Have a passionate Pascua with these smooth songs in Spanish

Hi, here in no particular order is a selection of songs in Spanish that I must have liked, because I tagged them on my Shazam app. (There is a similar app called SoundHound, by the way. I haven’t tested them to see which identifies songs better.) If you are having a relaxing time this weekend, make this the soundtrack to your Easter! On this musical journey you will travel through Spain, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia and New York via the Dominican Republic. Feliz Pascua! (That’s Happy Easter in Spanish.)

1. marco antonio solís – donde estará mi primavera

Solís is a popular crooner from Mexico who is well known throughout Latin America. Hearts melt when he sings. Listen to this and find out why

2. Gustavo Cerati - Deja Vu

Cerati is a very talented Argentinian musician and songwriter. Unfortunately he suffered a stroke while performing in 2010 and, as far as I can ascertain, has been in a precarious medical state since. This upbeat pop-rock track shows why he is so greatly admired and badly missed … it’s full of interesting undercurrents and this makes it one of the best Spanish songs I’ve heard in a long time 

3. soda stereo – zoom

Cerati was originally a member of the band Soda Stereo, who came to prominence from the mid-1980s onwards. According to Wikipedia, “Soda Stereo were the first Latin rock group to achieve success throughout South and Central America. They helped popularize Rock en Español, Ibero-American Rock, and Latin Rock genres to a mainstream audience. The band established what would become the template for many other popular Spanish-speaking rock music groups.” This track reminds me a bit of “New York Groove” by Hello, one of my favourite songs from the Seventies!

4. Duncan Dhu - En Algun Lugar 

Duncan Dhu were another band that won acclaim from the 1980s, but from Spain (their name is taken from a character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped). This is one of their biggest hits. 

5. Romeo Santos - Propuesta Indecente

Santos was born in the US but he is of Dominican descent, and his music style reflects this. This might be an “indecent proposal” but it’s very lush and delivered in an angelic voice.

6. aventura – por un segundo

Santos was the lead singer of Aventura, a New York band has recorded in both Spanish and English, specialising in an Afro-American type of music called bachata that originated in the Dominican Republic. See what you make of these two songs

7. aventura – el malo

Okay, enough old-fashioned soppy stuff! Time to put some kick into the music. Get up and shake your booty!

8. farruko feat daddy – hoy

Farruko is a Puerto Rican ‘reggaeton’ singer…

9. maximus wel feat j alvarez y maluma — se acaba el tiempo remix

There are a number of remixes of this song, some of them too frantic. This one gets it just right. The original is good too, you can listen to it here. The only biography I could find of Maximus Wel was this one in Spanish. He is Puerto Rican too.

10. Wolfine – amor de mentira/mia

Wolfine is a hip-hop singer from Medellín in Colombia who seems to be making a name for himself. I listened to three or four of his songs in order to pick the best one, but they all sound pretty much the same! Or rather, use the same thumping rhythm. Still, they could be fun to listen to when you are out and about and drunk maybe. Amor de Mentira seems to be his most popular track, but the video to Mia is more interesting and features a lovely looking wolf.

11. gotay el autentiko – nunca se quita

Gotay ‘El Autentiko’ is another New Yorker whose parents hailed from Puerto Rico. This is dreamy and lush

12. Systema Solar – Mi kolombia

This is a crazy, fascinating mish-mash of sounds but the ultimate result is hypnotic and mesmerising. If Rolf Harris had been born 40 years later in Colombia (but still had his wobble board) and got completely stoned with his DJ and percussionist friends, this is probably what one of their sing-songs would sound like! Systema Solar is “a collective of some of Colombia’s finest DJs, MCs, producers and percussionists”, according to this website. Good on them for daring to be different.




Happy Easter, have you got enough dough?

Originally posted on My Five Romances:

Hello, it’s Easter and all around the world a lot of baking and cooking has been done in preparation. Even Bernardo has been busy in the kitchen, dunking tea bags in hot water. Those cultures that celebrate Easter probably have their own peculiar ways of doing it. In the Portuguese-speaking countries you will probably be offered massa sovada (which translates as kneaded dough , massa being the word for dough ). It is a sweetbread. Like many Portuguese cakes and pastries, it has heaps of sugar and lots of egg in it. Some flour too, I would guess. If you want to know more just Google massa sovada and some recipes will pop up. A good Portuguese cook that I know ( que se chama Maria ) adds a nice touch – she boils eggs in water and cochineal (which, as I have just discovered by looking up that word…

View original 174 more words

Language learning can click easily into place

A good way to make progress in another language is to set up your internet browser and computer software so that whatever language you are learning is the default one. For example, I have had Windows 8 (which in some respects I don’t particularly like) for about a year and Portuguese is the default; so the weather, news, travel and other ’tiles’ on the start screen all talk to me in Portuguese. (I don’t know how I did this, it happened semi-accidentally when I was familiarising myself with Windows 8 and experimenting with the settings) but if I can do it, it must be relatively easy. :D )

More important, though, is the use of your internet browser. Set it so that a useful website page in your language of study is the home page. Mine is the BBC Brasil world news page. Here is a screen grab from a section of it today.

BBC Port

Here you can read the headlines and a sentence or two about the major news  - the death of Nobel Prize-winning author García Márquez, the strikes and other problems in Brazil, the latest tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and the South Korean ferry tragedy. And if there are any words you don’t understand, you can always call up the BBC’s English version of the story. Let me tell you, the BBC’s translators are much better than Google’s!

BBC World

If the English version of the story you want is not on the BBC world news ‘Home’ or ‘World’ page, you may find it on the regional pages.

BBC Latin

(Márquez’s death was prominent on the BBC’s home page in English, but for space reasons it was more convenient to snip it alongside the Brazil story).

why stop at one language?

The BBC also has pages in many other languages, but it doesn’t really have an European language focus. The Spanish and Portuguese pages are aimed at Latin American communities, and its French service at the French-speaking countries in Africa. Here are the links to the Romance languages. Unfortunately it does not have Italian and Romanian. You can also set up your internet browser so it calls up a suite of pages when you first open it. You could, for example, have the Portuguese, Spanish and French and English pages as your home pages. Here are the links:

If your language is not available from the BBC, you can look at other reliable news media websites in your language of study. News outlets in Italy and Romania, for example, would have covered the ferry disaster story using a news wire service translation, and usually you can find the English and other language versions of that wire story somewhere.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly your comprehension of another language will improve if you spend just a few minutes a day reading the news headlines. Plus you are supporting journalists around the world, which is very important!

In forthcoming posts, I shall highlight good news and language sites in all my five Romances languages. If you have any that you recommend, please let me know. Cheers


And the most frequent palavas em português are…

It makes for great bedtime reading! Bernardo's Frequency Dictionary of Portuguese, propped up artistically on  his bedside table.

All findings are taken from A Frequency Dictionary of Portuguese (Routledge).

The 10 most used words in Portuguese are easy to learn. None of them is more than four letters long!

  1. o (the)
  2. de (of, from)
  3. em (in, on)
  4. e (and)
  5. que (that, than, what)
  6. ser (to be)
  7. um (a, one)
  8. por (by, through, for)
  9. para (to, in order to, for)
  10. a (to, at)

To give you some idea of what sort of words you will learn as you progress through the dictionary…

  • The 1000th ranked word is acrescentar (to add to)
  • The 2000th ranked word is sujeitar (to subject to)
  • The 3000th ranked word is polémico (controversial)
  • The 4000th ranked word is equilibrar (to balance)
  • The 5000th ranked word is sul-Americano (South American)

The most frequently used verbs are

  1. ser (to be) – overall ranking in the list: 6th
  2. ter (to have) – overall ranking in the list: 13th
  3. estar (to be) – overall ranking in the list: 18th
  4. fazer (to do, make) – overall ranking in the list: 21st
  5. poder (can, be able to) – overall ranking in the list: 22nd
  6. haver (“there is”, to have) – overall ranking in the list: 29th
  7. ir (to go) – overall ranking in the list: 30th
  8. dizer (to tell, say) – overall ranking in the list: 34th
  9. dar (to give) – overall ranking in the list: 36th
  10. ver (to see) – overall ranking in the list: 40th

Unfortunately for the learner, most of these verbs are irregular.

More fun with frequencies to come later….


Are you on the right frequency?

It makes for great bedtime reading! Bernardo's Frequency Dictionary of Portuguese, propped up artistically on  his bedside table.

It makes for great bedtime reading! Bernardo’s Frequency Dictionary of Portuguese, propped up artistically on his bedside table. (Ornament courtesy of The Mystic Earth shop in Gosford). Bernardo’s porn collection is hidden underneath in the top drawer, haha.

One book that I have found very helpful in my language learning is A Frequency Dictionary of Portuguese, published by Routledge. Of the other Romance languages, Routledge has also done frequency dictionaries in French and Spanish. They seem quite hard to find in bookstores, at least here in Australia anyway. Going by the list Routledge has provided on this web page, only 12 books have been done in the series, and I am a bit surprised that Italian has not been tackled (Italy is a popular tourist destination and there is a big demand for short-term courses in Italian), whereas Czech and Contemporary American English have. But that’s by the by. Most of the books in the series seem to be available in paperback and kindle format from online sellers for about $30 to $40 (probably American dollars), but the hardback editions can be expensive at more than $100. My paperback, I note, cost me $58 (Australian dollars) brand new at a specialist language book centre in Sydney a few years ago. All the dictionaries in the series list the top 5000 most frequently used words in the language, both in writing and in speech, and compiling them must have been painstaking work by the researchers involved.

Why are they so helpful?

Well, it is logical that if you can familiarise yourself with, if not master, the 5000 most frequently used words in a language, you should be able to get by pretty well wherever that language is spoken. In the preface to the whole series, the publisher notes that in English, the 4000 to 5000 most frequent words account for 95 per cent of a written text, and the 1000 most frequent words account for 85 per cent of speech. The figures are not available for other languages, but presumably much the same applies.

The introduction to the Portuguese dictionary, the authors (Mark Davies and Ana Maria Raposo Preto-Bay (!) make what I feel is a valid point based on my own experience of not only trying to teach myself Portuguese, but teaching English to speakers of other languages. Sometimes, when you are studying an text or article, you have to look up words that aren’t particularly common or useful. In my teaching time I have had to explain some obscure words, such as “jiffy”.

Stack of books“Although a typical textbook provides some thematically-related vocabulary in each chapter (foods, illnesses, transportation, clothing, etc.) there is almost never any indication of which of these words the student is most likely to encounter in actual conversation or texts. In fact, sometimes the words are so infrequent in actual texts that the student may never encounter them again in the “real world”, outside of the test for that particular chapter,”  the authors note. They go on to say the situation “can be equally as frustrating for independent learners. These people may pick up a work of fiction or a newspaper and begin to work through the text word for word, as they look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary. Yet there is often the uncomfortable suspicion on the part of such learners that their time could be maximized if they could simply begin with the most common words in Portuguese, and work progressively through the list.”

I agree a lot with what they are saying. Most of the little language books aimed at holiday makers are full of words that in reality one will rarely use, such as “tweezers”.

But let’s not forget that words outside the top 5000 have a role to play. They give us variety and are testimony to human being’s creativity. Plus, there are some great words lurking in there too. My “Quirky Vocabulary” series on this blog often delights in funny and/or unusual words.

Should you invest in a frequency dictionary?

I think the frequency dictionary is a great learning tool, because apart from listing the top 5000 words, it gives a sample sentence for each word and a translation of that sentence, so in the process you are learning a lot more words than the 5000, and you are learning sentence construction. However, I wouldn’t recommend using a frequency dictionary as an introduction to a language, or as your first textbook. It helps if you have some prior knowledge of vocabulary, grammar and verb conjugation before you get stuck into a frequency dictionary, otherwise you won’t really understand what’s going on in the sample sentences. Get past the “beginner” stage of the language first, and then you will enjoy perusing the frequency dictionary. The books are not just one long list – there are sidebars grouping words by subject matter. The most mentioned parts of the body and the most mentioned food terms, for example.

European Portuguese or Brazilian Portuguese? Or both?

portuguese and brazilianHow to rank the top 5000 words in a language is quite complicated. For the Portuguese dictionary, both Brazilian and Portuguese texts were used. The starting point was O Corpus do Português (website link here), which contains 45 million words (!) using texts from the 1300s to the 1900s, but obviously, to reflect modern usage, the 1900s section was the main focus. This then became a 20 million-word corpus, using half from Brazilian sources, half from continental Portuguese. That 20 million is broken down thus

  • Spoken words: 1 million from Brazil and 1 million from Portugal.
  • Fiction: 3 million words from 95 novels and short stories from Brazil, and 3 million words from 175 novels and short stories from Portugal. (I would love to know which novels, and whether Brazilian writers are more wordy than Portuguese ones or vice versa).
  • News: 3 million words from thousands of articles on different topics in seven newspapers in Brazil (from São Paulo, Bahia, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Recife and Santa Catarina) and 3 million words from five newspapers in Portugal (Publico, Expresso, Jornal [Lisbon], Beira and Leira).
  • Academic: 3 million words each from various encyclopedia and academic websites in Brazil and Portugal. (I pity the poor people who had to trawl through so much academic text!)

On top of this, the researchers had to deal with such matters as the differences in spelling between continental Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese (it was published in 2008, before the “Acordo Ortográfico” took effect; Portugal’s six-year adaptation period of the spelling reforms ends this year), how to count nouns and adjectives that have only minor syntactic and semantic differences between them, how to link different forms of a verb back to the base form, how to “disambiguate between the [passive/verbal] and [adjectival/resultative] senses of the past participle” and so on and so on. Who’d want to be a language researcher! The point is, they’ve done all the hard work. Mastering the 5000 words is the easy bit.

So, what are the most common words in Portuguese?

Have a guess. And what do you think the 10 most used verbs are? I’ll save that and whatever surprises I can find for future posts.


I can’t help wondering what the most frequently used words are in Contemporary American English. I’m thinking “yeah, like, whatever” or “bitch”!


Indila’s got them dancing and Faydee’s not fading in the hot 100

If I talk about music it means I haven’t done any language research recently. OK, let’s talk about music :D … Having just been through a Brazilian music phase (I’m still enjoying Capital Incial and Paul Fernandes), it’s time to move on to another language. I have a whole set of songs in Spanish tagged in my Shazam app, but have yet to sort through them; I could do Italian songs, but a blog that I follow, Peeking into Italy, provides Italian monthly hitlists, so if you want to keep up to date with the current Italian music scene, I suggest you head there for now. Which leaves French or Romanian…

IndilaWell, there is a French singer at the top of the latest available Romanian Top 100 airplay charts: Indila has finally made it to No. 1 with Dernière Danse, which My Five Romances featured on the post French chansons from the fairer sex. (That said, the airplay chart, which you can see here, is for the 23/03/2014 – it takes a couple of weeks for the information to be compiled.) Other French artists doing well on the chart are Klingande (who prefers to sing in Swedish) – her big European hit Jubel is up four places to No. 23, and Maître Gims (his Bella is still in the top 40 after 27 weeks on the chart) and Stromae, up 17 places to 57 with Tous Les Mêmes). See the ‘Related links’ at the bottom post if you want to know more about them.

There are a couple of Australians on the chart too: Kylie Minogue and Faydee. You might expect the former to being doing better of the two, but no, her latest single Into The Blue has been vacillating about in the bottom half of the chart, whereas Faydee, who is of Lebanese descent and is not that well known in Australia, has had great success in eastern Europe, Romania in particular, first with Laugh Till You Cry (a No. 1 last year), and his latest, Can’t Say No, which this week is at No.10.

The hot Romanian songs of the moment are…

Smiley‘s Acasa is still doing well at No. 2 (which reminds me, have you done your karaoke challenge yet?) I think this recent release by Soré will do likewise; it’s already on the verge of the top 10. She is a relative newcomer on the music scene and it’s hard to find information about her in English (you get lots of yukky images and descriptions of sores!) but according to this snippet on the Romania Insider website her real name is Sorina Mihalache, she sings in a band called LaLaBand and was “discovered” when she was 17 by the producers from Play & Win, who also work with Inna. She certainly has a powerful voice, and the drums on this track are unusual.

This next song, Zbor Cu Parapanta by Maximilian -feat. Grasu XXL, actually features the typically magnificent scenery of the Romanian mountain ranges, and – shock, horror indignation! - the singers litter them as they make this video! (Hopefully they tidied up afterwards.) The title means “Paragliding” and it’s apparently a deep and meaningful metaphor about life when you have to fly even though you are afraid of heights. Although I don’t particularly care for Maximilian‘s hip-hop/rap-style verses, I find the underlying sounds very interesting and hypnotic, and this has helped the song linger in the top 20 for a while now. If you play this, don’t stop listening at least until after the fat guy (Grasu XXL) sings! His voice is great and the chorus is what makes this song. It goes like this….

Despre una, despre alta – About (or “concerning”)one thing and another
Un fel de zbor cu parapanta – A kind of paragliding
Când eu am rău de înălţime – When I’m afraid of heights
Asta-i despre mine, despre tine, despre oricine, despre nimeni – That’s about me, you, anybody, nobody…

In contrast to all the commercial dance/pop, power ballads and rap/pop numbers that dominate the charts, it’s good to hear some old-fashioned pop/rock with ooomph. Numai la doi is a new release from Vunk, a band with some pedigree in Romania, and it has just broken into the top 30. The title means “Only two”. It features the very popular Andra, who was at No.1 with Atata Timp Cat Ma Iubesti until Indila took over this week.

Lastly, I should mention this song, Sus Pe Toc, by Shift featuring Marius Moga (the latter is an internationally renowned singer and music producer). It is the biggest stayer on the current chart – 43 weeks so far – and was huge last summer,when I was in Romania. It’s a homage to high heels – hence all the leggy models strutting their stuff – it’s layered with interesting sounds, rhythms and echoes, and the chorus is infectious (I’m a sucker for catchy “whoa-oh-o-ah” lines). If anything, this song illustrates how well produced technically much of Romanian contemporary music is. 

Related links


Capital Inicial, playing with feeling

Bernardo pretends to be a civilised chap, but it’s all fake and when no one is looking he likes to turn up the volume, get out the air guitar and do a bit of headbanging. This week he has been headbanging in Brazilian Portuguese. At a Rock in Rio concert. Playing the both the throbbing bass lines and the crunchy guitars in the track Como Se Sente? by Capital Inicial. Got your air guitars ready? Good. Take it away….

The song title means How do you feel? The letras (lyrics) are here. To be honest, I find them a bit cryptic – short clauses or phrases thrown together, as much for their sounds as for their meaning. I won’t try to translate it all but will pick at bits of it…

First verse

Como se sente
De volta ao começo
As falhas, os erros
Tudo tem preço

How do you feel?
Returning to the beginning
The flaws, the errors
Everything has a price


Como se sente
Voltando atrás
Aprenda a lição
Nunca diga nunca mais

How do you feel?
Going backwards (or Climbing down)
Learn the lesson
Never say never

An interesting verse

Sempre presente
O medo de falar
Na frente de todos
O que ninguém quer escutar

Always present
Is the fear of saying
In front of everyone
What no one wants to hear

Related useful vocabulary 1

Apart from “how“, como can also mean “as” or interjections along the lines of what! or why! And como se means “as if” or “as though“. Some examples:

  • Como vai? - how are you?
  • Como segue - as follows,
  • Falando como amigo - speaking as a friend,
  • Diligente como uma abelha - as busy as a bee
  • Como assim? - how so?/why so?
  • Como disse? - what are you saying?/I beg your pardon!
  • Como você está! - What a sight you are!
  • Parece como se - it looks as if

Related useful vocabulary 2

Sentir is a useful verb meaning to feel in a variety of ways (such as to perceive, to have a presentiment, to be moved or affected, to resent, regret, be concerned, be sorry, etc). Note the following:

  • Eu sinto ter que dizer - I am sorry to say
  • Sentir falta de - to miss
  • Vou sentir muito a sua falta – I shall miss you very much
  • Sentir fome – to be hungry
  • Sentir inclinação para – to feel inclined to

But, as in the song title, most of the common “feeling” expressions are used with the reflexive sentir-se. Here are some examples.

  • Sentir-se bem – to feel well
  • Não me sinto bem – I don’t feel well
  • Sentir-se chocado – to be shocked
  • Sentir-se doente – to feel ill
  • Sentir-se feliz – to feel happy
  • Sentir-se só – to feel lonely
  • Sentir-se à vontade com alguém – to feel comfortable with someone
  • Sentir-se à altura de – to feel up to

The related noun is um sentimento – a feeling, sensibility, emotion, sense, perception, sorrow, regretfulness, passion, hunch etc

Capital Inicial have been around for decades and are a big name in Brazilian pop/rock. I have a couple of compilation CDs of theirs. To end this post, here is the popular À Sua Maneira (Your Way/In Your Manner), taken from their 2002 album Rosas e Vinho Tinto (Roses and Red Wine). It’s a fine song.


Introducing Bernardo’s Brilliant Language Learning Plan

information-boards-105195_640In theory, learning a language today should be much easier than it was in the past. Thanks to the internet, we have ready access to the languages of the world. We have websites and apps that translate and conjugate, and kindly souls who give free tutorials on YouTube. Furthermore, thanks to the growth of travel and migration, bookshops nowadays carry a better selection of language guides and aids than ever before. With all these facilities, we should all be really good at three or four languages by now. So why aren’t we? (Polyglots excepted, of course.) Well, one thing that we don’t have more of is more time. Learning a language needs time, hard work and dedication. If anything, all these digital aids are not necessarily aiding us. People in academic circles are starting to argue that the abundance of digital media is hindering our development. We are being subjected to information overload. (The image above is supposed to represent this.)

So, if your language learning is not progressing as well as you would like, maybe it’s time to cut out the digital clutter and go back to basics. And this is where Bernardo’s Brilliant Language Learning Plan™ comes in! The good thing is, It’s cheap and simple, just like Bernardo himself. :D

Here is the plan

  1. Write down neatly on A4 paper the language points (vocab, conjugations, whatever) that you want to learn. Use both sides of the paper to get as much helpful material in as you can, without making it too cluttered. Use colour to highlight any points that you want to stand out.
  2. Get the paper laminated. This is the only expenditure required under Bernardo’s Brilliant Language Learning Plan™, and the money doesn’t even go to Bernardo! It all goes to laminators.
  3. Carry this laminated page with you wherever you go. It’s light, it won’t crumple, it won’t get dirty, you can spill coffee on it, you can even take it with you to the bath and shower. If you commute, take it with you on your way to work. Ten minutes a day perusing it adds up to 50 minutes a five-day working week, or 43 hours a year. If you drive to work, keep it on the passenger seat – at red traffic lights or in traffic jams, you can revise something. The slower the traffic, the more you’ll learn. At work, put it somewhere where you can glance at it every now and then to have a short break from whatever it is you are doing. 
  4. When you have mastered what is on both sides of the laminated sheet, make a new one with the next language points that you want to master.
  5. Keep the old laminated sheets in places where you will come across them regularly. Bernardo’s Portuguese irregular verbs, for example, are next to the kettle in his kitchen, so whenever he makes a tea or coffee, he can rattle off an irregular verb or two while the kettle is boiling. His Romanian numerals are in the biscuit tin so he can eloquently serve himself up to 99 biscuits, if need be (101 seems a bit greedy). His notes on the French dependent Infinitive are in the freezer next to the French Fries, and his Spanish superlatives are in the pantry on top of the Spanish onions. His Italian seasonal greetings are in the drinks cabinet, balanced on all the bottles of Sambuca. Bernardo’s a great greeter!

The beauty of these laminated sheets is that they are easy to carry around and, unlike an electronic device, you don’t have to worry about losing them.

Water polo players don't just juggle balls when Bernardo is around, you know. Pic from pixabay

Water polo players don’t just juggle balls when Bernardo is lurking, you know.   Images from pixabay

Bernardo does a lot of swimming in an outdoor pool and once he gets into a rhythm, his brain becomes unusually sharp. So he takes his laminated sheets to the pool and recites, chants and eventually memorises bits of a foreign language as he powers through the water. On windy days, his laminated sheets get blown away from the side of the big pool into the smaller, deeper pool nearby, where burly water polo players practise. This explains why Australian water polo players are so good at languages. :D










Hirsty work: the shortest history of European languages

History bookI have been reading The Shortest History of Europe, by John Hirst (published by Black Inc). It’s 147 pages long (short?), for those who are thinking of writing a shorter one and snatching the title from him. It’s really a series of lectures he gave at La Trobe University in Melbourne to introduce European history to university students in Australia, who apparently, “had had too much Australian history and knew too little of the civilisation of which they are a part”. But it’s a good refresher for anyone who wants a very general look at how Europe came to be what it is today. The book has had quite a few front covers but mine looks like the one in the picture, from 2009. Since then, I think, it has been reprinted with more dramatic covers, and possibly even updated.

It includes an excellent chapter on languages, which has certainly given me a clearer picture of the overall set-up, whereas often those complicated graphs, charts or family trees that you see in reference books and websites leave you feeling more bewildered than anything else. The chapter starts off by explaining how there were two “universal languages” in the Roman empire, Latin in the west and Greek in the east, and the boundary between the west and east ran through what is now part of Serbia. But even though the Romans got as far west as Britain, there the Celtic language survived. In contrast, in the rest of the west, many of what were the local tribal languages, if you like, gave way to Latin. Not the formal Latin of scholars, but rather the “vulgar” Latin spoken by soldiers, traders and the like. There were, of course, regional variations, and after the Roman empire broke up, these evolved into separate languages, the Romance languages. Hirst says the chief Romance languages are French, Spanish and Italian, but I think the Portuguese and Brazilians would quibble with that.

Romance languagesLatin, Hirst says, was a highly inflected language – that is, “the meaning of a word in a sentence depends on the ending of the word (its inflection)” and word order in Latin “does not matter”. He then explains that people, through ignorance of the grammatical rules, began to use prepositions and did not change the word ending. This, he says, “explains why Romance languages do not inflect their nouns and hence word order is crucial”. (But Romanian, for example, still has some characteristics of Latin that the other Romance languages don’t).

There is also an interesting segment on how Latin did not have a word for “the“, so people used the demonstrative pronoun “that” (ille in the masculine form, illa in the feminine), which were shortened to le and la in French, el and la in Spanish and il and la in Italian. (In Portuguese, o and a are used, but in Romanian, “the” is a suffix attached to the end of the word).

In the fifth century, the Roman empire fell, not so much in a significant battle but more by petering out – it just became too hard to administer from a central point – and German conquerors took over in the west, while in the sixth and seventh centuries, Hirst says, the Slavs settled into much of what was the eastern part of the old Roman empire. However, the Romance languages survived in south-western Europe because Germanic settlement there was not strong enough to change the languages, but it did add Germanic words to the local Romance lexicons. These words were mainly, Hirst says, “those concerned with kings and government and with the feudal system; that is, the terminology of the new ruling class”. Later, of course, France, Spain and Portugal evolved into powers in their own right, and so cemented their languages.

Indo-European-languagesHowever, as the above map shows, Germanic languages are prevalent today in the western-central parts of Europe, in most of Scandinavia and in Ireland and Britain. The history of England and hence English is interesting. Hirst says, “It is in England that the Germanic languages had a complete victory, which is to be expected given the over-running of the Britons by the invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes.” Later, in the ninth and tenth centuries, England was again invaded by Germanic-speaking tribes – Norsemen and Danes. “The basic vocabulary of English emerged with the melding of these Germanic tongues. In the process English lost the inflections of its Germanic origins,” Hirst writes. Then in 1066 England was invaded by the Normans, who spoke a variant of French. “England’s new ruling class continued to speak Norman French for several centuries until this too was melded into English, which resulted in a huge increase in the vocabulary of English. There were now two or more words for almost everything.” (Hirst gives the examples of royal, regal and sovereign being added to king and kingly.) This may explain why English is a challenging and perhaps baffling language for other language speakers to learn! (My comment, not Hirst’s.)

Hirst does point out that the Latin/Romance, Greek, Germanic and Slavonic languages are descended from what has been called the Indo-European language. It has been given that name “because the Indian language Sanskrit and Iranian are also descended from it”. But, Hirst says, linguists are still arguing or debating over where the Indo-Europeans lived. The discovery of the Indo-European language is attributed to William Jones (1746-1794), an English judge living in India, but others also contributed, some of them before Jones did.

But not all European languages belong in this category – some European languages are what Hirst calls “loners” – they are not closely related to any other. Greek and Albanian are among them, even though they are Indo-European. Hungarian and Finnish are not Indo-European, and neither is Basque (no-one quite knows where it comes from”).

Latin_EuropeSo why is Romanian the “surprise” sole surviving Romance language in the former eastern part of the old Roman empire (the lonely black blob on the right in the above map)? Romania today is sandwiched between Slavic-language speaking Ukraine to the north and east (as is Romanian-speaking Moldova) and by Slavic Bulgaria and Serbia to the south and south-west. Hungary, too, is an odd meat in a similar Slavic sandwich. How come the Slavs did not make their linguistic presence felt in this region? Hirst does not go into this much, other than to say, “That country [Romania] lies to the north of the River Danube, which was usually the border of the Roman Empire. The Romans extended their control north of the river in a great bulge for a hundred years but that would not seem a long enough exposure to Latin for it to have become the base for Romanian. This has led to the suggestion that the Romanians lived south of the river, where they had a long exposure to Latin, and later moved north, not a suggestion that the Romanians are happy with.” (A reference, most probably, to territorial disputes with Hungary and arguments over whose ancestors were there first, etc). I think it would need a much longer history of Europe, of the Slavs, of the Dacians, and the Turks, and of Romania in particular, to be able to answer that properly. I’ll get back to you later, okay? Much later, probably!

* John Hirst’s books are available online at the Black Inc website. Here is the link to The Shortest History of Europe, which appears to be available as an e-book too. I bought mine in a second-hand bookstore. :D

* Language maps and illustrations from Wikipedia.

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It’s Rom-karaoke night! You’ve got talent. Make some Smileys

“I want to sing, to dream, and to laugh.”

Who doesn’t? Well, here’s your chance to do all those three things. Bernardo is staging a special Romanian karaoke event, and it’s happening right here, right now. You – yes YOU - are going to sing along to the hot Romanian hit of the moment. OMG! I hear you shriek. No, don’t run away! Don’t flee elsewhere with your cursor. You don’t have to worry – the lead singer is here, you just have to do the backing vocals alongside him, okay? Most probably you – or your audience – will laugh :D and laugh :D at your efforts, then later you can dream about it (or have nightmares, depending on your sensitivities).

First you have to know the tune, which is Acasa by Smiley. As I predicted it would be, it is still currently one of the most played songs on Romanian radio, and many people have posted their cover versions of it on YouTube. I have selected a couple of good piano covers for you. It’s a great song to hum along to once you know the melody, so when you feel ready, hum along. No Romanian is required, yet – this is the easy bit.

First, Cosmin Mihalache, who was a competitor in Romania’s Got Talent television program, has a crack at the song.


Next up is another young Romanian musician, Andrei Nastase. By now your humming should be getting louder and more confident. I want your neighbours to think that you are being attacked by a swarm of bees.

So, now that you know the tune, it is time to think about the words. Next up is the original version with Smiley singing, and I have chosen a YouTube entry with the lyrics flashing on screen so that you can sing along with him. And, to help you understand what it is all about, I have pasted below a “screen grab” of one of three translations of the song from the lyricstranslate.com website. You might need a magnifying glass to read the lyrics, sorry. (You can find the other two translations here.)

So give it a go now and the main thing is to have fun….

acasa lyrics

So, how did you go? In some parts the words come thick and fast, don’t they? I’m sure even Smiley found singing those bits quite a challenge. From a pronunciation point of view, can you spot the differences between aă and â, and between ş (with a squiggle underneath) and s? How about the t and ţ (with a squiggle) and the i and î? No? Go back and play it 57 times!

Take a bow. Give yourself a round of applause. Now I think you deserve to sit back (maybe pour yourself a stiff drink) and let our pianists entertain you for the rest of the night.

I have featured Andrei Nastase on this blog before, covering Antonia’s Jameia and Elena’s Ecou here, and Deepcentral’s beautiful O Stea there. Moving on to French, he has also done a version of Bella, by African-born French singer Maître Gims, about whom I wrote recently here.

Lastly, here is a clip of one of Cosmin Mihalache’s performances on Romania’s Got Talent. There are 45 seconds of introductory waffle from various sources, then he lets rip on a very floral piano.