Perspective

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere. It was the shortest day of the year, and from now on the days will get longer.

winter solstice sunrise

This came up when I was talking to a Chinese friend yesterday, and she said that it was the longest night, and that the nights will get shorter from now on.

It struck me that this was an interesting perspective, and I wondered if this was a culture difference or just her.

Are the days getting longer or the nights getting shorter for you?

Is the glass half full or half empty?

Another thing I noticed recently is that the Dutch word lang means both long and tall. For example, to ask how tall someone is you would say “Hoe lang ben je?” (“How long are you?”), to which I would reply “Ik ben één meter zevenenzestig centimeter lang” (“I am 1m 67cm long”). When you translate it literally into English it sounds a bit strange, at least to me.

Soapy Chairs

When is a chair not a chair?

Chairs

The Japanese kanji 椅子 (isu) means chair or stool, and also post, office or position. The word チェア (chea) is used for chair in words like オフィスチェア (ofisuchea), which means office/desk/computer chair.

There are other words pronounced isu or something similar which mean different things:

  • イス (isu) = swords (suit in playing cards)
  • 異数 (isū) = unusual, exceptional, phenomenal
  • 逸す (issu) = to lose, miss, overlook, omit
  • 伊豆 (izu) = Izu (place name)
  • 出ず (izu) = to leave, exit, go out

In Mandarin Chinese a chair is 椅子 (yǐzi). The character 椅 (yǐ) on its own also means chair.

There are other words with similar pronunciation which mean different things:

  • 胰子 (yízi) = soap, pancreas (of pigs, sheep, etc)
  • 义子 [義子] (yìzǐ) = an adopted son

There are some longer words that include some variation on yizi, such as

  • 一字(一)字 (yīzì(-yī)zì) = word by word
  • 一子儿 [一字兒] (yī ziér) = hank, small bundle; in a line, in a row
  • 易子而食 (yì zi ér shí) = exchange of children for food (during extreme famine)
  • 以资鼓励 [以資鼓勵] (yǐzīgǔlì) = to give an honors testimony for; as an encouragement

Sources: Jisho, LINE Chinese-English Dictionary, 汉英大词典 Chinese-English Comprehensive ABC Dictionary

This was inpsired by this post on Instagram:

So this post is sort of right – in Japanese if you mispronounce the word for chair it can mean something different, but not what whoever made this post thinks. I know it’s a joke, but it would be funnier if they had actually checked.

You can find more language-related nonsense like this on The Language Nerds website.

1600 languages

Back in April 2021 I wrote a post about various milestones I’d reached, including adding the 1,500th language to Omniglot. Well, yesterday I added the 1,600th language, which seems to me like something to celebrate.

So what’s been happening since April?

Well, as well as continuing to add new material to Omniglot every day, and improving the existing content, I’ve been making Adventures in Etymology blog posts / podcasts / videos every week and posting them on YouTube, Instagram and Tiktok. They tend to get the most views on Tiktok, and I’m hoping that at least some of the people who see them there will visit other parts of the Omniglot Linguistic Universe (OLU).

In July I started making Omniglot News blog posts and podcasts which summarise all the lastest developments on Omniglot. They appear on Sundays on the Radio Omniglot site and on the Omniglot News page.

Lockdown restrictions have eased here in Wales, and we can now go to pubs, restaurants and cafés, and to concerts and other events. I go to a Welsh folk music session every other Tuesday where we speak and sing mainly in Welsh, and play Welsh tunes. There are usually people from many countries there, so I get chances to speak other languages as well. I’ve started going to a Welsh conversation group on Wednesday nights, and I regularly have opportunities to speak French and Mandarin, and often write emails in Dutch. So I’m able to practise using some of my languages.

I’ve been to a few concerts recently, include a great one this week featuring the Washboard Resonators:

The Washboard Resonators

In other news, the studio that’s being built in my garden is coming together. The roof should be finished in the next few days, and then they can start working other parts. I’m looking forward to using it to make recordings and videos and practise my music and singing. Hopefully the acoustics will be very good inside.

Studio / Stwdio

Astringent Hesitation

A Japanese lesson that I studied on Duolingo today included names of parts of Tokyo. One of these was 渋谷 (Shibuya), which, according to Wikipedia, is a major commercial and finance centre, and houses two of the busiest railway stations in the world, Shibuya (渋谷駅) and Shinjuku (新宿駅).

渋谷

The first character in Shibuya (渋) is rare, and I haven’t seen it anywhere else. On it’s own it means the “astringent taste of unripe persimmon fruit” and is a simplified form of 澁 (jū/shibu), which is mainly used in personal names [source].

The second character in Shibuya (谷) means valley, lowland or plain. It’s pronounced tani, kiwa, koku or ya.

渋 is pronounced shū, sō, jū or shibu. It appears in words such as:

  • 渋滞 (shūtai) = (traffic) congestion, delay, stagnation
  • 渋い (shibui) = astringent, bitter, rough, harsh, tart; austere, elegant; glum, sullen, sulky; stingy, tight-fisted
  • 渋る (shiburu) = to hesitate, hold back, falter; be reluctant, be unwilling; begrudge
  • 渋面 (shūmen) = grimace, sullen face (😒)
  • 渋々 (shibushibu) = reluctantly, unwillingly
  • 渋い顔をする (shibui kao o suru) = to frown, be grim-faced, look sullen
  • 渋色 (shibuiro) = tan (colour)
  • 渋ちん (shibu chan) = stingy person, miser, scrooge

The character 澁 (sè) exists in Chinese, and is an old variant of 澀 [涩] (sè), which means astringent, tart, puckery,acerbity, unsmooth, rough, hard to understand, obscure. This is quite appropriate as it’s quite an obscure character.

Now trying saying 这柿子涩 (zhè shìzi sè) many times as quickly as you can. It means the persimmon tasts puckery, a word I hadn’t come across before that means high in tannins (of wine), causing pucking or tending to pucker.

Sources: jisho, MDBG, LINE Dict Chinese-English, The Free Dictionary

Busy Relief

Nigiyaka

The Japanese word 賑やか / にぎやか (nigiyaka) means bustling, busy, crowded, lively, prosperous or thriving, and also loud, noisy, merry or cheerful​. I find it very satisfying to say, which is why I chose to write about it today.

Here are some examples of how it’s used and related words (from Jisho.org and Reverso):

  • 私の家はにぎやかな通りに面しています。 (Watashi no ie wa nigiyaka tōri ni menshiteimasu) = My house faces a busy street
  • 森は鳥でにぎやかだ。 (Mori wa tori de nigiyaka da) = The wood is alive with birds.
  • 夜になると屋台なども出て、たいへん賑やかです。 (Yoru ni naru to yatai nado mo dete, taihen nigiyaka desu) = At night there are food stalls and it’s very lively.
  • 賑わう (nigiwau) = to be crowded with people, to be bustling, to prosper, flourish, do thriving business
  • 賑わい (nigiwai) = prosperity, bustle, activity, crowd, turnout
  • 賑わす (nigiwasu) = to enliven, cause a stir, hit (the headlines), make prosperous
  • 賑やかさ (nigiyakasa) = business, liveliness
  • 賑々しい (niginigishii) = lively, merry
  • 賑あう (nigiau) = to prosper, flourish, be crowded with people

In Mandarin the character 赈 [賑] (zhèn) means to relieve or relief. It appears in such words as:

  • 赈济 [賑濟] (zhènjì) = to relieve, to give relief aid
  • 赈济饥荒 [賑濟饑荒] (zhènjì jīhuāng) = famine relief
  • 赈灾 [賑災] (zhèn​zāi) = disaster relief
  • 赈恤 [賑恤] (zhènxù) = relief aid

熱鬧

One Chinese equivalent of 賑やか is 热闹 [熱鬧] (rènao), which means bustling with noise and excitement, lively, to liven up, a spectacle, or literally “hot noisy”. Most Chinese people I know prefer places that are 热闹 to ones that are too 安静 (ānjìng – quiet, peaceful), and as most places in China and Taiwan are 热闹, this is probably a good thing.

Sources: LINE Dictionary Chinese – English, MDBG Word Dictionary

I generally prefer quiet, peaceful places, but occasionally don’t mind a bit of lively bustle. How about you?

High Costs

I am currently (re)learning Japanese, and am noticing some differences between the meanings of characters in Japanese (漢字 – kanji) and in Chinese (汉字 [漢字] hànzì). In some cases the meanings are similar but subtly different, in other cases they’re completely different.

Tokyo Tower 東京鐵塔

For example, in Mandarin Chinese 高 (gāo) means tall or high (高的 gāode), or senior (高级的 gāojíde), while in Japanese 高 (taka), means quantity, amount (of money), volume or number, 高い (takai) means high, tall, expensive, above average or loud, and 高 (kō) means high (school).

The Chinese word for expensive is 贵 [貴] (guì), which also means valuble. In Japanese this character, 貴 (ki), means your, and indicates high rank, status, love or respect. Or when it’s pronounced mochi it means lord, god, goddess, and is used in honorific title for deities and high-ranking people. One Japanese word for you is あなた (anata), which is usually written in hiragana, but can be written with the kanji 貴方. In very formal written Chinese 贵方 [貴方] (guìfāng) can be used to mean you.

The Japanese word for cheap is 安い (yasui), while the same character in Chinese, 安 (ān), means quiet or safe. The Chinese word for cheap is 便宜 (pián​yi), which in Japanese is pronounced bengi and means convenience, accommodation, advantage, benefit or expediency​.

The character 便 is also pronouned biàn in Mandarin, and means convenient, convenience and to excrete. It appears in the word 便利 (biànlì) = convenient, to faciliate, which also exists in Japanese as 便利 (benri) meaning convenient, handy or useful.

The character 利 (lì) means sharp, advantageous, interest or to profit in Mandarin. In Japanese it’s pronounced ri and means advantage, benefit, profit or interest​. It appears in the word 利益 (lìyì / rieki), which means benefit in Mandarin, and profit or gains in Japanese, and also in 利害 (lìhai / rigai) which means terrible in Mandarin, and advantages and disadvantages in Japanese. Which should not be confused with 厉害 [厲害] (lìhai), which means terrbile, terribly or awesome, and is used as a general intensifier in Mandarin. The equivalent in Japanese is 素晴らしい (subarashī).

There are many more. Have you noticed any?

Sources: LINE Dict Chinese-English, jisho.org

Roasting the Broom

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].

Broom

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].

Broom

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].

Do you know any other broom-related idioms?

Milestones

A Manx milestone

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.

Of the languages on Omniglot, the majority (1,107) are written with the Latin alphabet. There are also 126 written with the Cyrillic alphabet, 75 written with the Arabic alphabet, 72 written with the Devanagari alphabet, and smaller numbers of languages written with other alphabets and writing systems. [More language and writing stats]

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.

An Omniglot minion

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:

Since June 2018 I’ve made 42 episodes of the Radio Omniglot Podacast, and 5 episodes of Adventures in Etymology, a new series I started in March 2021. It started as a series of videos I made for Instagram and Facebook, then I posted them on Youtube as well, and decided to add them to the Radio Omniglot site. I have ideas for other series I could make for Radio Omniglot, and would welcome any suggestions you may have.

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?

Best Countries for Language Learning

Preply image

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.

Duolingo Progress

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.

My 2020 Duolingo report

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.