The Names of Days

Dear Language Nerd,

What do the names of the days mean? Ok, “Sunday” I think I can guess, but “Tuesday”? Is “Friday” related to French fries?

-Katon Lannis


Dear Katon,

Last year at this time, I talked about the meanings of the names of the months, so it seems apropos to start off 2014 by taking your question on the days of the week. Not sure what that leaves me for next year, but hey, I’ve got time to think about that.

We ended up with a seven-day week two different ways. The first, better-known way is via the Bible: six days of work and then a day for chillin. The Romans had a seven-day thing going on too, but they got there from a different starting point. See, they saw* a total of seven important celestial bodies in the night sky, and decided that the hours were ruled by each one in succession. Whichever one was ruling in the first hour, they named the day after. So, bingo, seven days.

Two of these days get straight to the point. The first, diēs sōlis, you’ve already figured out; it’s Sunday, the day of the sun. The other is Lunae dies, or Moon-day, or Monday. Cool, we can check those off.

On the other days, the ruling bodies were planets, and the Romans had named all their planets after gods. When these days wandered further north into Europe, the Germanic tribes kept the concept, but swapped the names out with similar deities from their own pantheon. These gods became more famous under slightly different spellings as the Norse gods. Thus, we ended up with:

Tuesday: from dies Martis, the day of Mars. Mars, the war god, was matched up with Tiw, one of the lesser-known Germanic deities. Just goes to show that you can get a whole day named after you even if you’re not an Avenger.

The Romance languages — French, Spanish, etc. — kept the Romance names, though they changed the spelling slightly over time. We borrowed a couple of these names back again later for festivals like Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday.

Wednesday: in Latin, diēs Mercuriī, the day of Mercury, who was paired with Woden (Norse “Odin”). Until I started researching this article, I’d never heard of little ol messenger-boy troublemakin Mercury being compared to a power player like Woden, but apparently winged shoes deliver more clout than I thought.


So turns out the link between Mercury and Odin is that they were both known for ferrying souls over to the underworld. Hence Skully there.

Thursday: dies Iovis, the day of Jupiter. What with the lightning bolts and the sky-godliness, he was changed to Þunor, god of thunder,** who was so serious about being the god of thunder that his name was just the word “thunder.” And who of course we know as the guy who swings Mjölnir around until he’s just too thor to continue.


Friday: dies Veneris, the day of Venus, connected to Germanic Frig, not at all connected to delicious unhealthy foodstuffs or the style in which they are cooked in oil. Frig wasn’t as much of a love goddess as Venus was, but apparently she was close enough.

And last things last: Saturday started out as Sāturnī dies in Latin, for Saturn, the god of plenty. When this name came north, the proto-Germans figured that the name “Saturn” was cool enough to hang out with them without having to go through a Grease-strength makeover first. Because man, Saturday is perfect just the way it is.

A happy and nerdy New Year to all!


The Language Nerd

*The Romans got their views on astronomy from yet-more-ancient ancients, but those guys are not super relevant for this article and thus gettin’ skipped.

**More on Þ and other “th” goofiness here.

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This article is 100% pure unadulterated Oxford English Dictionary goodness. Hell yeah.


The Many Names of Good Saint Nick

Dear Language Nerd,

Where did Santa Claus pick up the name Kris Kringle? Or, for that matter, St. Nicholas? And how did he earn the title of Father Christmas? Frankly, having so many aliases only makes his breaking into houses all the more suspicious.

-Mr. Heat Miser


Dear Mr. Hundred-And-One,

Well, merry Christmas to you too, oh doubting one. We’ll start with St. Nicholas, because it’s straightforward – there really was a guy called Nicholas, in ye olde Lycia (now Turkey, woohoo!), and the Catholic church really did elevate him to sainthood. He was apparently a pretty cool guy, known for donating generously to the poor. Most famously, he once gave a bunch of young gals big bags of gold because they were too poor to come up with dowries themselves, but being hella modest he threw them (the bags) through the window (or, according to some variants, down the chimney, hmmm?) so they wouldn’t know who to thank. This is the beginning of the “gifts coming from an outside source” aspect that’s so important to the Christmas culture. St. Nick, I suppose I should add, is just a shortening of Nicholas.



St. Nick entered Dutch as Sinter Niklaas, which became Sinterklaas over time. A pile of Dutch people immigrated to the American colonies, and by the 1800s their name had been taken and Englishized as Santa Claus. That’s right, the Dutch gave us Santa as well as cookies. And sleigh. If you like our current Christmas terminology, thank a Dutch person.

No, really, go find a Dutch person and give them an extra Christmas present. Trust me, we’re about to get to the really exciting part. Though it requires going back a little further first.

The term Christkindlein was popularized by Martin Luther (not the “I Have a Dream” guy, the “I Have Some Theses” guy). In the 1500s, he was worried that not enough importance was being placed on Christmas because it was sharing the spotlight with another big holiday in December, that holiday being… wait for it… St. Nick’s Day, December  6th. It was a big event, because children received presents from this mysterious robed Nick fellow. People traded presents at Christmas too, but that was openly, so less exciting.

Apparently, the drama of St. Nick was getting too much attention for M.L.’s comfort. He figured that Nick’s public appeal was due to his strong audience recognition, and with that in mind he decided on a twofold plan: lower the appeal of St. Nick’s Day as part of his general anti-saint program, and bring the main figure of Christmastime more firmly into the public eye by promoting the role of Jesus as the giver of all gifts. This plan worked for a while. The popularity of St. Nick receded all across Europe, except among one tenacious group of people: you guessed it, the Dutch. Even when celebrating St. Nick was outright banned in the 1600s, the Dutch held on.* And then, as we saw above, headed over to America. Yeah, when history teachers want to get kids excited about immigrants coming to early America because of the religious freedoms, they should point out that part of this was the freedom to hang on to Saint Nick.

Ultimately, Luther’s plan backfired. Celebrating St. Nicholas was revived in the early United States, and in the following centuries Santa made his way back to Europe, giftier and more secular than ever. Even Luther’s special name was shortened to Christkind’l, which became Kris Kringle, which managed to attach itself to Santa. So instead of drawing attention away from the man in red, Luther put Santa into more direct competition with Jesus by strengthening Santa’s connections to Christmas.

Now Father Christmas is something else again. He was originally a whole other person, an English embodiment of the spirit of festivity and goodwill that emanates from people during Yuletide. As Santa Claus became more and more popular, these attributes got attached to him, and eventually the two myths merged. Basically, Santa Claus and Father Christmas met one night in a dark alley, and the next day no one could find Father C., and then Santa produced a will that said he got all Father Christmas’s stuff.

Which I guess could be considered a little suspicious.


The Language Nerd

*They also hang on to Zwarte Piet, though, so tenaciousness is not infallible.

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References this week include the everhelpful Wiki, as well as its bastard second cousin Wiki Names, the handy dandy etymonline, and a handy NBC article.

Cursives, Foiled Again!

Dear Language Nerd,

My nephew’s school is considering removing cursive script from the curriculum, and surprisingly many people feel very very strongly about it, on both sides. Care to weigh in?


A. S. D. Curmeck


Dear A.S.D.,

I’ve never had to teach cursive myself, but I sure had to learn it, and the o’erwhelming impression left me through the foggy haze of memory is that vast chunks of my second-grade time could have been better used.

People mostly give two big reasons for hanging on to cursive. The first is to develop students’ aesthetics, their understanding and appreciation of beauty. The other is the practice in fine motor control. Cursive does hone the ability to both judge beauty and motor along, but it’s not the most efficient way to do either. I’ve heard it argued that cursive is as helpful for fine motor skills as learning an instrument — to which I say, awesome, let’s turn over cursive time to music class. Plus, bam, aesthetics there too!

There’s a third argument in favor of cursive, which comes up more rarely but which is more persuasive to me because, um, I am heavily biased. Without knowledge of cursive, upcoming scholars will have a harder time deciphering historical documents. The US Constitution, for example, was penned lovingly by Gouveneur Morris,* in beautiful cursive. It’s tough enough to read the original already, and as knowledge of cursive is lost it’ll only get tougher.

But ultimately that doesn’t convince me either — as a rule, the general populace can’t read ancient Greek, but the people who care about it learn it and transcribe the works into a form modern eyes can understand. Just like all other aspects of language, our script changes over time. I like cursive just fine, and have reasonably nice handwriting myself, but if it’s becoming a less useful skill, I say we chuck it. There are precious few hours in a schoolday already.

A pretty low percentage of our population seems to be invested in this topic (those some of those that are seem quite peeved). If you want to talk serious, country-wide emotion about scripts, you’ve gotta leave our fair language behind. First, let’s draw attention to a point that’ll seem a little odd to those who only write English: our cursive uses the same letters as our printing or typing. Cursive script is just a special way of writing the same alphabet. Losing it would not exactly be a sea change.**

Got that in hand? Good. Now let’s talk about China.

In Chinese, the writing doesn’t stand for sounds, like the English alphabet does. Instead, symbols stand for words or parts of words. “人,” for example, is a representation of a person, and “力” stands for power. This is handy for some things, like figuring out compounds — what’s 人力 mean? — but you have to know the pronunciation yourself.

So do Chinese computers have rows and rows of keyboards, to hold the thousands of symbols? No, because that would be hella ungainly. Instead, computers use a keyboard similar to an English one.*** You type in the sound of a word, and the computer will guess what you want, or send out a little drop-down menu with a list of characters with that pronunciation for you to choose from. Handy, innit? And it’s used in most phones for messaging, which carries this idea into constant, everyday communication.


The inside of a computer is all dramatic swirly smoke and helpful neon, that’s just a fact.

But the effect of this technology is that, while people can still recognize plenty of characters, Chinese twenty-somethings increasingly find that characters they once knew are now trapped on the tips of their pens, as it were. And the upcoming kiddos know fewer still. Victor Mair refers to a “hemorrhaging of active charcter proficiency.” Now, this has nothing to do with the ability to compose, since only the writing system is affected, but that system is vanishing astonishingly fast. There’s an orthographic sea change for ya, and people are pissed.

So if you think losing cursive is a cause for concern, all right, just try to keep it in perspective.


The Language Nerd

*That’s not a misspelling of “governor,” that’s this classy man’s name. Tragically, he never became governor of anywhere.

**I had no idea that “a sea change” was from Shakespeare. That guy, always making up phrases and whatnot.

***There’s another kind of keyboard, called wubi, that’s based on the root shapes that make up characters, but from what I’ve read the pronunciaton-based style is much more popular.

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About 90% of the research for this article came either directly from the Language Log or from things they linked to there. Here are their articles about the loss of Chinese characters, and their links to other people discussing these changes. I say “their” — these are all by Victor Mair, but there are many other amazing linguists on the blog. Guys my point is the Language Log is consistently awesome, you should check them out.

The remaining 10% includes the specifically Constitution-related stuff – a fancy annotated type-up, and this Wiki on the Gouveneur. James Madison may have fathered the thing, but he sure didn’t set pen to paper. Plus, I don’t speak any Chinese, so I used the spiffy Mandarin Tools dictionary to check that my 人力example, taken from Japanese, worked in Chinese too.

The Biscuit Schism

Dear Language Nerd,

I know what a British biscuit is, but I gather that the American version is different. Are they a kind of scone? And why the change in meaning across the pond?



Dear Victoria,

Most of the differences between British and American vocabulary amount to mild amusements. “Tee hee, you go to the ‘chemist’ while we visit the ‘drug store’!” “Oh, you say ‘toilet’ and we say ‘loo,’ ha ha ha!”

But biscuits are not funny.

Biscuits are serious.

Normally peaceable and calm people come to blows over biscuits. And much as I generally manage to remain laconic even about language issues that greatly upset people, I too have strong emotions tied to biscuits. In the Deep South, we have a very particular and well-loved biscuit tradition, and if you come around my hometown calling them “a kind of scone” you will find yourself in serious trouble, or maybe in a kitchen getting a pan of proper biscuits made for you, depending on who you talk to.

First, let’s situate the British and American ideas of biscuits along The Great Carbohydrate Continuum, to get some perspective.


The chips/crisps/fries distinctions are for another day.

The word “biscuit” comes from “bis” (the Latin prefix meaning “two” that’s most famously on the front of “bicycle”), and “cuit,” earlier “coctus,” meaning “cook.” So twice-cooked bread, not too complicated. It was the word for the precursors of both meanings of “biscuit,” and many other breads besides (biscotti, anyone?). A thousand years ago, most breads were pretty darn similar, being basically flour and water with whatever you had around thrown in for variety.

As more ingredients became commonly available, most importantly the widespread arrival of sugar from the Middle East, breadstuffs became more differentiated. Cake, in particular, got going, and in the 1600s the Dutch started referred to little cakes as “koekjes,” meaning, uh, “little cake.” This caught on Stateside, or I guess at that time Vaguely-aligned-colonies-side, where the Dutch made up a good portion of the population.

The Brits mostly called their cookies by particular names, like “snickerdoodle,” so “biscuit” stuck around as a handy general term, and stayed even after “cookie” made some inroads. Its use for other kinds of bread faded away. Over here, since “cookie” was becoming the general term, the opposite happened — the use of “biscuit” in the “cookie” sense faded and its other, breadier uses remained.

Only one more step to go: a change in the wheat. The wheat in northern climes, like New England and, well, Old England, was proteiny and hard from long cold winters. The South’s nice warm winter weather allowed for the growth of a softer, bleached wheat, which meant Southern cooks could make a huge variety of fluffier, tastier baked goods.* And though red velvet cake also holds a special place in my heart, the greatest of these may well be the Deep South biscuit, in all its majesty.

Worth noting: Scotland is still with us, using “biscuit” to refer to soft savory breads. STAY STRONG, SCOTLAND.


The Language Nerd

*They were influenced by the scone, but the flour makes a difference, and scones are sweeter and creamier. Plus, scones are still a bit of a snack food, while Southern biscuits are definitely a food-food.

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References today are this cool food timeline site, the Wiki on biscuits, etymonline, and the many British people I have annoyed by getting them to explain their uses of snack food terms in detail. Thanks y’all!

Plus, is anything more hilarious and adorable than brilliant chef Alton Brown cooking biscuits while his grandma tells him he’s doing everything wrong? I think not.

P.S. Turns out an extremely important anniversary has come up, one that’s on everyone’s lips! That’s right – it’s the one-year anniversary of the League of Nerds!

Oh, and also the 50th anniversary of some British TV show that apparently people like? That’s cool, too.


Tardigrades: NASA’s Tiny Spacewalkers

Continuing our series on the cutest invertebrates you didn’t know existed.

Dear Biology Nerd,

I heard something about a “water bear” and I want to see them, but I think they’re microscopic. What are they and are they as cuddly as they sound?

-Katie Mascia


Dear Katie,

“Water bears” are easily some of the cutest things that I encountered in freshman biology. They are major representatives of the phylum of invertebrate animals, the Tardigrada.1 Also, they are known by another nickname besides “water bears” … “moss piglets.”2 How could they not be adorable?


I call him “Wilbur” and that is “some pig.”
(Photo credit:

They’re cute, plump fellows that are found just about everywhere there’s even a droplet of water. They are tiny — the little guy in the picture above is 1 mm long and that is a colorized electron micrograph.3   They can survive without water by drying themselves out and hibernating, but in order to be active they require a coating of liquid so that they can exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the environment.

Scientists call them “water bears” because of their roly-poly bellies and because all of their eight legs end in 4-8 claws.1 The “moss piglets” presumably comes (I’m guessing at etymology here) from the fact that they commonly live in the water droplets on moss, like you find in any back yard, and from those “noses.”

These guys have been identified by NASA as being the most likely creatures on Earth to be aliens. They think this because the tiny, tiny critters are almost impossible to kill. They can survive for DECADES without food or water, at temperatures near absolute zero (which for you non-sciencey Europeans is -273 degrees Celsius, or −459.67 Fahrenheit for non-sciencey Americans; ice forms at 0 degrees C and 32 degrees F). They can survive at the most extreme pressures Earth has to offer, from the tops of mountains to the bottom of ocean. Also, because NASA is full of scientists after my own heart, in 2011 they threw a pile of water bears outside of a space shuttle in OUTER SPACE and the suckers still survived!

Alright, NASA admits they probably aren’t aliens, but they could be! They survive high levels of radiation. It isn’t hard to imagine them floating on a loose space rock and careening into Earth and conquering it with their tiny, adorable little selves. In fact, they are more common than humans on most of the Earth.3

Also, they look different based on the environmental conditions. And clearly showcasing that variety is the main reason for this picture, not just to show you their cute little faces!4

So yes, Katie, they are absolutely adorable, virtually indestructible, possibly alien creatures that are visible under your standard light microscope. Watch them swim on the youtube!

Biology Nerd, away!

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A NOTE: Hey, this is the League of Nerds one-year anniversary! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO US! Thanks for sticking with us for our first year, and hope to see you for many more!

Baby Got Back-Formation

Dear Language Nerd,

What is it called when you add a special ending to a word to make a new word? Like “intuit” + “tion” = “intuition.” Thanks,



Dear Cole,

Ok. First I’m going to answer the question you think you asked. Then I’m going to answer the question you really asked. Hope you’re ready to have your mind blown.

The process of adding bits and pieces to extant words in order to make new words is affixation. A prefix is a chunk that goes on the front of a word (“re-,” “un-,” “pre-,” “dis-“) and a suffix goes on the end (“-tion,” “-acy,” “-er”). Affix just means either a prefix or a suffix, so we don’t have to say “and then you add a prefix-or-suffix” every time we talk about forming words. We are absolutely addicted to affixation in English. Got a verb like “rely” and need an adjective in your life? Add “-able” and it’s “reliable”! But then you want to negate “reliable,” and you’re bored by “not”? “Unreliable” fits the bill! Even itty-bitty “rely” itself underwent affixation long ago, when people added “re” to “ligare” (a now-lost word meaning “bind,” which stuck with us in the form “ligament.”) I’ve written a little about affixation before.

Alright, ready for the plot twist? “Intuition” was not formed by affixation from “intuit”… the process was the exact opposite.

Why yes, people do refer to me as “the M. Night Shyamalan of pop linguistics blog posts.” (This was more flattering back in The Sixth Sense/pre-Airbender days.)

Intuition came into the language whole, from the Latin intuitionem. Some three centuries later, people started thinking, “Huh, that sure looks like ‘intuit’ + ‘tion,’ don’t it?” and baddabingbaddaboom, intuiting was a thing you could do. This process – taking a long word and cutting bits off to make new ones – is called back-formation. It often happens after we’ve let a suffix, like “-tion,” run amok in English. Soon enough working backwards to a core word makes sense, even if the “-tion” was attached when we picked up the word.

Here’s another handy suffix: “-or/-er,” as in “person who is doing whatever.” We nabbed “editor” and “commentator” from Latin, and “-or” was already around in English, so we pared those nouns down to get the verbs “edit” and “commentate” as well. More recently, we saw the product name “Taser” and figured it held a verb, “tase.” And why shouldn’t we? Once it’s done, the final pair looks exactly like “teach” and “teacher” or “sail” and “sailor,” which went the more usual affixation route.

We can also make things a bit more complicated when it suits our fancy. We borrowed “destruction” from French, but added “self-“ to the front ourselves (“self-destruction” meaning “suicide” back in the day). Later, when we (“we” meaning here “the guys who invented Mission Impossible”) wanted a verb, we pulled that “–tion” off and created the all-new “self-destruct.” Though it’s apparently attested, I’ve never heard anyone just use “destruct,” probably because “destroy” covers those bases.


The tragic unpopularity of “destruct” most sorely afflicts kids’ TV shows.

Or we can put a long word together first, out of several old words and affixes, then take bits off to make a new word of medium length. That’s how we got “nitpick” – we started with “to pick nits,” just a regular phrase, then got “nitpicker” as a person who critiqued small things excessively. We back-formed this into “nitpick” long after we’d forgotten that “nits” once meant “louse eggs.” This also gave us “handwrite.” We had “hand” and “writing” together as a noun way before we shortened it into a verb.

You can see how naturally this happens from the fact that I just back-formed “back-formed” from “back-formation.” Yup, I’m all about the meta-innovating.


The Language Nerd

*Wait a minute, etymonline has intuit as “perhaps” a back-formation? Perhaps?! Man, it better be, or I’m gonna feel silly.

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Now that I’m away from my hometown and thus hometown library, I can’t access the OED, so I’m back to using etymonline and decidedly eating my reckless words of yestermonth.

The Matter of Art

Dear Art Nerd,

Does art matter?


Well, you see-


Prove it.

-Karen M.


Oh, for the love of-!



Have you ever seen anything that’s ever been designed before? Like, say, a car, a building or a computer case? Almost everything has been designed by some artist in order to be aesthetically pleasing. Granted, some things are designed by a mere engineer, but more often than not, the design phase involves a lot of drawing.

That aside, have you ever been moved by a movie? Changed your mind because of a book? Read a comic and been emotionally affected? Cried because of a video game? If so, then congratulations. You’ve experienced first-hand why art matters. You see, art does not build homes, nor does it rejuvenate broken bones or heal the sick. It doesn’t necessarily stop hunger.

But it can do those things indirectly. The human mind and the emotions involved can be easily changed and manipulated by art. Though that may sound a bit negative, it’s true. Art usually has to elicit some kind of response from the viewer, be it adoration, love, hate, despair, misery or hatred.

Cheerful stuff.

And even if emotional response isn’t what you are looking for, art is still absolutely critical. It is a way of documenting the past. It can help promote creative thinking. People need to relax so they might look for uplifting art to look at, read, watch or play.

Even if art doesn’t necessarily mean that some product will look better, it still can change the human mind. And it may sound small but in reality, that’s not just kind of interesting. That’s huge. Art can’t make things happen itself. But art can make people do fantastic, wonderful things.

And horrible things.

Yours Most Snobbishly,

The Art Nerd

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By the way… happy Halloween.

How to Remember… Um, Something

Dear Language Nerd,

You’re learning Turkish faster than me and it’s pissing me off. How can I learn it faster when my memory is so bad?


Your Roommate, Sal


Dear Sal,

No worries, roomie, here are my rad tips for vocabulary learnin’. Today, we’ll focus on vocab, not grammar or politeness or other fancy bits, because what’s gonna get your belly full, being able to say “Would you mind getting me a ___” or being able to say “hamburger”? Once you’ve got chunks of vocab to work with, you can worry about putting them together nicely.

But first off, some good news: learning languages strengthens your brain. Well, at least, it changes your brain, and we’re ready to guess that it’s for the better (scientists are still looking at what the exact changes are, but then, scientists rarely seem to finish anything). If you keep at it, not only will your memory and skill in Turkish improve, but you might be able to remember everything better.

Second off, I know you well enough to know that your memory is not particularly bad. You’re far more on top of things than me in actual-useful-life-stuff (I occasionally get caught up reading The Language Log and forget to eat, which puts me squarely in absent-minded professor territory). Your memory is excellent for the things that are important to you – I’ve seen you re-enact entire episodes of Friends with zero prep time. So don’t be negative about your memory. All we need to do is make learning Turkish important. Which takes us straight into tip #1…

1. Use it. Make Turkish relevant. In language classes, we tend to emphasize the overarching, philosophical reasons to study languages – languages are beautiful! Languages broaden your horizons! Languages connect you to new cultures! And this is great, especially for the people like me who really do find languages fascinating in and of themselves. But for the other 90% of the population, it’s not enough.* I know you’ve learned languages before. You picked up French, for example, when most of your friends spoke it, and that tells us what we need to do here – make it practical. Find the bits of language that come up often: things that our coworkers say, stuff we need to ask about at the store, getting directions, the mysterious questions the students are always pummeling us with. You’re the most extroverted person I’ve ever met – if you were in a situation where no one spoke English at all, and you had to speak Turkish to meet people, you’d start picking it up pretty fast! Nose around and find somewhere that only Turkish-speaking Turks frequent, and let your sociable nature lead you.

2. Get it in several ways. A word you’ve only heard, even if you’ve heard it several times, is likely to get lost in the language shuffle. Repetition is good (see next point), but it’s not enough. If you hear it, see it, say it, write it, think about it, and just generally interact with it, you’ve got a much better chance of hanging on to it. So do a few different things – read the Turkish book we’ve got lying around, listen to a podcast or two with the same vocabulary, and then practice it with the people around us.

3. Repeat it at reasonable intervals. Surely you’ve had those students that decide they’re going to learn all of English by writing every damn word in the dictionary 1,000 times. How often are these your best students?

…not often, is my guess. Repetition is important, but repeating a word you already know is a waste of time, and repeating a word you don’t know a dozen times in a row might not help you when you actually need it three days later. Much better is what’s called spaced repetition – repeating words often enough to keep them in your mind, but not so often that you hate life. In Ye Olde Days, the poor plebeians had to do this by making stacks of notecards and keeping them in “once a day,” “once a week,” once a month” piles, but now we live In The Future and our handy machines will do this for us. The handy machine I use is Anki, which lets you get other people’s lists of words already available in their database or make your own list of the vocab you want, which brings us to…

4. Learn the vocabulary for topics you care about. I’ve learned the Turkish words for “books,” for “library,” and for “Dungeons and Dragons,” because in case you haven’t noticed I am a huge friggin’ nerd. Learn words for topics you care about. You’re not in school for this – the teacher’s not going to flunk you if you don’t memorize a list of the irregular verbs, so spend that brain power on vocabulary about soccer, or hot guys, or dogs, or dancing, or whatever you’ll be motivated to talk about. Some of the words are likely to be similar to their English counterparts, and you’ll have more motivation for talking with people. If you can link this with strategy #1 – go dancing with a non-English-speaking soccer team of hot guys who own dogs? — you’ll be in business.


Achievement Unlocked: Truly, The Greatest Language-Learning Strategy

5. Visualize it (style #1). Pick a set of vocabulary words. Let’s go with colors. Now pick a place you’re familiar with, like Taksim. Now shut your eyes (well, uh, read this first. Wait, I wrote that too late! Open your eyes!!) and imagine walking through that place, putting your vocab in. So you arrive there in a bright yellow dolmuş (which is like a super cheap bus, non-Sal readers). Look at the dolmuş, and put the word sarı “yellow” on it. Now turn around and start walking across the gri “grey” pavement. To your right is the infamous Gezi Park, a bright blotch of yeşil “green” against the dark backdrop. Keep walking, over to that awesome little food stand with the tiny hamburgers and their bright kırmızı “red” sign. You get the idea. Go slowly, and fix each word onto the area, and then walk back through when you’re trying to recall them. It doesn’t have to be somewhere from your own memory, either. Google Art Project has walkthroughs of museums, and this artist has drawn out the floor plans of houses in famous TV shows, both excellent places to stick some words.

6. Visualize it (style #2). Say you’re having trouble remembering the word for “friend,” arkadaş. Well, that sounds like ark-uh-dash, so first imagine your best friend ever (me, obviously) standing next to Noah’s ark. Oh no, it’s raining, the ark’s about to go, and I’m still standing around with my mouth hanging open, going “uhhhhh” So I have to dash over there! Keep the picture in your head and label the parts. And the more gory, sexy, or ridiculous you make the image, the more memorable it’ll be.

This technique comes with a warning: it can tie you into remembering words with bad pronunciation. Some Turkish vowels are slightly different than their English counterparts, and some aren’t in English at all. If you remember the word önemli “important” as “standing on a very important girl named Em’ly,” that’s all well and good – except that the <ö> here doesn’t make the “o” sound that we make in English “on.”  You’ll have the right idea and probably be able to recognize it in writing, but people might not understand you when you say it. So try other techniques first, and come back to this one if you’re really having trouble.

On the other hand, this is not an issue if you’re learning a symbol, which is why the Heisig method for remembering kanji is so handy for students of Japanese.

7. Explain it to someone else. I learned önemli  just now, and I’m likely to remember it tomorrow because I not only learned it, but thought about the spelling and meaning long enough to write out an explanation to someone else. Same reason I was happy to get that question about the Turkish alphabet recently – I had to really learn it myself to be able to explain it to others. Learn some vocabulary I don’t know and teach it to me, or teach a few phrases to our other expat buddies.

8. Make it part of your everyday environment. Many people, mostly people who didn’t do well in high school languages classes, claim that you can’t learn a language if you’re not in the country where it’s spoken. While living in the country is great, and offers you incredible opportunities, I absolutely disagree on the larger point. In fact the converse is true – it’s very easy to live in a foreign country and not learn the language. Think of the expats who live in a country for ten years and barely speak a word. The larger world is not what matters; what matters is your immediate environment. Listen to Turkish music. Watch Turkish TV, even if you’re just leaving it on in the background. Write the Turkish words for household objects on postits and stick them around the house. Make Turkish friends and pester them. Whatever, just so long as you’re interacting with the language frequently, many times a day.

9. Take a class. There’s gotta be something around here, right?


The Language Nerd

*This is not a real statistic, I’m just quipping. Too optimistic?

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The greatest website for those interested in really pushing the all-important interact aspect is All Japanese All the Time. It’s a fantastic resource, and applicable to people learning other languages, too. This is also the guy who turned me on to Anki.

The Turkish podcasts I listen to are Turkish Tea Time and Learn Modern Turkish.

Info on Sal from, uh, Sal.

Notes on the memory palace method (building up a place), from the Mnemonic Wiki. Full of other great mnemonics, too!

Color words via the ever-handy Google translate. Yeah, I don’t know ‘em myself yet. Better get to building my own memory palace.

Informal Occasions

Dear Language Nerd,

Sometimes when I am writing I use colloquialisms, but they can be obtuse. Sometimes they don’t feel right, but I don’t know why. What the heck is a colloquialism and why should I care?

Pete S.

P.S. – I find hand-drawn pictures are a very useful means to communicate language-related insight.


Dear Pete,

I just bet you do. The Language Nerd is skeptical, but as always, here to help.

What is or is not suitable for writing is a question of register – a subject I’ve discussed once before, brought up by someone with a suspiciously similar name. People use many different registers over the course of their lives, and often over the course of a day.

Let’s say everyone’s favorite superhero, Sound Effects Lad —



— writes a business letter. He’ll use particular words and phrases: “Dear Sir or Madam,” “contact me at,” “please find attached.” These are part of the business-letter-writing register, and would sound strange in everyday speech. Our hero knows better than to walk up to a shorty in the club and introduce himself with “Dear Sir or Madam.”

Conversely, he knows that “make it rain” is part of his club-scene parlance and unlikely to go over well in the letter detailing his requests for a corporate merger.


Though you never know.

So, different kinds of writing or speaking are done in different registers. The same person will use different registers when giving a political stump speech and when chatting with a war buddy. Or when writing an analysis of the themes and motifs of Calvin and Hobbes and when writing a tweet.

So, really, we’ll be better off coming at your definition backwards: we like to group our words up. Some are good for this kind of writing, some for that; some are good for one type of speaking, some for another; some are good for varieties of both.* The words that are good for many kinds of speaking but for few kinds of writing we call colloquialisms. really oversimplifies the issue – the fundamental aspect of a colloquialism is that it is informal. We tend to think of speech as “informal” and writing as “formal,” but giving your Nobel Prize acceptance speech takes much more formal language than updating your facebook status, even though the former is speaking and the latter is writing.

And there are many other times when colloquialisms get put into writing. Often, it’s when writers are trying to give a spoken-language feel to their written work. So the narrative in a novel may have no colloquialisms, but the dialogue of the characters could have plenty. A business letter may have no colloquialisms, but a letter to a friend may be written in the style used when speaking to that friend, and so be chock-full of ‘em. An article for a scientific journal will be sent back by the editors if it uses the phrase “a shorty in the club,” but a pop linguistics article on the internet can say whatever wacky thing its author wants.** Heh heh heh.


A diary might be written exclusively in a style similar to its owner’s speech.

But if a colloquialism gets put into writing too often, and creeps into more and more formal, less speech-derived styles, it will stop seeming unusual in that context, and cease to be a colloquialism.

So you’ve probably noticed my own vagueness by now, giving a run for its money. Some words “sound strange” in speaking, some “are good for” writing, some “seem unusual” in one style or another. Why? Where do these impressions come from?

Well, formal writing and speech is usually intended to be understood by a large national (or international) audience. Colloquialisms tend to come from two areas – regionalisms and slang.*** Regionalisms are words and phrases from a particular area, like Southernisms. If I tell my neighbor in Alabama that the devil’s beating his wife, she’ll know I mean that it’s both raining and sunny outside. If I say that to a larger audience, I’m liable to get some funny looks.

Slang is also made up of words and phrases used by a particular group, but slang groups aren’t geography-based. There’s slang in professions (army slang, for example), or slang in age groups like teens or Boomers, among others. When addressing other members of our groups, we use slang all the time; it helps establish us as a member of that group. When writing something meant to be read by many different kinds of people, we don’t use lots of words and phrases understood only by one group.

This is a bit idealized, though. In real life, formal styles can get so bogged down in their own formality that they become understandable to fewer people, not more. The various self-appointed guardians of Proper English become hidebound, trying to hold on to distinctions or uses that just don’t matter in current English, and tradition gets in the way of the speak-to-everyone potential of formal language. Really what I’m trying to say is that “who/whom” can go the way of the dinosaur, for all I care, and if that’s a vote for colloquialism in formal writing, then so be it.

So  there, that’s what a colloquialism is. And why should you care? I dunno. Kicks?


The Language Nerd

*And some for very few varieties of either, but taboos and swearing will have to be another column.

**I get e-mails about this that… that… that I just don’t understand. “You say you’re a Language Nerd, but you have an informal and colloquial writing style! A real Language Nerd would never have a sense of her desired casual audience and would not reflect her constant theme of linguistic inclusivity in her writing, but should instead write only in a staid and extremely formal style!” *head explodes*

***Some linguists put slang in a different category from colloquialisms, but if I did then I’d have to go back and take out my “make it rain” example, and nobody wants that.

P.S. – The League has been getting a lot more hits lately, which is fantastic! If you’re one of these newcomers, consider liking the League on Facebook, because hey, we are super awesome.

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Man, I have like no references today besides

How to Read Turkish

Subtitled: The Vowels are Out to Get You

Dear Language Nerd,

So I’m an English speaker visiting Turkey, and I’ve picked up a few words of Turkish, but somehow they don’t seem to square with anything I see written. Is it just me, or is the Turkish alphabet way more different from ours than it looks at first glance?



Dear Camille,

Hey, count your blessings – less than a hundred years ago, Turkish was written using the Arabic script, so it was a whole lot peskier! (For the cause of this change and also relevant name changes, see: exciting new Turkish republic.) Nowadays, learning to read Turkish when one’s native language is English, which also has a Latin-lettered alphabet, is not the adventure that learning to read, oh, Korean might be — but it has its tricky bits. Most of the letters make the same sounds they do in English.

Of course, this just gives the ones that don’t an opportunity to sneak up on you.

First let’s just pop through all the good li’l consonants that line up fine with English pronunciation:




G – always pronounced hard in Turkish, never j-like, including before “i” and “e.” So Turkish gel (“come”) is pronounced like the old-tymey slang for “girl,” not like a hair product.







R – not exactly the same as our R, but I swear, it seems like no two languages use exactly the same R. This one is a little flapped, like if you started a Spanish trilled R and cut it off, and at the end of words gets some aspiration action going on (so it sounds a bit like “-arsh”).






Look at all those lovely letters that cause no problems whatsoever! Cookies for you, dear ones.

So who are our interlopers? Well, first and most important, there’s C – and you thought C was so quiet and unassuming! Hah! The letter C in Turkish is pronounced like an English “j” as in “jump.” The letter J, on the other hand, is pronounced /ʒ/. That extremely classy symbol stands for the kind of fuzzy-z sound we make in the middle of “pleasure” or the beginning of “genre” or the end of “rouge.” Other languages that have this sound tend to use it a bit more systematically than we do, and Turkish is one of them.

The other two notables are Ş and Ç, which to me are a bit easier since they look different from our letters.  They stand for our <sh> and <ch>, respectively (or, if you prefer, /ʃ/ and /tʃ/).

Most of the vowels have forms we can recognize in English. We have a lot of the same sounds floating around, and we even pronounce them with the same letters… some of the time.

A as in “father”

E as in “beg”

İ (lowercase i) as “ee” in “feet” – this one’s in the Turkish spelling of “İstanbul.” There’s a separate upper and lowercase “dotless I,” which we’ll get to in a sec.

O as in “cot”

U as “oo” in “foot”

What’s difficult is remembering that these vowels have these sounds all the time – so the Turkish word “care” is pronounced “jah-reh.”

There are three more vowels unfamiliar to us Englos:

Ü is the same as in German. It’s a high front rounded vowel, which I know sounds like a lot of jibberish, so here’s what we’re gonna do. Say the word “me” – meeeeeeeeeee – see how your lips are kind of flat? Pucker them up into an O shape, still saying that eeee. Except now it’s üüüü. BAM.

Then there’s our dotless buddy I (lowercase ı). We’re gonna do the opposite exercise from the Ü  to get at this one. Say the word “boot” – booooooooot – see how your lips are puckered? Relax them.

Alright, last set of lip exercises. Ö is also the same as in German. Make an “eh” sound, like in “beg.” Now we’re going to do something unusual for vowels. Usually we only talk about rounded and unrounded, but this sound is compressed – tense your lips and pull them in. This is kind of awkward, because we normally don’t think about our lips this much in regular conversation, so if you like you can cheat a bit. Say “bird,” but stop before you get to the R. That’s close enough to be going on with.

One final letter: Ğ, called “yumuşak g.” This is down here with vowels instead of up with its look-a-lot-alike cousin G because this one makes no sound itself. It’s usually just a connection between two different vowels, since Turkish has a real phobia around two vowels hanging out next to each other. Between two front vowels it’s a sort of Y sound and between back vowels it’s a sort of W, but don’t worry about the vowel details. They’ll come naturally, since we sometimes do the same thing in English without thinking about it (there’s a little Y between the words in “free ice” and a little W in “blue eyes” – say ‘em a couple times and you’ll see what I mean). When the yumuşak g isn’t between two vowels, it’ll usually be after one, and that just means that that vowel is lengthened.

Got it? Awesome! Now we just need to figure out all that vocabulary and grammar business…


Now you’ll be able to decode signs for all the most crucial events in Istanbul.
(Photo credit: me! And yes, I so rocked the baklava fest.)


The Language Nerd

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My main reference today was the excellent book Colloquial Turkish: The Complete Course for Beginners, by Jeroen Aarssen and Ad Backus, which my parents just sent me because they are the best. Also useful were this guide from Princeton (the internet: my favorite way of accessing expensive schools’ handy knowledge), and I refreshed my old phonology courses via Wiks.