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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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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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