואב נגרח להאדא גוואבהום

Can you help?

I put it into Google translate and got this transliteration: Hada Achlamhum. Baldi Igaauubon Ala Shahada Msllachhum. Ma Endana Agovab Ngerah Lhada Agovabhum.


verb – 1. To pinch, pluck or twist sharply. 2. To adjust; fine-tune. 3. To make fun of; tease.
noun – 1. A sharp, twisting pinch. 2. A teasing remark or action; a joke. [source]

Etymolgoy: From the Old English twiccian (to pluck), from the Proto-Germanic. *twikjonan.

We were discussing tweaking last night in French, and this got me wondering about the English word’s etymology.

French equivalents include modifier légèrement, if you’re talking about make small adjustments; pincer for tweaking the nose; tirer for adjusting hair or a moustache; réglage is used for tuning an engine or adjusting a machine, and tordre means to twist or wring.

The phrase tirer les oreilles à qn means to tweak sb’s ears, and also to give somebody a dressing down.

Often you find that one word in English has a number of possible translations in other languages, and vice versa. If you rely on online dictionaries and machine translation, you don’t necessarily get all those translations. When people write to me requesting translations, they often ask me to translate single words into other languages. Words like love, strength, pride, faith, and so on are popular. The trouble is that they rarely specify what kind of love, pride, etc they mean. However if they just spend a bit of time thinking about this and tweaking their requests, they’re easier to deal with.