comparing Breton and Irish, part 1 – the inner workings

The Breton language tends to be unheard of outside of France except perhaps among Celtic language enthusiasts. Indeed, I first heard of the language from linguistic literature about the Celtic language family. Not much information was available to me at the time, but I became curious about the only Celtic language still spoken in continental Europe. My first exposure to Breton was through the online Breton language radio station An Tour Tan. I was intrigued from the first moment. The sound of the language was not at all what I was expecting; the heavy phonological influences from French, such as the uvular /ʁ/ sound and many of the vowels, caught me off guard. But there were some familiar things as well: the /x/ sound and something about the rhythm of the language, particularly with older speakers. I wanted desperately to pick out familiar words or phrases, cognates with Irish, but at this early stage no such similarities were apparent. Nevertheless, I was hooked and set about to tracking down materials for learning this low-profile gem of a language.

As I began to study whatever materials I could get my hands on, I started to be able to draw some lexical and syntactic connections to Irish. After visiting Brittany in 2008 and understanding a little more about the sociolinguistic situation there, certain political and cultural parallels became apparent as well. Thus my approach to the Breton language has always been influenced by my perspective as an Irish speaker, and I hope to outline here a few of the parallels that I’ve observed between the two languages.

The modern Celtic languages currently in use are marked in green. By Elevatorrailfan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

COGNATES – mind your P’s & Q’s

The most obvious similarities are found in the cognates that you will find between the two languages. Coming from different branches of the Celtic language family, there are not as many cognates between Breton and Irish as there are between Breton and Welsh, but there are certainly enough to give an Irish-speaker a leg up in learning Breton. Below is a small selection of related words that I’ve noted over the course of my studies.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.21.27 p.m..png

A few additional cognates will point out one major difference between the two branches of modern Celtic languages, Goidelic and Brythonic. Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, and Manx) can also be classified as Q-Celtic, while the Brythonic languages (Breton, Welsh, and Cornish) can be labeled P-Celtic. This difference refers to a sound change whereby the Q-Celtic languages, in branching off from the other Celtic languages, replaced bilabial stops (represented by “P”) with velar stops (represented by “Q”). Hence, questions words in modern Breton such as pe, pet, penaos, peur are cognates with the Irish cé, cad, conas, and cá huair (who, what, how, when).

The word for “son” in the Gaelic or Q-Celtic languages is mac, commonly known from many surnames such as mine, MacEoghain, is mab in Breton and other P-Celtic languages. Incidentally, there is also a surname found in Breton, Abeozen (the M was lost at some point), which shares the same etymology as MacEoghainEoghan and Eozen both deriving from an old Celtic word meaning “yew”.

Penn is “head” in Breton, and is found in Irish as ceann. By extension, we find two more cognates empenn and inchinn, which both mean “brain”, i.e. “in the head”.


In addition to sound shifts there are also naturally shifts in meaning between cognates of the two languages.

Skuizh and scíth both in fact mean “tired”, though in Irish scíth nowadays has the more common meaning of “rest” and another word tuirseach is used to indicate “tired”.

The pair of antonyms uhel and izel, meaning “high” and “low” respectively, exists in Irish as uasal and íseal. While the meaning of íseal still has a lot of overlap with izel, uasal in Irish is used to mean “high” in the sense of “high-born” or “nobel”, but not in the sense of physically high or tall.

Dorn in Breton is “hand”, while the same word in Irish means “fist”.

Exhibiting another regular sound correspondence GW / F, gwenn meaning “white” in Breton shares its origins with fionn which is generally only used for “fair-haired” or “fair-skinned” in modern Irish.

Tud, “people” in Breton, is a cognate with the Irish tuath, which has the less general meaning of “people” in the sense of “a people” or “tribe” or even “lay people”.

Finally there are even occasional compounds or expressions that are shared by both languages:

den ebet / duine ar bith = anyone/no one (literally “a person in the world”)

ouzhpenn / os cionn = above (literally “over head”)

droug-penn / droch-cheann = headache (literally “painfull/evil head”)

buoc’hig-Doue / bóín Dé = lady bug (literally “little cow of god”)

With a little prodding, the surface differences between Breton and Irish begin to melt away and traces of kinship appear. But the lexicon just one aspect. If we look into the grammatical workings of Breton and Irish, we will find many more parallels.

MUTATIONS – ma vamm / mo mháthair

Mutations are another trait found in Breton that will be familiar to Irish speakers. The Breton mutations more closely resemble those in Welsh or Cornish, but there is a definite resemblance to Irish, both in phonology and application. An Irish speaker won’t bat an eyelash at the fact that “woman” in Breton is maouez but “the woman” is ar vaouez. After all, the same thing happens with “woman” in Irish, yielding bean and an bhean (here bh is pronounced as /v/). And the use of the mutation here is no surprise as both languages lenite feminine singular nouns after the definite article.

The only real difficulty for an Irish speaker is that Breton has four varieties of mutation, twice as many as in Irish. But the basic principles of sound change are the same and rules that block mutation in certain situations such as “the dental rule” can apply in both languages.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.28.41 p.m.
taken from Ar C’hemmadurioù, Lodenn 4:
Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.29.06 p.m.
taken from Ar C’hemmadurioù, Lodenn 4:


SYNTAX – Penaos eo an amzer? / Conas atá an aimsear?

The word order of Breton presents some interesting challenges. Literature generally labels Breton as a VSO language, like all other Celtic languages, without paying attention to the fact that most sentences in Breton do not follow this pattern. Indeed subordinate clauses and negative statements are strictly VSO, so there is some basis, however underlying, for VSO categorization, but something else is happening on the surface. The pattern that we see most commonly is referred to as verb-second or V2, which is exactly how it sounds. The verb comes second and the first position is occupied by the subject, object, adverbial phrase, etc. Breton speakers tend to put into the first position whatever information is new or intended to be emphasized. As Stephen Anderson points out, the verb actually CANNOT be in the first position in most sentences. Curious for a supposedly VSO language.

This peculiarity didn’t strike me as particularly odd at first though, because I could easily find parallels in Irish to refer to. Irish stays fairly loyal to its VSO structure, but it can also make use of particles to introduce subordinate clauses, exactly as Breton does, in order to create sentences with a similar structure to Breton’s V2 sentences. In Irish this usage is generally limited for the purposes of emphasizing a particular idea.

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 10.31.53 p.m..png
taken from Intermediate Irish: A Grammar and Workbook by Nancy Stenson

The Irish examples still fit the VSO description with the copula is occupying the V position, but the particle a introduces a subordinate clause which contains the main verb (cheannaigh) of the sentence. Likewise, I believe that there may be an unrealised, implied copula of sorts in these Breton sentences that introduces a subordinate clause after the particle a or e and gives the V2 surface result.

The above Irish sentences translate very neatly into Breton as shown below. The only thing missing is a copula at the beginning of the sentences:

Me a brenen ur c’harr e Doire dec’h.

Ur c’harr a brenen e Doire dec’h.

E Doire e prenen ur c’harr dec’h.

Dec’h e prenen ur c’harr e Doire.

The following passage caught my attention for exactly this reason. In this construction in Irish the copula in the initial position is generally omitted and just implied.

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 10.36.58 p.m.
taken from Intermediate Irish: A Grammar and Workbook by Nancy Stenson

Furthermore, this “do + infinitive” construction is very common in Breton. The above sentences can thus easily be rendered in Breton as:

Torriñ ar prenest a rae. = break-INF. the window PART. do-3SG.FUT.

Kouezhañ a ri! = fall-INF. PART. do-2SG.FUT.

So many sentences can be translated nearly verbatim from Irish to Breton, leaving out only the initial copula where it appears in Irish. I would have to look more into the structure of Old Breton to know if in fact there ever was a copula used in that position, but at the very least it is striking that two now distantly related languages still share a common flexibility in word order and that beneath the surface, their structures are not all that different.

Another characteristic shared between Breton and Irish is the behaviour of their prepositions. First of all, they both “conjugate” their prepositions, as do all other Celtic languages. That is, prepositions have specific inflected forms for each person, such as the Breton ganin, ganit, ganti (with me, with you, with her) which derive from the preposition gant (with). Not only that, but the usage of these prepositional forms is quite similar, even if the prepositions themselves differ. For example, possession is often expressed with prepositions:

Irish: Tá leabhar agam(lit. A book is at me.)

Breton: Ul levr a zo ganin. (lit. A book is with me.)

Both of these mean “I have a book”. Whereas both of the following mean “The book is mine”:

I: Is liomsa an leabhar. (lit. The book is with me.)

B: Din eo al levr. (lit. The book is to me.)

The past perfect is also expressed with personal prepositions in conjunction with the past participle:

I: Tá sé críochnaithe agam. (lit. It is finished at me.)

B: Echu eo ganin. (lit. It is finished with me.)

Both of these mean “I have finished it.”

Certain idiomatic expressions even hold up in both languages, such as in these two sentences which both mean “He succeeded (at it)”:

I: D’éirigh go maith leis(lit. It rose well with him.)

B: Dont a rae brav gantañ(lit. It came well with him.)

PERSPECTIVE – Is glas iad an cnoic i bhfad uainn.

Finally there are a few other details that I think beautifully illustrate both the linguistic and cultural ties between the Irish and the Bretons. The existence of the word glas in both languages is one example.

Glas in both Breton and Irish is the colour of nature, basically. In Irish I’ve heard it defined as “the natural colour of plants or things in nature”, and in Breton one teacher of mine defined it as “the colour of the sea”. In both languages, this means that glas could be translated into English as blue, green, grey, or even black depending on what is being described. Plants, trees, the sea, the sky, horses, wool, or someone’s eyes could all be glas. It’s a colour that includes a quality of vitality and nature. It is often translated as “green”, but both languages actually have words to describe things that are green but artificial or not found in nature: gwer in Breton and uaine in Irish. Your t-shirt may be green, but the grass is always glas.

Compass directions are another very interesting thing in Celtic languages. This summer the directional parallels between Breton and Irish became clear to me when a Breton teacher pointed out that in nautical terms kleiz (left) is used to mean “north” and dehoù (right) is used to mean “south”. So ar mor kleiz is the sea to the north of a ship and ar mor dehoù is the sea to the south, indicating a directional orientation towards the east. This reminded me of Irish, which uses the word soir (east) to mean “forward” or “ahead” and the word siar (west) to mean “back”. So if you ask someone to bog siar, you want them to move back, but you’re literally saying “move west”. The actual direction in which they move is irrelevant, but the language still reveals an orientation towards the east. Furthermore, the Irish word for south(ward), ó dheas, comes from the word deas, meaning “right”, though the same logic does not apply to “north(ward)” which is ó thuaidh instead of something related to clé (cf. kleiz).

artist: Isaac Emrick,

So here you have a brief introduction to some of the elements shared between Irish and Breton. The more Breton I learn, the more I see the similarities with Irish and the more I rely on Irish-language logic to speak and formulate ideas in Breton. Given their geographic separation and independent development, the amount of common ground that modern Irish and Breton share is astounding, though it may not be immediately apparent.

Aside from the linguistic richness that they share, though, they also sadly share many societal obstacles. In my next post, I will take a step back from the inner workings of Breton and Irish and focus more on the social and political challenges that these two languages face in the modern world.


Wikitongues: every language in the world

Today I’d like to take a break from my usual format to talk a bit about Wikitongues, what they do, and my volunteer work with them. Wikitongues is a non-profit organization whose basic aim is to empower people to document, share, and build community around their languages – every language in the world, to be exact. The original impetus to work with languages was the alarming rate at which they are dying across the globe. Around half of the roughly 6,000-7,000 languages spoken worldwide are in serious danger of dying out over the next century. Were this rate of extinction to happen ecologically, with half of all species dying out, it would be considered a catastrophic fate. Language death, in contrast, gets very little attention, as speakers of rich and beautiful languages are cornered into abandoning their mother tongue under economic, cultural, and political pressures. It seems that many believe that in order to survive, their language must die.

a video I contributed of my friend Suri speaking Yiddish

In the face of this dilemma, Wikitongues strives to celebrate linguistic diversity and create a platform for education, organization, and inspiration to fuel the preservation and revitalization of the world’s linguistic treasures. In addition to the ever-growing online database of personal narrative videos in dozens of languages, Wikitongues has also created the app Poly to aid in the documenting and sharing of words and phrases in any language. Ultimately, the success of Wikitongues depends on the involvement of community members, and I personally think that it is essential for any language preservation work to be community-driven.


Most recently, Wikitongues has also launched an online publication on Medium: The Wikitongues Blog. I’ve had the pleasure of volunteering on a team of great writers, providing long-form content to highlight lesser-known languages and the struggles they face in the modern world. My first project has been a five part series about Creole languages, which has been a wonderful opportunity to look more critically at the history and development of Creoles and their treatment in a Eurocentric world. You can find my articles here.

And to conclude my plug for Wikitongues, I encourage anyone interested to get involved. Create or collect quality video recordings to contribute to Wikitongues here or find out about other volunteer opportunities here. The work of language empowerment is never over, and it simply doesn’t happen without everyone doing their part.

Sichuanese: just a dialect of Mandarin or a language in its own right?

In 2001 I moved to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China. I had already spent a year in northeastern China studying Mandarin and wanted to spend some time seeing more of the country. Any linguistic map of China will clearly show that Sichuan is within the Mandarin-speaking zone of China, and that was part of the reason I chose the area. I wanted to take my Mandarin to the next level.

Upon arriving in Chengdu, however, I didn’t recognise the language spoken in the train station. “I wonder where those travelers are from, ” I thought. Heading out onto the street and into the city, I realised that everyone was speaking that way. This was my first encounter with Sichuanese (四川話).

“I thought that people in Sichuan spoke Pu Tong Hua (普通話, Mandarin),” I commented to my boss who had come to meet me at the train station. “No, we speak Sichuanese.” I found this strange, since I had never heard of Sichuanese, and every Chinese linguistics book I had ever read stated clearly that Mandarin (all be it sometimes called Southwestern Mandarin) was spoken in Sichuan. I decided that the linguistics books had a relatively useless notion of what “Mandarin” was and decided that they were wrong and Sichuanese was a language that nobody had studied seriously. This also proved to be a less than accurate assessment.

As time went on, I found myself understanding more and more Sichuanese without making much of an effort. I developed an ear for it and was able to extract a lot of Mandarin-based language from other people’s speech. The most striking characteristic of Sichuanese is its pronunciation – at times very nasal and with rather exaggerated tones, which are completely different from the tones in Mandarin. In fact, most words are phonologically similar or even identical to their Mandarin counterparts, except for the tone. For single words and short utterances, you can usually use context to understand and not be distracted by the “incorrect” tone of a word, but in a longer sequence of rapid speech these tone differences often render Sichuanese completely unintelligible to Mandarin speakers. You can listen to a Sichuanese speaker talking about his experience with the language and the way it is changing here.

Sichuanese also has a curious mixture of northern and southern characteristics, as far as pronunciation goes. Most varieties of Sichuanese (there are diverse local dialects throughout the province), do not have the denti-alveolar/retroflex sounds zh, sh, ch that northern varieties of Mandarin have. Instead these sounds are merged with the alveolar z, s, and c, respectively. This is typical of the accents of southerners when speaking in Mandarin. Sichuanese does, however, have the retroflex r sound, usually in the form of 兒化, or adding 兒 to the end of words, a typical northern Mandarin trait used as a diminutive ending.

Phonology is not the only sphere in which Sichuanese differs from Standard Mandarin though. Sichuanese has a lot of unique vocabulary that is not understood elsewhere as well as archaic or unusual usages which may be understood but are not expected or standard. The quintessential Sichuanese word is 巴适 /pa sɨ/, which can mean good, great, delicious, attractive – basically anything positive. It’s etymology is unknown, but some believe it to be a linguistic trace of long extinct Ba-Shu Chinese, an offshoot of Old Chinese.

Some common words with different meaning or usage in Sichuanese:

The word 存在, to exist, is used in the Sichuanese expression 不存在, literally “it doesn’t exist”which means “it doesn’t matter” or “you’re welcome” in response to a thank you.

得 is very commonly used in Sichuanese in unexpected ways. The first word a newcomer will probably encounter is 莫得/没得 /mo21dei21/, the Sichuanese version of 没有 “to not have, there is not”.

要得 is used to express “ok”, used the same as Mandarin 好/可以, and conversely “not ok” is 要不得.

The latter is also commonly expressed with 不得行, as opposed to the simpler Mandarin 不行, and emphatically it’s often heard as 硬是不得行. In written form this is understandable to a Mandarin speaker, however its pronunciation /en35si214 bu21 dei21 xing21/ certainly renders it more opaque.

Sichuanese also has a number of unique modal particles (语气词) that are added to the end of a sentence to give it a certain flavour or attitude. Mandarin has these as well, but Sichuanese makes far more extensive use of them and has some of its own unique modal particles as well.

嘛 is used in both Standard Mandarin and Sichuanese, but while 嘛 is an emphatic particle in Mandarin (often used to imply that something is obvious or to carry a tone of impatience), in Sichuanese it is used quite freely to indicate suggestion or agreement, much like 吧 in Standard Mandarin, cf. Standard Mandarin 好吧 = Sichuanese 好嘛. This often creates the illusion to outsiders that Sichuanese speakers are irritated or living up to the spicy reputation of their cuisine.

噻 /sæ44/ is used as an emphatic or imperative or to express definiteness. Many sentences with 肯定 “definitely” in them end with 噻. I’ve overheard someone being chastised with 你是个男的噻! /li53 si213 go læ21 di sæ44/ “You’re a man!”, i.e. “Be a man!/Man up!” Unfortunately some tropes seem to be universal.

嗦 /so21/ expresses suspicion or dissatisfaction. 你骗我嗦! /li53 piæ213 ngo53 so21/ “You’re cheating me!” This one is particularly useful in bargaining at the market or dealing with taxi drivers.

嘎 /ga44/ is a compact way to seek agreement, much like 对不对 in Standard Mandarin. 你的汉语说得好,嘎? /li53 di han213yu53 suo21 dei21 hao53 ga44/ “You speak Chinese well, don’t you?”

These are only a few common particles, but the everyday speech of the Sichuanese is thoroughly peppered with a wide assortment of such particles, sometimes tagging the end of almost every single sentence.

As far as grammar goes, there is not much difference between Sichuanese and Standard Mandarin, though there are some constructions that differentiate the two. Again, Sichuanese makes extensive use of the word 得, pronounced /dei21/. To say that you can speak Sichuanese, you might say 我说得来四川话, instead of the more standard 我会说四川话. Furthermore, to ask if someone speaks the language, you would ask 你说得来四川话不?, with an unapologetic 不 at the end. Indeed, this 不 is often tagged onto the end of yes-no questions, much the way one would use 吗 in Standard Mandarin. I can’t help but notice the similarity in usage with the Min Nan 无 /bo24/ and wonder if this 不 /bu21/ could be a leftover calque from Ba-Shu Chinese, considering that Min Nan and Ba-Shu both originally stemmed from Old Chinese. This is pure speculation, but therein lies the fun trying to piece together less documented “dialects”.

Going back to 要得 “ok”, to ask if something is ok the question is simply 要得不? And to reply negatively 要不得. 得 is also used to ask if something is likely to happen or not, as in the expression 得不得. Once on my final visit to a school in the south of Chengdu a student asked me 老师,得不得回来? /lao53 sei45 dei21 bu dei21 fei21 lai21/ “Teacher, are you going to come back?”, to which I sadly replied 不得.

“Why is Sichuanese a northern dialect?”

So how did these differences arise? And more importantly, how is it that a version of Mandarin, a northern Chinese language, came to be spoken in the south, the home of the most divergent and conservative Chinese languages? Sichuan’s linguistic history is actually quite unique. I mentioned traces of Ba-Shu Chinese possibly existing in the vocabulary of modern Sichuanese. Ba-Shu Chinese was actually the first Chinese language spoken in the area of modern day Sichuan. It was an off-shoot of Old Chinese (as opposed to most other varieties of Chinese which developed out of Middle Chinese), and though not much is known for certain, it presumably had a phonology that would have been very different from any variety of Chinese spoken today.

The Yuan Dynasty brought a significant population decrease due to Mongol invasions and illness. This significantly decreased the number of Ba-Shu Chinese speakers, and eventually the language was replaced by varieties of Mandarin spoken by in-coming migrants mostly from Hubei. Speakers of other Chinese languages such as Gan, Xiang, and Hakka also made their way to Sichuan, and these languages most likely exerted some influence on the formation of modern Sichuanese as well.

Today Sichuanese flourishes despite the constant pressure of Standard Mandarin. Some of the older pronunciations of words in Sichuanese are giving way to more standard, Beijing-type pronunciations, and many local words and expressions are falling out of use. The Sichuanese of young people today often resembles relatively standard Mandarin with a slightly compromised Sichuanese phonology. It isn’t the Sichuanese of 50 years ago, but it is still quite distinct and is definitely the preferred mode of communication for most people.

The government knows this and uses schools as a forum to encourage students and teachers to clean up their local “dialect” and use Standard Mandarin. Perhaps here more than anywhere else is the discrepancy between “Mandarin” and “Sichuanese” most apparent. Linguistically Mandarin is a broad category that refers to a sometimes loosely shared history with Ming and Qing Dynasty Guan Hua, “officials’ language”. This language was based on the speech of the northern capitals of Nanjing and Beijing, and spread across the northern plains via migration and government influence. In most of the south where the government’s grip was weaker, it never took hold and had only marginal effect on the Chinese languages there.

The PRC’s version of Guan Hua today is Putong Hua, an even more precise and prescriptive language based on the speech of Beijing and the northeast. Thus, Sichuanese may fall under the broader, linguistic category of Guan Hua (Mandarin) but it definitely falls outside of the confines of Putong Hua (Standard Mandarin). In short, Sichuanese is Mandarin and Putong Hua is Mandarin, but Sichuanese is definitely not Putong Hua.

Varieties of Mandarin

So is Sichuanese a language or a dialect then? There can be no easy answer to this question, given the varying definitions of languages and dialects and the different political and cultural agendas that influence such labeling. Linguistically, I would say Sichuanese could be considered to be a dialect of Mandarin, given its relatively short history and shared core development with other varieties of Mandarin.

However, and this is a big “however”, socially and culturally I push for the recognition of Sichuanese as a language. Aside from the obvious reasons such as lack of complete mutual intelligibility and significant lexical differences, I think that the situation of diglossia in Sichuan is important to consider. Sichuanese people, particularly young people, regularly code-switch between Sichuanese and Standard Mandarin. This code-switching isn’t limited just to vocabulary or the register of language used, but also includes switching phonological systems, i.e. tone systems, sound shifts, and sometimes accent. I even know people who have almost completely different voices depending on whether they are speaking Standard Mandarin or Sichuanese (incidentally, this type of person is always selected at school or work to make speeches or public statements because of their ability to differentiate so starkly between the standard and local speech).

This standard/local split creates a mechanism of identifying an in-group and an out-group. The rapport that results when speaking Sichuanese is unparalleled when speaking Mandarin in Sichuan, and it is this strength of identity that makes the most compelling argument for designating Sichuanese as a language. It is so integral to the Sichuanese identity and conveys the culture in a way that the more sterile Mandarin simply cannot. Beijing knows this – about Sichuanese and all other varieties of Chinese – and it is for exactly this reason that they are so preoccupied with reminding schoolchildren to 普通话, “please speak Mandarin”. Sichuanese will get no support from any official channels, so it is all the more important that people act to raise the profile of the language and push to use it wherever and whenever possible.

a sign in a Sichuan school reminding students to speak and write in Standard Mandarin

I will be posting some basic lessons in Sichuanese here. Please check back in the future for further installments.

Introduction to Sichuanese 四川话入门 – 1

language revitalization and the healing of collective trauma

There is a Sinéad O’Connor song that had a strong impact on me as a young person. It speaks of the loss of language, culture, history, and the effects it can have on a nation.  I revisited this song recently in response to some new information I learned about language revitalization and found new layers of truth in it. The song is called “Famine”:

Famine – full lyrics

The song begins:

Okay, I want to talk about Ireland
Specifically I want to talk about the “famine” 
About the fact that there never really was one
There was no “famine”
See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes
All of the other food
Meat fish vegetables
Were shipped out of the country under armed guard
To England while the Irish people starved
And then in the middle of all this
They gave us money not to teach our children Irish
And so we lost our history
And this is what I think is still hurting we

The Irish people and language suffered serious losses due to the occupation of Ireland by the English. Starting in the late 18th century, economic pressures and the flourishing of English in Dublin began to erode the security of the Irish language. Emigration and urban jobs were seen as ways out of poverty, and this meant that English, not Irish, was the language of the future. The days of Irish-speaking poets and nobility were long gone. The upper classes in Ireland were now exclusively English-speaking.

Nevertheless in 1800, Irish was still the main language of 85% of the country’s inhabitants. Written accounts by British visitors to Ireland describe the difficulty that many encountered in trying to communicate in English beyond the Pale. This would, however, change drastically over the next century. In 1831 the British established the National School system with English as the sole language of instruction, violently contributing to the decline of the Irish language and the stigma attached to it.

It is often said that the Irish language was beaten out of the people, and this is to be taken quite literally. National School children were forced to wear a small wooden stick hung on a string around their necks in order to monitor their language use. Every time they were caught speaking Irish the schoolmaster would cut a notch in the stick, and at the end of the day they would be beaten or punished that many times.

See we’re like a child that’s been battered
Has to drive itself out of it’s head because it’s frightened
Still feels all the painful feelings
But they lose contact with the memory


Meanwhile, people were forcibly removed from their lands and food became scarce as much of the farmland was used for raising beef cattle for export to England. Other crops and livestock were also sent to England in vast quantities. Furthermore, locals were prohibited from fishing and gathering seaweed, leaving them with little else to eat but potatoes. In 1845, when the Phytophthora infestans blight wiped out much of Europe’s potato crop, the Irish began to lose their main source of food and were simply left to starve.

Widespread death and emigration reduced the country’s population by about 20% over the next 10 years, and those remaining were often coerced to give up their religion and language for scraps of food. The Irish identity became synonymous with poverty, backwardness, shame, and inferiority, and many realised that the quickest way to make themselves seem more “civilised”, i.e. less Irish, was to simply speak English. By 1860 only about 30% of the population spoke Irish, and by 1921 that number was reduced to less than 15%. Almost a hundred years into independence, the stigma attached to Irish is still very real, and the language has never recovered.

So let’s take a look shall we
The highest statistics of child abuse in the EEC
And we say we’re a Christian country
But we’ve lost contact with our history
See we used to worship God as a mother
We’re suffering from post traumatic stress disorder
Look at all our old men in the pubs
Look at all our young people on drugs

In O’Connor’s song, she suggests that Ireland still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. It’s chilling to conceive of a mental health diagnosis on a national level – that a people affected by a trauma collectively suffer the symptoms that come with the inability to process and deal with that trauma, and furthermore, that these symptoms are echoed for generations to come. Recent research has in fact shown evidence of the effects of trauma on DNA – effects that are inherited in the DNA of subsequent generations.

As far as Irish is concerned, I personally have often thought that there is something pathological about Ireland’s relationship to its national language. The shame felt by our ancestors for speaking the language has now been converted into the shame that we feel for not being able to speak it, or for speaking it inadequately. The language has become something that divides us, rather than unites us. Those who speak Irish are often discouraged from using it by the reactions of those who do not. Speaking Irish in public can even be met with hostility, as if one’s use of the language is a challenge to another’s Irish-ness.

A TV Series on TG4, Ireland’s Irish language television station, tackled the question of what exactly would happen if someone simply went about their daily life in Ireland speaking only in Irish outside the Gaeltacht, or designated Irish-speaking regions. In No BéarlaManchán Magan took a road trip around the country speaking only in Irish and was met with a wide variety of reactions, ranging from curiosity to hostility, but almost never nonchalance. It’s as if speaking Irish is the least natural thing that Irish people could do with each other.

More recently, a column in the Irish Times written by Rosita Boland last May, sparked a heated national debate over the usefulness of Irish. Boland declared, “I do not like having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak.” She laments the dry, lackluster way the language is taught in schools, and I agree that this is a tragedy. However she seems to equate her own lack of interest in the language to Irish being a completely useless language altogether. Her bitterness towards having had the language imposed on her in school is all too common.

In September of last year Cormac Ó Bruic, an Irish-speaker from the Kerry Gaeltacht, was forbidden from speaking Irish at his job in a Cork pub. The pub owner claimed that it was not about the Irish language itself but rather about practical communication, citing that he had an international staff of native speakers of several languages who all spoke English on the job. The difference that seems to elude Ó Bruic’s boss regarding the use of Irish in his pub is that his pub is in, well…Ireland.

Stories like this are by no means unusual, and Irish-speakers often have to take an almost apologetic approach to using the language. The country is clearly suffering some kind of linguistic identity crisis. Polls show that people feel favourably about the Irish language and believe it is an important part of Irish culture, but when it comes to actually engaging with it, all affection disappears and dysfunction reigns. Is this the PTSD kicking in?

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It’s perhaps not entirely useful to draw such a literal connection between the state of the Irish language and actual symptoms of PTSD in a human – I wouldn’t want to erase the experiences that individuals have with immediate trauma – but a few points of comparison are worth noting. “Efforts to avoid thoughts and activities” that are reminders of trauma could certainly describe much of Ireland’s disinterest or reluctance towards the language. Cormac Ó Bruin’s boss could be said to have had a sort of “exaggerated startle response” to Irish being spoken by his employees. Irritability and anger are not unheard of reactions to the use of Irish either. A bartender once snarled “Who do you think you are?!” at me for ordering a pint in Irish…in a Gaeltacht. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Irish people out there who support the language, but non-supporters do seem to harbour an inordinate amount of hostility towards it.

So how do we heal? Or do we, as so many suggest, just be done with the language and put it  out of its misery? Revivalist linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann would argue that there is strong evidence in support of holding on to our heritage language, particularly for the sake of mental health. I recently took his online AdelaideX course entitled “Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages” in which he presents evidence gathered in Canadian and Australian aboriginal communities that links language revitalization with improved mental health on the community level. Communities that have retained their native languages or are engaged in the process of language revitalization are likely to have lower suicide rates and better overall mental health as compared with communities who have lost their languages. In essence, people thrive when they have a strong sense of identity and a strong sense of place in the world. The pride, sense of belonging, and well-being that can come with linguistic decolonization is not to be underestimated. This is what it means for a community to heal.

I think that O’Connor was really onto something with “Famine”, and I think that Ireland’s  complicated relationship with her language can be healed. Irish needs to be a source of pride rather than shame. The language has to be normalized again. We have to stop associating Irish with the isolated, rural Gaeltacht, and realise that the language is relevant anywhere in Ireland. We also have to work through our collective shame around our language’s decline and rediscover its value in the world of today. Then perhaps we can create a more hospitable environment for those who want to make Irish an active part of their every day lives.

And if there ever is gonna be healing
There has to be remembering
And then grieving
So that there then can be forgiving
There has to be knowledge and understanding

This is America, speak whatever language you want!

Yesterday, on the day of his inauguration, Trump made some bold changes to the White House website. Topics such as “LGBT Community”, “Climate Change”, “Civil Rights”, and “Native Americans” are not to be found on Trump’s website. Links that appeared on President Obama’s website such as “Accessibility” and “En Español”, both of which made the site’s content available to a broader range of people, are also now absent. Being a language person, the exclusion of a Spanish language option on the website caught my attention, as this is an issue I’ve often had to address with monolingual English-speaking Americans.

“This is America, speak English!”

This is a sentence we’ve all heard, in some version or another, many times. I’ve overheard it being said to others and had it said to me. It’s a message that is usually conveyed with a lot of contempt, superiority, and conviction. But for an idea with so much fervor behind it, it is incredibly easy to rebut. I always ask the aggravated individual, “So you think people should speak our nation’s official language? What would you say is the official language of the United States?” The answer is inevitably, “English, of course!” At which point I inform them that they are wrong and that the U.S. has no official language designated at the federal level. I’m not saying that this miraculously changes people’s narrow views on language use, but it is fun to see them get frustrated and squirm, and maybe, just maybe, they will reconsider their misinformed opinion for a quick second.

The English-only movement in the U.S. is not new, but in recent years it has become inseparable from anti-immigration sentiment and right-wing politics. Up until now, no legislation has been successful in declaring English the one and only official language of the country, but with the state of our current government, it is something to be concerned about. The problem is not so much about promoting the use of the English language in official contexts – that happens quite naturally. The problem is that the English-only movement is no longer about communication or efficiency at all. It’s about erasing other cultural identities and imposing a cultural standard for how to be a “true American”. It’s about denying people’s right to live in this country and about the assertion of a cultural supremacy (in many cases, white supremacy). By excluding the Spanish language from the White House website, where it once was found, Trump is sending a clear message to the 41 million native speakers of Spanish in the U.S. (yes, that’s 14% of the population): you no longer belong in this country.

Percentage of population speaking Spanish at home, By Vrysxy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This sentiment regularly leads to acts of discrimination and violence. Arabic speakers have been removed from flights for speaking their language, a woman was assaulted in a restaurant in Minnesota for speaking Swahili with her family, and most recently a couple was harassed in a Los Angeles supermarket for speaking Greek with each other. The U.S. is getting to be a country where people hesitate to use languages other than English for the sake of safety. This is not to say that having English as the official national language will automatically increase such attacks, but if English is going to be official, it should be for constructive and inclusive reasons that benefit everyone, not to entertain a vocal minority’s delusions about their authority over this land.

Another thing to consider is that a change in the United States’ relationship to languages other than English could have a positive effect on the levels of tolerance in the country. A recent article speaks about the link between learning languages and increased tolerance. Learning and being exposed to a language other than your own helps in “gaining cross-cultural understanding”, “dealing with the unknown”, and “tolerance for ambiguity”. This all helps people to better navigate unfamiliar situations, feel less anxiety, and have more motivation and confidence. For a society where tensions and intolerance appear to be on the rise, it seems that we would be foolish to limit ourselves even further to just one language.

Thirty-one of the fifty states have already established official state languages. In every case it is English, but in some states indigenous languages have been awarded official status as well. Hawaiian is co-official with English in Hawaii, and in 2014 Alaska’s official language act was amended to include, alongside English, 20 indigenous Alaskan languages: Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.

Official status for a language should not be something to fear, but it must be handled in the spirit of inclusion and not in order to erase the histories and identities of others. If the issue is approached with care and consideration, it could actually be of great help to many communities whose native languages have suffered under conditions of colonization and poverty. On that note, the next time I encounter “You’re in America, speak English!”,  I think I’ll simply reply with this:



I protested Trump’s inauguration in D.C. yesterday. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just sitting at home doing nothing while the mastermind behind so much intolerance and fear-mongering stepped into the spotlight. Our protest looked like America. People of every colour, gender, religion, and background were present. There were even some Trump supporters wandering around in red “Make America Great Again” hats. People on stage spoke passionately about their concerns for the future. They spoke in English, yes, but also in Tagalog, Lakota, and Spanish, and the experience was all the richer for it. One Trump supporter commented loudly that the Spanish speaker on stage should “learn English” because “this is America”. Well, “En Español” links can be removed from websites, but the people of this country, speaking the countless languages that they speak, are not going anywhere. Eventually that man will have to admit that an English-only America is a limited and obsolete aspiration. He will have to learn that to willingly engage with Spanish or any other language doesn’t threaten you – it makes you a better person.

Last year, when a Trump presidency was just a seemingly unlikely nightmare, I wrote a post about learning Arabic as an act of solidarity. Today I’d like to repeat that message and broaden it to include all languages. One of the U.S.’s greatest assets is the multiplicity of languages and cultures, yet there are those out there (and they’re feeling pretty confident right about now) who want nothing more than to homogenize our society. Speak your languages in public loudly and clearly! Don’t let aggression and intimidation silence you. If you see someone being harassed or attacked because of their language (or race or culture or identity), stand by them and help them to feel safe. Make it known that intolerance serves no one, and make it known in the language of your choice.

Dehong Dai: a Tai language in Ruili, China

In January of 2002, while living in Sichuan, China, I packed my bags and headed south to while away part of the winter. A a change of scenery from monotonous, grey Chengdu was needed. Traveling southbound through Yunnan Province, I noticed a different atmosphere setting in as I headed for Ruili (瑞丽), a town on the border with Myanmar. All I knew of Ruili arriving was that it had the typical reputation of a border town: rough around the edges, multicultural, seedy, isolated, and buzzing with the comings and goings of tourism and trade. Most importantly, though, I was also aware that in Ruili they spoke a language closely related to Thai.

Dehong Dai or Tai Nüa (德宏傣語/傣哪語) is a Southwestern Tai-Kadai language spoken by some 500,000 people of the Dai nationality (傣族) in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture (德宏傣族景頗族自治州) of southern Yunnan province. Across the border in Myanmar, the language is considered a dialect of Shan and is spoken by roughly another 70,000 people. Elsewhere along China’s southern border, other related Tai languages are spoken by the Dai nationality and are also commonly referred to in Chinese under the umbrella term Dai language (傣語). These Tai languages, however, are distinct and have limited mutual intelligibility. In Myanmar, all varieties of the closely related Shan language combined have about 3 million speakers, and Tai Nüa is in fact also referred to as “Chinese Shan”. For such a sizable group, Tai Nüa and Shan are hardly known to the outside world. In and around Ruili, though, the Dai culture is omnipresent, and the language is thoroughly woven into daily life, alongside Mandarin, Yunnanese, and Burmese.

Stepping off the bus in Ruili, I felt like I had left China. The bus station was humming with activity. Two Bangladeshi children tugged at my shirt asking for money as a pair of pink-clad Buddhist nuns targeted me for the same reason. There were women with large belt-bags and wide-brimmed hats counting enormous wads of Burmese kyats at makeshift currency exchange stands along the street curb. A Pakistani merchant offered to sell me some jewelry. Another one offered opium. The sounds of Mandarin, Yunnanese, Dai, and Burmese mixed with the smells of a more Southeast Asian cuisine wafting over from a row of food vendors. Away from the chaos of the town centre, I realised that Ruili was actually a pretty sleepy place. As I walked around and got my bearings I quickly fell in love with the place.

getting acquainted with the language

Within the first few days I had a routine which involved starting my mornings off in a nice café that served excellent Burmese tea. They played good music and had comfortable tables and chairs, so it was an ideal spot to sit each morning and study some Burmese and Dai before venturing out to see sites. On one of these mornings after my tea fix, I met a man who went by Lao Feng (老冯). He was a friendly and talkative man who drove a tractor for work, collecting scrap or hauling things that needed to be hauled. He offered to take me around and show me a few temples. I gladly accepted his offer and soon I was hanging on the back of a tractor zipping down sunny country roads with palm trees and rice fields on either side.

We arrived at a small temple in a village on the outskirts of Ruili, and several monks came out to greet us. It is customary for many families to send one of their sons to go live and study at a temple, so most of the monks were quite young, ranging in age from about 8 to 18 or so. I was surprised that Lao Feng spoke to them in fluent Dai. The temple was raised on stilts, in the Dai style, with a wrap-around porch and open windows on all sides. Inside, the hall was empty except for a large altar with flowers and golden statues against the back wall. It was a much simpler aesthetic than in the Chinese Buddhist Temples I was accustomed to. The Dai practice a form of Theravada Buddhism mixed with some Dai folk beliefs. The monks showed me how to bai fo (拜佛 – prostrate to the Buddha) and pay respects to the head monk, and then we all sat down to have a chat.

Most of the conversation was in Dai, and again I was taken aback by how fluent Lao Feng seemed in the language. He had told me that he was Han Chinese, but I had never encountered a Han Chinese person who could speak any of China’s many ethnic minority languages. I tuned out, reflecting on how rare it would be in the U.S. to encounter a non-Native American with any knowledge of Native American languages, let alone the ability to converse in one. Suddenly I was being addressed in Chinese – the head monk had extended an invitation to me.

The proposition was that I would stay at the temple with free room and board for as long as I wanted in exchange for a daily English lesson with the head monk, whose name I now knew was Zawotika. I thought it over and told him I had one month before I had to report back to work in Chengdu. He seemed happy with a month, and he had one of the smaller buildings on the temple grounds opened up to house me for the ensuing weeks.

Zawotika and I spent a couple hours every morning having basic English conversation and breaking down some fundamentals of grammar and common speech patterns. We made due with Mandarin when we had trouble communicating, but I was surprised at how much English he had already picked up through his own study and from the occasional international tourist that came by. I admired his drive.

The rest of the day I was free to do whatever I wanted. I usually ended up in the company of the junior monks or on the back of Lao Feng’s tractor, as he would stop by every couple days to take me on some outing to a pagoda or lake or festival. It was an incredible level of hospitality. I learned that Lao Feng had been married to a Dai woman and that he often transported goods to Dai communities across the border in Myanmar. This is how he learned to speak Dai, as well as Burmese to a lesser degree, purely by immersion. He had only a 2nd grade education and thus had very limited literacy in Chinese, but he was clearly an astute language learner.

On the lazy, quiet days when I would stick around the temple, though, I spent a lot of time with a Dai monk from Myanmar named Osatta. I took the opportunity to try to learn some of the Dai language, and we ended up having really productive language exchange sessions. Osatta helped me to create a small phrase book for my own study. I transcribed the words and phrases he gave me and then asked him to write them out in Dai. Coming from Myanmar, he used the Shan script to write, which wasn’t uncommon on the Chinese side of the border either. When I felt like my head was full, we would switch and do the same thing in reverse, Osatta noting down English words and phrases and transcribing them in his own way. As the month went by we used less and less Mandarin and opted to communicate in an inefficient but very enthusiastic mishmash of broken Dai and broken English.

the language

Dehong Dai proved to be a fairly straight forward language with characteristics very typical of other Tai languages. It is an analytic SVO language with no grammatical gender, plural forms, or articles. Measure words are used in counting things, and noun phrases are head-initial. The most difficult thing for English speakers is probably the tones, of which Dehong Dai has six. Tones are lexical and any inaccuracy in tone will greatly impede communication.

Here are a couple examples of Dehong Dai:


Compare the usage of this greeting to the Chinese 你吃飯了嗎?(which translates verbatim) and the Thai กินข้าวหรือยัง, which contains the obvious cognate /kin k̄ĥāw/ – to eat. The Tai Nüa word for you /maə55/ is also a cognate with the Thai มึง /mɯŋ˧/, though the latter is considered vulgar, rude, or archaic, while the former is simply the standard second person singular pronoun.


The above sentence shows that Dehong Dai is head-initial, i.e. the head precedes its complements: “language Dai Dehong” for “Dehong Dai language”.

Dehong Dai is essentially the same language as Standard Shan, though with some lexical and phonological differences. Shan has more loanwords from Burmese and Pali, whereas Dehong Dai has many Chinese loanwords. Shan also has a few added sounds and graphs to accommodate these loanwords, whereas Dehong Dai has a slightly smaller stock of phonemes. Finally, there are some differences in the tone system. For example, Dehong Dai has six lexical tones to Shan’s five. This results in many words that are phonemically identical in the two languages except for their difference in tone.

the script

As for scripts, the situation in Dai is a little bit complicated. There are three scripts that can be used to write Dehong Dai. The first two are the new and old versions of the Tai Nüa script (also known as Tai Le script, /laːi55 tai55 35/, or 傣納文). The third is the Shan script (a modified version of the Burmese abugida), also known as /to35 lik54 tai55/, /laːi55 tai55 taə31/ or 傣繃文. All three writing systems are in current use.

The original Tai Nüa script did not indicate tones, but a 1956 spelling reform introduced diacritic tone marks. A further reform in 1988 replaced these diacritics with tone letters added to the end of every syllable (except for the unmarked 1st tone). As a result, older people who are literate in Dehong Dai will tend to still use tone diacritics and a slightly more flowery handwriting style, while younger people will use a more plain style with tone letters. All religious texts still use the old script, while all current materials from Chinese government approved publishers employ the newer Tai Nüa script.


Chart taken from “Cultural Circles and Epic Transmission: The Dai People in China” by Qu Yongxian.

In Myanmar, as Tai Nüa is considered a dialect of Shan, it is written only in the Shan script. This script is also widely used in Ruili, particularly among people who frequently cross the border. Below is a karaoke video of a Dehong Dai song with the lyrics written in both the modern Tai Nüa script and the Shan script.

further study

At the end of the month, I returned to to Chengdu with a strong fondness for Ruili, Dai culture, and Tai Nüa. I was also left with a lot of questions, particularly regarding the language. One of the biggest challenges with encountering China’s minority languages is that it can be difficult to find materials for learning them or even information about them. For those in the target region, who can read Chinese, there are usually books and dictionaries of varying quality that can be found, and of course there are native speakers to talk with. For those seeking to learn from further away, however, it can be more difficult. There might be some videos or print material online, but the scraps of information available are often not enough to properly study the language at hand.


In Ruili I was able to find only three books in or about Dehong Dai: a small Dai-Chinese dictionary, a self-study book for Chinese people to learn Dai, and a book of short stories by a Dai author, mostly in Chinese but with one story written in Dai. Since Ruili, though, resources have been scarce, and even worse, I have yet to meet another speaker of Dehong Dai. There is something satisfying in the challenge of having to piece together a language with few resources, though. After all these years, I’m still interested.

For others interested in this language, I’m compiling my notes from 14 years ago and useful bits of information from these books into a more user-friendly format to share. I will continue to add documents here in the hopes that other people find the information useful. If you are studying Tai Nüa or a related Tai language, please reach out or join the Tai Nüa/Dehong Dai Facebook Group I recently launched. For now, here is a link to an introductory lesson in Dehong Dai:

Dehong Dai – An Introductory Lesson

connecting Portuguese-based creoles

For more background information, please visit my previous posts about Papiamentu and Macanese Patuá.

In the past year I’ve had the pleasure of encountering and learning about two Portuguese-based creoles: Papiamentu and Macanese Patuá, spoken on different sides of the world. Having had no prior exposure to either of them, I never would have guessed how similar they would actually be. If the Portuguese language was going to be put into situations of linguistic crisis, in which people had to figure out some way to communicate with each other, in different parts of the world with completely different linguistic environments, it seems to me that the results would be quite unique. However the more I learned, the more I was surprised at just how many characteristics these two languages share. I was encouraged to speak about creole languages at this year’s Polyglot Gathering in Berlin and decided to take a comparative look at these two languages. Here are some my observations regarding Papiamentu and Patuá.

First of all, there are a number of superfluous Romance language characteristics that have been discarded in both languages, and in fact almost all creoles do away with unnecessarily detailed parent-language characteristics. These include grammatical gender, some aspects of grammatical number, differentiation between subject and object pronouns, and all verb inflections. Here is a brief review of personal pronouns in the two languages:

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Papiamentu and Patuá each use only one set of personal pronouns for subjects, direct objects, and indirect objects.

Verb tenses are indicated by tense-marking particles preceding the infinitive/verb root. Not only this, but these particles share etymological origins, and in modern Papiamentu and Patuá they still resemble each other quite closely – see below. In Patuá the use of  is limited to an explicitly present progressive meaning, and in Papiamentu ta is not used with a number of common verbs, but the parallel is nevertheless quite strong. A and , may have differing origins, coming from either , the helping verb used in the Portuguese past perfect tense, or possibly from  (already). Já in Portuguese is the clear origin of the Patuá marker. Lo and lôgo both derive from logo (later).

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Finally, the most obvious similarity is that Portuguese is the main original lexifier for both languages (Yes, I know that there are more Spanish-origin words in Papiamentu, but I believe that most of these are decreolizations of originally Portuguese words or much later borrowings), hence they share countless cognates. With an understanding of Portuguese or Spanish and these few basic grammar points, the two creoles quickly become quite transparent. Below are some sentences compared.

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For all their similarities, though, they are definitely distinct and unique languages. They have vastly differing secondary lexifiers, Papiamentu taking the rest of its vocabulary from Spanish, Dutch, Arawak, and West-African languages and Patuá taking significant vocabulary from Cantonese, Malay, and a variety of Indian languages. In Patuá it is particularly noticeable that words of Cantonese or Malay origin tend to be used most for foods and common household items, probably a result of much of the early female population being native speakers of these two languages. Likewise, many Papiamentu words having to do with reading and writing originate from Dutch, traditionally the language of education in the ABC islands. The sentences below would scarcely be intelligible to speakers of the other language:


Atâi tâ comê chau-cháu com santám. (The boy is eating stir-fry with coconut milk.)

Amochâi, vôs atirâ sapeca tê lap-sap! (Dear, you throw away your money!, lit. to the trash)


Dúnami un buki òf un korant. (Give me a book or a newspaper.)

Nan no tin pòtlot-nan. (They don’t have pencils.)

Pluralization is also handled differently in each language. Neither language requires plural markers in all instances of plural meaning, but where indicated Patuá employs a pluralization pattern taken from Malay, while Papiamentu uses a pattern found in some Volta-Niger languages.

The Patuá pluralization is simply a reduplication of the noun, commonly found in Malay and to a lesser extent in Chinese languages:

fil0 = son     filo filo = sons/children

In Papiamentu, the plural is indicated by adding a plural suffix -nan (also a the third person plural pronoun). This pattern is also found in other Caribbean creoles, such has Haitian Creole.

e buki = the book     e buki-nan = the books

Even with extensive lexical differences and some differences in common grammatical patterns, we can see that there is still a considerable degree of mutual intelligibility.

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Patuá Excerpt taken from PCB Magazine, Edição 11, Recordâ sã vivê. pcbmagazine.blogspot/2013/09/recorda-sa-vive.html

So how is it that both of these languages diverged from standard Portuguese in so many similar ways? The answer to this lies in the instrumental role the Portuguese played in the  establishment of the Atlantic slave trade in the 15th and 16th centuries. They occupied the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Príncipe and used them as trading and “processing” posts for slaves taken from nearby continental Africa. Thus the language had a presence on the islands early on. Those working in the slave trade, however, were not always speakers of standard Portuguese themselves. On the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe there had arisen a ruling class of Afro-Portuguese people who spoke Portuguese-based creole languages. These very similar creoles, as well as other Portuguese-based pidgins were used by those both administrating the trading ports and traders traveling back and forth along the west coast of Africa and as far as the Caribbean and Asia.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 01.00.59 p.m.
By Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portuguesesV2.png: *Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portugueses.png: *Portuguese_discoveries_and_explorations.png: *Portuguese_Empire_map.jpg: Toklederivative work: Uxbona (talk) – Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portuguesesV2.png, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Naturally, these creole languages were also used to communicate with slaves. When capturing people in Africa and bringing them to these trading posts, the slave traders were careful to separate linguistic and cultural communities, so as to impede communication (and subsequent revolt) among the captives. Having been stripped of their native languages, slaves in turn had to use Portuguese-based pidgins and creoles to communicate with each other. As the slave trade and the Portuguese trading empire in general grew and spread throughout the world, so did these creole languages. Thus, several interrelated varieties of Portuguese-based creoles were taken all over the Caribbean, the coasts of Africa, India, and East Asia.

In the Caribbean, Papiamentu maintained more influences from West African languages, particularly in the area of phonology but also at the syntactic and lexical levels. Extensive Spanish and Dutch vocabulary and some Arawak vocabulary was incorporated, but even as it developed, Papiamentu retained its Portuguese-based core. In Asia, Portuguese-based creoles sprung up in many areas, including Bombay, South India, Sri Lanka, Kolkata, Malacca, and Macau. In Macau, the local Cantonese language became a source for a large amount of vocabulary, as were Malay and several Indian languages, all languages that had left their mark on Portuguese trade creoles along the route to Macau. Despite these influences, though, Portuguese remained the primary component of the Patuá language.

This interconnectedness might lend itself to the creole origin theory of monogenesis, which states that all creoles are derived from 17th century West African pidgin Portuguese, which in turn stemmed from Mediterranean Lingua Franca. By this theory, languges like Haitian Creole and Jamaican Patois would have been relexified with French and English vocabulary, respectively, while retaining the grammar and syntactic structure of creolized varieties of Portuguese from Africa.

This theory of course can have no bearing on the origins of creole languages that had no contact with the Atlantic slave traders, such as Hawaiian Pidgin English, but perhaps the 17th century Portuguese creoles of West Africa had farther reaching influences on modern day Caribbean creoles than meets the eye. At any rate, for those creoles whose lexicons remained mainly Portuguese the relationship is clear, and the 16th century creoles of São Tomé & Príncipe seem to be the missing link.

There are those, however, that still press for a unifying theory for all creoles, regardless of origin. Bickerton’s language bioprogram theory posits that given the typical social circumstances that lead to a creole language, the generation of children who convert that language from a pidgin to a creole are relying on innate grammar in their brain structure. According to this theory, our brains are actually hard-wired to create, understand, and use grammar. Thus, unrelated creole languages such as Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Nubi (East Africa), and Hezhou (Western China) would have similar structures and characteristics because of the predisposition of the human mind to organise language in certain ways.

It is true, in most cases, that these other creoles with no historical connection to the Atlantic slave trade, do share many characteristics with Atlantic-based creoles, i.e. lack of grammatical gender, minimal to no verb inflections, tense-marking particles, etc. However, this is not enough evidence to prove a unique cognitive or linguistic relationship between them. The same characteristics show up, for instance, in all varieties of Chinese, a group of languages that have developed slowly over time, completely unlike creoles.

It seems that the label “creole” may not actually have much to do with linguistic structure or categorization, but rather describes a socio-linguistic situation repeated again and again throughout history. Creoles have suffered (and continue to suffer) the stigma of being linguistically “inferior” to their parent languages. They are often referred to as “improper” or “incorrect” versions of another, usually European, prestige language. If this is the case, does the term “creole” actually do a disservice to the languages?

“Creole” may perhaps be more meaningfully used in terms of a people’s culture and socio-linguistic history. It describes a set of circumstances and the ability of a community to innovate for the sake of communication. Though there are many linguistic featured shared by creoles, it seems that these features are not necessarily unique in the scope of human language. Furthermore, history has shown us the dangers of haphazard categorization given the stigma that creoles have collectively faced. Creoles are often dismissed as linguistically “simple”, all the while sharing many traits with many other unrelated languages such as Mandarin Chinese, a very high-prestige world language.

To this day it remains unclear what, if any, purely linguistic significance the term creole carries. Papiamentu and Patuá do share linguistic similarities, but this is to be expected considering their parallel histories and common origins. As for how they relate to other creoles in the world, it seems that shared historical circumstances may be the most striking similarity. The emergence of creoles all over the world shows us that humans have an instinct for verbal communication, and this is perhaps all we can know for now.


In addition to the resources used on previous creole posts, the following set provided much valuable information for this article:

Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles, Volume I: Theory and Structure. (1988)

Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles, Volume II: Reference Survey. (1988)

language learning beyond the gender binary

Avid language learners and polyglots often end up in situations where we talk about the details of our lives for the sake of language practice.  Whether it is practicing in a conversation class or talking with a language exchange partner on Skype, at some stage in your language learning you’ll have to talk about your actual life, and at this stage you may start to notice that your learning materials have not enabled you to describe your own personal reality. Older materials will lack vocabulary about the technology that we use daily or you may not have the words to talk about your unique hobbies and interests. At any rate, the world of pedagogic dialogues and reading passages does not come close to reflecting the world in which we actually live.

“…modismos…de frequente uso…que mayor importancia tienen” – Seriously!?

In my own studies, I’ve found this to be particularly true as relates to my own queer identity. This really hit home when I encountered a dialogue in a Swedish language textbook in which a man refers to his boyfriend. I realised that it was the first time I had ever encountered any LGBTQIA+ representation at all in language learning materials – and I have used hundreds of language books and courses. (Actually there was another instance, when I found maricón listed in a Quechua phrasebook under “useful expresions”, but that’s not exactly what I was going for.) It struck me just how invisible I felt in the realm of language learning materials, a realm that has always served as my most treasured personal refuge.

Not long after, another issue arose while I was having a Skype exchange. I can’t recall which language I was practicing, but I remember I was at a loss when I began to talk about a friend who does not identify as male or female. In English I would normally use the singular they (my friend’s preferred pronoun), but the language at hand was grammatically gendered, and I found myself being cornered into making choices about another person’s identity, which made me very uncomfortable. It became clear that having the appropriate language in English was not enough and that I would need to dig a little bit to find information on gender inclusivity in the languages I study as well.


The topic of gender neutral pronouns has received some attention in the U.S. media lately, but it is far from being widely acknowledged or understood. It is even farther from being included in reference materials. Singular “they” was declared 2015’s word of the year by the American Dialect Society, reflecting a growing need for and acceptance of gender neutral language and the inadequacy of a binary-based concept of gender. For some, singular “they” is a practical way to begin to remove gender biases and patriarchy from language. For others it is their preferred pronoun, reflecting the fact that they identify neither as male nor female. It is important to know, however, that “they” is only one of many non-binary gender pronouns used in English. The Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog gives a good rundown of many possible gender neutral pronouns.


2015 was also a big year for the pronoun hen in Sweden. This pronoun was first proposed as a gender neutral alternative to hon (she) and han (he) in the 60’s. It gained popularity in the 90’s and early 2000’s, and in 2015 the Swedish Academy added hen to the 14th edition of their dictionary, Svenska Akademiens Ordlista. I’m not sure how widely it is used, but I am told that it is very widely understood. Even those who do not use it are familiar with it, and it is not a source of confusion, which is sometimes the case for those unfamiliar with singular “they” usage in English.


Luckily for the queer polyglot, there are plenty of languages that have no grammatical gender, and Finnish is one of them. Finnish uses hän (the source of inspiration for Swedish’s hen) in the 3rd person singular and se in the spoken language. Neither bears any information regarding gender. Adjectives will not reflect gender either.


Bengali is similar in this respect. There are no pronouns that indicate gender. In general, there is no grammatical gender either, with the exception of some vestigial words with masculine and feminine versions leftover from Sanskrit. In Bengali, the general 3rd person singular pronoun is সে /še:/. There are also উনি /’uni/ and ইনি /’ini/, which are used as honorific pronouns for any gender.


Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 10.36.15 p.m.
Chinese third person singular pronouns for men, women, gods/spirits, animals, and objects. All are transcribed in pinyin as tā.

In Chinese, there is no way to distinguish “he” from “she” as spoken, though there are different characters that are sometimes used. 他 /tā/ is used for both “he” and “she”, though 她 /tā/ is often preferred for “she”, the 女 radical meaning “female”. Interestingly, there is also 牠 /tā/, a pronoun for animals containing the 牛 radical, meaning “cow”. Finally, I recently learned of the less common 祂 /tā/, a respectful pronoun traditionally used for deities that contains the radical 礻, meaning altar or spirit. Personally, I would love to see Chinese-speaking queers adopt this pronoun in written Chinese, as a way to transcend the binary entirely in favour of the pronoun of immortals and nymphs ().

These particular languages don’t present much of a challenge, and perhaps the majority of the world’s languages do not have gender distinctions built into them. But what do we do with languages that are heavily gendered at a grammatical and lexical level? Which verb and adjective forms do you use to talk about a person for whom none of the options are appropriate?

Photo credit: M.Haspelmath, M.S. Dryer, D. Gil, B. Comrie (2005): WALSin, The World Atlas of Language Structures.

Romance languages are probably some of the more commonly studied gendered languages. They will typically reflect gender in their pronouns, adjective endings, and noun endings. That makes for a large portion of the language that has to be navigated with care and creativity in order to remove or neutralize gender signifiers.


In Spanish there are a few very common ways to do this in writing. Typically, masculine words are indicated by an -o ending and feminine words by an -a (there are exceptions), so one will often see an –@ used instead to represent both endings with one symbol. Hence, Hola tod@s would be used to address a group without resorting to the masculine todos as the default pronoun for mixed company, as is done in many languages. One clear problem with this is that it cannot be pronounced. A more important problem is that it still functions within a gender binary and excludes anyone who identifies elsewhere along the gender spectrum. This is often solved with the use of an –x instead of an -o or -a, as in queridxs amigxs, “dear friends”. This, however, brings us back to the problem of pronunciation. Furthermore, neither of the above solutions have any bearing on pronouns.

Elle (plural elles) has been proposed by blogger Sophia Gubb as a gender neutral third person pronoun for Spanish and is probably the most widely used. Along with this pronoun ending come the noun and adjective endings -e (singular) and -es (plural) and the articles le, les, une, and unes. Thus we have les chiques instead of l@s chic@s or lxs chicxs. It is easy to pronounce, very systematic, and easy to use given the willingness to do so. You can watch a good video about this below:

Unfortunately, usage of this type of language is still very limited, and many who are not open to the idea will simply tell you that it is incorrect. There is no recognition of elle or the grammatical forms that accompany it by the Real Academia Española, but people are pushing for this. I even found a petition that you can sign to get RAE to officially recognize elle or some other gender neutral pronoun.


If Spanish presents challenges to de-gendering language, then Hebrew presents near impossibilities. Not only are third person pronouns gendered (masculine and feminine), but so are second person pronouns, all nouns, adjectives, and conjugated verbs. The language is teeming with gender assignment. One thing that is sometimes done, especially in the world of academia, is to always use feminine forms for the default, a choice in solidarity with feminism. However if we are talking about a non-binary individual, not the default concept of a person, what can we do? How will that person speak? Keep in mind that all of their first person verbs will have to be gendered as well. What choices can be made?

First of all, many people will opt to use impersonal grammatical constructions in the place of first person verb forms. One could say נראה לי, “it seems to me”, not reflecting any gender, rather than אני חושב, “I think (masc.)” or אני חושבת, “I think (fem.)”. This kind of approach, which I found mentioned here, is a great way to circumnavigate gender markings, but it is limited. You won’t always have a natural sounding impersonal construction at your fingertips for every given situation. There are not a lot of other options other than to alternate between both masculine and feminine verb forms, even within the same sentence. One might use a first person masculine verb form in the first clause of a sentence and then a first person feminine form in the second clause. Even if this tactic is still based in the gender binary, it definitely throws a wrench into the conventions of it, ultimately queering the language.


Thinking about all these obstacles created by natural languages, I became curious about the concept of gender in Esperanto, a constructed language. Proposed as a utopian world language, it would stand to reason that it should be flexible enough to adapt to changing visions of utopia. Esperanto is actually a fairly gendered language, having separate words for he (li) and she (ŝi), as well as words for females that are based off of a male root word plus the feminine suffix -ino. For example, the word knabo means “boy”, based off the archaic German Knabe, and knabino, with the added suffix, means “girl”. In this case we can use the word infano to simply mean “child”, but what about words like instruisto and instruistino (male and female teacher, respectively)? Is the default form always male? Some people will say that you don’t have to use instruistino and that instruisto can be used for anyone regardless of gender. Others go further and propose that instruisto be used as a gender neutral form and that suffixes be used to indicate a specifically male or female teacher. In this case the male suffix is -iĉo, yielding instruistiĉo, while a female teacher remains an instruistino.

Returning back to the pronouns li (he) and ŝi (she), some people consider li to be gender neutral, though this does not seem to be widely accepted.  A third pronoun, ĝi, is gender neutral, however this means “it”, and is not generally used to refer to people. In the absence of a gender neutral animate pronoun, many people use ri or ŝli. The latter comes from the internet use of ŝ/li as a written contraction similar to “s/he”, and therefore it is still binary based, whereas ri is truly neutral. This usage, called “Riism”, is not official, and many Esperanto purists will consider it incorrect, while other Esperantist communities have embraced it.

Genderqueer Pride Flag

There is of course much more to say on this subject and many more languages to explore. Some cultures will no doubt have their own concepts of gender and perhaps corresponding preferences about the language used to describe different kinds of people. As language learners our job is to educate ourselves about these preferences. Ultimately, the important thing in any language, is to be respectful and intentional with the words you use. However, gender-inclusive language resources are not always readily available. Being connected to a diverse group of polyglots and language enthusiasts is definitely a big help when it comes to seeking out this kind of information.

Looking back over the history of queer liberation, self-determination has been the driving force behind positive change. As queers with an interest in language, we need the same sense of self-determination to create and use the kind of language that we feel accurately and respectfully describes us. As queer language learners and polyglots, we rely on each other to teach and share information about the words we need in both our native and acquired languages. In that spirit, I’d like to call attention to some resources online that I hope enable you to feel confident and represented in your language learning pursuits.


The most comprehensive sources I’ve found for multiple languages are the pronoun lists at and There is also a good Wikipedia page on Gender neutrality in genderless languages.

For German there is a good pronoun page on the Nichtbinär-Wiki.

For Spanish, in addition to Sophia Gubb’s Blog, there is also information on pronouns at nobinario and Archivo Mogai.

For French there is a thorough slide presentation available on non-binary language.

Please share your own resources, and I will continue to add them here.

fighting for linguistic autonomy on International Uyghur Language Day

You hear the call to prayer echo through busy streets of vendors selling samsalar (سلمسالار, cf. samosa), polu (پولۇ, cf. pilaf) and kawaplar (كاۋاپلار, cf. kebab). Many of the women are wearing brightly coloured headscarves and many of the men have beards or moustaches. Signs written in the Arabic script and the sounds of a language not unlike Turkish would never have you guessing that you’re actually in China. And this isn’t merely a small border region, but a large area encompassing deserts and mountain ranges that have been under Chinese occupation since 1949. The area is referred to in Chinese as Xinjiang (新疆 = new frontier) and covers a sixth of China’s land mass. Many locals would prefer to call it East Turkestan, though this term is officially banned in the region. East Turkestan/Xinjiang is home to a large number of ethnic groups, each with their own identity, language, and culture, but the Uyghurs are the most populous. They number over 10 million, however outside of China they are scarcely known.

The Uyghur people (pronounced /ˈwɡər/ in English) have received only limited attention in international media regarding the oppression they face by the Chinese government and the subsequent violence that erupts between the two groups. Ilham Tohti is a well-known Uyghur economist and outspoken supporter of autonomy and freedom in Xinjiang who is now serving a life sentence on unfounded charges of separatist activity. He has been lauded in the west for his fight for the freedom of speech of Uyghurs. The wrongful detainment of a group of Uyghurs at Guantánamo Bay, some for over ten years, was reported in the media, but this gave no attention to the problems Uyghurs face in Xinjiang. Very little is ever reported on the systematic sinofication of the Uyghurs’ homeland and the ensuing cultural damage threatening their traditions and language.

Uyghur is a Turkic language spoken by about 10 million people in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and in the neighbouring countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. There are also diaspora communities in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Small communities of Uyghurs have also migrated for work to cities throughout China. Highly agglutinative in nature, the language resembles other Turkic languages, though with a significant amount of vocabulary borrowed from Chinese. It is written in a modified Arabic script.

I haven’t had much contact with Uyghurs since I left China in 2002 – after all, the diaspora communities that exist are quite small and low profile. Two events this month, however, have motivated me to revisit the topic of the Uyghurs and their language. The first is the Chinese government’s strict controls on and surveillance of the Uyghurs’ celebration of the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

For several years now the Chinese government has had an official policy of (further) restricting freedom of religion in Xinjiang and even outlawing the observance of Ramadan. Anyone with a government job is forbidden from fasting during Ramadan. The fact that the government pays their salary means that they can withhold payment if any non-compliance is suspected. Young people under the age of 18 are forbidden from participating in any religious activities, including visiting mosques, studying the Qur’an, and fasting. During Ramadan some high school students observing the fast have been forced to eat at school or suffer punishment. Uyghur-owned restaurants must maintain normal business hours and stock food and alcohol during the month of Ramadan or face possible fines and/or harassment. The Uyghurs face discrimination and pressure to assimilate year round, but during this month in particular they are under much closer surveillance and surrounded by a heightened military presence in the region.

The second event this month is International Uyghur Language Day, today June 15th. The annual commemoration was inaugurated by the World Uyghur Congress in 2015 to bring attention to the linguistic plight of the Uyghurs and to defend their right to receive an education in their own language. Since 9/11 the Chinese government has been increasingly pressuring Uyghurs to conform to Han Chinese culture and has adopted assimilationist policies such as the so-called bilingual education.  In reality the Bilingual Education Policy is a transition to monolingual Mandarin-medium education aimed at “helping” Uyghur-speaking children adjust by blurring the lines of cultural identity between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. The adoption of Mandarin for the sake of integration comes at the cost of the Uyghur language. The Uyghur population, with its youth exposed exclusively to Mandarin in schools, is naturally worried about the fate of their mother tongue.

In 2015 the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C. released a report on the effects of “bilingual education” on the Uyghur youth of Xinjiang today. The report found that the regional government has set a goal of having nearly the entire Uyghur student population enrolled in “bilingual schools” by the year 2020. As it stands, they have achieved about half of their goal. To accomplish this the government is spending over US$700 million, money which would be more wisely and justly spent improving educational resources through the medium of the Uyghur language. Xinjiang’s Party Secretary Wang Lequan commented in 2002 that minority languages lack the vocabulary for modern science and technology and this renders education in these languages “impossible”. However, if the government is prepared to increase spending on education by hundreds of millions of dollars, I don’t see how more up-to-date educational materials, terminology, and training in Uyghur couldn’t just as easily be provided. The quality of education is clearly not the issue at hand.

The Chinese Communist Party has often equated a distinct Uyghur cultural identity (and language) with an affinity towards terrorism and separatist ideology. Furthermore, opposition to government policies such as bilingual education can get one labeled as a terrorist or separatist. Parents who do decide to send their children to “bilingual” schools are told that their children will have more job opportunities in the future due to their Mandarin language skills. In reality though, these children will still face systemic discrimination in the job market and severe competition from the droves of Han Chinese workers who are brought into Xinjiang from the east specifically to fill job positions. Either parents keep their children from bilingual education and risk being labeled terrorists, or they submit their children to a system that is designed to discriminate against them and distance them from their own language.

In the media, the situation is no better. There is a lack of Uyghur language print materials compared to what is available in Mandarin, and Uyghur language websites are subject to especially heavy censorship (the Chinese internet is already censored in the first place). In July of 2009 demonstrations in Ürümqi against the discrimination of Uyghurs turned into a violent riot. In response, the government shut down the internet in Xinjiang for ten months in order to inhibit communication and the spread of information. In May of the following year when internet service was restored, the vast majority of Uyghur language websites had been taken down, even though most of them did not contain religious or political content.

Two months ago, five web administrators and writers for Uyghur-language websites were detained in anticipation of the politically sensitive time of Ramadan. Some of the detainees have still not been released and have not been allowed any contact with the outside world. Through intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment the amount of platforms for original literature, news, and commentary in Uyghur is steadily decreasing, and the lack of Uyghur language education means that fewer children will master the language enough to create new content in the future. The CCP is doing its best to take away the voice of the Uyghur people.

I’m writing today to bring attention to the struggle of this language and culture. In the case of the Uyghurs, linguistic freedom is one of the many human rights being denied to them. As we see more languages die every year, it is important to keep in mind that this decline is not something that happens in an instant. It takes years of constant pressure and adversity to bring a whole linguistic community down to its last few speakers. Uyghur still has a strong population of speakers, but with the youngest speakers being strategically targeted, something will need to change soon to stave off the decline of this very old and very beautiful language.

Rebiya Kadeer, President of the World Uyghur Congress and human rights activist has said, “We should be proud of our language, culture and ethnicity. Only by saving our language can we save the Uyghur people and our heritage.” To commemorate International Uyghur Language Day, during the month of Ramadan when so many Uyghurs are subject to even greater persecution, I encourage you to learn about the situation in East Turkestan/Xinjiang, spread the word, and perhaps learn your first words in the Uyghur language:

Yaxšimusiz? (ياخشىمۇسىز؟) – Hello!/How are you?

Qandaq ähwalingiz? (قانداق ئەھۋالىڭىز؟) – How is your health?

Yaxši (ياخشى) – Good/well.

Rähmät (رەھمەت) – Thank you.

Iš ömlüktä, küč birliktä. (.ئىش ئۆملۈكتە، كۈچ بىرلىكتە) – (Proverb) Work should be done with a group, power comes from unity.

Check back in for a more in-depth look at the Uyghur language itself in a future post.  Until then, here is a well-known Uyghur folk song:


seal snot and god’s tears

It’s very difficult to give an answer when asked what my favourite language is. It seems cruel to have to pick one, given the endless beauty and idiosyncrasies of each language…or dialect…or sub-dialect. However, my answer is usually Irish because there is one, clear reason I can readily cite for the inevitable follow-up of “Why?”: the imagery.

Every language uses visuals in descriptive expressions, often in ways that are completely unique. The image of raining cats and dogs is unlikely to turn up in any other language; it is truly an English notion. However there is something about the imagery in Irish that strikes me as particularly special, especially when it comes to describing the natural world.

I must admit that I am motivated by some level of cultural bias, as the names of plants, animals, and herbs abound with vivid imagery referencing perhaps more than a thousand years of folklore, mythology, and oral traditions to which I am personally connected. However, I think that anyone will appreciate this aspect of the Irish language, and perhaps gain some insight into how inseparable the landscape and natural environment is from the Irish culture, language, and psyche.

Below is a collection of some of my favourite nature-related words in Irish and some explanation, where possible, of the origins of these terms.

Smugairle Róin

Let’s start by explaining the title of this post a bit. Smugairle róin is the Irish word for jellyfish. Smugairle literally means “spit” or “snot”, and róin is “of a seal”, hence “seal snot”. I love the image of seals joyfully gliding through the water, hocking loogies and spawning slimy, transparent creatures off the coast of Donegal. It’s absurd and gross and beautiful all at the same time.

Lus an Chromchinn

Daffodils in Irish are called “Herb of the Bowed Head”. Lus is herb and chromchinn comes from crom, “bowed” or “bent”, and ceann or “head”. The name obviously describes the posture of the flower gracefully bowing its head. There is another, much less graceful name for Daffodils, though, and that is Lus an Aisig, more or less “vomit herb” in English. This comes from the fact that daffodils are highly toxic, vomiting being one possible result of a human or an animal accidentally ingesting them. A friend of mine suggested that the second, more graphic name might also be in reference to the posture of someone bending over to vomit, though I think most will prefer the more demure, poised “bowed head”.

Lus na mBan Sí

Foxglove, itself a beautiful and fitting plant name in English, has a few versions in Irish, two of which relate to the banshee. The first is simply Lus na mBan Sí, “Banshee Herb”. The other, more in the line of “Foxglove”, is Méaracáin na mBan Sí, meaning “Thimbles of the Banshee”. The purple, thimble-sized flowers are the most obvious feature of this plant, and the reference to the banshee may be a warning of the potentially toxic nature of this plant. It seems that an inordinate amount of plants whose Irish names reference the fairies, banshees or other spirits from the Irish pantheon are poisonous. The fairy folk, or an t-Aos Sí, are powerful and not to be toyed with. So are their plants.

Caipíní Púca

This link between poisons and the fairy world can be seen as well in Caipíní Púca, the Irish name for a kind of psychedelic mushroom, meaning “Little Goblin Caps/Hats”. Ingesting these will certainly bring on aisling-like visions and possibly access to na daoine maithe, “the Good People”.

Mac Tíre

Irish sometimes has a curious way of using mac (son) in creating words. The word for wolf is mac tíre (son of the country/countryside). Some have thought that this is in reference to old beliefs about the shapeshifting abilities of wolves, who are encountered in human form in many tales.

Another curious usage of mac can be found in the word macalla (echo).  This word comes from mac (son) and aille (of the cliff). Thus an echo is the son of a cliff, i.e. a sound being reproduced off of the side of a cliff.

Caisleáin Óir

Cumulus clouds in the sky are referred to as “castles” in Irish. Large and imposing, they tower high like castles of ancient lore, clouds and castles incidentally both being fairly common in Ireland. Taking the image one step further, the golden-orange-pink vision of clouds in the sunset is known as caisleáin óir – castles of gold.

Deora Dé

Finally, one of my favourites, is actually not a native plant to Ireland. Fuchsia is the result of planted hedges that outgrew their intended confines and is now commonly seen gfuschias-955966_960_720rowing wild particularly in the southwest of Ireland. Because of this, there is not any old folklore to be found regarding the plant, yet it has still managed to acquire a very beautiful Irish name: Deora Dé (God’s Tears).

The drooping flowers and stamina are the most graceful of tears, and their electric colour is perhaps their godly quality. I haven’t been able to find information on the origin of the name Deora Dé, but it isn’t surprising to me that the flower found such a striking name in Irish.

The above is just a smattering of the imagery that Irish has to offer. The language casts vivid scenes and stacks layer upon layer of meaning, often onto some of the most simple or common objects or ideas.  This is what I miss when I don’t get to speak Irish for an extended period of time. These types of words are the real heart of the language. So the next time someone corners me into answering why Irish is my “favourite” language, I’ll simply reply, “Seal snot and God’s tears.”



Forey, Pamela & Lindsay, Ruth. Luibheanna Leighis, 1997.

Ó Dónaill, Niall. Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, 1977.

Williams, Nicholas. Díolaim Luibheanna, 1993.