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Q From Peter Bottomley, London: I was having a discussion with a friend over dinner about English words from other languages. I have been considering the word tundra: is it fair to conclude that English did not take it from Finnish?

A I would be delighted to confirm it definitely didn’t, but a difference of opinion exists between English and French scholars. The latter say it did while the former say it didn’t. Either way, this word for the flat and treeless Arctic region in which the subsoil is permanently frozen has had a long journey from its homeland into English.

A hunt in the dustier corners of my online and offline libraries turned up the information that the word was initially imported from Russian in the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary says that its first appearance in English was in 1841, but that entry is old and modern research methods can improve on it:

Crossing a second toundra, desert, of seven miles wide, with infinite labour to the dogs as well as to ourselves, we entered upon a most magnificent scenery.

Narrative of a Pedestrian Journey through Russia and Siberian Tartary, by John Dundas Cochrane, 1824.

You will note that Captain Cochrane spelled it in the French way, as toundra, which suggested that some further delving was in order. This confirmed that the word was known in French before English got hold of it (my French dictionaries say 1830, but Peter Pallas employed it in his Voyages en Differentes Provinces de L'Empire de Russie in 1793, if not by earlier writers). English may have got it from French, rather than borrowing it directly from Russian, as my English dictionaries suggest. French did get it from Russian.

English etymologists say Russian acquired it in turn from the Sami people, who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and western Russia, the direct source being Kildin Sami, spoken around Kola, near Murmansk in western Russia. In the Sami language, tundra means a treeless plain. This would make the chain of transmission from Sami to Russian and then to English, possibly via French. My French etymological sources assert, however, that the source of the Russian word was the Finnish tunturi. As the Sami and Finnish words are related (Sami belongs to the same language family as Finnish) and the two peoples have had a very long association, non-specialists may feel that this is a distinction that makes little difference.

As an aside, tundra is the only word in English which is said to derive from Sami. If indeed it did.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 29 October 2011.