Sweet as Sugar

My sister Alexandra reports that her linguist friend once told her that, of the two dozen languages he knew, the word for sugar appears to have the same root in all of them. Here are the terms for sugar in a number of languages, not all of them in direct lineage with each other.

  • sharkara (Sanskrit)
  • shakar (Persian)
  • sukkar (Arabic)
  • succarum (Middle Latin)
  • zucre (Old French)
  • zucherro (Italian)
  • azucar (Spanish)
  • zucura (Old High German)
  • Zucker (German)
  • sakhar (Russian)
  • cukier (Polish)
  • cukar (Serbian)

Interestingly, the Sanskrit word’s original meaning (grit, gravel) is a cognate with the  Greek word kroke (pebble).  Varieties of sugarcane grew in both India and New Guinea in antiquity, but it was not in widespread use as a sweetener — honey was far more prevalent. In India a method of drying the sugarcane into crystallized form was developed and the technique spread to China. Apparently sugar was enjoyed by Alexander the Great and his entourage in India as ‘honey without bees’. The Arabs adopted the technique of crystallization, expanding its production significantly and the ‘sweet salt’ spread throughout the Arab Empire, to east Africa and the Iberian peninsula of Spain. The Crusades resulted in widespread use of sugar throughout Europe. Sugar probably reached England through Italian merchants; the city-state of Venice set up production of sugar in Tyre villages. One account of how sugarcane first reached the New World is that Christopher Columbus, stopping to provision his ships in the Canary Islands, had a romantic liaison with the governor there, Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio, and she gave him cane cuttings which he then transported across the Atlantic to the Caribbean islands. The introduction of sugar to the New World led to the famous (or infamous) ‘Triangle Trade’ of transporting sugar from the West Indies to the distilleries of New England which then exported rum to the west coast of Africa and, in turn, transported slaves back to the West Indies to cultivate the sugarcane.

The words for sugar seem to follow the pattern of dissemination of sugarcane and its cultivation, from Sanskrit to Arabic and Persian, then to western European languages, the linguistics reflecting the economic importance of the substance. It would be interesting to know when the term for sugar was first attested in each of the languages cited above.

As a final note, the striped fabric known as seersucker, a textile from India, came into English via Hindi’s sirsakar, which itself was a borrowing from Persian shirashakar (literal meaning — milk and sugar). The textile adopted the Persian name figuratively, but of course, the Persian name for the fabric utilized a word that came originally from the Sanskrit word for sugar, sharkara.

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2 Responses to Sweet as Sugar

  1. bbear says:

    Great post! Scholarly. Fascinating. I especially like la Bobadilla, whose wonderful name strikes me as something out of a Mel Brooks movie, like Hedley Lamarr 😉

    Your sister’s friend’s observation works with rice too:

    German reis
    Hebrew orez
    Arabic rays
    Italian riso
    Russian risa
    Spanish arroz
    French riz
    Greek rýzi
    Czech rýze
    Hungarian rizs
    Finnish riisi

    though not for

    Armenian brindz
    Japanese bei
    Chinese shu dao
    Korean ssal
    Vietnamese gao

    [sugar is preserved in Armenian (shak’ar) but not in these Asian languages]

    Translations by Google Translate…

  2. achouston says:

    BBear, this is interesting data about ‘rice’. Obviously another important world food, I don’t know its history of of how it got from one part of the world to another. The Finnish word is likely a Slavic borrowing, I’m guessing, because as you know, Finnish is not an indoEuropean (IE) language. The ultimate source of our word ‘rice’ and related forms, is the Sanskrit ‘vrihi-s’ (rice). Old Persian (an IE language) had ‘brizi’ and the Armenian (also IE) ‘brindz’ looks related to that. However, the Asian languages are using other terms entirely. It would be nice to trace their etymologies.

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