Tomorrow I’m going to Oloron-Sainte-Maire in the south west of France with members of the Bangor Community Choir, and the Coastal Voices choir from Abergele. We’ll travel by coach to Birmingham aiport, fly to Bordeaux, and then continue by coach to Oloron. While we’re there we will visit interesting places around the area, such as Issor, Lucq-de-Béarn, Monein, Pau, Jaca (in Spain) and Lescun, and will probably sing in most of them. We’ll also perform in a concert with a local choir, la chœur sensible, in Sainte-Marie Cathedral on Saturday evening. This choir came to visit us in Wales last year and invited us to visit them this year, so this trip is a sort of choir exchange.

We will sing in a variety of languages, as usual, including English, Welsh, Zulu, Church Slavonic, Czech, Northern Ndebele, Xhosa, Croatian and Mingrelian, and we’ve learnt a French song especially for this trip – Belle qui tiens ma vie, pavane written in 1589.

This will be my first trip to France in 15 years, and my first time in this part of France. The region is known as Béarn, part of the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and half the local people speak Béarnese, a dialect of Gascon, which is considered by some to be a variety of Occitan. When la chœur sensible visited us last year they sang a number of songs in Béarnese, which was interesting to hear. Béarn is also neighbour to the Basque provinces ofLabourd (Lapurdi), Lower Navarre (Basse-Navarre / Nafarroa Beherea), Soule (Zuberoa), and I think some members of la chœur sensible come from those provinces and speak Basque.

We’ll be back in Wales on Sunday (31st), so from tomorrow to Sunday I probably won’t have time to answer emails and work on Omniglot.


I thought that the word honcho as in head honcho (big leader / big cheese) came from Japanese. The OED and the Online Etymology Dictionary both say that it comes from the Japanese word 班長 (hanchō) or squad / team leader, and that it was borrowed by American servicemen in Japan and Korea in 1947-1953.

However, according to The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, which I’m reading at the moment, the word honcho is a version of the Basque word jauntxo /xaunʧo/, a wealthy. powerful, rural landowner – a word with a ironic, negative undertone. From jaun (sir / lord / god). This sounds kind of plausible, though I haven’t found any other sources which make the same claim.

The book is interesting and includes quite a few bits of Basque language, and even some recipes. It is also somewhat biased in favour of the Basques.

Word of the day – ortzikara

Today’s word, ortzikara, is Basque and means “time when a storm is brewing” or in Spanish “tiempo amenazado por la tormenta”. Do any other language have a single word to express this meaning?

This word comes from a book I’m reading at the moment – Mother Tongues – Travels through Tribal Europe, by Helena Drysdale, in which the author and her family travel through Europe visiting people who speak minority languages such as Basque, Occitan, Sami and Corsican.

Related words include ihortziri (thunder), tximista (lightning), truxu (light rain), euri (heavy rain), bisuts (torrential rain), zara-zara (heavy rain), ortzadar (rainbow), haize (wind), elur (snow) and bisutsa (light snow). In fact there seems to be quite a lot words in Basque for different kinds of weather.