Dealing With the Etymology of Coffee

The history of the word coffee involves several phonetic difficulties. The European languages got the name of the beverage about 1600 from the original Arabic qahwah, not directly, but through its Turkish form, kahveh. This was the name, not of the plant, but the beverage made from its infusion, being originally one of the names employed for wine in Arabic.

Contributing to a symposium on the etymology of the word coffee in Notes and Queries, 1909, James Platt, Jr., said:

The Turkish form might have been written kahvé, as its final h was never sounded at any time. Sir James Murray draws attention to the existence of two European types, one like the French café, Italian caffè, the other like the English coffee, Dutch koffie. He explains the vowel o in the second series as apparently representing au, from Turkish ahv. This seems unsupported by evidence, and the v is already represented by the ff, so on Sir James's assumption coffee must stand for kahv-ve, which is unlikely. The change from a to o, in my opinion, is better accounted for as an imperfect appreciation. The exact sound of a(in Arabic and other Oriental languages is that of the English short u, as in "cuff." This sound, so easy to us, is a great stumbling-block to other nations. I judge that Dutch koffie and kindred forms are imperfect attempts at the notation of a vowel which the writers could not grasp. It is clear that the French type is more correct. The Germans have corrected their koffee, which they may have got from the Dutch, into kaffee. The Scandinavian languages have adopted the French form. Many must wonder how the hv of the original so persistently becomes ff in the European equivalents. Sir James Murray makes no attempt to solve this problem.

Virendranath Chattopádhyáya, who also contributed to the Notes and Queries symposium, argued that the hw of the Arabic qahwah becomes sometimes ff and sometimes only f or v in European translations because some languages, such as English, have strong syllabic accents (stresses), while others, as French, have none. Again, he points out that the surd aspirate h is heard in some languages, but is hardly audible in others. Most Europeans tend to leave it out altogether.

Col. W.F. Prideaux, another contributor, argued that the European languages got one form of the word coffee directly from the Arabic qahwah, and quoted from Hobson-Jobson in support of this:

Chaoua in 1598, Cahoa in 1610, Cahue in 1615; while Sir Thomas Herbert (1638) expressly states that "they drink (in Persia) ... above all the rest, Coho or Copha: by Turk and Arab called Caphe and Cahua." Here the Persian, Turkish, and Arabic pronunciations are clearly differentiated.

Col. Prideaux then calls, as a witness to the Anglo-Arabic pronunciation, one whose evidence was not available when the New English Dictionary and Hobson-Jobson articles were written. This is John Jourdain, a Dorsetshire seaman, whose Diary was printed by the Hakluyt Society in 1905. On May 28, 1609, he records that "in the[Pg 2] afternoone wee departed out of Hatch (Al-Hauta, the capital of the Lahej district near Aden), and travelled untill three in the morninge, and then wee rested in the plaine fields untill three the next daie, neere unto a cohoo howse in the desert." On June 5 the party, traveling from Hippa (Ibb), "laye in the mountaynes, our camells being wearie, and our selves little better. This mountain is called Nasmarde (Naki-l Suma-ra), where all the cohoo grows." Farther on was "a little village, where there is sold cohoo and fruite. The seeds of this cohoo is a greate marchandize, for it is carried to grand Cairo and all other places of Turkey, and to the Indias." Prideaux, however, mentions that another sailor, William Revett, in his journal (1609) says, referring to Mocha, that "Shaomer Shadli (Shaikh 'Ali bin 'Omar esh-Sha-dil) was the fyrst inventour for drynking of coffe, and therefor had in esteemation." This rather looks to Prideaux as if on the coast of Arabia, and in the mercantile towns, the Persian pronunciation was in vogue; whilst in the interior, where Jourdain traveled, the Englishman reproduced the Arabic.

Mr. Chattopádhyáya, discussing Col. Prideaux's views as expressed above, said:

Col. Prideaux may doubt "if the worthy mariner, in entering the word in his log, was influenced by the abstruse principles of phonetics enunciated" by me, but he will admit that the change from kahvah to coffee is a phonetic change, and must be due to the operation of some phonetic principle. The average man, when he endeavours to write a foreign word in his own tongue, is handicapped considerably by his inherited and acquired phonetic capacity. And, in fact, if we take the quotations made in "Hobson-Jobson," and classify the various forms of the word coffee according to the nationality of the writer, we obtain very interesting results.

Let us take Englishmen and Dutchmen first. In Danvers's Letters (1611) we have both "coho pots" and "coffao pots"; Sir T. Roe (1615) and Terry (1616) have cohu; Sir T. Herbert (1638) has coho and copha; Evelyn (1637), coffee; Fryer (1673) coho; Ovington (1690), coffee; and Valentijn (1726), coffi. And from the two examples given by Col. Prideaux, we see that Jourdain (1609) has cohoo, and Revett (1609) has coffe.

To the above should be added the following by English writers, given in Foster's English Factories in India (1618–21, 1622–23, 1624–29): cowha (1619), cowhe, couha (1621), coffa (1628).

Let us now see what foreigners (chiefly French and Italian) write. The earliest European mention is by Rauwolf, who knew it in Aleppo in 1573. He has the form chaube. Prospero Alpini (1580) has caova; Paludanus (1598) chaoua; Pyrard de Laval (1610) cahoa; P. Della Valle (1615) cahue; Jac. Bontius (1631) caveah; and the Journal d'Antoine Galland (1673) cave. That is, Englishmen use forms of a certain distinct type, viz., cohu, coho, coffao, coffe, copha, coffee, which differ from the more correct transliteration of foreigners.

In 1610 the Portuguese Jew, Pedro Teixeira (in the Hakluyt Society's edition of his Travels) used the word kavàh.

The inferences from these transitional forms seem to be: 1. The word found its way into the languages of Europe both from the Turkish and from the Arabic. 2. The English forms (which have strong stress on the first syllable) have o( instead of a(, and f instead of h. 3. The foreign forms are unstressed and have no h. The original v or w (or labialized u) is retained or changed into f.

It may be stated, accordingly, that the chief reason for the existence of two distinct types of spelling is the omission of h in unstressed languages, and the conversion of h into f under strong stress in stressed languages. Such conversion often takes place in Turkish; for example, silah dar in Persian (which is a highly stressed language) becomes zilif dar in Turkish. In the languages of India, on the other hand, in spite of the fact that the aspirate is usually very clearly sounded, the word qa(hva(h is pronounced kaiva by the less educated classes, owing to the syllables being equally stressed.

Real Cooking

Sir James Murray, in the New English Dictionary, says that some have conjectured that the word is a foreign, perhaps African, word disguised, and have thought it connected with the name Kaffa, a town in Shoa, southwest Abyssinia, reputed native place of the coffee plant, but that of this there is no evidence, and the name qahwah is not given to the berry or plant, which is called bunn bunn, the native name in Shoa being bu-n.

Now for the French viewpoint. Jardin opines that, as regards the etymology of the word coffee, scholars are not agreed and perhaps never will be. Dufour says the word is derived from caouhe, a name given by the Turks to the beverage prepared from the seed. Chevalier d'Arvieux, French consul at Alet, Savary, and Trevoux, in his dictionary, think that coffee comes from the Arabic, but from the word cahoueh or quaweh, meaning to give vigor or strength, because, says d'Arvieux, its most general effect is to fortify and strengthen. Tavernier combats this opinion. Moseley attributes the origin of the word coffee to Kaffa. Sylvestre de Sacy, in his Chréstomathie Arabe, published in 1806, thinks that the word kahwa, synonymous with makli, roasted in a stove, might very well be the etymology of the word coffee. D'Alembert in his encyclopedic dictionary, writes the word caffé. Jardin concludes that whatever there may be in these various etymologies, it remains a fact that the word coffee comes from an Arabian word, whether it be kahua, kahoueh, kaffa or kahwa, and that the peoples who have adopted the drink have all modified the Arabian word to suit their pronunciation. This is shown by giving the word as written in various modern languages:

French, café; Breton, kafe; German, kaffee (coffee tree, kaffeebaum); Dutch, koffie (coffee tree, koffieboonen); Danish, kaffe; Finnish, kahvi; Hungarian, kavé; Bohemian, kava; Polish, kawa; Roumanian, cafea; Croatian, kafa; Serbian, kava; Russian, kophe; Swedish, kaffe; Spanish, café; Basque, kaffia; Italian, caffè; Portuguese, café; Latin (scientific), coffea; Turkish, kahué; Greek, kaféo; Arabic, qahwah (coffee berry, bun); Persian, qéhvé (coffee berry, bun); Annamite, ca-phé; Cambodian, kafé; Dukni, bunbund; Teluyan, kapri-vittulu; Tamil, kapi-kottai or kopi; Canareze, kapi-bija; Chinese, kia-fey, teoutsé; Japanese, kéhi; Malayan, kawa, koppi; Abyssinian, bonn; Foulak, legal café; Sousou, houri caff; Marquesan, kapi; Chinook, kaufee; Volapuk, kaf; Esperanto, kafva.