Easter chocolates in the supermarket (Image credit: Wikimedia)

I’ve been thinking a lot about chocolate lately. Maybe because it is Easter and supermarkets in my part of the world are laden with chocolate products.

Chocolate is good to think with

Chocolate is good to think with – and I don’t mean just because chocolate is known to make our brains release endorphins, chemicals that make us feel good.

Chocolate is good to think with because it provides an easy-to-grasp explanation of the workings of global capitalism and the persistence of a colonial world order.

Global chocolate

The global chocolate industry is worth over 100 billion US$ per year. That wealth accumulation starts with the cultivation of the cacao bean and ends with the Easter egg melting in your mouth.

Cacao grows in tropical climates close to the equator. The world’s largest producer and exporter of cacao beans are two West African countries, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Together with Ecuador, Cameroon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, and Papua New Guinea they grow most of the world’s cacao.

Virgin forest cleared to make way for cacao plantation (Image credit: Peru Reports)

Cacao farming is a fast-growing plantation monoculture and a major factor in deforestation. 80% of Côte d’Ivoire’s rain forest, for instance, has in the past few decades been cut down to make way for cacao plantations.

Even though Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana dominate global cacao production, your Easter egg is not going to say “Made in Côte d’Ivoire” or “Made in Ghana.”

The label on your Easter egg is most likely to read “Made in Germany” because Germany is the world’s largest chocolate producer and exporter, followed by Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland.

Cacao – the raw product – is shipped from Africa to Europe to be transformed into the valuable chocolate.

The main consumers of chocolate are in North America and Europe. Over 10% of the world’s chocolate is eaten in USA alone, followed by Germany, France, United Kingdom, and Netherlands.

Per capita chocolate consumption in some of these countries is truly staggering. The average Swiss person, for instance, eats a whooping 8.8 kilos of chocolate per year. The thought alone is enough to give me constipation (although Australians are in no position to point fingers: each of us eats 4.9 kilos of chocolate per year).

The biggest multinational corporations running global chocolate are based in USA (Mars, Mondelฤ“z, Hershey), Italy (Ferrero), Japan (Meiji, Ezaki Glico), Switzerland (Nestlé, Lindt & Sprüngli), UK (Pladis), and South Korea (Orion).

The back-breaking work of cacao production is done in the (supposedly former) colonies (Image credit: Insider)

The global division of labor could not be clearer: those who do the work and suffer the degradation of their environment are completely separated from those who grow rich on their exploitation and those who enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The chocolate profiteers and chocolate victims remain invisible

Despite the ubiquity of chocolate in supermarkets of the global north, few people know how the chocolate got there.

Most of us are ignorant of the money behind chocolate. Italy’s richest man, for instance, is Giovanni Ferrero, of the Nutella chocolate spread. Giovanni’s fortune is estimated to be 32 billion US$. By contrast, the average cacao farmer earns less than one US$ per day.

Now that we have the economics of global chocolate straight, let’s turn to language. The way we think about the word “chocolate” can tell us as much about language and culture contact, as it does about capitalism and colonialism.

“Chocolate” is a universal word

One of the most foundational ways to think about languages is to classify them into many different languages, each separate from the other.

From Afrikaans to Zulu, there are 6,000 languages or so. Each different from the other and each tied to a particular nation, ethnicity, or culture.

The word for “chocolate” and “cacao” in 56 languages (sourced from Google Translate; Latin alphabet used throughout for easy comparability)

Now consider the word for “chocolate” and “cacao” in those languages.

The table shows 56 translation equivalents of “chocolate” and “cacao”, all based on Google Translate, and all written in the Latin alphabet for easy comparability. One glance suffices to see that “chocolate” and “cacao” are essentially the same word in all these languages. There are pronunciation differences, for sure, but it is obvious that that is all there is.

Does it make sense to say that “cokollate” is an Albanian word, that “shukulata” is an Arabic word, that “tsokolate” is a Cebuano word, that “qiวŽokèlì” is a Chinese word, that “chocolate” is an English word, that “Schokolade” is a German word, that “chokollis” is a Korean word, that “shoklat” is a Persian word, and that “ushokoledi” is a Zulu word?

Of course, each of these forms is adapted to the phonology of each language but it is equally clear that the most salient aspect of each of these words is not their difference but their similarity.

The German philological tradition has a term for these types of words that are pretty much identical across languages: wanderwort. Wanderwort literally means “wandering word” or “migrating word.” Such migrating words are “items that are borrowed from language to language, often through a long chain of intermediate languages” (Hock & Joseph, 2009, p. 484).

A textbook example for a wanderwort is “sugar” – another key ingredient in chocolate – which probably started out in Sanskrit as “ล›arkara” and moved westwards to become Persian “shakar,” Arabic “sukkar,” Greek “sákkharon,” and Spanish “azúcar.” The word did not stop with Spanish but hopped over to French “sucre”, Italian “zucchero”, German “Zucker”, and English “sugar.” The Greek version “sákkharon” took an additional route into Western Europe and also gave us English “saccharin”.

Migrating words – and there are many of them – remind us that the borders between languages are not fixed but highly porous. Language and culture contact is the norm, and has been the norm since time immemorial.

That is the first language lesson of chocolate.

Chocolate is a colonized word that has become universal

The overarching narrative of language contact and language spread in our time is of the triumph of English. Language – like everything else of value – supposedly emanates from the European centre to the rest of the world. Colonial languages are powerless and dying away in the face of the English juggernaut.

There is certainly some truth to this story but it is not the only story. An alternative story is encapsulated in the word for “chocolate”.

Precolonial Mesoamerican depiction of a marriage ceremony involving a drink of chocolate (Image credit: UC Davis Library)

The cacao bean has been cultivated in Mesoamerica and brewed into a chocolate drink for thousands of years. Accordingly, the words for “cacao” and “chocolate” have a long and varied history in the precolonial languages of the region (Dakin & Wichmann, 2000).

The migrating words for “cacao” and “chocolate” that we encounter today in (possibly?) all the world’s language is based on Nahuatl “kakáwa” and “ฤokola:tl.”

While colonial languages have certainly been spreading, individual words from colonized languages have been on the move, too. Some, like “kakáwa” and “ฤokola:tl” have made themselves at home universally.

Like “cacao” and “chocolate,” many universal words come from the world’s most threatened and minoritized languages.

Another iconic example is “kangaroo.” This universal word comes from Guugu Yimidhirr, an Australian language from Far North Queensland with less than 1,000 speakers.

The second language lesson of chocolate is that language spread is not a one-way street and colonized languages have also made their tracks around the globe.

Eurocentric etymologies

The Spanish conquest of the Americas brought the cacao bean and its preparation to the attention of Europeans.

The internet is full of claims that “Cortés was believed to have discovered chocolate during an expedition to the Americas” or that “Christopher Columbus discovered cacao beans after intercepting a trade ship on a journey to America and brought the beans back to Spain with him in 1502” (my emphasis).

Europeans have long lied to themselves about chocolate: this 17th century treatise depicts an Indian princess handing over chocolate to the higher-placed Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the seas (Image credit: Internet Archive)

This is incorrect – like most “discoveries” of the colonial period and the so-called “Age of Discovery,” the existence of the cacao bean and its use in chocolate preparation was well-known to the Aztecs.

In today’s terms, what Cortés, Columbus, and all the other “discoverers” did might be called plagiarism or intellectual property theft.

Words like “cacao” and “chocolate” bear witness to that grand theft in the languages of the world.

Not surprisingly, the colonizers have tried to erase those linguistic tracks.

“Kangaroo” was for a long time thought to be “unknown” in any Australian language, and the idea was that Captain Cook and Joseph Banks somehow made up the word. Another apocryphal story had it that “kangaroo” actually means “I don’t know” in Guugu Yimidhirr. In this anecdote, local knowledge is completely erased while Cook and Banks come out as the heroic discoverers who made sense out of local ignorance.

It was not until 1980, when the publication of R.M.W. Dixon’s The languages of Australia finally settled the debate and confirmed something the Indigenous people of North Queensland had known all along: that the universal word “kangaroo” came from their language.

A similar obfuscation takes place when you look up the etymology for “chocolate” in English. English “chocolate” is said to derive from Spanish “chocolate” or French “chocolat.” The latter in turn derives from Spanish “chocolate,” and only in another step does it go back to Nahuatl “chocolatl.”

The etymology of the German “Schokolade” similarly highlights inner-European transmission by deriving German “Schokolade” from Dutch “chocolate,” which derives from Spanish “chocolate.” Nahuatl is only mentioned at the end of that list.

In Imperial Eyes, Mary Louise Pratt writes that “an imperial tendency to see European culture emanating out to the colonial periphery from a self-generating center has obscured the constant movement of people and ideas in the other direction” (p. 88).

Amongst other things, colonialism has been a huge project of knowledge transfer from the colonized to the colonizers. The third language lesson of “chocolate” is to lay bare the big con that has made it look as if knowledge only travels in the other direction.


Dakin, K., & Wichmann, S. (2000). Cacao and chocolate: a Uto-Aztecan perspective. Ancient Mesoamerica, 11(1), 55-75.
Dixon, R. M. W. (1980). The Languages of Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hock, H. H., & Joseph, B. D. (2009). Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics (2nd rev ed.). Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Pratt, M. L. (2008). Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.