CH 5 Influence of Romance languages and other languages on English

By Richard K. Munro

New concepts, new ideas, new discoveries and new inventionsdemanded new words for English during the Age of Discovery (1492-1750) Some of these words were borrowed from Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic or indigenous languages mostly for new plants, new animals, new fruits, new foods, music, exotic dress, religions and customs.  There are some but relatively few American Indian words in English (most are from Spanish).  Here are a few: tobacco, squaw, papoose (baby), tomahawk (hatchet) ,cigar moccasin, moose, puma, ocelot, opossum (playing ‘possum means playing dead), how (greeting), potato, caribou, raccoon (or “coon”) shack, canoe and perhaps OK(okay)[1] or” eh huh?(meaning yes).   

Some examples of Spanish loan words are corral, rodeo, bronco, lasso, mustang, tomato, chocolate, vanilla, jaguar, aficionado, ranch, maize, Negro, Mestizo,[2], mulatto (originally Arabic). Alligator, cannibal, armada, anchovy, avocado, cargo, hammock, hurricane  guitar, mosquito, sombrero, barbecue, canyon, bonanza, lariat, , stampede , guerilla and bandolier (bandolera). In modern times Spanish words and expressions continue to creep into English such as macho, machismo,  “tornado”, “pronto”(right away) and “mi casa es tu casa” (my house is your house). Many are foods, dances and drinks: paella, quesadilla, sherry,  margarita ,tequila ,piña colada, salsa, rumba, nacho, tango, burrito, taco, tortilla, tamale, enchilada as well as sports terms such as “punched out” (struck out in baseball”ponchado”),aficionado, olé, torero, matador, corrida,  churro, chipotle (smoked jalapeño) anda favorite, a calque:“ten-gallon hat” from the Spanish “tan galán”(so gallant looking!)  [3]

Spanish Empire in 16th-18th century

          Later some Spanish words were popularized by Hemingway such as “nada” (nothing)“mano a mano” (hand to hand)and “a moment of truth” (momento de verdad) and the surprising “cojones”.  In Death in the Afternoon Hemingway wrote “It takes more cojones,” he wrote, “to be a sportsman where death is a closer party to the game.”Surprising because not only is this word used on live broadcast television during sports programs but also by politicians and television announcers instead of I suppose, the vulgar “balls.”  In English “cojones” has literary cachet because it comes from Hemingway a famous author but in Spanish[4] cojones is a quite vulgar expletive that one would hear in a bar or in a trench or at a bullfight but not during the nightly news!  Here is another example of Hemingway using Spanish words in The Old Man and the Sea:

He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is also probably the last modern English book to use the second person singular “thou” frequently. We now think of that kind of language a biblical, archaic or Shakespearean.   After making love with Robert Jordan the innocent Maria says “But did thee feel the earth move?” Robert Jordan says “I love thee and thou art so lovely and so wonderful and so beautiful and it does such things to me to be with thee that I feel as though I wanted to die when I am loving thee.” Also “I am thee and thou art me and all of one is the other.”  To me, Hemingway captures the tone of an intimate, poetic, romantic Spanish language conversation almost perfectly.[5]  Only someone who knew Spain and Spanish as well as Hemingway could have written that.  Pilar says “Do you know how an ugly woman feels? Do you know what it is to be ugly all your life and inside to feel that you are beautiful? It is very rare.”   Here “rare” is used in the Spanish sense of “raro” meaning peculiar and Hemingway intentionally uses what would normally be a false cognate.

Hemingway writing; he was quite well-read in world literature and read much Spanish literature in Spanish
Another great book by Hemingway which almost reads like a translation from Spanish

I have always thought Hemingway’s use of archaisms in English was his way of saying his contemporary Spain of the 1930’s was really closer in many ways to John Donne’s 17th century England than 20th century America or England.  Edmond Wilson, a well-known literary critic of the mid 20th century  thought Hemingway’s diction in the novel was bizarre and created “a strange atmosphere of medievalism” and the did not mean this as a compliment.[6]   Arthur Waldorn, writing in 1972, did not agree: “Some of Hemingway’s most poetic writing…colors these passages about time and transcendence. There can be no argument about their adding a certain depth and dimension to an otherwise flaccid love affair.”[7]  Hemingway’s Robert Jordan urges Maria to escape to safety saying, “ Not me but us both.  The me in thee. Now you go for us both. “[8]But the main character of the book, Robert Jordan is a Spanish teacher speaking Spanish to Spaniards and the entire book reflects this and is an implied translation.   Robert Jordan’s status as un hispanista or hispanófilo (lover of the Spanish) is a crucial element to the plot.

He was lucky that he had lived parts of ten years in Spain before the war. They trusted you on the language, principally. They trusted you on understanding the language completely and speaking it idiomatically and having a knowledge of the different places. A Spaniard was only really loyal to his village in the end. First Spain of course, then his own tribe, then his province, then his village, his family and finally his trade. If you knew Spanish he was prejudiced in your favor, if you knew his province it was that much better, but if you knew his village and his trade your were in as far as any foreigner ever could be. He never felt like a foreigner in Spanish and they did not really treat him like a foreigner most of the time; only when they turned on you.

Of course they turned on you. They turned on you often but they always turned on everyone. They turned on themselves, too.[9] (11.77-78)

Hemingway may not be entirely successful in trying to reproduce the atmosphere and color of Spanish repartee but in my view he comes very close.  In fact, Hemingway does something even more unusual; he unites Spanish and English literature as no other author has done except Cervantes.  And there is no question no English language author has done as much to assimilate Spanish words and phraseology into English.

 Some Portuguese loanwords are albino, commando (via Afrikaans) flamingo, molasses, Madeira (wine), pagoda, pickaninny (small).   Some Italian load words are  zero, allegro, largo, opera, piano, solo, maestro, soprano, balcony, balloon, bandit, cameo, ghetto, grotto, incognito, inferno, lagoon, malaria, miniature, motto, piazza, replica, scope, studio, torso, also paparazzo , mafia, macaroni, spaghetti, ravioli, pasta, pizza, lasagna etc.

Most Arabic words English have come to us via French, Spanish and Latin such as  elixir, alchemy, sugar, syrup, orange, admiral, cotton, zenith, algebra, hazard, alcohol, azure, adobe, candy, assassin, lemon, magazine (store house), tariff, wadi,  coffee, tarboose (cap), salam (peace like the Hebrew shalom) (via Turkish).   Fellah (peasant or farm worker).   Islam is the religion founded by Muhammed.[10]

It is obvious that the Muslim world has been in crisis since about 1970 and the reasons why are beyond the scope of this short essay. Therefore Arabic words slip into English by mere repetition via news reports.  A mullah is a religious leader and the highest title a mullah can hold is “ayatollah” which means “reflection of Allah.” Allah. Arabic word for God.  Allahu Akbar is an Islamic phrase, called Takbir in Arabic, meaning “God is greater” or “God is [the] greatest”.  Imam is a cleric more or less equivalent to minister.   Fatwa is a religious decree. Bin Laden issued a fatwa in 1998, before the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, declaring jihad against the United States. The fatwa said every Muslim must obey “God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money.”

Religious schools in Pakistan are called madrasas or madrasah and teach the strict Wahhabi version of Islam. Pakistan has 15,000 madrasahs similar to those where the Taliban studied. They do not teach other academic subjects, but do teach military strategy and tactics as well as anti-Zionist and anti-Western propaganda. Some more modern borrowings from Arabic are   Suffi, Sunni, Shiite, Shaira, fatwa, fedayeen (commandos/guerillas), mujahedeen (holy warriors; the Marines call them the “Muj”[11]), Madhi (the expected one) and of course Al-Qaeda (literally “the (terrorist) base.”   

Taliban (is the plural of Talib), Pashto word for students of Islam or seekers of knowledge. Clerics trained at madrasahs in Pakistan called themselves the Taliban (“Students of Islam”) when they started a rebellion against the Afghan government in 1996. Boko Haram, an Africa Muslim extremist group means Western Culture or education is “haram” or forbidden.[12]  ISIS or Islamic state is also known as “Daesh” (the acronym for the name in Arabic).  A Kafir is an infidel who becomes a dhimmi (inferior vassal), Shaheed[13] is a martyr or “suicide bomber.” If a terrorists kills or dies in a terrorist act he is guaranteed eternal life in paradise.   A Shaheed could be a terrorist according to the shariah (Islmaic law), Dar al Islam is the Islamic World and the Dar al Harb is the Non-Islam world where conquest, murder and terrorism are allowed even encouraged.   Non-Muslims must pay the special jizya tax as the price of their being allowed to live under shariah in the ummah. Hawala. Is the paperless financial system that al Qaeda is suspected of using.  From the Hindi for “in trust,” the system works on cash and promises of repayment, making tracing of transactions difficult.   Wahhabi is an18th Century Islamic movement that rejected all innovations in Islam and insisted on a strict, puritanical behavior code.[14] The Taliban and other fundamentalist (extremist) Muslims today are Wahhabis or are influenced by Wahhabism.[15] A burka is a full body covering required of modest Muslim women under the Taliban. Hijab is a headscarf.  The Niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes exposed.  


[1] The origins of “OK or OKAY are much disputed but there is no question it is an Americanism. Some say it was  joke based on  “OLL  KORRECT”   (all correct)..It was also widely used a slogan for Martin Van Buren who was born in  Kinderhook, New York and so was known as Old Kinderhook or OK.  However, this doesn’t explain why it was used frequently by Native Americans though it is possible they borrowed it from American slang.  Unless we can time travel we will never know for sure.

[2] In the Caribbean on English-speaking islands they use the term “Mustee” (or Mestee) meaning mixed race.  At one time it probably had some legal significance.

[3] And of course English has influence Spanish in baseball terminology as well. Here are some examples

Guirao! (You’re out /Get out of here) “estatua de la libertad”(statue of liberty-an umpire who consistently makes calls that go against one team!), tubey (a double or two-base hit), tribey (a triple or three base hit), tripleplei (triple play) jom (home plate) hit or jit de oro (clutch hit/key hit) una bola fául  ( a foul ball); bola fer  (fair ball)  cachucha (baseball cap; catcher’s cap)

[4] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2010/08/a_ballsy_explainer.html

[5] As the Irish are more lyrical in their English than the average American so is the average Spanish-speaking more lyrical and romantic in his or her intimate moments.  Spanish popular music of today (2020) has an innocence of American music of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

[6] Edmund Wilson, ” Return of Ernest Hemingway” (Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls) New Republic, CIII (Oct. 28, 1940)

[7] Arthur Waldorn,  A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway,  Farrar , Straus and Giroux, New York (1972)

[8] Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

[9] For Whom the Bell Tolls.   Ch 11.

[10] Pillars of Islam. Five practices required of Muslims: the profession of faith, the five daily prayers, almsgiving, fasting during Ramadan and a pilgrimage to Mecca.

[11] Other military jargon used by the Marines and others for the enemy: “Ali Baba”; haji:

  • 1: Arabic word for someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca (FORMAL CONNOTATION)

[12] http://religionnews.com/2015/11/17/isis-isil-daesh-explaining-many-names-terrorists

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[13] Strictly speaking it means “witness.”

[14] Founded by Syrian Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, it attacked and purged shrines in Saudi Arabia in the 19th Century.  It is a religious movement or branch of Sunni Islam Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don’t practice their form of Islam are heathens (infidels) and enemies.  They often call their enemies (Muslim) “hypocrites” and non-Muslims “polytheists” or Nazarenes (Christians).

[15] Islamic fascism (first described in 1933), also known (since 1990) as Islamofascism, draws analogy between the ideological characteristics of specific Islamist movements and a broad range of European fascist movements of the early 20th century, neofascist movements, or totalitarianism.

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