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Making Sense of Adjectives from Country Names


Making Sense of Adjectives from Country Names
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Recently a reader asked us about how English defines the adjective of nation or country. Hien Lai gave these examples: “We have American as the adjective of America, Vietnamese as the adjective of Vietnam, Brazilian as the adjective of Brazil, Swiss as the adjective of Switzerland and so on.”

Hien names some of the common suffixes, or endings we add to the placename to make an adjective. They include -ese, as in Chinese; -ish, as in Scottish; -ic, as in Icelandic and -i as in Iraqi.

At first look, it seems that there is no reason for the choice of one adjective form over another for a country. However, a closer look shows that history plays a role in how we chose them. The suffixes to go with country names were borrowed many years ago from Greek, Latin, French and even Arabic.

Europe is commonly known as the Old Continent. It has countries like England, Sweden, Spain, Scotland, Ireland, Turkey and Poland. They all use the suffix -ish in the adjective form to become English, Swedish, Spanish, Scottish, Irish, Turkish and Polish. The suffix -ish, meaning “born in or of a country,” came into use in Old English until around 1150.

Staying in Europe, you will hear a similar suffix in the adjectives French and Dutch for the countries France and the Netherlands. This is a shorter form of the -ish suffix that English speakers used for their close neighbors. Speaking of neighbors, we took the adjective Swiss in the 1500s from their neighbors, the French, who used the word Suisse.

Looking further West from England, the country of Iceland forms an adjective with -ic for Icelandic. This is another old French and Latin suffix that you will find on terms related to groups of people in European history, such as Celtic and Gothic.

A few countries make their adjectives with the suffix -i. These include Israeli, Iraqi, Yemeni, Omani, Pakistani, Somali and Bengali. These countries usually have populations of Arabic speakers or have neighbors as Arabic speakers. A similar sound is used in Arabic to make adjectives. But do remember that the adjective for Madagascar has the same sound only it is spelled with the letter -y, Malagasy.

Portugal, a European country, forms its adjective with the suffix -ese. This suffix is borrowed from the Old French -eis. So, when the Portuguese started trading with China, the word Chinese entered the English language in the 1570s.

Country names borrowed into English from Medieval Latin around 1530 include Russian, Egyptian and Norwegian, all ending with one of the most common suffixes, -ian.

You will find that many countries in the New World, or America, and newly independent countries usually have the suffix -ian or -an.

They include Canadian, Brazilian, Chilean or Peruvian in America. There are Estonian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian in Europe and Ethiopian, Nigerian and Kenyan in Africa.

When a new country is formed in modern days, its founders usually decide what they want to be called.

In the African country of Burkina Faso, its founders wanted the people to be called Burkinabè, not Burkinese or Burkinish or Fasoan, in 1984. Another new country in the Pacific Ocean, the Republic of Vanuatu, independent since 1980, uses the adjective form Ni-Vanuatu, which translates to “Of Vanuatu” from a local language.

To find the official name of a country or its people, you can go to The World Fact Book. The website also has useful maps and information on each country.

The next time you are together with some friends, a fun party game might be to test their knowledge of adjectives, people and countries in English.

And when you have finished learning the adjectives for the countries, there are many more to learn for people of different states or cities! For example, I came from the American state of Indiana, but people from my state are called “Hoosiers.”

And that’s Everyday Grammar!

I’m Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this lesson for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Stephen Powell made this map showing the adjective endings for countries around the world.

Map created by Stephen Powell using Mathematica to show locations of adjective suffixes for names of countries. April 11, 2008
Map created by Stephen Powell using Mathematica to show locations of adjective suffixes for names of countries. April 11, 2008

What is the adjective in English for your country? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

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