A three-minute video describes (and illustrates) a made-up language that turned out useful for a film; in their summary:

Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki, and Nadsat: there are plenty of invented languages used in movies. But one of them, Interslavic, has the potential to be useful to hundreds of millions of people. The language just made its movie debut in a wartime drama, The Painted Bird, and its creator says it could be used by Slavic speakers from Siberia to Slovenia.

Via Trevor Joyce, who also sent this short and hilarious video, “When Irish People Cant Speak Irish,” which shows that it doesn’t pay to exaggerate your linguistic attainments. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Ha! That was me trying to speak French in Quebec last summer! (The Oirish vid, I mean)

  2. It was also me trying to speak Russian in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1971 (and getting yelled at by my fellow tour-group members for not extracting the needed information quickly enough, when they couldn’t speak a word of Russian, grr).

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Personally, I think it would be much simpler if everybody just agreed to speak Hausa.

  4. Daidai!

  5. January First-of-May says

    Personally, I think it would be much simpler if everybody just agreed to speak Hausa.

    …I’m actually mildly surprised that you said Hausa and not Kusaal.

    (The obvious choice, of course, is Esperanto, though apparently some natural languages are even more regular.)

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Dai(dai) is ainm dom!

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m actually mildly surprised that you said Hausa and not Kusaal.

    But Hausa is so simple! In Nigeria, even little children can speak it.

  8. Ⰿⰻⱄⰾⰻⰿ ⰴⰰ ⰱⰻ Ⰻⱀⱅⰵⱃⱄⰾⰰⰲⰻⱌ ⱅⱃⰵⰱⰰⱁ ⰱⰻⱅⰻ ⱀⰰⱂⰻⱄⰰⱀ ⰳⰾⰰⰳⱁⰾⰻⱌⱁⰿ.

  9. January First-of-May says

    …does Hausa actually have a palatalized glottal stop of all things, and if so, how the triangular heck do they pronounce one?

    I can hardly figure out what to do with a regular glottal stop (at least, when it’s not between two vowels).

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Ⰿⰻⱄⰾⰻⰿ ⰴⰰ ⰱⰻ Ⰻⱀⱅⰵⱃⱄⰾⰰⰲⰻⱌ ⱅⱃⰵⰱⰰⱁ ⰱⰻⱅⰻ ⱀⰰⱂⰻⱄⰰⱀ ⰳⰾⰰⰳⱁⰾⰻⱌⱁⰿ.

    There’s always one. Latin and Cyrillic are just not good enough for some people …

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    does Hausa actually have a palatalized glottal stop

    Of course not. That would be silly. It is a glottalised approximant. Easy. You can glottalise anything if you try.

  12. As one might expect, the fluent speaker’s Irish is little better than the chancer’s, whose errors are not fully expressed in the subtitles. Of course, in a skit that’s forgivable or even intentional.

  13. David Marjanović says

    But Hausa is so simple! In Nigeria, even little children can speak it.

    I can believe that. After all, the child soldiers in the Congo speak French.

    (Seriously. I heard one on TV. As if they weren’t scary enough already.)

    apparently some natural languages are even more regular

    Yeah. What is this nonsense about having unrelated singular and plural forms for personal pronouns? They don’t do that in China.

    I can hardly figure out what to do with a regular glottal stop (at least, when it’s not between two vowels).

    Glottal stops are very widespread as postpausal voice onsets. Once you learn to parse [ʔɪˈʔɪz] not as *|ɪ ɪz| or *|ʔɪ ʔɪz| but as |ɪt ɪz|, you’ve got it made.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m impressed that the font I’m using can do Italic Glagolitic. Glagolitic Italic. Whatever.

  15. I liked how the non-Irish detective asks about ‘speaking Gaelic’ and the Irish one replies ‘speaking Irish’. I only just learned about that here at Hat. Dead subtle, millions will miss that.

  16. I usually start speaking in Interslavic after having a couple of pints with a few Czechs, Poles or Serbs.

  17. SFReader: I’m very curious about the kind of Interslavic people actually speak with each other! What do you do about mobile stress and akanye, for example? Do you speak like, say, a Polish priest, in order for non-Russian speakers to better get where the word boundary is and what the words actually are?

  18. There’s always one.

    It’s really more about whether our resident Slavs can read it. I used an online Glagolitic transliterator, though unfortunately it can’t handle Cyrl, only Latn and Glag. (These are official ISO codes for scripts, not some dubious ad hoc abbrevs I made up.)

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    I usually start speaking in Interslavic after having a couple of pints

    Me, I start glottalising approximants (it clears a space at the bar, anyway.)

  20. David Marjanović says

    I’m impressed that the font I’m using can do Italic Glagolitic.

    I think it’s the WordPress software that just takes everything and slants it if a specified italic version of a glyph is not available. Any glyph, including emoji. We’ve italicized smileys here, including flags – and we’ve bolded them, too.

  21. David Marjanović says

    I’m very curious about the kind of Interslavic people actually speak with each other!

    I’ve only witnessed West Slavs. They just keep speaking their own languages, more slowly; after a few days they understand each other quite well.

  22. Lars (the original one) says

    the WordPress software — the browser and font rendering engine, more like, WordPress just says “Make it italic”. On my machine (Windows 10 default) the slanted Glacolitic is rendered from the Segoe UI Historic font which does not have an italic counterpart, so “font-style: italic” gets fallback-mapped to “font-style: oblique” and implemented as a skew transformation of the outlines before they are filled and anti-aliased. (I’m guessing the details here).

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Testing, testing …

    ???????????? ???? ???????????? ???????? ???????????????????????????? ???????????????? ???? ???????????????????? ???? ???? ???????? ???????? ???? ???????????? ???????????? ???????????????? ???? ???????? ???????????????????? ???????????????????????? ???????? ???? ???????????????????? ???????????????????????????? ???????? ???????????????????? ???? ???????????????? ???????????????? ???????????? ???????????????? ???????????????????? ???? ???? ???? ???????? ???????????????? ???????????? ???????????????????????????????? ???????????? ???????????????? ???????????????? ???????????????? ???????????? ???????????????????????????????????????? ???????????? ???????????????? ???? ????????????


  24. Nope. I see only crossed-out rectangles. Samsung S5 mini (or something like that), Chrome.

  25. January First-of-May says

    I see regular upright rectangles on my Chrome under Windows 7 (incognito mode, as it happens, though I doubt that this matters).

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, naturally I have cuneiform fonts installed …

    The more recent Android incarnations have cuneiform fonts out of the box, presumably in a bid to entice the Babylonian market away from their beloved iPhones.

    I see italic cuneiform. Who wouldn’t want that?

  27. I see slanted cuneiform (Firefox, Windows 10).

  28. I see dead letters.

  29. Well, report them to the Dead Letter Office.

    I too see slanted cuneiform. Unfortunately, Google Translate is no help at all. Google Search, on the other hand, nailed the source and the translation quickly.

    TIL what a physical feat the copying of the Behistun Inscription (Old Persian, Elamite, Akkadian) was. Crossing abysses on planks, scrambling up cliffs using cracks.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Google Search, on the other hand, nailed the source and the translation quickly

    Yes, it is comforting in these degenerate days to know that it is still possible to perform internet searches in Sumerian. The IME leaves much to be desired, however, and the dedicated keyboard does not fit in my living room.

  31. No need to google. I immediately knew it was the Babylonian version of the old tale of the quick fox and the lazy dog.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Found throughout the Old World, and now known to derive from a Buddhist Jātaka story, relating to a previous incarnation of the Enlightened One as a virtuous typesetter. The Babylonian version is thought to be prophetic.

  33. ???? ???????????? ???????????????? ???? ???????? ???????????????????? ????????

    I personally think that’s being a little mean to Ush.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t know about that.

    After all, ???????????????? ???????? ???? ???????????????????? ????????. That’s pretty unspeakable when you get down to it.


    All this reminds me of Portuñol, which Portuguese speakers can speak and Spanish speakers can understand. I expect Galician speakers can also speak it and that it wouldn’t need much modification to be intelligible to Catalan, Provençal and Italian speakers as well.

    (For some reason your server, or maybe my operating system, now insists that I write my name in capital letters and makes it as difficult as possible to use my gmail address.)

  36. Sorry about that; Akismet (if that’s the culprit) seems to be getting crankier and crankier.

  37. Certainly my personal experience is that native speakers of Slavic (and especially those of us who read and post on linguistic blogs) tend to grossly overestimate our abilities in the other Slavic languages, no matter how closely or distantly related. I don’t get the impression that this happens in the other language families nearly as much.

    Growing up speaking Serbo-Croatian, I added Slovenian to my repertoire while resident there as a teenager. It’s certainly the closest one to BCS and should have been a piece of cake – but for a small language it’s incredibly regionalized and so my dutiful school efforts which resulted in As in the subject also meant I was often speaking in an overly stilted register in everyday settings (in my specific case this was due to my ignorance of the German loans that dominate colloquial speech even for basic terms like “to run” or “father”. And that’s after 2 entire years -took me less time to master English.

    So the tempting and kind of self-flattering idea that speaking one Slavic language makes you able to speak or at least understand them all is completely wrong. The three main issues are ones of 1) pronunciation, which causes even identical words to sound different than you’re used to; and 2) semantic drift which means the same word often has radically different meanings (eg. zhivot in BCS (life) vs. RUS (stomach) and 3) borrowings came from completely different languages depending on the political situation (and also changed over time). So BCS is replete with Turkish loans (often so integrated they’re barely recognizable as loanwords), French for furniture, German for mechanical and auto parts, and English for information technology. Some of the others have this, others don’t. It never fails to amuse me that the Russians use a French word for newspaper, but predominantly Slavic words for nuclear technology. Consequently, to us an ordinary Russian newspaper article can appear simultaneously pretentious (using too many foreign words for everyday objects, as if to show off) and colloquial (using Slavic words when actual speakers would just use the English word). Or else the grammar differences make the other language sound replete with errors (as opposed to having different rules ) – eg Russian lack of copula make for caveman-like sentences in BCS and is never not funny to me.

    I suppose it’s trivially true that I can understand more of a text in some random Slavic language than a native English speaker. But the task is exponentially more difficult for spoken language where I can’t even determine the word bounderies. Even so, I found that simply speaking BCS to store clerks in Prague and St. Petersburg tended to be more successful than relying on English, to say nothing of the instant goodwill it generated, in Russia in particular. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a “Slavic culture” anymore, but maybe there are some traces here and there that, if nothing else, make for a dellightful experience.

  38. PlasticPaddy says

    Clearly friends speaking together with local accent and slang in another Slavic language on an unknown topic are hard to understand. But even in your own language this can be true. In cases where you wish to communicate with those people (1) only one speaks at a time; (2) your interlocutor makes an effort to speak slowly and clearly and a bit like a schoolteacher (or relative talking to a child); and (3) the context is clear and rather concrete. I agree that to have deeper discussions you would have to spend time learning their language (and unlearning yours, where speech habits are wrong in their language).

  39. January First-of-May says

    I suppose it’s trivially true that I can understand more of a text in some random Slavic language than a native English speaker. But the task is exponentially more difficult for spoken language where I can’t even determine the word bounderies.

    …or when major sound changes are masked by the somewhat conservative orthography, as in Polish and Ukrainian (and probably elsewhere as well).

    My mother’s impression of Czech (from her visit to Prague) was the same: obvious-ish when written, essentially unintelligible when spoken.
    One common phrase that she remembered was “vyshtup na pzheshtup” – she only understood it after she saw it written down: výstup na přestup, “exit to transfer” (note: I’m not actually sure whether this is correct Czech), and even then it wasn’t immediately obvious (the Russian is выход на переход).

    This didn’t work quite the same way for Bulgarian, however – probably because, from a Russian perspective, the orthography masked many cognates (the common vowel ъ usually corresponded to a similar-sounding vowel in Russian cognates, but this was hard to recognize because the same letter in Russian was very much not a vowel).

  40. Andrej Bjelaković says

    I suppose in BCS that would be “izlaz za pres(j)edanje”, but “istup na prestup” is wonderfully transparent. (Normally istup is either a public address or a blunder/outburst (it’s rarely used I think), and prestup is a misdemeanor).

  41. The worst is the Bulgarian “bulka”.

    Countless Russian soldiers got into trouble for innocently asking for a loaf of bread…

  42. Heh. Bulg. булка (apparently from Turkish) means ‘bride, wife.’

  43. Wiktionary says “From Ottoman Turkish بولا‎ (bola, bula, “wife of one’s paternal uncle; lady, miss”).” and “Unknown, only Ottoman. Attested from the 15th century and deemed obsolete in the 19th.”

    Looked Mongolian to me. And indeed, it is from Mongolian.

    Proto-Mongolian: *büli
    Meaning: cousin, niece (son or daughter of mother’s relative); family
    Written Mongolian: bülü, büli, böle (L 147)
    Khalkha: bül
    Buriat: büle
    Kalmuck: bülǝ, bölǝ
    Comments: KW 55, 66, MGCD 175. Mong. > Turk. bula, Kaz. bölö, Yak. bile etc.

    Damn, I never would have guessed that Bulgarian word for wife comes ultimately from Mongolian (of all languages!)

  44. I wouldn’t either — thanks for that fascinating etymology!

  45. Drill yourself in the relevant sound changes, as David M has done, and these problems will fall over to the left and the right. “You are linguist, no? Listen, and try to understand.” —Roman Jakobsen just before he began a lecture in heavily Russianized Bulgarian for an American audience

  46. Drill yourself in the relevant sound changes, as David M has done, and these problems will fall over to the left and the right.

    Wouldn’t help with булка.

  47. David Marjanović says

    Also doesn’t help if you drown in splits & mergers, as you do a lot between Polish, Czech & Slovak, East and South Slavic.

    I forgot I’ve heard a full bilingual conversation between employees of an international bus station in Prague and FYLOSC-speaking bus drivers. But I’m sure they weren’t doing that the first time, but had had plenty of exposure to each other’s languages, and the topic wasn’t too wide-ranging either (a delay caused by an accident elsewhere, IIRC).

  48. I recently came across a YouTube channel with some very interesting videos involving native speakers of related languages trying to understand each other while only speaking their native language, and one of the videos involved Interslavic.

    To my surprise, I found that I was able to understand almost all of the Slavic subtitles in both videos, despite my only rudimentary knowledge of Slavic languages. Nevertheless, without the Slavic subtitles, I would probably have been completely lost; I can understand written Slavic better than spoken Slavic. I was somewhat amused to find that even though the speakers tried to use only their native languages, English occasionally slipped in, as when the Bulgarian speaker in the Interslavic video said: “Wait, wait. Чакай, чакай, чакай, чакай.”

    Interestingly, although there are a few videos involving Romance languages, the channel so far has no videos involving speakers of Germanic languages. I imagine such a video would have to exclude English, as: (a) English is very different from other Germanic languages, such that an English speaker would have a very difficult time understanding them, and (b) I imagine most speakers of Germanic languages have at least some knowledge of English, particularly the younger demographic that is present in these videos. I imagine these problems could at least partially be solved by including a speaker of Scots rather than English, given its more Germanic vocabulary and very different phonology.

  49. I’m watching it now — lots of fun!

  50. (The first link, that is.)

  51. I learned a couple of etymologically interesting Bulgarian words: голя́м ‘big’ is related to the dialectal Russian word голя́мо ‘a lot’ as well as SCr. го̀лем, Cz. holemý, and Old Polish golemszy; ку́че ‘dog’ is of onomatopoeic origin but has a lot of similar-sounding, possibly related words like dialectal Russian кутёнок ‘puppy’ (oddly, that Vasmer article omits Hungarian kutya ‘dog,’ which one of the guys in the video actually brought up when the Bulgarian word was given).

  52. SFReader says

    Kutenok is likely Turkic. In numerous Turkic languages, the word for puppy is “kuchek” (literally “a little one”).

  53. PlasticPaddy says

    The word in Italian is supposed to derive from slavic, although the link mentions the Hungarian and a Swiss parallel.

  54. John Cowan says

    Interslavic is meant to be something like a national language standard: everyone can read and understand with some effort and practice, but you need to systematically learn to speak and write it (except those lucky/unlucky enough to have the standard or a close relative natively, like me).

    All questions of allophones, stress, and intonation are stuffed under the rug.

  55. John Cowan says

    I did a little experiment to see how much a dumb computer can understand Interslavic. Here’s the same joke in three orthographies and what GT makes of it when told it’s one of various plausible languages.

    Latin orthography:

    Prihodi muž do doktora i govori:
    — Pane doktore, ja imaju problem. Ja myslju, že ne mogu iměti děti.
    — Čemu vy tako myslite?
    — Tomu že moj otec takože ne iměl děti, i moj děd takože ne iměl.
    — Vaš otec i vaš děd ne iměli děti? Izvinite, ale togda odkud vy jeste?
    — Ja? Iz Dněpropetrovska!

    Assuming Czech (GT default) or Slovak:

    Throw a man into the doctor and govori:
    – Doctor, I have a problem. I think not mogu babies children.
    – What do you mean?
    – To my father, so he did not imitate children, and my grandfather, so he did not.
    – Your father and your grandfather didn’t have children? Izvinit, but togda where do you go?
    – Me? Iz Dnipropetrovsk!

    Assuming Croatian or Slovene:

    The husband comes to the doctor and says:
    – Doctor, I have a problem. I don’t think I can have a baby.
    – Why do you think so?
    – My father will not have a child, too, and my father will not.
    – Your father and your grandfather have no children? Excuse me, but where do you eat?
    – Me? From Dněpropetrovsk!

    Assuming Polish:

    Prihodi muž to doctor and govori:
    – Pane doctor, I have a problem. I think that ne mogu iměti děti.
    – What do you think?
    – Tom, that my father also got his neighbors, and my father also his neighbors.
    – Do you have any problems and are you? Izvinite, but togda since you are?
    – I? Iz Dněpropetrovska!

    South Slavic Cyrillic orthography (with Cyrillic ј):

    Приходи муж до доктора и говори:
    — Пане докторе, ја имају проблем. Ја мысљу, же не могу имєти дєти.
    — Чему вы тако мыслите?
    — Тому же мој отец такоже не имєл дєти, и мој дєд такоже не имєл.
    — Ваш отец и ваш дєд не имєли дєти? Извините, але тогда одкуд вы јесте?
    — Ја? Из Днєпропетровска!

    Assuming Serbian (GT default):

    The husband comes to the doctor and says:
    – Doctor, I have a problem. I don’t think I can have a child.
    – Why do you think so?
    – Therefore, my father will not have a child either, and my father will not have one either.
    – Your father and your grandfather have no children? Excuse me, but where do you eat?
    – Me? From Dnepropetrovsk!

    Iotated-letter Cyrillic orthography (with ю and я):

    Приходи муж до доктора и говори:
    — Пане докторе, я имаю проблем. Я мыслю, же не могу имети дети.
    — Чему вы тако мыслите?
    — Тому же мой отец такоже не имел дети, и мой дед такоже не имел.
    — Ваш отец и ваш дед не имели дети? Извините, але тогда одкуд вы есте?
    — Я? Из Днепропетровска!

    Assuming Russian (GT default):

    Come husband to the doctor and say:
    – Pane doctor, I have problems. I think, but the children cannot.
    – What do you think so?
    “In the same way, my father did not have children, nor did my grandfather.”
    – Your father and your grandfather did not have children? Excuse me, Ale then, if you are natural?
    – I AM? From Dnepropetrovsk!

    Assuming Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Bulgarian:

    The husband comes to the doctor and says:
    – Doctor, I have a problem. I think I can’t have children.
    – What do you think?
    – So my father also had no children, and my grandfather also did not.
    – Your father and your grandfather had no children? Excuse me, but then where are you from?
    – I? From Dnepropetrovsk!

    Assuming Macedonian:

    Earn money to a doctor and say:
    – Doctor Pan, she has a problem. Я мыслю, ж не не могу имти дети
    – Why do you think so?
    “That’s why my father didn’t give a damn about my father, and my grandfather didn’t give a damn about me.”
    – Your father and grandfather didn’t give a damn? Excuse me, but then what?
    – And? From Dnepropetrovska!

    So it looks to me like uk/be/bg is essentially perfect, hr/sl/sr are fine except for missing the first instance of ‘grandfather’ and reading ‘come from’ as ‘eat’, ru is mostly fine except for one sentence, pl is complete gibberish, and mk is so bad that one whole sentence is left alone, not even transliterated. Adjusting the writing conventions further to adapt to the various assumed languages would probably help, but there don’t seem to be online “transliterators” from Croatian to Polish.

  56. Trond Engen says

    I’ve listened to a few of the videos. Very fun. Charming participants. Romance works better for me than Slavic. It’s a marvel what some knowledge of sentence structure and words can do for understanding. The one with the French man worked a little better than that with the Catalan woman, not just because I can actually follow French, but because he seemed as ignorant of the languages of the other speakers as they were of his. In the video with the Catalan speaker, she knew Spanish, of course, and also appeared to understand French pretty well. OTOH, that made her able to explore and explain differences in vocabulary.

  57. — Ja? Iz Dněpropetrovska!

    I first read this joke on the Interslavic website several years ago, but I must admit I still don’t understand the punchline.

    Speaking of Slavic mutual intelligibility, here’s an anecdote from Louis Léger’s 1873 book Le monde slave ; voyages et littérature (translation mine):

    La similitude, parfois littérale, des formes et des mots, loin de faciliter l’intelligence des textes, la complique de difficultés d’autant plus redoutables, qu’au premier abord on ne les soupçonne pas. C’est ainsi, pour emprunter un exemple à notre langue, que le mot allemand ross, qui désigne un noble destrier, correspond au français rosse, qui est, comme on sait, la plus grosse injure que l’on puisse adresser à un cheval. Les faits de ce genre amènent, dans les relations entre les Slaves, les quiproquo les plus bizarres. Je me rappelle avoir rencontré un jour, à la frontière de Russie, un Slovaque qui se rendait à Pétersbourg ; persuadé par quelques slavomanes de son pays que tous les Slaves se comprennent entre eux, il entama, avec le douanier moscovite, une conversation dont celui-ci ne comprit pas le moindre mot. Je me trouvais là, heureusement, pour servir d’interprète. Je n’étais point slave de naissance, mais j’avais étudié des grammaires et des vocabulaires, ce que n’avaient fait ni l’un ni l’autre des deux interlocuteurs.

    The similarities between Slavic languages, which often consist of literal correspondences for forms and words, do not increase the intelligibility of written texts; indeed, they lead to difficulties that are much more significant than one might expect. To give an example from our language, the German word ross refers to a noble’s warhorse, corresponds to the French word rosse, which is, as is well known, the lowest insult one could address to a horse. These kinds of linguistic facts can lead to strange interactions between Slavs. I remember how I once met a Slovak at the Russian border who was going to St. Petersburg; convinced by some Panslavist [?] compatriots of his that all Slavs could understand each other, he struck up a conversation with the customs officer at Moscow, who nevertheless couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Fortunately, I was able to interpret for them. I was not a Slav by birth, but I had studied grammars and vocabularies, which neither of the two had done.

  58. Nice quote!

    I must admit I still don’t understand the punchline.

    I don’t think the particular city is important, it’s just that he misunderstands the question (“where are you from?”).

  59. Sorry, that should be “which sometimes consist of literal correspondences” and “a noble warhorse”.

  60. John Cowan says

    “Where do you come from, then?” (since your father and grandfather had no children).

    “Me? From [random city]!”

  61. John Cowan says

    There is now a followup to the Interslavic video, which includes a kind of projective test: listen to a description of a scene and draw a picture of it (and then describe the picture in your own language). Commenters agreed that the Bulgarian was hard to understand: too fast, too slangy, and too dialectal.

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