Language Monthly, June 2020, Spanish

puerto de barcelona

Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.

For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.

Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.

So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.

Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.

I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.

Another favourite media is XLSemanal, which publishes balanced articles on important societal topics, interesting interviews, and a series of columns, firmas, of which my favourites are Pequeñas infamias and Mi hermosa lavandería.

Talking about poetry, Desamor by Rosario Castellanos, a Mexican author and diplomat, brought by Zenda, struck me.

Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.

Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.

Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.

I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!

Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.

El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.

In praise of language maintenance

no day without a word

How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.

Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.

For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.

With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.

I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.

The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.

Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.

Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.

The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.

For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.

Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.

For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.

To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.

Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.

For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.

I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.

I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.

At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.

A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.

If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue.  No day without a line, no day without a word.

With flying colours

out of the blue

To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?

It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.

Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.

There are plenty of resources on the English colour idioms. I like this list of 90 colour idioms, this blog post from Cambridge English Dictionary, which is my go-to online dictionary, and this post, complete with a colour quiz and a hilarious colour song, which I immediately learned by heart:

I saw red coz she’d left me in the dark
She’d left me in the dark that we were in the red

Not to sail under false colours, I choose to learn only those expressions which I would naturally use, starting with those which I sort of know yet where I always make mistakes.

Each morning, bright and early, I have been revising and recalling my colour idioms.

The difference between revise and recall has been well explained by Gabriel Wyner in his book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It:

When you study by reading through a list multiple times, you’re practicing reading, not recall. If you want to get better at recalling something, you should practice recalling it.

I find both exercises, revising and recalling, useful.

To revise, I indeed read through my list and either say the idioms out loud, write them several times, or invent a story with them, the more colourful, extravagant, and absurd the better.

To recall, I stare at a blank page before me, or lie down at night in a pitch black room, and try to remember idioms in groups by colour.

Once I am done with colours, I will move to English idioms involving animals, food, and weather, until I pass the idiom test with flying colours.

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait

if youth but knew

Last February, I went to a small Spanish town of Girona, to share with PhD students my own experiences doing a PhD in the early 2000s.

The town was full of young people, local students and visitors alike.

Perhaps because of this youthful crowd, or of nostalgia of my distant student years, or perhaps of my looming birthday, I could not stop thinking of a Russian saying, Если бы молодость знала, если бы старость могла (“if youth only knew, if age only could”).

Wait, suddenly said my inner linguist, but where does this saying come from?

It turns out, it is a translation of a French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, which was attested in the 16th century.

The source is Henri Estienne (1528 or 1531 – 1598), also known as Henricus Stephanus, a 16th-century French printer, humanist, philologist, and Classical scholar. His most celebrated work is the five-volume Thesaurus graecae linguae, or Greek thesaurus, published in 1572 and still in use today.

In 1594, he published a collection of epigrams related to proverbs and other sayings, called Les prémices, ou le premier livre des proverbes épigrammatisés, ou des épigrammes proverbiales rangées en lieux communs. Epigramme Nr 191 refers precisely to the French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.

An accomplished philologist, Etienne not only explains the meaning and the usage of the French saying, but analyses its equivalents in Ancient Greek, where a similar saying existed: exploits to the young, advice to the old:

quelques autres languages ont des proverbes correspondants à celui-ci: & notamment le grec: disant,

νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλαὶ (ou βουλὰς) δὲ γεραιτέροισιν.

C’est à dire, aux jeunes les exploits, aux vieux les conseils.
Ils ont encore une autre semblable à cestui-ci.
Mais il me souvient aussi d’un tiers, auquel il est fait mention de ceux qui sont entre deux âges. & quant aux vieillards, il ne fait mention que de leurs souhaits. Car il dit aussi:

ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων

C’est à dire, les exploits des jeunes, les conseils de ceux qui sont de moyen âge, les souhaits des vieillards. Mais il est certain que de ce proverbe n’est pas authentique comme l’autre.

Now, what is the source of the Greek saying? It turns out, Estienne quotes Souda, or Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, a compilation of  30000 entries, many of them using Ancient sources that have since been lost. A lexicographer himself, Etienne must have known and consulted the Suda lexicon.

In fact, the proverb figures in one of the Suda’ entries: Νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλὰς δὲ γεραιτέροισιν (young men should act (but) their elders advise). An English translation explains:

A truncated version (also in Appendix Proverbiorum 4.6) of an axiom attributed by Hyperides (fr. 57 Jensen) to Hesiod: ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων , “Young men’s acts, the middle-aged’s advice, old men’s prayers”.

Here you are. From Russian, to French, to Ancient Greek, with probably some steps lost in between: for example, how a quotation from a learned work in French became so popular in Russian?

Curiously, on English, there is an expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’, but its meaning is different, and I don’t like it. The only English phrase about age I use frequently is ‘old age is not for sissies’, which is the title of a funny book my friends gave me for my 30th birthday.


che diffondi la luce blu

To protect against infection, washing hands is a critical gesture, and to do so properly, the washing should take as long as singing Happy Birthday twice.

I don’t like the Happy Birthday song at all.

That’s why I decided that every week I would choose one song among those I do like but have never looked up the lyrics, and would learn them by heart, to accompany my hand washing routine.

The first song is in Italian, chosen in honour of our Italian friends, although its name is French, abat-jour, from abbattre (to through down) and jour (daylight).

It is a song from the 1960s. In a film Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), it accompanies the famous sensual scene with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. 

Abat-jour che soffondi la luce blu
di lassù tu sospiri chissà perchè
Abat-jour mentre spandi la luce blu
anche tu cerchi forse chi non c’è più

In some versions of the song, the verb soffondi (you suffuse) is replaced by diffondi (you diffuse). The two verbs are related, but different: soffondere means to suffuse, to spread in a manner of light or fluid, and derives from Latin suffundere, with the etymology of spreading upon (‘sub’ ). A more common diffondere, from diffundere, means to diffuse, to spread around, away (‘dis’).

You can watch the famous spogliarello scene here.

Kaheksa, üheksa

üks, kaks …

These are not incantations, but words ‘eight’ and ‘nine’ in Estonian, a language I am learning.

While learning numbers, I had a huge difficulty remembering the words for ‘eight’ and ‘nine’: which was which?

Then it dawned on me that inside kaheksa hides kaks, ‘two’, in its form kahe, and inside üheksa hides üks, ‘one’, in its form ühe. Clearly, kaheksa (8), was constructed as ‘2 (kahe) out of 10′, and üheksa (9) as ‘1 (ühe) out of 10′.

But ‘ten’ in Estonian is kümme, where does this mysterious -ksa come from?

It took me some time and effort to find reliable sources of information, given that my Estonian is basic and I have only faded memories of Hungarian, another Finno-Ugric language on my list.

Estonian etymological dictionary gives etymology for kaheksa and üheksa, and proposes two explanations: -ksa derives from *detsa, a proto-Iranian (hence Indoeuropean) word for ten (compare word for ‘ten’ in other Indo-European languages). Alternatively, –ksa is interpreted as an old negation form.

Curiously, it is believed that seitse ‘seven’ might be a loanword from Baltic or Slavic languages, which are of the Indo-European family (compare Russian семь, Czech sedm, and Latvian septiņi), whereas numbers one to six are of of Finno-Ugric  or Uralic origin.

This heterogeneity of construction and origins of the first ten numbers is sometimes interpreted to suggest a base-6 system among ancestors of Finno-Ugric people — apparently, a heated linguistic debate.

When in Rome

the Colosseum was not built in a day

Last week, I spent several days in Rome, hence this post. It recalls three common English expressions about Rome and their equivalents in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

The first expression is All roads lead to Rome.

Its Italian version is Tutte le strade portano a Roma.
French, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome.
Spanish, Todos los caminos llevan a Roma.
German, Alle Wege führen nach Rom.
Russian, Все дороги ведут в Рим.

100% correspondence.

The second expression is When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In French, the expression is equivalent, À Rome, fais comme les Romains.

Other languages express the same idea differently. The Italians say, Paese che vai, usanza che trovi. The Spanish, Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres. The Germans, Andere Länder, andere Sitten.

And the Russians in similar context use a a picturesque expression В чужой монастырь со своим уставом не ходят (‘one doesn’t go to the foreign monastery with own statute’).

The third expression is Rome wasn’t built in a day. In Italian, it is Roma non è stata costruita in un giorno. In German, Rom wurde nicht an einem Tag erbaut.

In Spanish, two versions coexist: Roma no se hizo en un día, and No se ganó Zamora en una hora, which refers to a long siege of a town of Zamora in the 11th century.

In French the usage is similar, two versions coexist: Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour and Paris ne s’est pas fait en un jour, the second version referring, bien évidemment, to the French capital.

Finally, in Russian, the similar expression Москва не сразу строилась features only Moscow, which also was not built in a day.

Fish memories

memorable fishes

Continuing the fish theme from the last post, in some languages – English, French, Italian, and Spanish, to my knowledge – fish is attributed with short memory.

So, today’s list contains memory-related expressions in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

It looks like some expressions, such as ‘memory of a goldfish’, ‘memory like a sieve’, ‘memory like an elephant’, ‘in one ear and out the other’, ‘refresh the memory’,  exist in multiple languages, whereas others, such as tener memoria de grillo (have a memory like a cricket ) or девичья память (memory of a young girl), unique to one language.


have a perfect memory

have a memory like an elephant

an elephant never forgets

to have a short memory

memory like a sieve

memory (or attention span) of a goldfish

in one ear and out the other

refresh the memory

jog someone’s memory

trip down memory lane

if my memory serves me right

mind/ memory goes blank

memory gaps / lapses

More English expressions about memory are here.



avoir une mémoire d’éléphant

avoir une mémoire de poisson rouge

avoir la tête comme une passoire (head like a sieve)

avoir la mémoire courte

rafraîchir la mémoire à (de) quelqu’un

faire la sourde oreille

entrer par une oreille et sortir par l’autre (in one ear and out the other)

en souvenir de

trou de mémoire

si ma mémoire est bonne / sauf erreur



smemorato (forgetful)

avere una memoria da elefante

avere la memoria di un pesce rosso

rinfrescare la memoria

ti entra da un orecchio e ti esca dall’altro (in one ear and out the other)

ci entrino da un orecchio per uscire dall’altro

fare un viaggio indietro nella memoria / nel passato

se la memoria non m’inganna

vuoto di memoria

avere la memoria corta

avere la memoria lunga



tener memoria de elefante

tener memoria de gallo/grillo

tener memoria de pez

refrescar la memoria

entrar por un oído y salir por el otro (in one ear and out the other)

si no me falla la memoria

quedarse en blanco



ein Gedächtnis wie ein Elefant haben


ein Gedächtnis wie ein Sieb haben (memory like a sieve)

jemandes Gedächtnis ein wenig auf die Sprünge helfen (to jog someone’s memory)

den Faden verlieren (lose the thread)

sich etwas in Erinnerung rufen

etwas geht zum einen Ohr rein, zum anderen Ohr wieder raus (in one ear and out the other)

zum einen Ohr rein und zum anderen wieder raus



обладать огромной памятью

обладать феноменальной памятью

девичья память

короткая памать

дырявая память

освежить память

в одно ухо влетает, из другого вылетает (in one ear and out the other)

если память не изменяет

вызывать в своей памяти

перебирать в памяти

выпадать из памяти

More Russian expressions about memory are here.


Like a fish in water

happy as a fish in venice

Today’s post is inspired by a recent trip to Venice. A famous book Venezia è un pesce (‘Venice is a fish’) by Tiziano Scarpra compares the city to a fish, and recommends getting lost to fully enjoy it.

I did not manage to read the book before my trip, but I did manage to get lost immediately on arrival. Then, my phone kept shutting down, and a colleague mentioned he almost fell off to the water thanks to his phone recommendations. So, I ignored the phone and the map and walked, feeling, like in a French expression, comme un poisson dans l’eau, and thinking about its equivalents in different languages.

In English, an expression to be like a fish in water can be used, but its opposite, to be like a fish out of water, is more common.

In Italian, you can use both:  sentirsi come un pesce nell’acqua and its opposite come un pesce fuor d’acqua.

The same goes for Spanish: sentirse como pez en el agua and como pez fuera del agua.

In German, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser. You can also be jolly, fit, healthy, etc munter / fit / gesund sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser.  To express the opposite, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch auf dem Trockenen.

Back to French. One also uses an expression heureux comme un poisson dans l’eau, which is similar to the English happy as a clam (at high tide).

Although an expression comme un poisson hors de l’eau exists, it is not that common. One would rather say ne pas être dans son élément or ne pas être dans son assiette.

In Russian, one says быть /  чувствовать себя как рыба в воде, but to express the opposite, one uses an expression быть не в своей тарелке,  ‘not to be in one’s plate’, borrowed from the French ne pas être dans son assiette.

The history of the borrowing is funny. The French assiette, from the verb asseoir, ‘to sit’, used to have several meanings, including ‘position’, for example on a horse, and ‘place’, for example at the table. Somewhere and somehow, the two meanings got confused by translating into Russian.

Blue prince

blue princes

Twenty years ago, my first Spanish teacher, to teach us the subjunctive, used to play this silly song:

Si una lámpara mágica tuviera  / y me diera un príncipe azul
no podría desear jamás / a un hombre mejor que tú.”

(If I had a magic lamp / and it would give me the prince charming
I would never want / a better man than you.)

The method worked. I still remember the lines and know the words for  ‘magic lamp’ and ‘prince charming’, although these are not the words I use daily!

The ideal man, whether you mean it seriously or ironically, is called in English ‘prince charming’;

in French prince charmant

in German Traumprinz (‘dream prince’) and Märchenprinz (‘fairytale prince’)

in Latvian sapņu princis (‘dream prince’)

in Modern Greek πρίγκιπας του παραμυθιού (‘fairytale prince’)

in Czech pohádkový princ (‘fairytale prince’) and princ na bílém koni (‘prince on a white horse’)

in Russian прекрасный принц (‘beautiful prince’) and also принц на белом коне (‘prince on a white horse’). (The appearance of a white horse in two Slavic languages needs to be investigated further.)

A popular Russian songs goes:

Так чего же ты ждёшь? Ты ждёшь чтоб я извинился.
Прямо здесь чтобы я, чтобы я вдруг стал прекрасным принцем.

(So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for me to change?
For me to become a prince charming right here right now.)

But in Spanish the ideal man is  príncipe azul, that is, ‘blue prince’ (as in the song I remember from 20 years ago), and also in Italian, principe azzurro.

Although the colour blue is associated with aristocratic origin, as the expression ‘blue blood’, which exists in many languages, attests, today only in Italian and Spanish (of the languages I know), the prince is blue. Where does this expression come from?

I have searched various sources, but did not find a clearcut answer.

The most comprehensive explanation comes from the Accademia della Crusca, the research academy for Italian language.  An article entitled Da dove arriva il Principe Azzurro? (‘Where does the Blue Prince come from?’) traces the first appearance of the expression, in both Italian and Spanish, to the late 19th – early 20th century, and the existence of an equivalent French expression, prince azure or prince bleu (which is not used today) even earlier, to the mid 19th century.

There is also a German tale, Himmelblau und Lupine (‘Prince Skyblue and Fairy Lupine’), by  Christoph Martin Wieland, a German man of letters of the 18th century, published in his collection Dschinnistan (1786 – 1789).  Can it be that this Prinz Himmelblau, portrayed as the ideal man, is the ancestor of our Spanish and Italian blue princes?