Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The international swap trade in useful words
February 13, 2014 3:50 AM   Subscribe

"In very many cases, English has borrowed a word from one language that had previously borrowed it from elsewhere. Among those Portuguese and Spanish words there are many that originated among speakers of very different languages. For instance, piranha comes ultimately from Tupi (a language of Brazil) and acai comes from a related language called Nheengatu, while mango is probably ultimately from Malayalam across the other side of the world in India, and monsoon is ultimately from Arabic (and in a further twist, Dutch may also have played a hand in how it came into English from Portuguese). " (There was a previous BBC article on this topic which is linked in the post which contains more examples.) BBC article about how words have flowed back and forth over the centuries.
posted by marienbad (31 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
In German: or of course das handy (mobile phone).

"I think most native English speakers are a bit taken aback when first confronted with the German word Handy. We know it variously as mobile or cell phone amongst others. But the germans have taken an English adjective meaning useful or convenient and created a German noun. I've asked german friends and colleagues about the history of the word, but nobody seemed to have a good idea from whence this word came.

Like many words of foreign, and especially English, origin it has simply become eingedeutsched and accepted. It is no more of a curiousity to germans than the the verb managen's past participle form "gemanagt."

A lazy Sunday of surfing put me across a mention of the Motorola HT 220 Handie Talkie which prompted a quick google. It turns out the word Handy comes to German from English after all. In fact, it seems to come from Motorola's Handie-Talkie.

The Handie-Talkie was introduced during the Second World War by Motorola as a handheld successor and companion to its already successful Walkie-Talkie (or "breaky-backy" as it was known to the troops) - a backpack based radio transmitter.

It seems this image of the American GI with his Handie-Talkie took hold in Germany and the usage has been around ever since. It has been used for various mobile radio devices from companies like Bosch and Siemens either as Handie or Handy.

So the next time the topic comes up, you can confidently inform your German colleagues of the origin of the German usage of the word Handy for a wireless radio. An advertising exec in Chicago invented it for Motorola in 1940 and it's been knocking around Germany since its arrival with U.S. Forces."
posted by three blind mice at 4:01 AM on February 13 [12 favorites]


I've read that this is a strength of English in that it can constantly grow by assimilating foreign words as opposed to other languages whose provincialism prevents such assimilation (like French).
posted by Renoroc at 6:41 AM on February 13


In hopes of becoming an Andean ethnographer, for many many years I studied Quechua, the language of the Incan Empire and still spoken by millions of indigenous people in Andean South America today.

There are a handful of words that made it into English from Quechua--mostly the usual suspects of local flora and fauna: llama, quinoa, coca>cocaine, plus "jerky" which comes from the Quechua word ch'arki, or dried meat.

The most curious English borrowing from Quechua, though, is lagniappe, which comes to English from Cajun Creole and is strongly associated with that region. However, it got into Cajun Creole from Spanish la yapa (a small bonus added to a purchase), which comes from Quechua verb yapay, to add or increase something.

Looking in the other direction, modern Quechua is of course full of Spanish loanwords--my favorite there is yusulpayki, the standard Quechua term for "thank you". This looks like a perfect regularly formed Quechua verb--with a suffix -yki that indicates the subject is first person and the object is second person: I [thank] to you--but which is actually a corruption of "Dios se lo pague" or God will repay you.

Finally, I've always wondered about the term used in modern Quechua for sweater: chompa, which almost certainly was borrowed from the British English 'jumper'. In the sense of sweater, it's a pretty recent addition to British English (1800s), and to my knowledge it's only used in Spanish in areas that are also heavily influenced by Quechua. So it's not clear whether it went BrEn>Sp>Quechua or BrEn>Quechua>Sp. There's clearly some tie-in with the dominance of Great Britain in clothing manufacturing (and possibly in South America's railways?) during the Industrial Revolution but it's all rather murky.
posted by drlith at 6:45 AM on February 13 [10 favorites]


I love these long-distance loanword adventure stories.

When I was studying K'ichee', one of the Mayan languages, I was thrilled beyond belief to discover some Arabic loanwords that had come over with the Spanish in the 16th Century. Patux is K'ichee' for "duck." It comes from Spanish patos "ducks," plural of pato, which apparently goes back, via Arabic baṭṭ, to Persian bat.

There's the rise and fall of a couple empires packed into the history of that word: first the Persians, then the Umayyad Caliphate, then the reconquista and the rise of Spain as a colonial power, and the Spanish and Nahuatl armies of New Spain marching down through Central America and teaming up with the Kaqchikel to dethrone the K'ichee' king. Thrilling stuff.
posted by this is a thing at 6:55 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


I think most native English speakers are a bit taken aback when first confronted with the German word Handy. We know it variously as mobile or cell phone amongst others. But the germans have taken an English adjective meaning useful or convenient and created a German noun.

I totally would have thought that it's a shortening of "handset." So... no?
posted by psoas at 7:28 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Growing up in Chile, I was always told to put on a chomba when it got cold. Now it all makes sense.

My favourite Chilean word is gásfiter, meaning plumber (gas fitter) .
posted by Zpt2718 at 7:36 AM on February 13


I found it fascinating that the Thai word for white person/foreigner is "falang" (or farang, depending on how you're transliterating), which is thought to have come from the Persian farang, which has its origins in the Franks, which is where we also get the country of France. To keep the ball rolling, that turns into the Hindi word Firangi, which is where we get the Star Trek race the Ferengi.
posted by themadthinker at 7:44 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Patux is K'ichee' for "duck." It comes from Spanish patos "ducks," plural of pato, which apparently goes back, via Arabic baṭṭ, to Persian bat

That's funny, duck is Baatu KoLi in Kannada.
posted by dhruva at 7:45 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Handy is still used occasionally among some English-speaking amateur radio bods ("Have you seen that new Chinese handy?"). I don't think I've ever heard or seen it used in the UK, only by Americans.

In French, oddly enough, walkie-talkie has become talkie-walkie. Cell phones, as in UK English, are mobiles.

The abundance of technology loan words from English in other languages is obviously tied to the anglophone origins of the technologies themselves, or the dominance of American companies in rapidly expanding fields. Radar is an American term, also coined in 1940, despite the British having deployed it earlier under the term RDF (see also sonar and ASDIC).

Something I don't know is how many programming language vocabularies are based on languages other than English. It'd be trivial to make a 'French' version of C by simple substitution, and that might even make sense for languages with non-Latin characters, but is this actually a thing? Are there languages with significant user bases that are substantially different to any English-based one?
posted by Devonian at 8:39 AM on February 13


Finally, I've always wondered about the term used in modern Quechua for sweater: chompa, which almost certainly was borrowed from the British English 'jumper'. In the sense of sweater, it's a pretty recent addition to British English (1800s), and to my knowledge it's only used in Spanish in areas that are also heavily influenced by Quechua.

In Guatemalan Spanish, "sweater" is "chumpa." But they might have borrowed it independently.
posted by this is a thing at 8:46 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


We also borrowed the word "cherry" from French (I think turning it from a mass to a count noun, like pease->pea), then, after French went around and changed all its pronunciation rules, decided to go borrow it again as "cerise".
posted by jeather at 8:51 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


It's funny we say 'borrowed' when we have no intention of returning these 'loan' words.
posted by srboisvert at 9:16 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


I've read that this is a strength of English in that it can constantly grow by assimilating foreign words as opposed to other languages whose provincialism prevents such assimilation (like French).

Don't let the Academy fool you, French isn't above borrow words. Especially Canadian French, but even Frenchie French.
posted by solotoro at 9:23 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


I've read that this is a strength of English in that it can constantly grow by assimilating foreign words as opposed to other languages whose provincialism prevents such assimilation (like French).


There's a famous quote from James Nicoll that goes, "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:50 AM on February 13 [7 favorites]


Logowriter was a version of Logo with editions in French, Spanish and Portuguese, with everything translated, including the keywords. If you consider spreadsheets programming, Excel has translated versions of its functions (but if you drop down to VB you get back to English keywords), as might other spreadsheets.

As for French, it borrows plenty of words, but the political situation of Francophone countries means that there's a current to preserve the language from undue outside influence. By political situation, I mean that France itself is a former Hegemon (or Hegemon-candidate) that is now stuck in a "cultural power" role, and even that role is being challenged by English-speaking culture, especially American culture. In Canada you have a linguistic minority that is trying to preserve its language in a much larger English-speaking region.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:57 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


But basically, outside of education (Logowriter's market; I used it in a high school class), I don't think there have been very many programming languages with keywords in a language other than English, and certainly none that I'm aware of that has had a significant user base.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:02 AM on February 13


Yeah, I don't think French avoids borrowing as much as it pretends it avoids borrowing -- in France I saw a lot of anglicisms that have actual French words in use here.

I don't think there have been very many programming languages with keywords in a language other than English

The Quebec government at least considered hiring companies to change a programming language to French so it could be used, but were eventually convinced that this was impossible.
posted by jeather at 10:06 AM on February 13


I've read that this is a strength of English in that it can constantly grow by assimilating foreign words as opposed to other languages whose provincialism prevents such assimilation (like French).

That's not really how languages work. Most ways we measure the "strength" of a language are in distinctly unlinguistic ways, such as number of speakers, amount of literature, or varied areas of use. These are mostly, if not wholly, determined by social and political facts independent of the language in question. There are many languages with as much borrowed vocabulary as English, and some of them are dying. Indeed, the importation of words sometimes shows that a language is vulnerable to another, more prestigious, tongue.

We also borrowed the word "cherry" from French (I think turning it from a mass to a count noun, like pease->pea),...

A word for cherry was first borrowed from Latin in Old English times, and it was later remodelled after the French. For a time the word was a mix of both sources, but by 1400 or so all traces of the original version was lost and the word resembled the French version rather than the Old English.
posted by Thing at 10:55 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


I love seeing pseudo-loanwords that repurpose English terms in a way that seems particularly elegant, appropriate, and clever. There's a bunch in Wikipedia's list of borrowed terms in Japanese. What do you call the traffic jam when everyone comes back from vacation after the holidays? U-turn rush. What's the name for when you're medically advised to discontinue something? Doctor stop. What about distinguished silver hair? Romance grey. Phillips and flathead screwdrivers? Plus driver, minus driver.

Also, corn dog? AMERICAN DOG.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 11:01 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


Driving in LA has made me borrow the word vavoso many times.
posted by wcfields at 11:07 AM on February 13


It's funny we say 'borrowed' when we have no intention of returning these 'loan' words.

That's the beauty of IP ("P," so-called) - we can make unlimited copies.
posted by univac at 11:18 AM on February 13


A word for cherry was first borrowed from Latin in Old English times, and it was later remodelled after the French. For a time the word was a mix of both sources, but by 1400 or so all traces of the original version was lost and the word resembled the French version rather than the Old English.

Okay -- I heard it was borrowed from Old French (which of course came from Latin) into Old English, went through whatever phonological changes English brought it through (including de-mass-noun-ifying), and continued on as our word cherry. If it was borrowed from Latin and then changed to match French, that would also make sense, though it would have to have been done before 1400, because by then French would not have used the pronunciation cherries.

Whatever happened with the word cherry, many centuries later, modern French had a nice word, cerise (which had once been pronounced like "cherries", more or less, before French went through and deaffrified everything [that is from the sound "ch" to "sh", for those who don't know minute linguistic terminology]), which we borrowed also.
posted by jeather at 11:22 AM on February 13


We need to borrow more from German, just for LOLs... and schadenfreude.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:25 AM on February 13


It's funny we say 'borrowed' when we have no intention of returning these 'loan' words.

I think the intended sense of "loan" and "borrow" here is more like the receipt of charity, or like bumming a cigarette. "Sorry, we don't seem to have a word for that — could we borrow one?" The polite fiction of future repayment is part of good manners sometimes.

Sure, it's a bit euphemistic, but it's not euphemizing a theft, really, so much as the filling of an unmet need at no significant cost to the lender. The coin of words allows no repayment, anyhow; just ever more circulation.
posted by RogerB at 11:48 AM on February 13


But yeah, it does seem unflatteringly characteristic of the Anglophone world to talk about something that's actually the purest possible form of gift economy in such possessive, propertarian terms.
posted by RogerB at 12:02 PM on February 13


There's a famous quote from James Nicoll that goes, "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

Yeah, it's a great quote — the only thing I don't like is the implication that this is some sort of special impurity unique to English, when really it's just how humans behave.
posted by this is a thing at 12:03 PM on February 13


Okay -- I heard it was borrowed from Old French (which of course came from Latin) into Old English, went through whatever phonological changes English brought it through (including de-mass-noun-ifying), and continued on as our word cherry. If it was borrowed from Latin and then changed to match French, that would also make sense, though it would have to have been done before 1400, because by then French would not have used the pronunciation cherries.

Oh, I'm not saying you're wrong, just adding another, older, layer to the story.
posted by Thing at 12:16 PM on February 13


"I think most native English speakers are a bit taken aback when first confronted with the German word Handy. We know it variously as mobile or cell phone amongst others.

You are correct hat the root is from Handy-Talkie, but the irony is that that never caught on in the US past WWII and with the advent of transistors, small hand-held radios were always called walkie-talkies.
posted by Gungho at 2:00 PM on February 13


I would just like to acknowledge the lovely fact that both Thing and this is a thing are participating in this conversation. :)
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:18 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


I first heard the term 'handy talkie' used by radio nerd friends 25 years ago to describe a simplex radio that could interface with duplex (two people can talk at once) telephones. It was a cell phone before there were cell phones.
posted by Bee'sWing at 5:02 PM on February 13


Next time you read a complaint about the difficult and inconsistent spellings in English, bear this propensity for adopting foreign words in mind.
posted by alasdair at 12:36 PM on February 14


« Older The genome of the Anzick child, who died 12,600 ye...   |   Ski ballet. Ski ballet? Ski ba... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments