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A Wanderwort (plural Wanderwörter; German for "wandering word") is a word that has spread as a loanword among numerous languages and cultures, usually in connection with trade.[1] At a sufficient time depth, it can be very difficult to establish in which language or language family it originated and in which it was borrowed.


Typical examples of wanderwörter are sugar,[2] ginger, copper,[1] silver,[3] cumin, mint, and wine, some of which can be traced back to Bronze Age trade.

Tea, with its maritime variant tea and Eurasian continental variant chai (both variants have entered English), is an example[1] whose spread occurred very late in history and is therefore fairly well understood: tea is from Hokkien, specifically Amoy, from the Fujianese port of Xiamen, hence maritime, while cha (whence chai[4]) is used in Cantonese and Mandarin.[5] See etymology of tea for further details.

Another example is orange, which originated in a Dravidian language (likely Telugu or Malayalam), and whose likely path to English included, in order, Sanskrit, Persian, possibly Armenian, Arabic, Late Latin, Italian, and Old French. See Orange: etymology for further details.

The word arslan (lion) of Turkic origin, whose variants are now widely distributed from Hungarian, Manchu to Persian, although merely serving as personal names in some languages; used as Aslan in the English novel series The Chronicles of Narnia.

Some ancient loanwords are connected with the spread of writing systems, an example would be Sumerian musar, Akkadian musarum 'document, seal', apparently loaned to Proto-Indo-Iranian *mudra- 'seal' (Middle Persian muhr, Sanskrit mudrā). Some even older, late neolithic, wanderwörter have been suggested, e.g. Sumerian balag, Akkadian pilakku-, or PIE pelek'u- 'axe'. However, Akkadian pilakku- really means 'spindle', and Sumerian balag is properly transcribed balaĝ (ĝ stands for [ŋ]), means 'a large drum or harp' and was borrowed into Akkadian as balangu-.[6]


  1. ^ a b c Robert Lawrence Trask (January 2000). The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Psychology Press. p. 366. ISBN 978-1-57958-218-0. Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  2. ^ Hans Henrich Hock; Brian D. Joseph (1 January 1996). Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Walter de Gruyter. p. 254. ISBN 978-3-11-014784-1. Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  3. ^ Boutkan, Dirk; Kossmann, Maarten (2001). "On the Etymology of 'Silver'". North-Western European Language Evolution 38: 3–15. Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  4. ^ "Chai". American Heritage Dictionary. Chai: A beverage made from spiced black tea, honey, and milk. ETYMOLOGY: Ultimately from Chinese (Mandarin) chá. 
  5. ^ Dahl, Östen. "Feature/Chapter 138: Tea". The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Max Planck Digital Library. Retrieved 4 June 2008. 
  6. ^ The Pennsylvanian Sumerian Dictionary