This is the last in our series of blogs on the influence of foreign words on the English language. As a company that specialises in translation and interpretation, language is a subject that occupies us every day. As I noted in an earlier post, languages are constantly changing and ‘interbreeding’, and as such are as good a refutation as any of the odious views of racists who believe that their country (wherever it is) should be kept free and pure of outside influences. Most languages today have a smattering, or more, of words from other countries and continents and English is, like the others a mongrel concoction of words from across Europe and indeed across the world. And just to illustrate the point, do you know how many English words are derived from Arabian languages?
For a start, anyone who has sat and scratched their head while trying to do ‘algebra’ at school probably hasn’t stopped to think of the etymology of that word, but it most assuredly is Arabian. Continuing on this mathematical theme, the word ‘zero’ is also Arabian in origin, which probably explains why I used to get zero for algebra!
‘Assassin’, on the other hand, is more likely to be recognised my many people as having a Middle Eastern origin, as do ‘sultan’, ‘sherbet’ and ‘harem’, but did you know that ‘sofa’, ‘mattress’ and ‘tariff’ are also Arabian words?
Finally, just to prove the point that languages are interbred, the word ‘sherbet’, which is derived from the Arabic word ‘sharbat’ (or from the Turkish ‘serbet’), is also the source of the French word ‘sorbet’ (which, just to confuse you more we also use in English) and the Italian ‘sorbetto. The English word ‘syrup’ is also derived from this source. Pronunciation and spellings all vary from country to country, with a common pronunciation in English being ‘sherbert’, rather than ‘sherbet’, although the latter is the correct spelling in English.
All languages adapt and adopt. It’s what makes our lives as translators interesting. Language is never boring!
David Orr, Director, Global Connects