CLOSE
istock
istock

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

istock
istock

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. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
language
How Your Brain Turns Words Into Language
iStock
iStock

Language is one of the things that makes us human—so much so that our brains can’t function the same way without it. But when it comes to actually speaking, reading, and listening to words, some parts of our brain do more heavy lifting than others. Life Noggin broke down this process in a recent video.

Before speaking a word you just heard out loud, that information must first travel to your primary auditory cortex, then to a part of the brain called the Broca’s area, and finally to your motor cortex, which makes verbalization possible. The Wernicke’s area of the brain also plays an important role in listening to and processing language: If it’s damaged, the speaker’s ability to form coherent sentences suffers.

Knowing more than one language shapes the brain in totally different ways. According to one recent study, bilingual speakers can perceive and think about time differently, depending on which language they're using. Learning a second language as an adult can also improve mental function and slow brain decline later in life.

For the full scoop on how our brains use language, check out the video below.

[h/t Life Noggin]

arrow
language
10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

Greek lettering.
iStock

Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
iStock

Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

Sanskrit lettering.
iStock

In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios