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English – A Polyglot Language

April 26, 2010

As a professional translation company, we spend much of our time focused on foreign languages, especially languages that come up frequently for legal translations and patent translations. But every so often we turn our attention to our native English. We are constantly surprised by how diverse the English language is, and how much of the English vocabulary is derived from foreign words. According to one survey, only one-third of English words come from Old English. 41% come from French and Old Norman, and at least 15% comes from Latin. Another 10% come from a mix of other languages.

There are plenty of English words whose foreign origin is quite obvious. We can guess where chauffeur, angst, and desperado come from (French, German, and Spanish). But many words that sound like “classic” English also have a foreign origin, and the origin is not necessarily European or even Indo-European–you have probably used a few words today that come from languages that many of us have never heard of. Here are a few examples:

  • Ketchup – The word comes from Amoy, a Chinese dialect, where it meant the brine of pickled fish.
  • Barbecue – The quintessential American cooking tradition, BBQ actually comes from Carib, a language spoken in northern South America and the Caribbean.
  • Sugar & Candy – These sweet words come from Sanskrit, the ancient Hindu language of Northern India.
  • Husband – The word comes from Old Norse, the extinct language of the Vikings, where it meant “master of the house.” In modern American usage, it often means the exact opposite.
  • Pal – The word comes from Romany, the Gypsy language, where it means brother or comrade.
  • Tank – As in water tank. The word comes from Gujarati, a language spoken in India.