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