Around the web – March 2014

Been busy this month? I’ve curated a number of interesting articles about translation and language that have been published on the internet this month and that you may have missed.

The thorny issue of dialects

The thorny issue of dialects

The Etiquettrix

The Etiquettrix


Related articles

Malagasy – the language of Madagascar

Recently returned from my fourth trip to Madagascar – the world’s fourth largest island – I thought I’d share with you some information about the Malagasy language.

The first people arrived in Madagascar about 1500 years ago from Indonesia/Malaya via Southern India and East Africa using outrigger canoes, and as a result Malagasy belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language group. It’s the westernmost member of this language branch, which also includes Malaysian, Tagalog, Indonesian, Maori and Tahitian. The Indonesian origin shows strongly in the language, which is spoken and understood, with regional variations of dialect, throughout the island. The linguistic influence of later migrations from Africa can be seen in coastal populations, where there are slightly more Bantu-Swahili words than elsewhere on the island.

Outrigger canoe with sail

Outrigger canoe with sail

The British held some influence in the country in the early 19th century, resulting in words for some religious terms such as pastaora for ‘Pastor’ and words like hotely, boky (‘book’) and banky. The island was a French colony from 1896-1960 and French left a linguistic legacy in words such as bisikileta for ‘bicycle’, and savony for ‘soap’. (Other influences to be found are Arabic, for example, in the days of the week, and Bantu-Swahili in the words for domestic animals, indicating that the early settlers, sensibly enough, did not bring animals with them in their outrigger canoes.) Eighteen major dialects are spoken, the two main ones being Merina, which is considered standard Malagasy, and Sakalava (Ethnologue considers these dialects to be separate languages – see below).

Malagasy is a language full of images and metaphors, and the art of oratory, kabary, as well as poetic histories and legends are an important part of the culture. Literal translations of Malagasy words and phrases are often very poetic. Dusk is Maizim-bava vilany: ‘darken the mouth of the cooking pot’; two or three in the morning is Misafo helika ny kary: ‘when the wild cat washes itself’.

Although an Arabico-Malagasy script was in use from the 15th century onwards, in 1823 King Radama 1 opted for an alphabetisation with Latin characters. The Malagasy alphabet is made up of 21 letters; C Q U W and X are omitted, thus A E I and O are the only vowel sounds. When a word ends in a vowel, this final syllable is pronounced so lightly it is often just a stressed last consonant. For instance the Sifaka lemur is pronounced – rudely but memorably – as ‘she-fuck’.

Sifaka Lemur

Sentence structure is verb + object + subject; however many objects there are, the subject is always at the end. This is quite a rare word order – only 10% of the world’s languages place the verb in initial position, and only a dozen languages are known to regularly place the subject in final position. An example: mivarotra akondro izy, literally ‘sell’ (present tense) + ‘banana’ + ‘he/she’ i.e. ‘he/she sells bananas’. There is no grammatical gender or plural form – the article ny is used (like ‘the’ in English). There is no verb “to be” in Malagasy, so adjectives imply the use of ‘to be’ indirectly.

Malagasy can seem challenging for a visitor as for example place names may be 14 or 15 characters long (because they usually have a literal meaning, such as Ambohibao ‘the new village’, or Ranomafana ‘hot water’). Surnames are also very long – up to 24 letters – again because each part has a literal meaning, and traditionally there used to be only one name – no separate first name and family names – although European influences are now changing this.

Outside of Madagascar Malagasy is only spoken by any great number in Mayotte and the Comoros Islands. There is however at least one Malagasy loan word in English that everyone knows: raffia.

Useful links:

Further reading:

  • To read about an appeal to fund the translation of Shakespeare’s works into Malagasy and put on the plays click here (link automatically downloads a Word document).
  • The September 2010 edition of National Geographic has a long article on Madagascar and on rosewood logging in particular. You can see the article and a slideshow of pictures here.
  • In August 2010 the Al Jazeera TV channel broadcast a documentary entitled ‘State of Denial’ about the continuing political crisis in Madagascar, the lack of press freedom and the illegal rosewood logging. You can see the programme by clicking here.
  • The episode of BBC Radio 4′s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ on 24th July 2010 featured the illegal trade in wildlife and logging of rosewood, and is available here; the item starts just under 18 minutes into the broadcast. The ‘Crossing Continents’ edition of 29th July 2010 described how Madagascar is coping with its current economic difficulties, and is available here.
  • My own travel articles about Madagascar: Nosy Be, Diving at Nosy Be, Tsingy of Bemaraha, and Ile Sainte Marie.

Food, glorious food!

A reference by Catherine Jan on Facebook to ‘Canadian bacon‘ being unknown as such in Canada got me thinking about misnamed food – food that is named after a place but actually has little or nothing to do with that same place. For example I grew up hearing the term ‘Swiss muesli’, but when I visited that country as a 15-year-old I was surprised to learn that local muesli was pretty different to what I’d grown up with!

Here’s a list of ‘misnamed’ food I’ve come up with – feel free to add more you may know of in the comments below.

  • Afghan biscuit - a New Zealand biscuit made from flour, butter, cornflakes, sugar and cocoa powder, topped with chocolate icing and a half walnut; the derivation of the name is unknown.
  • French toast - this combination of bread, eggs, and milk is known as “pain perdu” in France and many other French-speaking countries.
  • German chocolate cake – originally known as “German’s Chocolate Cake” because the recipe used (American) Sam German’s baking chocolate, at some point the apostrophe and “s” were dropped leaving just “German Chocolate Cake”.
German chocolate cake from a bakery

German chocolate cake

  • Jerusalem artichoke - an edible plant native to North America and wrongly associated with Jerusalem, perhaps because in Italian the plant, which resembles a sunflower was called Girasole Articiocco (“sunflower artichoke”).
  • London broil - a North American creation, this beef dish is grilled or broiled marinated steak , which is then sliced across the grain into thin strips. The origins of the name are unclear, but as a native Londoner I can confirm I’d never heard of this dish until very recently!
  • Moon Pie - in 1917 a bakery salesman from the Chattanooga Bakery visited a shop that catered to Tennessee coal miners where the miners said they needed a solid, filling snack to munch on when they couldn’t stop for lunch. When the salesman asked how big it should be, a miner framed the moon with his hands. Thus the result earned its name.

A Moon Pie

  • Mongolian beef - a dish served in Chinese-American restaurants; aside from the beef, none of the ingredients or the preparation methods are drawn from traditional Mongolian cuisine.
  • Spanish rice - a side dish made from white rice and other ingredients, and a part of Southwestern U.S. cuisine. The name is not used in either Spain or Mexico.
  • Swiss roll – this rolled cake originates from Central Europe, but not Switzerland as the name would suggest.


  • The Baked Alaska was so named to celebrate the purchase of the Alaska territory when this dessert was created at a New York City restaurant in 1876.
  • A Belgian waffle is a particular kind of waffle in North America, however no single type of waffle is identified as a ‘Belgian Waffle’ within Belgium itself, where there are a number of different varieties, including the Brussels waffle, the Liège waffle and the stroopwafel. What is known in North America as the ‘Belgian waffle’ does not exist in Belgium.
Brussels Waffle (known in the USA as Belgian W...

Brussels Waffle with Strawberries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Bombay duck, despite its name is actually a kind of fish dish, although it does originate from the Mumbai region, where it is known as “Bombil fry“.
  • Brazil nuts - while the tree, Bertholletia excelsa, that produces these nuts can be found in Brazil, it’s native to all South American countries, and it’s Bolivia that produces the most of them.
  • The Danish pastry is actually of Viennese origin. In Denmark, Iceland and other Scandanvian countries it is called “wienerbrød” (literally “Viennese bread”), and in Vienna it is referred to as “Plundergebäck” or “Golatschen“!
Danish Pastry

Danish Pastry

  • Greek yoghurt is strained yoghurt, but in Greece yoghurt is typically not strained.
  • Jaffa cakes (actually a kind of biscuit!) take their name from the Jaffa oranges used to make them, not directly from the Israeli city.
  • The root vegetable swede is actually known as kålrot (literally “cabbage/kale root”) in Sweden.

On a final note, living in a French-speaking country I’ve sometimes been asked in French if I want some “cake” or “pudding” [sic]. Over the years I’ve come to know that these refer to specific cakes and a dessert in French cuisine, but at first I was rather taken aback by the use of the generic wide-ranging English term for something that actually turned out to be quite specific.

P.S. From 22-24 May 2014 the Department of Interpreting and Translation (DIT) of the University of Bologna will hold the First International Conference on Food and Culture in Translation. It will take place in Bertinoro, a tiny hamlet above the town of Forlimpopoli, home to the 19th century Italian food critic, food guru and gourmet, Pellegrino Artusi, author of the book: The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well. You can read more about the conference here.

“SAfrican” English

Did you know South Africa is the country with the most official languages in the world?* With 11 official languages that cover over 98% of native tongues spoken in the country it’s very linguistically diverse. In order of prevalence these languages are: Zulu (22.7%), Xhosa (16%), Afrikaans (13.5%), English (9.6%), Northern Sotho (9.1%), Tswana (8%), Southern Sotho (7.6%), Xitsonga (4.5%), Swati (2.5%), Tshivenda (2.4%), and Ndebele (2.1%) (note that English only arrives in 4th position; the percentages refer to speakers of the main language at home). I was in South Africa and Swaziland for a great holiday at the beginning of this month and I noticed that not everything is translated into all official languages – forms, brochures and timetables are normally only in English and Afrikaans, while for road signs it seems to vary according to location.

Afrikaans developed from the dialect spoken by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 16th century, and was considered a Dutch dialect (called ‘Cape Dutch’) until the 19th century. In 1925 it became one of the country’s official languages, and today is spoken by 6 million people.

English is spoken as a mother tongue by about 5 million people, and is the dominant language in government and media. It has undergone some changes in South Africa: new words have been appropriated from Afrikaans or indigenous African languages, while other words have changed meaning. Grammar, spelling and vocabulary tend to be more British than American. Below are some South African English words I came across during my trip; for more complete lists see the links at the bottom of the post.

  • bakkie  – a pick-up truck, a utility truck/ute.
  • biltong - dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from ostrich, kudu or any other red meat.

Male kudu, Kruger Park

  • bioscope – a cinema or movie theatre, originally a defunct English word that survived longer in South Africa because of the influence of the Afrikaans word, bioskoop, but is now dated.
  • boma - a livestock enclosure, a stockade or kind of fort, or a district government office.
  • braai - an outdoor barbecue, where meat such as steak, chicken and boerewors (traditional Afrikaaner spicy sausage) are cooked, served with pap (porridge made from maize meal) and bredie (stew).
  • Howzit? – How are you?
  • Ja – commonly used for ‘yes’.
  • Jozi - the city of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, also known as Jo’burg.

Orlando Towers, Soweto, Johannesburg

  • laaitie - one’s own child, or used to refer to a young person as a lightweight or inexperienced in something particular.
  • lekker – nice, (very) good, great, cool, enjoyable, delicious or tasty.
  • naartjie – the South African word for tangerine, Citrus reticulata.
  • robots – traffic lights.
  • rondavel – literally “round hovel”, a round free-standing building with a thatched roof.
  • shebeen – an unlicensed drinking establishment (originally illegal) in black townships (large, planned settlements of blacks and coloureds, a legacy of the apartheid era and often lacking infrastructure).
  • taxi - can be a taxicab, but generally means a shared minibus used to transport a large number of people.
  • tekkies/takkies - sneakers, trainers, running shoes.

Some Afrikaans words have also entered the English language:

  • aardvark – literally means “earth pig”.
  • apartheid – literally “apart-ness” in Afrikaans, apartheid was the policy of racial separation, and the resulting oppression of the black majority, implemented by the National Party from 1948 to 1990.
  • Boer – literally “farmer”, shortened from Trekboer; Boers were the first Dutch who trekked into the interior of the country.
  • meerkat – literally means “lake cat“.
  • rooibos – literally Afrikaans for red bush, this popular South African tea made from the Cyclopia genistoides bush.
  • spoor – is anything that shows signs of an animal, and literally means “tracks” or “footprints”.
  • springbok - literally “jumping antelope”.
  • veld – a generic term for certain wide open spaces, it comes from the Cape Dutch word veldt.
  • wildebeest – derived from Cape Dutch, literally “wild cattle”.

Wildebeest, Kruger Park

Are you South African, or have you lived in or visited South Africa? What’s your favourite word or expression? Please share in the comments below!

Further reading:

In June 2010 the Macmillan Dictionary Blog posted a series of articles as part of South African English month. You can find these articles here.

* according to the Guinness Book of Records – see here.

Brewing up a storm

Often all too easily and quickly labelled ‘paradise’ there’s a tendency to forget that tropical parts of the world, due to their climate, can be periodically subject to devastating cyclones. As the 2012-2013 cyclone season draws, theoretically, to a close in my part of the world – the south-west Indian Ocean – here are some cyclone-related language facts I’ve rounded up.

  • ‘Cyclone’, ‘typhoon’, and ‘hurricane’ and are all different words for the same phenomena, used in the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic Oceans respectively. ‘Cyclone’ is also used in Australia & Indonesia, and ‘hurricane’ in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and eastern North Pacific. (Note that as I live in the Indian Ocean I’ve used the term ‘cyclone’ throughout this post).
  • Etymologically ‘cyclone’ comes from the Ancient Greek kyklon “moving in a circle, whirling around,” present participle of kykloun “move in a circle, whirl,” from kyklos “circle”. In the modern world it was first used in 1848 by a British East India Company official, Henry Piddington, to describe the devastating storm of December 1789 in Coringa, India [1].

Cyclone Gamede hit Reunion in 2007 and broke most of the world’s rainfall records (already held by Reunion!).

  • ‘Hurricane’ is a partially deformed adaptation from the Spanish huracan/furacan from an Arawakan (W. Indies) word for the Taino storm god Juracán, whom the Taínos believed dwelled on El Yunque mountain and, when he was upset, sent the strong winds and rain upon them. In Portuguese, it became furacão. The OED records 39 different spellings, mostly from the late 16th century, including forcane, herrycano, harrycain, hurlecane. The modern form became frequent from 1650, and established after 1688. Shakespeare uses hurricano (in “King Lear” and “Troilus and Cressida”), but in reference to waterspouts. [2] [3]
  • The word typhon (Τυφῶνexists in Ancient Greek, personified as a giant, father of the winds, perhaps from typhein “to smoke”. The current meaning of the word, in reference to titanic storms in the East Indies, first appears in Europe in Portuguese in the mid-16th century. It is probably of Sinitic origin, Mandarin 大风 (dàfēng, “big wind”), Cantonese 大風 (daai fung, “big wind”), via Arabic طوفان (ṭūfān), Persian  توفان (tufân), and Hindi तूफ़ान (tūfān) meaning “big cyclonic storm.” So although the Arabic word sometimes is said to be from the Greek it is unrelated and the latter has likely contaminated the eastern word. [4] [5]

What’s in a name?

Why name cyclones? Due to their long-term persistence, and the need for a unique identifier in issuing forecasts and warnings, cyclones are given names to ease communication between forecasters and the general public regarding forecasts, watches, and warnings. Since cyclones can often last a week or longer and more than one can occur in the same basin at the same time, names can reduce the confusion about which cyclone is being described. According to one source [6], the first use of a proper name for a cyclone was by an Australian forecaster early in the 20th century who named them “after political figures whom he disliked. By properly naming a hurricane, the weatherman could publicly describe a politician (who perhaps was not too generous with weather-bureau appropriations?) as ‘causing great distress’ or ‘wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.’”! The official practice of naming cyclones started in 1945; until then as well as annoying politicians they had been named after mythological creatures, saints and place names. Generally cyclones are named when they are judged to have sustained windspeeds of 65 km/h, although at this stage they will still only be a ‘tropical storm’ and not yet a ‘cyclone’.

A consequence of cyclone Dumile, January 2013, Reunion Island

  • North Atlantic - cyclones are named by the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Six lists of names, alternating between masculine and feminine, are used in alphabetical order, and maintained by the World Meteorological Organization with them rotating on a yearly basis.
  • Eastern Pacific - there are two Regional Specialized Meteorological Centers (RSMCs) who assign names, in Miami and Honolulu. Should a cyclone pass from one area of responsibility to another it retains its original name.
  • Southern Pacific - cyclones are named by the Regional Specialized Meteorological Center in Nadi, Fiji (RSMC Nadi).  Cyclones that move into the Australian region retain their original name.
  • Australian Region - there are 5 different official Tropical Cyclone Warning Centers who assign names to cyclones (Jakarta, Port Moresby, Perth, Darwin, or Brisbane). However as three of the warning centres are run by the Bureau of Meteorology of Australia, only 3 lists of names exist.  In Australia the names are assigned in alphabetical order, alternating between masculine and feminine names, with the lists used in rotating order without regard to year. A name may be skipped if it is not deemed appropriate when it is due to be used (e.g. it is the same as the name of a public figure who is in the news for a sensitive or controversial reason)!

Images of the seven tropical cyclone “basins” where storms occur on a regular basis around the world and the Regional Speciliazed Meteorological Centers in charge.

For all of the cases above significant cyclones have their names retired from the lists with a replacement name selected at the next World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee meeting.

  • Northwestern Pacific Ocean - there are two separate agencies who assign names to cyclones which often results in a cyclone having two names. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) names cyclones to the north of the equator between the 180° and 100°E. Names are contributed by the 14 states or territories members of the ESCAP/WMO Typhoon Committee who each submit 10 names, which are used in alphabetical order, by the English name of the country. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration assigns names to cyclones which move into or form in their area of responsibility (135°-115°E and 5°-25°N) even if the cyclone has had a name assigned to it by the JMA.
  • North Indian Ocean basin – the Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre in New Delhi has assigned names since 2006. There is no retirement of cyclone names here as the list of names is only scheduled to be used once before a new list of names is drawn up. Should it move into the basin from the Western Pacific it retains its original name.
  • South-west Indian Ocean - the Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre on Réunion Island decides when to name a cyclone. However it is the Sub-Regional Tropical Cyclone Advisory Centres in Mauritius and Madagascar who actually name the systems. Mauritius names the cyclone should it intensify between 55°-90°E; and between 30°-55°E Madagascar assigns the name. New name lists are used every year, whilst a name is normally only used once thus no names are retired.

Track map of all storms in the 2012–13 South-West Indian Ocean cyclone season. The points show the location of the storm at 6-hour intervals.

After a few relatively quiet years this year’s cyclone season has been pretty active in the SW Indian Ocean, as you can see from the map above. Nine systems were named.

A few proverbs and sayings based on storms:

  • “Any port in a storm”
  • “In the eye of a storm”
  • “Storm in a teacup” (Incir cekirdegini doldurmaz - “Storm in a walnut shell” in Turkish)
  • “Whoever sows wind shall harvest storm.”

Finally I’d like to leave you with the following links:

Do you live in a cyclone-prone part of the world? Do you have any storm-related proverbs to add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

Further reading:

Sri Lanka official sorry for name of cyclone Mahasen - Sri Lanka‘s top meteorologist has publicly apologised for the naming of a recent deadly cyclone after a revered third century ruler, King Mahasen.


[1] [2] [4]

[3] [5]

[6] Dunn, G.E. and B.I. Miller (1960): Atlantic Hurricanes, Louisiana State Univ. Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 377pp, quoted here.

Language(s) of Mayotte

Ever heard of Mayotte? Located in the Mozambique Channel, and geographically one of the Comoros Islands, it’s France’s newest département (1). Recently back from my second trip there, I thought I’d share with you some information about the languages of this little-known island.

Location of Mayotte (source)

As a French (overseas) département the official language is French and this is what is used in administration, public education and the media. However French presence in Mayotte only dates from the mid-19th century, whereas the Comoros islands have been inhabited for roughly 1000 years. A 2006 survey showed that about 57% of the population spoke French as a first or second language. Archaeology has established that the island was peopled by a mix of Bantu tribespeople from East Africa, Arabs from the Persian Gulf, people of Indonesian origin (possibly travelling to Madagascar), traders, and sailors. This diversity influenced the languages spoken on the island and today there are two main vernacular languages spoken on Mayotte, which illustrate its geographical position well: Shimaore, derived from Swahili, and Kibushi, of Malagasy origin. Arabic is also known, as children attend Quranic schools from an early age, (where they learn to read from right to left before attending French public school where they learn to read from left to right!).

Map showing Comoros Islands including Mayotte (source)

Shimaore is mother tongue for about 80% of the population, and belongs to the same linguistic family as the languages of the other Comorian islands, which are known as Shimasiwa. At a higher level it belongs to the Bantu language group, spoken in most of Central and Eastern Africa, and has similarities with the Shona and Makua languages. Shimaore can be written in Roman or Arabic characters, but doesn’t (yet) have set spelling. It has three varieties: a pure form called swafi, and two varieties influenced by the dialects of the neighbouring islands of Anjouan and Grande Comore. It’s mainly used in public meetings, in the media, and in personal correspondence.

Map of Mayotte (source)

Kibushi is from the Malagasy language family and is native to roughly 30% of the population (some families grow up bilingual, which explains why the percentage total of speakers is more than 100%). It is heavily influenced by Shimaore and Arabic. Here too there are two dialectal forms: Kibushi kimaore, linked to the dialects spoken in Nosy Be and eastern Madagascar, is spoken in south and west Mayotte and probably arrived in the 19th century. Kibushi kiantalautsi seems to be older as it borrows many more words from Shimaore.

A sign in French and Shimaoré

Finally more and more inhabitants of Mayotte (35.2% as a first or second language according to the 2006 survey) speak Shindzwani, the Comorian dialect spoken on Anjouan. This is because Mayotte is currently in the grip of a high level of illegal immigration from its nearest neighbour.

Here are some examples of French, Shimaoré and Kibushi using the short phrase “Welcome to Mayotte!” (note that Shimaore and Kibushi can also be written in Arabic script).

French: Bienvenue à Mayotte !

Shimaore: Namukaribu hunu Maore !

Kibushi kimaoré: Karibu anareu amin-ni tani Mahori !

For what it’s worth before travelling I looked up translators in Mayotte on Yellow Pages and and found no results! (That’s not to say there are no translators or interpreters there of course, just that they’re not registered on either of these resources).

(1) For more information about Mayotte see here.


Mayotte Encycloguide by Gilles Nourault and François Perrin, Editions Orphie 2003, ISBN: 2-87763-207-5

Useful links:

Further reading:

Toad of Road Hall?

Killing time in a cheap toy shop today I couldn’t help being struck by the labelling on the (Chinese-made) toys.

While the substitution of T for R made the first the most amusing to me, the language of the others left a lot to be desired, with their invented words and meaningless sentences…!


What about frogs?

Is it just me, or is the F badly placed?

Is it just me, or is the ‘F’ badly placed?

Maybe this next one is just me. ‘Ideation‘ apparently does actually exist as a word, but it’s not exactly common, is it?


If I knew what ideation was, maybe I could enhance it.

The following text is apparently a recurrent error on packaging, given these links: Cheap Toy Poetry, Make Five and Engrish. Presumably should be ‘Once owned, nothing else will do’.

Presumably should be 'Once owned, nothing else will do'.

But what about if ‘Once owned, I don’t like?’

The last one is apparently pretty common too, on doll packaging.

Pure gobbledygook!

Pure gobbledygook!

P.S. Talking of toads, here are two more amusing pictures on the theme. The first was a sign outside an Italian restaurant in Essex:

The second was posted on the windshield of a vehicle parked in the (empty) car park of the Murfreesboro Learning Center:


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Glossary of some useful words in Réunion Island

Here’s a (non-exhaustive!) list of some words and terms that will be helpful to you if you visit Réunion Island. Some are Reunion Creole words, others are French words with a different meaning from that in mainland France, and some are straightforward French but with a particularly local meaning.  Many of the Creole words in this list are widely used in Reunion even in spoken French. This little glossary has no intention of replacing a dictionary or phrase-book however  - there are other resources for that.
Note that Reunion Creole has no fixed spelling, so written variations are possible. (All further references to Creole here suppose Reunion Creole).

  • achard – picked vegetable salad, rather like a spicy coleslaw but without the mayonnaise.
  • alizétrade winds from the south-east.
  • baba figue/baba-fig – blossom of the banana tree, which is chopped with boucané (smoked pork) and made into a carri.
  • babouk - large brown huntsman spider that is found in and around houses.
  • bibasse/bibas – Loquat or Japanese medlar (Eriobotrya japonica) – a small yellow fruit which mainly grows in the highlands.
  • bichique/bishik – the fry of red-tailed goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) or Cotylopus acutipinnis which, at certain times of the year, are captured at river mouths as they swim upstream. They are caught using traditional techniques such as trap nets known as vouves.  The bichique are then sold for about €45/kg to be made into a carri.
  • bonbon piment – small savoury treats made from finely ground lentils or lima beans mixed with spices (piment).

Bonbons piment

  • boug – man.
  • Bourbon – former name for Réunion Island 1649-1793 and 1810-1848; sometimes still used by companies as part of their trade name.
  • brède – the leafy greens of various vegetables (there are ≈30 varieties) that are cooked and served with rice and carri, or made into a broth.
  • cabri – an old French word for a kid; in Réunion the term covers all kinds of goats.
  • cafre/kaf – a black Creole (feminine: cafrine/kafrine).
  • cagnard – in the South of France this means a place where the sun beats down; in Réunion it means a thug or a delinquent.
  • camaron – large freshwater shrimps, eaten in a carri.
  • canal bichique – literally this is a channel of stones that’s been built to help fish bichique, but it now has a second meaning. When the Route du Littoral (coast road between St Denis and La Possession) has to be reduced to three lanes (instead of the normal four) after heavy rain, the resulting narrow roadway is unofficially known as the  canal bichique.
  • carri/cari – general name for Réunion’s national dish, normally consisting of  meat or fish cooked with onions, garlic, turmeric (safran), thyme, salt, pepper and sometimes tomatoes. Normally served with white rice, rougail, lentils and occasionally brèdes.
  • case/kaz – house.
  • Cilaos – this is one of Réunion’s cirques, but it has also given its name to a good brand of sparkling water, bottled in the cirque. If you want to order locally bottled still water ask for ‘Australine’ or ‘Edena’.
  • chouchou - a green, pear-shaped vegetable, known variously as christophine, chayote or choko in other parts of the world. Its green leaves can be used as brèdes.
  • combava – a small, round, dark green citrus fruit with a rough, bumpy skin, known as kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) in English. Its rind is used in Reunionese cuisine and has a very distinctive taste.
A batch of kaffir limes (Citrus × hystrix).

Kaffir limes (Photo: Wikipedia)

  • cyclone – ‘hurricanes’, ‘typhoons’ and ‘cyclones’ are all different words for the same thing. As Réunion is in the southern hemisphere the official cyclone season runs from November 15th-April 15th, although out-of-season cyclones are occasionally possible. Reunion has a Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre, one of only six in the world, which keeps a close eye on things. Cyclone names are given by Mauritius or Madagascar.
  • dalon – friend.
  • dodo – unofficial, but widely-used name for a popular locally-brewed beer.
  • faham - an orchid (jumellea fragans), increasingly rare and endemic to the Mascarene islands, that is used in rhum arrangé and some medicinal herbal teas (tisanes).
  • fanjan – literally a tree fern, but more often used to refer to the mass of entangled tree fern roots that can be cut and used as a natural plant pot.


  • fénoir – darkness, night. When the Pope came to Réunion in 1989 he said “sort dann fénoir” (‘Don’t stay in the darkness’).
  • fet kaf – abolition of slavery which is celebrated every year by a public holiday on December 20th (20 desamb).
  • filaocasuarina tree.
  • GabierGuichet Automatique de Banque = ATM.
  • gato - a sweet, confectionery. In Creole gato doesn’t have the wider French meaning of ‘cake’.
  • goyavier – strawberry guava (Psidium cattleyanum), much-appreciated small red fruit that are ripe in May-July, and which grow in the highlands up to 1200m altitude.


  • grains – the beans or lentils in sauce that traditionally accompany a carri.
  • gramoun – old person.
  • Grande IleMadagascar, the ‘Big Island’.
  • guetali - a small gazebo-like structure typical of 19th century Creole architecture which could be found at the corner of the garden walls of large houses. From it the women of the household could watch people passing in the street without being noticed by them. Guetali are covered by a roof, and were often decorated with lambrequin. The name comes from “guette a li“, which means “watch him” in Creole.

Guetali, Hellbourg, Salazie cirque

  • (les) hauts – the highlands of Réunion; places that are not on the coast.
  • Ile soeurMauritius (together with Rodrigues the three islands form the Mascarene Islands).
  • îlet- a hamlet, particularly in one of the three cirques. (The final ‘T’ is pronounced).
  • kabar – a more or less impromptu concert, with local music, dancing, singing and sometimes moringue.
  • la-di-la-fé – gossip; also the name given to the machine that moves the concrete barriers on the Route du Littoral to make it into a canal bichique.
  • lambrequin/lanbrokin - useful and ornamental patterned window and door borders made out of metal or wood. Design themes often reflect plant life. Originally a feature of naval architecture, they were used in Reunion to deflect and channel rain water at a time when gutters did not yet exist. Known in Creole as dantèl-lakaz – literally ‘house lace’ (see pictures here).


  • letchis & mangues – lychees and mangoes are a national obsession from November to January when they are ripe. Prices start high but quickly come down as more and more fruit becomes available.
  • lontan – in the past.
  • macatia – a small slightly sweet bun, typical of Réunion.
  • malbar – a Creole of Tamil origin.
  • maloya – a traditional musical genre of Reunion, which has its origins in slaves’ music. Songs are sometimes politically oriented, and themes are often slavery and poverty. The most well-known maloya artists are Danyel Waro, Ziskakan, Baster or Firmin Viry. In 2009 Maloya was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO for France
  • marmaille/marmay – children.
  • marron - a slave who escaped from their owner. By extension has come to refer to things that have gone wild or are illegal or ‘underground’.
  • massalé – an Indian spice mix commonly used in cooking (chili, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds).
  • métropolemainland France; the part of France in Europe. Don’t forget that in Réunion you are already in France!
  • moringue – a local, highly codified combat sport similar to Capoeira.
  • paille en queue/payankë – white-tailed tropicbird (Phaeton lepturus), a seabird easily identified by its long tail feathers.
  • papang – Reunion Harrier (Circus maillardi) is the last and only bird of prey on Réunion.
  • peï – anything that is local.
  • pistash – peanuts (not pistachios!).
  • radier – a masonry structure in a road, built over the low point of a river, enabling the waterway to be crossed except during a period of heavy rain. (Never ever cross a radier when there’s been heavy rain!).
  • rhum arrangé – literally means ‘arranged rum’ but is better translated by ‘macerated flavoured rum’.  One or several ingredients such as vanilla, bananas, cinnamon, geranium, lychees, ginger or faham are added to a bottle of white rum and left to macerate for several weeks or months (the actual length of time depends on the ingredient(s)). It’s mostly drunk as an after-dinner drink.

Shelf of ‘rhum arrangé’

  • rougail – two meanings: (1) a cooked, main dish similar to a carri, generally with sausages, smoked pork (boucané) or dried, salted codfish (morue); (2) a spicy condiment similar to a chutney which accompanies every main meal in Réunion, composed of diced or crushed raw ingredients: ginger, chilli peppers, salt, onions and a main ingredient – most often tomato, but can be lemon or green mango.
  • safran – not to be confused with saffron, this is the local name for turmeric, which is mainly grown at La Plaine des Grègues in the south of Réunion.
  • samousa – triangular-shaped and similar to Indian samosas, local samousa are generally small with a spicy meat, fish or vegetable filling.
  • séga  – a traditional music genre from the Mascarene islands, with an associated dance form. It originated among slave populations, and is danced without the feet ever leaving the ground.
  • St Expedit – a Roman soldier saint who is particularly venerated on Réunion. Red Saint Expeditus shrines are often found by roadsides.

St Expedit shrine, Entre-Deux

  • tang – tenrec (Tenrec ecaudatus), a mammal which looks rather like a hedgehog, with a long pointed snout. It can be hunted from February to April, and can be eaten in a carri.
  • ti’jaque – jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), a very large green fruit with an uneven skin. In Reunion it is finely chopped and cooked with smoked bacon to make the dish ti’jaque boucané.
  • vacoas – the pandanus or screwpine tree, which can be found on the coast (Pandanus utilis) or in the highlands (Pandanus montanus). It produces an edible fruit called a pinpin, and its leaves can be woven to make objects such as a bertèl, a flat bag worn on the back.
Pandanus montanus fruit (Réunion island)

Vacoa (Pandanus montanus) (Wikipedia)

  • varang – house verandah, typical of Creole architecture.
  • yab – a white Creole from the highlands.
  • zamal – local cannabis.
  • zarab – Muslim Creole of Indian origin (Gujarati region).
  • zoreil – person not from Réunion Island, in particular a European or someone from mainland France.
  • zourite – octopus, often eaten on Réunion in a civet (stew).

You might also like: 7 facts about Reunion Creole

The Icelandic Language

Like most linguists when I travel to a new country I’m inevitably curious about its language, especially if it’s written using the Latin alphabet and is therefore easy to read. Of course, being easy to read doesn’t mean being easy to understand; besides the Icelandic alphabet has retained two letters that no longer exist in English: Þ,þ (þorn, anglicised as “thorn”) and Ð,ð (eð, anglicised as “eth” or “edh”), representing the voiceless and voiced “th” sounds (as in English ‘thin’ and ‘this’ respectively). As I have very little knowledge of Germanic or Nordic languages I was most times completely stuck with meaning or pronunciation; fortunately most modern Icelanders speak and write English to an extremely good level, despite the fact that Danish, not English, is the first foreign language they learn in school.

Here’s a little about the language’s history:

12th century wooden spade with runes cut into the blade

Pre-Christianity in Iceland (i.e. before 1000 AD) the only written ‘language’ that was used was runes. Probably based on the Latin alphabet, runes are letters made up of straight lines that can easily be cut into wood, rock or bone. No rune stones from heathen times survive in Iceland, but later runic inscriptions show that the art was known. The oldest rune-sticks that have survived date from the 10th or 11th century. Gravestones with runic lettering also survive, dating from 14th-17th century. While runes were originally used simply as a form of writing, they later acquired magical overtones. Runes were also cut into everyday objects and survived as part of the Icelandic woodcarving craft until the late 19th century.

Runic alphabet

In Iceland literary culture flourished in the vernacular, Icelandic. Varied historical and fictional works were written in both prose and verse. Christianity brought about writing, using the Latin alphabet, on vellum. In Europe Latin was the main written language, but Icelanders were unusual amongst European countries in that they mostly wrote in their own language. The first Icelandic writings were for practical purposes, written for the Church and powerful chieftains: laws, genealogy, and translations of holy writings. Between 1122 and 1133 Ari Þorgilsson “The Wise” wrote the first Icelandic historical account: Íslendingabók (“The Book of the Icelanders”). In the mid 12th century an unknown author wrote the First Grammatical Treatise that laid the foundation for the writing and alphabet of the Icelandic language. By this time Icelanders were already writing quite extensively in their native language; however it is not known for certain when Icelandic first began to be written down. Sources mention Hafliðaskrá (Hafliði’s Scroll) , a collection of laws, written between 1117-1118. Hafliðaskrá has been lost, but the law code of the Old Commonwealth known as Grágás (“Grey Goose”) and written about 1250, has survived to the present day. By about 1200 Icelanders were renowned in the Nordic world for their knowledge of the old tales. The Sagas began to appear at this time, most of them taking place between 930 and 1030. The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century primarily by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask. It is ultimately based heavily on an orthography laid out by  The First Grammatical Treatise.

Vellum sheet of text from the Grágás (‘Grey Goose’) Law code.

Icelanders preserved their language from extensive foreign influence by introducing printing at an early stage - Bishop Jón Arason set up Iceland’s first printing press around 1530. Initially only religious works were printed, and from the beginning almost all were in Icelandic, which became the language of the Church in Iceland. The New Testament was published in Icelandic in Denmark in 1540. Later in the 16th century Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson had Arason’s press renovated and published many books, including 500 copies of a complete translation of the Bible in 1584. Several of these copies survive to this day.

One of the surviving copies of Guðbrandur’s Bible

In the 16th century scholarly Icelanders began to see their language as classical, like Greek or Latin. They wanted to keep it linguistically pure and free from foreign influences. During the 18th century, a movement was started by writers and other educated people to rid the language as much as possible of foreign words, to create a new vocabulary and to adapt the Icelandic language to the evolution of new concepts, thus not having to resort to borrowed neologisms as in many other languages. Many old words that had fallen into disuse were recycled and given new senses in the modern language, and neologisms were created from Old Norse roots. In modern Icelandic for example, tölva (“computer”) is a portmanteau of tala (“digit; number”) and völva (“seeress”). The language spoken by Icelanders has naturally evolved like any other language. But the grammatical structure underwent little change and the written language remained almost unchanged. Consequently present-day speakers of Icelandic can read the medieval Sagas without difficulty, and today Icelandic is the nearest language in existence to Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.

Traditionally Icelanders moved home frequently and moved from region to region more than the people of most countries. Frequent changes of home meant that local characteristics became mixed and the Icelandic language became quite uniform. This is one of the reasons why no dialects ever developed in Icelandic.

First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

Iceland publishes the greatest number of books, the most writers and literary translations per capita of any country in the world, and the literacy rate is 100%. In recent years Iceland has become quite famous for its crime novels – interesting for a country with one of the lowest homicide rates in the world (5-10 murders per year)!


The excellent National Museum of Iceland provided a wealth of material about the Icelandic language, its history, and the history of printing. Any mistakes are of course my own.

Suggested links:

Suggested reading:

  • The Sagas are medieval family sagas. Written in the 12th and 13th centuries they describe events that took place in Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries.
  • Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and is considered Iceland’s literary genius.
  • Arnaldur Indriðason writes crime fiction that is based in Reykjavik and is one of Iceland’s most popular writers. His work has been published in 26 countries and translated into 20 languages.

Related posts on my travel blog:

Scuba diving in Iceland – me with a hand on two tectonic plates: Eurasia to the right, and North America to the left.

House invasion

As night fell yesterday I absentmindedly heard the fluttering of tiny wings and thought a moth must have got in through an open window. As the fluttering became more insistent I looked up and realised the house had been invaded by dozens of karya, a species of flying termite that appears every year at the beginning of the warm season on Reunion Island. Attracted to the light they soon lose their wings, fall to the ground, and if you’re not careful they can create a colony and start attacking the woodwork in and around the house.

The word karya arrived in Reunion Creole from the Tamil word kareya via Indo-portuguese.  In Reunion Creole the noun has also given rise to the adjective karyaté which means (1) ‘attacked by termites’ or (2) ‘to be in a bad way’.

MauritianRodrigues and Seychelles Creoles also have the same word; interestingly in Mauritian Creole karya can also mean “concrete with little holes in it” – an obvious reference to the termite’s destructive power – and karyaté means any piece of wood or metal that is porous or spongy, while karyate means “to destroy slowly, to fade away to be eaten away.

Minor irritation aside, karya are an annual reminder of the arrival of the warm weather and the cycle of the seasons, and in that respect they are welcome.

Karya (Coptoterme havilandi)

To find out more about Reunion Creole you can read my post here.