An image of the Tower of Babel showing a massive, but unfinished, tower. At its base and in the foreground of the picture, workers and their supervisors are arguing about how to finish their project.

Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Wikipedia

The Tower of Babel: In Christian and Judaic lore, all people who lived after the Great Flood originally spoke the same language. These ancient people’s ambitious project was to build a tower that reached all the way to heaven. To punish their hubris (a word you’ll learn about later), God confused their speech, which resulted in the thousands of languages spoken across the world. Thus the tower was never completed.

Tens of thousands of words have been borrowed from other languages to create the English language. Sometimes we borrow them for trends in food or fashion. We have borrowed words like spaghetti (a word you know) and boutonniere (a word that refers to a flower that men wear on their lapels on fancy occasions). Some words such as “rodeo” and “villa” are so embedded in our language that we don’t recognize them as having foreign roots.

Many of our borrowed words came to our language through war and conquest. When you read the history of the English language, it’s really a history of the British Isles and its battles. When the Normans landed on the shores of the British Isles in 1066, they brought their French language, which began the introduction of French words into our vocabulary. As you read this lesson, you will see a small sampling of words that have been borrowed from French.

As England and other English-speaking countries became involved in wars and conquests, words from the conquered countries were added. We now have the words bandana and jungle because of the English colonization of India many years ago. During World War I and World War II, words to describe particular places, events, or actions were introduced to English from German. Blitz is one such word. You will learn more about such words in this lesson. You will also learn about words that relate to law and religion, many which came from Latin.

In this era, we continue to acquire wartime words. One of the most widely known additionsjihadis from Arabic. This word was unfamiliar to most people in the U.S. until the events of the past decade. English is a changing language.

In this lesson, you will be introduced to selective lists of words. These words can help enrich your language, deepen your understanding of what you read, and broaden your sense of the world.

Learning New Words

The sections that follow may seem to be introducing an overwhelming number of words, but chances are that you already know some of them and just didn’t realize their origins. Other words may be new to you, and that’s OK. You can impress your friends and family with your acquired knowledge as you learn how to use these new words.

In this lesson, each “foreign” word will be introduced along with an audio that demonstrates how to pronounce it. That way you can hear how the word should sound. The audio pronunciations use Merriam-Webster’s phonetic pronunciation guide. Try saying each word two to three times using the audio guide to help you. Sound out each word or phrase. It’s OK if you can’t pronounce it right the first time; after all, the word is from a different language. You should also compare the pronunciation from the audio to the word’s printed pronunciation key to learn exactly how to say a word. Each word’s key breaks it into syllables and shows where to place emphasis.

For each word or phrase in this lesson, you will see

An image of a salad bar with price tags and labels on each item.

Source: “One small bit of Örtagården salad bar,” Betsy Divine, Flickr

á la carte

Language: French (“according to the card”)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation:
\,ä-lə-'kärt, ,a-lə-\

How it’s used: This term describes food ordered one item at a time; the “biggie breakfast special” might, for example, come with two eggs, bacon, hash browns, and orange juice for $6, but if you weren’t very hungry (or didn’t have that much money), you might be able to order just the eggs á la carte for $3.

History: This term was first used in English in 1826 to describe ordering from a menu; “la carte” or “the card” referred to the menu. (The word “menu” wasn’t adopted from French for another 10 years.) Until the mid-1700s, European restaurants didn’t have menus. What they served that evening was what you got! Many food words in English are borrowed from French.

Example: I’m not that hungry, so I’ll get a taco á la carte.

The words and phrases you will learn in this lesson are grouped by their origins:

Grouping words this way will to help you compartmentalize each word with its language of origin. In other words, seeing the Latin words together and then the French words together will help you remember where they are from and what they mean.

Think about what you already know about foreign words and phrases. You probably know some words such as prima donna, nemesis, or karate. These words were originally borrowed from a different language and embedded into English. When you come across a word with a foreign origin in your reading, there are sometimes clues such as accent marks, italics, or asterisks to tell you to look at the bottom of the page for a definition. Sometimes if you're unfamiliar with a word, you can also figure out its meaning by using context clues. These clues usually appear in the sentences before or after the appearance of the word or phrase with foreign origins. If you still need help, you can always look in a dictionary to learn more about an unfamiliar word.

Recognizing Words and Phrases With Foreign Origins

This information will help you to identify foreign words. A word or phrase may have originated from another language if

Follow this link to learn more about clues to foreign words and phrases.

take notes icon Let’s test what you have read so far. Using your notes, write your responses to the two questions below. When you are finished, check your understanding to see sample responses.

  1. When you are reading, what are the visual clues that might suggest a word has foreign origins?
  2. How else can you tell if a word originates from another language?
Check Your Understanding

Sample Responses:

  1. Seeing a word spelled with an accent mark (, ñ) or with uncommon English letter sequences (ka- or -ieux-)
  2. If a word has some sound or sound sequence in the pronunciation that is distinctly not English-sounding (based on how we know English letters are pronounced)

Before you move to the next section, think about these questions:

  1. What words and phrases do you already know that came from a foreign language?
  2. How will you know a word originates from another language when you are reading?
  3. Where can you find the definitions of words or phrases with foreign origins?
  4. How can you use this information in your other classes or in real life?