Singing in languages

Last weekend one of the choirs I sing in presented a concert which had been delayed and disrupted by COVID and reduced in numbers by choristers travelling. Alongside works in English, liturgical Greek and Latin, we sang works in Church Slavonic (a movement from Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom) and Latvian (a new work by a local composer of Latvian birth or heritage). 

Church Slavonic and Latvian are both Indo-European languages, so I was on the lookout for any words which are obviously related to other IE languages I know about. But the only words I could discern are loan words into those languages just as into English: kheruvímy (cherubim) in the former and fenikss (phoenix) and oranži (orange) in the latter (all heavily influenced by the pronunciation and spelling of those languages). There is also trisvętúju in the former, which is guessable as trinity

Even though all these languages are Indo-European, they are obviously very different. Even though Church Slavonic and Latvian are both Balto-Slavic, they are obviously very different. Among other things, Church Slavonic is Slavic and Latvian is Baltic. Also, the texts we sang are liturgical dating to perhaps the 9th century and a 19th century secular poem. 

Linguists started by comparing closely related languages, such as Church Slavonic, Bulgarian and Macedonian, and Latvian and Lithuanian, then work their way back from there, eventually linking Polish, Czech and Slovak, the Balkan languages, the Russian-related languages and others into Slavic and thence with Latvian and Lithuanian into Balto-Slavic and then Indo-European. (Some people have attempted to reconstruct further back than than that, but their efforts are speculative and inconclusive at best.)

PS The Latvian poem is Putns ar uguns spārniem (which I can’t find anywhere online) by Aspazija. The title translates as Bird with wings of fire. I wondered if putns is related to a certain Russian surname, but no, the certain Russian surname apparently comes from put (path or way) + in (belonging to) and probably means something like ‘one who travels on a path’. (I couldn’t find any authoritative source and am relying on several user-submitted websites.)

graph and tele

For reasons I won’t explain, I was thinking about the word(s) photograph and photo. English speakers (and I suspect speakers of most languages) often shorten words like these. Investigating using Google Ngrams, I found that, not surprisingly, photograph was used more commonly for most of the word’s history, and that photo overtook it in 1984 (specifying usage as a noun). My preliminary theory is that photograph declined with the rise of digital photo instead of digital photograph, but Ngrams shows that those two phrases are too late and comparatively too little used to have much of an effect overall. 

Similar is/are telephone and phone, for which the latter became more common (as a noun) as recently as 1998. This is plausibly connected to the rise of cell phone and mobile phone instead of cell telephone and mobile telephone, which basically no-one ever used or uses, but phone had been rising in usage since the 1960s. 

Compare the verbs photograph and *photo and telephone and phone (which switched in 1995). Not surprisingly, Ngrams does not record photo as a verb, but surprisingly also does not record photograph, either. At first I thought I’d mis-spelled it, but no, that’s the result. Also not surprisingly, take a photo increased steadily from about 1980 and sharply from about 2000.

Some languages shorten words even more. In Korean, 디지털 카메라 (di-ji-teol ka-me-ra) become 디카 (di-ka) and if 셀프 카메라 봉 (sel-peu ka-me-ra bong) ever existed, it quickly because 셀카봉 (sel-ka-bong, selfie stick).

Linguistically, this is called clipping. Different parts of different words are omitted or kept. Photograph could not become graph, because that had an existing meaning. Once telephone at least sometimes became phone, television could become telly (or tv), but not vision.

Resurrection Day

Last year I posted about my firm belief that yesterday and today are Easter Eve and Easter Day respectively. I drafted most of the following post, then actually re-read last year’s post and found that I said most of this in last year’s post. But I’ll post this anyway.

I have long pondered the use in English of the pagan-derived Easter instead of anything actually Christian. After researching this, I found that this is an issue in only two languages: English, which uses Easter, and German, which uses Ostern. Even the closely related Dutch and Danish use Pasen and påske respectively. These, as well as the equivalent words in most other European languages, are derived from New Testament Greek Πάσχα pascha, Aramaic, פסחא paskha and Hebrew פֶּסַח pesaḥ (most often transliterated as pesach), or passover. But using pascha, pesach or passover is going to cause more problems that it solves.

English-speaking Christians in particular can’t complain that Easter has become a secular, commercial food-and-drink-fest when we deliberately and habitually call it by the name of a pagan fertility goddess. I was flipping through a 172-page supermarket magazine and saw one full-page ad headed Celebrate Easter. It doesn’t mention Jesus’s resurrection; it was for a cheese company and featured an undoubtedly sumptuous cheese, fruit and chocolate platter. 

A few European languages unrelated words: Wikipedia lists (Indo-European Slavic) Czech Veliknoce (Great Night), Bulgarian Великден (Velikden) and Macedonian Велигден Veligden (Great Day) and (non-Indo-European Hungarian, húsvét (taking the meat, that is, the end of the Lenten fast) and Finnish language Pääsiäinen, “which implies ‘release’ or ‘liberation’”.

If I can trust Google Translate, many non-European languages use either a transliteration of Easter (Japanese  イースター Īsutā), pascha (Amharic ፋሲካ fasīka (I presume directly, given the long history of Christianity in Ethiopia) and (?) Malagasy Paka (I presume borrowed from French, given the colonial history and prevalence of Christianity there)) or their own words for resurrection  + day (Chinese  復活節 (trad) 复活节 (simp) fùhuó jié and Korean 부활절 buhwaljeol (I assume that Korean borrowed the word from Chinese in the same way that English takes most of its specialised vocabulary from Latin and Greek)). There are also a number of languages where the meaning is not immediately discernible. They are possibly related to resurrection.

I asked my wife if 부활 is used only in the religious sense and she said yes. I then said that in English resurrection is sometimes used about an actor or singer who was very popular, then not popular, then is beginning to be popular again, and she said that it’s used like that, too.

[PS A niece who is an English-speaking member of an Orthodox church and second-language speaker of Scottish Gaelic linked to a Twitter thread of speakers of various Great British languages or varieties discussing various words and phrases they use based on Pasch, Pascha or Pace, so it does happen. Wikipedia mentions the Pace egg play, and see also the Egg dance. The Pace eggs found in Sydney supermarkets are named after the (?Maltese) family-run company which produces them.]

Biblical gramma

I occasionally attempt to learn some biblical Greek. During my last burst, I spotted three slightly related words. 

The first is μαθητής mathetes (singular), μᾰθηταί mathetai (plural). In any other context, this would be translated as learner, student, follower or adherent, usually of a philosopher or rhetorician, but in biblical translations, it is usually translated as disciple (from Latin discipulus).  

The second is απόστολος apostolos (singular), απόστολοι apostoloi (plural); not surprisingly, apostle. This means one who is sent (ἀπό-, apó-, from + στέλλω, stéllō, I send). The closest Latin word is delegate (dē-, from + lēgātus chosen, selected, appointed), and I can’t think of any Germanic word except sendee, which Pages for Mac and WordPress both red-underline. (There is an old joke that an epistle is the wife of an apostle. One of my first linguistic musings was why epistle had an ‘i’ while apostle had an ‘o’. I later found out that the words are not e + pistle and a + postle but epi + stle and apo + stle.)   

The third is γραμματέας grammateas (singular), γραμματείς grammateis (plural), which is not related to grammar in the modern sense but to writing (γράμμα grámma) (compare Latin scrībō). Originally, it was anyone who wrote for a living, but in biblical terms is a scribe of the religious law (Hebrew סוֹפֵר sofér).

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One Christmas Eve many years ago, I attended a party in the early evening before going to church for the midnight service. When I told another party-goer this, he huffily said that he didn’t believe in anything the church taught because it is impossible for human-shaped angels to have bird-shaped wings because of musculature and the size of the breast bone. Random social conversations often flummox me, this one more than most. I can’t remember what I said or did in reply. Probably excused myself very soon after.

The only references to heavenly creatures having wings come in visions (Isaiah, Ezekiel, John are probably the best known), and those are never called angels, and none of the creatures called angels which interact with humans on earth are described as having wings. Isaiah calls them seraphim and only describes them as having faces, feet and six wings which operate in three pairs independently. Ezekiel calls them “living creatures … Their form was that of a man”, but they otherwise had four faces, four wings and various other obviously non-human features. John also refers to “living creatures” with six wings, one of which had “a face like a man”. Clearly, earthly laws of biology and physics do not apply to visions of heaven.

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Abbreviation on the menu

Two items on the menu of almost every Australian pub are schnitzel (veal unless otherwise specified, or chicken) and parmigiana (chicken unless otherwise specified, or veal). Partly because of lack of space on signboards, and partly because Australians abbreviate almost everything we can, these are often abbreviated to schnitz, schnitty or schnittie, and parmi, parmie, or parmy. Google reports:
schnitz 337,000 – schnitty 104,000 – schnittie 5,490
parmi 233,000,000 – parmie 166,000 – parmy 1,990,000

The result for parmi are skewed by the fact that it’s the French word for among. In fact, the translation appeared at the top of Google’s search results, before any reference to food.

For plurals, schnitz must become schnitzes, schnitty can become schnitties or schnittys, and schnittie must become schnitties. Parmi can become parmis or parmies, parmie must become parmies and parmy can become parmies or parmys:
schnitzes 4,5000 – schnittys 4,730 – schnitties 5,190
parmis 200,000,000 (again skewed by the French word) – parmies 241,000,000 (I can’t explain this result) – parmys 1,670,000 (there’s something very strange going on here – the results for plural schnit– are much lower than for the corresponding singulars, but the results for plural parm– are way higher. 

We have to take these numbers with a large amount of caution. I was prompted to write this post because I spent a wet weekend sorting through old documents, and found a piece of note paper with numbers from approx 2(?) years ago, which are way different from these. 

Does anyone know? No (partly because both words are borrowed from other languages). Does it matter? No (but I can imagine some people getting pasDo I have a choice? If I had to stick my neck out, I’d go for -ie(s) in both cases, if only because these spellings are more common in Australian abbreviations.

(By the way /ʃn/ is another initial consonant cluster not found in English which English speakers encounter in other languages. We generally have no trouble with it, partly because of familiarity and partly because it is phonetically very similar to /sn/.)

PS some Facebook friends mentioned parma, which I hadn’t included because I’d never heard or seen it. Google’s numbers for that are skewed by the Italian city. Some of the sources I read while preparing this post also have parm, which is just wrong. The first result for parm is parmesan cheese, which I have never heard or seen, either.


A Korean friend posted photos and a description of a traditional ceremony he hosted. The auto-translation referred to it half the time as a ‘car ceremony’ and the other half as a ‘tea ceremony’. It is, of course, the latter. Most Korean as a second language textbooks give 차 as an example of a word with two distinct meanings: car (also 자동차 – automatic car or automobile) and tea. The Korean words represent two different Chinese characters, which are possibly pronounced with two different tones in Chinese (Korean isn’t a tonal language). 

The Chinese character 茶 had/has several pronunciations in different parts of China. The countries which traded with northern China picked up the pronunciation chá (for example, Indian chai) and those which traded with south-eastern China picked up ta or te (for example, English, and French thé). Almost every language uses a variation of one of those two pronunciations. 

It is usually easy to tell the difference. Ubiquitous in South Korea are signs saying 주차금지 (ju-cha-geum-ji), which means ‘no parking’ (which Koreans usually ignore anyway), not ‘no drinking jujube tea’.

In fact, Google Translate has just informed me that the Korean word for difference is also 차, so you need to know the 차 between 차 and 차. (Or you just go ahead and cha-cha-cha!)

(As far as I know, 차 was originally used for hand or horse carts before being applied to motor vehicles, similarly to English chariot, carriage, cart and car. For a while, people spoke and wrote about motorised carriages, which became motor cars, which became motors (in a few varieties) and cars (standardly). The English and Korean words are otherwise unrelated.)

PS 19 Oct 2021 – I stumbled across a reference to the series Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha. The trailer includes a play on ‘car’ and ‘tea’. My wife confirmed that 차 있어요? is ambiguous without context in Korean.

Juice, please

On most mornings my wife makes a delicious fruit smoothie. This morning she stood at the foot of the stairs and said “Here is your juice” (expecting me to go down and get it). I said “Juice-seyo”. The Korean for please give is 주세요 (ju-se-yo). She didn’t get my (attempted) pun, and though I was merely asking her to bring it up to me.

The first step is making puns in a second language. The second step is making good puns in a second language.

(The loan word 주스 (ju-seu) is used in Korean, so it is possible to say 주스 주세요.)

Nepali again

A textbook mentioned the difference between a cook (a person) and a cooker (a machine). I mentioned that I wouldn’t naturally say cooker – I’d say stove or oven (and I’m not sure what the difference between those actually is). A Nepalese student said that the Nepali word for cooker is kukara. The first possibility is that this is complete coincidence, the second is that Nepali borrowed the word from English, and the third is that the two words share a Proto-Indo-European root. I later found from Google Translate that the Nepali word for stove is sṭōbha and the word for oven is ōbhana, which makes me suspect that all three words have been borrowed from English. traces cook to PIE *pekw- “to cook, ripen” and oven to *aukw- “cooking pot”, but stove only as far as Old English, with a cognate in Old High German. 

If a language borrowed a word from another language, it means either that the word and/or the person/thing/place it refers to didn’t exist in the culture of that language, or that the borrowed word has supplanted the original one. None of the Nepalese students were able to tell about traditional cooking – maybe all cooking was done over an open fire, maybe they had an oven of some kind. If they had an oven of some kind, then they would have had a name for it. Ovens of different kinds were developed in many different cultures around the world. The first requirement is heat, the second is a way of containing it.

Until my students have more knowledge of traditional Nepali cooking, or of the history of the Nepali language, I will never know. Even I’m at the limit of my knowledge. Wikipedia’s article on Nepalese cuisine doesn’t mention any implements. 

(In fact, records that a cooker can be person employed in certain industrial processes, but at least 99% of the time a person is a cook.)


Yesterday, my wife and I had lunch in a coffee shop/café whose name is rendered


with the O as a stylised coffee bean. My linguistic analysis never completely stops, and I asked the waitress how this is pronounced. She said “Jez-ve”, so that’s not an O after all, but simply a stylised coffee bean. I then asked her what it means, and she said she didn’t know, but she’d ask the manager. If she did, she didn’t return to tell me, so I had to do some research when I got home. (What did people do before the internet?) If you don’t know, can you remotely guess?

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