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 appOr 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 it.

On these pages, I publish stuff that has not made it into Lingo and will not make it into my next book. The posts are somehow too specialised, personal, chatty, untimely or in some other way ill-suited. In a word, the blog is (even) more of a playground than my books are. Enjoy it, and feel free to share your thoughts about language, linguistics and Lingo.

A perfect Babelfish in 2026? No way

bodyguard-247682_960_720Under the headline ‘The language barrier is about to fall’, Alec Ross in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal makes a strong claim: ‘In 10 years, a small earpiece will whisper what is being said to you in your native language nearly simultaneously as a foreign language is being spoken.’ So the Babelfish will finally spread from the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy to the real world.

But I think Ross is wrong, for four reasons.

1. The prediction has been around for over half a century without coming true. Machine translation is one of the holy grails of technological development, up there with nuclear fusion (with electricity ‘to cheap to meter’, a promise from 1954) and autonomous cars – I remember how I first heard about those in my 1970s primary school, and the idea wasn’t new even then. Of course, none of this disproves Ross’s claim, but it does justify a certain scepticism. Continue reading

Bowing to the inevitable

Geography may not be fate, but Fate certainly knows her geography. And when she wanted to inculcate me with a keen interest in languages, she took great geographical pains to achieve it, starting as far back as the 1930s.

NLIn that decade, my father was born in the Dutch city of Enschede (the red dot marked 1 on the map – click to enlarge), a mere five kilometres from the German border. He grew up speaking not only the national language but also the region’s Low Saxon dialect of the Low German language. He went on to become a French teacher, dabbling in Spanish on the side. Having moved to the south of the country, he then learnt another regional language, Limburgish, about which more in a minute. Finally, he also became fluent, though not grammatically perfect, in German, so much so that later in life, when his other languages were temporarily wiped out by a stroke, he would only speak German. From a linguistic perspective, Fate did an excellent job with him. Continue reading

I notice that I’d rather you didn’t

Alison Edwards, the Amsterdam-based translator of Lingo and one of the world’s funniest writers with a PhD in linguistics, recently read a Dutch book about language that was a run-away best-seller a few years ago: ‘Taal is zeg maar echt mijn ding’, by well-known comedian Paulien Cornelisse. Here’s what she couldn’t help noticing.


Observant, Maastricht

I was watching TV with my husband when he turned to me and said, ‘Actually, it wouldn’t be all that easy to kill you.’


It was the word actually that struck me. As though it was a rejoinder to a conversation about the difficulty or otherwise of doing me in that had been going on for some time. In his head, perhaps.

This is the kind of thing you pick up on when you’ve just finished reading Taal is zeg maar echt mijn ding (Language is like totally my thing) by Paulien Cornelisse.

It was a very instructive book. I learnt a lot about Dutch, and the language attitudes of the Dutch; for instance: ‘the word fucking is an enrichment and we should be thankful for that’. But also things that hold for language in general. Bound to come in handy is the revelation that you…

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Getting high on status

highdeutsch.jpgWords changing their meanings are like plants growing: we never catch them at it, and afterwards we’re not even sure what they used to be like.

Take ‘High German’, or Hochdeutsch as the language calls itself. Centuries ago, the name simply meant ‘the German language as spoken in some of the more elevated regions’, roughly in the centre and south of what’s now Germany. Low German or Niederdeutsch, in contrast, was spoken in the plains near the North and Baltic Seas. Continue reading

Ptime in ptranslation

Both minute and second owe their existence as words to one famous book from Classical Antiquity. Yet their etymologies are a surprising mix, with not only Greek and Latin but also Arabic ingredients. How come?


A 16th-century engraving of Ptolemy

Let’s start with the book: it’s called the Almagest and was written in the second century CE by the mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek in Roman Egypt. In it, he did what scholars had been doing for ages: divide the circle into 360 degrees, each degree into sixty minutes and each minute into sixty seconds.* But ‘minute’ and ‘second’ were not the words he used, for they did not yet exist. What he wrote was ‘first sixtieth’ (prota heksēkosta) and ‘second sixtieth’ (deutera heksēkosta), which in a freer translation might come out as ‘one sixtieth of the first order’ and ‘one sixtieth of the second order’. Continue reading

The Small Dictator

Hollands Nationalsozialistenführer Nussert 309-36It had to happen sometime, and it’s happened now: a journalist has told the world they don’t like Lingo all that much. Ever since the publication of the book, just over a year ago, I’ve been spoiled with good reviews, in Britain, the US and elsewhere. Some have been generously appreciative, others nothing short of jubilant. I felt almost embarrassed at times: surely the book wasn’t as good as all that? But I was greatly pleased too, if only because good reviews help me survive on Lingo while I’m working at my new book. And that’s without mentioning the psychological gratification of strangers saying friendly things about the fruit of my linguistic obsession. Continue reading

Etymologising through my hat?

shapkaBusiness deals that seem too good to be true usually are, and the same is true for etymologies.

This morning, I came across the Turkish word şapka, pronounced /shapka/, for ‘hat’. It reminded me of the French word chapeau, and I thought the -ka ending sounded just like a Russian suffix, as in babushka (grandmother) and balalaika (literally ‘babbler’). Continue reading

Open-air dictionary

The tiny Swiss village of Vnà got an entry in my app Language lover’s guide to Europe after its inhabitants – all 70 of them – turned the place into an open-air dictionary of the local Romansh language. They simply stuck signs to their houses with single Romansh words and their translations into German, Italian, French and English. A friend of mine who is there right now just sent me a couple of pictures. Here they are.

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Continue reading

The first scribbler of Western Europe

Throw your mind back to the very first time you tried your little hand at writing. With the unfamiliar pen between your fingers and your tongue between your lips, you gave of your best, but unless you were a calligraphic child prodigy, the result was, well, nothing to write home about. It looked shaky and straggly and, in a word, messy. Yet it didn’t stop your parents from being touched by your scribbles.

Call me weird, but that’s how I too felt earlier this week when I visited the Epigraphic Museum in Rome’s Baths of Diocletian. As its name and location suggest, it focuses on inscriptions from Antiquity, predominantly in Latin. Many of them look vaguely familiar: for the last five centuries or so, inscriptions in European and New World monuments have tended to emulate the Classical example. If you wonder what I’m talking about, open a new document in Word, choose the Times New Roman typeface and write a line in capitals. Continue reading