The Hovercraft and the Eels.

It’s kind of amazing that in over fifteen years of blogging about language I have never had a post about one of the most famous examples of linguistic humor (though commenters have mentioned it frequently), so herewith (via Anatoly, who focuses on Slavic versions) Omniglot’s My hovercraft is full of eels in many languages. If you’re not familiar with the Monty Python sketch where it originated, there are links to a video and a transcript; the introduction says:

It’s possibly the most useful phrase there is, and a handy one to have when you’re asked to say something in a language you’re learning.

Click on any of the phrases that are links to hear them spoken. If you can provide recordings, corrections or additional translations, please contact me.

There follows a long, long list, from Afrikaans (“My skeertuig is vol palings”) to Zulu (“Umkhumbi wami ugcwele ngenyoka zemanzini”) as well as auxiliary and constructed languages; there are Albanian versions in both Gheg and Tosk, and Amharic versions with ‘fish’ and ‘snakes,’ with the sad and surprising explanation “(there is no word for eels in Amharic).” And it ends with “some new idioms I came up with based on this phrase,” from “a few eels short of a hovercraft = somewhat stupid / crazy” to “I could eat a hovercraft full of eels = I could eat a horse.” Enjoy!


  1. ə de vivre says

    Some trickster has used the verb sug₄, “to be empty” in the Sumerian translation. I’d go with “ma₂ niŋ₂ dal-ŋu₁₀ si-a gu₂-bi₂{ku₆}-ka-am₃”, but I’d have to check the dictionary’s citations to see how the “X is filled with Y” relationship is most idiomatically expressed.

  2. Bathrobe says

    The Japanese pronunciation (which can be heard if you click on the Japanese translation) is absolutely appalling. Almost incomprehensible. It is certainly not by a native speaker.

    The Chinese Mandarin and Chinese Taiwanese versions are very similar. The only difference is in the interpretation of ‘full of’. The Mandarin means ‘packed/loaded full of eels’. The Taiwanese means ‘full of eels’.

  3. The Japanese pronunciation (which can be heard if you click on the Japanese translation) is absolutely appalling. Almost incomprehensible. It is certainly not by a native speaker.

    That’s unfortunate; you should notify Omniglot.

  4. Some trickster has used the verb sug₄, “to be empty” in the Sumerian translation.

    You too should notify Omniglot! What if some hapless visitor to Sumer is misled?

  5. ə de vivre says

    Maybe it was Enki himself, risen up from the Abzu to steal the me of hovercraft-full eels! (I want to wait until I have time to check my grammar before I make the correction. I’d hate to for one of my edits to introduce a new error ????)

  6. I just can’t imagine the kind of perverted mind that would deliberately introduce such an error into this valuable resource.

  7. ə de vivre says

    Or maybe it’s a more philosophical statement: The Great Hovering Vehicle is innately empty of all eels. The fact of its emptiness of eels is in fact the true nature of Hovercraft-mātra.

  8. ktschwarz says

    There must be many linguists who could give an hour-long lecture introducing concepts of linguistics through Monty Python. For example:

    Explain nominal tense using the “ex-parrot”.
    Discuss the principle of compositionality in semantics using the “funniest joke in the world”, which can be translated safely only by using a separate translator for each word: anyone who learns two words has to be hospitalized.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    M hɔvakaraf pɛ’ɛl nɛ zalimis.

    “Zalimis” are actually electric eels. But why not (apart from the fact that I don’t know any other Kusaal word for “eel”)?

  10. Marja Erwin says

    uh… how do you pronounce “hxVnghel”?

  11. there is no word for eels in Amharic

    Because So long, and thanks for all the fish?

  12. The Russian version is sheer poetry, with its internal rhymes and interlocking alliteration, and it could almost be a dactylic hexameter:

    Moyó súdno na vozdúshnoy podúshke pólno ugréy.

    The software wouldn’t allow me to post this in Cyrillic characters.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Y: Indeed, the lack of a word for a species usually means that the species is not found in the relevant location.

  14. “there is no word for eels in Amharic”

    Why not ‘asa-‘əbab — “fish-snake”?

    yäne manžabäbia mäkina bä’asa-‘əbaboch tämoltwal.

    (Or something like that.)

    If I’m not mistaken (and I probably am), bä- is a preposition, something close to “in”, and -och is the plural morpheme.

    Google translate gives daba for “eel”, but it doesn’t work in the other direction.

  15. SFReader says

    ‘fish-snake’ is also the literal translation for eel in the Mongolian version.

  16. m.-l., of course, but it could also be a specious “language X has no words for Y” claim.

  17. The Russian version is sheer poetry,

    Yes, but a clumsy translation. Normally you would abbreviate the awkward “sudno na vozdushnoy podushke” to “SVP” (ess-vay-pay) when speaking unless you were talking to someone who had never heard of hovercrafts.

  18. The only difference is in the interpretation of ‘full of’. The Mandarin means ‘packed/loaded full of eels’. The Taiwanese means ‘full of eels’.

    I’m not quite seeing the distinction here.

  19. Presumably a distinction comparable to that in English — not in the “meaning” of the phrase but in the way it’s expressed.

  20. The Irish pronunciation is good except that m’árthach “my craft” has become máthrach “bedrock”.

  21. Trond Engen says

    A few eels short of a hovercraft is brilliant. I wish I’d come up with it myself, but I’d rather use it about semantic gaps in languages. “Amharic is a few eels short of a hovercraft.”

  22. Trond Engen says

    Speaking of which, there’s no Pirahã translation.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s not possible to run a hovercraft without recursion.

  24. Bathrobe says

    For 装满, see 装满

    For 充满, see 充满

    Note the difference in nuance between ‘loading/packing full of something’ and ‘being full of something’. The result is to be full of eels, but one places greater emphasis on the fact that the hovercraft has been loaded full of eels, the other on the fact that the hovercraft is full of eels. Just a nuance.

  25. I’d guess Pirahã has a word for eel, though.

    Relevant SpecGram article.

  26. David Marjanović says

    Relevant SpecGram article.

    Day saved.

  27. Ah, so Taiwanese (reflecting its basis in a democratic nation) allows for the possibility that the eels might have got into the hovercraft of their own free will, while Mandarin, the language of an autocratic state, assumes that if there are eels in the hovercraft it must be because some higher authority put them there. Deeply significant.

  28. ‘fish-snake’ is also the literal translation for eel in the Mongolian version.

    And it is in Kazakh (жыланбалық)(Kazakhstan is not exactly a country abounding in eels) and Tatar (еланбалык).

    I wonder if 僕のホバークラフトは鱧・穴子に満ち溢れています (boku no hobākurafuto wa hamo/anago ni michiafurete imasu) would convey the same idea.

  29. Bathrobe says

    It’s a bit of a game coming up with translations for sentences like this. 僕のホバークラフトは鱧・穴子に満ち溢れています would be fine, although it would carry the nuance of ‘overflowing with eels’. It doubles up by using the two familiar Japanese words for types of eel instead of just one word like the English. And it identifies the speaker as male.

    The same goes for the Chinese, as I pointed out (充满 and 装满). The difference in nuance can be reflected in English as ‘my hovercraft is full of eels’ and ‘my hovercraft is packed full of eels’, which would be used by plenty of English speakers without regard for how the eels got there. Chinese also has two familiar words for types of eel (鳗鱼 and 鳝鱼), as seen in the translations.

  30. The Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, Uyghur, Uzbek, and Zazaki words for “eel” here also mean literally “snake-fish.”

    A number of languages seem to have “eel” as a loanword from English; if that’s the case in the Somali (“Huufarkarafkayga waxaa ka buuxa eels”), even the plural ‘s’ seems to have been preserved in the loan.

    The Gujarati word used is “eel machhali” (“eel-fish”).

  31. marie-lucie says

    The French word is une anguille, a borrowing from Latin anguilla ‘little snake’ (anguis).

    The sentence: Mon aéroglisseur est … plein / rempli / chargé … d’anguilles

    plein: ‘full’
    rempli: ‘filled’
    chargé: ‘loaded’

  32. m-l, Fishbase gives some more French names:

    Anguille argentée
    Anguille d’Europe
    Anguille européenne
    Anguille jaune
    De la riviere

    More common names for “common eel”

  33. marie-lucie says

    Thanks Juha.

    Those “common names” in French and Italian (at least) all say “vernacular” (in the second, much longer and more international list) but they mix “scientific” words (like “leptocéphale”) with standard names (“anguille”) and names from a large variety of dialects and regional languages, probably unknown outside of the relevant regions. No French person setting out to fish eels is going to say they are going for “des anguilles européennes”, for instance: what other kind is there in Europe? And the word “anguilla” given for French in the longer list is not French, but either Latin (perhaps listed here because used in “scientific” contexts) or Spanish.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    By chance, I learn of a town in what was formerly East Prussia that has multiple names in multiple languages, as is common in that part of the world, but with the twist that they are all based on some relevant local word for eel. Under current Polish sovereignty it’s Węgorzewo, but it’s Angerburg in German (“Anger” not being the standard German word for “eel” but the Old Prussian word the Teutonic Order picked up back when they were first constructing a Burg on the site) and Ungura in Lithuanian.

  35. Angerjas and ankerias, the Estonian and Finnish, respectively, for ‘eel,’ are believed to have been borrowed from the Baltic (Lith. ungurys, Pr. angurgis):

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