15 February 2011

Thinking about Thanking: Gratitude from West to East

I feel fortunate to be exposed every day to numerous foreign languages. One, I live in Europe (Germany, to be precise); if I drive a few hours in almost any direction I'm in some other country. Two, in my work we deal with many foreign countries. Two and a half, I’m married to someone from another country than my own. And three, as a result of one, two, and two and a half, we tend also to socialize with people who speak more than one language. For an eager wordie like me, this is maybe like a foodie getting a free shopping spree at Whole Foods.

You might know — or at least you might have heard — that most of the languages of modern Europe are related, through that wondrous tree called the Indo-European language family (a little foreshadowing: you can expect to hear more about this tree). But you might not have thought about how those relations are manifested.

So as an illustration, let's follow a simple grateful thought from west to east, retracing a nice little revelation that occurred to me one day. For my purpose here, “west” is the English language space and “east” is Ukraine.* Because this is my blog, I get to skip areas that don't fit my pattern (hello, France and readers among the mer-people of the northern Atlantic).

Gratitude West and East
The word phrase in question here is thank you (which — spoiler alert! — in English is “thank you”). From the English space moving east, here’s how it looks:

  • Belgium (Flemish speakers) / Netherlands: dank je
  • German space: danke
  • Czech: dêkuji
  • Poland: dziekuje, pronounced “jenkooyeh”
  • Slovak: dakujem
  • Belarus: dziákuj or dziakuju
  • Ukraine: dyakuyu
Unless you squint, western thank and eastern dyakuyu don’t look all that related. But the connecting tissue is not just the initial “th/d” and the “k”. The thing that made me make the connection was the nasal vowel in Polish that adds the “n” sound before the “k”.**

So it’s one thing to know on some level that Germanic English and Slavic Ukrainian are related, but it’s another to see the proof in a simple, everyday word like thank.

I’ll wrap up on a side note that nonetheless keeps with the gratitude theme. More a speculative question: I wonder whether the Turkic word teshekür is related to Arabic word shukran. The key sounds making me wonder this are “sh - vowel - kr”. Though Turkic languages are generally considered to be part of the Altaic language group and Arabic is a Semitic language, it wouldn’t be too suprising to find words derived from borrowings. In this case, it might be that with the spread of Islam, the Arabic shukran formed the basis of a word derivation in Turkish. (It’s not uncommon to find Arabic words in the lexicons of non-Arabic-speaking Islamic peoples.)

Are there any specialists in one or the other of these languages out there who can help?

* By the way, it's no longer "the Ukraine", unless you're a past-minded Russian.

** (These are not the only languages sharing this root for this word. Also, these examples are conjugated for the subject "I", so the "je", "yu", etc. endings don't refer to the equivalent of English "you".)


  1. This is so cool! I had the same reaction in Poland and subsequently never forgot how to say it! :)

  2. Yay! Nothing like hearing a word or expression and then seeing a lightbulb illuminate something new, is there?

  3. I love this kind of stuff! Not an expert though. I can only say that your theory about the link between language families sounds totally plausible.