Whether it’s Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese or Korean, the many Asian languages seem vastly different from the English language. Many English speakers can’t even read, much less pronounce many words in the various Asian languages.
However, it may be surprising to realize that the English language has also been influenced by many Asian languages, such as Malay, Cantonese and Japanese. After all, English itself attributes as much as 80% of its vocabulary words from other languages, including the different Asian languages!
Many know that a lot English words have their roots in Latin words, but few realize that some words in Cantonese, Mandarin and even Japanese have found their way into the English vernacular. Chinese words have also become part of the English language through other languages such as Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean. This is similar to how Latin words found their way into the English language through French, Spanish and Italian.
How it came to be
Asia and the English speaking continents are separated by an entire ocean, so it may be quite strange that the languages have managed to blend. However, the intermingling of cultures truly results in some interesting things.
Trade is a major reason why those in the West have some words from the East. Because of the many merchants who sailed to the East and the Pacific islands, we now use tea and chi (Mandarin word for energy) as part of the English language. Being exposed to the languages and dialects in various islands in the Pacific taught the European traders about the Asian culture, which they later assimilated into their own language and culture.
When various colonizers arrived in China and Japan, the languages inadvertently influenced each other, as is the common occurrence when cultures intermingle. Part of the colonization is the spread of missionaries, who took the time to learn the local dialects to make it easier to communicate with the locals. These missionaries then carried with them their knowledge of the local dialects and brought it back with them when they returned to their respective countries.
For example, when the British colonized Hong Kong, the western world learned about the Cantonese culture, including the word cheongsam as well as various names of vegetables, ingredients and items in the home and surroundings.
When the Chinese started to move out of the mainland and live in other countries, they brought with them their culture and of course, their language. We see them practice their wushu, tai-chi and various martial arts. In their homes, we see feng-shui being practiced.
Finally, we learned about various ingredients in their cooking, such as soy (shoya) sauce, tofu and bok choy (a Cantonese word for the Chinese cabbage). We know that chopseuy is a Cantonese dish of various vegetables, because it literally translates to “mixed pieces,” while the word chow is from the Cantonese word that translates to “stir fry.” Chow Mein is from Taishanese, which is a stir fried noodle.
Words from China
There are many dialects from China. Today, many words from these various dialects are now commonly used by English speaking people.
We are familiar with ginseng, which is Hokkien Chinese, while lychee, is of Cantonese origin. The word gung-ho, meaning “to be extremely enthusiastic about something” is actually from Mandarin, as is the game and word Mahjong. The word ketchup is said to originate from the Cantonese or Amoy dialect, which the Dutch merchant sailors picked up during their trades.
Kungfu is a well known as Chinese martial arts.
Words from Japan
When we think of the word tycoon, we think of Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Ted Turner and Donald Trump, among others. But did you know that the word tycoon is actually of Japanese origin, meaning “a high official” or “great nobleman”? The word is used in Japan to refer to wealthy business leaders, especially since it originally meant “great prince.”
Another English word that comes from the Japanese language is honcho, which evolved from the word hancho. This means “chief” or “head.”
Tsunami is another Japanese word that we now use in English to describe a large wave caused by an earthquake.
During World War II, we learned about kamikaze pilots. The word literally translates to “divine wind.” As the suicidal pilots went about their mission, they probably bade people Sayonara! which means, “goodbye.”
Ginkgo is from the Japanese word ginkyo. English speakers are familiar with the Japanese art of tending to small miniature trees called bonsai, while the flower arrangement style is called ikebana. Busy fingers also love to do origami. Young ones love manga and anime. Those who like to eat obviously know about sushi and sashimi, eating from a bento box, eating edamame, ramen and nori and enoki mushrooms, drinking sake, or cooking with dashi and mirin.
Those who love to sing their hearts out to karaoke have the Japanese to thank for the word, which means, “empty orchestra.” With some of the off-key singing at karaoke bars, it’s quite an apt description.
Many homes today also have a futon in the living room, which is another word of Japanese origin. Those who want to relax can enjoy a shiatsu massage.
Sports enthusiasts also have the Japanese to thank for aikido, judo, jujitsu, karate, kendo and sumo wrestling.
Words from the Malays
If you live in a compound or an enclosed grouping of buildings, you may want to know that the word comes from the Malay word Kampung, which means “village.”
When someone runs amuck, we have the Malays to thank for giving us the word amok, which means out of control. Bamboo comes from the Malay word bambu while rattan is from the word rotan.
The loud metal instrument that has a strong resonant sound when struck is from the Malay word gong, which immigrated to the English language unchanged.
To ease aches and pains, you may reach for a bottle of camphor oil, which comes from the word Kampur.
Little boys may not want to go near other girls, thinking that they will get cooties, but really, the word comes from the word kutu, meaning “lice.” Also, the animal Gecko owes its name from the Malay word geko or gekok.
The gingham pattern that we love is actually from the Malay word ginggang. Women who go to the beach wrap themselves in a sarong, a word that started as sarung, meaning, “wrap.”
These are just some of the many words that have transcended geographic borders and cultures and have become part of the English vernacular. These Asian loan words that are now as English as they are Asian only show that when it comes to language, there are no borders.