How English is English?

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 28 Apr 2022, 8:43 PM

My columns over the last few months highlighting words of French, German, Indian and most recently Japanese origin in the English language have prompted one enthusiastic reader to ask if there is any language spoken around the world that English has not borrowed words from. There may well be a few — no one can pretend to know all the 6,000 languages on our planet — but it is remarkable to note how many languages have contributed to the English lexicon, brought in over many centuries of trade, colonisation, imperialism and migration.

To proceed alphabetically, using only words in common usage, apartheid comes from Afrikaans, a language spoken in South Africa. Arabic, of course, gave English words like algebra, a form of mathematics that Europe learned from the Arabs. Bengali is credited for jalfreizi, a kind of meat, fish or vegetable dish cooked with fresh chillies, tomatoes, and onions. When you say you are enthusiastically gung ho for something, you are borrowing from the Chinese words for ‘working together’. The English words landscape and easel were introduced by Dutch painters in the 17th century, as was bumpkin (as in “country bumpkin”, an unsophisticated rural figure) and quack in the sense of a fake doctor. Finnish most famously gives English the sauna. French has been the subject of a separate column.

The word jukebox is from Gullah, a creole language spoken in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia in the United States. So, it seems, is Mojo (originally meaning ‘magical power’ and now often used for the spark you possess to achieve something, as in “he’s got his mojo back”.) Greek features in the roots of too many English words to list: antique, idol, dialogue, geography, grammar, architect, economy, encyclopedia, telephone, and microscope are just a handful of the thousands of words Greek gave English.

Hindi, as we have noted before, provides English with shampoo, loot and thug, among many other words. Hungarian gave us goulash and paprika. The Inuit language of Greenland and the Arctic lands offers kayak, a canoe, and anorak, the weatherproof jacket. From Japanese comes many words commonly used these days, including karaoke, bonsai, futon, geisha, haiku, and zen. Korean words in English have not crossed over from Korean culture: there are only the martial art, TaeKwonDo, and the food kimchi in English. Latin outdoes Greek in its contributions to English and, as the root language, requires no listing.

Malay gives us amok in the expression “run amok”, which has come to mean ‘going crazy’ in English. Malayalam gives English pariah, the name of someone from an “untouchable” caste, which in English refers to someone to be avoided, as in “don’t treat me like a pariah, talk to me!” Portuguese has blessed English with monsoon, marmalade, molasses, and flamingo, as well as the Indian English word brinjal for aubergine or eggplant. When you call someone a czar, you are of course borrowing from Russian, but so are you when you use the words mammoth and steppe. Spanish is the source of alligator, vigilante, guitar, hurricane, plaza and cafeteria. Tagalog from the Philippines gives English boondock (which means ‘mountain’ in Tagalog but ‘the back of beyond’ or an ‘isolated region’ in English); “he’s from the boondocks” is an unkind way of referring to a country cousin freshly arrived from a remote area.

Urdu gave English pajamas and pashmina, as well as khaki. Jewish migrants to the United States introduced Yiddish words into American English, which in turn flowed into the language through their use by Jewish-American writers: chutzpah (‘audacity’), kibitz (‘to offer unasked-for advice’), kvetch (‘complain’), maven (‘expert, know-it-all’), meshuga (‘crazy’), mensch (‘a good, upright man’), nebbish (‘insignificant person’), and of course the ubiquitous schmooze.

Most of these words no longer feel as if they are “borrowed” from other languages, so thoroughly have they infiltrated English. This is the strength of English, which makes it such a prime contender for the status of a global language. In an era where travel and the Internet have brought the world much closer, pretty much everyone is learning English as a second (or third, or fourth) language. Whether its increasing acceptance worldwide is because it’s a repository for words from other languages, or the other way around, English is evolving into the Esperanto of our times.

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