My first foreign books

at the end of the world

“Rein Kamm felt suddenly that it would be nice to go on a trip around the world.”

Rein Kamm tundis korraga, et tore oleks minna ümbermaailmareisile.

This is the first sentence in my first Estonian book, Maailma otsas. Pildikesi heade inimeste elust (At the End of the World. Scenes from the Lives of Good People) by a contemporary writer Andrus Kivirähk.

A friend lent it to me, when I asked her for an interesting book suitable for beginners, and it has turned out to be the perfect choice. It’s entertaining, funny, and not too difficult. Several ordinary characters go about their ordinary life, but somehow they do it in the most grotesque ways. You have a bar owner who cooks only one dish a day, closes his bar at 7 pm, and goes home to read ‘War and Peace’. You have an old bachelor living with his mother who tells him what to wear. You have a family that offer potatoes to whoever passes by.

People learn languages for various reasons: job, travel, love & friendship. All these are valid for me, but my major motivation in learning any language has always been to read books in the original.

Thus, I tried to recall my first books in all my languages. In some cases, I have not read any book yet (Hungarian and Japanese, currently on the back burner); in others, I cannot remember, even vaguely, which were books I read first (English, Latvian, Russian, Ancient Greek), thus, my list is incomplete.

In Czech, although I really like český černý humor (‘dark humour’), absurd, and grotesque, the very first book I read was Bílá nemoc (The White Disease) by Karel Čapek, a dystopia written in 1937 about a country on the brink of war, which is also attacked by an incurable disease killing older people. The novel does seem so dystopian in 2021.

In German, I started with Goethe’s Faust. Yes, I know, this is hardly a suitable choice for an absolute beginner. But hey, I was 18, German was the first language I was learning on my own, I was studying philosophy and puzzled over the meaning of live. To me then, Faust did seem a suitable choice. I did not learn much from in in the matter of German conversation, but still can recite the first lines by heart.

Habe nun ach ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor;

In French, one of the first books I read were novels by Prosper Mérimée. I still own the book, a Soviet-era edition with beautiful lithographs and a bilingual commentary. I had bought it in a foreign second hand bookshop in Riga, grāmatu antikvariāts Planēta, a venerable institution.

In Spanish, I read first Platero y yo (Platero and I) by Juan Ramón Jiménez, a charming, touching story of a friendship between a man and a donkey. I got the book in the same second hand bookshop, where I was spending my scarce student stipend.

In Italian, I do not remember my first book. What I do remember vividly though, it is how I was reading Dante’s Divina commedia for the first time. It was in Italy, with a friend who was doing a PhD in Italian literature, who recommended a good old edition and taught me how to scan.

I read several chapters then, and read the whole Inferno last year.

Accidentally, 2021 is anno dantesco, which l’Accademia della Crusca (The Italian Academy) celebrates with the series of events, including Dante’s word of the day. The tradition says that Dante started his masterpiece on 25 March, thus, the word cammin (way, road) was analysed that day.

nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In Latin, the first work was Cicero’s In Catilinam I (Against Catilina). We had to read it our Latin class, in its entirety, to analyse and translate it, and to learn multiple passages by heart. It took our small group a full academic year.

quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?

I hated the speech and my patience for Cicero was definitely abused after this exercise. I had never touched a text by him afterwards – until last month. Inspired by an old FS post on friendship, which showed Cicero in different light, I started De amicitia and have been really enjoying it.

Napoleon’s defeats

we all possess Napoleon’s features …

This year, I reread Leo Tolstoy War and Peace, for the fifth time. War and Peace is one of my favourite books, and since I first read it at high school, I reread it regularly. This time, I reread it so quickly, I was so absorbed in the narrative, that I turned the last page regretting that there were four volumes only. I would have enjoyed reading twenty of them!

While I was regretting War and Peace was so short, my inner linguist started wondering about expressions related to Napoleon, in any language that springs to mind.

Any language in this case meant English and French, and the two expressions refer to Napoleon’s defeats.

In English, you can meet or face your Waterloo, the expression popularised not so much by the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon indeed did surrender, but by the song Waterloo by Abba, which won the Eurovision song contest in 1974.

Just as I was humming Oh, oh, oh, oh, Waterloo / Finally facing my Waterloo, a French colleague commented on a committee she participated in, with the words c’est la Bérézina. The expression means disastrous and disorganised matter, and refers to another Napoleon’s defeat, this time by the river Berezina, at the hands of Russian army.

Strangely, nothing in Russian came to my mind. There are obviously quotes: Napoleon was a popular figure in the 19th century Russia, which is reflected by ambivalent feelings of the War and Peace male protagonists towards him.

Alexander Pushkin mentions Napoleon in his Eugene Onegin: мы все глядим в Наполеоны (we all aspire to be Napoleons).

We all possess Napoleon’s features;

The millions of two-legged creatures

Are only instruments and tools;

But today, the most famous Napoleon in Russian is a mille-feuille pastry that is called наполеон, although the etymology is unclear, perhaps it is a corruption from Neapolitan, Naples being famous for its pastry.

Winter words

the snow of yesteryear

This winter, we had beautiful snow in the Baltics, and I took up cross-country skiing again, which used to be my favourite sport at school. Now, a thought has crossed my mind that in alternative reality, I would have enjoyed being a professional cross-country skier. Snow, cold, movement, solitude, pure bliss.

While I was daydreaming about skiing championships, my inner linguist was wide awake and was wondering about expressions related to ski, in any language.

I could recall only one, in Russian: навострить лыжи (to sharpen ones’ ski), meaning to try to leave surreptitiously.

Another Russian expression is about sledges: любишь кататься, люби и саночки возить (if you like sledging, you should like to carry the sledge). The closest English equivalents are ‘if you want to dance, you have to pay the piper’, or simply, ‘there is no such things as free lunch’.

What about other winter delights, such as snow, frost, and cold?

In English, many useful expressions relate to the word cold. To come in from the cold, to be left out in the cold, to get cold feet, to get (and to give) the cold shoulder, cold comfort.

Surprisingly, French is quite rich in wintry expressions: ne pas avoir froid aux yeux is the equivalent of ‘not be faint-hearted’ , battre froid à qqn means ‘to give somebody the cold shoulder’, faire boule de neige is ‘to snowball’, and fondre comme neige au soleil is ‘to melt away’, ‘to disappear into thin air’.

My favourite expression is mais où sont les neiges d’antan (where is the snow of yesteryear?), which comes from a poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By) by a 15th century French poet François Villon. In the 20th century, it was made into a song by Georges Brassens.


eleventh hour

I have been learning English idioms with time units, and came across the expression eleventh hour.

To do something at the eleventh hour is to do it at the last possible moment, just before it is too late.

I have heard this expression before, but was never sure of its meaning, even less of its origin. Whereas expressions with numbers are frequent in many languages, some numbers, such as one, two, or seven, are clear favourites. Why on earth the eleventh?

It turns out the expression has a Biblical origin: it comes from the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew xx.1-16), where some laborers appeared only at the eleventh hour (qui circa undecimam horam venerant). The eleventh in the expression does not refer to the last hour before midnight, but to the eleventh hour according to the Roman timekeeping, which started at sunrise, and roughly corresponds to the late afternoon, hence the meaning ‘at the last moment’.

Many Biblical expressions have their equivalents in multiple languages, but to my knowledge, not the eleventh hour. Perhaps, the reason is that some vernacular translations, such as Italian, localize the hour, and speak about five in the afternoon.

Speaking of eleven, its etymology is also curious. In English, eleven (and its twin sibling twelve) are odd ones in the sequence starting with thirteen and going to nineteen. Eleven derives from the Old English enleofan, literally “one left” (over ten), and is comparable to the German elf (and its twin sibling zwölf).

I also learned that in Lithuanian (which is an Indo-European language, but Baltic, not Germanic), the cardinal number from 11 to 19 use the same formation: they all end with -lika, which means “something that remains beyond ten”, and that –lika is related to the -leven/-lve in English. Hence, the English eleven has a Lithuanian cousin, vienuolika.

Diverse reading

reading in different directions

The turn of the year is often the time to share book lists, reading insights, and recommendations. Many newspapers, media outlets, and personalities share their reading finds.

I always find it fascinating to know what other readers find fascinating, and often happy to follow book recommendations.

For non-fiction, I like yearly book recommendations of Farnam Street.

For fiction, this past year I noted an initiative in Spain, where Zenda and XLSemanal asked their readers which books should make a perfect library. The final list of 101 book, la biblioteca perfecta, can be consulted here. There were several books in that perfect library I have not heard of, so I took note.

This coming year, however, I plan not only to follow the reading recommendations and read what everyone else is reading, but diversify my reading habits.

I first heard the notion of diversified reading from a young colleague of mine, a prolific reader. She keeps tracks of the books she reads and sets herself reading targets, including diversity. For example, she tries to read as many books by male authors as by female, to respect a balance between European and non-European authors, to read both in French and in English, etc.

We are living in the era of powerful recommender systems and optimised search engines, which result in echo chambers and rabbit holes. That is why this year, I would deliberately seek to diversify my reading, and encourage you to do the same.

Obviously, for language freaks like myself, reading in different languages is one of the ways to go.

Last year, my focus was on Italian. Accordingly, one quarter of the fiction I read was in this language, with balanced distribution across centuries: Dante and Bocaccio, Italo Calvino and Luigi Pirandelli, Elena Ferrante and Antonia Arslan.

This year, I will focus on books in German, in particular, on contemporary fiction, as I know next to nothing about this period’s writers.

Any recommendations?

Good slide into the New Year

sliding into the New Year

In 2021, just like in 2020, I will have three language learning priorities. The first two were easy to set: improving my English, a never-ending task, and learning Estonian, which I started chaotically in 2019 and continued systematically in 2020.

It took me a while to decide on the third language priority.

Finally, it is going to be German.

I spoke decent German in the late 1990s and read German books occasionally afterwards, but I did not put any deliberate efforts to improve it. My grammar is rusty, my vocabulary is primitive, and my listening skills are poor.

My interest for German language spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis better compared to its European neighbors. I consulted German epidemiologists’ articles as a source of reliable information about the virus, and much admired the corona speeches of Angela Merkel for their clarity, pragmatism, and scientific approach.

Given that we are not out of the woods yet, I thought it would be useful to have better, finer understanding of spoken and written German.

It would be useful for me professionally as well: at work, Germany is one of the countries we collaborate most.

But the moment I really said to myself ‘yes, German’, was in early December, when I read the beginning of this poem.

Das Jahr ward alt. Hat dünnes Haar.
Ist gar nicht sehr gesund.
Kennt seinen letzten Tag, das Jahr.
Kennt gar die letzte Stund.

Ist viel geschehn. Ward viel versäumt.
Ruht beides unterm Schnee.
Weiß liegt die Welt, wie hingeträumt.
Und Wehmut tut halt weh.

Noch wächst der Mond. Noch schmilzt er hin.
Nichts bleibt. Und nichts vergeht.
Ist alles Wahn. Hat alles Sinn.
Nützt nichts, dass man’s versteht.

It is called Dezember (‘December’), is by Erich Kästner, and you can read it fully in German and in English translation here.

The comparison of the old year to an elderly gentleman with thinning hair, in poor health, who knows his last day and even his last hour, resonated with me. I found this image endearing and apt for the moment, and on the spot decided that I had to improve my German.

I will take stock of my German level after the celebrations and will set up a learning plan, but off the cuff, I need to learn the grammar properly, to enrich my vocabulary, and to work on my audio comprehension.

Meanwhile, happy new year! Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!

Year in Languages 2020

light in the darkness

The name 19 languages reflects my desire to learn 19 languages, to various degrees of mastery.

Unlike in 2019, when I had not planned my language learning ahead, in 2020, prompted by the first lock-down, I actually sat down and thought deeply about my language focus for the rest of the year.

I decided that three priorities would be more than enough: improving English, improving Italian, and learning Estonian.

These three languages were in focus in 2020, although I used more throughout the year. In fact, every day I use at least three languages, but the average is five.

So, how well did I do in 2020? Let’s look first at my three priorities.


I set myself tree goals: to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve these goals, I intended to learn idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs, to do pronunciation exercises, and to shadow native English speakers.

I managed to work only on the vocabulary, focusing in idioms, and learned plenty: colour idioms, food idioms, nature idioms, you name it. Although I still feel that improving my English is an uphill battle, sometime in September I caught myself using in professional setting the idiomatic expressions that I had learned. For example, I would write that a proposal was not ‘set in stone’, that two partners were working ‘hand in glove’, or that we needed to ‘keep the show on the road’. I was pleased like a cat that ate the cream.

Lesson learned from this experience: have fewer goals for English. In fact, with English, one goal at a time would be enough.


Estonian was the second focus of 2020, and I am pleased with my progress. I finished my 1980s Estonian manual, followed all 30 episodes of the first series of a radio programme Как это по-эстонски? (‘How do you say it in Estonian?’), writing down all grammar rules and examples, and finished 13 out of 16 lessons of the free online course Keeleklikk for beginners. I have followed some Estonians on Twitter, managing to understand some tweets about current Estonian politics, and learned some useful words, such as valitsus ‘government’.


Back in June, I decided that 2020 would be an Italian year, and set myself three lofty goals.

First, learning Italian poems by heart. Total failure: I learned only one poem in the whole year, albeit a wonderful one, Meriggiare by Eugenio Montale.

Second, covering my gaps in grammar and vocabulary. 50/50: I learned quite a few idioms and wrote down expressions and idioms from the books I was reading.

Third, reading in Italian for pleasure. Bravissima: I read 12 Italian books, including Boccaccio Decameron, Dante Inferno, Italo Calvino I nostri antenati, and all four volumes of Amica geniale (Neapolitan novels) by Elena Ferrante.

I had a plan to revise some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar over summer, but did not do it. My spoken Italian is grammatically sound, hence, given traveling to Italy was out of question this year, I decided I would rather read books than revise subjunctive.

Other languages.

Ancient Greek.

This year, I read my way through books 4 to 6 of Plato Republic. I read several sections each Saturday morning from January through June, then took a summer break, and resumed my reading in November, reading both on Saturdays and on Sundays. I finished the last chapters of book 6 by reading every day over the Christmas break.

In spring, I read one of the earliest accounts of an epidemic, namely chapters 2.47–2.54 of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War where he described the Plague of Athens, which devastated the city in the 5th century BC.

For 2021, my plan is to finish the remaining four books of the Republic, and move on to my beloved and difficult Thucydides after that.


My interest for German spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis rather well and German epidemiologists were a good source of reliable information. I followed some of them on Twitter, listened to several Angela Merkel speeches, and read some articles. I also decided that improving German would be my priority in 2021.


I use French at work daily, and read some work-related stuff. I also followed French news and learned a couple of useful idiomatic expressions from my French colleagues.


I have not read a single book, but I followed the news, and spoke weekly with friends and acquaintances. This year, some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I had were in Latvian.


I read some twenty books by the 19th, 20th, and 21st century writers, ranging from Lev Tolstoi and Mikhail Lermontov to Dina Rubina and Narine Abgaryan.


I read one book in Spanish at the beginning of the year, and many articles. After that, I followed some Spanish speakers on Twitter, and read an occasional article. I made several trips to Spain before the pandemics, when I managed to speak in Spanish in professional context.

Throughout the year, I followed with delight all news related to a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo, whose book El infinito en el junco (‘Infinity in a reed’), about the invention of books in the ancient world, has been voted the Spanish book of the year 2020. Published in September 2019, the book is a bestseller: 26 editions, over 150 000 copies sold, multiple national awards, raving reviews, and translations rights to some 30 languages. I am a fan, and cannot wait to see how the world discovers this thoughtful and delicate writer.

In Spain, the book has been considered an antidote to the pandemics, as many readers reported the book gave them consolation in the times of darkness.

This year, I read fifty books in total, in English, Russian, Italian, Ancient Greek, and Spanish, and for me, too, reading was a star of light in the dark.

That’s all, my language year 2020 in review.

Language Monthly, December 2020, Etymology

white December

December is the 12th month, despite the fact that its name means the ‘tenth’. It derives from Latin decem ‘ten’, as December was the tenth month of the old Roman calendar, which began with March.

I can spend hours looking for etymologies, and have compiled a list of my favourite resources.


Online Etymology Dictionary


Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana di Ottorino Pianigiani

Vocabolario Treccani


The Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish

Diccionario de la lengua española (DLE)



The advantage is that you can search in many languages. The disadvantage is that being a compilation, it can be unreliable or plainly wrong.


Eesti etümoloogiasõnaraamat

Yes, it is in Estonian, but invaluable for comparative Finno-Ugric and comparative linguistics. In fact, for anyone who already knows some Baltic, Slavic, or Germanic languages, understanding etymologies of Estonian words is a useful tool for remembering these words.

Let’s take an Estonian work raamat, meaning a ‘book’. At a first approximation, it resembles nothing. But when you look at its etymology, you realise it is related to the Latvian grāmata, meaning a ‘book’, which in turn is a borrowing from Slavic. In Russian, грамота means ‘official document’ and also ‘ability to read and write’. The Slavs borrowed the word from the Greek γράμματα ‘letters’, of which the English grammar is also a descendant.

Language Monthly, November 2020, Estonian

Tallinn, so close and yet so far

Given that every post about learning Estonian starts by explaining why one is learning Estonian, I would follow suit.

Why Estonian? For me, there is nothing exotic about learning Estonian. It is the closest non Indo-European language in my vicinity. Estonia is a neighbouring country: it will take me just a couple of hours to get there. There are numerous linguistic parallels between Estonian and Latvian, as well with Slavic and Germanic languages. In fact, when I am in Latvia, I see written Estonian daily, as most groceries and foodstuffs one buys in the Baltics carry labels at least in five languages, Estonian included. For me, learning Estonian is natural and logical.

Today, I share some links that I found particularly useful. I have used materials both in English and in Russian, which are probably two main target groups: English for international learners, Russian for local minorities.

Three articles (in Russian) on learning Estonian with plethora of resources for beginners and intermediates, including dictionaries, grammar manuals, and texts, through the Language Heroes library (which has resources on 60 languages).

Two articles on the first steps would be interesting for those who learn through the English medium. They discuss some Estonian grammar features, such as two possible cases for the direct object, considered ‘odd’.

Frankly, I do not like grammar explanations given in most English-language resources, as they tend to over-complicate. Yes, Estonian has 14 cases (sort of), but only the first three really matter and form the basis for the remaining eleven, which are logical and regular. Learning them is not more difficult than to learn “on the table” but “in the cupboard” in English, just instead of prepositions, Estonian uses case endings.

An online course Keeleklikk, which exists in English and in Russian both for the beginners and intermediates, has been sponsored by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science and the European Social Fund. It is said that over 50 thousand learners have followed the course.

I like the course a lot. The sort videos are hilarious, new grammar is introduced through funny model sentences, which are drilled until you recall them, there are many exercises and tests, you can practice speaking with a computer, which is called Samuel and has a deadpan humour, and you can write letters to a real Estonian e-teacher, who corrects them and replies to you within a couple of days. All this is entirely for free!

Among the things I dislike: grammar is explained in a haphazard sequence, and is unnecessarily over-simplified. For example, the three main cases – nimetav (from nimi, ‘name’), omastav (from oma, ‘own’), and osastav (from osa, ‘part’), are referred to as 1st, 2nd, an 3rd form, which does not help understanding their function and usage.

I used an old, the 1980s, grammar book to supplement the course and to inject some logic into my grammar learning.

But my favourite ever explanation of Estonian grammar comes from a radio series Как это по-эстонски? (‘How you say in Estonian?’). It consists of two series of short episodes, some 70 in total, each dedicated to some language feature: e.g. past tenses (in Estonian, there are three), comparisons, conditionals, case formation, use of cases… Here are the complete archives of the first and the second series.

I have become an absolute fan of the radio teacher, Jelena Tammjärv (Еленa Таммъярв), who is brilliant. A native Russian speaker, she has learned Estonian and now seeks to transmit to her pupils not only her knowledge, but also her enthusiasm and fondness for the language.

And yes, her explanation of the use of omastav and osastav for the direct object is so crystal clear and logical, I really pity those who are lead to believe this usage is something odd.

Everything in the garden is lovely

up the garden path

I spent the summer and early autumn in the countryside, where I decided to learn English idioms related to gardens, trees, plans, flowers, fences, and such. (All in a vain attempt to improve my English, stuck on a plateau for the last 15 years.)

The one expression I did not know before is ‘to lead somebody up the garden path’, meaning to deceive on purpose. This expression will surely come handy when I have to deal with a particularly manipulative business partner.

The next expression is ‘to rest on one’s laurels’, which has equivalents in many European languages.

In general, I have a quick rule of thumb: if the same expression exists in the three languages that come to my mind most quickly (English, French, and Russian), it implies a common origin — Classical, Biblical, or literary. Here, the origin is Classical: ‘s’endormir sur ses lauriers’ or ‘se reposer sur ses lauriers’ in French, ‘почивать на лаврах’ in Russian, point out to Ancient Greece and its tradition to crown winners with laurel wreaths.

Several expressions are Shakespearean: ‘to gild the lily’, ‘a rose by any other name / would smell as sweet’, and, the most mysterious, ‘primrose path’, which usually leads to ruin, destruction, or similar unwanted outcome.

But the one I found most congenial is ‘everything in the garden is lovely’, which often implies the loveliness only on surface, perhaps even a lull before the storm.

In Russian, an expression with a similar connotation is Всё хорошо, прекрасная маркиза!, which in turns is a translation from a French 1930s song Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise!