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Some time ago I found two tables that reported the names for two fruits, which were supposed to be funny, because they specifically reported a single exception among those several languages, where this fruit's name was different for only one of those languages.

I cropped the images to avoid space problems:

the fruit that is ananas in many languages is pineapple in English onlythe fruit that is banana in many languages is plátano in Spanish only

They make one smile, but if we try to analyse the matter under a Linguistics point of view, it gets interesting, deserving to have a look into it.

So my questions are:

  1. Why did two languages, English and Spanish, develop an alternative word to denote those fruits?
  2. And why did just one language (per case) behaved like this? I mean, why not also some other Romance language for one case or some other Germanic one for the other case?

N.B. I just asked one question because I think these two occurrences are related, but if someone finds out they are two different linguistic phenomena, I can split them up. Also, feel free to retag, if necessary.

  • @aedia λ thanks for the edits, the title one is good, I didn't think of it! :) – Alenanno Oct 4 '11 at 17:10
  • this page (about the case for the word "tea") might give you some insight wals.info/chapter/138 – Louis Rhys Oct 4 '11 at 17:13
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    Maybe slightly off-topic, but "piña" is Spanish for pinneapple too, together with "ananás". I don't have data about how much each of these terms are used and where. But in Spain, "ananás" is virtually never heard. This means that the table that you show on the left-hand side is, at least, questionable. – CesarGon Oct 4 '11 at 19:23
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    Spanish has lots of words for bananas and plantains and what may or may not be perceived as extra distinctions between and beyond them depending on which country you're in: la banana, el banano, el cambur, el guineo, and el plátano plus derived kinds like plátano macho and plátano malayo. – hippietrail Oct 4 '11 at 19:31
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    @MarkBeadles No no it wasn't forgotten... :D I'm just struggling lol – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 14:28
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I'm going to answer about just the words for "pineapple". In short, you're seeing two phenomena:

  • A new item is introduced to the world, so a new name is needed to go with it. Whichever name is used by the introducers gets adopted in many other languages. See coffee or computer for some other examples of this.
  • The dataset you have above only includes examples that show the author's intended pattern and excludes examples that don't fit.

Let's start by looking at the dataset. Clearly there's a bias towards ananas-type words than towards pineapple-type words, but we don't know why. One possibility is that the collector of this dataset simply included only languages with ananas and discarded any examples of pineapple (apart from English).

So let's get some data of our own. I'm using Google Translate to pull up words for pineapple in all the languages they provide. (With a few restrictions: there must be a result other than what I typed in English, and there must be a romanization available.)

  • Afrikaans: pynappel
  • Armenian: ark’ayakhndzor
  • Azerbaijani, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finish, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Macedonian, Maltese, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovenian, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian: ananas
  • Basque, Galician, Spanish: piña
  • Bengali: Ānārasa
  • Catalan, Filipino: pinya
  • Chinese: bōluó
  • English: pineapple
  • Estonian: ananass
  • Georgian: ananasi
  • Greek, Portuguese, Slovak: ananás
  • Gujarati: Anēnāsa
  • Haitian: anana
  • Hindi: Anannāsa
  • Hungarian: ananász
  • Indonesian, Malay: nanas
  • Irish: anann
  • Japanese: Painappuru
  • Kannada: Anānas haṇṇu
  • Korean: pain-aepeul
  • Latvian: ananāsu
  • Lithuanian: ananasas
  • Swahili: mananasi
  • Tamil: Aṉṉāci
  • Telugu: Anāsa paṇḍu
  • Thai: S̄ạbpard
  • Vietnamese: dứa
  • Welsh: phîn-afal

At a glance, it looks like we have six basic types here:

  • ananas: 42 languages
  • piña/pineapple: 10 languages
  • ark’ayakhndzor: 1 language
  • bōluó: 1 language
  • S̄ạbpard: 1 language
  • dứa: 1 language

Clearly the ananas words are the most common, but what does that mean? Should Serbian and Croatian (which are generally mutually intellible) each get a "vote" while Mexican Spanish and Castilian Spanish have to share a "vote"? Which languages you count and which ones you don't is fairly arbitrary.

Let's break this up a different way. The pineapple only came to the Old World via European colonization of the New World, so let's see what the European colonizers call this fruit. Here we're only looking at languages whose parent countries had a major colonial presence in the New World before 1600:

  • Portuguese: ananás
  • Spanish: piña

One of these languages use a pine-type word, one uses an ananas-type word. Doing a bit of reading, it seems that ananas is the Guaraní word for "pineapple" and was borrowed by the Portuguese, and it spread from there. The Spanish (going all the way back to Columbus) called the fruit piña "pine" because of its resemblance to a pinecone.

From these two origins come many of the names for "pineapple" in the various languages of the world. The only phenomenon you're seeing here is that ananas simply became more popular. My best guess as to the distribution of the two forms would be the dominance of French (with ananas) in previous centuries. Languages that are more heavily influenced by Spanish (like Filipino) end up with pine-type words. Languages more heavily influenced by English (like Japanese) end up with the full pineapple type.

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    Note that Columbus was italian, not spanish, but I get your point on that. :P Plus, the spanish also use ananas, so... But you're basically saying it's a loanword, nothing more, right? I was starting to think there was something more behind it, without even thinking about the simplest reason. :P – Alenanno Oct 4 '11 at 16:53
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    I mean, you make a table in some editing program you have, make a screenshot and post it here as an image. :) – Alenanno Oct 4 '11 at 20:47
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    Just a side note: In Brazilian Portuguese, the fruit is more commonly known as "abacaxi" (a word that probably comes from the Tupi language). – Otavio Macedo Oct 4 '11 at 23:07
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    Same goes for potato. The whole indo-european world calls potato variously as potato, batata, patata, etc. but in northern India, potato is called "Alu" in Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, etc. I have read that Alu comes from Persian, which means 'round'. – nb1 Jan 17 '12 at 6:46
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    @NikhilBellarykar, quite a few European languages have their own words for potato: French pomme was extended from its original meaning of "apple", German Kartoffel from a word for a mushroom, Slovak bandurka probably meaning "lumpy", etc. – Joe Jan 17 '12 at 22:37
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@Joe has covered words for "pineapple", so here's some info on words for "banana".

There is a fairly straightforward explanation for why Spanish has the word plátano instead of a variant of banana, compared to the other languages in the above list.

Plátano already existed in Spanish to refer to another sort of plant, namely the 'plane tree', or trees of the genus Platanus, whose name can be traced back via Latin through Greek to a Proto-Indo-European root *plat- "to spread". The name is thought to refer to either the largish leaves some of these trees have, or their broad, flat expanses of bark. Various cognates also carry the meaning of 'broad', 'spreading', and so on - in English, plants of the genus Plantago, commonly called plantains, are similarly named for their broad, round leaves, via a borrowing from French. (Edit: to clarify, the plantains just mentioned are a small, herbaceous, bog-loving plant, completely unrelated to any sort of banana).

So, once the Spanish-speaking world had access to bananas, plátano was usefully extended to refer to (some) banana plants; given that banana trees have quite enormous leaves, the name is quite appropriate.

There is an alternative hypothesis that Spanish got plátano from the Carib word platana (from Arawakan pratane) and that this was altered to make it more similar to Spanish plátano 'plane tree', but there is not much evidence to support this, and either way plátano 'plane tree' is somewhat responsible.

But, the list above is a bit disingenuous, because Spanish does have the word banana, and this is the word that Spanish initially borrowed from Wolof, a Niger-Congo language, to refer to the fruit. Depending on what sort of Spanish you speak, banana can refer to to smaller, sweeter fruits we are most familiar with, while plátano might refer to the larger, starchier, less sweet fruits that are generally used in cooking rather than eaten raw. In English, the latter are referred to as plantains or plantain bananas (probably on analogy with Spanish Edit: because although English already had the word 'plantain', it wasn't used to refer to bananas). Both sorts are of the genus Musa. But at least in Mexico, plátano refers to the sweet variety, and plantains are plátano macho.

Most modern languages that use a variant of the word banana got the word via either Spanish or Portuguese, and those languages initially borrowed it from Wolof. So, to reiterate Joe's point, "whichever name is used by the introducers gets adopted in many other languages".

But in fact, the history of 'words for banana' started long before the Spanish and Portuguese borrowed the modern word from Wolof, and if you look at languages across the world, the word banana hardly comes into play.

A recent study by a team of geneticists, archeologists, agricultural scientists and linguists investigated the history of different banana varieties based on the evidence for human cultivation and dispersal of bananas. The evidence suggests that bananas likely originated in New Guinea, and the linguistic information associated with this is pretty interesting. Mark Donohue put together a list of over 1,100 words for 'banana' in languages from Melanesia and South East Asia, the regions in which the banana was first dispersed. The paper can be accessed here (sorry, abstract only unless you have access), but the supplementary materials are available publicly, so if you want to see over 1,100 words for 'banana', go to this page and click the link for Table_S04.

Using comparative methods, the researchers reconstructed root forms for different words for 'banana', and found four major cognate sets with distinct, but overlapping, geographical distributions. The root forms were *muku, *punti, *qaRutay, and *baRat. You can see some maps of the distribution of these variants here (pdf). There were other minor groupings and a lot of 'miscellaneous' lexical items that had no clear group of cognates. Banana is labelled as such, and only shows up twice in this whole list (granted, the list doesn't include many African or continental European languages).

In sum, while plátano is an oddity in the short list presented above, Spanish actually did use the word banana first, and some varieties of Spanish still do use it for sweet bananas, where plátano specifically refers to plantain bananas. Furthermore, crosslinguistically, banana is actually an oddity in itself.

  • I wish we could favourite answers independently of questions here (-: – hippietrail Oct 5 '11 at 6:41
  • Great answer! I just don't understand “In English, the latter are referred to as plantains or plantain bananas (probably on analogy with Spanish)”. I don't see the relation with Spanish here. Earlier you said that “plantain” comes from the French. The French uses for this fruit both « plantain » (in Africa) and « banane plantain » so I only see in the English usage clear loans from French... – JPP Oct 5 '11 at 7:42
  • @JPP, sorry for the confusion - in the first mention of 'plantain' in English, I am talking about a completely different, non-banana plant (have a look at the link), for which the name did (apparently) come from French. What I meant later was that English started using 'plantain' to refer to bananas on analogy with Spanish (they had the word already, but didn't use it for bananas). Do my edits clear that up? – Floating Tone Oct 5 '11 at 8:11
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    Though of course, the French may have extended 'plantain' for bananas first, and then English also extended the meaning on analogy with French, rather than Spanish. Either way, both French and English used the word for something completely different before anyone had ever tasted a banana :) – Floating Tone Oct 5 '11 at 8:15
  • @FloatingTone +1 for a nice exhaustive answer. For the record, in Central America (Panama at least) platanos refer to the plantain and guineo to the banana. While the former is used as a vegetable - it is starchy and usually toasted (Dom Rep => tostones) or fried, the latter is eaten as a fruit. Mistaking one for the other is a sure way for a "gringo" like myself to provoke hilarity. – Alain Pannetier Oct 5 '11 at 9:35
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The reason that "only one language" calls it a "pineapple" is that the table left out other languages which also do. Spanish, for example, calls it piña, and a quick glance at Wiktionary suggests that several other languages, including Welsh, Catalan, and Afrikaans, do too. It's not surprising that many different languages would have only two words for the fruit, because it's a new world fruit and those are all old world languages, so they all take it as a loan-word.

As for banana, it seems that many, many languages have different words for it. See Wiktionary and note in particular the geographical variation in the Spanish word.

The moral of this story is that if we pick the right samples we can show anything.

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    ie The table used would not be considered a good source by linguists. Linguists would demand something better. – hippietrail Oct 5 '11 at 6:37
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Banana republic is said ''república bananera'' in Spanish, even in Spain and not ''república platanera''. ;) Some people in Spain differentiate between a plátano and a banana, just like many people in Portugal use both abacaxi (for Brazil-imported pineapple) and ananás (for other pineapples). Plátano as a word is never really used in Central America or in Argentina. For example, the Argentinian Clarin dictionary considers it a Mexicanism.

Plátano and banana in Spanish, as well as ananás and abacaxi in Portuguese are like anguria and cocomero in Italian, there is no one single universal word for the fruit, there are only regional preferences. German had a similar ''problem'' with Apfelsine and Orange, but now Apfelsine (a NorthGerman word) is considered obsolete, and Orange (with French pronunciation) is almost universally used. In Argentina, ''ananá'' is more frequent than ''piña'' (and the plural is: ''ananás'').

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Re: ananas

The origin of the word is Brazilian (from Guarani),but in Brazil the pineapple is commonly called abacaxi, not ananas. Only the Portuguese regularly distinguish between ananas and abacaxi (the latter to indicate a large Brazilian pineapple)

  • Your question concerns the origins of specific words and so does not address the more general topics that linguistics addresses. I think it's off-topic. – James Grossmann Mar 23 '15 at 20:40
  • Some photos: abacaxi [JPG] and ananás [JPG]. These are not really the same fruit. – Rodrigo de Azevedo Jun 19 '18 at 13:32
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For what I know Ananas in the Arawak language means "flower in the flower" ana = flower The name came with the first encounters with the Taino people in the Caribbean islands that were usually eating these fruits

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