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The World’s Top 20 Languages—And The Words English Has Borrowed From Them

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English is known as a magpie language that picks up words from almost every other language and culture it comes in contact with, from Abenaki to Zulu. And although some languages have understandably widened the English vocabulary more than others, modern English dictionaries contain more of a geographical melting pot than ever before. 

Listed here—in order by number of native speakers—are the world’s top 20 languages (according to Ethnologue, a global catalog of the 7000 languages currently in use worldwide). Alongside each entry on the list are just some of the words which English has borrowed from it. 

1. CHINESE: 1197 million native speakers (MANDARIN: 848 million)

Linguistically speaking, Chinese is a “macrolanguage” that encompasses dozens of different forms and dialects that together have just short of 1.2 billion native speakers. By far the most widely spoken variety of Chinese, however, is Mandarin, with 848 million speakers alone—or roughly 70 percent of China’s entire population. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Chinese words have been recorded in English since the mid-16th century, with the earliest examples including the likes of tai chi (1736), ginseng (1634), yin and yang (1671), kumquat (1699) and feng shui (1797). One of the earliest of all is lychee (1588). 

2. SPANISH: 399 million

One quarter of the world’s 399 million Spanish speakers live in Mexico, although other important Hispanophone countries include Colombia (41 million), Argentina (38.8 million), and Venezuela (26.3 million); there are almost as many native Spanish speakers in the United States (34.2 million) as there are in Spain (38.4 million). In English, Spanish loanwords are characterized by terms from weaponry and the military (guerrilla, flotilla, armada, machete), animal names (chinchilla, alligator, cockroach, iguana), and terms from food and drink (potato, banana, anchovy, vanilla).

3. ENGLISH: 335 million

According to Ethnologue, the English language’s 335 million native speakers include 225 million in the United States, 55 million in the United Kingdom, 19 million in Canada, 15 million in Australia, and just short of 4 million in New Zealand. But English is one of the world’s most widespread languages: mother-tongue speakers are recorded in 101 different countries and territories worldwide, 94 of which class it as an official language. Moreover, if the number of people who use English as a second language or lingua franca were included, the global total of English speakers would easily rise to over one billion. 

4. HINDI: 260 million

The world’s 260 million native Hindi speakers are mainly found in India and Nepal, while an estimated 120 million more people in India use Hindi as a second language. As with all Indian languages, a great many Hindi loanwords found in English were adopted during the British Raj in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but long before then the likes of rupee (1612), guru (1613), pilau (1609), pukka (1619), myna (1620) and juggernaut (1638) had already begun to appear in English texts. 

5. ARABIC: 242 million

Like Chinese, Arabic is technically another macrolanguage whose 242 million native speakers—spread across 60 different countries worldwide—use a range of different forms and varieties. The first Arabic loanwords in English date from the 14th century, although many of the earliest examples are fairly rare and obsolete words like alkanet (a type of dye, 1343) and hardun (an Egyptian agama lizard, 1398). Among the more familiar Arabic contributions to English are hashish (1598), sheikh (1577), and kebab (1698).

6. PORTUGUESE: 203 million

The population of Portugal is just under 11 million, but the global Lusophone population is boosted enormously by Brazil’s 187 million native speakers. Etymologically, Portuguese and Spanish loanwords are often tricky to differentiate because of the similarities between the two languages, but according to the OED, Portuguese is responsible for the likes of marmalade (1480), pagoda (1582), commando (1791), cuspidor (1779), and piranha (1710). 

7. BENGALI: 189 million

After Hindi, Bengali is the second most widely spoken language of India with just over 82 million native speakers. But the largest native Bengali population in the world is found in Bangladesh, where 106 million people use it as their first language. The number of Bengali words adopted into English, however, is relatively small, with only 47 instances—including jute (1746), almirah (a free-standing cupboard, 1788), and jampan (a type of sedan chair, 1828)—recorded in the OED. 

8. RUSSIAN: 166 million

One hundred and thirty-seven million of Russian’s 166 million native speakers live in the Russian Federation, with smaller populations in Ukraine (8.3 million), Belarus (6.6 million), Uzbekistan (4 million) and Kazakhstan (3.8 million). The earliest Russian loanwords began to appear in English in the 16th century, among them czar or tsar (1555), rouble (1557), and beluga (1591).

9. JAPANESE: 128 million

Japan’s 128 million people comprise the language’s entire native speaker population, enough to make it the ninth most widely spoken language in the world. Japanese words have been appearing in English texts since the 16th century, with some of the earliest loanwords including katana and wacadash (both types of samurai sword, 1613), miso (1615), shogun (1615), and sake (1687). 

10. LAHNDA: 88.7 million

Lahnda is the collective name given to a group of related Punjabi languages and dialects spoken predominantly in Pakistan. Punjabi words adopted into English are rare, but nevertheless include bhangra (a local traditional dance form and music style, 1965), and gurdwara (a Sikh temple, 1909). 

11. JAVANESE: 84.3 million

Java is the most populous island on Earth, home to almost two-thirds of the entire population of Indonesia. More than half of its 139 million inhabitants speak the local Javanese language, enough to earn it a spot just outside of the global top 10 here. The words batik (1880), gamelan (1816) and lahar (a volcanic mudflow, 1929) are all of Javanese origin. 

12. GERMAN: 78.1 million

Seventy million of the world’s 78 million native German speakers live in Germany, with the remaining 8 million found in the likes of Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. As English itself is classed as a Germanic language, historically the two languages share a close relationship and ultimately many of the oldest English words could be argued to have German roots. More recent direct German loanwords, however, include sauerkraut (1633), pumpernickel (1738), doppelgänger (1851), and frankfurter (1894). 

13. KOREAN: 77.2 million

Korean loanwords in English are relatively rare, with none at all recorded by the OED before the 19th century. Among the most familiar are kimchi (1898) and taekwondo (1967), while rarer examples include kono (a traditional Korean board game, 1895), and kisaeng (the Korean equivalent of a Japanese geisha girl, 1895). 

14. FRENCH: 75.9 million

The world’s 75 million native French speakers are divided among 51 countries and territories, including 7.3 million in Canada, 4 million in Belgium, and 6 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (home to the second largest French-speaking population in the world). Thanks largely to the Norman Conquest, roughly three out of every 10 English words are thought to have French roots, and the trend has continued ever since: English has adopted more loanwords directly from French—absinthe, blancmange, concierge, dauphin, envoi, fête, gourmand, hollandaise, impasse—than from any other living language. 

15. AND 16. TELUGU: 74 MILLION AND MARATHI: 71.8 MILLION

Telugu and Marathi are India’s third and fourth most used languages, with just over 74 and just short of 72 million native speakers, respectively. Neither is responsible for a great many English loanwords, however, and the vast majority of those that have found their way into the language tend to be fairly rare and unfamiliar, like desai (a revenue office or a petty thief, from Marathi, 1698), chawl (an Indian lodging house, from Marathi, 1891), and podu (an area of jungle cleared for farming, from Telugu 1938). By far the most well known is bandicoot, which is thought to literally mean “pig-rat” in Telugu. 

17. TURKISH: 70.9 million

Sixty-six million of the world’s 70 million Turkish speakers are in Turkey, with smaller populations found in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus, and Kazakhstan. Turkish words in English date back to the 16th century, with vizier (1562), tulip (1578) and caftan (1591) being among the earliest to arrive.

18. TAMIL: 68.8 million

Tamil is India’s fifth most spoken language, as well as being one of the official languages of Sri Lanka and Singapore. Catamaran (1697), pariah (1613), poppadum (1820) and patchouli (1843) are all Tamil words, as is curry (1598). 

19. VIETNAMESE: 67.8 million

The OED records just 14 Vietnamese loanwords in English, the earliest of which is the name of the Vietnamese currency, dông (1824). Among the handful of others is pho (a traditional Vietnamese soup, 1935), ao dai (a woman’s high-necked tunic, 1961), and both hao and xu (1968), the names for one-tenth and one-hundredth of a dông, respectively. 

20. URDU: 64 million

Urdu is the sixth Indian language to make the global top 20, with its worldwide total comprised of 51 million native Indian speakers, a further 10 million in Pakistan, and smaller populations in Nepal and Mauritius. Urdu words have been adopted into English since the fifteenth century, with surprisingly early examples including mogul (1577), cummerbund (1613), and bungalow (1676). Earliest of all, however, is shrab—an old Anglo-Indian nickname for an alcoholic beverage, the first record of which in English dates from 1477. 

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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