How to Say ‘Hai’ to a Shark This Shark Awareness Day

Today is Shark Awareness Day, a chance to raise the profile of a type of fish vital to our ecosystem that has, in some form or another, been roaming this planet for over 400 million years. (That’s before dinosaurs even existed, in case you were wondering!) But what do sharks have to do with language learning? Well, as part of the natural world they have long been part of various different cultures – whether loved or hated – and as we all know, culture and language go hand in hand. Read our latest post to find out who likes sharks the most and how they can help you learn a new language!

Although they looked little like the fish we know today, sharks have been swimming through our oceans for around 420 million years. Nowadays, your first feeling on seeing one might be that of fear – but this hasn’t always been the case and certainly isn’t a global experience.

Sharks around the world

Admittedly, the Ancient Greeks did write about Ketea, a shark-like creature which embodied insatiable, ravenous hunger; Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer, named them ‘dogfish’ and described their attacks on pearl divers. Hawaiians, however, have had a very different historical relationship with sharks, both using them as a food and material resource, as well as holding them in reverence as aumakua – ancestors reincarnated as animals to become family guardians. Not all sharks are aumakua, of course; most Hawaiians consider just one species to be their family guardian. 

This multifaceted view of sharks is also shared by a large number of Aboriginal Australians. Those who lived along the coast have also been, historically, more exposed to sharks and are more familiar with them. One belief was that sharks (and rays, which are related to sharks) were placed in the world by ancestors to feed their descendants and this link between ancestors, food species, and living humans was shown through the landscape. When certain plants bloomed, Aboriginal hunters knew that the sharks and stingrays were ready to harvest, the flowers being a sign from their ancestors that food was ready for another season. As well as being a food species, sharks were viewed with reverence, their strength and values being used as models for human behaviour.

These examples – just two of many – show a much more nuanced view of sharks from communities who were very familiar with them. It is understandable, too, why half of all Americans are scared of sharks, with pop culture being a breeding ground for a negative image of the animals. This has impacted sharks, too – one example is that population numbers dropped 50% along the eastern seaboard of North America in years following the release of the film Jaws. 

Considering the important role sharks play in ocean ecosystems (as apex predators, they keep prey population numbers under control), now it is more important than ever to reflect on our view of sharks – after all, you’re twice as likely to be killed by a vending machine than in a shark attack!

Where does the word ‘shark’ come from?

The short answer is: no one knows. Well, not for sure – but that’s the case an awful lot of the time when it comes to the origin of words.

The first mention of ‘shark’ in a dictionary comes from 1689 to mean a ‘shifting knave’, like how we’d use it in the term ‘card shark’, someone who cheats at card games. Bailey’s Dictionary, from 1724, lists ‘scearan’ as the origin of the word, which is a Saxon term that means ‘cut to pieces’. 

That seems a little closer to a European impression of sharks, especially at the time.

However, the modern-day Oxford English Dictionary says the word ‘shark’ is of unknown origin. What’s also interesting to note is that the word for a shark varies across even European languages – French is requin, German is Hai, Spanish is tiburón, Italian is squalo… No one seems to have agreed.

An interesting theory is that the word ‘shark’ actually comes from the Yucatec Maya language, where sharks are called xoc (‘x’, here, being pronounced like English ‘sh’). This would make it the only Mayan loanword in the English language. The story behind this is that John Hawkins, on an expedition from England to the Caribbean in the late 1560s, got into a battle with some Spanish ships off the coast of the Yucatan (colonial Mexico). Several ships were destroyed and there were heavy losses; the English sailors gathered together, eventually, on a single ship and turned to head home. 

In the linked article, Jones suggests that there would likely have been a shark feeding frenzy after the battle and that this would have been enough to leave a devastating impression on the survivors. Whether or not this is how ‘shark’ entered the English language still remains to be seen. 

However, it does fill in an important gap: Spain conquered Mexico in 1521 and therefore had much more contact with the Mayans, so it would seem more probable that they would have picked up this Mayan word, ‘xoc’ and borrowed it into Spanish. Instead, the Spanish have their own word, ‘tiburón’, which is also of unknown origin, though you are much more likely to see a shark along the Spanish coast than the English one! 

As for the English word: English explorers still had limited contact with Mayan people and it may just be that this one dramatic event was enough to make the word ‘xoc’ stick. Linguists are still divided, of course – so perhaps ‘shark’ will always just be a mystery.

How can sharks help you learn languages?

Obviously, sharks don’t communicate the same way humans do – they tend to rely on body language, or their incredible sense of smell – but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful when it comes to learning a language! 

If you happen to have kids and (somehow!) aren’t completely done with the Baby Shark song, there are plenty of multilingual versions available on YouTube. This one has 17 different languages, including Portuguese, Korean, and even Navajo!

Want to learn more about sharks and work on your reading skills? The Wikipedia page for sharks is available in over 125 languages – surely you’re learning one of those?

And, if you just want to know how to say the word ‘shark’ in more than 120 languages, then hit the button below to get a random translation! 

Happy Shark Awareness Day!

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