In Spanish the word llama has several different meanings. As well as being a domesticated South American camelid of the genus Lama glama, it also a flame, and means “he/she/it calls”, or in other words the third person singular present tense form of the verb llamar (to summon, call, knock, ring). Each version of llama comes from a different root [source].
The animal llama [ˈʎama] comes from the the Quechua word llama. Other members of the genus lama include:
alpaca [alˈpaka] (Vicugna pacos) comes from the Aymara word allpaqa
guanaco [ɡwaˈnako] (Lama guanicoe) comes from the Quechua word wanaku
vicuña [biˈkuɲa] (Lama vicugna / Vicugna vicugna) comes from wik’uña
The flaming version of llama, which is pronounced [ˈʝama/ˈɟ͡ʝa.ma], is an alternative version of flama (flame), and comes from the Latin flamma (flame, fire), from the Proto-Italic *flagmā, from Proto-Indo-European *bʰlē- (to shimmer, gleam, shine) [source].
Some English words from the same root include flame, flambé and flagrant.
Llamar [ʝaˈmaɾ/ɟ͡ʝaˈmaɾ] (to summon, call, etc) comes from the Old Spanish lamar, from the Latin clāmāre, from clamō (cry out, clamer, yell, shout), from the Proto-Indo-European *kelh₁- (to shout) [source].
Words from the same root include acclaim, claim, clamour, council and haul [source].
When I see words beginning with a double l, which are quite common in Spanish, I have to stop myself giving them a Welsh pronounciation [ɬ]. There is in fact a Welsh word which resembles llama – llamu, which means to jump, leap, bound, spring. It comes from the Proto-Celtic word *lanxsman (jump), from the Proto-Indo-European *h₁lengʷʰ- (light; move lightly) [source]. The Welsh for llama is lama, by the way.
While putting together a post on the Celtiadur this week, I came across the Welsh word mwyara [mʊɨ̯ˈara/mʊi̯ˈaːra], which means to gather/pick blackberries, to go blackberrying, and also to be idle. I wouldn’t associate picking blackberries with being idle, but someone must have done in the past. Is picking blackberries or other fruit associated with idleness in other languages?
Mwyara comes from mwyar (blackberries, berries), from the Proto-Brythonic *muɨar (blackberries, berries), from the Proto-Celtic *smiyoros (berries) [source].
Idle means to pass time doing nothing, to move, loiter or saunter aimlessy, or (of a machine or engine) to operate at a low speed [source]. It comes from the Middle English idel/ydel, from the Old English īdel (empty, void, bereft, worthless, useless, vain), from the Proto-Germanic *īdalaz (idle, void, unused), from the Proto-Indo-European *yeh₁- [source].
Words from the same root include the Dutch ijdel (vain, idle, petty) and iel (thin, slender), the German eitel (vain), and the Welsh iâl (clearing, glade) [source].
In the French conversation group I take part in, the word petit, which means small or little, is often mispronunced [pɛti] rather than [pə.ti], which annoys the founder of group. This might seem a rather petty thing to worry about, but pronunciation is quite important – not so much within the group, but for when we talk to actual native speakers of French.
Petit means small, little, minor, slight, short, mean, child, little one, youngest, young (of an animal).
Some related words and expressions include:
mon petit = dear (used ironically), son
ma petite = dear, young lady, sweetheart
les petits (enfants) = small children
les tout-petits = the little ones, the tiny tots, the toddlers
pauvre petit = poor little thing
faire des petits = to have kittens / puppies
petit à petit = little by little, gradually
petit ami = boyfriend
petit déjeuner = breakfast
petit doigt = little finger, pinky
petit-fils = grandson
petite amie = girlfriend
petit caisse = petty cash
petite-fille = granddaughter
petite phrase = catch phrase
petite sortie = stroll
Petit comes from the Vulgar Latin *pitittus (small, little), from *pit- or *pittus/*piccus (small, little), possibly from the Proto-Celtic *pett- (part, bit, piece) or from *bikkos (small, little) [source]. When I noticed the possible Celtic connection I decided to write this post, as such connections interest me a lot. The Proto-Celtic word *bikkos is the root of words for small in all the modern Celtic languages, such as bach in Welsh and beag in Irish. [More details].
The word petit also exists in English and is pronounced [ˈpɛti] or [pəˈtiː] in the UK, and [ˈpɛdi], [pəˈti] or [pəˈtit] in the American English. It means small, petty or minor [source]. In it’s feminine form, petite, it usually refers to a woman who is short and small.
Both petit and petite come from the Old French word petit (small, little, worthless, poor (quality)). Petit was used in surnames from 1086, and as an adjective meaning small, little, minor, trifling or insignificant, from the 14th century. Petite was used from the 18th century, at first to mean little or small in size, usually when referring to a woman or girl, and from the early 20th century it came to refer to a size of women’s clothing.
Petit became petty in most cases, except in certain expressions, such as petit bourgeois (conventional middle-class), petit mal (a mild form of epilepsy), petit four (small, fancy cake – see above) [source].
Petty originally meant small, little or minor. By the early 16th century it was being used to mean “of small or minor importance, not serious” and by the 1580s it came to mean “small-minded” [source].
If you are a petty person, or one who is mean or ungenerous in small or trifling things, you might have petty grievances, which are of little importance or consequence, and maybe a petty mind, or narrow ideas and/or interests, and you might like to take petty revenge. Maybe you are in charge of the petty cash (a cash fund for paying small charges), and you might be a a petty officer (a minor officer on a merchant ship, or a noncommissioned officer in the US Navy) [source].
The other day a friend sent me a message (in Welsh) saying we were going to meet at ‘handi 2’. I didn’t know what he meant by handi, and guessed that he meant around 2 o’clock, which would be 2/dau o’r gloch in Welsh.
I later discovered that handi is an abbreviation for hanner awr wedi (half past) which is used in colloquial spoken Welsh, apparently, though not usually in written Welsh. Other possible abbreviations of hanner awr wedi include hanner wedi, hanner awr ‘di or hanner ‘di. I’m not sure if the second two are actually used though.
We did meet in the end, by the way, and had a lovely afternoon playing tunes, singing songs, and chatting in Welsh in my friend’s garden. Some of the songs were in Welsh, some in English, and there were also songs in Ancient Greek and Swabian.
In colloquial spoken Welsh, many words and expressions are abbreviated, some times so much that they become difficult to recognise. One well-known example the phrase “I don’t know”:
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.
A interesting French idiom I came across recently is rôtir le balai, which literally means “to roast the broom/brush”. Originally it meant to live in poverty – such poverty that your are reduced to burning your broom to keep warm. Later it came to mean “to lead a miserable life, or vegetate in mediocrity” and also “to live a life of debauchery” – usually when referring to a woman [source].
The word balai [ba.lɛ] means broom, broomstick, brush, or blade (of a windscreen wiper), and also is a slang term for years (of age) [source]. Some words and phrases it appears in include:
manche à balai = broomstick, joystick
balai-brosse = long-handled scrubbing brush
balai à franges = mop
balai éponge = squeezey mop
balai mécanique = carpet sweeper
coup de balai = sweep, shake-up
donner un coup de balai = to give the floor a sweep, to sweep up
fou comme un balai = very agitated, excited and/or anxious (“as crazy as a broom”)
du balai ! = hop it! shoo! push off!
Balai comes from the Old French balain (a bundle of broom twigs), from the Gaulish balatno (broom (shrub)) from the Proto-Celtic *banatlom (broom). Words from the same root include the Breton balan (broom), the Cornish banadhel (broom), the Welsh banadl (broom), the Spanish bálago (straw; Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) [source].
The broom shrub here is the common broom or Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), a perennial leguminous shrub native to western and central Europe, which can be used to make brooms (for sweeping) [source].
Incidentally, the Chinese character 妇 [婦] (fù), which means married woman, woman or wife, developed from pictograms of a woman and a broom. Originally the woman was on the right and the broom on the left, but at some point they switched sides source].
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?
One of the words that came up in my Spanish lessons today was cana [ˈkana], which means white or grey hair. I hadn’t come across it before, so thought I’d find out more about it and where it comes from.
Cana is related to, and possibly derived from, cano (ancient, old (person), hoary, white/grey-haired). Cano and cana come from the Latin word cānus (white, hoary, frothy, grey), from the Proto-Italic *kaznos (grey), from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱas- (blond, grey, white) [source].
Retaled words and expressions include:
canoso = grey/white-haired, grey, white
encanecer = to go grey, to go mouldy
tiene canas = He has grey/white hair
echar una cana al aire = to let one’s hair down, to whoop it up (“to throw a grey hair in the air”)
echar la última cana al aire = to have one’s last fling
faltar a las canas = to show a lack of respect for one’s elders
peinar canas = to be getting on
Some words from the same PIE root include:
Portuguese: cã = grey hair; cão = white-haired
Welsh: can = white, shining, brilliant; cannu = to bleach, blanch, whiten; cannydd = bleach; ceinach = hare
Greek: ξανθός (xanthós) = blonde, fair, flaxen, tawny; golden
Cana is also a slang word for the police and prison in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.
Cana should not be confused with caña, which means cane, reed, a slim type of glass, or a hangover. It comes from the Latin canna (reed), from the Ancient Greek κάννα (kánna – reed), from the Akkadian 𒄀 (qanû – reed), from the Sumerian 𒄀𒈾 (gi.na) [source].
Incidentally, the word hoary (white, whitish, greyish-white) comes from hoar (white/greyish colour, antiquity), from the Old English hār (hoar, hoary, grey, old), from the Proto-Germanic *hairaz (grey), from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)ḱeh₃- (grey, dark). [source].
At this time of year various gift givers are preparing to deliver presents. They have different names in different countries and languages. Let’s look at a couple:
In England presents are traditionally delivered by Father Christmas, who has been around in various guises since at least the 17th century. Originally he wasn’t a present giver but rather the spirit of good cheer, and bringing of peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. He was depicted as a large man wearing green or red fur-lined robes. The first mention of a personification of Christmas in English appears in Ben Jonson’s 1616 play, Christmas his Masque, in which he is known simply as ‘Christmas’. He also went by ‘Sir Christmas’, ‘Lord Christmas’ or ‘Old Father Christmas’ [source].
After the English Civil War, when the Christmas was banned by the Puritan government, the Royalists adopted Father Christmas as a symbol of the ‘good old days’. During the 19th century he became more associated with children, presents, chimneys and so on as the Victorians adopted more child-centric Christmas traditions [source].
During the 19th century Santa Claus, based on the Dutch Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas), came to the UK from the USA and Canada. Eventually Father Christmas and Santa Claus became synonomous and the names are now used interchangebly.
Other names for Father Christmas in the UK include Father Chrimbo, Daddy Chrimbo, and according to this site, Tabitha the Christmas Hedgehog (in Cumbria), Odin (in Yorkshire), Big Johny Winter (in Northumbria), Joel Noel (in Devon) and Gef the Talking Mongoose (in the Isle of Man).
Meanwhile in Wales presents are delivered by Siôn Corn [ʃoːŋ kɔrn] or “John of the chimney”. I can’t find information about the origins of this name. Does anybody know?