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?
According to research carried out by Preply, the countries with the best language learning environments are Luxembourg, Sweden, Cyprus, Malta, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Slovenia, Spain and Estonia.
Their Worldwide Language Index was compiled from analyzing data from 30 European countries, plus the USA, on such factors as the number of official languages, the degree of multilingualism, language learning in schools, the level of competence in foreign languages, access to language learning technology, and whether TV and films are subtitled or dubbed.
Overall, Luxembourg scored hightest, so if you grew up in Luxembourg, you are more likely to be successful in learning several languages. Are there any Luxembourgers reading this? Would you agree with this?
Luxembourg has three official languages: Luxembourgish, German and French, and education is in all three languages. English is also taught in schools, and students can choose to learn Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Chinese. In addition, some classes are taught in Portuguese or English for the children of immigrants [source].
In terms of individual factors, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Malta, Spain, Austria, Hungary, France, Latvia, Poland, Italy, Sweden and Croatia all score highly for language learning in school. The countries with the highest level of command of the best known foreign languages include Luxembourg, Sweden and Malta.
The UK only scores highly in the Subtitles, Dubbing and Voiceover category, and the USA scores highly in language diversity.
What this study didn’t look at, as far as I can tell, is whether these countries are also good places to learn languages if you’re from elsewhere. It would be interesting to see how well each country teaches their local language(s) to immigrants or visitors interested in learning them.
Note: this post is sponsored by Preply, an online learning platform, connecting a global network of tens of thousands of active learners and 15,000 verified tutors to study and teach over 50 languages.
I’ve been studying various languages on Duolingo for nearly four years now. My current streak is at 1,238 days today, and I had a 96 day streak before then, so for the past 1,334 days I have been studying at least a little every single day. This year I’ve averaged about 1 hour a day, and at the moment I’m focusing on Dutch and Spanish. Last week I came top of the diamond league – the highest you can get.
So far I’ve completed courses in Swedish, Danish, Russian, Czech, Esperanto, Spanish and Romanian. The courses and the app have changed quite a bit – more for some languages than others. New lessons, tips and levels have been added, especially for Spanish, which has at least 3 or 4 times more lessons than the other languages I’ve studied. That makes sense, I suppose, as there are currently 28.6 million people learning Spanish on Duolingo – far more than any other language. Today I noticed that there are new grammar lessons in Spanish, which are useful, and there are also Spanish podcasts, which I haven’t listened to yet.
One aspect of Duolingo I’m not keen on is the hearts system. At the start of each day you have 5 hearts. Every time you make a mistake you loose one. If you run out of hearts, you can ‘buy’ more, refresh a topic you have already completed to gain more, or wait until the next day. Or you can subscribe and get unlimited hearts. Making mistakes is part of language learning, and not something you should have to worry about, as long as you learn from them. You sometimes get tips when you mistakes in Spanish, which are useful, but not in other languages.
If you’ve studied other languages on Duolingo, how do they compare to Spanish in terms of numbers and types of lessons?
I expect that there are more lessons, etc for French, German, Japanese, Italian, Korean and Chinese – the most popular languages after Spanish – than for less popular languages.
As today is the first day of December, I thought I’d look into the origins of the names for this month in various languages.
December comes from the Middle English December/Decembre, from the Old French decembre, from the Latin december, from decem (ten) and the adjectival suffix -ber. December was the tenth month in the Roman calendar, which started in March [source]. The days between December and March were not included in the calendar as part of any month. Later they became January and February and were added to the beginning of the calendar [source].
In the Old English December was known as Ġēolamonaþ/Gēolmōnaþ/Iūlmōnaþ (“Yule month”) or ǣrra ġēola (“before Yule”). The word Yulemonth apparently exists in modern English, although is rarely used [source]. December is associated with Yuletide / Christmas in a few other languages: mí na Nollag (“month of Christmas”) in Irish, Mee ny Nollick (“month of Christmas”) in Manx, and joulukuu (“yule month”) in Finnish and Võro.
In many languages the name of this month is a version of December, but there are some exceptions.
In Aragonese December is abiento, in Asturian it’s avientu, in Basque it’s abendu and in Occitan it’s abén. These all come from the Latin adventus (arrival, approach, advent), from adveniō (arrive) and the suffix -tus [source].
In Belarusian December is снежань (sniežań) [ˈsʲnʲeʐanʲ], which comes from снег (snjeh – snow) [source]. The Cherokee name for December is also related to snow: ᎥᏍᎩᎦ (vsgiga) or “snow moon” [source].
In Proto-Slavic the month after the Winter solitice was known as *prosinьcь. There are a number of possible roots for this word: *siňь (gray), *sijati (to shine, glow – referring to the winter solstice) or *prositi (to pray – referring to Christmas). Descendents in modern Slavic languages include prosinec (December) in Czech, просинац (December) in Serbian, and prosinec (January) in Slovenian.
In Welsh December is Rhagfyr [ˈr̥aɡvɨ̞r / ˈr̥aɡvɪr] (“foreshortening”), because it’s a time when days get shorter [source].
December is “twelve month” or “month twelve” in Chinese: 十二月 (shí’èryuè), Japanese: 十二月 (jūnigatsu), Korean: 십이월 (12월/十二月／12月 – sipiweol), and Vietnamese: tháng mười hai (𣎃𨑮𠄩).
Are there other interesting names for December in other languages?
An interesting Dutch word I learnt this week was aardrijkskunde [ˈaːr.drɛi̯ksˌkʏn.də] which means geography. It comes from aardrijk (earth, world) and kunde (expertise, skill, ability), so could be translated literally as “earth-skill” or “world-expertise” [source].
The word geografie [ˌɣeː.oː.ɣraːˈfi] also exists in Dutch. It comes from the French géographie, from Latin geōgraphia, from Ancient Greek γεωγραφία (geōgraphía), which all mean geography, from γεω- (geō – earth) and γράφω (gráphō – to write) [source].
One of the things I like about Dutch is that there are lots of words like this that come from native roots, rather than being borrowed from Latin and/or Greek, as they tend to be in English. The meanings of such words may not be immediately obvious, but once I find out what their individual parts mean, I can usually remember them.
Other examples in Dutch include:
artsenijkunde = medicine (“medical-skill”)
dierkunde = zoology (“animal-skill”) – also zoölogie
geschiedkunde = history (“occurence-skill”)
natuurkunde = physics (“nature-skill”) – also fysica
oudheidkunde = archaeology (“antiquity/oldness-skill”) – also archeologie
sterrenkunde = astronomy (“star-skill”) – also astronomie
taalkunde = linguistics (“language-skill”) – also linguïstiek or taalwetenschap
There’s a version of English known as Anglish in which words borrowed from other languages, especially Latin and Greek, have been replaced by words based on English roots. Geography, for example, is landlore, medicine is leechcraft, zoology is deerlore, history is stear or yorelore, astronomy is rodderlore, linguistics is speechlore and science is witship or wittenskip [source].
Other languages that tend to use their own wordhorde to make new words include Icelandic, Czech, Hungarian and Mandarin Chinese. They do borrow words for other languages, but not nearly as much as English and many other languages do.
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.
水 (mizu/sui) = water (esp. cool, fresh water, e.g. drinking water), fluid, liquid, flood(waters)
湯 (yu/tō) = hot water, bath, hot spring
潮 (shio/ushio/chyō) = tide, salt water, opportunity
ウォーター (wātā) = used in foreign placenames
If you count the different ways to pronounce the kanji as separate words, you could say that there are eight different words for water in Japanese. Mizu, yu, shio and ushio are native Japanese words, sui, tō and chyō were borrowed from Chinese, and wātā might possibly come from English.
One of the Dutch words I learnt recently is aardappel [ˈaːr.dɑ.pəl], which means potato, or literally “earthapple”. This is cognate with one of the German words for potato – Erdapfel [ˈeːɐ̯tˌʔa.p͡fl̩/], which is used mainly in southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Apparently earthapple also exists in English, although it’s rare, The Sinhala word අර්තාපල් [art̪aːpal] was apparently borrowed from Dutch [source].
One French word for potato, pomme de terre, means “apple of the earth”, though comes from different roots.
Related words include:
aardappelpuree = mashed potato(es)
aardappelschilmesje = potato peeler
aardappel in de schil = baked potato, jacket potato, potato skins
aardappelsoep = potato soup
aardappelknödel = potato dumplings
aardappelsalade = potato salad
aardappeloogst = potato harvest
De aardappeleters = The Potato Eaters (a painting by Van Gogh – see below)
Another Dutch word for potato is patat [paːˈtɑt], borrowed from the French patate (potato), which is used mainly in Canada and Louisiana, and comes from the Spanish patata (potato), from the Taíno batata (sweet potato) and/or the the Quechua papa (potato). This is also the root of the English word potato, and similar words in other languages [source].
Another German word for potato is Grundbirne [ˈɡʁʊntˌbɪʁ.nə] (ground pear), which is used in Austria. It’s cognate with the Luxembourgish Gromper [ˈɡʀompeʀ] (potato), the Slovenian krompir [krɔmpìːr] (potato), the Macedonian компир (potato) [source].
The Dutch word aardpeer means “earthpear”, and refers to the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), a kind of sunflower native to North America [source].
The more common German word for potato, Kartoffel [kaʁˈtɔfəl], and related words in other languages, comes from the Italian tartufolo, a diminutive of tartufo (truffle), from the Medieval Latin *territūberum or the Latin terrae tūber (tuber of the earth) [source].
In Mandarin Chinese, a potato is a 土豆 (tǔdòu) or “earth bean”, at least in Mainland China. In Taiwan this means peanut [source] – a potato is a 馬鈴薯 (mǎlíngshǔ), or “horse bell potato / yam”, probably because potatoes look like the bells used on horses [source].
I am currently in Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Language Event, brought to you by the people behind the Polyglot Conference. It’s a smaller than other polyglot events I’ve been to, with only 100 or participants, and the main focus is languages of the Isles, or the British Isles and Ireland, if you prefer.
I arrived earlier this evening, and eventually found the AirBnB I’m staying in after a few wrong turns. Then I discovered that my phone charger was no longer in my bag – it must have dropped out somewhere, probably on the train. So by the time I found my accommodation, it had only 3% charge. I hope to borrow someone’s charger tomorrow, or I might have to buy a new one.
I met up with some of the other participants at a large bar in the centre of Edinburgh. Some I know already from previous such events, and others I didn’t know before. Most of the conversations were in English, but I also spoke some Welsh, Russian, Swedish, Mandarin and Japanese.
The event starts tomorrow morning, and I’ll be giving a talk about connections between Celtic languages tomorrow afternoon. I know there are speakers of Welsh, Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic here, and there may even be some Cornish and Breton speakers.