Let me mnow your mnemonics!

To memorise new words in foreign languages, I use all kinds of tricks. I look for etymological relationships to more words I know, I stick Post-its to objects, I listen to songs that have the word in their chorus. But my number two favourite (etymology is number one) is the kind of mnemonic device known as ‘bridge for donkeys’ in German and Dutch: an artificial and often tenuous, but helpful connexion between the hard word and something familiar.

I’ll list some examples here, mostly in order to inspire you to remember your own mnemonics and share them with me. How have you memorised those hard words in French, Spanish, German, Russian, Mandarin or indeed English, if that’s your second language?

Most of the list is from Polish, since that’s what I’m currently learning. I used to have lots of mnemonics for French, Spanish, Vietnamese and English as well, but I no longer need them. They’re like scaffolding: once the house has been built, you no longer need it. Though in the case of my personal history with Vietnamese, a more apt metaphor would be: once the unfinished house has been abandoned, it will collapse, the scaffolding along with it.

  • Gasić means ‘to extinguish’. My mnemonic is ‘turn off the gas’. Fortunately, I had less trouble memorising ‘turn on, to ignite’, so no confusion there.
  • Badać means ‘to research, to explore’. Somehow I kept inverting the first two consonants (*dabać), until I realised that researchers and explorers can be real badasses (in the best possible meaning of the word, of course). That took care of it.
  • How to memorise marzyć, meaning ‘to dream, to wish’? In winter, I dream of March, typically the first clement month here in the Netherlands, which in Polish is called marzec. Nearly all Polish verbs end in ć, not c, so the difference between marzyć and marzec is only this one vowel, really.
  • Pielęgnować means ‘to nurse’. Piel is Spanish for ‘skin’, e.g. the skin of the leg – which is the next syllable. Nurses will care for the skin of the leg, e.g. when it’s burnt. Far-fetched? Absolutely! But if it works, it works. Can’t deny I prefer simpler ones though, such as the next.
  • Puppis is Latin for the ‘stern’ of a ship. In English, this can also be called the ship’s poop, though I can’t imagine any kid saying that without a giggle. Dutch also has the woord poop (spelled poep) in the meaning of ‘fecal matter’. And where does poep come from? From our bodies’ very own sterns. Again, problem solved! Not in the best of taste, I guess, but as a 13-year old student, I found it helpful. And truth be told, even today I sometimes use mnemonics I would blush to share, including for some personal names.

So these were some of mine. What are yours like? I’m really keen to know, so I hope you’ll share them in the comments or on social media. They may even end up in a book I’m working on. These ‘bridges for donkeys’ that you use may be visual, auditive or based on one of the other senses. They can be far-fetched or in dubious taste. I don’t care, as long as you can explain why each of them works for you.

Bring them on!

19 thoughts on “Let me mnow your mnemonics!

  1. OK here’s a weird one:

    Numbers in Albanian are not that hard to learn because they’re fairly regular and you can usually recognize the Indo European root, i.e. they’re not all that different from their Romance or Slavic counterparts.

    3 is “tre”, just like Italian
    13 is “trembëdhjetë”, which again contains “tre” (“dhjetë” means ten, by the way)
    30 is “tridhjetë” – the words for 3 and 10 put together, in the same fashion as 40, 50 and so on are constructed. but there’s an “i” instead of the “e”.

    I had a hard time remembering whch one of the three threeish numbers had the “i” instead of the “e”, i.e. which one was the un-Italian one. My donkey on the bridge to this day is the following: in the 30s, Albania was occupied by fascist Italy, so they felt the need to set themselves apart from the invaders linguistically. that’s why it can’t be tredhjetë. This is absolute nonse, of course, the numbers predate the 20th century by quite a bit. But the sillier the mnemonic, the better.

    Care for another one?

    The Romanian word for bird is “pasăre”. That’s not very hard to remember, since e.g. Portuguese uses the same root (pássaro). But, like so many learners of Romanian, I always struggle with remembering where to use “a”, “ă”, “â” and “e”. The Latin root only gets you so far.

    My solution was the following: the three vowels in “pasăre” move upwards in my mouth, from a through ă (which is, at least to me, somwhere between a and e, like the German ä) to e. Upwards motion, flying away. Bird.


    • Those are brilliant examples, thank you! In the case of pasăre, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if your mnemonic actually kind of reflects how this series of vowels got their values. Not that I know, mind you.
      In Polish too, I have trouble telling the teens and the ties apart. They’re not even very similar(e.g. trzynaście/trzynastu and trzydzieści/trzydziestu), but to this day, a good three years into my study, I still have to think hard every single time. They mean something like ‘three on ten’ and ‘three tens’, so I have my ‘true mnemonic’ at hand. But still.


  2. I am learning Hungarian. The word for ‘secretary’ is ‘titkárnő’.
    I remembered the word very easily by a somewhat sexist association. I’m guessing my thought process does not need spelling out. Knowledge of English slang and an acknowledgement that a majority of secretaries are female. Et voila!
    Incidentally, I shared my (amusing?) memory-trick with my friend and her husband (Hungarians). Disappointingly, they were less than impressed. Either, highly offended at my lack of decorum, or simply flummoxed by the inner workings of my brain, I have yet to discover. Either way, I don’t really care because it worked for me, and it’s my brain!


    • I couldn’t agree more, and I’m sure all language-learners have these sorts of somewhat embarrassing memory aids. Incidentally, the same association to which you allude helps Dutch-speakers to distinguish between ‘stalactieten’ (the mineral formations that hang from a cave’s ceiling) and the ones that stand on the floor, known as ‘stalagmieten’. The second half of the word ‘stalactieten’ is identical in spelling and pronunciation to a colloquial or vulgar term for ‘breasts’.


      • Interesting! I learned the difference because ‘tights’ on a washing line hang down like the staglactite. Also, good to know that others use similarly ludicrous connections when learning.
        Thank you and best regards, Susan


  3. I don’t actually speak French so haven’t had any chance to fact check this mnemonic.
    However, right or wrong, it is a testimony to the power of mnemonics: I was taught this by my high school French teacher, in 1965!
    Is it useful as long as it is generally true, a la I before e etc?


    • My French is not good enough to really be the judge of that, but I’d say that all words in -er are exceptions to the r-part of the rule. The l-part seems iffy: I can think of cases both ways, but most final l’s do seem to get get pronounced. French is messy!


  4. Hi Gaston Good examples of ‘donkey bridges’! Just as an addition: bridge for donkeys or Eselsbrücke, the Czech have the same expression: “oslí můstek”. And it is quite common in Slavic languages to use the same proverb or expression in most of the language family. So I guess this expression might be used in Polish, Slovakian, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, Bulgarian or even Russian as well. Enjoy! Paul


    • That’s really interesting, but unfortunately, the Czech Wikipedia seems to disagree. Nowadays (and I’m quoting the Google Translation), it’s “an expression that is used mainly in public speaking. It indicates the skillful but often breakneck connection of two otherwise unrelated topics (e.g. in a film).” However, “the term was previously also used in the sense of a mnemonic aid.” I can’t find information about the other Slavic languages. The expression seems to have different meanings in yet other languages, even though they all derive from the Latin pons asinorum. Remarkable!


      • Well, anyhow… Czech is my mother tongue, and I did know this expression from early on. It is true, I don’t live in Czechia for 50 years now, so the meaning might have shifted a bit in the mean time.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Lieber Herr Dorren!

    Keine Eselsbrücke, aber eine Erinnerung an meinen Englischlehrer in der Schule:
    Da die deutschen Worte leihen und borgen völlig gleichbedeutend sind, ist es für Deutschsprachige oft schwierig, to lend und to borrow zu unterscheiden und richtig zu verwenden.
    Er sagte: „Denkt an Shakespeare: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” (Er sprach uns oft mit Friends, Romans, countrymen an.)

    Mein Sprachenlernen habe ich später auch oft im Anklang an mir gut bekannte und im Gedächtnis tief verankerte Texte gestaltet: Ich kannte früher, als Student Mitte bis Ende der 80er-Jahre, die Asterix-Bände auf Deutsch und später auch auf Französisch sehr gut; daher kaufte ich mir überall, wo ich hinkam und die Sprache lernen wollte, Asterix-Bände. Leider galten sie in Osteuropa bis 1989 als zu widerständig und waren verboten, aber mit Italienisch, Portugiesisch und Spanisch hat es gut funktioniert.

    Eselsbrücke aus dem Lateinunterricht:
    In die Semmel biss der Kater.
    semel – bis – ter – quater : einmal – zweimal – dreimal – viermal

    Unterscheidung AM und PM: AM = am Morgen

    Abschließend noch eine Anekdote, die mir ein amerikanischer Linguist auf einer Vortragsreise durch Europa erzählte: Er riet seinem 13-jährigen Sohn, auf die Etymologie zu achten. So werde er Deutsch teilweise verstehen.
    Der Sohn beachtete den Rat und fand sich im Damen-WC wieder:
    Damen interpretierte er als the men.

    Mit besten Grüßen

    Wolfgang Moser

    Dr. Wolfgang Moser
    Hauptplatz 16-17/II
    8010 Graz

    Tel.: 0316 82 56 88-0 und 0699 12243977
    Fax: 0316 81 42 57
    E-Mail: moser(at)urania.at


  6. Hi Gaston, Nice to hear from you again. Your questions about mnemonics reminded me of a piece I once wrote as part of a blog on learning French. On now re-reading this I see that I didn’t give too many examples, but some of my reflections rather matched yours.

    i hope this link works. https://frenchsanstears.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/memory-tricks/

    The main site is of course reached via the URL before the /

    Maybe not a mnemonic, but I liked to share with students my way of remembering the different genders of “desastre” and “catastrophe” in French [sorry, using a Canadian keyboard with no accents]. The second letter of each word (e and a) indicate le and la respectively. it doesn’t matter how you remember it as long as you do!

    best wishes,

    Trevor Field

    Liked by 1 person

  7. French: devant is in the front; derriere is in the rear.
    CaReFuL! The four consonants that are not silent at the end of words.

    I have some Dutch ones but they escape me at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice! But CaReFuL has me wondering: the c in blanc, the r in aimer, the f in cerf and the l in outil are all silent. It doesn’t seem to be the most reliable of mnemonics…


  8. Good morning,

    Wasn’t able for some reason to leave a comment directly on the blog post. I’ve been having lots of tech problems lately, and presumably this is just another one of them. But I did want to respond b/c it’s a fun question.

    I did not make this up, but unfortunately I cannot recall where I found it. And it’s not for memorizing new vocabulary, but rather for remembering when to use “ser” and when to use “estar” in Spanish.

    Ser -> DOCTOR:

    Description (“su hijo es inteligente”)

    Occupation (“es doctor”)

    Characteristic (“son personas amables”)

    Time/date (“son las nueve de la mañana”)

    Origin (“soy de los EEUU”)

    Relationship/identity (“es mi primo”)

    Estar -> PLACE:

    Position (“la ventana está al lado de la puerta”)

    Location (“París está en Francia”)

    Action (“estoy preparando la cena”)

    Condition (“tú estás enfermo”)

    Emotion (“estoy triste”)


    Liked by 1 person

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