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…

Thir house teen

ParkvallHere’s something I would have added to chapter 35 of Lingo if only I had known it at the time. According to Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall, several Celtic languages have discontinous numerals. The example he mentions is from Irish: while the word for 13 is trí déag, ‘13 houses’ is trí theach déag, with the word for ‘house’ in the middle. ‘Thir house teen’ would be a clumsy rendering in English. These Celtic complications are not entirely unique, Parkvall adds: several African and indigenous American languages display similar phenomena. If you like this sort of thing, get your hands on a copy of his book Limits of language, as it’s full of nuggets like this. Continue reading

My (or rather Ann’s) time in Edinburgh


I’ve just returned from a five-day visit to the Edinburgh Book Festival. Worth a report, of course – except that in the meantime other things have piled up, all clamouring for my time. So I’m happy to find that Ann Morgan (of Reading the World fame and the nicest stage-mate I could have wished for) has managed to look back at the festival, including the several things that we attended together. Here then are her experiences, quite a few of which are similar to my own.

Originally posted on A year of reading the world:


I’ll admit it: I was nervous. Although my quest to read the world has taken me on many adventures and seen me speaking to a wide variety of audiences – from 20 Women’s Institute members in a school hall in Lee to 300 Procter & Gamble employees in Geneva – I had never faced a challenge quite like this. As I walked into the authors’ yurt, backstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I couldn’t help being aware that I was here to take part in one of the most renowned literary events in the world.

Now, I’ve been in a yurt or two before (I once gave a talk in one in Canterbury), but I have never seen one to compare to this. Sprawling over an area about twice the size of my flat, it was made up of a series of conjoined octagons, which created pleasing little alcoves…

View original 836 more words

Feline lingerie (2)

EtymologiconIn December, I wrote a post on the etymology of the word panties, tracing it back to a 3rd-century Greek saint, Pantaleon, whose name I translated as ‘all lion’. The tiniest of discoveries, of course, but a nice little piece of work all the same, or so I felt.

Imagine my chagrin when I recently discovered that Mark Forsyth had included this very connection between underwear and a Christian martyr in his book The Etymologicon. And to make things worse, I must have come across this factlet well before I wrote the blogpost, because I read the book a good while back. Amazingly, the link never even sounded familiar. This may be a case of entertainment-induced amnesia: Forsyth’s books (plural, since I also read his Elements of eloquence) tickle my brain in such a clever and amusing way that it switches to comedy mode and fails to memorise anything much.

Besides chagrin, I also got a nasty shock. His and my etymological explorations yielded the same results but for one thing: the translation of the saint’s name. According to him, Pantaleon was Greek for ‘all-compassionate’ – a far cry from my ‘all lion’, and obviously more befitting for a saint. I immediately felt that I was due to be wrong, because The Etymologicon was, after all, a book and I was just a person. Absurd, I know, utterly absurd. But things need not make sense to upset one.

Having pulled myself together, I delved into the matter. The Greek and German Wikipedias helpfully explained that the saint had two names. His given name was Pantoleon or Pantaleon, depending on which Wikipedia you believe. The other name – accorded to him by God, the German source specified – was Panteleimon, and this is the one that means ‘all-compassionate’. Both names could have produced the word panties, but since we also have pantaloons and French pantalon, clearly Pantaleon was the one that did. And what little Greek I know strongly suggests that this means ‘all lion’.


But even as I was cheering, I carelessly took a peek at the French Wikipedia for further confirmation. What I got instead was another twist to the story. Pantaleon was merely a Latin corruption of Panteleimon, it claimed: meaningless in itself, but misinterpreted by the Romans (and by me) as ‘all lion’. So if this was correct, Forsyth and I would both be in error, but me more so than him.

Fortunately, the French Wikipédistes seem to have got the wrong end of the stick. A lot of other sources are agreed that Pantaleon does indeed mean ‘hole lion’ (ganzer Löwe – the German Wikipedia again) or ‘in all things a lion’ (in alles een leeuw – a Catholic website) or ‘in all things like a lion’ (an Orthodox wiki).

So I seem to have beaten Forsyth after all. Sorry, Mark. We all make mistakes. And I love The Etymologicon all the same.

Edinburgh and Audible

Two pieces of exciting good news. Well, I’m excited.

EdbookfestThe one thing is that, at long last, I’m allowed to spread the word that I’ll be participating in the Edinburgh Book Festival. On Monday 24 August, at 2 pm, I’ll be interviewed abut Lingo in the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre. I’ll share the honour with fellow author and journalist Ann Morgan, who wrote Reading the world. Later that day, I’ll participate in The Revolution Will be Tweeted, an event organised by Amnesty International, where four authors will be reading some work (not our own) around the use of social media in social activism. I’ll spend several days in Edinburgh, so I may be available for a chat about language over a cup or glass.

audibleSecond, there is a new edition of Lingo in the making, the fifth in all: an audio book! Audible have bought the rights. I happen to have an Audible subscription myself, so I know that they have lots of great and well produced stuff. I’m awfully pleased to see my Lingo mingle there with other books that I’ve enjoyed, by writers ranging from P.G. Wodehouse to Steven Pinker and from Jasper Fforde to Anton Chekhov.

Five reasons to vote (for me)

Goddess of victory

The goddess of gorgeous victory

My language blog has been included in this year’s Top 100 Language Professional blogs, which is the kick-off for the annual competition organised by the international multilingual language and translation portal bab.la and the Lexiophiles blog.

You see where I’m heading: I want to win, and therefore, I want your vote. If you’re willing to oblige, just click here and find me under the letter G of my first name, Gaston.

Vote the Top 100 Language Professional Blogs 2015

There is a snag, though: the nominee is not this blog, languagewriter.com, but its Dutch-speaking twin sister, taaljournalist.nl. You may not mind, of course. That’s great; I love you already, in an opportunistic sort of way. (Have you voted yet?) But if you feel that you cannot possibly vote for a blog that you’re unable to read, who am I to argue that point? Well, the blogger himself, that’s who, and I’m going to argue it like nobody’s business.

1) Being the language lover you are, you’ll agree that blogs in languages smaller than the Big Western Handful (English, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese) have a serious handicap on the international stage in terms of visitor numbers, media attention and awards. This is your opportunity to do something about it.

2) If you like this website, let me assure you that its Dutch counterpart is even better. It has more and more varied content, livelier discussions and a more polished and personal style. Some of the posts will even make it into a book, to be published early next year.

3) If you liked Lingo and want to read more, vote for me. Publicity sells books, which enables me to spend time writing new ones. I am working on one, and I think it’s going to be a corker. Sorry I can’t disclose more yet.

4) This Sunday, I’m turning fifty. (You don’t think I would admit that if it weren’t true, do you?) So why not give me a little gift at no cost to yourself?

5) (Add you own persuasive point here.)

Five convincing reasons to vote for my blog: that should do the trick, I think. Finally, let me quote the Greek goddess of victory: Just do it. Do it here, and now.

Vote the Top 100 Language Professional Blogs 2015

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.