A musing – To celebrate the European Day of Languages

Bonnie Wong

26 September 2023

What do alpacas, pancakes and European languages have in common? Every year, on September 26th, they are celebrated in various parts of the world for their adorability, deliciousness and cultural significance (respectively). While I do adore alpacas (such floofy heads!) and enjoy a good pancake (mmm, pancakes…), spending any more time writing about them would be too much of a digression from this article’s subject: the European Day of Languages (EDL).

The creation story

The European Day of Languages was first organised in 2001 by the Council of Europe (CoE) and the European Union (EU). Since then, the EDL is observed every year by millions of people across the globe (whereas alpacas are only celebrated in the United States on that day). In the 47 member countries of the CoE, from France to Serbia, Estonia to Italy, Ireland to Lithuania, educators, schools and universities organise specially-dedicated weeks, conferences, events and activities to encourage students and people in the general community alike to discover the languages of their European neighbours.
The long-term objectives of the EDL are multiple: to celebrate Europe’s affluent living linguistic heritage; to encourage open-mindedness, improve linguistic awareness and foster cultural understanding; to appreciate the value of language learning for lifelong and personal enrichment; and to inspire people to learn another language “to whatever standard” (CoE, 2023a). These objectives are encouched in the CoE’s overarching mission to promote “social inclusion, social cohesion and respect for diversity” (CoE, 2023b).

Souliers here but chaussures there

Growing up in Ontario, Canada, I was surrounded by people from all over the world, so I was aware of linguistic diversity growing up - but I didn’t understand it. I had a passive awareness that other languages existed but never gave it much, if any, thought. Even words such as proper names were taken for granted as mere identification tags, not unlike vehicle license plate numbers: random and lacking cultural or linguistic significance. Of course, even as a child I was aware that the names Wilheim, Nagy, Stillitano, Qureshi and Owsiak came from different languages, but to me, they were, in a way, simply Canadian; I couldn’t see the German-, Hungarian-, Italian-, Arabic- or Polish-ness of those names. I was aware that some of my friends, like me, spoke another language at home, but I never thought about or understood how those diverse linguistic threads helped weave the tapestry of life as a Canadian.

Of course, my lack of linguistic curiosity and appreciation could be attributed to childhood preoccupations with playdates, adolescent angst and self-absorbing dramas of young adulthood. At no point during those stages did I care about learning languages.

In primary school, my classmates and I had to complete the mandatory five-year French programme through grades four to eight. In secondary school, I could remember the basic phrases such as Comment t’appelles tu ? [What is your name?] and Où est la banque ? [Where is the bank?]. Whilst not entirely unuseful (read: road trips with friends to Montreal), the French language wasn’t a subject that interested me at the time. In university, as an English major, I had to complete credits in a second language. I thought about picking up French again, but by then, my French knowledge had atrophied to, well, those two basic phrases, and a handful of words like bicyclette, phoque, whose pronunciation is a source of childish amusement for English-speaking pupils, and souliers, whose usage was a source of mild amusement for my French-speaking European friends. (Canadian French uses some vocabulary considered archaic in France and Belgium where shoes are chaussures; souliers is an antiquated term much like breeches or pantaloons instead of trousers in English). I had no intention of leaving my Anglo-speaking hometown cocoon, so in my mind there was no need for Greek, Spanish or Italian. In the end, I opted to study Latin, because I always found it so beautiful by virtue of its apparent inutility and classical omnipresence in our modern lives.

Fast forward a few years, and I moved to Brussels, Belgium, where, much to my chagrin, knowing French would have been not unuseful.

Since becoming an adult and moving to Brussels, thanks to my ever-developing interest in languages, I’ve come to appreciate and better understand linguistic diversity. And through interacting with friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers from all over Europe, I’ve become consciously aware of how much the English language owes to the rich linguistic diversity of European languages.

Yes, but where are you really from?

The English language has borrowed extensively from other languages, many of which, of course, are European. To celebrate the European Day of Languages, let’s play a game to get a glimpse of how much European languages have influenced English. Read the hints and try to guess the word described (the first letter of each word is given), and then, decide from which language the term derived.

1- Pro tennis players Venus to Serena and vice versa.

s _ _ _ _ _

a. Danish b. Spanish c. Italian

2- Clint Eastwood’s instrument of choice in Western duels.

p _ _ _ _ _

a. German b. Slovak c. Czech

3- Often confused for a Vespa.

m _ _ _ _

a. Italian b. Spanish c. Swedish

4- A, B, C, D and K, but also riboflavin and folic acid.

v _ _ _ _ _ _

a. Polish b. Greek c. Latvian

5- This is the cocktail, not the pizza.

m _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

a. Italian b. Spanish c. French

6- The MET, MoMA or Guggenheim.

m _ _ _ _ _

a. German b. Dutch c. Greek

7- An image that gets under your skin.

t _ _ _ _ _

a. Slovenian b. Bulgarian c. German

8- The iconic structure on which Juliet appears above Romeo.

b _ _ _ _ _ _

a. Italian b. Portuguese c. French

9- A decorative collar he wears to look dapper.

c _ _ _ _ _

a. French b. Croatian c. Dutch

10- A cold desert.

t _ _ _ _ _

a. Estonian b. Finnish c. Sami

How do you think you’ve done? Just a couple of caveats before checking your linguistic prowess: First, these loan words have surely contributed to other languages besides English, but as a non-speaker of those other languages, I am in no position to write about their lexical etymologies. Second, in some cases, words have been reborrowed or have more than one origin, but those (like alpacas) are subjects for another day.

1- The word sister has a complicated history, but among its roots are the Danish søster and Swedish syster (Harper, 2023). Fun fact: Serena Williams’s birthday is September 26th.

2- The word pistol in English came through German (pistole) and French (pistole) from the Czech píšťala, meaning “tube” or “pipe” (Naillon, 2020).

3- The portmanteau moped comes from the Swedish rampcykel med motor och pedaler, meaning "bike with motor and pedals” (The Local, 2012).

4- Polish biochemist Kazimierz Funk coined the term vitamin, another straightforward portmanteau, by combining the words vita, Latin for life, and the chemical compound amine. (Incidentally, the word funk, completely unrelated to the scientist, has a convoluted etymology and a colourful array of meanings and uses.)

5- From the Spanish version of the proper name Margaret comes the namesake margarita cocktail (Harper, 2023), not to be confused with, but what some might pair with, a Margherita pizza.

6- One of my favourite etymologies, the word museum comes from the Greek mouseion, meaning a place of study and, originally, “a shrine to the muses” (Lewis, 2023).

7- The art of tattooing dates back to as early as 5,200 years ago, but the word tattoo came later (Lineberry, 2007). Scholars believe that the word originates from both Polynesian (tatau) and Dutch (taptoe). Variations of the onomatopoeic tattoo, reminiscent of the sound of a tattooing instrument hitting the skin, exists in many languages including Slovenian (tetovírati), French (tatouage) and Portuguese (tatuagem) (Hunter, 2020).

8- The iconic balcony scene from which Shakespeare’s Juliet courts Romeo takes place in Verona, Italy, and the word balcony comes from the Italian balcone, meaning “scaffold” (Harper, 2023). (Interestingly, scholars have pointed out that in Romeo and Juliet, there is no actual mention of a balcony (Brînzeu, 2016), just a window, which, admittedly, is somehow less visually captivating.)

9- The word cravat in English comes from the French cravate whose origin is the Croatian Hrvat, a type of scarf worn by Croatian soldiers.

10- The word tundra comes from Sami, a group of languages spoken in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia (Weaver & Chela, 2011). UNESCO lists the ten Sami languages as endangered, but, thankfully, there are now efforts to revitalise and save them.

Lingua doctrina ad vitam – Language learning for life

Personally, researching these moreish etymological tidbits in the context of EDL has given me much food for thought about my own long-term language learning goals. I’d like, for example, to continue studying French and start learning Dutch, especially since they’re the two official languages of Brussels, Belgium, where I now call home. But I’m also smitten with Finnish and Hungarian, partly because of their reputation for being challenging languages to learn and partly because I want to impress my Finnish and Hungarian friends that I can say a few phrases in their native tongues “to whatever standard”.

The aims of the European Day of Languages are ambitious and realising them will require continuous and cooperative efforts at governmental, institutional and individual levels. But thankfully, citizens are indeed interested in learning languages – for personal growth, for professional and academic mobility, for the safeguarding of history, for the conservation of a living heritage.

Works cited & consulted

Auclair, N., Frigon, C. & St-Amant, G. (2023). Key facts on the English language in Quebec in 2021. Statistics Canada, 22 Aug.

Bejrowski, P. (2019). Kazimierz Funk and vitamins – Biochemistry and the concept of ‘vital amines’ (Rose, A. and Sirotin, J., Trans.). Polish History.

Beránek, A. (2022). Are there any Czech loan words in English (other than robot)? [Online forum post]. Quora.

Brînzeu, P. (2016). There is no balcony in Romeo and Juliet. What’s in a Balcony Scene? A Study on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and its Adaptations (Frentiu, L., Ed.). Cambridge, pp. 13-38.

Council of Europe (2023a). European Day of Languages.

Council of Europe (2023b). History. “

European Centre for Modern Languages (2023). European Day of Languages.

European Commission (2008). Cited in Baaij, C. (2012). The EU Policy on Institutional Multilingualism: Between Principles and Practicality. file:///C:/Users/bonni/Downloads/hhamann,+03_Baaij[1].pdf

Harper, D. (2023). Online Etymology Dictionary.

Hunter, D. (2020). Tattoo etymology: The origin of the word “tattoo”. Authority tattoo, 11 Nov.

Lewis, G. D. (2023). Museum. Britannica, 26 Aug.

Lineberry, C. (2007). Tattoos – The ancient and mysterious history. Smithsonian Magazine, 1 Jan.

Naillon, E. (2020). Do you know your Bohemisms? These English words were borrowed from Czech. Expats cz, 17 Jul.

Okrent, A. (2019). 9 words that were borrowed from one language, transformed, then borrowed back, 23 Oct.

Sharon. (2007). Spanish loan words. Daily Writing Tips.

Statistics Canada (2011).  Population by knowledge of official languages, age groups (total), 2011 counts, for Canada, provinces and territories.

The (2012). Top ten words you didn’t know come from Sweden. The Local, 23 Oct.

The Sámi languages. (2019). Artic Council – Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat.

Weaver, F., Chela, C. (2011). Guardians of the Finnish language. This is Finland, Aug.

Your Guide to Italy. (2010). Italian loanwords in English.