Hi, hoi, hola, hej


Did you get here through LINGO? Be welcome, dear reader! Have a leisurely look around the blog, and be sure to check out the app.

Did you end up here without reading LINGO? Feel equally welcome. But if you’re even remotely interested in languages, do yourself a favour and get your hands on the book…

Retweets (2)

As I announced a couple of weeks ago, I will occasionally repost some of my tweets on this blog. So here’s the second batch.

24 March (see picture)
consumersRT @ciklopea: Some useful statistics from #galasevilla <– The other 13% love to send themselves a surprise package.
Okay, I retweeted @ciklopea’s message mostly because my own conclusion made me chuckle. But the more I think about it, the more sense my sceptical thought seems to make. I mean, who would buy a product or service on a website whose language they can’t understand? How would they even be sure what buttons to click and how to answer questions?

14 April
One of the advantages of learning the Arabic alphabet is that it makes Cyrillic and Greek look easy.
I mean it. I’ve been attempting to learn the Arabic script, and though I’m making headway, I find it surprisingly tough going. Partly, no doubt, this is just because it is extremely different from European scripts, and I knew only one character (alef) before I began. But I suspect the script has some inherently difficult features too, such as several shapes for the same character, small differences between different characters and small height compared to breadth, which makes it look snaky and somehow small. Also, the absence of short vowels in Arabic writing is frustrating, because even once you can read all there is to read, you don’t have access to the entire words.
I will try to learn the Korean alphabet later this year. My bet is that I will find that easier. If not, I’ll eat my words about Arabic. And let me add that I’m a big fan of Arabic calligraphy (much more so, frankly, than of Chinese calligraphy), so it’s not as if I dislike its looks.

28 March
How languages and dialects are being turned into commodities. Pity if you miss this amazing article: http://goo.gl/5z9FRq
Nothing to add. Read it!

26 March
Who changes language? Woman. http://goo.gl/2I5Smv
The wording of this tweet was an allusion to a famous rant from English literature. Who does this bad thing? Woman. Who does that bad thing? Woman. Who does the other bad thing and many more? Woman. Pity I can’t remember who wrote it. Probably Shakespeare, but unsteeped as I am in the English classics, I can’t remember. (Please, do let me know if you do.)
Anyway, the link leads to an Observer opinion article by the ever readworthy linguist John McWhorter, titled Women are far more innovative than men in this crucial part of life.

16 March
In Seoul, a Hangeul (Korean alphabet) Museum opened last October. I like this video review by Hyunwoo Sun: http://goo.gl/fRa3y8
I’ve no idea how many Koreans speak English, but the fact that Hyunwoo Sun does is great, because to me, it opens up a country that I know very little about.

14 March
Linguistic cheese map of Europe: http://goo.gl/uC7I4
What you can’t see here is that Southern Italy is cheese territory (well, cheso or something like that), not formaggio land.


loessWords crossing linguistic boundaries sometimes get mangled pretty badly. I’ve long known this, but I couldn’t help yelping ‘what?!’ the other day, when I heard a university lecturer, Craig Benjamin from Australia, pronounce as ‘lowess’ a word that in my book ought to sound more or less like ‘luss’.

Which is not to say that Benjamin was wrong.

The word under consideration was coined by a 19th-century German scientist, and it stands for a particular type of sediment deposited by wind. I would consider it an arcane geologic term, were it not for the fact that my Dutch home region of Limburg is covered in it. Its local name is Limburgian clay, but is is known to science as löss.

In German, two dots (diaeresis or umlaut) can always be replaced by an e after the character, so loess is a legitimate spelling for löss, with pronunciation unaffected. It was this ö-less variety that English adopted, back in 1833 – way before Motörhead and Häagen Dazs made dots look cool. And you guessed it: as soon as English incorporated loess, the original pronunciation took the back seat. It is now considered perfectly correct to say ‘lowess’, though ‘luss’ end even ‘less’ and (non-rhotic) ‘lurse’ are acceptable too.

Loess is common in China (see map), which was indeed the subject of Benjamin’s lecture. In Mandarin, the soil type is called huángtǔ (黃土), literally ‘yellow earth’. Perhaps English should have gone with that. When Chinese words get mangled, I don’t notice anyway.

Retweets (1)


In the right-hand column of this blog, there appeared a tweet about this blogpost about previous tweets.

Twitter is the most ephemeral of media. You throw your deep thoughts, attempted jokes and mood updates at you followers. Chances are they never see them, and if they do, chances are they don’t pay much attention. Few messages elicit more than a handful of answers or retweets.
On the whole, this is fine. Twitter is chatter, not literature. However, some tweets deserve better, sometimes in their own right, but more often because they contain links to great stuff.
Therefore I intend occasionally, once every few weeks perhaps, to post some tweets here on the blog; mostly my own, but I may do some plagiarism as a side job. I’ll probably edit them a bit, for I can’t see why I should observe the 140-character limit here and retain the original typos and other infelicities.
So, here goes.  Continue reading

Surprise benefit

logoThe chapter in Lingo that deals with the Sami languages spoken in the northernmost part of Continental Europe is about their numerous words for snow. No hoax here: the fact has been confirmed by specialised linguists, one of whom I quote in the book.

Now you could be forgiven for thinking (especially by me, who thought the same) that this is the sort of factoid that will never be of any use except in Northern Europe or at a party of obsessive linguists. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that Sami snow terminology is helping climate change science.

Read the full (750-word) story here.

Esperanto whispers (2)

In January, an Australian Esperantist, Jonathan Cooper, wrote me a thoughtful and interesting open letter, which he put up on his blog. Unfortunately, a technical problem prevented me from posting a reply there. Jonathan has now kindly added my text to his own post. Our discussion goes into some detail about how to design an easy-to-learn language, but if the Lingo chapter on Esperanto gripped you, you may find this back-and-forth worth your while.

Louis van Gaal’s exemplary English

Originally posted on ALISON EDWARDS:

Observant, Maastricht

Louis van Gaal is a genius. Inspired. Visionary. And I don’t mean just as a football manager, although he seems to be quite good at that too. I mean in his use of English.

You might think I’m being sarcastic. I’m not. Linguists consistently find that, in interactions between native and non-native speakers, it is often the native speakers who cause breakdowns in communication. Non-native speakers then blame themselves for not understanding. Van Gaal, to his credit, simply refuses to play this game.

When Van Gaal moved to Manchester United, a Dutch journalist wrote an article for the British press: ‘10 rules for interviewing Louis van Gaal’. “It’s his language now, not yours … It is not Mr. Van Gaal who has trouble speaking English, it is you, for not going along with his obviously much better interpretation of it.”

To exemplify Van Gaal’s ‘trouble’ with English, the…

View original 200 more words

One (1)

diceIt’s not just the loneliest number, it is also one hell of a numeral: one. Native speakers may disagree, of course – native speakers know everything about there they’re their English except how to spell it – but one holds many surprises for those who try to master the language later in life, such as myself.

What’s so hard about one, you wonder? All the different uses, that’s what, and all the different non-uses as well. Continue reading

Slip of the longue

A lion. 'Leo' in Latin, not 'deo'.

A lion. ‘Leo’ in Latin, not ‘deo’.

But for a silly mistake, I would have been a dinguist. You know, a dinguist – a specialist in dinguistics.

The mistake was not my own; it’s the old Romans what did it. And when I say old, I mean really old. Older even than Caesar, Cicero and Seneca, the authors who wrote the sort of Latin we are still somewhat familiar with – the classy, classical sort.

Before their Latin, there was Old Latin, and though it looked grammar-schoolish enough, it was different in many small ways. For instance, it had the word dingua for ‘tongue’ and ‘language’. Caesar, Cicero and Seneca would consider that old-fashioned; the Latin equivalent of Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. They would write lingua. And it’s in their footsteps that we follow every time we use the word linguistics. Continue reading

The language-eating giant and the 12 dwarfs

Britain is more multilingual than its image suggests, but at the same time too monolingual for its own good. What are its prospects?

ScotsWhat would have happened to ‘the Scots leid’ if the Yes side had won the referendum? It has been officially recognised as a language separate from English since 2001, when Britain ratified the Charter for Minority and Regional Languages. But would Scottish independence have changed the character of Scots? Could the language have become less, well – English?

That’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. Norwegian and Danish were once considered a single language, but two fairly different standard languages emerged after Norway’s breakaway in 1814. Bosnians spoke Serbo-Croatian before independence (1992), but Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian nowadays. There’s little to distinguish the three of them yet, but check back in a century. Continue reading


Near the next door neighbours

The interestingly named Wells-next- the-Sea in Norfolk.

‘The end is nigh, the end is near, the end is bound to come next year.’ As doom and gloom goes, this prediction is not only charming – impeccable metre, simple but correct rhyme – but also linguistically interesting.

Its main attraction lies in the three words beginning with n: nigh, near and next. Say them out loud – does anything strike you? If not, let me help you by spelling them the Old English way: neah, near, niehsta. Rather like near, nearer, nearest, aren’t they? Or like high, higher, highest, for that matter. And that’s no coincidence, because they were indeed degrees of comparison, as grammarians call them: the positive neah meaning ‘near’, the comparative near meaning ‘nearer’ and the superlative niehsta meaning ‘nearest’. Continue reading