A lot of people assume that different languages have different words for everything – but this often isn’t the case.
In this blog, we’ll explore how some words mean the same thing in virtually all languages. While some of the reasons we explain will seem obvious when you see the reasons why – others are far less obvious and relate to the way languages develop based on our need to communicate clearly.
Let’s start with the world’s most popular hot drink…
The global love for coffee means that you’ll probably be able to get your hands on a latté no matter where you are. What a lot of people don’t realise however is how similar most languages’ word for “coffee” actually is.
For instance, if you’re in the Netherlands, you’ll need to ask for a “koffie”. In Serbia, you’d ask for a “kafa”, and in Indonesia, you’ll get your caffeine fix by asking for a “kopi”.
This is thanks to a trend in language known as “globalization”. When you study globalization, you begin to realise quite how small our world really is. In effect, we ‘loan’ words from other languages when we don’t have a word ourselves.
Coffee is a great example of how this happens because the actual product originally came from just a handful of places. As coffee beans were traded, ground, and consumed, they were described using close variations of the original word that had been used for them.
In many cases, variations to the word come simply because of how the local language works. For instance, the “-fee” noise that is common in English is less common in Indonesian dialects – hence the “-pi” ending in the example above.
Taxi is another example of globalization – which is good news if you find yourself needing a ride anywhere in the world.
If you need to get somewhere in Finland, you’ll need to hail a “taksi”. If you’re in Korea, you’ll need a “택” (pronounced “taegsi”). If you find yourself in Russia, you should look out for a “такси” (pronounced “taxi”).
The word’s root can be traced back to Medieval Latin – where the word “taxa” meant “tax” or “charge”. In time, the machines that were installed in cars to record distances and fares were given the name “taximeter”. The vehicle these devices were installed in became known as “taximeter cabs”.
In time, this was shortened to “taxi” and recognised around the world. However, the “taximeter cab” origin of the word also explains why they’re often referred to as “cabs” in North America.
It’s easy to assume that all similar words across languages are a result of one word slowly spreading across the globe – but this isn’t always the case.
The word “huh” is a prime example of how a very similar word can actually develop to sound and mean the same in vastly different languages. Need to quickly stop a conversation for clarification in English? Usually, a well-placed “huh?” will do the job. Need to seek the same clarification in Mandarin? Again, a timely “huh?” will work.
So, if these words don’t come from the same place, why do they sound the same and do the same job?
According to linguists, it’s because a noise like “huh” has evolved to fulfil a need that occurs in all languages. “Huh” is considered a “conversational repair initiation” – a noise made by one party to let the other person know that there is a loss of information, and that this other person needs to fix that problem.
That fact that this need has evolved means it has followed a very similar pattern – hence it sounds similar around the world. If you make the noise now, you’ll notice that your mouth and tongue barely move – it’s just your vocal cords that constrict slightly. This means it requires very little effort in any language – and it’s short because it needs to quickly fit into a small gap in speech.
As language naturally developed in different cultures, a need for understanding was universal – hence the requirement for a noise like “huh” to quickly interrupt spoken language and encourage further explanation.
Need a copy of your passport taking in a different country? Chances are, you’ll either see a sign offering “Xerox” or you’ll be able to ask for a “Xerox” wherever you are.
So, why is this? Quite simply, it’s because it’s a brand name. In the case of Xerox, it’s the brand’s worldwide success that turned the name (a noun) into an action (a verb). Today, if you ask for a Xerox, you’re more likely to be offered a copy of a document rather than a new copy machine.
Of course, not all brand names work like this. Canon also make copiers – but if you present a document and ask for a “Canon” – you’ll almost certainly be met with a confused look in any country.
Xerox has become a verb because it was the first company to offer these copy machines and has maintained its place as the best-selling brand of copiers in most parts of the world.
Most words don’t have any real-world relationship to the thing they describe. For instance, we know a house is a house because we have learned the word – rather than the word “house” actually resembling anything about a house.
This is because the word “house” isn’t “iconic” – but some words are. Words that are iconic transcend language and are therefore understood around the world.
“Boom” is an example of one of these words because it is an “onomatopoeia” – word that sounds like the action it describes. Wherever you are in the world, using the world “boom” to a police officer will accurately convey the fact that you’ve heard a loud explosion-like noise. This applies in the U.S., in China, in Egypt, in Finland – or anywhere else you might go.
Other examples of iconic words include the Roman numerals I, II and III. This is because they absolutely represent what they are – I is two character, II is two characters, and III is three characters. They accurately represent what they are.