Of the saintly and sinister: words for the left-handed

Of the saintly and sinister: words for the left-handed

A couple of years ago, when I was still living in North Yorkshire but shortly to be moving further south, I attended a function at one of the final services conducted by my mother (an ordained priest in the Church of England) in a rural parish church. Afterwards, over a goodly spread of finger-food (what in clerical circles is commonly referred to as a bun-fight), I was in conversation with one of my mother’s then parishioners, a local farmer, who was much interested in my studies in linguistics. He tasked me with sourcing the etymology of an unusual local term – cuddy-wifter, which I was told refers to a left-handed person. I’ll propose an etymology of this specific term later, but first let’s have a short discussion of terms for “left hand” across languages.

A close-up of the left hand of a bronze statue. The hand is a polished golden colour, in contrast to the rest of the statue which is a dark brown colour.
Rarely has the left hand been portrayed in such good light

Firstly, it is important to note that many languages do not really make use of such ego-centric terms as “left” or “right” much, if at all. In these languages instead speakers opt for a geocentric system, locating and orienting objects and themselves by their relationship to either the points of the compass or in some cases the landscape. This has been most famously documented in a number of Paman languages of Queensland, Australia. For example, a speaker of Guugu Yimidhirr might refer to their nagaalngurr “east side” or guwaalngurr “west side” rather than to their left or right. Aspects of this conception of space are also found widely in languages across the Pacific and beyond.

And where languages do have a term for “left”, they very frequently differ on what the term should be. Even only looking at the Indo-European family we find a multiplicity of terms: besides English left we find forms as clì or ceàrr in Scottish Gaelic; izquierdo in Spanish; majtë in Albanian; levyj in Russian; chap in Persian: and bau in Sylheti. So many different words, and these languages are all related!

From whence then English left? We can find cognates in nearby parts of West Germanic, such as West Frisian lafter/lofter and Dutch lucht/luft, but none further afield meaning “left”. These forms derive ultimately from a term meaning “palsy, paralysis”, which might perhaps derive from a Proto-Indo-European verb *lewp- “peel, break” which would also through another derivation gives the English verb lop. A similar pattern appears to hold in closely related German links which, though it doesn’t appear directly related and is of somewhat unclear etymology, the Icelandic form linur meaning “weak, feeble” indicates likely a similar semantic development.

On the other end of the scale, terms for the left hand or left-handedness can often end up taking on other meanings. Notably, this has happened twice in English borrowing from two different Romance languages, Latin and French. In the case of the Latin term sinister, it now refers to someone or something that is seen as being shadowing and potentially malicious. In the case of the French term gauche (ultimately derived from the same root as English walk), it instead refers to a lack of fashionability and perhaps a degree of awkwardness.

We can therefore draw two main conclusions from the above. Firstly, the concepts “left” and “right” are not essential to how we as humans conceptualise ourselves and the wider world; many languages do without, and those which have words for them seem to be happy to churn out old forms for new ones (compare e.g. the near-universal agreement on a form deriving from something like *mātēr for “mother” in the various Indo-European languages mentioned above). Secondly, there is a clear tendency for the left hand to carry a negative connotation, either directly due to being the non-dominant hand for most people (as indicated by the various etymologies referring to physical weakness in Germanic) or through some more cultural taboos (as seen by the development of the Romance terms sinister and gauche in English).

What then of cuddy-wifter? Well, the exact origin is not given specifically in any source I could find, but with a bit of digging uncovers the following. The “wifter” part is easier to pin down, as at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary (the pre-eminent source on English etymology) “wift” comes up sometime in the 16th century as a verb meaning something like “to turn aside” or “to drift”, which, going by the pattern set by the above data, seems a reasonable source (at least in part) for a term for “left hand”.

The cuddy part is the more problematic element. Cuddy is an affectionate form of Cuthbert, the pre-eminent saint of the North-East of England, and crops up in a number of terms from the region, notably cuddy ducks to refer to the eider ducks said to have been particularly beloved by the saint, as well as the ponies used in the many coal mines of the area, which were referred to simply as cuddies. However, the connection with the saint seems suspect from the off, as there doesn’t appear to be any kind of source which would attest to the saint being left-handed. Certainly, the Venerable Bede, that great chronicler of Anglo-Saxon England, makes no mention of anything of the kind, in contrast to his willingness to comment on much else of the saint’s physical characteristics.

a single eider duck drake floating on the surface of the sea
Can you blame Cuthbert really?

There also exists a sense of “cuddy” meaning “a stupid fellow” which perhaps would tie into the negativity often associated with left-handedness. However, the OED only provides examples from the mid-nineteenth century and appears to derive from the “pony” usage (in a similar manner to the development of ass more broadly in English), which does somewhat problematise this as an etymology. In particular, the structure of cuddy-wifter this would require seems oddly-formed, akin to something like ass-drifter, and the timespan of a century for this form to arise and spread south of the Tees, well outside the coalfield regions where the pit-pony was a fact of life, is probably a bit of a stretch.

Perhaps then we should look elsewhere for a source. Old English appears to provide no obvious sources, so perhaps we should look to Celtic for an origin. And a tantalising hint we find: Welsh chwith “left” or “wrong” and Irish and Scottish Gaelic ciotach “left-handed” or “clumsy” (there’s that negativity again), pointing to a Proto-Celtic *skittos, which to my mind looks like it might have a relationship at some point with English skew, though that is far from proven at this stage. I would propose, then, that this word was borrowed into a northern variety of English (perhaps from Cumbric, the extinct Celtic language of Cumbria) as something like *cwithy~*cuthy, and then later on it was folded into the cuddy form, with no actual direct connection with the saint at all.

So, while admittedly I haven’t been able to come up with a definite answer to that question I was set at that bun-fight a couple of years ago, I can at least tell a story rich in history and culture, revealing much both of the linguistic landscape of Britain and of our historic attitudes towards those who are left-handed.

Word games

Word games

You have very certainly heard about Wordle, the viral word game by powerlanguage, recently bought by the NYT. In the original game, a 5-letter English word is secretly chosen every day, which players attempt to guess in 6 tries. Each guess is answered by colored cues: green for “correct letter in the correct place”, orange for “correct letter in the wrong place”, gray for “incorrect letter”. The concept of wordle is not new, and resembles games such as Jotto, Lingo, and mastermind.

 A sample game of Mastermind.
A sample game of Mastermind.

While some may have been annoyed by the endless stream of three-color square emojis reporting players’ success and inundating social media I have been delighted by the productivity displayed by the many variants: in hello wordl, play an endless number of games; in dordle, quordle, octodle guess several words at once; in squardle, play in two dimensions; in nerdle, guess a mathematical formula; in absurdle, the games does its best to get away from your guesses, etc.

Quordle lets you play 4 games at once
Quordle lets you play 4 games at once

Some derived games transform the game mechanics, but the simplest variation is to switch the vocabulary (have you tried queerdle or lordle of the rings?) or the language. Indeed, wikipedia already references more than 40 wordle language variants. If I believe my social feeds, many linguists have found that they were able to play in languages that they didn’t speak, provided that they had some intuitions of the phonotactics and orthographic sequences. I was however quite disappointed to see that many versions retained the English-centric 1-letter:1-unicode-character, and avoided diacritics altogether, leading to strange impoverished typography — this is the case for example of the French wordle, “le mot”.


The French wordle accepts "meler", but not "melez"
The French wordle accepts “meler”, but not “melez”


While playing variants, I realized that a wordle is only as good as its word list: some games rely on lexicons which contain only citation forms (infinitives for French verbs) and exclude the many others inflected forms, leading to a frustrating game experience. For example, in Le Mot, one can play mêler (or more exactly, meler) “to mix”, but not meles “(you) mix”. It happens that well curated words lists including inflected variant is a Surrey Morphology Group specialty: lexicons and dictionnaries are a common product of language documentation, and as its names indicates, researchers at the SMG have a particular focus on morphology. We have been maintaining open inflectional databases since the 90s. After discussion, we agreed collectively to start by producing two wordle-like games, corresponding to the two main lexicons in the SMG databases, respectively the Dictionary of Archi and the Nuer Lexicon.

Nuerdle interface
SMG wordle in Nuer: Nuerdle

The Nuer language, or Thok Nath, is a West Nilotic language spoken by approximately 900,000 to two million people in South Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as in diaspora communities throughout the world. The SMG has created an interactive online dictionary for it. From this lexicon, I have extracted 6218 words, mostly verbs and nouns, with a few other part of speech represented. All targets are taken from this set of words. However, using only the lexicon would risk rejecting a lot of words the speakers might know, even though they are not documented in the lexicon. Thus, I also extracted all of the words from the Nuer translation of the Bible1. This led to a total lexicon of 13476 words2.

Archidle interface
SMG wordle in Archi: Archidle

Archi is a Daghestanian language of the Lezgic group spoken by about 1200 people in Daghestan. At the SMG, we created a dictionary of Archi, with entries in Russian, English, and Nuer (both orthographic and phonetic forms), from which I extracted 3626 words for our wordle puzzle. For now, we do not have any more words for Archi, but we are working on it. In the game, we have ignored the stress diacritics, which might not be intuitive enough for speakers.

Two Nuer Keyboards. On the left, from a mobile app. On the right, our keyboard.
Nuer keyboards: from a mobile app (left), or from our wordle game (right).

In order to create the SMG wordles, I started from the open source code of the replayable version, hello wordle. In order to keep the game closer to its original, I removed the replayable function. However, I did keep the option to play a range of word length from 4 to 7 letters. Each day, you can thus play 4 games in each language.  A main challenge was that the Nuer orthography comprises diacritics, which required rewriting large parts of the game, as it previously assumed that each letter could be written with a single character. Another difficulty came from the fact that neither language has a unique, widely used, keyboard layout. For Nuer, we created one based on a mobile keyboard, which we extended to include more diacritics.

Two Cyrillic Keyboards. On the left, standard Russian layout. On the right, our keyboard for Archi.
Cyrillic keyboards: Russian keyboard from a mobile app (left), or Archi keyboard from our wordle game (right).

In both cases, we strove to make the game playable by learners, linguists, and curious people who do not speak Archi or Nuer. For this reason, we made the default word length 4 letters rather than 5, to make the game easier. Moreover, we added short English definitions for all words in our lexicons, with links to their full definitions in our resources. Words in Nuer from the bible are not always present in our Nuer lexicon, and hence, some words in Nuer can appear without translations. Finally, in order to help beginners get started, we provide a few example words of the correct length each day, hidden by default, which can be used to start playing.

Ri̱et: "word" in Nuer
A word played in Nuerdle, with translation in the margin

Besides learning the languages, scouring the dictionary, or using the words given as hints daily, how can you get better at the Nuer or Archi wordle ? It helps to pay attention to the frequency of each letters, and try to play words with frequent letters, in order to reduce the pool of potential words quickly. For the English wordle, some have calculated the optimal starting word. Rather than risk spoiling the game, I provide below the relative frequencies of each of the 5 most frequent letters, for each position (1 to 7) in Nuerdle and Archidle words. This should give an idea of frequent letters at each position. The colors are assigned according to overall frequency in the lexicon, with light greens more frequent than dark blues. Each bar represents the frequencies of the five most frequent letters in a word position (from 1 to 7), ignoring the other, less frequent letters. Each stacked colored bar’s height, between two white lines, represents the letter’s frequency: eg in Nuer, a word in our lexicon starts with k around 10% of the time, and with around 12% of the time. If there is some interest, a future blog post could explore further the frequent sequences and letter patterns in either languages.

Frequency of each character in Nuer words in our lexicon, per positon
Frequency of each character in Archi words in our lexicon, per positon

Finally, since this is a morphology blog, I would like to draw your attention to the interesting way in which English acquired a new -dle suffix. The original game is called wordle, a combination of the creator’s last name Wardle, and of word. As the game became viral, the apparent suffix has come to mean “game in the wordle family” (or maybe “online guessing game”). Interestingly, even though the most obvious decomposition of wordle seems to be word+le, the productive suffix is -dle, not -le. Could this be because the family resemblance in the new words is more obvious by keeping more common material ? Isn’t analogy mysterious? In any cases, after hesitating with ri̱etle (from ri̱et “word”+le, in Nuer) and č’atle (from č’at, “word” in Archi), we settled instead on calling our games Archidle and Nuerdle.


  1. excluding words starting with a capital, in order to avoid proper names. []
  2. If you want to suggest missing Nuer words, the Nuer lexicon has a module for suggestions ! []
Seasonal thoughts

Seasonal thoughts

As spring slowly but surely begins to announce itself with snowdrops, primroses and daffodils, we may ask how much variation there is in the concept of the seasons from one language to another. As Encyclopedia Britannica informs us, “the seasons—winter, spring, summer, and autumn—are commonly regarded in the Northern Hemisphere as beginning respectively on the winter solstice, December 21 or 22; on the vernal equinox, March 20 or 21; on the summer solstice, June 21 or 22; and on the autumnal equinox, September 22 or 23. In the Southern Hemisphere, summer and winter are reversed, as are spring and fall”.

Many languages spoken in Eurasia conform to this division into four seasons. But what other options are there? Leaving aside jokes about places where a single season lasts all year round (Russia: white winter and green winter; Quebec: beginning of winter, end of winter, beginning of next winter; New York: almost summer, summer, still summer, Christmas…), there are languages which really do distinguish between two seasons only: the dry season and the rainy season. Indonesian is like this, having musim hujan ‘rainy season’ and musim kemarau ‘dry season’. In Mandinka (a Mande language spoken in Guinea, northern Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and the Gambia) the seasons are sàmaa ‘rainy season’ and tìlikandi ‘dry season’. In Wolof (Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal, The Gambia, Mali and other countries) the seasons are nawɛt ‘rainy season’ and nɔɔr ‘dry season’. Rainy seasons stretch roughly from June to October, while dry seasons take up the rest of the year. Two-season languages are generally spoken close to the equator.

Three-season languages also exist. In Ancient Egypt the year was divided into three seasons: Inundation, when the Nile overflowed the agricultural land; Going Forth, the time of planting when the Nile returned to its bed; and Deficiency, the time of low water and harvest. In some varieties of Turkish there are three seasons only: kış ‘winter’, bahar ‘spring’ and yaz ‘summer’, although other speakers use a four season system: kış ‘winter’, ilkbahar ‘spring’, yaz ‘summer’ and sonbahar ‘autumn’, where bahar can also be used to designate an unspecified intermediate season.

Finally, there are languages which have more than four seasons. For example, in Hindi (an Indo-European language spoken in northern India), six seasons are distinguished: vasant ritu ‘spring season’ (March-April), greeshm ritu ‘summer season’ (May-June), varsha ritu ‘rainy season’ (July – August), sharad ritu ‘autumn season’ (September-October-mid November), hemmat ritu ‘pre-winter season’ (November-December) and sheet ritu ‘winter season’ (January-February).

In Polish, besides wiosna ‘spring’, lato ‘summer’, jesień ‘autumn’ and zima ‘winter’ there are the words przedwiośnie (‘before spring’) and przedzimie (‘before winter’). Interestingly, some Polish speakers say that the latter word is now obsolete while the former is used widely. In Russian, there is a word предзимье (predzim’ye) ‘before winter’, but no other words to designate such ‘in-between’ seasons.

But having different number of seasons from the ‘standard’ is not the only possible way for languages to stand out. Have a look at this linguistic puzzle: it was originally composed (in Russian) by Irina Chesnokova for use at the Moscow Linguistics Olympiad, and it recently appeared in a collection of the best Olympiad puzzles (Традиционная Олимпиада по лингвистике. 49 лучших задач. [The Traditional Linguistics Olympiad. 49 problems], Moscow, 2020).

It is all about how the Manx language refers to various kinds of time period. Problem. Manx is a language belonging to the Celtic branch of Indo-European, spoken by about 1800 people on the Isle of Man. Consider these phrases in Manx and their unordered English translations:

1.     Jerrey Geuree A. June
2.     mean oie B. January
3.     Toshiaght Souree C. midnight
4.     oie gyn cadley D. February
5.     Jerrey Souree E. July
6.     cadley geuree F. winter sleep (hibernation)
7.     Toshiaght Arree G. May
8.     Mean Souree H. sleepless night


  1. Match the Manx phrase (1-8) with the corresponding English translation (A-H)
  2. Translate into English: Mean Fouyir, gyn jerrey
  3. Translate into Manx: April, October

As is rightly emphasized on the website of the  International Linguistics Olympiad – which, incidentally, is going to be held on the Isle of Man this year, “no prior knowledge of linguistics or languages is required: even the hardest problems require only your logical ability, patient work, and willingness to think around corners”. For those who want to try and solve the problem for themselves, I will give the solution below, underneath a picture of a hellebore, the first flower to open in our garden at the end of winter:


Solution to the problem.

In the middle column I give the literal translations, and in the right column are the actual equivalents of the names of the months:

Jerrey geuree end of winter January
mean oie middle of the night
Toshiaght Souree beginning of summer May
oie gyn cadley sleepless night
Jerrey Souree end of summer July
cadley geuree winter sleep (hibernation)
Toshiaght Arree beginning of spring February
Mean Souree middle of summer June
Mean Fouyir middle of autumn September
gyn jerrey endless
Jerrey Arree end of spring April
Jerrey Fouyir end of autumn October

As we can see, the crucial point in solving of the problem is to realise that the seasons in Manx do not match up with the seasons in English: in Manx, January counts as the end of winter, not the middle, September is the middle of autumn, not the beginning, and so on.

Christmas Gifts

Christmas Gifts

Recently, a friend of mine received an email saying that because of their hard work in difficult circumstances this year, he and his colleagues would all be “gifted” a few extra days off over Christmas. And the other day I saw someone else wondering on Facebook: ‘when did the word “given” cease to exist, and why is everything “gifted” now?’ So with the festive season fast approaching, it seems like a good time to ask: is there really something funny going on with the word gift?

Once you gift it a bit of thought, I don’t think I am gifting anything away by pointing out that the verb to give is still very much with us. But the rise of a rival verb to gift, in some contexts where you’d expect to give, has been receiving attention for a while now: in recent years it has been discussed on National Public Radio in the US (The Season of Gifting) and in The Atlantic magazine (‘Gift’ is Not a Verb). Whether or not it bothers you personally, you may well have noticed the trend. The existence of gift as a noun is just a mundane fact of life, but apparently the corresponding verb gets people talking.

Gifted children

Now, nobody would be surprised to learn that English changes over time, or even that it has pairs of words that mean more or less the same thing… how much difference is there between liberty and freedom, or between little and small? And in fact, synonyms have an important role to play in language change. If we look back and notice that one expression has been replaced by another – a historical change in the vocabulary, as when the Shakespearian anon gave way to at once – then there must have been an intervening period when they were both around with pretty much the same meaning, and people had a choice of which one to use.

Does that mean that we do now find ourselves in the very early stages of a long historical process which will eventually result in to gift replacing to give altogether? If that’s the case, in a few generations’ time people will be saying things like ‘Never gift up!’ or ‘Could you gift me a hand?’.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t gift a damn

But whatever happens in the future, that clearly isn’t the situation now. So if English often provides multiple ways of saying the same thing, why have people taken the coexistence of to give and to gift as something to get worked up about – and can linguistics shed any light on what is going on here?

One thing that makes this specific pairing stand out is that the two words are just so similar. Gift is obviously connected with give in the first place: that makes it easy to wonder why anyone would bother to avoid the obvious word, only to pick an almost identical one. Another factor (as the title of The Atlantic article makes clear) is the idea that gift is really a noun, and so people shouldn’t go around using it as a verb.

But if we take a broader view, it turns out that what is happening with to gift is not out of the ordinary. Instead, it fits neatly with some things that linguists have already noticed about English and about language change more generally. For one thing, English is very good at ‘using nouns as verbs’ – which is why we can hammer (verb) with a hammer (noun), fish (verb) for fish (noun), and so on. So a verb gift, meaning ‘give as a gift’, goes well with what the language already does. What often happens is that when a new verb of this kind starts to take off, not all speakers are happy about it, but after a while it gains acceptance. For example, the twentieth century saw complaints about verbs-from-nouns such as to host, to access or to showcase, but they grate less on people nowadays.

You could even try hammering with a fish!

Ultimately, the ability to create words like this is just an ‘accidental’ fact about English, which also has various other ways of making verbs from nouns – for example, turning X into ‘X-ify’ (person-ify, object-ify) or ‘be-X’ (be-friend, be-witch). The bigger question may be: as we already have the verb give, why would anyone bother to make a verb gift in the first place, and why would it ever catch on? It might seem that by definition, a gift is something you give, so inventing a term meaning ‘give as a gift’ is pointless.

But that is not how things really are. Gifts are given, but that doesn’t mean that everything that can be given counts as a gift: a traffic warden might give you a parking ticket and in return you might give him a piece of your mind, but the noun gift doesn’t cover either of those things. Among other restrictions on its use, it is generally associated with positive feelings: if you give something as a gift, it is usually something tangible that you expect to be warmly received, and that carries over into the verb to gift itself.

This subtle difference between to give and to gift explains why for the moment it is impossible to gift someone a sidelong glance, or lots of extra work to do. But apparently it is becoming possible to gift an employee some time off, even though that is not a physical present that can be handed over and unwrapped. Evidently, the writer just felt like using a verb that sounded a bit more interesting and positive than to give, and the ‘warmly received’ part of the meaning was enough to outweigh the lack of any tangible object involved.

This is an example of something that happens all the time in language change. Naturally, while a word is still restricted in its use, it is more noticeable and interesting than a word you hear regularly. As a result, sometimes people decide to go for the less common word even where it doesn’t quite belong, to achieve some kind of extra effect… but over time, this process makes the word sound less and less special, until it eventually becomes the new normal. We don’t even need to look far to find this happening precisely to the word ‘gift’ in other languages: French donner ‘give’ is based on don ‘gift’, and it has totally wiped out the normal verb for give that ‘should’ have been inherited from Latin.

So if speakers and writers of English continue to chip away at the restrictions on gift as a verb, maybe one day it really will replace give altogether. Of course, that idea sounds totally outlandish at the moment – but then, I’m sure the ancient Romans would have thought much the same thing. You never know what will happen next: language change truly is the gift that keeps on giving!

Siôn Corn: The bloke who comes down the chimney

Siôn Corn: The bloke who comes down the chimney

It’s December, which means you’ve probably been bombarded with ‘Christmas cheer’ since the beginning of November. Bah humbug I say! And if you’re from down under, I feel really sorry for you having to celebrate twice a year – once in July and then again in December! You may think of me as a bit of a Scrooge spoiling all your fun but…

Speaking of Scrooge, that’s a great instance of personification, how a characteristic of a person gets attached to their name. The name is then used to refer to that characteristic. It happens a lot, just look at the recent phenomenon concerning poor Karen. Something similar happens when common and frequent names get hijacked into standing for the average Joe.

Moving on to Joe, that’s one of the many names in English used for the everyman, as in Joe Bloggs, or Joe Public. Similarly, John or Jane as in John Doe or Jane Doe, a term for an unknown person, especially used in the USA for unidentified cadavers. And in the UK, John Bull is the personification of the nation.

John Bull: the personification of the UK

And let’s not forget Jack, itself a nickname for John. Jack is found in many phrases relating to the everyman, especially in reference to someone of historically low status (hence Jack in a pack of cards being lower than the King or Queen) or in phrases about working in a rural employment, as in lumberjack, or the Australian Jackaroo (or Jillaroo!) for someone learning to work on a sheep or cattle farm. Jack has also been extended to objects that are generally handy and helpful – such as carjack and jackhammer.

This brings us to the title of our post, Siôn Corn, which is the name of Santa Clause in Wales and can be translated as ‘John Stack’ (as in corn simnee ‘chimney stack’) or ‘Chimney Pot John’. Siôn is the Welsh equivalent of the everyman, and is used to mean, the guy, the bloke etc.

Siôn Corn and his Welsh dragon.

The name Siôn is used in many different phrases and is the personification of many personal characteristics.

  • Siôn Barrug ‘Jack Frost’
  • Siôn yr offis ‘personification of laziness’
  • Siôn Chwarae Teg ‘personification of fair play’
  • Siôn o’r wlad ‘itinerant worker’
  • Siôn Cwsg ‘sleepiness, or the sandman’
  • Siôn Ben Tarw ‘John Bull’
  • Look up Siôn at the dictionary of the Welsh language for many more interesting examples
    As for the use of Siôn Corn denoting the personification of yuletide, the earliest reference comes from the Welsh scholar, poet and songwriter, J. G. Davies in his 1923 Children’s songbook Cerddi Huw Puw:

    The history of Sion Corn is unknown to me any further back than my father’s dialogues with him in the seventies. He was a benevolent spook, living up the chimney in comfortable apartments. He had some mysterious interest in getting children off to bed early, and a more rational habit of making presents at Christmas, as a Welsh Santa Claus. I do not know whether my father found him in Edern, his mother’s home, or invented him. Anyhow, Sion Corn has done untruthful and amiable service for two generations.

    So it seems, before Siôn Corn took on the persona of Father Christmas, he had another job, helping to get children to bed, much like a Siôn Cwsgsandman’. Though, of all the meanings that Siôn connotes, I like Siôn llygad y geiniog ‘miser’ the best. Basically, Siôn can be both Father Christmas and Scrooge at the same time – Siôn really is a Siôn pob crefft ‘a Jack of all trades’.

    What slips of the tongue can tell us about language

    What slips of the tongue can tell us about language

    “The grouchy knight cuddled the rowdy seer’s adorable puppy while devouring lasagne”

    This is probably a sentence you’ve never heard – or produced – before. Yet this experience is not novel – everyday, you make utterances you’ve never heard, and understand new ones.

    Producing such utterances is not a trivial matter. To do this we have to generate them – that is, decide on the concept to be expressed, encode that into words and structures, then into the sounds that make up our words before sending instructions to our articulatory apparatus to produce the utterance. All within fractions of a second.

    Yet, sometimes we make mistakes, and produce things we didn’t intend to do:

    Error (The Mistake we Make) Target (What we had intended to say)
    heft lemisphere left hemisphere
    squoor squeaky floor
    a leading list a reading list
    gave the goy gave the boy
    stough competition stiff/tough competition
    she sliced the knife with a salami she sliced the salami with a knife
    a hole full of floors a floor full of holes


    We usually notice these errors when we make them and correct ourselves. But rather than being merely slips of tongue, they are a goldmine of information as they demonstrate breakdowns at various parts in the speech production process.

    Some of these errors are lexical selection errors – we select the wrong lexical concept or lemma for the message we’re trying to say. That is, we select the wrong word stored in our brains, we pick the wrong word from our mental dictionary. This can be simply the wrong concept, as in: ‘he’s carrying a bag of cherries’ instead of ‘grapes’. Sometimes, we can combine words together in blends: ‘the competition is getting a little stough’ instead of stiff or tough. Other times, we can exchange words within a sentence, as in ‘she sliced the knife with a salami’, rather than ‘she sliced the salami with a knife’.

    We can also make phonological errors, that is, errors in the sound structure of our words:

    heft lemisphere left hemisphere
    fleaky squoor squeaky floor
    cheek and ch[ɔː]se Chalk and cheese
    enjoyding it enjoying it
    cumsily Clumsily
    leading list reading list
    gave the goy gave the boy


    We can look at large data sets, or corpora, to see what kinds of errors are commonly made. We find that these errors are still well-formed in terms of their sound structure, or phonology. 60-90% of errors (depending on the corpus you look at) involve errors with a single sound or segment, and these errors are sensitive to syllable structure. That is, we might swap segments from the same part of the syllable as in exchanges:

    face spood < space food

    Or we might combine the beginning of one syllable and the end of another:

    grool < great + cool

    We also like to swap sounds that are similar to each other, so

    paid mossible < made possible

    is more likely than

    two sen pet < two pen set

    There are exceptions to these generalisations of course – but they are rare.

    Speech errors give us an insight into normal speech production processes. The fact that sound errors occur at all tells us that speech production is a generative process – it is not that we just reproduce fully formed stored sentences, but rather we create each utterance afresh each time. In order to mix or swap two elements, both must be activated at the same point of the production process.

    Furthermore, the range of speech across which errors can occur implies that the span of processing is greater than a single word. You might be familiar with spoonerisms, popularised by Dr William Archibald Spooner:

  • You were caught fighting a liar in the quad < You were caught lighting a fire in the quad
  • You have hissed my mystery lectures < You have missed my history lectures
  • You have tasted the whole worm < You have wasted the whole term
    We must plan more than a word ahead for errors like these to happen.

    There is a much wider array of questions we can ask about speech production than can be answered by speech errors, but certainly they are an entertaining place to start.

    Vanuatu: an archipelago full of languages and their names

    Vanuatu: an archipelago full of languages and their names

    The Republic of Vanuatu, an archipelago with over 130 indigenous languages, has a myriad of ways of naming them. With so many islands and languages I won’t be able to tell you the history of all those names in such a short space but hope to highlight some of the more interesting naming techniques.

    There are two main ways that languages can be named – either by the people who speak them – endonymic, or a name given by outsiders – exonymic. In the case of Vanuatu, this has led to a confusing array of multiple names for the same language.


    Several of the languages of Pentecost Island are named after indigenous words meaning ‘what’ – Sa, Ske, Apma and Hano are all named this way. Did these names arise due to brief exchanges between the different language communities? Was the question, ‘What is your language called?’ met with a rather confused reply of ‘What?’. However amusing this is, it is probably not how these names came about. The terms for ‘what’ are actually linguisitc identifiers, words in the different languages that set them apart from each other and were highlighted by the different language communities – ‘we say sa here, but they say ske there’.

    The Hano language was originally known to Europeans as either Lamalanga or Loltong, after two of the larger villages where the Christian Mission were located.1 Nowadays, speakers of Hano prefer to call their language Raga. This is the endonymic term used not only for the language, but also for the northern part of Pentecost, where the language is spoken, and for the island as a whole.2 Of course, to make things more complicated there are other exonymic names for Raga, such as Kihip, given to it by the speakers of Apma.


    Two of the languages of Malekula Island, Naman and Sang, are both endonymic expressions of surprise.3 Naman, apart from being a palindromic language with a palindromic ISO code, also has a surprising history as it was previously known as Litzlitz, the name of a village where some of the speakers still live. Litzlitz is itself a colonial twisting of the true endonymic name of the village – Lenslens – named after the pieces of dead coral which are washed ashore from the reefs and make up many of the beaches in the archipelago.


    Many languages are simply named after the location where they are spoken, such as the place names used by missionaries on Pentecost Island above. One language, North Ambrym, is named after the part of the island it is spoken on – Ambrym. The island is believed to have been named when Captain Cook explored the archipelago and came ashore near the village of Fonah in the northern part of Ambrym Island. He is said to have exchanged oranges with the local chiefs, who gave him yams in return, who said in the local language, North Ambrym, am rrem ‘your yams’.

    Captain Cook receiving yams from the chiefs of Fonah – from a North Ambrym story book told by Benjamin Toforr and illustrated by Zakary Bong.

    So, the name for the language spoken in the northern part of the island is a concoction of a cardinal direction and an exonymic mangling of an indigenous phrase. As the North Ambrymese say, Captain Cook had a heavy tongue and misspoke our words. Interestingly, a very similar story for the naming of Epi Island is told by the Bierebo language speakers there too – that when Cook came ashore he was given yams and enquired about their names – and mispronouncing their reply, yupi, as epi.4

    There is a small problem to these wonderful stories – Captain Cook never actually set foot on Ambrym or Epi and merely sailed past. Of course, this does not mean that similar exchange of yams and oranges did not happen, but that maybe it was a different European navigator or missionary.5

    So, if not named after an exchange of yams, where does the name Ambrym come from? Captain Cook sailed past Ambrym and onto Malekula Island where he went ashore at Port Sandwich (named by Cook after the Earl of Sandwich). There, the indigenous group who speak Port Sandwich, or Lamap as it is known endonymically after the place it is spoken, told Cook the names of the surrounding islands, Ambrym being one of them. So Ambrym is actually an exonymic language name. I believe the name Ambrym itself derives in part from the word meaning fire in the Port Sandwich language, gamb [ɣaᵐb], and in many other Malekula languages, simply amb. Though unfortunately I haven’t been able to figure out what the second part of name – rim – means.

    What has Ambrym and fire got to do with anything? In the traditional mythology of several of the culture groups of eastern Malekula, especially on the small islands of Atchin, Vao and Wala off the eastern coast, the souls of the dead would be ferried across to Ambrym and then climb the volcano, the land of the dead, to spend their afterlife.6

    The twin volcanoes of Ambrym are highly visible in the night sky, giving a rather other-wordly sight. As seen from the Maskelyne islands, off the southern coast of Malekula.

    Word, Speech & Language

    Nowadays, the languages of Ambrym are shedding their exonymic names and reclaiming their endonymic names. The endonymic language names of Ambrym Island nearly all are related to the meaning ‘word, speech, language’ along with a demonstrative such as ‘here’ or ‘of this place’: Rral (North Ambrym), Daakie, Daakaka, Dalkalaen, Raljako, Raljaja and Vatlongos. But one smaller language also spoken in Ambrym– Fanbak is still a place name, meaning ‘under the banyan tree’.

    This is itǃ

    Finally, the two languages of northern Ambrym – North Ambrym, which has two dialects, and Fanbak are often referred by speakers using an expression meaning ‘this is it’ or ‘here it is’. The two dialects of North Ambrym are referred to as Ngeli and Ngeye, whereas Fanbak is called Ngelē. Again, these are linguistic identifiers, similar to the words for ‘what’ in the Pentecost languages, or the terms of suprise used for the languages in Malekula.

    There may be over 130 languages in Vanuatu, but there are certainly even more names for them!

    1. Lynch. John, Malcolm Ross & Terry Crowley. 2002. The Oceanic Languages. Curzon, Richmond Surrey. p21 []
    2. Vari-Bogiri, Hannah. 2011. Phonology and morpho-syntax of Raga, Vanuatu. PhD Thesis, University of the South Pacific. p2. []
    3. Crowley, Terry. 2006. Naman: A Vanishing Language of Malakula (Vanuatu). Canberra, Pacific Linguistics. p13 []
    4. Budd, Peter. 2009. Topics in the grammar of Bierebo, Central Vanuatu, with a focus on the realis/irrealis categories. PhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London. p26 []
    5. Patterson, Mary. 2010. Moving Histories: An Analysis of the Dynamics of Place in North Ambrym, Vanuatu. The Australian Journal of Anthropology. p206 []
    6. Layard, John. 1942. Stone Men of Malekula. London, Chatto & Windus. p79. []
    The linguistic archaeology of feet

    The linguistic archaeology of feet

    There’s been excitement recently about evidence that humans had set foot in the Americas as much as 22,500 years ago, pushing back the previous best estimate by almost ten thousand years. And by ‘set foot’, I mean literally. The tell-tale new evidence comes to us in the form of imprints left by human feet in a particularly well-preserved mudflat in New Mexico. So far, the humans themselves have not been uncovered by archaeologists, but their characteristic mark upon the mud has endured.

    When linguists peer into the past, we also will occasionally use the imprints, left by something which has otherwise been lost, to infer its presence long ago — all of which brings us to the topic of feet, and not the kind that you’d use to walk across a mudflat, but the literal English word ‘feet’, which itself contains a wonderful imprint of a long-lost vowel.

    Our story begins with the fact that in English, the word ‘feet’ is a little odd. It’s a plural that doesn’t end in ‘s’. As any child will tell you, you can’t get away with saying ‘foots’ for the plural of ‘foot’ for very long before someone bigger than you corrects it to ‘feet’. However, given that most English nouns do use an ‘s’ plural, it’s entirely sensible to ask why ‘feet’ is different. (Of course, ‘feet’ isn’t absolutely unique: English contains a select club of other, similar plurals like ‘geese’ and ‘teeth’, to which we’ll return in a minute.)

    The tale of ‘feet’ begins around two millennia ago, when it was in fact a regular plural word. In proto-Germanic, the singular form would have been ‘fōt-s’ (pronounced approximately as fohts, where ‘ō’ is a long ‘o’ sound) and its corresponding plural ‘fōt-iz’, constructed with a simple plural suffix ‘-iz’. Over the following centuries, the sounds at the end of the plural form were worn away and eventually lost, as often happens during language change. However, before the suffix disappeared entirely, the ‘i’ vowel in it left its imprint on the ‘ō’ vowel, changing it to ‘ȫ’, which is to say ‘fōtiz’ became ‘fōti’ then ‘fȫti’ then ‘fȫt’ which by Old English had become ‘fēt’ and is now ‘feet’. In the meantime, the singular form ‘fōts’, which contained no ‘i’ vowel, changed very little indeed: it lost its suffix ‘-s’, becoming ‘fōt’ and then modern English ‘foot’. A similar story lies behind the plurals ‘geese’ and ‘teeth’: an original suffixal vowel ‘i’ changed ‘ō’ into ‘ȫ’, before disappearing, then ‘ȫ’ became ‘ē’.

    You might say that the ‘i’ vowel left its imprint upon original ‘ō’ in the form of the altered vowel ‘ȫ’. One tool which linguistic archaeologists put to good use, is our knowledge of the characteristic imprints that one sound can leave upon another. In the case of the long-lost ‘i’ vowel, the imprint even has a name, umlaut. Historical umlaut is also what lies behind plurals like ‘mice’ and ‘men’.

    Armed with the background knowledge that lost ‘i’ vowels changed ‘ō’ into ‘ȫ’, and in doing so gave rise to modern English alternations between ‘oo’ and ‘ee’, we can now go fossicking through the vocabulary for more lost ‘i’ vowels. Another suffix that was lost over the centuries was a causative suffix, which related nouns to verbs, such as ‘blood’ to ‘bleed’, or ‘food’ to ‘feed’: as you’ll have guessed, the verbs once contained a now-lost ‘i’. In some cases, pairs of sibling words such as these have grown apart over time. For instance, if you were to decide someone’s fate (or their ‘doom’) then you’d be judging them (or ‘deeming’ them), though as you can see, I had to produce a fairly contrived context to highlight the relatedness of ‘doom’ and ‘deem’.

    Umlaut caused by a now-lost ‘i’ also crops up in several nouns ending in ‘-th’: compare not only ‘strong’ with ‘strength’, ‘long’ with ‘length’, or ‘broad’ with ‘breadth’, but also ‘hale’ with ‘health’ and ‘foul’ with ‘filth’.

    feet made filthy by umlaut!

    Over decades of meticulous work, linguists have uncovered much about how languages around the world change over time, though much more still remains to be accounted for. One of the many lingering questions is what the conditions are, which favour the continued survival of idiosyncratic word forms like ‘feet’, long after they have lost their regularity. We know that many irregular words, such as the Old English plural ‘bēc’ for ‘books’ (corresponding to singular ‘bōc’), get removed over time, yet others persist for millennia. It’s an ongoing task for linguists to understand why some footprints remain while others get washed away.

    Isn’t it iconic? creating signs in sign languages

    Isn’t it iconic? creating signs in sign languages

    If I asked you what you think of when I say the word iconic, you most probably would name David Bowie, Big Ben, or fish and chips. That is if you are not a linguist. We use this word in a different sense. It refers to elements in a language that have some sort of resemblance to the thing they refer to in the real world. The form of a word is not completely random. If you think about it, the adjective iconic is related to the noun icon, which, in its original meaning, denotes a painting that resembles a holy figure. Out of all the languages in the world, sign languages are especially famous for having a lot of iconic elements. Let’s see how it works!

    Perhaps, the most often cited type of iconicity is word-level iconicity. Basically, it refers to signs that look like what they mean. Take a look at the Russian Sign Language sign CANDLE.

    The sign CANDLE in Russian Sign Language.

    Here, the signer ‘‘makes a picture’’ of a candle with his hands: his left hand, bent into a fist, stands for the body of a candle, and his right hand imitates flames by slightly shaking on top of it. At first glance, the idea is very simple. You might even wonder why linguists would spend time researching this phenomenon. Here is a candle, and here is an objective and logical way to depict this candle with the hands. But the process is more complex than it appears. First, note that not all candles look the same. Some of them have very thin bodies (like birthday candles), others are flat (like tealights), and don’t forget sophisticated arty candles like the ones below in the shape of Halloween characters.

    Halloween candles.

    This means that the Russian Sign Language sign CANDLE doesn’t depict some kind of objective candle. Instead, it portrays the picture of a candle it considers prototypical. This already can add quite a lot of variation: we can safely assume that there would be sign languages that choose a different candle to depict. Indeed, Italian Sign Language has a taller, more elegant looking candle in mind. Notice how the signer draws its tall body in the beginning.

    The sign CANDLE in Italian Sign Language.

    But even if two or more languages have the same picture in mind, there are still a lot of different ways to express it. For example, in German Sign Language, you are supposed to imitate lighting a match (that would in turn light the candle).

    The sign CANDLE in German Sign Language.

    Whereas in Greek Sign Language, you would show blowing out a candle instead.

    The sign CANDLE in Greek Sign Language.

    And even if you choose to express the same aspects of the same picture, you can still do it differently. For example, Brazilian Sign Language uses the same imagery as Russian Sign Language, but it shows the flames of the candle with all five fingers instead of just three.

    The sign CANDLE in Brazilian Sign Language.

    In order to account for this wide variability, Sarah Taub came up with a neat model of iconic signs. According to her, the creation of an iconic sign happens in three steps: (1) image selection: choosing an appropriate image; (2) schematization: choosing the important parts of the image to represent; and (3) encoding: creating the form of the sign. During the first step, one selects a prototypical image to represent; then, during the second step, one chooses what elements of this image will be expressed by the sign, and what elements will be left out. Finally, the last step is to decide how these elements will be expressed, i.e., what handshapes will be used and how they will be joined together. Sarah Taub explains this model on the example of the American Sign Language sign TREE.

    The sign TREE in American Sign Language.

    Here, one starts by choosing what tree species to represent and what kind of information to encode, such as tactile images of how bark and leaves feel, auditory images of leaves rustling, or visual images of a tree shape and/or colour. In case of American Sign Language, the choice fell on the shape of a tree with a tall trunk and a leafy treetop. Then one creates a mental representation of a tree to decide what pieces of it will be encoded. American Sign Language selected the trunk of a tree, the branching treetop, and the ground in which the tree grows. And finally, one needs to choose a physical form to represent each piece. In this example, a spread hand represents the branching structure, an upright forearm represents the trunk, and a horizontal forearm and palm represent a flat surface.

    Sarah Taub’s model of iconic signs.

    Try this yourself! Can you come up with a sign for, say, a flower? Think of the flowers you know and choose one! Will it be a dandelion, a сamomile, a rose, or maybe a funny (and slightly scary) monkey orchid?

    Monkey orchids.

    Then think of pieces you want to represent. Will it be just the flower itself? How many petals? How big are they? Do you want to encode the stem and the leaves as well? Or maybe your flower has thorns? And what about the soil? Finally, play with your hands or maybe even with your whole body and find a way to encode these pieces.

    When you have created your masterpiece, go ahead and check how different sign languages did it! The best place to go is the spread-the-sign website. You can just type the word ‘flower’ and click on the flag of a language you are interested in. Of course, the difference between your representation and a sign of a sign language will be that you are free to choose from whatever parts and positions of your body you can come up with, whereas sign languages are limited by handshapes and movements that exist in the language. However, you’ll still get a good taste of iconicity!

    SMG – I’d Arapaho, Roon, Sala, Tubar and Nara, but alas no Oroha paradigms

    SMG – I’d Arapaho, Roon, Sala, Tubar and Nara, but alas no Oroha paradigms

    A palindrome is a linguistic delight: it reads the same in both directions. For example: level. Or Anna, or indeed Hannah. This is a visual trick: if you record yourself saying one of these words and play the recording backwards, it won’t sound exactly the same.

    Palindromes hit the big time in the parrot sketch. They were also promoted by ABBA, with their top hit SOS!

    Here’s a nice one from North Ambrym (an Oceanic language spoken in Vanuatu): rrirrirr ‘sound a rat makes when you try and kill it but you miss it’. And a long one from Estonian: kuulilennuteetunneliluuk ‘bullet flying trajectory tunnel’s hatch’. I’m not sure that one is used much (except in blogs about palindromes).

    We can go up a level (!), as it were, to palindromic phrases. A famous one of these is:

    A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!

    This has been around at least since 1948. It has often been extended, as in this version due to Guy Jacobson:

    A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal – Panama!

    And here’s a Russian sentence palindrome: Рислинг сгнил, сир. ‘the Riesling has gone off, sir’ More Russian palindromes at https://bit.ly/3AtxBID. For French sentence palindromes go to https://bit.ly/3kmC5LE. And there are even songs based on such palindromes:

    They have palindromes in American Sign Language:

    Not surprisingly, palindromes don’t translate. Though we can go up another level (!) of cleverness, to the bilingual palindrome: I love / e voli. This is half English, half Italian, and overall a palindrome. More of these at https://bit.ly/39ohoZy. It’s truly amazing what people can create, including whole poems as palindromes: https://bit.ly/3tTWtaa.

    Some time ago, I mentioned to linguist colleagues that Malayalam (a Dravidian language of southern India) is a palindromic language. One colleague’s eyes opened wide, and he asked whether it was palindromic at the word level or the sentence level. What a great idea! Of course, it’s just the name which is a palindrome (just as Anna is a palindrome but that doesn’t make Anna a palindromic person – there are deep issues here: what does a name refer to?).

    It turns out that there are over seventy “palindromic languages”, including some that are central to our research in SMG, notably Iaai (spoken in New Caledonia). Here are some more: Efe, Ewe, and Atta.

    What then of E (also called Wuse/Wusehua), a Tai-Chinese mixed language, of Guangxi, China? Yes, it’s a palindrome, just not a very impressive one. Just as the English pronoun I is a palindrome, though hardly one to get excited about (unless you’re called Anna or Hannah of course). But it gets much better. You may have noticed that linguists increasingly give three letter codes after language names. These are the ISO codes that we use to uniquely identify a language, to make sure that we’re talking about, say, the language Aja (a Nilo-Saharan language of Sudan), ISO code aja, and not Aja (a Niger-Congo language of Benin), ISO code ijg. So, what is the ISO code for the language E? It’s eee. The language name and the code are both palindromes! Similarly there’s U (an Austroasiatic language of the Yunnan Province of China), ISO code uuu.

    Here are the languages which are doubly palindromic (name and ISO code):

    Name ISO code
    E eee
    Efe efe
    Ewe ewe
    Iaai iai
    Kerek krk
    Naman lzl
    Mam mam
    Nen nqn
    Ofo ofo
    Ososo oso
    Utu utu
    U uuu
    Yoy yoy

    A real star is Naman, whose ISO code is quite different, lzl, but still palindromic. Where does that come from? Well, the language has an alternative name, Litzlitz, so when it’s not a palindrome it’s a reduplication!

    Back to the tricky use of “palindromic language”. Iaai is a palindromic name. As we’ve seen, its ISO code iai is also a palindrome. And the language does have some very nice palindromes:

    • aba ‘caress’
    • ee ‘locative – near the interlocuter’
    • ii ‘to suck’
    • iei ‘to hurt, cause pain’
    • ikiiki ‘repugnant’
    • iwi ‘rudder’
    • komok ‘sick’
    • maam ‘your manner’
    • mem ‘Napolean fish (Cheilinus undulatus)’
    • omoomo ‘women’
    • nokon ‘his/her infant’
    • oṇo ‘Barracuda (Sphyraena sp.)’
    • öö ‘spear’
    • ölö ‘mount, embark, disembark’
    • ölö ‘legume (Pueraria sp.)’
    • u ‘an old word for yam’
    • uu ‘fall from a height, chop down (of tree)’
    • ûû ‘a dispute, to dispute’
    • ûcû ‘similar, same’ (a nice meaning for a palindrome!)
    • ûcû ‘to exchange, buy, shop’

    It would be impressive if you could read this post backwards, and have it make sense. But that wouldn’t be a BLOG but a GLOB, the latter being is an instance of a Semordnilap, but that is another story. For now, we welcome your favourite palindromes, in any language, in the comments.

    For examples, thanks to Jenny Audring, Sacha Beniamine, Marina Chumakina, Mike Franjieh, Erich Round and Anna Thornton, and for the title (you’ve guessed what sort of title that is!), thanks to Steven Kaye.