Always evolving: some languages of the world and where they come from

This month’s collaborative post was inspired by a conversation between some of our contributors about languages and how much they ‘borrow’ words from one another. Malay has words from English, Turkish has words from French, English has words from Hindi, Spanish has words from Arabic. Not to mention the massive way in which European languages have influenced each other.

So here’s a look at the history and foreign influences of some of the languages spoken by PocketCultures contributors around the world.

It’s a long article, so if you’re interested in a particular country use these links: India, UK, France, Canada, Turkey, Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica, Portugal, Malaysia.

India: Hindi, English, Tamil, Marathi and many more!

Languages in India are as varied and complex as the country itself. The 2001 census estimated that there were 29 languages spoken by more than a million native speakers, 122 by more than 10,000!

We have 22 ‘official’ regional languages spoken across the country, but no ‘national language’. Hindi is often mistakenly referred to as the ‘national language’, but the constitution lists it as our ‘principal official language’. Where does Hindi come from? Well, it’s a language which evolved from a dialect spoken in northern India during the Mughal period, was influenced by Persian, and is closest to Urdu – the language today identified with Islam!

As to the ‘secondary official language’, well, it’s a language with no roots in the Indian subcontinent, and is thus technically a foreign language. Yes, it’s English – a language which came to India with the advent of the East India Company in the fifteenth century, and stayed on, adapting itself to the country and its regional idiosyncrasies. As the world shifts towards the Americanized form of English, India is one of the few places where the diligent Indian sticks to ‘British English’. We still spell ‘color’ as ‘colour’ and ‘neighbor’ as ‘neighbour’, thus forever arguing with our MS Word Spell Checker about the right spelling! On the other hand, the version of English spoken by the common man today forms a whole new language rightfully called ‘Indian English’! Where else would you find words like ‘prepone’ (the opposite of postpone), ‘pass out’ (to graduate, not to faint!), and ‘timepass’ (pastime)? India has also contributed to the growth of the language – words like Bungalow, Jungle, Thug and shawl have their roots in Hindi. There are also other common English words – Mulligatawny soup, anyone? Or Curry? Or rice? Well, these words are Indian in origin too… they come from yet another language – Tamil!

Tamil happens to be my mother tongue, and we tend to be extremely proud of the language, since it is one of the few longest surviving classical languages in the world! Tamil literature has existed for over 2000 years and earliest epigraphic records on stone date back to the 3rd century BC! Tamil is among the Dravidian languages spoken in India, and is predominantly in use in the southern parts of the country. Malayalam is a close relative of Tamil, though the two other south Indian languages – Kannada and Telugu – show the influence of Sanskrit – the Indo Aryan language which forms the basis of most other regional languages in India.

Classical Sanskrit dates back to the 4th century BC, but an earlier form of Vedic Sanskrit is believed to have existed even earlier than that! Most Indian languages have their roots, however weak, in Sanskrit. Even Tamil, which is the only language not derived from Sanskrit, accepts the Vedas written in Sanskrit without a qualm!

And so far, I have only spoken about Hindi, English, Tamil and Sanskrit – the languages I am most comfortable with. Living in Mumbai, I am also fluent in Marathi, and can understand the other languages spoken in the western part of our country. However, the east is another story altogether! They form yet another class of languages, with so many dialects disappearing faster than we can think!

While it must seem incredibly confusing to people visiting India, it somehow feels so natural to be multilingual. We grow up with so many languages around us that we naturally pick up languages as we go! Every time I visit a place, I realize that I pick up bits of the dialect spoken there… makes travel extremely interesting!

By Anu (PocketCultures regional contributor from Mumbai, India)


United Kingdom: British English

English as we know it has been spoken in England since the 16th century. It had originated from a group of Germanic dialects, taking influences from Greek, Roman, French and Arabic along the way. Before this time there were considerable differences between the regional variations spoken in different parts of England, but after the 16th century London English was adopted throughout the country and gradually throughout the UK. Welsh, a Celtic language which is very different to English, is still spoken in parts of Wales.

These days, English is the second most spoken language in the world (after Mandarin Chinese), and there are more second (and third!) speakers than native speakers. Whilst the English spoken in the UK has become more unified, the English spoken in different parts of the world continues to evolve and diversify.

As a result of its Germanic origins, many names for everyday objects are similar to German: bread (Brot); door (Tür); water (Wasser). During the Norman occupation, for many years English was used side by side with French and Latin. The rulers spoke French, ordinary people spoke English and Latin was used by the church and academics. Often English words derived from French have slightly different meanings, like prune (plum in French, dried plum in English); porc/pork (the animal in French, the meat in English).

More abstract words are likely to have Latin origins, for example probably, tenacious, millennium, nocturnal. Hence these kinds of words are usually similar to their counterparts in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian – all languages influenced by Latin. Comedy, athlete, aerobic are some examples of words taken from ancient Greek.

Words of Arabic origin tend to be related with science and medicine, maybe reflecting the Arab world’s scientific strength in medieval times. Words like algebra, algorithm, zero, giraffe, hummus all originate from Arabic.

Great Britain’s colonial history helped the English language to spread in other parts of the world. But the influence worked both ways. Modern English has assimilated quite a few words from India: bungalow, pyjama and shampoo came via Hindi, whilst the word curry comes from the Tamil language. In the last case we didn’t just assimilate the word – the dish has also become a permanent part of British cuisine!

By Lucy, Editor


France: French

French language is an Italo-Celtic language of Indo-European root that originated around the Caspian Sea. Two thousand years ago the Romans invaded France, then known as Gaule, and introduced the Latin language.

The Gallic upper class learnt proper Latin. The common people, who were all illiterate, learnt Vulgar Latin, a corrupted version of Latin spoken by soldiers and merchants who were mostly non-native but knew the basics to communicate efficiently. Vulgar Latin evolved into Roman, which remained essentially the language of the common until the 9th century when it evolved into Old French.

This evolution progressed through the centuries as the language absorbed words imported by various invaders such as the Franks then the Normans.

The extensive naval and terrestrial expeditions, trading and the wars of the Middle Ages put Westerners in contact with distant cultures and new concepts that allowed them to integrate new words into the French Language such as Italian and Arabic.

The most knowledgeable social classes were the most respectful of the meaning and pronunciation of the words. The common people, all illiterate, corrupted the pronunciation and spelling over the centuries. They spoke the language by ear and therefore eliminated the irregular forms of the language and assimilated sounds they could reproduce but were not necessarily correct.

Until the 16th century Southern France was speaking Langue d’Oc (a language closer to Latin) while Northern France spoke Langue D’Oil, the latter becoming then the official language. Oil and Oc meant yes in both languages. This unification obviously triggered more corruption in spelling and pronunciation.

By the French Revolution most French people were still illiterate. The implementation of compulsory schooling stabilised the spelling and pronunciation of French language as it set up a guide and was homogenously taught throughout the country.

French still evolves fortunately but under the strict control of the French Academy that assesses each year which foreign or common words should find their entry in the official dictionary.

95% of the French language is however originating from Latin or Greek. There are fewer than 180 words from Gallic (tools and nature) and nearly 80 from Frankish origin (weapon names mainly). We borrowed café from the Italian, zéro, alcool, algèbre from the Arabs, boulevard from the Dutch…

So for all those who thought that French was such a refined and beautiful language, it might be disconcerting to think that it evolved from Roman, a language that was once looked down on by “educated people”…

By DeeBee, PocketCultures regional contributor from France


Canada: English, French, over 50 First Nations languages

Canada is officially a bi-lingual nation, getting its language from our founding British and French ancestors. The languages, though, are distinct variations from those spoken in their original countries. Our English has been greatly influenced by and evolved with our American neighbours and their extensive media. So, we call the sport “soccer” not “football” and it’s a “garbage can” not a “rubbish bin”, but, we still stick stubbornly to British spellings, including “colour”, “favourite”, and “centre”.

Our French, on the other hand, has stayed archaic in comparison to France. Our French was the dialect of labourers, of settlers. They were determined to maintain their heritage in the face of British numbers. Thus, the French spoken in Quebec has not evolved. It has held onto its roots, while France has let its language change and develop with the times. Thus, Canadians can visit Europe and hit communication roadblocks while speaking in our native tongues.

I might also add that we do have countless First Nations languages: I believe over 50. These languages may belong to larger families, but each one, due to the isolation between tribes, developed into their own distinct languages. While these languages may still be passed down today, we are losing many of these languages as older generations pass on. And while, in the Yukon, up North, I have heard one of these language on the local radio, it is not common, and I am not aware of hearing a First Nations language at any other time in my life.

By Kelly, PocketCultures regional contributor from Canada


Turkey: Turkish

The Turkish Language is from the Altaic language family, which includes Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic (eastern Siberia & Manchuria) and to some extent Korean and Japanese-Ryukyuan. Its roots can be traced to Turkic tribes in Central Asia. Therefore it is closely related to Azerbaijani (Azeri), Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Turkmen, Uighur and Uzbek languages. Oldest known written records, Orhun Yazıtları (Orkhon Inscriptions) date back to 732 – 735 AD.

Today “Turkish language” depicts the language natively spoken in Turkey and Northern Cyprus. It is also spoken by Turkish minorities in Iraq, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and in some Balkan countries. Turkish language is spoken by almost 90 million people as native language, which makes it the most commonly spoken of the Turkic languages.

During the Turkic Migration in Middle Ages (6 – 11th centuries AD) Turkic languages spread through Central Asia, Turkestan, north of Black Sea and Iran. After Turks became Muslim in 10th Century, Arabic influence on Turkish has began. In 11th Century, the Seljuk Turks invaded Persia and Persian words entered the Turkish language. After the Battle of Manzakiert (Malazgirt) in 1071 Seljuks entered Anatolia and Turkish language gained ground on Byzantine Greek, borrowing some words in exchange.

In the Ottoman Era, between 14th – 20th Centuries, the official language of the empire was Ottoman Turkish; a mixture of Turkish, Arabic and Persian words written in Arabic script. It is said that “Persian was the language of poetry and the court, Arabic was the language of the mosque.” Military campaigns against European powers at that time brought more loanwords into Turkish from different countries. For example; as a result of naval conflicts in Meditteranean Sea most Turkish naval terms originated from Italian and Greek words and they are still in use.

During the 18th Century, when administrative reforms started taking place in the Ottoman Empire, French influence on Turkish language was so intense that French was almost the second language for the government and upper class. Using French words was accepted as a sign of literacy and modernism. Ottoman Empire fell behind the Industrial Revolution and was mainly a technology importer, thus names of the devices were imported too, mostly in French. Today names of the most of the vehicles, vehicle parts and electronic devices are from French origin and pronunciaton, such as otobüs (autobus/bus), tren (train), fren (frein/brakes), direksiyon (direction/steering wheel), vites (vitesse/gear), bagaj (baggage/trunk), televizyon (television), radyo (radio), ekran (ecran/screen) etc. Today more than 5,000 French loanwords exist in Turkish.

Modern Turkish took shape with the “New Language” movement, started by Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, in 1928. The Arabic alphabet was replaced with phonetic Latin script. A linguistic revolution began to get rid of the loanwords. At first the movement was successful. Nevertheless starting in the 80′s and lately with internet era English words invaded business talks and colloqiual speaking. Although today only 14% of Turkish words are from foreign origin, usage of original foreign words is on the rise as a result of Western cultural influence.

By Sinan, PocketCultures regional contributor from Turkey


Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica: Spanish

The Spanish language is also known as Castilian and as “the language of Cervantes”, the writer of Quixote. It was born in Spain, but nowadays most Spanish speakers are in Latin America. Mexico is the country with the most native speakers of Spanish in the world.

Spanish is spoken in 20 different countries worldwide and it is estimated to be the third most spoken language after Chinese and English. It is an official language of the United Nations and the European Union. It emerged from Vulgar Latin dialects and was first spoken in current Spain during the 9th century. It has influences from other languages such as Arabic due to the Arabic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century; and from the Native American languages, which started to appear in Spanish from 1492 on. Some popular foods were born in America and their names come from Nahuatl: tomato, chocolate and cacao.

In six of the seven countries that make up Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama), Spanish is the official language, with the exception of Belize, where it is English. In the various Central American countries, different words may be used to refer to the same thing. For example, children or kids are called chavalos or sipotes in Nicaragua, patojos in Guatemala, güirros or chigüin in Honduras and chiquitos, güilas or carajillos in Costa Rica. This difference in vocabulary can be even greater when compared to other Spanish-speaking countries; for instance, a carajillo means kid in Costa Rica, coffee plus cognac in Spain and coffee plus anise in Argentina. The use of anglicisms in Spanish is quite common in Latin America. Some of the most popular examples in Costa Rica are OK for está bien, sandwich for emparedado, zipper for cremallera, baby shower for té de canastilla, shopping for compras, among others.

The variety of Spanish spoken in Argentina and Uruguay is known as River Plate Spanish (español rioplatense). One of the strongest influences has been the Italian language spoken by immigrants. Many slang words derive from Italian, like “laburo” (work), a distortion of “lavoro” (work). Two main features distinguish this variety of Spanish: the use of vos instead of (second person singular you) and the corresponding change in verb conjugation: vos tenés instead of tú tienes) as well as the pronunciation of some sounds like the ll in llave (key) or the y in yo (I) as [ʒ] (as in the word treasure).

By Ana (PocketCultures contributing editor from Argentina), Marta (PocketCultures regional contributor from Spain) and Nuria (PocketCultures regional contributor from Costa Rica)


Portugal: Portuguese

Portuguese developed from Galician-Portuguese (Galaico-Português), also known as Old Portuguese; a West Iberian Romance language spoken in the Middle Ages, in the northwest area of the Iberian Peninsula. Galician-Portuguese developed in the region of the former Roman Gallaecia from the Vulgar Latin that had been introduced by Roman soldiers, colonists and magistrates during the time of the Roman Empire (3rd century BC).

The oldest known document to contain Galician-Portuguese words was found in the northern Portugal and dates from 870.

Galician-Portuguese lost its unity when the Condado Portucalense (County of Portugal) separated from the kingdom of Galicia (a dependent kingdom of Leon) to establish the Kingdom of Portugal in 1143. The Galician and Portuguese versions of the language then diverged over time as they followed independent evolutionary paths.

After our independence, we began A Reconquista (The Reconquest) to get the Muslim-controlled south Iberian areas. Lisbon was conquered in 1147. The Muslim period in Portugal (711 BC- 1249 AC) brought 1000 words to the Portuguese vocabulary. We know that the majority of the words beginning with “al” are of Arabic origin. Many town names reminds us of the Muslim period: Almada, Alcochete, Aljezur, Alcácer do Sal,…

During the Portuguese discoveries in the 15th and the 16th centuries, the Portuguese language spread in Africa, America and Asia: Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé e Príncipe, Cape Verde, Brazil, Goa, Macau, Timor, Malaysia… It’s now the 7th largest language in the world, by number of native speakers. Many Japanese words are also of Portuguese origin.

Modern Portuguese dates from the 16th century. Portuguese is also called “A Língua de Camões” in honour to our greatest poet Luiz Vaz de Camões. He wrote the famous epic “Os Lusíadas” (The Lusiads) about the great Portuguese discoveries.

Our language has many influences from other languages. These are some examples of Portuguese words of different origins:

Basque: arroio, balsa, barro;
Celtic: cabana, caminho, carpinteiro, carro, cerveja;
Phoenician: mapa, mata;
Greek: bolsa, cara, calma, chato, caixa, espada, governar;
Hebrew: aleluia, amém, bálsamo, belzebu, cabala, éden, fariseu, páscoa, querubim;
Germanic: arreio, agasalho, albergue, anca, aspa, barão, banco, banho, brasa, estaca, espeto, espora, guerra, burgo;
Arabic: cáfila, califa, matraca, fulano,

We also use many words with French or English origin. Some examples: batom (bâton); abajur (abat-jour); bijuteria (bijouterie); balé (ballet); air bag; net (Internet); remix.

Portuguese is considered a very rich, beautiful and poetic language. We’ll look deeper at the Portuguese language’s poetry and musical traditions in a future post (coming soon).

By Sandra (PocketCultures regional contributor from Portugal)


Malaysia: Malay

There are many speculations about where the Malay language (Bahasa Malasyia) actually originated. Some say in Sumatra Island, some in Borneo and some even in smaller islands in the area. However, Malay shows the closest relationship to most of the languages in Sumatra but somehow it is also related to the other Austronesian languages in Sumatra, Borneo, Java and also to the Cham languages of Vietnam.

Malay Language was suspected to be spoken back the end of 7th century AD, Oldest inscription in Malay were found in Southeastern and Southern Sumatra. In 1957, Malay Language was adopted as official Malaysia language, “Bahasa Malaysia”.

The main influences of Malaysia’s Language were British Colonial. Throughout the colonial decades, Malaysia language was highly influence by British colonial, English. Nowadays, a lot of words are actually from English, so it’s called the evolution of Malaysia Language. For example: Interaksi (interaction), protein (protein), Applikasi (application), Procedur (procedure) and many more.

By LeX (PocketCultures regional contributor from Malaysia)

Read more:
Kumusta? And other Filipino greetings
The German language
World language families

About the author

Lucy (Liz) Chatburn
Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.
Other 502 posts by

9 Comments

  • What an interesting post! It’s great for all the linguists out there. It was fun to take part in.

  • DeeBee

    Well, i think we all did very well, didn’t we?
    Very interesting, thanks to Sinan for suggesting we wrote about languages!

  • What an amazing post! Just love it!
    Great idea! Thanks Lucy for this challenge!
    I’ve learned a lot today with you all. :-)
    Such a great team work!

  • I learned a lot from this one too. Thanks Sinan for the idea, and thanks everyone else for making it into a fantastic post!

  • I so echo Ana! It was fun to be part of this, and so interesting! I found so many facts about our own languages while researching for the article, and reading the others’ posts taught me so much more!

  • anita rivera

    Dearest Sandra,

    I have enjoyed my tour of the languages here and I NEVER TIRE of learning more about French and other languages I love. I had never known about the origins of Portuguese and thank you for putting together this highly informational and obviously well-researched piece!

    BRAVO!!! Anita

  • Nuria

    Wonderful reading! I love learning from so many languages!!! Really interesting! ;)

  • Sinan Yuzakli

    Thanks to all fellow contributors for this marvelous and comprehensive article!

    It turned out to be a great reference for us linguistic afficionados. Not only I learned wonderful facts about many languages reading this article, I also found out interesting facts about my native language Turkish, while researching for my part. (They do not teach those in the school :)

    Well done for this fine read…

  • Hi Anita,
    Thank you for your nice words!
    Only now I read your comment. It was Liz who put this information together, so it’s to her that you must say “thank you” ;-) I’m only one of the contributors, nothing more :-)
    Besos, my dear friend!! :-)