I’ve often thought the reason I have never really successfully taken on board another language is because I love my own language too much. That’s not to say I am not interested in learning another language – I have tried, over the years, French, German, Spanish and Russian. And I also speak a little bit of Italian – mostly swear words – from sitting near an Italian at work for some years.
But I am interested in the evolution of language, how words move around, and how words left in a language can resonate the results of battles fought hundreds of years ago.
At a recent travel event at work, I was speaking to a man from Astana Airways, keen to drum up more business for his airline. “Would you like an apple?” he asked. Well actually yes I would, thank you.
“Why is a Kazakh airline offering apples you might ask?” I hadn’t actually; I thought it was just a clever marketing option to offer something healthy in comparison to the usual chocolates and sweets given out at these events.
“It’s because a recent study of apple DNA showed that apples have their origins in Kazakhstan. And in fact, our commercial capital, Almaty, is Alma-Ata in local language, meaning father of apples.”
I was with a Turkish colleague at the time and I asked her, “Isn’t the word for apple in Turkish very similar?”
“Yes, in Turkish it’s elma.”
So here’s a word that originated in the Kazakh language that now lives in Turkish language without anyone giving any thought to where it came from. How far did this word travel, I wondered? It’s simple to trace a word’s progress with a translating webpage and a map.
It’s alma in Azeri and Kyrgyz, ulma in Uzbek and alim in Mongolian – all countries which are quite close by to Kazakhstan. They must have been early adapters of this new fruit. Apples are also called alma in Hungarian, possibly because the Turks brought them there. (The Turks left some time ago but their words remain in the language).
An apple is mela in Italian, milo in Greek and mollë in Albanian. So apples probably travelled to these countries by ship from Turkey and were integrated into the language as they arrived.
But apples arrived in Tajik language as seb, in Iran as seeb (in Farsi), in Iraq as sev (in Kurdish), in Pakistan as saib (in Urdu), and India as seb (in Hindi). Why did the word change so much? Well here’s something interesting – the Turkish word for love is sev. Somewhere as apples were traded into this region from Turkey they stopped being apples and became love instead.
I picture the word being transferred like this:
Buyer: What’s this fruit called?
Seller (not speaking buyer’s language): You’ll love it. Here, try one.
Buyer (crunching into apple): Mmm…. This crunchy and tangy new love fruit is delicious!