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The Call of Africa

Maeneo_penye_wasemaji_wa_KiswahiliThere are more than one billion people living in the whole of Africa. Some 1250-3000 languages are spoken there (the figure depending on how you define a language) and some 15 million Africans speak Swahili – the lingua franca in the Southeastern Africa. Millions in  Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique and some other countries. Swahili  – or Kiswahili as it is called in Swahili – has a very interesting history which you can read all about in that above Wikipedia article.  Here we will concentrate in other things.

LionKingThis site has chosen Swahili as its African language. Every now and then there will be short stories here that take you to an African linguistic adventure. Let’s start with something simple and funny. The Lion King,  the 1994 movie about the lion Simba and his friends and foes. Mfalbe Simba! Who hasn’t heard at one time or other the film’s lead melody Hakuna Matata, admonishing over and over that have No worries. And if you’ve seen the film, you would surely know that simba means lion and rafiki friend.

But now to something a bit harder, for us language learners: let’s take a sentence from the Swahili Wikipedia page on The Lion King:

Simba ni mtoto wa kiume wa Mufasa

That means Simba is the son of Mufasa, mtoto wa kiume meaning literally child male = male child = son. By the same token, mtoto wa kike means daughter (although there are many other words for daughter as well, such as binti and mwana). So the word order is the opposite from English, and that takes some getting used to: first comes the main noun e.g. mfalbe (king) and after that the word explaining what sort of king we’re talking about, in this case simba.

And perhaps now is as good time as any to learn the Swahili word for movie: filamu! So what do you think a movie ticket in Nairobi costs? This year 5 – 6 USD. Of course, Nairobi is a modern city,  so you get to see films in the original score and perhaps even in an IMAX theather. Karibuni katika IMAX! – Welcome to IMAX!

I’ll round this up with a Kenyan Have a nice day! That nakutakia means actually I pray. And as you just learned a while ago, the noun siku (day) comes first, followed by the adjective njema (good). Have a nice day!

Nakutakia siku njema!

Uhuru Park in Nairobi by Arthur Buliva

Danish – is it really that hard?

DanishFlagDanish is not a  very easy language. It just isn’t. That said, can you learn it? Well, the Danes did! And many others too. Jokes aside, the challenge with learning Danish is mainly about the pronunciation. On paper it is very understandable, especially for the other Scandinavian speakers – Swedes, Norwegians and even the Icelandic people – and naturally everybody else as well if they put their mind to it. But when it comes to listening to it, speaking it; that’s were the trouble starts.

As our Danish professor at Helsinki University told us (read about it here), you mustn’t approach the Danish language from the other Scandinavian languages, but treat is as the unique spoken language it is. If you want to learn to speak Danish, you have to forget about all other languages, you even have to forget about yourself! You need to listen, digest what you hear like you were a toddler, and then produce something akin to that with a feeling,  almost passion! In that respect it almost resembles French actually. And on one level again it resembles German. All in all, pronounce-wise, it is further from the other Scandinavian languages than it is from German – at least to my ear, and I have studied them all.

So listen to this 3 minute video with Louise at (you can join the site with free lifetime account) and get started with your Danish – if you haven’t already!

My mother was a war refugee – a war child or sotalapsi as we call them here in Finland – during the Second World War. She spent part of her childhood in Denmark, and learned to speak the language fluently. Coming back to Helsinki, she had forgotten a lot of her Finnish, and was teased about in school – but that’s another story. Anyway, the Danish language stuck with her throughout the years, so I’ve been privy to hearing Danish words and sentences on and off  for years.

Here is funny video of Americans trying to pronounce Danish words which they most probably hear for the first time. One of those words – rødgrød med fløde – is the one my mother always used to tease with the rest of the family.  Rødgrød med fløde means literally red groat porridge with creme – it’s a kind of sweet fruit dish… On that note, have fun!

Puzzles and Riddles

In Tallinn ZooNow to something quite different! Do you like puzzles? You know, the kind that children make? I do. Also riddles, but puzzles are more mein Gebiet. There is a great puzzle provider called that has a worldwide audience. You can find all sorts of puzzles there, anything from Tiere to Gebäuden (CD*). The picture to the left was taken in Tallinn Zoo in Estonia, and made into a puzzle by yours truly. You could create your own any time!

The words that you see here below are solely about physical puzzles (even if made online), not mental riddles. Try as I might, I can’t find the word in Kiswahili – perhaps they just don’t make puzzles in Africa? If you know the word, please leave a message in the comment section – much appreciated!

puzzle /jigsaw puzzle palapeli mosaiikmäng/pusle pussel puslespil puslespill púsluspil(n) Puzzle(n)/Puzzlespiel(n) puzzle(m) rompecabezas(m)/ puzzle(m) quebra-cabeça(f) rompicapo(m) παζλ(n) головоломка pazuru パズル

*The abbreviation CD (or cd) is used here from now on without further explanation. Here it always means Check (your) Dictionary (not Compact Disc or Corpus Diplomati).

Going to Berlin

FinnishPassportIn three days time, Ich bin ein Berliner! If you’re wondering why the brown color and why in bold letters, well it’s just the way I will be writing from now on – any time I use a language other than English. So brown always denotes here German language.

I still do have some packing to do. Reminds me, funny enough, of a reality-TV show they showed in Finnish TV in the 90’s, titled “Passi ja hammasharja“. It was filmed aboard a ferryboat sailing between Helsinki and Stockholm, and the only thing that the participants were allowed – or needed, can’t remember which – to take with them was their passport and a toothbrush. Yes, you assumed correct: toothbrush in Finnish is hammasharja. And ever since that time, I promise you, many a Finn packing their bags and looking for their passport, can’t help thinking about that darned toothbrush!

toothbrush  hammasharja tandborste tandbørste tannbørste tannbursti Zahnbürste(f) brosse(f) à dents cepillo de dientes spazzolino(m) (da denti) οδοντόβουρτσα зубнáя щётка haburashi 歯ブラシ = はブラシ

Did you notice by the way that I left out the language abbreviations? As a follower of this site, I want you to get used to the color theme, and also used to the idea that at any time, out of the blue, you may encounter a foreign word or sentence here. And they will not always be explained either, but the meaning should be clear from the context. Some day the emphasis will be on German, some on Spanish, some on Japanese etc etc. For the 日本 語 learners,  I will always try to provide the kanji and/or kanas. And I hope I don’t insult your intellect by stating the obvious: Japanese in Japanese is 日本 語  i.e. nihongo

Berlin, hier komme ich! Oh, one more thing! Don’t you agree that my youngest son, born on the day that Berlin became die Hauptstadt of the unified Germany, ought to be an honorary citizen of Berlin? :)


Never too Old to Learn

person-woman-desk-laptop-largeIs there an age limit for learning new languages? Answer: Of course there isn’t! To even ask that is about the same as asking someone whether or not he or she is too old to learn to peel an orange! You’re never too old to learn a few more languages! Or at least a few more sentences! And if for no other reason than just to brighten your – or someone else’s – day!

Here is how that age old wisdom would look like in these languages:

Live and learn(Eng) Oppia ikä kaikki(Fin) Man lär så länge man lever/Den som lever får se(Swe) Lifa og læra(Ice) Man lernt nie aus(Ger) Vis et aprend(Fra) Você vive e aprende(Por) Vive e Aprende(Spa) Vivere e imparare(Ita) Vivere et discire(Lat) Μαθαίνει κανένας όσο ζεί(Gre) Век живи, век учись(Rus) Kuishi na kujifunza(Swa) Seikatsu shi, manabimasu(Jpn) =生活し、学びます

No, you’re never too old, and never too young either! Any age goes – even if as a child you may want to learn to master that one language before taking on another. Or do you? Bilingualism is a pretty common thing in the world!

Anyway, age really is no barrier, and a senior citizen should have ample time to study an extra language, right? Wrong! Just like at any other time in one’s life, time is a commodity fought over by so many different interests that it always boils down to individual choices. So, do you – or do you not – want to order that cup of coffee in lingua regionis? :)

Polyglots on YouTube

YouTubeThere are dozens of good videos about polyglotism on YouTube. Here is one of them – probably the most widely seen, made by 16-year-old Tim from New York. No way anyone needs to learn 20 languages, but this is just to show how it is done. You read books, you go to courses, you watch movies, you travel and study abroad – and you talk to people, wherever you are! It is a fun video to watch, and makes you kind of wonder how many languages the now 19-year-old Tim speaks – or how well he speaks them. But what is especially relevant is the enthusiasm and curiosity that a polyglot has. There really are no limits to how much you want to learn, and the only real pitfall might be that you mix grammar – and yes, words – of the different languages. But here is Tim:

Let’s Get Going

TrackSo enough said about  what this site is about. Here’s what you can expect to get here. I will be posting on a regular basis samples of the Mercury Dictionary that I mentioned before. These samples connect with the topic in question. For example, if we talk about hunger, there will be words and sentences that have something to do with hunger – in as many languages as possible (IAMLAP). The IAMLAP is of course an acronym for in as many languages as possible, but it could also represent the fact that wherever you go, you are always going to come back to – yourself. After another knowledge gathering trip of yours!

There will also be lots of links, many of them leading to Wikipedia – that great free encyclopedia! Most of these Wiki links are to the English pages, but whenever preferable, another language is used.

The language order of the Mercury Dictionary is seen below. English first, but then generally from north towards south, and from west towards east. Except for English, the abbreviations are those used in the IIAF listings for member countries.


So to the sample! Let’s talk about mother. Once in a while (like here) even some additional languages are included.

mother(Eng) äiti(Fin) ema(Est) mor/moder(Swe) moder(Dan) mor(Nor) móðir(f)(Isl) Mutter(f)(Ger) mère(f)(Fra) mãe(f)(Por) madre(f)(Spa) madre(f)(Ita) mater(f)(Lat) μητέρα(f)(Gre) мать(f)(Rus) mama(Swa) haha-oya(Jpn) 母親 = ははおや – anya(Hung) – anne(Turk) – oum(Arab) – Em(Hebr)

GoogleDriveLogo2014In Google Drive where I mainly work on this dictionary, all of the languages are color coded for easy reference. I will be explaining about that later. Anyway, your email address is all that is needed to be able to access any of these updateable files (there are quite a few of them!) in Google Drive! The above sample is really just to give you an idea of the magnitude of the dictionary.

Another thing that I wanted to mention here is that this site will be a lot about travelling. Naturally, languages and travelling do go hand in hand! And of course, wherever you go, you as a true cosmopolitan need to learn some of the language spoken in the country of your choice. The travel sites will be a mishmash of English and that other language! Starting next week from Berlin!

Native or Non-Native

2YearOldLong time before we turn two – the age by which most of us learn to form our first full sentences – we have learned the melody of our mother tongue. We kind of know what to expect to learn, we have ready-made holes and gaps in our minds to fill with words, sentences, connections. Even our tongue is ready to adapt the mother(‘s) tongue, the native language, and bring the pronunciation of each word and phrase to perfection. We breath the language, we savor words, and we play with them in order to see whether we can be misunderstood – and then understood again, hah!

But by the time we reach twenty, most of us have lost a lot of that linguistic impressionability. We look at languages from the outside like at any other subject that we learn at school – a thing to learn by heart, a thing to memorize. Instead of savoring the words, feeling them in our mouths, at the tip of our tongue, as extensions of ourselves.

The aim of this site is to encourage you to have that childlike approach to any language. To discard of any preconceived notions about the possible difficulties you may encounter with any particular foreign language, but to dive head on into the rhythm and melody of it.

I’ll tell yoDanishFlagu a short story to illustrate the importance of this sort of approach. I was studying Danish at the University of Helsinki. Despite the professor admonishing us all to refrain from approaching the Danish language from its likeness to Swedish, it was such an easy thing to do – for the written Danish is so similar! But at least one of us heard him right: she seemed to forget all about knowing one single word of Swedish, and only had Danish in her mind – and on her tongue. She learned to speak the language better than any of us in just a short time! Sure, we didn’t understand everything she was saying, but heck, who understands Danish – except the Danes of course! But she sounded just like a Dane, and the professor understood her! Way to go!

And no, it wasn’t me! I also took that typical scholastic approach: had lots of words at my disposal, but no nimble, unprejudiced tongue to utter them with! Yes, sometimes it has to do with the teacher. But the thing is: we are our own teachers – the teacher is there just to guide us towards the right direction! We need to trust our instincts, listen to ourselves, taste the words at the tip of our tongue. Not go to the extremes of a one-year old who wants to find out about things by the tactile approach. But have some of that innocence of a toddler who just wants to know first hand!


BridgeConstructorHi there! If you are new to this site, let me tell you in a few words what it is all about. Simply put, it is a mishmash. Of languages. English is the main language here – for obvious reasons – but otherwise, anything goes! You are bound to be confused at times, but bear with me. You are meant to get confused! You are meant to get so relaxed about languages, that you will welcome any chance of coherence. And coherence there will be, lots of it. Both guttural and cultural. No man is an island, and neither is a language. There are bridges to cross here, connections to be made, and all will lead to greater understanding. So free your mind, and free your tongue! If you are a polyglot, you most probably are pretty free already. But since this site is not only for polyglots, but the aspiring ones, let’s start with the basics. The tongue. That’s the topic for the next post – soon to follow.