Yes, the Whole World Really Does Drink ‘Coffee’—Except Ethiopians and Armenians!

Happy Cappuccino Day! In today’s post, uTalk’s guest blogger Brian investigates the many different ways of saying ‘coffee’—and where the word used around the world actually originates!

Forget about tea. Linguistically speaking, coffee is the one beverage whose name sounds the same in almost every language in the world today. 

Just landed in South Africa and happen to be desperately in need of a caffeine buzz? Well then, it might be worth learning to order a coffee in some of the local lingos:  Afrikaans-speakers say koffie, Zulus say ikhofi and Xhosa-speakers say ikofu. Travelling to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland? Then the word to learn is cofaidh. What about that trip to sunny Santorini? You might have to say “coffee” like the locals: καφές (kafés). And on your way to Japan, don’t forget to practise the Japanese way of saying it: kōhī.

But therein lies the mystery. From the Mandarin Chinese kāfēi to the Indonesian kopi to the New Zealand Māori kawhe, almost all languages today have borrowed the word for “coffee” from the Arabic qahwa (قهوة)! 

That’s because the coffee plant, although originating in Ethiopia, was first cultivated on a large scale in Yemen. However, no one knows precisely where the Arabs had gotten the word qahwa from.

Some say it came from “Kaffa”, the ancient Ethiopian kingdom that had introduced the beverage to Yemen in the first place, centuries ago. Others say it originally referred to a type of wine, yet others think it came from an Arabic word meaning “to dull the hunger” (because that’s what coffee was supposed to do).

The fact that coffee was originally Ethiopian meant that speakers of Ethiopian languages like Amharic get to, of course, have their own unique word for the beverage: buna. But most mysterious of all, a couple of centuries ago Armenians had somehow gone against the grain, ignored everyone else’s fascination with the Arabic qahwa and proceeded to create their own word – soorj or soorch, probably deriving from the act of slurping a delicious cuppa!

If you fancy being able to ask for a cup of coffee in more than 150 different languages, then why not try our uTalk app? It’s one of the first phrases we teach—because everyone needs something to get them through the day!

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