What Learning New Languages Can Teach You About English

April 23rd is English Language Day, and we're celebrating the English language in a whole new way: by learning about other languages! Although English technically developed from Old English, over 80% of English words are derived or just plain borrowed from other languages. Browsing through any dictionary, you'll see countless words with origins in Ancient Greek or Latin. But then there are some surprises, too. Did you know that common words like "ketchup" or "pajamas" have origins in Chinese and Hindi respectively?

When you study a new language, it can often teach you even more about your own language. Studies have shown that people who learn a second language boast increased comprehension of grammar and syntax and may even do better on English standardized tests. Practicing speaking another language will also improve your communication skills in English. You may find you speak more confidently, think more critically about context and word choice, and use richer vocabulary! Discovering the roots of some commonly used English words will give you a deeper understanding of your own language.

Here's an exploration of some of the fascinating words that the English language has borrowed over the years! Many of these definitions were pulled from the "Say What?" feature in COBBLESTONE Magazine, a column that explores etymology!



· Bonanza is a Spanish term that means “fair weather at sea” or “calm sea.” Miners in Nevada in 1859 first adopted the term, exclaiming “Bonanza!” when they came upon an exceptionally rich pocket of gold ore. Today, the word can be used to describe any source of good fortune. When you're sailing, calm sea is certainly good fortune!

· A canyon is “a narrow cut in the earth with steep cliff walls created by running water” or “a gorge.” It comes from the Spanish cañon, meaning “tube” or “cave.

· Cafeteria traces its roots to the 1830s and two Spanish terms: cafe (“coffee”) and teria (“place where something is done”). So, originally it was used to mean a “coffee store,” but, by the 1890s, its meaning had begun to shift to the one we know today: a self-service place where people can eat.

· Montana is just one of several states who owes its name to Spanish. It derives from the Spanish word of the same spelling, meaning “mountain.” Its roots are in the Latin word, montanea, which means “mountainous country.” The first Spanish explorers referred to the area as Montana del Norte, or Northern Mountains, but it got shortened to 'Montana' over time.



· A camera is an “apparatus for taking photographs, consisting of a lightproof enclosure having an aperture with a shuttered lens through which the image of an object is focused and recorded.” Its roots go back to the Latin camera, which means “chamber” or “vault.” Early versions of cameras were boxes through which the passage of light was controlled to capture an image.

· Speaking of cameras, the word 'focus' has a fascinating history! The Latin word for a fireplace or a hearth is "focus." A fireplace or a hearth once was the center of a home because it was the location around which so many things important to human survival were connected. It provided warmth, light, and a place to cook. Today, the noun focus means a “center of interest or activity.”

· When we say 'circus,' do you picture clowns and trapeze artists or an Ancient Roman amphitheater? The word 'circus' simply means 'circle' in Latin and was used to describe the round arenas where everything from gladiator battles to chariot races took place!



· In karate, the Japanese art of self-defense, individuals use their hands and feet to land strategic blows on their opponents. It derives from two words: kara, meaning “empty,” and te, meaning “hand.” That makes sense because you're fighting without a weapon.

· Japan also gave us haiku. A haiku is a short poem often about nature that con-sists of three unrhymed lines. The lines consist of five, seven, and then five syllables. The word derives from the Japanese words hai and ku, which mean “amusement” and “sentence,” respectively.

· Karaoke is even more popular in Japan than it is here, but did you know that it means ‘empty orchestra?’ How else would you describe a pre-recorded instrumental track with no vocals?

· What's a more American word than "tycoon?" Well, it's actually an anglicized spelling of the Japanese “taikun,” meaning “great lord.”



· To most English speakers, pajamas are loose-fitting artic les of clothing worn while sleeping or relaxing. The word comes from the Hindi word paijama, which means “loose-fitting trousers.” Pai means “leg” and jamah means “garment.”

· Ever slept on a cot? When the British Empire began to establish trading posts in India, British people were introduced to the Indian khat. A khat was a light frame strung with ropes or tape upon which people slept. The English word "cot," meaning “a narrow, collapsible bed,” derives from this term. Say them out loud and you'll realize they're really the same!

· Loot, the word for stolen money or goods is pronounced the same in English as in Hindi. It entered the English language after the British Empire began to trade in India... and did some looting there, as well.



· Intrigued to find out the roots of the word 'intrigue?' They may be more complicated than you might imagine! English first used it in the 1500s as a verb meaning “to deceive, to trick.” But English had just adopted the French word, keeping the same spelling and meaning. And French had done the same with the Italian verb intrigare, just adapting it only a bit. It was Italian that made some adjustments to the Latin intricare (“to entangle, to embarrass”). And THAT word came from an older Latin word, tricae, meaning (“tricks, toys, hindrances”). Quite a journey, don’t you think?

· Justice is another concept as American as apple pie... and as French as an apple galette. The Statue of Liberty is a gift from the French, but did you know that we also got the word ‘justice’ from them? They use the same word as us, meaning ‘administration of law.’ It comes from the Latin term, justitia!

· We use the word catalogue when we want to talk about a list of items or publication. Yet, the word has taken a long way to reach “catalogue.” The word "catalogue" first started in Greece with the word katalegien, which means "pick out" or "enroll." Later on, that morphed into katalogos in Greek and then to catalogos in Latin and then to catalogue in late French.

· Not only is ballet a French word, most ballet terms are French as well, from plie to barre. To be a good ballet dancer, you have to pick up a fair amount of French! What about 'tutu?' That one's a little different. Many people believe it came from the term 'cucu,' a childish way of saying 'bottom' or 'backside' in French! A tutu is worn on the bottom half of the body, after all.



· Have you ever eaten a kumquat, an orange-like fruit that is related to the citruses? It has an edible sweet rind and acid pulp and is eaten raw or used in preserves. Its name derives from the Cantonese name for the fruit: kamkwat, which is pronounced very similarly. Cantonese is a variety of Chinese spoken in Canton, present-day Guangzhou in southeastern China. Dissecting that word, we see that it is a combination of kam (“golden”) and qwat (“orange”)

· Tofu is actually the Japanese way to write the Chinese word dòufu, which is made up of the words dòu (beans) and (turn sour). Tofu originated in China, but became popular in Japan before arriving in English-speaking society!

· Possibly the most unexpected food name derived from Chinese? Ketchup! It comes from the term kôe-chiap or kê-chiap (鮭汁) which means "brine of pickled fish" in the Amoy dialect. A sauce made of pickled fish and spices was popular in 17th century China. It later made its way to Malaysia and Singapore, where English travelers tried it. Of course, modern-day ketchup doesn't contain brine of pickled fish at all! It's vegan!



· Gold is a word that traces its roots through several languages. The first root is easy. It came into English from German, with no changes at all. Digging deeper (haha, see what we did there?), we trace the German gold to the Dutch goud to the Gothic gulp to the Proto-Indo-European ghel, which means “to shine.”

· Every Kindergarten student in America knows at least one German word: "Kindergarten!" Adorably, it simply means 'children's garden' in German. German educator Friedrich Froebel created the first Kindergarten, saying, “Children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.” Could that be any cuter?

· Believe it or not, both noodle AND poodle come from German words, spelled a little differently but pronounced the same. "Noodle" comes from Nudel, a German word for 'noodle' that probably derived from the Old German word Knutel or Nutel, meaning 'dumpling.' "Poodle" is spelled "Pudel" in German and is short for "Pudelhund," meaning 'puddle dog.' Poodles were originally water dogs that would splash in puddles!



· Piano is one of many Italian terms that we use in music. The musical instrument was originally called pianoforte in Italian. In Italian, piano means "soft" and forte means "strong," so a pianoforte can play both quietly and loudly! The original name was even longer: "a gravicembalo col piano e forte," meaning "a harpsichord with soft and loud." Even though English-speakers shortened the word to 'piano,' piano music can still be pretty loud!

· Quick, name an Italian food! You may not think of broccoli as particularly Italian, but its name certainly is! In Italian, it means 'cabbage sprouts' or the flowering crest of a cabbage. Broccoli and cabbage are actually from the same plant species, Brassica oleracea.

· A fiasco is defined as a complete failure, especially in a humiliating or ludicrous way. It's actually an Italian word with a surprising history! Fiasco literally means 'flask' or 'bottle' in Italian. The term "Far fiasco," literally meaning "make a bottle" was an old slang term for when someone fell or made a horrible mistake in a stage performance. Why did they say that? Nobody knows!

But that's right, the sentence, "The piano recital was such a fiasco that the audience pelted me with broccoli' contains three Italian words!

Did any of these words surprise you? Does learning about the origins of English words make you want to explore a new language? Fluent City provides virtual language lessons in 11 different languages– including English!