Language puzzles

I recently finished The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book by Alex Bellos, a fascinating book that combines languages and puzzles, celebrating the diversity of the world’s languages through conundrums and brainteasers involving wordplay, logical deduction, and decipherment skills. It’s divided into ten chapters of ten questions each, with every chapter being based on a different theme such as language and technology, ancient codes, words for family and relatives, different alphabets, invented languages, etc.

Each chapter starts with some multiple-choice questions as a warm-up, then you are given just enough information to elucidate the puzzles (if you can’t solve them or want some help, explanations and answers are at the back of the book). While some are tougher than others, surprisingly I found that getting to grips with things such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and braille was easier than I would have expected. I also found interesting the background and context that Bellos provides in between puzzles. In fact, here are a few tidbits that I learned while reading working my way through the book (if you’re thinking of buying it, don’t worry, none of this information gives the solutions!):

  • In the late Middle Ages, Europe had three competing number notations: Roman numerals, “Arabic” numerals, and a secret system used by Cistercian monks. Arabic numerals came out on top because they included a symbol for zero, making arithmetic easier, however the description of these numerals as Arabic is misleading as the notation originated in India, around the 5th century AD
  • Cistercian monks, who for a thousand years until 1975 were prohibited from verbal communication, developed and used their own sign language. Their word for England consists of three signs: drink+tea+land!

Signs from above

  • Cuneiform was first used in ancient Babylonia, and gradually developed from a pictographic style 5000 years ago (think ancient emojis) to what is called “late Assyrian” circa 650 BC. The earliest major work in world literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform, and there are so many surviving tablets and fragments in cuneiform (about a million in total) that many are still awaiting their first read by Assyriologists
  • While writing was invented independently in Sumer, China, Central America, (and maybe other places too), the alphabet was invented only once, by the Phoenicians, and all the other alphabets of the world are descended from it. The Phoenicians were merchant traders whose major export was a reddish-purple dye from the secretion of a sea snail, and their name comes from the Greek word for ‘purple’. Extracting this dye involved tens of thousands of snails and substantial labour, meaning only the rich could afford it, which is why purple became associated with royalty

Painting The Discovery of Purple by Hercules’s Dog by Theodoor van Thulden, c. 1636

  • The Phoenician alphabet only contained consonants (22 of them), so the Ancient Greek alphabet is often considered the first ‘true’ alphabet, as both consonants and vowels were treated equally. Adapted by the Romans, the Latin alphabet (which we still use today) has become the most-used alphabet in the world.
  • Celtic languages, which became extinct in mainland Europe by the 6th century AD but survived in the outskirts of the British Isles, have seen their spellings change to reflect pronunciation. (If the same were to happen in e.g. US English, Americans would write “goddit?” and “whaddever”!)
  • The symbol for Bluetooth is a merger of two runes symbolising the initials of 10th century Danish King Harald Bluetooth. The name “Bluetooth” was proposed in 1997 by an Intel mobile computing engineer who was then reading a historical novel about Bluetooth, and whose success in connecting ancient Norse peoples was seen as an appropriate metaphor for connecting electronic devices
  • Both Jacob Grimm and J.R.R. Tolkien started their careers as historical linguists rather than authors. In fact, Tolkien said the point of his fictional universes was to enhance his fictional languages, rather than vice versa
  • In the 1830s a Frenchman invented a language called Solresol made up entirely of do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and si, which are the French words for the seven musical notes of the tonal scale

The seven conventional notes, colors, syllables, numerals, and glyphs used to convey solresol phonemes.

  • The mother of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was deaf, and so his father devised a phonetic alphabet to help deaf people pronounce spoken language more accurately (although it never caught on)
  • In the early 19th century a Cherokee silversmith called Sequoyah invented his own writing system, despite not being able to read. He saw European settlers communicate via the written page, and referred to their correspondence as “talking leaves”. His system had a unifying effect on the Cherokee tribe, and led to them becoming literate faster than their white neighbours. Sequoyah became world-famous, and an Austrian botanist paid him tribute by naming a genus of giant redwood trees after him: sequoias

Me in a sequoia forest in Northern California

  • You’ve probably heard of the WWII Navajo code-talkers, but did you know that the Native American language Choctaw was used to encrypt messages during the First World War? (The reason Navajo was used is apparently because other Native American communities had been overrun with German linguistics students over the previous two decades)
  • As there are no family surnames in Iceland, all lists of personal names (e.g. phone directory, author references in bibliographies, the national registry) are ordered alphabetically by first name
  • About half of the world’s people have an Indo-European language as their native tongue; two-thirds of the 2.3 billion who speak English speak it as a second language
  • The longest written work in world literature is the Sureq Galigo, an epic poem transcribed in Lontara, a hard-to-decipher Indonesian script originally written on palm leaves. Lontara takes its name from the type of tree that provides the leaves used

Sureq Galigo manuscript

  • While there are 160 Aboriginal languages in Australia, only the 13 languages that are currently spoken by children have a chance of surviving to the end of this century. Aboriginal rules of social organisation are so complex that mathematicians, as well as linguists and anthropologists, study them
  • Did you know that the world’s largest language family, in terms of the number of languages it contains, is Niger-Congo? It is made up of about 1,500 languages spoken across sub-Saharan Africa
  • Portugal uses a labelling system code called ColorADD to help colour-blind people with everyday tasks. Developed by a Portuguese graphic designer, it uses six basic shapes in black and white to describe up to fifty colours

ColorADD code signs and colour combinations

  • The inventor of the green and white “running man” exit sign, Japanese graphic designer Yukio Ota, is most proud of another invention, the Lovers’ Communication System or LoCoS, a pictorial language

The “running man” exit sign designed by Yukio Ota in 1979

  • “Abkhaz” is the only word in English that begins in an ‘a’ and ends in a ‘z’ that is not a place name. However it is the name of a language that has 60 consonants and just two vowels: one of the highest consonant to vowels ratios in the world, if not the highest
  • The Caucasus mountain range alone is home to about fifty native languages from seven different language families, and two alphabets that are used nowhere else in the world; Armenian and Georgian
  • The candlefish (a type of fish common off the Pacific Northwest coast) gets its English name because, when dried, the fish is so oily it can be burned like a candle
  • In most of the world’s languages, the terms for intercardinals (southeast, northeast, northwest, southwest) are combinations of the words for the cardinal points. However for a handful of languages such as Maltese, Estonian and Finnish, there is no etymological connection to the cardinals. As part of the Semitic language family, Maltese is the only Arabic language written in the Latin alphabet (and the only Arabic language that is an official language of the European Union)

Maltese compass rose

If you’d like to try your hand at some of the puzzles, a few are in this Guardian article.

Baldur, the Norse god of peace and light and spring. Deciphering Europe’s oldest runic alphabet is not as difficult as you might think. (Photograph: Ivy Close Images/Alamy)

By the way, if the writer’s surname seems familiar, it’s because I’ve previously blogged about two of his language and numbers books here, and also because he’s the son of well-known translator and academic David Bellos (whose language book Is that a Fish in Your Ear? I blogged about here).


Elsewhere on the blog:


The story behind my logo

After more than nine years running Smart Translate without a logo (I used a photo of myself when one was needed), this year I finally took the plunge and had one professionally created by a talented local designer. When you’re a translation company, it can be tempting to opt for a logo based on the country flags of the languages you work with, but I decided to choose something (almost) completely different. Here is my unique new logo and the story behind it.

It features a pictogram of a graceful white bird flying eastwards inside a red quadrilateral. Below is my company name in capital letters, and then my own name. The bird in question is called a white-tailed tropicbird in English, a paille-en-queue (“straw in the tail”) in French, and a payankë (“straw in the a***”) in Reunion Creole. Its Latin name is Phaethon lepturus, with Phaethon meaning “Shining one” while lepturus translates as “slender tail”. There are six subspecies of this fish-eating bird in various parts of the world: the Pacific Ocean, Christmas Island (where a yellow one features on the flag), the Caribbean (where they are Bermuda’s national bird), Ascension Island, Mozambique Channel, and the Indian Ocean. As I live in Reunion Island it’s the last one that is shown on my logo.

By Yooshau - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A flying white-tailed tropicbird

Why choose a tropicbird? Firstly, I like the general symbolism of birds as bringers of peace and freedom. Secondly, specifically concerning the tropicbird, I appreciate its elegance, ability to perform complex manoeuvres, and love of warm climates (this last point applies to me too, even if the first two don’t!). When you live in Reunion, you often look up and see them flying unobtrusively above, and it seems to me that this is symbolic of the translation profession: our work is present everywhere, but frequently goes unnoticed.

For the shape I could have gone for other straight-lined, four-sided figures such as a square or rectangle, but I decided that the quadrilateral – which reminds me of a kite – was dynamic while being clean and efficient. The font is sans serif, which is refined, modern, and minimal.

In terms of colour, I chose to go with an eye-catching shade of red, as it’s one of my favourite colours and evokes motivation, leadership, and energy. But for contrast I also paired it with white, which represents sophistication, clarity and efficiency, and there’s even a touch of blue (with “TRANSLATE”), as it inspires a sense of security and trust while showing reliability and professionalism. Together, the three colours red, white and blue are a nod to the British and French flags.

I also got my logo printed onto my phone case; here it is being inspected by a curious crab!

On a final note, I’d like to thank the members of Group Translator Chats for their help and advice during the logo selection process!

By the way, if you’re wondering about whether or not to get a logo, here’s a good article by David Miralles Perez about why professional translators need a professional logo.

Elsewhere on the blog:

What’s In A (Plant) Name?

Research for a recent plant-related project led me down some rabbit holes of word etymology, and I thought I’d share with you here a few of the most intriguing facts I learnt:

  • The name basil comes from the Greek word basilikon phuton meaning ‘royal/kingly plant’ probably because it was believed to have been used in making royal perfumes.
  • Bergamot is named after the hilltop Italian city of Bergamo in Lombardy where this species of orange tree was originally cultivated. The city was called Bergamum in Roman times after the German word ‘berg’.
  • Called kamai melon (‘ground/earth apple’) by the ancient Greeks, the botanical name of chamomile, matricaria, refers to its role as a herb used to treat gynaecological symptoms like menstrual cramps and PMS.
  • The botanical name of geranium, pelargonium, derives from the Greek pelargos, meaning ‘stork’, either in reference to the herb’s long, bill-like seeds or because the seed head looks like a stork’s beak.

A species of geranium growing in Reunion Island

  • The name grapefruit comes from the grapelike cluster in which the fruits grow, although some say it’s so called for its taste.
  • Jasmine is derived from the Persian yasameen, which means ‘fragrant flower’ or ‘gift from God’ (depending on sources).
  • Lavender supposedly takes its name from the Latin lavare, meaning ‘to wash’, as it was said to have been used to scent baths, cosmetic waters, and natural deodorants in Roman times. However this could be apocryphal and the name may come from Latin livere meaningblueish’.

Lavender growing near Traverse City, Michigan, USA

  • Belonging to the same family as tarragon (see below), mugwort is derived from the Old English mucg wyrt, meaning ‘marsh plant’ or ‘midge plant’ depending on sources. (Wort is an old English word for ‘root’). When I lived in South Korea, Korean mugwort was commonly used as a culinary herb.

Ssuktteok (Korean mugwort rice cakes)

  • The word myrrh entered the English language from the Bible, and the name of this natural resin native to the Horn of Africa comes from Semitic sources (e.g. the Arabic word murr) meaning ‘[was] bitter’.
  • Narcissus possibly derives from the Greek narkao – to be numb – due to the plant’s sedative, narcotic properties.
  • Neroli – an expensive essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree and reportedly one of the ingredients in Coca-Cola – takes it name from the influential 17th-century Princess of Nerola who reportedly used it as her trademark fragrance to perfume her gloves and bath.
  • The name oregano derives from the Greek words gános and óros meaning ‘joy/brightness/ornament of the mountain’
  • The botanical name of the herb sage is salvia officinalis (salvia means ‘healthy’ in Latin); the older common name originates from the Latin salvare which means ‘heal’.
  • St John’s Wort is so named because the species blossoms near the summer solstice and the feast day of St John the Baptist on 24 June.

St John’s Wort flowers

  • The name mandarin comes from the fruit which was a traditional gift to Chinese mandarins (imperial bureaucrat-scholars)
    • Tangerine was first used to describe mandarin fruit shipped from Morocco’s third-largest city, Tangier.
  • Tarragon‘s name is related to that of dragons, either as a description of the way the root seems to coil up like a dragon, or from an ancient use as antidote to the bites of venomous creatures. Its botanical name is Artemisia dracunculus.
  • Although we mainly know thyme as a culinary herb, the word actually derives from the ancient Greek thymos meaning ‘to smoke/perfume/burn’ as they used it to fumigate against infectious illnesses.
  • Although commonly – but poetically – mistranslated as ‘flower of flowers’, Ylang-ylang actually means “wilderness” in Tagalog, alluding to the tree’s natural habitat.

Ylang-ylang in my garden

With a few exceptions, these plants have existed since long before humans first started using, and then talking about them, and in some cases we may never know the true origin of some names, lost in the mists of time.

Related posts:

Lost Words

A research paper by Cambridge University conservationists found that children are better at identifying Pokémon characters than real animals and plants. In a 2008 National Trust survey, only a third of eight- to 11-year-olds could identify a magpie, though nine out of 10 could name a Dalek. A 2017 RSPB “Birdwatch” survey found that half of 2,000 adults couldn’t identify a house sparrow, a quarter didn’t know a blue tit or a starling, and a fifth thought a red kite wasn’t a bird. In a 2017 Wildlife Trusts survey a third of adults were unable to identify a barn owl, and three-quarters unable to identify an ash tree.

Why am I telling you this? Because yesterday I attended a beautiful exhibition called ‘The Lost Words’ that attempts to “conjure back the magic, beauty and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us”. Devised to take children and adults on a journey through 20 ‘lost words’ from ‘Acorn‘ to ‘Wren‘, each word becomes an acrostic spell written by Robert Macfarlane. Each of the twenty plants or creatures has been painted three times by artist Jackie Morris: first absent from its habitat (e.g. pawprints in the snow or a lone feather), then its return (generally painted on a gold background), and finally in its natural environment (see for example the Kingfisher). Below are some of the poems and paintings:

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

The other Lost Words not shown above are:  BluebellConkerDandelionHeronRavenWeaselWillowWren.

The book Lost Words: A Spell Book by Macfarlane and Morris was published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton. The exhibition I saw is in Inverleith House at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh until 2nd September 2018.

Anyone with an interest in nature, words and images, and who wants to explore further some of the ideas and creatures conjured up by ‘The Lost Words’ can download a free explorer’s guide from the John Muir Trust here.

I’ll end with this quote by Macfarlane:   “Language is written deeply and richly into our relationships with landscape and with nature: there as the place-hames on our maps, and the many names of species, common and rare, with which we share our lives “

See also: