Language chauvinists in the United States who believe that English is being polluted by other tongues should pause to consider how few words in our language actually derive from Anglo-Saxon, the predecessor of Modern English.
One survey determined that only one-fourth of the words in English come from its linguistic ancestors. That total is exceeded by words directly from Latin (including medical, scientific, and technical terms) and from Latin’s collective daughters, such as French and Italian: Each source accounts for about 28 percent of our vocabulary. Greek contributed another 5 percent, proper names are responsible for another 3 percent, and all other languages combined add up to less than 1 percent.
But what a rich slice of the pie that last sliver is! Even though English already had a word for many of the concepts those foreign-born terms represent, the language is always generous when it comes to making room for synonyms, which often acquire distinct connotations.
I’ve omitted examples from the usual suspects, but check out these terms adopted into English from less-obvious languages, language groups, and regions:
Contributions from the South African language descended from Dutch include apartheid (“apartness”), trek (a long journey, originally one on foot), and names of indigenous animals such as the aardvark (“earth pig”) and the meerkat (“lake cat”); scoff, from which English derived scarf (in the sense of “to wolf down”) and wildebeest (you figure it out) are from a forerunner of Afrikaans called Cape Dutch.
Pistol is said to have derived from the Czech word pistala (with several diacritical marks omitted here), though the name of Pistoia, a city in Italy, may have been the inspiration. Howitzer comes from the word for a catapult. Robot, from the Czech word for drudgery, was introduced in a play. But don’t associate the Czechs exclusively with war and toil, they, not the Poles, as is widely believed, coined the dance name polka (“little half”).
Coach, from kocsi, derived from the place name Kocs, is taken from Hungarian in both its noun and verb forms. Saber comes from szablya. The names for the dog breeds komondor, puli, and vizsla are all of Hungarian origin, as are the names for goulash and paprika.
Galore comes from go leor (“til plenty”). Other borrowings from Irish include glen (“valley”), phony (fainne, “ring”), slew (sluagh, “a large number”), and whiskey (uisce beatha, “water of life”). Scots and Scottish Gaelic provided many more words, including the obvious bard, clan, and plaid and the unexpected pet and trousers. Of indeterminate Gaelic origin are brogue (the shoe, not the accent; that’s definitively from Irish), hubbub, and smidgen.
This South Asian language has given enriched English with amok, bamboo, compound, gingham, gong, junk (boat), launch (both the noun meaning “boat” and the verb and noun referring to setting off), and paddy, and the animal names cassowary, cockatoo, gecko, orangutan, and siamang.
This language from New Zealand gave us the animal names kiwi, mako (shark), moa, and tuatara.
Norwegian contributions include the geographical terms fjord and floe, and ski, plus slalom and telemark (from a place name), as well as the animal names brisling (a fish), krill (a relative of the shrimp), and lemming (a rodent). Swedish words used in English include ombudsman, smorgasbord (“sandwich table”), tungsten, and fartlek, the unfortunate name for a training technique for runners that has nothing to do with flatulence.
These words borrowed into English cannot be traced to a particular Scandinavian language: cog, flense (to strip blubber), flounder, lug, maelstrom, midden (kitchen-waste heap), mink, nudge, rig, snug, spry, and wicker. Dozens more entered English from Old Norse over a thousand years ago, including such basics as anger, ball, and cake.
The original language of the Philippines loaned us boondocks (bundok, “mountain,” or bunduk, “hinterland”). We also have Tagalog to thank for cooties (kuto, “head lice”).
The language originating in India has shared catamaran (“tie up wood”), cheroot (“roll,” or “rolled”), corundum (“ruby”), and pariah, plus the food names curry (“sauce”), mango, and mulligatawny (“black pepper” and “water”). Various languages of India besides the major players Tamil and Hindu also contributed atoll, bandicoot, bungalow, calico, mongoose, pajamas, polo, and verandah.
This Slavic language contributed steppe, plus the food names borscht (beet soup), kasha (porridge), and pierogi (stuffed dumpling).
Welsh, harsh looking but mellifluous, is the origin of coracle (boat), crag (rock), cwm (valley, related to English combe), and likely flannel. Its nearly extinct cousin Cornish gave us brill (mackerel), dolmen (stone tomb), menhir (standing stone) — yes, men means “stone” — and penguin (“white head”), which could alternatively have come from yet another Celtic language, Breton.
12. One- or Two-Hit Wonders
Some other languages gave only one or two words to English, but we should be grateful for what we can get:
Ilokano (related to many languages of the South Pacific): yo-yo
Romanian: pastrami (a pastra, “to preserve”), though it may derive ultimately from Turkish or Greek
Romani (Gypsy): pal (“friend,” “brother”; originally, like dozens of other English words, from Sanskrit)
Sami (a group of indigenous languages from northern Scandinavia): tundra
Serbo-Croatian: vampire and cravat (from Hrvat, the Croatians’ word for themselves)
Slovak: dobro (the instrument, from its inventors, the Dopyera brothers