The English language is a sausage: It’s a mash up of different, wriggling odds and ends that you don’t even want to imagine, including some things that shouldn’t even be in there. Somehow, all of these mismatched parts fit together into the second most spoken language in the world. But the moment you cut English open to actually dissect its insides, you’re in for a rude awakening.
For example, did you know that English has more in common with French than it does with, say, Old English? And everyday words like tattoo and lemon come from the other side of the world—specifically, Samoan and Arabic. And would you have guessed that the word “ketchup” is derived from Chinese?
More on that later.
So, what does all this mean for you as a language-learner? It’s good news! Because chances are, no matter what language you want to learn, English has already borrowed enough words to give you a solid jumping off point. The History of English Okay, so how did modern English get so crazy? How did it's historical development occur?
In the year 500, German, Danish and Dutch invaders landed in Britain, kicked out all the Celts and installed Old English.
A few hundred years later, Vikings brought over Old Norse Scandinavian influences, and then the Norman Conquest of 1066 flooded the governments with what eventually became French.
By the time the Renaissance rolled around, international trade had imported loanwords from Italian, Latin, Greek, German and even Yiddish.
And today, due to globalization and immigration, the true sense of English continues to rapidly change. So how much of English is… English? Even though English is technically a Germanic language, only one-quarter of the English language is directly derived from Germanic languages, which include Old/Middle English, Old Norse and Dutch. So what on earth is the other seventy-five percent made of?
Twenty-nine percent of English comes directly from French. Yes, twenty-nine percent. Even though English is a Germanic language, it borrows more from French than it does from Old English.
Thanks to the Renaissance, it pulls another twenty-nine percent from Latin. This is why Romance languages are some of the easiest languages for English-speakers to learn—half of our vocabulary comes from Latin and French already!
Greek contributes six percent to English, four percent comes from people’s names and the other six percent comes from (deep breath) Celtic, Spanish, Norman, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Persian and Arabic.
So if we had to list how many of English’s 171,476 words come from other languages, we’d be listing…171,476 words. So, let’s just zero in on a few of the most interesting ones. Chinese Brainwash is a literal translation of the Cantonese word xinao, which means “wash brain.” In both English and Chinese, it warns about indoctrination.
Ketchup evolved from the Cantonese word kerjap, meaning “tomato sauce.”
Chop chop descends from the Cantonese word chuk chuk, meaning “urgent.” In English, we use it to hurry someone up.
Long time no see is a word-for-word translation from the Cantonese phrase hou noi mou gin, which is used in the same way. German Deli hails from the German word Delikatessen for “fine and fancy foods.”
Gesundheit originates from the German word for health. In English, it’s become a substitute for “God bless you” when someone sneezes.
Kindergarten comes from the German word for “children’s garden.” Spanish Rodeo traces its roots to the Spanish word rodear, which means “to go around.”
Tornado derives from the Spanish word tornar for “to turn.”
Armadillo comes from the Spanish word for “little armored one.”
Burrito hails from the Spanish word for “little donkey.” Arabic and Persian Average developed from the Old French word avarie, which developed from the Arabic word awari (“damaged goods”), which developed from the stem awara, meaning “to lose an eye.”
Candy calls back to the Persian word qandi, meaning “hard sweet made from boiled sugar.”
Mascara, along with the French word mascaraed and the English word masquerade, evolved from the Arabic word maskhara, an event characterized by people wearing masks.
So long, according to The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang, descends from the Arabic word salaam. In both English and Arabic, it’s a way of saying goodbye.
Lemon comes from the Arabic word laymun, which means any citrus fruit. Dutch Boss derives from the Dutch word baas, meaning “master.”
Cookie comes from the Dutch word koekje for “biscuit.”
Wagon echoes the Dutch word wagen for “train.”
Frolic descends from the Dutch word vrolijk for “happy and cheerful.”
Good luck hails from the Dutch word gheluc, meaning “luck.” Hindi Bandana traces its roots to the Hindi word bandhna, meaning “to tie.”
Shampoo emerged from the Hindi word champo, a command meaning “rub!”
Thug grew from the Hindi word thagi, meaning “conman.” Hawaiian and Samoan Shaka might not be a common term for you, but you’ve probably seen the accompanying Hawaiian hand sign; English-speaking surfers usually extend their pinky and thumb when saying, “Hang ten.”
Ukelele comes from the Hawaiian term for “jumping flea.”
Tattoo echoes the Samoan word tatau for “to write.”
Wiki, as in Wikipedia, results from the Hawaiian word for “fast.” French Café comes from the French word for “coffee” (which comes from the Arabic word for coffee, qahwa).
Genre mirrors the French word for “style.”
Hors d’oeuvres calls back to the French phrase for “outside of the main meal.”
Renaissance is the French word for “rebirth.” Romani Lollipop evolved from the Romani word loli phabai, which means “red apple.”
Pal reflects from the Romani word phral, which is “brother.”
Narc/Nark descends from the Romani word nak for “nose.” In English, a narc is a pejorative term for a police informant.
Shiv comes from the Romani word chivomengro for “knife.” In English, a shiv is an improvised weapon. Russian Vodka derives the Russian word voda, meaning “water.” The “k” turns voda into a diminutive form, so vodka literally translates to “little water.”
Tzar/Czar comes from the Russian word for “emperor.”
Mammoth is the Russian word for “immense.”
Parka hails from Nanets, a linguistic subgroup in Russia, meaning “skin coat.” Irish Boycott descends from Charles Boycott, an Englishman who was ostracized in Ireland for political reasons. His ostracism sparked the term “to boycott.”
Hooligan traces its roots to the Irish surname Ó hUallacháin.
Whiskey evolved from the Irish word uisce beatha, meaning “water of life.” You know more words than you think. English is, in a true sense, a mish-mash of a millennium of immigration, colonization and societal shifts. It’s one of the most diverse and international languages in the world, with transmission from one language to another. And thanks to that, whether you want to learn French or Hawaiian, Persian or Romani, you already have a leg up. Gheluc!
You might also be interested in:
- Discovering the most romantic untranslatable words
- Figuring out the most popular languages to learn
- Sorting out the difference between a dialect and an accent, or even
- 6 fun ways to improve your vocab!
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.