The World’s Top 20 Languages—And The Words English Has Borrowed From Them (2023)

English is known as a magpie language that picks up words from almost every other language and culture it comes in contact with, from Abenaki to Zulu. And although some languages have understandably widened the English vocabulary more than others, modern English dictionaries contain more of a geographical melting pot than ever before.

Listed here—in order by number of native speakers—are the world’s top 20 languages (according to Ethnologue, a global catalogof the 7000 languages currently in use worldwide). Alongside each entry on the list are just some of the words which English has borrowed from it.

Linguistically speaking, Chinese is a “macrolanguage” that encompasses dozens of different forms and dialects that together have just short of 1.2 billion native speakers. By far the most widely spoken variety of Chinese, however, is Mandarin, with 848 million speakers alone—or roughly 70 percent of China’s entire population. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Chinese words have been recorded in English since the mid-16th century, with the earliest examples including the likes of tai chi (1736), ginseng (1634), yin and yang (1671), kumquat (1699) and feng shui (1797). One of the earliest of all is lychee (1588).

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2. SPANISH: 399 million

One quarter of the world’s 399 million Spanish speakers live in Mexico, although other important Hispanophone countries include Colombia (41 million), Argentina (38.8 million), and Venezuela (26.3 million); there are almost as many native Spanish speakers in the United States (34.2 million) as there are in Spain (38.4 million). In English, Spanish loanwords are characterized by terms from weaponry and the military (guerrilla, flotilla, armada, machete), animal names (chinchilla, alligator, cockroach, iguana), and terms from food and drink (potato, banana, anchovy, vanilla).

According to Ethnologue, the English language’s 335 million native speakers include 225 million in the United States, 55 million in the United Kingdom, 19 million in Canada, 15 million in Australia, and just short of 4 million in New Zealand. But English is one of the world’s most widespread languages: mother-tongue speakers are recorded in 101 different countries and territories worldwide, 94 of which class it as an official language. Moreover, if the number of people who use English as a second language or lingua franca were included, the global total of English speakers would easily rise to over one billion.

4. HINDI: 260 million

The world’s 260 million native Hindi speakers are mainly found in India and Nepal, while an estimated 120 million more people in India use Hindi as a second language. As with all Indian languages, a great many Hindi loanwords found in English were adopted during the British Raj in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but long before then the likes of rupee (1612), guru (1613), pilau (1609), pukka (1619), myna (1620) and juggernaut (1638) had already begun to appear in English texts.

Like Chinese, Arabic is technically another macrolanguage whose 242 million native speakers—spread across 60 different countries worldwide—use a range of different forms and varieties. The first Arabic loanwords in English date from the 14th century, although many of the earliest examples are fairly rare and obsolete words like alkanet (a type of dye, 1343) and hardun (an Egyptian agama lizard, 1398). Among the more familiar Arabic contributions to English are hashish (1598), sheikh (1577), and kebab (1698).

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6. PORTUGUESE: 203 million

The population of Portugal is just under 11 million, but the global Lusophone population is boosted enormously by Brazil’s 187 million native speakers. Etymologically, Portuguese and Spanish loanwords are often tricky to differentiate because of the similarities between the two languages, but according to the OED, Portuguese is responsible for the likes of marmalade (1480), pagoda (1582), commando (1791), cuspidor (1779), and piranha (1710).

After Hindi, Bengali is the second most widelyspoken language of India with just over 82 million native speakers.But the largest native Bengali population in the world is found in Bangladesh, where 106 million people use it as their first language. The number of Bengali words adopted into English, however, is relatively small, with only 47 instances—including jute (1746), almirah (a free-standing cupboard, 1788), and jampan (a type of sedan chair, 1828)—recorded in the OED.

8. RUSSIAN: 166 million

One hundred and thirty-seven million of Russian’s 166 million native speakers live in the Russian Federation, with smaller populations in Ukraine (8.3 million), Belarus (6.6 million), Uzbekistan (4 million) and Kazakhstan (3.8 million). The earliest Russian loanwords began to appear in English in the 16th century, among them czar or tsar (1555), rouble (1557), and beluga (1591).

Japan’s 128 million people comprise the language’s entire native speaker population, enough to make it the ninthmost widely spoken language in the world. Japanese words have been appearing in English texts since the 16th century, with some of the earliest loanwords including katana and wacadash (both types of samurai sword, 1613), miso (1615), shogun (1615), and sake (1687).

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10. LAHNDA: 88.7 million

Lahnda is the collective name given to a group of related Punjabi languages and dialects spoken predominantly in Pakistan. Punjabi words adopted into English are rare, but nevertheless include bhangra (a local traditional dance form and music style, 1965), and gurdwara (a Sikh temple, 1909).

Java is the most populous island on Earth, home to almost two-thirds of the entire population of Indonesia. More than half of its 139 million inhabitants speak the local Javanese language, enough to earn it a spot just outside of the global top 10 here. The words batik (1880), gamelan (1816) and lahar (a volcanic mudflow, 1929) are all of Javanese origin.

12. GERMAN: 78.1 million

Seventy million of the world’s 78 million native German speakers live in Germany, with the remaining 8 million found in the likes of Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. As English itself is classed as a Germanic language, historically the two languages share a close relationship and ultimately many of the oldest English words could be argued to have German roots. More recent direct German loanwords, however, include sauerkraut (1633), pumpernickel (1738), doppelgänger (1851), and frankfurter (1894).

Korean loanwords in English are relatively rare, with none at all recorded by the OED before the 19th century. Among the most familiar arekimchi (1898) and taekwondo (1967), while rarer examples include kono (a traditional Korean board game, 1895), and kisaeng (the Korean equivalent of a Japanese geisha girl, 1895).

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14. FRENCH: 75.9 million

The world’s 75 million native French speakers are divided among 51 countries and territories, including 7.3 million in Canada, 4 million in Belgium, and 6 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (home to the second largest French-speaking population in the world). Thanks largely to the Norman Conquest, roughly three out of every 10 English words are thought to have French roots, and the trend has continued ever since: English has adopted more loanwords directly from French—absinthe, blancmange, concierge, dauphin, envoi, fête, gourmand, hollandaise, impasse—than from any other living language.

Telugu and Marathi are India’s thirdand fourth most used languages, with just over 74 and just short of 72 million native speakers, respectively. Neither is responsible for a great many English loanwords, however, and the vast majority of those that have found their way into the language tend to be fairly rare and unfamiliar, like desai (a revenue office or a petty thief, from Marathi, 1698), chawl (an Indian lodging house, from Marathi, 1891), and podu (an area of jungle cleared for farming, from Telugu 1938). By far the most well known is bandicoot, which is thought to literally mean “pig-rat” in Telugu.

17. TURKISH: 70.9 million

Sixty-sixmillion of the world’s 70 million Turkish speakers are in Turkey, with smaller populations found in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus, and Kazakhstan. Turkish words in English date back to the 16th century, with vizier (1562), tulip (1578) and caftan (1591) being among the earliest to arrive.

Tamil is India’s fifth most spoken language, as well as being one of the official languages of Sri Lanka and Singapore. Catamaran (1697), pariah (1613), poppadum (1820) and patchouli (1843) are all Tamil words, as is curry (1598).

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19. VIETNAMESE: 67.8 million

The OED records just 14 Vietnamese loanwords in English, the earliest of which is the name of the Vietnamese currency, dông (1824). Among the handful of others is pho (a traditional Vietnamese soup, 1935), ao dai (a woman’s high-necked tunic, 1961), and both hao and xu (1968), the names for one-tenth and one-hundredth of a dông, respectively.

Urdu is the sixth Indian language to make the global top 20, with its worldwide total comprised of 51 million native Indian speakers, a further 10 million in Pakistan, and smaller populations in Nepal and Mauritius. Urdu words have been adopted into English since the fifteenth century, with surprisingly early examples including mogul (1577), cummerbund (1613), and bungalow (1676). Earliest of all, however, is shrab—an old Anglo-Indian nickname for an alcoholic beverage, the first record of which in English dates from 1477.

FAQs

What languages did English borrow words from? ›

Ranking from most influential to least, English is composed of words from: Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Scandinavian, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Russian, Maori, Hindi, Hebrew, Persian, Malay, Urdu, Irish, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Chinese, Turkish, Norwegian, Zulu, and Swahili.

What is the top 20 language in the world? ›

These are the most spoken languages in the world
  • English – 1,121 million speakers. ...
  • Mandarin Chinese – 1,107 million speakers. ...
  • Hindi – 698 million speakers. ...
  • Spanish – 512 million speakers. ...
  • French – 284 million speakers. ...
  • Arabic – 273 million speakers. ...
  • Bengali – 265 million inhabitants. ...
  • Russian – 258 million speakers.
4 Jun 2022

Does English still borrow words from other languages? ›

The English language, as spoken today, has borrowed heavily from many languages. Borrowed words, known as 'loan words', are part of everyday speech in the English language.

What are the 23 main languages? ›

The Top 23 Languages On Earth

Chinese, English, Spanish, Arabic, French, Persian, German, Russian, Malay, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Lahnda, Tamil, Urdu, Korean, Hindi, Bengali, Japanese, Vietnamese, Telugu, and Marathi.

What is an example of a borrowed word? ›

Examples of loanwords in the English language include café (from French café, which means "coffee"), bazaar (from Persian bāzār, which means "market"), and kindergarten (from German Kindergarten, which literally means "children's garden").

What are the borrowed words? ›

Borrowed Words. Loanwords are words adopted by the speakers of one language from a different language (the source language). A loanword can also be called a borrowing. The abstract noun borrowing refers to the process of speakers adopting words from a source language into their native language.

Did English borrow words from Arabic? ›

It is estimated that hundreds of words in the English language come from Arabic words. These words encompass food and drink, medical and scientific terms, animals and plants as well as everyday objects and products we use. Some examples include: Alcohol.

Where did the English language get a lot of words from? ›

English has its roots in the Germanic languages, from which German and Dutch also developed, as well as having many influences from romance languages such as French. (Romance languages are so called because they are derived from Latin which was the language spoken in ancient Rome.)

Did Old English borrow words from French? ›

Old English borrowed many Norman French words. Norman rulers who spoke French language changed the way of speaking greatly about eight hundred years ago. The original English became what is now called by language experts the Middle English.

Where does English get their words from? ›

English still derives much of its vocabulary from Latin and Greek, but we have also borrowed words from nearly all of the languages in Europe. In the modern period of linguistic acquisitiveness, English has found vocabulary opportunities even farther afield.

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