This is the most fun I’ve had in ages. Nicholas Whyte explains:

This set of pages was inspired by a visit to McDonald’s in May 2004. Along with our son’s Happy Meal, we got a small playstation-type game where you have to help a monkey catch bananas as they fall from the sky. I was amused to note that the instructions came in no fewer than 34 languages, spoken in and around Europe . It occurred to me that even without speaking a word of some of these languages, it is possible to work out what they are from their unique spelling peculiarities, and as we munched away I scribbled down my guesses.

Then I thought, why not see if other people find this an interesting process? So I’ve drawn up this interactive quiz – no scores, just the intellectual challenge at each stage of knowing how many guesses it took you to get the right answer.

In my hubris I thought I’d ace it, but it turned out I have a hard time distinguishing among the Scandinavian languages (despite my half-Norwegian bloodline). So it’s been a learning experience for me, and I hope it will be for you. Avanti! (Via Crooked Timber.)


  1. That’s cool! I got them all except for Croatian (guessed Czech and Slovenian first; if the passage included the d with a line through it, I would have got it), and Macedonian and Bulgarian (guessed Belarusan for both).
    Lucky guess to say Danish at first instead of Norwegian; can anyone point me to any telltale differences between these languages? I like to be able to recognize things.

  2. I mostly go on whether alveolar (or are they dental?) stops between vowels has voice or not, if I have to make a quick guess. I.e. gate (Norwegian)/gade (Danish).

  3. You can see the alphabets at Omniglot: Danish, Norwegian, Swedish. Swedish uses umlauts in place of the ae ligature and slashed o of Danish and Norwegian, but the last two use the same alphabet, so you have to memorize some common words if you want to distinguish them. (Some people say “Norwegian is just Danish spoken with a Swedish accent.”)

  4. I got Swedish and Icelandic and guessed right on Danish and Norwegian. I got all the Baltic and Slavic languages wrong except for Polish and one or two which I got by process of elimination after several wrong previous guesses. Everything looks like Czech to me. I did get Azeri.

  5. Hey, glad you enjoyed it!
    On the difference between Danish and Norwegian, a contributor to a Usenet discussion advises that:
    “The stops /p t k/ were “weakened” (in the Scandinavian tradition we call it “klusilsvækkelsen”) in early Danish to /b d g/ in all other positions than the initial. This is generally reflected in spelling and it is one of the easiest things to spot if you want to tell Danish apart from Norwegian Bokmål, say. Another thing to look out for is that Danish never doubles a final consonant.”
    So I’ll incorporate that into a future revision of the quiz.

  6. Unfortunately I had the status bar open. The next URLs are a bit too much of a clue. I will try again after I turn it off, but it might be wise to try to disguise that a little, or warn people to turn off their status bar.

  7. I got the ‘Wegians, of course, and the Baltics, Estonian and Finnish (based on exposure in situ, hoorah) and I did OK on the Roman Slavonics, and I got Romanian and Catalan, and it was only really my uselessness with Cyrillic that let me down. (And for once I didn’t cheat.)

  8. I got the link from Desbladet. I had similar results – Baltic, Scandinavian all OK, Azeri no problem, but got the Slavonics mixed up (apart from Russian and Serb).

  9. Patrick Hall says

    I too was clobbered by Slavic. Well, at least I could tell that there weren’t any Turkic-in-Cyrillic languages there, but Bulgarian vs. Belarusan? Ai yai yai!
    I must make it a goal to learn which letters belong to which Slavic language…
    But lots o’ fun.

  10. I refuse to call Croatian and Serbian different languages. It’s one langauge, dammit, Serbo-Croat, with the dialects employing different conventions for writing.
    The cyrillics were blind guesses for me, but I aced Scandinavia and the Finno-Ugarics.
    Danish just seems slightly more Anglo-Saxon to me than Norwegian does. That’s my method though someone will doubtless prove me wrong.
    One problem with the quiz: it limits its diversity to Europe, as if other people around the world don’t like to eat flavorless mass-produced American meat dishes.

  11. Quite right. C’mon, Mickey D., provide instructions for your silly game to all the masses yearning to eat flavorless mass-produced American meat dishes, all over the world!
    Patrick: There was in fact a Turkic-in-Cyrillic language, and don’t you mean Bulgarian vs. Macedonian? (I just happened to remember the accented k was a feature of the latter.)

  12. Oh, one more thing: Nicholas, if you’re still reading, I noticed some typos — in the Greek and Ukrainian at least, and I think a couple of others. Don’t know if they’re the result of transcription or in the original, but I thought you should know. (The Greek word for ‘button,’ koumbi, is rendered kothmbi if I recall correctly.)

  13. Yes, of course it’s a Euro-centric quiz – but blame McDonald’s, not me!
    Thanks for the Greek correction. If you have a definite suggetion on the Ukrainian, let me know.

  14. Lotsa fun, indeed. Thanks, Nicholas and Yumao! I guessed more languages than I thought I could (the only script I couldn’t see properly was Georgian, but I felt it had to be either that or Armenian).
    There is another typo in Greek: “syllexei” with a ‘khi’ instead of ‘xi’.
    Also, if you allow me to nitpick, Greek is described as -I paraphrase- “the only official language of Greece and the language spoken by most people in Cyprus”, while Turkish is rightly characterized as “one of Cyprus’ official languages”.
    Of course, Greek is the first official language of the isle-state (I’m not taking in account the so-called “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus” here), English being the third one (all three languages are displayed on Cypriot stamps: Cyprus-Kypros-Kibris).

  15. I was caught out by the Scandinavians too. I remember a similar multi-linguistic warning I found in a Kinder egg once. That had separate information in Romanian AND Moldovan. I didn’t think there was any difference. Now that kind of thing would make for a truly evil quiz (distinguishing Bosnian from Croatian, for example?).

  16. I caught the Icelandic at once – the thorn gives it away – but I told the Danish and Norwegian apart by pure luck. The Cyrillic languages threw me as well.
    Hell, at least I can still tell Finnish from Estonian.

  17. That had separate information in Romanian AND Moldovan. I didn’t think there was any difference.
    Serendipity: I’m about to blog that very thing, thanks to an e-mail sent me by… Nicholas Whyte!

  18. With similar hubris I expected 100%, but alas, those darn slavic languages. I thought my Russian would be enough to give me an easy time at those, but no.
    Fun quiz, though! Found an error in the Estonian transcription, I hope he corrected it by now 😉

  19. You’d better be explicit about the error; I don’t think the poor guy can be expected to proofread all 34 languages!

  20. I missed Latvian, to my shame, since I took comarative Baltic last year, and Serbian/Croatian and other Balkan Slavic languages tripped me up. I got all the Cyrillic ones, thanks to a few years of Russian and a sudden irrational desire to learn Uzbek during my dissertation.

  21. Ah, “a sudden irrational desire to learn Uzbek” — you’re singing my song!

  22. i’ve heard terrible stories about people whose insane desire to learn Uzbek brought them to an unhappy end. I really don’t want to say more. It’s just too awful.

  23. Hey Languagehat: Where was the Turkic-in-Cyrillic? By my count, there are only two Turkics (Turkish and Azeri), and both of are written in modified Latin script.

  24. Oops, my bad if the Azeri was written in roman. It used to be in Cyrillic, and I guess my memory transmuted it back to the old days.

  25. This was a lot of fun. I’ve often played this game myself with foreign texts or spoken languages though from my essentially monoglot perspective I have little chance of competing with you lot.
    I’m proud to say that I got nine of the easy ones right plus four Scandinavian languages (including Estonian!), Ukranian (good guess), and Dutch (but only after incorrectly identifying several other languages as Dutch). I’m still annoyed that I didn’t recognize Icelandic (or Turkish, or Czech, or Finnish).

  26. Glad to see alphabets used correctly. In the Ebonics environment where I work, all I hear is “my son don’t know his alphabets” spoken by mothers of pre-schoolers. They are indicating that they’re worried because their kids don’t yet know the letters of the alphabet (in English).

  27. by the way I found a nice site which has more details about the Azeri language, check it out:

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