“Coffee is a language in itself.”
That’s according to Jackie Chan, the internationally famous actor, martial artist and (evidently) coffee enthusiast.
It’s clear why that statement stands true: despite the fact that it’s always made using essentially the same simple ingredients, the idea of “coffee” nevertheless manifests itself in very different ways for different people, in different cultures and in different languages.
If there’s one thing that humanity has in common, though, it’s that we love a good cup of coffee, however we define the word.
All over the world, coffee is a way to get rid of that morning grogginess or that Monday weariness. A lot of people have coffee to thank for being able to pass as morning people.
Coffee lets us be able to go into work or school with a smile on our face, and it gives us the energy to focus on the task at hand, like learning a new language.
In many parts of the world it’s also a way of socializing, with different, sometimes intricate rituals involved in naming, ordering, serving and consuming different forms of coffee.
With all that in mind, one might argue that knowing how to ask for coffee is one of the most important things a language learner will learn.
OK, maybe that was a bit of a stretch.
Still, coffee is a fun thing to talk and learn about, so today we’ll look at how people consume and talk about coffee in different cultures and languages.
So pour yourself a nice hot cup of coffee and read on!
What’s the Buzz? All About Coffee in Different Languages and Cultures
Where Did Coffee Come From?
Coffee has a long history that, according to some, begins in the ancient forests of Ethiopia. Supposedly, a goat herder there discovered the energizing power of coffee after witnessing firsthand the effect that coffee had on his goats, who ate some of the seeds from a coffee plant. Word spread quickly, and soon coffee was being enjoyed from the plains of Ethiopia to the palaces of Persia.
We’ll probably never know the full truth of coffee’s origin, but it’s clear that by the 16th century, coffee had made its way to Europe through trade between the Middle East and Italy. As with many new things, it was initially met with a hint of fear and an overreaction towards its bitterness, but soon people really began to enjoy the drink; even the Pope made his approval of it public!
Eventually, coffee made its way to America. Tea was still the favored drink there until the Boston Tea Party, after which the colonials turned to coffee. It’s…bean…a favorite drink ever since then.
No matter where you go, you’ll probably be able to get your coffee, likely without ever having to use a different word to order it.
But have you ever wondered why? Why is the word “coffee” almost universally understood? To paraphrase a talented poet, what’s in a name? A coffee by any other name would taste just as bitter.
Here’s the scoop: The word “coffee” originally came from “Kaffa,” the name of a former kingdom and current province of Ethiopia. It was referred to by the Arabs of the Middle East as “قهوة” (pronounced /ˈkah.wa/) before they sold it to the Venetian merchants, who called it “caffe.” Through a few other twists and turns, that eventually worked its way into English as “coffee.”
We’ve touched on the history of coffee and its effect on the world, but there’s still so much more. There’s a brilliant book on that very topic called “The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee” by Stewart Lee Allen, for coffee lovers who really want to know about the history of coffee around the world, without all that travel fare.
For now, let’s leave the past behind and focus on the present. What’s coffee culture like throughout the world, and how can we get ourselves a tasty sip of that sweet, caffeinated action?
A Must: How to Order Coffee in Different Languages
Being able to sit down and chat with someone over a hot cup of coffee is one of life’s great pleasures. So in your quest to master your new language, be it Spanish, German, French or any other, it would no doubt be useful to learn how to actually say “coffee” in different languages.
Here’s how to say it in some of the world’s most commonly spoken languages:
- Arabic: قهوة (qahwa)
- Chinese: 咖啡 (Kāfēi)
- French: Café
- German: Kaffee
- Italian: Caffè
- Japanese: コーヒー (Kōhī)
- Korean: 커피 (Keopi)
- Portuguese: Café
- Russian: Кофе (Kofe)
- Spanish: Café
Right about now, some of you might be thinking, “Well that’s not nearly enough for me to start my journey around the world, savoring all the coffee each culture has to offer!” Don’t worry, we hear you!
Here are just a few more languages for the curious:
- Afrikaans: Koffie
- Dutch: Koffie
- Finnish: Kahvi
- Greek: Καφές (Kafés)
- Hindi: कॉफ़ी (Kofee)
- Icelandic: Kaffi
- Romanian: Cafea
- Swedish: Kaffe
You can probably see by now that the word and pronunciation of “coffee” is more or less universal. And indeed, if you just say that word, regardless of the language, pretty much everyone will know what you want.
Now, something you have to understand about all this is that just because the word for “coffee” may look and sound similar around the world, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be talking about exactly the same thing when you say the word in different places and in different languages.
Different Cultures, Different Coffee Habits
In the same way that “pudding” can refer to very different things throughout the English-speaking part of the world, “coffee” (or the word’s foreign equivalent) will not always refer to the same thing.
For example, when you think about having coffee, you might imagine a cup of hot coffee with a cube or two of sugar and some milk, maybe even a snack on the side.
But in Finland, people are just as likely to think about drinking coffee while eating leipäjuusto (bread cheese), which is a slice of “squeaky” cheese that you’re supposed to coat in hot coffee before eating. It’s a Finnish favorite.
There are many different things—some of them maybe quite weird by your standards—that people put into their coffee and/or eat while drinking coffee.
But it isn’t just the actual drink that might take some getting used to. In some places, there can be a maze of customs and manners that you need to navigate if you want to drink coffee. Each culture has its own unique rules of etiquette in regards to coffee.
For instance, while you can order any kind of coffee at any time of day in Sweden without being gawked at, ordering a cappuccino past morning in Italy is frowned upon.
These kinds of customs aren’t things you absolutely must keep in mind when you’re traveling and need that quick pick-me-up, but it’s always good to be aware, especially since many of these traditions go back a long way.
The Turkish coffee tradition has remained the same for centuries, to give just one example. Coffee reached Turkey in the beginning of the 16th century and since then, it’s been an important part of Turkish culture. They have a very specific way of making coffee, using coffee beans that have been grounded into very fine powder.
Everyone Needs Coffee? Gimme a Break!
Typically, you’ll be working or studying, gradually losing steam as the day wears on. So on one of your breaks, you head over to the nearest coffeepot or coffee shop to get yourself a lovely “cup o’ joe” before that stress starts to mocha you crazy.
What we’ve just described is a coffee break, something everyone has in almost every coffee-loving country. When did the whole world suddenly agree that a short break at work was meant for that wonderfully bitter, black beverage?
This story begins in the late 19th century in a little town in Wisconsin called Stoughton. There, the wives of Norwegian immigrants would leave work for a short while to take care of the kids and also enjoy a much-needed cup of coffee.
It was something they were used to doing since coffee breaks stem from a quite old custom in Scandinavia. In Sweden, for example, it’s known as fika, and it’s been a habit of the Swedes for generations, one that has worked its way into the formal business world.
The Nordic nations pretty much created the concept of a coffee break, a fact those from Stoughton haven’t forgotten, which is why they celebrate every year in August with the Stoughton Coffee Break Festival.
Still, while there were a few workplaces around the globe that adopted coffee breaks as a habit, it wasn’t actually made a mandatory break until the mid to late 20th century.
Why was it deemed necessary? It wasn’t just because coffee breaks are a fun thing to have. Studies show that breaks help people learn and refresh themselves, increasing productivity when they start up again. A little caffeine goes a long way.
Plus, coffee breaks are enjoyable, and enjoyment is a huge part of why we drink coffee so much and so regularly. Really regularly.
The country that statistically loves coffee the most is currently Finland, followed by Norway, Iceland and Denmark. Different surveys and studies use different methodologies, which can change the order of the top coffee drinkers. Still, in basically every case, the Nordic and other northern European countries claim most of the top spots for coffee consumption.
A Part of World Culture
The wonderful thing about coffee is that every nation has had a part to play in its distribution and development. From its humble beginnings in Ethiopia to its current status as our go-to break beverage, coffee is the result of centuries of cultures meeting, combining and innovating in order to socialize and counter the effects of the daily grind.
That’s a great thing to remember, too, because while every culture has its own unique spin on coffee (and there are quite a few very unique spins out there), enjoying coffee is something all of them have in common.
We drink it when we need energy and we drink it while getting to know someone or spending time with people we care about.
That’s why in every country you go to, you’ll always be able to find a coffee shop of some kind, and they’ll always understand what you mean when you ask for “coffee,” even if you don’t get the local word for it quite right.
Knowing that, when you’re ready to go out into the real world and start using those new languages you’ve been learning, the best place to start might just be the first coffee shop you visit in a foreign country. After all, finding common ground always makes learning a new language a bit easier.
And if you meet someone at a coffee shop and you’re looking for a great conversation starter, you can talk about all the interesting stuff you just learned about coffee!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.