Welcome to a special bonus edition of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for learners. Catch up on past installments here.
Hi learners! Do you know what we all have in common? We love words! After a tremendous response to our last post about words that are the same in all languages, we're going to do some follow-up posts: Today we'll focus on more exceptions (!!), and in a future post we'll dig into the origins of the words you all suggested. (Spoiler: There seem to be a few more contenders for universal words!)
There are a few things we can learn from these lists of words and the exceptions:
- Language, culture, and society are closely related. Our words tell our language's story of trade, conquest, history, and politics!
- A new word that spreads around the globe often doesn't replace other words used closer to home.
- Pronunciations change in language-specific ways, and there's a lot we know about sound changes!
When a community adopts a word from another language, unfamiliar sounds and sound combinations get replaced with sounds from their own language that are pronounced in the same part of the mouth, or with the same tongue and lip movements. That means there are certain groups of sounds that we often see swap places across languages—with all borrowed words, not just the ones on these lists.
Here are a few examples:
- P, b, f, v, w: These consonant sounds are all made with the lips, so if your language doesn't have one of them, you might use another!
- T, d, th (like think), dh (like those), ch (like cheese), j (like juice): These sounds are made at or near the teeth.
- O, u, and sounds like them: There is a whole group of vowel sounds made at the back of the mouth with your lips rounded like in a kiss, like in book, booth, and both.
As you examine similar words from very different languages, look to see if the differences are with similar sounds (in which case the word may simply have adapted to the language) or if the differences are more dramatic. You can see in the chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet how close sounds are to one another.
Alright, alright: now, the WORDS!
Hebrew: an exceptional language
But first: Hebrew!
The story of Hebrew—its origins, influences, and modern revitalization—is worth a post of its own, but for this conversation the most important thing to know about Hebrew is that it is exceptional. ✨ Modern Hebrew is a fascinating mix of very old words and new, original creations that were made intentionally from old roots to make Hebrew as Hebrew as possible (and thus avoid many external influences and borrowed words). As a result, Hebrew is the source of many exceptions:
- Orange: תפוז (tapuz), which is a short form based on "golden apple"
- Taxi: מונית (mon-it), from a word related to counting
- Tomato: עגבניה (agvaniya), based on words for fruit and the "blushing" color of a tomato!
I am delighted to report that Hebrew does use versions of coffee and chocolate… so maybe these 2 will continue to win this competition? 👀
🫖 Are there more exceptions to tea/chai?
There are 2 big exceptions to the universality of tea/chai: Polish and Lithuanian!
These two languages have a third word to add to the list, herbata in Polish and arbata in Lithuanian. These are both from words for herbs, likely related to herbal drinks popular before tea was on the scene. Dear Duolingo readers Tomek and Marta wrote in to add that in Polish you drink tea from czajnik… which is related to the word chai!
🍊 Are there more exceptions to orange/portugal/appelsin?
There are more exceptions when it comes to words for orange, and they all come from Asia!
- Indonesian: jeruk. It can also refer to other citrus fruits—which reminds me that citrus fruits, names, and etymologies are worth a post of their own.
- Sinhala: thodang
- Sri Lankan Tamil: thodampalam
(And Sinhala and Sri Lankan Tamil do use narang for mandarin oranges!)
Some languages, like Persian (Farsi), Arabic, and Greek, use a naranga-s word for one kind of citrus fruit and a portugal word for another citrus fruit.
Other naranga-s words are hard to see in their present form if they've undergone a lot of changes. One common change is the deletion of the n- from the beginning, so many of the adaptations now start with a vowel (like English orange). After that n- is out of the way, you can see how well aranga and orange line up, with just some slight vowel changes.
In some languages, like Czech and Polish, the vowel-first version got added to another word, hiding its origin even further: It's pomeranč in Czech and pomarańcza in Polish… but those aranch-ish forms are from (n)aranga! In both languages, the pom- at the start is just like the pomodoro in Italian—a word for “fruit” or “apple”!
🚕 Are there more exceptions to taxi?
There's a language that doesn't use a word like taxi *or* a word about renting or hiring a car: Norwegian! Taxi is becoming more common in Norway, and the Norwegian word drosje seems to trace back to a Russian word.
🍅 Are there more exceptions to tomato?
There are even more exceptions when it comes to tomato, and many of them use words for other fruits to sort of “explain” tomatoes.
In Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, and Slovak the tomato word is rooted in an expression like “paradise apple": rajské jablko in Czech, rajčica or paradajz in Croatian, paradicsom in Hungarian, and paradajka in Slovak. In Persian (Farsi), the tomato becomes a “foreign plum”: گوجه فرنگی (gojeh farangee), and in Odiya a tomato is bilayati baigon (an English or British eggplant).
Two languages went in a different direction with their tomato words: The Romanian word for “tomato,” roșie, is literally an adjective for “red,” and the Armenian word is lolig!
️☕️ Are there more exceptions to coffee?
Due to new information, coffee has been forced to withdraw from the competition—while *most* of the world uses a word like coffee from Arabic qahweh, there are many exceptions!
- Afar: bún, búun, or búna
- Amharic: ቡና (bunna or buna)
- Armenian: սուրճ (soorch—although there are many ways to write its pronunciation)
- Dakota: pejutasapa (which literally means "black medicine")
- Eritrea: bun
- Luganda: mwanyi
- Ojibwe: makademashkikiwaboo (also "black medicine water"!)
- Oromo: ቡና (bunna or buna)
- Sudanese Arabic: jabana
- Tamil: குழம்பி (kulambi—although காப்பி (kāppi) is also used)
- Tigrinya: ቡን (bün or bunn)
(And the Sioux word is similar to kupnapyappi, but the helpful reader who wrote in wasn't sure of the spelling!)
Nearly all those exceptions fall into 2 groups: languages spoken in or near Eritrea and Ethiopia, and languages spoken very far from the Horn of Africa. Even though the Arabic word for coffee is the one that traders carried to new markets, there were other words used back in the (likely) home of coffee—all those variants of buna! Since these communities already had their own word, and their own coffee culture, there was no need to adopt the Arabic (or Turkish, or Italian) word.
What we see in the coffee languages is that sound adaptation I mentioned earlier. It's important to focus on the *sounds* of a word and not how it's spelled (since spelling rules vary wildly in different languages). Most languages have a sound like "q" or "k" (made at the back of the throat)—even if they spell it with "c"—but many don't have something like Arabic "w" or English "f"—so that one gets adapted in different ways in different languages, often obscuring its origins.
All these words—which might look different—are actually adaptations of the word qahwah (or another coffee word that they borrowed):
"w" replaced by "p"
Both of these sounds are pronounced at the front of the mouth, with the lips.
- Kannada: kaapi
- Malay: kopi
- Malayalam: kaappii or kaapi
"w" replaced by "f"
"F" is also at the front of the mouth, this time with only one lip involved, and "f" is more fluid and w-like than "p" (which is more of a pop).
- Albanian: kafe
- Italian: caffè
"w" replaced by "v"
"V" is pronounced just like "f" but with vibration in the throat, and some languages prefer using "v" between vowels.
- Croatian: kava
- Czech: káva (although kafe is used, too!)
- Finnish: kahvi
- Georgian: ყავა (kava or q'ava)
- Lithuanian: kava
- Polish: kawa (beware of Polish spelling rules—that "w" is pronounced more like a "v"!)
- Slovenian: kava
- Ukrainian: кава (kava)
You can also see that all of these words either have an "o" or "a" for the first vowel. These sounds are both made in the back and lower part of the mouth, so they have more in common than it might seem (not high, not front)!
🍫 Are there more exceptions to chocolate?
I was right about this one! 😉 I haven't heard yet about any true exceptions to chocolate. One suggestion from Dear Duolingo reader Sundus is about cacao or kakao, which is used in many languages but is also the go-to words for chocolate in some Arabic dialects of the Gulf. Amazingly, cacao is descended from the very same Nahuatl word that chocolate comes from! 🤯 So it's up to you whether you consider this a true exception. 😉
Just like with Arabic qahwah for "coffee," the Nahuatl-then-Spanish word chocolate has been adopted with replacement sounds from the new languages. Even though these words might look very different on the surface, they are actually adaptations of the word chocolate:
- Czech: čokoláda
- Finnish: suklaa
- Hungarian: csokoládé
- Slovenian: čokolada
- Swedish: choklad
- Welsh: siocled
The Finnish word might look the most different, but you can see how it's really just one step away from the Swedish word, which itself is one step away from chocolate! Finnish doesn't have a “ch” sound (and didn't originally have "sh" either), so “s” is the next closest: Both are made in the front of the mouth, and your tongue moves in a similar way for both. In these ways, "ch" and "s" are also similar to "sh."
(Even though the same spelling is used, this Swedish “ch” is a “sj” sound pronounced differently from English or Spanish “ch.” Thanks for this, Dear Duolingo reader Alice!)
Linguists of Dear Duolingo, unite!
That's it for these words and their exceptions—stay tuned for another Dear Duolingo column where we investigate whether some of your excellent suggestions (like mama, hallelujah, yogurt, and language names) have what it takes to be universal words!