From Ancient Languages to Modern Languages: Words Covering Distances and Time

World map, Mahmud al-Kašġari, Dīwān luġāt at-turk (‘Compendium of the Turkic Dialects’), 11th c. Public Domain.

by Dorian Pastor

Part 1: Covering Distances

When a linguist wants to trace the origin of a word, he or she is faced with two options: either the word is inherited, i.e. traced back to an older state of the same language, or it is borrowed, which means that the word entered (or was borrowed into) the vocabulary of the language from that of a foreign language. This blog entry will share some interesting, surprising or little known facts illustrating these two phenomena.

Words That Travelled a Long Way

Lexical borrowing is a well-known fact when it comes to languages. In general, languages in contact leave footprints in each other’s lexicon in the form of words which bear witness to encounters of different peoples, regardless of whether they have coexisted peacefully or clashed. This is how English ended up with words of French origin in its vocabulary, such as cul-de-sac or deja-vu. It is for this same reason that we find words of English origin in French, often frowned upon by French speakers. But English and French are not the only languages to loan words to each other. Some borrowings are a little less obvious and their origin is not always clear to ordinary mortals.

The word alcohol is common in many European languages. The term turns up relatively late in scientific texts written in Latin in the form alcool or alcohol. The word comes from the Arabic term al-kuḥl ‘the antimony’, a kind of metallic powder then used as eyeshadow. It is in Europe that the word acquired the meaning ‘alcohol’, i.e. a highly sublimated (liquid) substance. English alcohol therefore goes back to the word kuḥl ‘antimony’ accompanied by the Arabic definite article from al-. The word kuḥl has cognates* in many languages of the Semitic family, such as Syriac kēḥal, Biblical Hebrew kāḥál or Akkadian guḫlu, in all of which it maintains the meaning ‘antimony’ (see ref. [2] 22, [3] 17).

The word yoghurt is probably the most commonly used of all those mentioned in this entry. And for good reason: many people consume it daily. It designates a snack made from curdled milk. This word comes straight from Ottoman Turkish yoğurt! In Turkish, the letter ğ corresponds to a sound that has disappeared but left a trace in the form of compensatory lengthening* [yoğurt > yōurt]. This explains why the same word has the form yaourt in French, incidentally borrowed through Bulgarian yaurt. The Turkish word yoğurt is derived from the verb yoğur- ‘to knead’ with the suffix -Ut. This verb, in turn, derives from the Old Turkic verb yoġ- ‘to curdle (itr.*), to thicken’ (which no longer exists in modern Turkish). If you are a learner or a speaker of Turkish, you should probably know that the Turkish word yoğun ‘thick’ is also a derivative of Old Turkic yoġ- and is therefore directly related to yoğurt (see ref. [7], [3] 681, [6] 725).

The word horde, which designates a nomadic tribe, comes from Turkic ordu ‘military camp’. The form is attested in the oldest corpora of Turkic, such as Orkhon Turkic (𐰆𐰺𐰑𐰆 in the Kül Tigin inscriptions, northern side, two occurrences: lines 8 et 9).

Orkhon inscriptions, Stele of Kül Tigin, 8th c. Public Domain

But the word was not borrowed directly from Turkish. It came a long way before it reached the British Isles. First, Turkic ordu was copied by Russian in the form orda, then borrowed into Polish as horda, which is where it acquired its initial h. It was then taken up by German, where it became Horde, then by French as horde until it finally reached English in the sixteenth century and became the word we know. In addition, we also find cognates of horde in the name of the city of Ordu, Turkey, and in the name of the official language of Pakistan, Urdu.

The word paradise designates the place where, according to many religions, the souls of the virtuous find themselves after death. In Christian culture, for example, it refers to the Garden of Eden. It is a word attested already in Old English and known to be borrowed from Old French, ultimately going back to Latin paradīsus. You might think the story ends here. But the word paradise actually has a much longer history: the Latin word paradīsus was copied from Ancient Greek παράδεισος (parádeisos) ‘enclosed garden where trees are planted and animals are raised’, which itself was borrowed from Old Iranian. Its attested cognate is Avestan paiṛidaēza, which describes an enclosed place. Avestan paiṛidaēza is a combination of paiṛi- ‘around’ and daēza ‘wall’. We find a cognate of English paradise in the name of the famous Iranian poet of the tenth to eleventh century Ferdowsi derived the Persian word pardīs, or more specifically from its Arabic adaptation firdaws (see ref. [2] 533, [3] 651).

There are of course many more words in European languages that have been borrowed from Middle Eastern languages. The case of alcohol is only one of the many Arabic loanwords in English, which include words belonging to the mainly scholarly vocabulary of the mediaeval period (algebra, cotton, zero, sodium…) or more recent practical vocabulary (safari, hookah, falafel). English terms of Turkish or Iranian origin are less numerous but nevertheless quite common (although many Arabic or Turkish words actually go back to Persian, such as checkmate < Old French eschec mat < Arabic šāh māta < Persian šāh māt or kiosk < French kiosque < Italian chiosco < Turkish köşk < Persian košk).

World map, Mahmud al-Kašġari, Dīwān luġāt at-turk (‘Compendium of the Turkic Dialects’), 11th c. Public Domain

Borrowing and Reborrowing

Another notable phenomenon is reborrowing, which occurs when a word belonging to language X is borrowed by language Y, and then language X reborrows it, often a few centuries later and in a somewhat altered form. Here is one example from French and English which illustrates the phenomenon:

French → English → French
The word tennis refers to a well-known sport! Many French speakers are convinced that this term was borrowed into French from English, ultimately going back to Middle English teneis. But don’t look for a Germanic or Celtic origin for this term, since in reality teneis is an alteration of Anglo-Norman tenetz ‘hold!’, plural imperative of the verb tenir. Anglo-Norman, which became the prestige language in England following the invasion of William the Conqueror, is a variety close to Francien: both were part of the so-called oïl varieties, which made up what is more commonly referred to as Old French. The word tennis is therefore directly related to the French verb for ‘to hold’. Paradoxically, in 1370, the word was implanted in the Italian vocabulary by French knights in the form tenes, which, however, has not survived to this day (see ref. [2] 752, [3] 627, 629).

The word tennis is not the only case of reborrowing between French and English. There are many more, of which we can cite two examples: the word stress (apheresis* of distress, copied into English from Old French destrece ‘distress’ and later reborrowed into French as stress) and budget (copied into English from Old French bougette ‘leather bag’ and later reborrowed into French as budget) (see ref. [2] 98, 221, 721 [3] 92).

Turkish → French → Turkish
The Turkish word türban ‘turban’ denotes a kind of headgear made of fine cloth. This word is a loanword and comes from French turban. French is indeed one of the languages that has influenced Turkish the most (after Arabic and Persian), with around 5,000 words of French origin making up the vocabulary of modern Turkish. What is less known is that the French word turban was initially a Turkish loanword in French. It is an alteration of the Turkish word tülbent, which designates a turban. Like French with tennis or stress, Turkish borrowed a word from a foreign language to which it had initially loaned it in the first place! Interestingly, Turkish tülbent (which is also the origin of the word tulip in English) is itself a borrowing since it comes from Persian dūl-band (see ref. [2] 787, 788, [3] 656).

Persian → Arabic → Persian
As between French and English, there are several examples of fairly obvious reborrowing between Persian and Arabic. The Persian word ǰawhar ‘jewel’ (which conveys the meaning ‘ink’ in modern Persian) was copied from Arabic ǰawhar, which itself is a copy of Persian gowhar (with the same meaning), an inherited word descending from Middle Persian gōhr. Other examples are Persian fārsi ‘Persian, Farsi’, which is simply the Arabic pronunciation of the historical word pārsi, stemming from Middle Persian pārsig (see ref. [4] 1057, [1] 36)!

Except in special cases when a language is geographically isolated from any external contact, it can be said that lexical borrowing is an inherent part of language development. It is a common and unavoidable phenomenon in the languages of the world. Even influential languages such as Classical Latin, Arabic (Koranic, Classical or Modern), Turkish, French or English could not escape borrowings, despite efforts made by language academies to avoid them. This entry is but a tiny window into the past allowing the reader to observe the path of probably some of the most interesting cases of lexical borrowing.

Useful vocabulary

ApheresisTruncation of one or more sounds at the beginning of a word, e.g. alligatorgator. This notion is opposed to apocope, which is the truncation of one or more sounds at the end of a word (advertisementad).
Compensatory lengtheningLengthening of a vowel caused by the loss of a following consonant.
itr.“intransitive”, designates a verb that does not take a direct object (e.g. to walk, to run), as opposed to “transitive”, which designates a verb that takes a direct object (e.g. to love, to watch).
CognatesWords that go back etymologically to an older common source, e.g. and English foot and French pied (both, via Latin for French and via Proto-Germanic for English, go back to Indo-European *pod-/*ped-).

Dorian Pastor, PhD student at ENS – PSL, teacher of Orkhon Turkic

Since 2021, Dorian Pastor is writing a dissertation at Université PSL – Paris Sciences et Lettres, as part of ED540 – Doctoral School of Literature, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, in partnership with AOROC – Archeology and Philology of East and West and ENS – École Normale Supérieure. His dissertation is entitled “The Persian of the 21st Century: Studies of the Vernacular Language”. His research topics include the linguistics of Iranian ​​and Turkic languages. In 2021-2022, he taught the course “Orkhon Turkic: study of runiform inscriptions from the 8th century” at ILARA.

For further information

Video by Dorian Pastor focussing Orkhon Turkic, as part of the Introductions series of ILARA Online.


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Bloch, Oscar & Wartburg, von Walther (2018). Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française. Paris: Quadrige / PUF (1ère édition, 1932, Paris : PUF)

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Vullers, Johann August (1856-1864). Lexicon Persico-Latinum etymologicum cum linguis maxime cognatis Sanscrita et Zendica et Pehlevica comparatum, e lexicis persice scriptis Borhâni Qâtiu, Haft Qulzum et Bahâri agam et persico-turcico Farhangi-Shuûrî confectum, adhibitis etiam Castelli, Meninski, Richardson et aliorum operibus et auctoritate scriptorum Persicorum adauctum. Vol. 2. Bonn : Adolf Marcus.

[5] =

(1933). The Oxford English Dictionary: Being Corrected Re-Issue With an Introduction, Supplement, and Bibliography of a New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. The Philological Society. Vol. 5, H-K. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

[6] =

Erdal, Marcel (1991). Old Turkic Word Formation. Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz.

[7] =

Trésor linguistique de la langue française. CNRTL (Centre National des Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales).

Cite this blog post
ILARA (2023, January 23). From Ancient Languages to Modern Languages: Words Covering Distances and Time. ILARA, the Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

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