Thought Leadership

Words on the move

By Colin Walls

I have written about my interest in language on a previous occasion and commented that I considered myself very lucky to have English as my first language. Although I do not really speak any other language enough to communicate usefully, I find the subject fascinating. Whenever I can, I try to learn 6 basic words [yes, no, hello, goodbye, please, thank you], along with a key phrase or two [like “May I have a beer please”] and the first few numbers. I can do that in a few languages, which is fun.

Lately I have become interested in the relationship between languages and how words move around …

There are many languages across Europe and it is common to find words that are the same in different places. Sometimes this is the result of modern word usage, where a word is simply borrowed from another language. In other cases, a word is not simply acquired, but it is adapted to a new meaning – examples here are “handy” and “beamer” in German.

I am told that the only Finnish word that has migrated to English is “sauna”. Interestingly, the Swedish word is “bastu”, which, to me at least, sounds like it is related to the English word “baste” [as in turkey], which conjures a rather graphic image.

A number of words used in Scotland and Northern England are very like their Scandinavian equivalent. A child is a “bairn” in Scotland, but they say “barn” in Sweden.

A really mobile word is “church”, which is unsurprising as religion was very tied up with education and migration of people. This becomes clear if you realize that “ch” and “sh” sounds are often inter-changeable, that “k” is often pronounced like “sh” in Scandinavian languages and vowel sounds frequently get adjusted. So, we get “kirk” in Scotland, “kirche” [not to be confused with “kirsche”] in German and “kyrka” in Swedish [pronounced something like “sheer-keh”]. French is different: “église”. But this pops up down in Cornwall [south-west England], where the word is “eglos”. Although the language is not widely used nowadays, this word appears in lots of place names.

The most ironic word migration I know of is outside of Europe. In Hebrew, the general greeting word is “Shalom”. In Arabic, the word is “Salaam”. These seem very similar to me. Both words translate literally to mean “peace”.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at