The Languages of Oman

Although Arabic is the official language, you don’t need any language other than English to travel in Oman, a country I recently spent two weeks visiting. However as a linguist  I couldn’t help but take an interest in the country’s languages. Modern Standard Arabic is the country’s institutional language, but a number of distinct local Arabic dialects are spoken colloquially: Omani, Gulf, Shihhi (spoken in the Musandam peninsula), Bahrani and Dhofari. This being my first stay in an Arabic country I was interested to see that although the language is written from right to left, numerals are read from left to right.

Roadsign in Oman

Road sign in Oman

Additionally you will hear Baluchi, an Indo-Iranian language with eight vowels, also spoken in Pakistan, eastern Iran, and southern Afghanistan; and Swahili, due to the shared history of Oman and Zanzibar.


Endangered indigenous languages in Oman include five South Arabian Semitic languages: Jibbali (also known as Shehri), MehriBathari (nearly extinct), Harsusi (unwritten, and reportedly similar to Mehri but usually considered a separate, albeit moribund, language), and Hobyot (spoken near the border with Yemen by approx. 100 people); and two Indo-Iranian languages:  Kumzari (spoken in the Musandam peninsula), and Luwati, which has 37 consonants.

Language families in Oman (source: Ethnologue)

Language families in Oman (source: Ethnologue)

English is widely spoken, and is taught at school from an early age; virtually all signs throughout the country are bilingual in Arabic and English.


A significant number of residents also speak Urdu and various Indian dialects due to the influx of Pakistani and Indian migrants during the late 1980s and the 1990s. Oman also has its own sign language.


Further reading:


Around the web – October 2015

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks this past month in Oman, and I’ll soon be blogging about the diversity of languages that can be found in this peaceful Middle Eastern country. In the meantime here’s a round-up of language and translation-related articles that have appeared online in October.


In an age of marriage equality, the concept of ‘maiden name’ seems increasing outdated. (Photograph: Alamy)


An example of a food-related idiom in French

Finally, if you haven’t yet signed Red T‘s petition to Urge the UN to protect translators and interpreters worldwide please do so soon. They have 17,000 signatures, but still need at least 8,000 more.


Related articles:

Around the web – September 2015

I was delighted to attend my first ever translation conference at the beginning of this month: IAPTI‘s 3rd annual conference in Bordeaux. It was great to meet hitherto virtual colleagues as well new ones, attend some great presentations, and it was altogether very well organised. You can see tweets from the conference, and watch the closing video here.

Group photo of the attendees at the IAPTI 2015 Bordeaux

Group photo of the attendees at the IAPTI 2015 Bordeaux conference

Anyway here’s a round-up of translation- and language-related articles that have appeared online in September, with a few pieces from July and August thrown in for good measure.

  • Quebec needs English-speaking immigrants, but struggles to accept them. Find out more in this BBC video.
  • Colleague Steve Dyson listed some tips for translators, including the advice to stop trying to multitask.
  • What are the advantages of being self-disciplined, and how can we make a start?
  • The Guardian wondered if working at home in your pyjamas is bad for business.
 ‘If you wake up feeling grotty and put on clothes that reflect that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Feature

‘If you wake up feeling grotty and put on clothes that reflect that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Feature


Scots also have 369 words for marbles


This Gaelic signs says ‘Welcome to the doorway to the beauty of Penis Island’.

This Gaelic signs says ‘Welcome to the doorway to the beauty of Penis Island’.

Related articles:

Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe

Why is Basque so baffling, and which language sounds like a machine gun when spoken? Which Iranian language is represented in Europe and where is Gagauz spoken? Why has Frisian been elevated the rank of official regional language and how come tiny Slovenia has so many regional linguistic varieties? Answers to all these questions and much more can be found in ‘Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe‘ by Gaston Dorren, a book I discovered when I attended The World in Words, an event at Edinburgh Book Festival with the author and Ann Morgan. Gaston Dorren is a Dutch linguist with proficiency in fifteen languages. Originally published in Dutch as Taaltoerisme (‘Language tourism’) and translated into English by Alison Edwards, Lingo packs 60 chapters into less than 300 pages, divided into various themes such as languages and their families, history, grammar, politics, or vocabulary, as well as linguists who left their mark (mostly on stamps ;-) it turns out). Almost every chapter ends with a word or two that English has loaned from the language under discussion, as well as a word from that language that doesn’t exist in English but perhaps should. Here are a few snippets from the book to whet your appetite:

'Lingo, a language spotter's guide to Europe' by Gaston Dorren

‘Lingo, a language spotter’s guide to Europe’ by Gaston Dorren

  • Life of PIE: Of all the world’s living languages, Lithuanian is the one that most closely resembles Proto Indo-European (PIE), the linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages.
  • Did you know that two centuries ago Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain?
  • I had heard of Bokmål and Nynorsk, but didn’t know the difference. In the book I learnt that all Norwegians speak a regional dialect, and that the aforementioned are just two of the four existing versions.
  • Sweden’s well-known linguistic informality only dates from the 1960s when the incoming Director-General of the Public Health Board announced that he intended to address all employees by their first name and would like them to do the same for him.
  • ‘Moped’ is a portmanteau word of Swedish origin (from motor (engine) and pedaler (pedals).)
  • Iceland is the only country in Europe that has a language that’s unique to that country. No other European country has identical political and linguistic boundaries.
First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

  • Modern Greek contains loan words such as farmakología and sti̱thoskópio that are actually foreign-built compounds created from Classical Greek.
  • Most Portuguese loanwords in English come from the colonies, such as ‘fetish’ or ‘caste’ (Portuguese words for colonial phenomena) and ‘banana’ or ‘dodo’ (local words).
  • While most languages translate the names of famous cities into their own tongue, Latvian has the unusual tendency to translate all names. Thus Charles de Gaulle becomes Sharrl de Goal and Miguel de Cervantes is Megell de Therbahntess.
  • Diminutives are found throughout Europe except for Scandinavia.
  • Breton has a vigesimal numeral system, based on sets on twenty. Thus 45 is ‘five-and-two-twenty’; 77 is ‘seventeen-and-three-twenty’. (The same number in Welsh is ‘two-on-fifteen-and-three-twenty’).
  • Basque has a useful, single word for the act of translating from one’s own language into a foreign one: erdaratze.
  • Irish has the second oldest literary tradition among living European languages, after Greek.
The Irish language on a sign in Connemara (with English defaced)

Irish language on a sign in Connemara (with English defaced)

  • Manx has no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. (If someone asks a question, you have to answer with a verb in the correct tense).
  • Finnish has 15 cases, and ‘234’ written out in the sixth case becomes kahdestasadastakolmestakymmenestäneljästä because every individual component must receive its own case ending.
  • If you’re European, words from which Afro-Asiastic language are printed on your passport? Which is the only Semitic language to be written in the Latin script? Maltese.
  • Sign language family groupings are different from spoken languages groups: one group includes Sweden, Finland and Portugal, while another includes France, USA, Ireland, Netherlands. The British manual alphabet (used to spell out names or concepts for which the signer doesn’t have a sign at their immediate disposal) is two-handed, while most others are one-handed.
  • One fascinating chapter lists all the clues that can help you identify an unknown language. What diacritics or unfamiliar characters does it use? What frequent letter combinations or odd letter patterns rarely turn up in another language?

These are just a few excerpts from the book, which seems to have something fascinating to point out about every European language. I found the section on languages and their grammar slightly less interesting than the eight other sections, but that’s purely due to my English-native-speaker’s grammar prejudice rather than to any shortcoming of the author’s. And I although I no longer live in the UK, I was fascinated to learn so much about the languages of the British Isles about which I know so little: Anglo-Norman, Shelta, and Manx to name but a few. Now all we need are similar books about other continents’ languages!

P.S. In his Further Reading section the author lists David Bellos’ ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear?‘ as “the only book on translation you ever need to read, unless you want to make it your job. Erudite, recalcitrant [sic] and fun”. You can read my blog post about that book here.

Further reading:

Related blog posts:

Edinburgh Book Festival 2015

Travel plans to see family have once again coincided with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Founded in 1983 the Book Festival was initially biannual, then started to be held yearly in 1997. It now welcomes more than 800 authors in over 700 events every year, and is billed as ‘the largest festival of its kind in the world’.


Two years ago I went to see a translation duel there, where it was mentioned that it was the first such event to be held at the festival. As 2015’s theme is ‘Around The World’, translation and language have played a more prominent role this year, with 32 events under the Talking Translation banner. I chose to attend six of them:

  1. Bestselling Books Abroad saw crime writer Peter May and children’s author Julia Donaldson look at how a writer’s work travels to other nations, and how authors keep ownership of their translations. We were even treated to a multilingual sketch of The Gruffalo! Interestingly Peter May, a Scot who lives in France, had been unable to find a publisher in the UK for his crime novel but a French publisher bought world rights, had the book translated into French, and only later did it become a bestseller in the UK, having first become successful in France. The talk was very smoothly chaired by historian and Italian to English translator Lucinda Byatt.
  2. Penguin Classics have embarked on a 7 year project to retranslate Georges Simenon’s work and the tagline of the Celebrating Simenon talk was ‘Retranslating a Literary Legend’. Despite being chaired by translator Daniel Hahn, it was more an exploration of Georges Simenon’s life, work and legacy with the late writer’s son, John, than a discussion about translation. It was nevertheless very interesting, and I came away with the desire to (re)read some of Simenon’s novels. However I’m having trouble picturing Rowan Atkinson playing the lead role in the new ITV Maigret series … (filming starts September 2015 in Budapest).
  3. The following day I attended my second-ever French Translation Duel. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne politely crossed verbal swords over the translation of a 400-word passage from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As was the case on the previous occasion, the time spent poring over the nuances of just a few sentences absolutely flew by, and I found it totally engrossing. On leaving the tent I heard other audience members remarking they hadn’t realised how complex a process translation could be.
  4. David Crystal‘s Accents Speak Louder Than Words looked at dialects and then accents. David is a well-known  British linguist, writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster. He’s also a lively and entertaining speaker (during the second half he was also joined by his actor son Ben), and there was some interaction with the audience when he asked us if we knew such Scots dialects words as ‘chirp’ (to emit a creaking sound), ‘fouter fouter’ (to walk in an effeminate way), ‘dabberlick’ (a mildly insulting way of talking about someone who is tall and skinny) and – my personal favourite – ‘mumple’ (to seem as if going to vomit).
David Crystal and his son Ben.

David Crystal and his son Ben.

5. The World in Words saw Gaston Dorren and Ann Morgan talk about the joys of languages and literature in other languages. I’ve blogged before (here and here) about Ann’s challenge to read a book from each of the world’s 196 nations, so I won’t go into too much detail in this post, but one thought-provoking moment for the audience was when she mentioned that if she looks at the shelf with 144 hardcopies of books she read she can only see one translator’s name on the spine. Gaston discussed and read excerpts from his book ‘Lingo’, an entertaining trip through Europe’s languages which includes anecdotes about everything from Esperanto to Limburgish. His enthusiasm convinced me to break my strict rules about luggage limits and buy his book; watch this space for a blog post about it soon.

6. The final talk I attended was Stories Without Borders with Ann Morgan and German to English translator Michael Hofmann. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, this event looked at whether it matters to readers where a story originates or in what language it was first written, and what is gained from knowing the linguistic identity of a book.

Michael Hofmann, Ann Morgan and Daniel Hahn

Michael Hofmann, Ann Morgan and Daniel Hahn

My attendance at the festival should normally have ended there, but circumstances meant I found myself back a few days later helping out at The Spectacular Translation Machine. This free, drop-in event involved translating an entire book from French into English in one day using a collaborative approach. Organised by award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone, we helped members of the public create an English version of Bessora and Barroux’s graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan-Gare du Nord, about a man’s journey from the Ivory Coast to France in search of his family. It was great fun, and I really enjoyed seeing the translation take shape over the course of the day, as well as helping out the Edinburgh public.


During The Spectacular Translation Machine (Sarah Ardizzone and the illustrator Stéphane-Yves Barroux are standing at the back right of the photo)


During The Spectacular Translation Machine


Some translations


Some finished translations


The cover of ‘Alpha Abidjan-Gare du Nord’

You might also enjoy:

Around the web – June 2015

This month in an effort to improve my activity level I acquired a small smart watch, and despite doing an hour of sport per day I found I’m still quite far from the recommended 10,000 steps per day. I also signed up for the million miles challenge, whose aim is to get as many translators and interpreters as possible to move!

One of my recent activity reports

One of my recent activity reports

So in keeping with this flurry of activity let’s kick off June’s round-up of articles about language and translation with this post by colleague Nikki Graham:

The Proclaimers. ‘But I would walk 807.7km, and I would walk 807.7km more’ does lack a certain ring to it. (Photograph: Murdo MacLeod)

The Proclaimers. ‘But I would walk 807.7km, and I would walk 807.7km more’ does lack a certain ring to it. (Photograph: Murdo MacLeod)

Do you pronounce this 'expresso' or 'espresso'?

Do you pronounce this beverage ‘expresso’ or ‘espresso’?



Related articles:

Around the web – May 2015

Every year May sees the nomination and start of voting for’s Top 100 Language Lovers competition, with categories for Facebook Pages, Youtube channels, Language learning blogs, Language professional’ blogs and Twitter accounts. I’m honoured to have been nominated for the third year running in the latter category. Results will be announced on June 17th. While we’re waiting, here’s my monthly round-up of articles about translation and language for May.

Native or Non-native… That Is the Question

Native or Non-native… That Is the Question

'Bolt' is one example of a contronym

‘Bolt’ is one example of a contronym

  • 14 illustrations that convey moments which no single English word can describe.
  • We all know too much sitting is bad for you. If you still need convincing this short video explains the hidden perils of spending a lot of time on our derrière.
Are our bodies built for a sedentary existence?

Are our bodies built for a sedentary existence?


'To throw a chicken at oneself' is a Chilean expression meaning 'to run away'.

‘To throw a chicken at oneself’ is a Chilean expression meaning ‘to run away’.

What's the hardest word to pronounce in French?

What’s the hardest word to pronounce in French?


Related articles:

Around the web – April 2015

April once again saw a multinational (Taco Bell) find out the hard way about the need for professional translation when it launched its Japanese website.  Why do I get a feeling of déjà vu? I hope that won’t be your case with my monthly round-up of articles about language, translation, interpreting and freelancing for the past month.

On Taco Bell's badly translated Japanese website 'Crunchwrap Supreme' became 'Supreme Court Beef'.

On Taco Bell’s badly translated Japanese website ‘Beef Crunchwrap Supreme’ became ‘Supreme Court Beef’.

Did you know Tristan da Cunha is the most world's most remote location of native English speakers?

Did you know Tristan da Cunha is the most world’s most remote location of native English speakers?

Humour & Fun:

  • I’m sure Scheherezade Surià had a lot of fun finding all these great pictures humorously illustrating ‘life as a translator’.
"When you go out you seem to find mistakes and mistranslations everywhere and you can’t avoid pointing them out to the people near you… like in the cinema while enjoying a dubbed or subtitled film".

“When you go out you seem to find mistakes and mistranslations everywhere and you can’t avoid pointing them out to the people near you… like in the cinema while enjoying a dubbed or subtitled film”.

Last but not least, I’ll leave you with this quote from Gunter Grass, who passed away on 13th April.

Gunter Grass quote

Related articles:

Around the web – March 2015

Do you have your own website? I created mine in 2011 when I first became a full-time freelancer, but recently decided it needed a more professional touch, so I contacted a company specialising in websites for translators and I’m delighted with the result, which went live this month. Anyway here’s my round-up of articles about translation and language for the past month.

The words 'Female' and 'Male' seem etymologically related, but aren't.

The words ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ seem etymologically related, but aren’t.

Some French have trouble pronouncing the two 'h's in hedgehog.

Some French speakers have trouble pronouncing the two ‘h’s in hedgehog.

  • In a similar vein, Matador have rounded up the 20 funniest expressions in French, translated them literally into English, and given advice on how to use them.
  • Last but not least and humour aside, do take a look at Christine Durban’s series of 8 blog posts about translation and ‘ruckus making’. I recently blogged about my reaction to one of the posts.

15 Reunion Creole proverbs

Every culture has its own proverbs, and Reunion Creole is no exception – it’s a very colourful language that often makes use of imagery even in simple everyday conversation, so for example if you’re starving you might say Mon léstoma i bat kart (literally ‘my stomach is playing cards’). If something is difficult: La pa in rougay tomat! (‘it’s not a rougail tomate’, the latter being a spicy condiment that is quick and easy to make), and to nitpick is chercher carapate su la peau bèf  (literally ‘look for a tick on cattle skin’).

Here’s a list of fifteen Reunion Creole proverbs with their French and English translations and/or equivalents:

Couler la peau la pas couler lo ker
La couleur de la peau n’est pas la couleur du cœur
You shouldn’t judge people by the colour of their skin

Coq mon voisin grossèr mon marmite
Le coq de mon voisin est la taille de mon marmite/Ce que possède le voisin fait toujours envie
We always want what the neighbours have

Bataille coqs

Kan gro bëf i sharzh, sort dëvan!
Quand le gros bœuf charge, ne reste pas devant
When the boss isn’t happy, watch out.

Bon kari i fé dann vië karay
Le bon carri se fait dans une vieille marmite/C’est dans les vieux pots qu’on fait la bonne soupe
Old pipes give the sweetest smoke



Zorey koshon dann marmit poi
Les oreilles d’un cochon dans une marmite de pois/Faire la sourde oreille
Turn a deaf ear



Bëf dëvan i boir dëlo prop
Le boeuf de devant boit de l’eau propre/Premier arrivé, premier servi
First come, first served

Kass pa la tet la plï i farine, soley va arnir
Ne te casses pas la tête si la pluie bruine, le soleil va revenir/Après la pluie, le beau temps
Every cloud has a silver lining


Pakapab lé mor san esséyé
Pas-Capable est mort sans essayer/Qui ne tente rien n’a rien
He who tries nothing has nothing

Kalebass’ amèr’ y suiv’ la racin’
La calebasse amère suit la racine/Tel père tel fils
Like father like son


La chance lo shein lé pa la chance lo shat
A dog’s chance isn’t a cat’s chance/A chacun sa chance
Everybody gets a chance


Poul i ponde pas kanard
Une poule ne pond pas un canard/Les chiens ne font pas les chats
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree


Le chien y sent sa queue
Chacun voit midi à sa porte
To each his own

Gro poisson i bek su l’tar
Le plus grand poisson ne mord pas en premier/Une bonne affaire se fait parfois attendre
All good things come to he who waits


Ou va war kel koté brinzel i charge
Tu vas voir de quel côté l’aubergine est chargée/Tu vas voir de quel bois je me chauffe
See the true colours (of someone)

Goni vid i tienbo pa dëbout
Un sac de jute vide ne tient pas debout/Avoir le ventre vide rend faible
This last proverb is one of my favourites, but I haven’t been able to find an English equivalent. It literally means ‘an empty jute bag won’t stand upright’, the idea being that if you’re hungry you’re also tired and won’t be able to do anything properly without eating first (definitely my case!).

By the way did you know the study of proverbs is called paremiology?

The pictures are taken from the blog post in French Reunion’s best Creole proverbs, illustrated by Paul Clodel. As Reunion doesn’t have a set orthography you may notice some spelling differences between the quotes I’ve listed and what is shown in the pictures.

If you have anything to add, please let me know in the comments below.


Further reading: