Monthly Archives: April 2015

Icelandic: Elves and some survival phrases


Today’s blog post is taking us to the far North of Europe, namely to Iceland, the land of geysirs and volcanoes, sagas and eddas, Vikings, and of álfar (elves). 🙂 The elves living in Iceland are also known as Huldufólk, which derives from  huldu– ‘pertaining to secrecy’ and fólk ‘people, folk’. There are said to be 13 different types of elves living in Iceland, who have the same size and the appearance of humans, but are invisible to most humans. Building and construction projects sometimes have to be altered because they would damage or disturb the rocks and places where elves are said to reside. Elves usually live in mounds and like dancing, but dislike electricity, churches and crosses, and one should not throw stones in Iceland because of the possibility of hitting elves. Precursors to the Huldufólk date back to the writings of Snorri Sturluson and to skaldic verse. The legends surrounding elves are an example of the intangible and oral heritage of Iceland. In the picture below, you can see some álfhól (elf houses):

Author: Christian Bickel, Wikipedia Commons Elf houses in Iceland

Author: Christian Bickel, Wikipedia Commons
Elf houses in Iceland

The Huldufólk are also part of Faroese folklore, where they are said to have black hair and to wear grey clothes. The Faroese language is closely related to Icelandic.

Here is a photo of a road which had to be built around rocks where elves are said to live:


Author: Christian Bickel, Wikipedia Commons Álfastein in Kópavogur near Álfholsvegur 125

Author: Christian Bickel, Wikipedia Commons
Álfastein in Kópavogur near Álfholsvegur 125

Here are some survival phrases in Icelandic:

Halló                  Hello

Bless                 Goodbye

Takk fyrir!           Thank you

Þakka þér kærlega fyrir!          Thank you very much!

Það var ekkert     You are welcome

Fyrirgefðu         Sorry

Afsakið              Excuse me

Hvað heitir þú?    What’s your name?

Ég heiti….          My name is…

Hvernig ert þú?   How are you?

Allt fínt. En þú?   Fine. And you?

Focus on cultural diversity: Miswak twigs

Today’s blog post will be about miswak twigs, teeth cleaning twigs made from the Salvadora persica tree, which is known as pilu tree in India (Hindi पीलू pilu or  कूम्भी kumbhi) and as arak tree (Arabic أراك )  in the Middle East. Miswak twigs (Arabic السواك) are known as kayu sugi in Malay, and are also often called just siwak. Miswak twigs are commonly used throughout the Middle East, India, Central and Southeast Asia, and are especially common in Muslim countries, since the Prophet Muhammad recommended their use in a hadith. The use of miswak therefore plays a role in Islamic hygienic rules, and its use is recommended e.g. before religious practice, on Fridays, before journeys, before joining a gathering, etc.

Author: Iqbal Osman, Wikipedia Commons Miswak twigs

Author: Iqbal Osman, Wikipedia Commons
Miswak twigs

To use a miswak twig as a toothbrush, you just cut off the end of a twig, then chew it lightly, so that its end will fray and turn into bristles. You then use these bristles to brush your teeth. Miswak has slightly antiseptic properties and can stop tooth decay. You can buy miswak twigs in oriental and Asian foods stores.

Author: J.M. Garg, Wikipedia Commons Salvadora persica tree (pilu tree)

Author: J.M. Garg, Wikipedia Commons
Salvadora persica tree (pilu tree)

The evergreen pilu tree (Salvadora persica), from whose twigs miswak sticks are made, is a salt-tolerant shrub or small tree that is native to arid zones in the Middle East, India and Africa. The use of its twigs dates back 7,000 years ago, to the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians. In Pakistan, the tree has an association with graveyards.

Useful language learning tool: ‘Word of the day’

Author: Paul, Wikipedia Commons

Author: Paul, Wikipedia Commons

Today’s blog post is about a language tool I find very useful, both for learning new languages and for keeping up old ones: the ‘Word of the Day’-feature offered by several websites for free, which you can often also subscribe by email.

These ‘Words of the Day’ are offered for many languages, though not for all, unfortunately, and each website offers a different selection of languages. I find this feature really useful when used every single day because it makes sure that you hear at least one sentence a day in each language which you speak (provided there is a page which offers this feature for the language you want).

Here are some websites which offer them for multiple languages: – this is one of the best offers for the ‘Word of the Day’-feature since the number of languages offered is quite large. Beware, though, of their “free lifetime account”! I strongly recommend *not* signing up for it since all you sign up for is a lifetime of *spam* as this company will send you at least 2 emails each single day, often even 3, and the ‘unsubscribe’-function notoriously does not work!!! Their youtube channel is also good though. – this page offers a different selection of languages, some rather “exotic” languages among them, which other websites don’t offer

For Irish Gaelic:

The handwritten Hebrew alphabet

Today’s blog post is taking us to Israel and to the Hebrew language, and more precisely to the Hebrew alphabet. Since Hebrew courses and textbooks often only teach the printed version of the Hebrew script, but the handwritten alphabet looks markedly different, I thought the handwritten alphabet and how to write it would be a nice topic for a blog post. 🙂 Here is the handwritten alphabet, with little arrows indicating how to write the letters:

hebrew handwritten

The same alphabet is also used for writing Yiddish, with only slight variations of some letters. The alphabet is written from right to left, and there are no capital letters. Five letters take a different form when they are in the final position of a word (last letter of a word); these are the letters khaf, mem, nun, feh and tsadi.

Author: Golasso, Wikipedia Commons The Western Wall in Jerusalem

Author: Golasso, Wikipedia Commons
The Western Wall in Jerusalem

Survival phrases in Tagalog (Filipino)


Today’s blog post will take us to the Philippines and its national language, Tagalog or Filipino (Pilipino). Tagalog is an Austronesian language, the language family that also includes languages such as Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, Malagasy and Hawaiian to name but a few. The name Tagalog itself derives from ‘taga-ilog’, which means river dweller. Filipino, the national languages of the Philippines, was developed as a lingua franca in the 1930s, and Tagalog, a language spoken predominantly in Manila and Central and South Luzon, was chosen as its base, into which words and elements from other Phillipine languages were then incorporated. Tagalog vocabulary includes a wealth of words from Spanish and English, and the words for numbers, days of the week and for months are actually loanwords from Spanish, but spelled in Filipino.

Here are some ‘survival phrases’ in Tagalog 🙂 :

Kumusta                                      Hello

Babay                                         Goodbye

Salamat                                      Thank you

Walang anuman                         You’re welcome

Ako si…..                                    My name is……

Oo                                              Yes

Hindi                                           No

Hindi ko naiintindihan                 I don’t understand

Sori                                            Sorry

Eksyus mi                                  Excuse me

Kumusta po kayo?                    How are you?

Mabuti po                                  I’m fine

Author: B. Navez, Wikipedia Commons Ylang-ylang plant, a native plant from the Phillipines

Author: B. Navez, Wikipedia Commons
Ylang-ylang plant, a native plant from the Phillipines

Tagalog has also contributed some words to the English language. Some words of Tagalog-origin commonly used in English  are:

Ylang-ylang        a tropical tree with yellow flowers from the Phillipines, from which a fragrance is derived

Capiz                  a shiny oyster shell, which is used in the production of crafts

Abaca                a type of hemp fibre made from the Abaca-plant, a plant in the banana family

Cogon               a type of grass used for thatching, from the word kugon (a species of tall grass)

Boondocks       a word meaning ‘rural’ or ‘backcountry’ in English, which is derived from a mispronunciation of the word bundok (“mountain”)

Jeepney in the Phillipines

Jeepney in the Phillipines

Lithuanian months and their etymology

Author: luc viatour, wikipedia commons

Author: luc viatour, wikipedia commons

Today’s blog post will be about Lithuanian, more precisely about the etymology and the meaning of the words for months. Like many of the neighboring Slavonic languages, Lithuanian, a Baltic language, does not use the Latin names for the months, but its own, more ancient names for the months, which are based on the seasons and agricultural activities (just like the Slavonic months).

Sausis (January) – from sausas meaning ‘dry’; this derives from the fact that precipitation at this time of year is usually in the form of dry snowflakes

Vasaris (February) – from vasara ‘summer’; this is because the days begin to lengthen at this time and thoughts turn toward summer

Kovas (March) – derives either from kovas, meaning rook (a bird), or kova ‘struggle’; rooks are building their nests at this time, or alternatively the struggle between winter and spring

Balandis (April) – from balandis ‘dove’; the time when doves build their nests

Gegužė (May) – from gegužė, the cuckoo; its call is believed to herald the arrival of spring

Birželis (June) – from beržas, the birch, which blooms in this month

Liepa (July) – from liepa, the linden tree, which flowers in this month

Rugpjūtis (August) – from rugiai, ‘rye’, and pjauti, ‘to cut’, therefore literally the month in which rye is cut

Rugsėjis (September) – from rugiai, ‘rye’, and sėti, ‘to sow’, so the month in which rye is sown, which then overwinters in the fields before it starts to grow in spring

Spalis (October) – from spaliai, flax hards, which are harvested at this time of the year

Lapkritis (November) – from lapas, ‘leaf’, and kristi, ‘to fall’, the month in which the leaves fall

Gruodis (December) – from gruodas, which means something like a ‘frozen clod’, which forms in the fields at this time of the year

What becomes apparent when one compares these meanings with those of the months of the Slavonic languages (see also my last blog post), is that many months derive their names from the same event in the agricultural year, for example, the falling of the leaves (‘listopad’ in Slavonic), the flowering of the birch and linden trees, clods of frozen soil, etc., even though the languages are not related linguistically (Lithuanian is a Baltic language, whereas most languages in the neighboring countries are Slavonic languages).

Lithuanian is a very interesting language from the linguistic point of view, because it still retains many features of Proto-Indo-European, which are now lost in other lndo-European languages. It is closely related to Latvian.