The exotic roots of English vocabulary
English has a rich store of vocabulary that originates in Ancient Greek and Latin and, more recently, in French. Greek gives us words like politics, telephone, ecology and drama, while Latin is responsible for agriculture, family, order and ambulance. Words derived from French include disease, patrol, riot and basket. As a member of the Germanic family of languages, English clearly has numerous words of Germanic origin, examples being house, honey, half and hair.
But words have not only arrived in the English language from these most prominent sources. In everyday use we find hundreds of examples of words that have derived from some of the world’s smaller languages and from some exotic sources. Britain’s colonial history meant that its inhabitants journeyed to all four corners of the world and brought back terms and expressions for items and concepts that were unknown in their native islands. From the Indian sub-continent we have words as diverse as shampoo, bungalow, thug and pyjamas, while Malay gives us bamboo, caddy, cockatoo and ketchup.
From African languages we have the names of various animals, including chimpanzee, zebra and, after a long etymological journey, gorilla. North American Indian languages provided moccasin, moose, skunk and toboggan, while words ultimately of Arabic origin in English include alcohol, algebra, carafe and syrup. Persian (Farsi, its modern version, being the language of present-day Iran) is the original source of numerous words in English. Some common examples are: paradise, bazaar, sandal and magic. Amongst the European languages, many English words have entered the language from Dutch, amongst them brandy, bumpkin, frolic, gas and skipper. Words of Scandinavian origin include tungsten (Swedish), floe (Danish) and geyser (unsurprisingly, in view of the geological conditions prevailing in the country, Icelandic). From Spanish we have cockroach, guerrilla, mosquito, sherry and tornado, while, apart from the obvious musical terms such as allegro, piano and soprano, Italian gives us volcano, influenza, miniature and umbrella.
Words originating in Eastern Europe are comparatively rare, although some words describing food and drink are in regular use, including vodka (literally ‘little water’, from Russian) and goulash (from Hungarian). Another word ultimately of Hungarian origin is coach, from the Hungarian word kocsi originally used to describe a cart or carriage from the village of Kocs in northern Hungary. A common word that has entered English via Czech is the word robot. This term derives from the Czech word robota, meaning ‘drudgery’, and was first coined by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920 play R.U.R (or Rossum’s Universal Robots), in which he anticipated a world in which menial tasks would be performed by mechanical people. The Czech city of Plzen (via its German name Pilsen) has also made a significant contribution to the English language in the form of the word pilsener, used to describe a generic form of beer which was first brewed in that city.
Words originating in the native Celtic languages of the British Isles are surprisingly rare, but prominent examples include whisky (literally ‘water of life’ in Gaelic), slogan (from the Gaelic word for ‘war cry’) and flannel (one of the few Welsh contributions to the English language). Perhaps the most interesting word in English that derives from Irish is the word Tory, now used as an alternative name for members of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. Originally, it was used as a term to describe landless Irishmen who fought a guerrilla war against the English in Ireland in the 17th century. It then became a term of abuse to describe Irish Catholic supporters of King James II and finally it began to be used as a term to describe politicians who had opposed the removal of James and his replacement by a Protestant monarch.