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Multilingual Words: A Growing Trend

Multilingual words are those that appear in several languages. The number of words adopted untranslated, and therefore having meaning in multiple languages, is on the rise. But why is this happening?

Multilingual Words in Spoken Language

Some words are nearly universal, such as “uhm,” “wow!” and “okay,” or in the abbreviated form “okay.” These words belong to colloquial language, which naturally lends itself to being adopted across languages.

Language served as the first means of communication for early humans, conveying status and social information through sounds and gestures. This primitive language laid the foundation for spoken language, but pinpointing the emergence of a complete language with rules for written words is a more challenging task. Language, as a form of communication, is an ever-evolving and boundless process, with new words being formed daily. The phenomenon of ’emoji’ exemplifies how communication knows no limits. Consequently, it’s no surprise that words are increasingly used in a multilingual context.

Let’s explore the languages we know today, with a specific focus on words that remain the same across different languages. Why are certain words not translated, or only partially translated, and thus appear in multiple languages? To answer this question, it’s essential to examine how words are created.

The Origins of Words

Four distinct ways in which words are created can be identified, each shedding light on why they often find themselves in multilingual use.

  1. Absorption from Other Languages

When a language lacks a suitable expression for a specific concept, borrowing words from other languages becomes the solution. Borrowing from classical languages is a common practice. Over half of the 170,000 English words originate from other languages, including Greek, Latin, Germanic, and French. Latin and French have contributed legal and religious terminology, such as “jury” and “altar,” while Greek and Germanic have provided words like “octagon,” “hybrid,” and “delicacy.” Trade with distant lands has further enriched language with words like “coffee,” “spaghetti,” and “curry,” borrowed from Arabic, Italian, and Indian languages. In Dutch, these words are used nearly unchanged or are rendered phonetically identical, as in “coffee.”

Additionally, scientific fields often use classical languages as a foundation, resulting in the adoption of certain words across different languages, such as “thesis” and “clone.”

  1. Combination of Existing Words

Another method involves combining existing words to convey a new meaning. In English, examples include ‘brunch,’ ‘internet,’ and more recently, ‘Brexit.’ The global corona pandemic has introduced new, multilingual jargon like ‘covid,’ ‘vaxxed,’ ‘antivaxxer,’ ‘furlough,’ and ‘contactless.’ When one’s native language lacks a word to address a globally significant phenomenon, using another language becomes the choice.

  1. Recontextualizing Old Words

Trendy linguistic shifts often involve repurposing old or even obsolete words with a different meaning. This practice has given us words like ‘geek,’ originally meaning a ‘carnival performer,’ but now referring to an ‘awkward genius.’ Similarly, ‘villain’ originally denoted a ‘peasant farmer’ but now signifies a ‘bad person.’

Additionally, words are sometimes intentionally misused, such as ‘sick’ and ‘wicked’ to mean their opposites, or ‘cool’ and ‘very good.’ Abbreviations like ‘bestie,’ ‘foodie,’ and ‘BBQ’ transcend language barriers and are readily understood beyond English-speaking regions. These loanwords are catchy and often serve as metaphors or ironic expressions that capture the imagination in various languages.

The Flexibility of Language: Loanwords Across Languages

Language exhibits remarkable flexibility, especially among closely related European languages, both culturally and linguistically. Common words like ‘check’ and ‘jog’ have been adopted in Dutch, German, and even languages as distant as Thai. Phrases like ‘just checking’ or ‘I’m going for a jog’ feel at home in Dutch, mirroring the act of checking and running. This borrowing of words extends to adopting phonetic sounds, a practice dating back to primitive language. Words like ‘homesickness,’ identical in both English and German (‘Heimweh’), or ‘taboo’ and ‘restaurant,’ adopted from English and French, showcase the linguistic kinship that naturally brings about loanwords—words that appear untranslated in different languages.

Loanwords fill a linguistic need. When one’s native language lacks a term, borrowing becomes the logical solution. Additionally, loanwords often come with an element of fame. Take the Danish word ‘hygge,’ for example. It encapsulates the concept of enjoying small, everyday pleasures in a warm, homely atmosphere. When trying to convey this idea, you might hear someone say, “oh, you mean hygge?”

Beyond Words: The Rise of Emojis

Understanding that words are borrowed and adopted primarily to fulfill a need, it becomes clear why today’s communication methods, such as texting and chatting, inherently embrace multilingualism.

Emojis, a Japanese term meaning ‘picture’ or ‘icon,’ represent a prime example of this trend. Emojis enhance digital communication by conveying additional information, tone, or emotions. Besides the ubiquitous ‘smiley,’ hundreds of globally recognized images facilitate and clarify communication, transcending linguistic boundaries. It’s no wonder that emojis are used multilingually and often serve as excellent complements to words found in different languages. In some cases, emojis render multilingual words unnecessary!

Examples like ‘thumbs up,’ ‘lol,’ ‘peace,’ ‘joke,’ ‘fingers crossed,’ and ‘sleepy’ are just a few instances of emojis bridging language gaps and facilitating global communication.

The Power of Multilingual Expression

Words that appear in different languages may be seen as a step too far by language purists. However, proponents of multilingual language use, which includes multilingual words and emojis, argue that they enhance successful communication by filling a need that traditional words alone cannot satisfy.

In this context, the prospect of computers soon being able to read and convey our thoughts may be daunting. Language barriers may cease to exist, but interpreting our emotions could become more challenging. Still, some scientists argue that this neurotechnology, which maps our nervous system, controls our future. On the other hand, opponents contend that our ‘mind’ represents our sole form of personal freedom.

As the adage goes, “Saying and doing what we say are two different things.” Above all, let us cherish the freedom to choose the words and symbols that best express our thoughts and feelings, allowing us to be understood across linguistic boundaries. Long live the magic of words.


Are you ready improve your communication skills? When teaching any of language courses (which we offer in 52 different languages) we enable our students to find the magic of another culture while they learn to deeply engage with their target language. After all, learning to communicate is more than just learning a language. If you’re curious, take a look at our offers, and see how we can improve your communication skills today!


This blog was written by NT2 trainer Arno van der Meer.

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