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I've been listening to radio broadcasts lately where a person will be speaking German or Pashtun or Russian or whatever and a translator will be supplying an English rendition, in a format which makes it possible to hear both the original and the translation.

I noticed that in almost every case, where the interpreter says something like, "The problem is," or, "the difficulty is," the speaker in the (to me) foreign language will also say the word, "problem," identical to English and in the correct place, but merely accented in that language.

And it got me to wondering: Is "problem" a modern word or a very old indo-european word? What is its etymology and history? Does it represent a concept which was foreign to non-European cultures before the modern era, or is the speaker making word choices to accommodate an interpreter?

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  • many languages have separate words translatable as "matter" and "grievance", but it is usually a bad translation to say the word translatable as "grievance" in the context you describe, where English problem is used where matter is meant. – user483 Mar 14 '12 at 20:00
  • There is more occurring than you are probably aware of. The phenomenon it seems you are observing Is very common among highly educated individuals, particularly if they have been trained in English speaking countries. Moreover, they may just be repeating words that they heard the interviewer ask. – Ryan Ward Mar 16 '12 at 5:51
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If you assume the word "problem" comes from English, you have an incorrect starting point.

"Problem" (note: in English) comes from late Middle English <- Old French probleme <- via Latin from Greek πρόβλημα (problēma); the word comes from proballein ‘put forth,’ which is pro ‘before’ + ballein ‘to throw.’ 1

I'd say that shows that the spread didn't come from English at all. Rather, it started from Greek, took by Latin and from there to the Romances languages (and from there English). I'm not sure where Russian took it from, but considering the Russian alphabet is based on the Greek one, I don't think it would be absurd to assume that it might have come from there, although this last sentence is speculation and as such it should be considered.

So the words are not merely "accented", they actually exist in those languages:

  • French, problème
  • Italian, problema
  • Russian, проблема
  • Spanish, problema

Also, I don't think this word represents a "new concept". If you say that it's meaning or that the way it's interpreted has changed over time, then yes, that would be reasonable.


1: Taken from the New Oxford American Dictionary

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    Italian "problema" (14th century - OED), Spanish "problema" (1414, OED), Russian "проблема" (early 18th, from Polish or German, Vasmer), German "Problem" (from English). – Alex B. Mar 14 '12 at 19:06
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    I think I've made no such assumption; it wouldn't be at all accurate to conclude that from my question. Rather, I've been hearing it in interviews with Afghans and Africans. I don't think of "problem" as a word found in Urdu or Gujarat or Arabic, but there they were saying it. Bearing that in mind, though, thank you for the etymology back to the Greek. That suggests that in those non-European languages the word was introduced by modern era influences. Not correct? – Rob Perkins Mar 14 '12 at 20:20
  • @RobPerkins I've obviously based my answer on your actual question, where you made no mention of Urdu, Gujarat or Arabic. If you want to introduce these languages in your query, then yes, I think it's not wrong to think that they were influenced by English or by other languages that have the "same" word, although this would need some research as a confirmation. But considering the spread of English, it'd be fairly safe to assume so. – Alenanno Mar 14 '12 at 22:19
  • @AlexB. Do you happen to have a Russian etymological dictionary? By the way, doesn't that confirm the "path" I showed in the answer (apart from German which I didn't mention)? And also, although your comment was kind of cryptic, I think you were hinting that the Russian word came from the other languages, is that correct? – Alenanno Mar 14 '12 at 22:22
  • @Alenanno, yes. Should I edit the question for better clarity, do you think? – Rob Perkins Mar 15 '12 at 1:48

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