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?

Spanish Cows

comme une vache espagnole

In French if you don’t speak a langauge very well, you are said to speak it “like a Spanish cow”, or “comme une vache espagnole” [source]. For example:

  • Il parle anglais comme une vache espagnole
    He speaks English like a Spanish cow
  • Elle parle français comme une vache espagnole
    She speaks French like a Spanish cow

This expression was first used in writing in the 17th century, and possibly referred to vasces, that is Gascons or Basques, rather than vaches, or cows. At the time, Basque people from Spain probably didn’t speak French very well. Or it might come from basse (servant, maid), or from the use of comme une vache as an insult. Also, calling people and things espagnole (Spanish) was also an insult at the time [source].

In English you might say that someone speaks broken English or bad English, or that they butcher or murder English. Although, as the American author H. Jackson Brown Jr. says “Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language” [source].

You could make up other ways to say you speak a language badly:

  • I speak Russian like a Pavlovian pig
  • I speak Czech like a Bohemian badger
  • I speak Romanian like a Ruritanian rabbit

Are there idioms in other languages to refer to people speaking them badly, or indeed well?

Here’s an audio version of this post.

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.

Yulemonth

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].

hoar frost

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?

You can find the names of months in many languages here.

Earthskill

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].

Earth

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
  • wetenschap = science (“know-scape/ship”)

Source: Wiktionary

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.

Dangerous Nonsense

In the Czech lessons I’ve been working on this week, some interesting words have come that I thought I’d share with you.

One word is smsyl [smɪsl̩], which means sense, purpose, meaning, effect, intent, and I just like its sound. It is used in the following sentences:

Nemá smysl poslouchat jeho nesmysl
It makes no sense to listen to his nonsense

Jaký to má smysl?
What’s the point?

Related words and expressions include:

  • smysl bytí = raison d’etre, reason or justification for existence
  • smysl pro humor = sense of humour
  • smysl pro věc = flair
  • smyslnost = sensuality, lust, voluptuousness, sensuousness
  • smyslná = voluptuous
  • smyslná žádost = lust
  • smyslný = sexy, erotic, sensuous
  • smyslový = sensitive, sensory, sensual
  • smysluplnost = meaningfulness
  • smysluplný= meaningful
  • nesmsyl = nonsense
  • nesmyslný = stupid, absurd, pointless
  • nesmsylnost = absurdity, nonsense
  • nesmysly = nonsense, rubbish, mumbo-jumbo

Another word is nebezpečný [ˈnɛbɛspɛt͡ʃniː], which means dangerous, hazardous, unsafe, reckless. It is a compound of ne (not), bez (without), péče (care) and the suffix -ný, which is equivalent to -ly in English. So you could translate it as “not-without-care-ly”.

Related words and expressions include:

  • nebezpečnost = dangerousness, hazardousness
  • nebezpečí = danger, risk, peril
  • bezpečný = secure, sure, save
  • bezpečnost = safety, security
  • péče = care, attention

Sources: bab.la, Wiktionary and Wikislovník

Clustering Consonants!

Clusters of consonants are quite common in Czech. Some words have no vowels at all. A couple that I came across recently: brzd [ˈbr̩st] (break) and krb [kr̩p] (fireplace).

Brzd is the genitive plural of brzda (brake (in a vehicle)). Related words include: brzdit [ˈbr̩zɟɪt] (to break) and brzdný [ˈbr̩zdniː] (breaking).

Krb means fire, hearth, fireplace or ingle. Related words include: krbový (relating or pertaining to fireplaces), krbová deska (hearthstone) and krbové náčiní (fire irons).

Other vowelless words include:

  • blb [ˈbl̩p] = wally (stupid person)
  • chrp [ˈxr̩p] = of cornflowers
  • drhl [ˈdr̩ɦl̩]= he scrubbed, scoured, rubbed
  • hrkl [ˈɦr̩kl̩] = he rattled
  • krk [kr̩k] = neck
  • plch [pl̩x] = dormouse
  • scvrkl [ˈst͡svr̩kl̩] = he shrank
  • škrtl [ˈʃkr̩tl̩] = he cancelled, deleted, scratched
  • vlk [vl̩k] = wolf

Source: Wiktionary

There are several tongue twisters made up of words like this:

See and hear more of these.

In fact, the r and l in these words funtion as semi-vowels, so you could say that they’re not really vowelless. This doesn’t make them any easier to pronounce.

Sources: Wiktionary and bab.la

New Year

It seems that a new year, and indeed a new decade has started, so Happy New Year / Decade!

I’ve noticed that some people are looking back at what they’ve done / achieved, etc over the past decade, so I thought I’d do something similar.

Back in 2009 I was studying for an MA in Linguistics at Bangor University, while working on Omniglot in my spare time, and writing for a couple of other websites. I finished my course in September of that year, though didn’t officially graduate until the following year, and have been working full-time on Omniglot since then.

Over the past decade Omniglot has grown quite a bit – I add something new, or make improvements, almost every day. The site now contains:

… and much more.

Since 2009 Omniglot has been visited by 176 million people, who have made 234 milion visits and viewed 407 million pages. There have been visitors every single country and territory, even Antarctica and North Korea. The top ten countries vistors come from are USA, India, UK, Canada, Philippines, Australia, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa. The most spoken languages of visitors are: English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Dutch, Russian, Chinese and Polish.

Over the past decade I’ve studied and dabbled with a few languages, including: Breton, BSL, Cornish, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Icelandic, Irish, Latin, Manx, Romanian, Russian, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Toki Pona. I also started creating my own language: Laala, and made some con-scripts such as Crymeddau and Curvetic.

I joined a French conversation group back in 2009, and have been going almost every week since then. This has really helped to improve my French and I feel a lot more confident about using it now. When I can, I also go to a Welsh conversation group, and for a while I tried to run a polyglot conversation group.

Every summer I’ve been to Ireland to do courses in Irish language, traditional Irish songs, harp and/or bodhrán playing. I’ve also been to Scotland quite a few times to do courses in Scottish Gaelic songs.

In 2012 I started writing songs and tunes, and have written quite a few since then, especially in 2019, when I wrote a new song almost every month and several new tunes. I also started to write out the music for my tunes and songs, and to make new arrangements of them.

The first song I wrote was The Elephant Song, which came to me after going to a poetry writing workshop.

I haven’t made a good recording of my most recent song, but here’s one I wrote in November / December 2019:

Since 2014 I’ve been to a number of polyglot events, including the Polyglot Gathering and the Polyglot Conference. At most of these I’ve given talks or run workshops.

Polyglottery

In 2018 I started the Radio Omniglot Podcast, and have made 27 episodes so far. I try to make two episodes per month, but don’t always manage it.

In 2018 I also launched the Celtiadur, a collection of Celtic cognates, where I explore links between modern and ancient Celtic languages. This is an extension of the Celtic Cognates section on Omniglot.

Wow! Putting it together like this makes me realise that I haven’t been entirely idle.

Gardens and Castles

The word for garden in Russian, and also in Belarusian, Ukrainian and Serbian, is сад [sat], which also means orchard. It comes from the Proto-Slavic word *sadъ (plant, garden).

The word for garden in most other Slavic languages is the same: sad in Croatian, Slovenian, Polish, Slovak and Sorbian. There are also similar words in Latvian (sads) and Lithuanian (sõdas) [source].

The word sad also exists in Czech, but just means orchard. The Czech word for garden is zahrada [ˈzaɦrada], which comes from za (for, in, behind), and hrad (castle), from the Proto-Slavic *gȏrdъ* (settlement, enclosed place). So zahrada could be translated as “in/behind the castle” [source].

*The Proto-Slavic *gȏrdъ comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰórtos (enclosure), which is also the root of the Irish gort (wheatfield), the Welsh garth (hill, enclosure), the Latin hortus (garden), and the English horticulture, yard and garden, and related words in other languages.

Powis Castle

Elephants & Camels

Elephants and camels

What do elephants and camels have in common?

Well, words for camel in Slavic languages like Czech and Russian possibly come from an Ancient Greek word meaning elephant.

In Czech the word for camel is velbloud [ˈvɛlblou̯t], which comes from the Proto-Slavic *velьb(l)ǫdъ / vъlьb(l)ǫdъ (camel), from the Gothic 𐌿𐌻𐌱𐌰𐌽𐌳𐌿𐍃 (ulbandus – camel), from the Latin elephantus (elephant), from the Ancient Greek ἐλέφας (eléphas – elephant) [source].

Words from camel in other Slavic languages come from the same root: верблюд (verbljúd) in Russian and Ukrainian, вярблюд (vjarbljúd) in Belarusian, wielbłąd in Polish, and so on [source].

These all come from the Gothic 𐌿𐌻𐌱𐌰𐌽𐌳𐌿𐍃 (ulbandus), but from there the etmological trial gets a bit hazy, as they quite often do. Traditionally this word is thought to derive from the Greek ἐλέφας, via the Latin elephantus.

Another theory is that the Gothic word comes from the Proto-Germanic *elpanduz (elephant, camel), which possibly comes from the Hittite word hu(wa)lpant (humpback), or from another ancient language of Anatolian such as Luwian [source].

The word for elephant in Czech (and also in Slovak, Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian) is slon [slon], which comes from the Proto-Slavic *slonъ (elephant) [source], which comes either from the Turkish aslan (lion), or from *sloniti (to lean against), relating to the medieval story of an elephant sleeping leaning on a tree [source].

So now we know where the name of the lion in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe probably comes from.