Updated on March 30, 2009
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CHESS PIECES
in Different Languages

© Ari Luiro 2009


This article presents words for chess, six chess pieces and check in 73 languages in the table. This article is originally written in Finnish. If you know more languages to be added to the table, please send me e-mail. Your feedback is welcome to my e-mail .

Some chess pieces have interesting secondary meanings. The king in chess is usually the same word as the ordinary king in many languages around Europe and Asia (eg. Catalan rei, Finnish kuningas, Polish król, Chinese wang). Sometimes a language uses a loan word, which does not necessarily mean the ordinary king, eg. the Japanese kingu is a loan word from English king.

As far as is known king's basic move has not changed. In the 13th century the king was permitted once in a game to make a leap, and from this the move of castling was developed. King is a translation of shah, the Persian word for king.

The rook has many meanings in different languages. The rook is a tower in many European languages (eg. Spanish and Portuguese torre, Finnish torni, French tour, Dutch toren), sometimes a large farm (Frisian stins), a ship (Russian lad'ja, transcribed also as ladya), a fortress or castle (Indonesian benteng) or a wagon (Chinese ju, Estonian vanker).

Until the new queen's move was introduced in the 15th century the rook was the most powerful piece. Except for the castling the powers of the rook have been unchanged throughout the known history of chess.

Words for chess queen in European languages are generally feminine, with a few exception. But outside Europe the chess queens usually don't have gender or the piece is masculine. The Arabic firz or firzān (counsellor) was never translated into a European language although it was adopted. For example the Italians call the queen as donna ('woman') or more common regina (queen in Italian). A Latin manuscript preserved in the Einsiedeln Monastery in Switzerland (997 AD) contains the first recorded mention of the chess queen (regina). In French usage reine 'queen' replaced fierce or fierge (from the Arabic fers) during the 14th century; during the next century reine was replaced by the word dame.

In the Middle Ages the queen or firz was the third weakest piece after the pawn and the fil. However the queen became the mightiest piece in the middle of the 15th century.

Chess players may have borrowed the word dame from the game of draughts. The transition from dame to queen would be natural, a desire to pair the central pieces. A recent theory explains that the cult of the Virgin Mary, the ordinary medieval queens and the cult of romantic love would have the transformed the firz into the feminine queen and finally elevated the chess queen into the game's mightiest figure.

The queen in Estonian (lipp) is a flag. Arabic (wäziir, firzān), Russian (ferz'), Farsi (vazir, farzin), Uzbek (farzin), Hindi (farzī, wazīr) and Turkish (vezir) among others still use the ancient word of no gender firz for today's chess queen.

Usually words for chess knight mean a horse (eg Azerbaijani at, Chinese ma, Dutch paard) or a rider (French cavalier, Czech jezdec) or a horse with rider (Finnish ratsu) or a kind of rider (English knight, Irish ridire 'knight', Breton marc'heg 'knight'). In many countries knight's name is linked with the cavalry which it originally represented, but the German Springer means leaper or jumper which is a kind of horse in the sports.

There are many ways in different languages to call a bishop. The bishop can be a messenger (Finnish lähetti and Polish goniec), a clergyman (English bishop and Irish easpag 'bishop' both from Latin episcopus 'bishop'), a rifleman (Czech střelec), a runner (German läufer, Romansh currider, Latin cursor), an elephant (Indonesian gajah) or a crazy (French fou, also a jester or a fool). Romanian nebun and Greek trelós mean fool or crazy.

The Dutch loper means 'runner' or 'key'. Dutch has earlier used raadsheer for the bishop, actually there has been a Dutch chess club named Raadsheer. One source mentions raadsman ('adviser') used for bishop, which practise is nowadays unknown. The Frisian fjildhear is the leader on the battlefield. The Italian alfiere is a flagbearer. The Spanish alfil has no other meanings.

The fil 'elephant' was the weakest piece in the old game and placed in the array where the bishop now stands. It could be moved to only eight squares by jumping to any of the squares diagonally two squares away. The word fil is derived from the Persian pil 'a chess piece or an elephant'. Because Arabic lacks p, the pil became fil. The prefix al- is definite article, so the Europeans called this piece as fil or alfil (> aufin).
In French usage fou replaced aufil during the 16th century. The weird semantics (meanings) of this French word ('chess bishop' vs. 'fool' and 'crazy') has transferred to Romanian and Greek.

The name bishop has been used in English-speaking countries since the end of the 15th century when this piece took the place of the aufin used in the old game. The move of the bishop, so different from that of the aufin, is the same as the move of the courier in the German game of that name introduced long before modern chess.

The pawn is usually a soldier, more precisely an infantry in Latin pedes. An original secondary meaning is collateral in English pawn. The name pawn derives from the Anglo-French word poun and ultimately from a direct translation of the Arabic word baidaq, a foot soldier.

Both German Bauer and Spanish peon mean peasant or agricultural worker. This meaning has been borrowed in many Germanic and Slavonic languages, eg. Frisian boer and Ukrainian pishak both mean farmer. The French pion and the Spanish peón are both derived from the latin pes : pedis 'foot'.

The French pion has spread in many languages. In this case the pion does not have another meaning. In Dutch, however, there are some colloquial expressions which refer to the pion and its minor importance.


Checkmate in different languages

The term for the end of the game is checkmate, which is derived from the Persian words shah ('king') and mat ('defeated'), the expression "the king is defeated".
In most languages mate is mat like in Dutch, French, Polish, Bulgarian, Russian, Czech, Turkish, Greek, Farsi (Persian) and Hindi. Sometimes term for checkmate can precede (or alternatively not) word for check, for example Azeri (şah ve) mat, Albanian (shah)-mat, Basque xake mate, English (check)mate, Latvian (šahs un) mats, Lithuanian (šachas ir) matas, Romanian şah-mat, Croatian šah-mat, Chinese jiāngsi, Japanese oote-(tsumi), Indonesian (skak-mati), German (Schach) matt and Italian scacco-matto.

In some languages there is a free variation, mate or checkmate. In these languages chess players tend to use shorter expression (eg. German matt) while non-players tend to use longer expression (eg. German Schach matt), since matt has another meaning in German, 'tired'.
In Finnish checkmate is matti but Matti with capital initial is a male name. For chess players the context of mate is clear, even if the players are Finnish and player's name is Matti.

The Spanish and Portuguese word for checkmate is mate, Mongolian mad, Vietnamese hết nước and Korean thongcang. The Irish marbhsháinn meaning 'checkmate' is a compound of marbh 'dead' and sáinn 'check'. The verb to make checkmate is in Irish marbhsháinnigh and in Finnish matittaa.


Miscellaneous

The words for chess pieces of languages with non-Latin writing system need to be transcribed, for example the Greek word purgoV is transcribed in Latin letters as pyrgos 'rook'. I have followed the Finnish transcription traditions with a few exceptions, for example š instead of the regularly used sh, the š however being in scientific use in Finland. So the š is usually written as sh in the English transcription, eg the Bulgarian peška 'pawn' can be transcribed as peshka too.

The j means in most cases the semivowel (as y in yet, in IPA j), the only exceptions are when the language has its own standard transcriptions with regular domestic use, eg Hindi and Chinese. In Bulgarian and Macedonian words ts can be transcribed as c too, which should be pronounced as [ts], eg carica or tsaritsa 'queen'. Note that in all Slavic languages and Hungarian the letter c is pronounced as [ts]. The letter č is always pronounced as ch in check.

Artificial languages are not included, the only exception is Esperanto because of its extensive use. All the Tatar words for chess pieces are borrowed from Russian except at 'knight', which means literally 'horse' just like in many other Turkic languages.

I have used h for the velar fricative (e g German ch), which is usually transcribed as kh in English and French and x in international phonetics. In the Cyrillic and the Greek alphabet this phoneme is written with the letter X, but since the 2nd century BC Latin has used this letter to indicate the consonantal sequence ks. In the table the Greek x means ks, while in Farsi x means the velar fricative.

I here thank all the people who have given me feedback from different European, North American, South American, African and Asian countries.


Chess Pieces in 73 languages
    +
Finnish 3 sakki kuningas kuningatar torni ratsu lähetti sotilas sakki
English chess king queen rook knight bishop pawn check
French échecs roi dame tour cavalier fou pion échec
Italian scacchi re donna torre cavallo alfiere pedone scacco
Catalan escacs rei dama, reina torre cavall alfil peó escac, xec
Spanish 10 ajedrez rey dama, reina torre caballo alfil peón jaque
Galician xadrez rei raíña torre cabalo bispo peón xaque
Portuguese 4 xadrez rei dama torre cavalo bispo peão xeque
Occitan échecs rey fenno castel cabal falour piun echec
Romanian şah rege damă, regină turn cal nebun pion şah
Latin 2 lūsus lātrunculōrum rēx rēgīna turris eques cursor pedes cavē rēgī
Basque xake, xake-joko errege dama gaztelu zaldun alfil peoi xake
    +
Dutch schaken koning dame toren paard loper pion schaak
Afrikaans skaak koning dame toring perd, ruiter loper pion skaak
Frisian skake kening daem stins hynder fjildhear boer skaak
German Schach König Dame Turm Springer Läufer Bauer schach
Danish skak konge dronning tårn springer løber bonde skak
Norwegian sjakk konge dame tårn springer løper bonde sjakk
Icelandic skák, tafl kóngur drottning hrókur riddari biskup peð skák
Faroese skák, talv kongur frúgv, drotning rókur riddari bispur finna skák
Romansh 17 schah retg dama tur chaval currider pur  
Maltese cess re regina kastell, torri kavallier isqof suldat  
    +
Irish 6 ficheall banríon caiseal ridire easpag ceithearnach sáinniú
Gaelic tàileasg, fidhcheall rìgh banrìgh caisteal ridire easpaig pàn, ceatharnach
Welsh gwyddbwyll brenin brenhines castell marchog esgob gwerinwr  
Breton echedoù roue rouanez tour marc'heg furlukin pezh-gwerin  
Lithuanian šachmatai karalius valdovė bokštas žirgas rikis pėstininkas šach
Latvian šahs karalis dāma tornis zirdziņš laidnis bandinieks šahs
Estonian male kuningas lipp vanker ratsu oda ettur šahh
Hungarian 16 sakk király vezér bástya huszár futó gyalog, paraszt sakk
    +
Esperanto ŝako reĝo damo, reĝino turo ĉevalo kuriero peono ŝak
Russian шахматы
šahmaty
король
korol'
ферзь
ferz'
ладья
lad'ja
конь
kon'
слон
slon
пешка
peška
шах
šah
Belorussian шахматы
šahmaty
кароль
karol'
ферзь
ferz'
ладдзя
laddzjá
конь
kon'
слон
slon
пешка
peška
шах
šah
Ukrainian шахи
šahy
король
korol'
королева
koroleva
тура
tura
кінь
kin'
слон
slon
пішак
pišak
шах
šah
Polish szachy król hetman, dama, królowa wieża skoczek, koń goniec pionek szach
Czech 13 šachy král dáma věž jezdec střelec pěšec šach
Slovak 14 šach kráľ dáma veža kôň strelec pešiak šach
Slovenian šah kralj dama, kraljica trdnjava konj lovec kmet šah
Croatian 15 šah kralj dama top, kula konj, skakač lovac pješak šah
Serbian 15 шах
šah
краљ
kralj
дама
dama
топ
top
коњ, скакач
konj, skakač
ловац
lovac
пешак, пион
pešak, pion
шах
šah
Macedonian шах
šah
крал
kral
кралица
kralitsa
топ
top
коњ
konj
ловец
lovets
пион
pion
шах
šah
Bulgarian 7 шах, шахмат
šah, šahmat
цар
tsar
дама, царица
dama, tsaritsa
топ
top
кон
kon
офицер
ofitser 12
пешка
peška
шах
šah
Albanian shah mbret mbretëreshë kala kalë oficer ushtar, gur shah
Greek 20 σκάκι
skáki
βασιλιάς
vasiliás
βασίλισσα
vasílissa
πύργος
pyrgos
ίππος, άλογο
íppos, álogo
τρελός,
αξιωματικός
trelós
axiômatikós
πιόνι
pióni
ρουά,
σαχ
rouá, sah
    +
Turkish satranç şah, kral vezir kale at fil asker, piyon şah
Azerbaijani şahmat şah vezir top at fil piyada şah
Uzbek šatranž šoh farzin ruh ot fil pijoda kišt
Turkmen küšt ša perzi ruh at pil pyjada küšt
Chuvash šahmat korol' koroleva tura laša, ut slon peška šah
Bashkir šahmat korol' ferz' tura at fil peška šah
Karachay-Balkar šahmat (-la) pattšah ferz' tura at slon peška šah
Kumyk šahmat patša vazir lad'ja at   peška šah
Karakalpak šahmat patša koroleva tura at pil pijada šah
Tuvin (höl)šydyraa nojan merze terge a"t teve ool ša, šah
    +
Kalmyk šatr han bersn tergn mörn zan kövün šallgn
Mongolian šatar nojon bers tereg mor' temee hüü šag
Buryat šatar nojon berse terge morin temeen hübüün šaa
Pahlavi tšatrang šāh frazēn mādajār asp pīl pajādag  
Farsi šatrandž šāh vazir, farzin rox asb fil pijāde kiš
Arabic
šatrang

mälik

wäziir, firzaan

tabja

hosaan, faras

fiil

äskärii, beedäq
 
Amharic senterej negus ferz der ferese fil, saba medeq  
Swahili sataranji, chesi mfalme malkia ngome jamadari padri kitunda  
    +
Hindi šatranj bādšāh farzī, wazīr kištī, hāthī, rukh ghorā ũt pyādā, paidal šah, kišt
Bengali dābā rājā montri, rānī noukā ghorā ũth    
Malay catur raja menteri tir kuda gajah askar  
Indonesian catur raja menteri benteng kuda gajah pion skak
Vietnamese cờ (quốc te),
cờ tướng
con tướng con hoàng hậu con xe,
con tháp
con mã,
con ngựa
con tượng,
con voi
con tốt chiếu tướng
Korean cang.ki oang nje.oang cha mal sang col cang.kun (pat.a.la)
Georgian 8 tš'adrak'i mepe t'ura et'li mxedari k'u p'aik'i  
Armenian 9 šaxmat arqa t'aguhi navak dzi p'il zinvor šax
Hebrew shakhmat
šakhmat
melekh
melekh
malka
malka
tseriakh
tseriakh, tirah
sus
paraš, sus
rats
rats
chayal
ragli, khajal
shakh
šakh
Chinese 19 guójì xiàngqí wáng hòu xiàng bīng jiāng
Japanese chesu kingu kuiin rukku naito bishoppu poon oote
    +


Note that this article is written in the Unicode (UTF-8) Character Set. Several foreign letters are underlined and explained below.

Arabic: ä = a in cat, š = sh, j = y in yet, ii aa ee = long vowels
Armenian: l = g (IPA gamma), dz is an affricate written also as z' [dz]
Azerbaijani: e = e upside down [a in cat], ş [sh], y [y in yet]
Bengali: accents indicate long vowels, th is retroflex and aspirated t, ũ = nasalized u.
Farsi: ž = French j, x = German ch
Georgian: ' (apostrophe) indicates an ejective (glottalised) consonant, in the linguistics written as a dot above or below the letter. x = Cyrillic x or German ch
Hindi: accents indicate long vowels, t and r are retroflex, kh is a velar fricative or aspirated stop, ũ = nasalized u.
Kalmyk: g = / h /, ö = / o /, ü = / Y / (Cyrillic letters)
Mongolian: ü = / Y / (Cyrillic letter)
Serbian chess pieces are transcribed as they were Croatian ones, with one exception: pawn is pešak or pion.
Turkmen: ü = / Y / (Cyrillic letter)
Uzbek: ž = French j, h = German ch




References

2 My source is Cassell's Latin Dictionary by D. P. Simpson, 1959 (1968). The original meaning of the word lātrunculus was an unknown game. Latin has been used as literal language by scholars in the Western countries in the Middle Ages. There has been many words for chess in Latin, eg lūsus lātrunculārius, lūsus scacchōrum (Magyar-Latin szótár, Györkösy Alajos 1960 [1992]). Geitlin's Finnish-Latin Dictionary uses the word lūdus lātrunculōrum. Back

3 The Finnish word for chess is usually written as shakki, for example in the Finnish chess magazines named Suomen Shakki ('Finland's Chess') and Kirjeshakki (= 'Correspondence Chess'). However, the usual pronounciation of this word begins with 's'. For most Finns /š/ or /sh/ is merely a foreign phoneme or never been in actual use. Just like in Latin and Spanish, Finnish has just one sibilant, the usual /s/. In few words of foreign origin /sh/ is found in the orthography, but these words are usually pronounced as /s/. There is a tendency to write s instead of sh, eg sampoo 'shampoo' and sokki 'shock'.

Johan Gabriel Geitlin in 1883 in his Finnish-Latin dictionary writes both sakki ja shakki, the first being primary.

Colloquial Finnish words for the queen are daami, matami (both adapted from the French [ma] dame) or rouva (from the German Frau 'Mrs'), and so on. All of them are feminine words, but rarely used for the chess queen. Back Table

4 In Brazil and Portugal chess is xadrez. The initial x means here š = sh; the pronounciation is in Portugal [šâdrêš] and in Brazil [šádréis]. The difference is in accent. This Portuguese word is related to Spanish ajedrez and comes originally from Sanskrit via arabic and old farsi. Table

5 The English name rook comes from the Sanskrit ratha, a chariot, through Persian and Arabic rukh. Most European languages adapted the word by homophony through the Italian rocco meaning tower, which was thus translated. The only language other than English that uses a direct transliteration is Icelandic, with hrókur. (The Oxford Companion to Chess, David Hooper & Kenneth Whyld 1984, rook). Table

6 The Irish is the ordinary word for 'king' and is also the word for 'king' in chess. It is a cognate of the Latin rēx and the same root is found in Hindu and Bengali raja. banríon, like the Finnish kuningatar, is the current word for 'queen' and also for the 'queen' in chess. The Irish word for rook caiseal is an early (5-6 century) borrowing from Latin castellum. The Irish ceithearnach 'pawn' is the word for the traditional Irish foot-soldier. sáinniú (= +, 'check') is the verbal noun (cf -ing) of the verb sáinnigh 'to corner, trap, put in a fix, and in chess, to check'.

The close relationship between Irish and Gaelic is obvious, except for tàileasg 'chess' (also refers to draughts and backgammon, probably from English tables) and pàn (from English pawn). Caisteal is a borrowing from Latin and is the usual word for 'castle'. The other terms are of the same origin as the Irish ones. Fidhcheall, rìgh, banrìgh and ceatharnach are native Celtic words in Gaelic.

In the case of Welsh, brenin and brehines are the usual words for 'king' and 'queen'. Castell and esgob are borrowings from Latin castellum and episcopus. The word for chess gwyddbwyll is an exact cognate of the Irish ficheall meaning literally "wood-intelligence" in both languages. The word for knight marchog is the ordinary word for rider or knight, cf Breton marc'heg. The word for pawn gwerinwr ordinarily means countryman or rustic in Welsh. Brenin, brenhines, gwyddbwyll, marchog and gwerinwr are native Celtic words in Welsh. Table

7 A colloquial Bulgarian word for rook is tur. Colloquial Russian terms: queen koroleva, rook tura and finally bishop ofitser just like in Bulgarian. So both in Bulgarian and Russian there is a colloquial variant for rook which sounds very much like rook in various European languages, eg French torre. Table

8 The Georgian word for queen t'ura means 'jackal', and the similarity to words meaning 'tower' in many European languages (eg Italian torre and Ukrainian tura) is merely accidental. Table

9 The Armenian word for rook navak means boat, and the word for pawn zinvor means soldier. tš and dz are affricates transliterated as č and j respectively or z' instead of j depending on the source.
Chess pieces in Armenian: Table

10 The Spanish ajedrez comes originally from Sanskrit: ajedrez < local Arabic aššaţranğ or aššiţranğ < classic Arabic šiţranğ < Pelvi (old Farsi) čatrang < Sanskrit čaturanga = of 4 members, cf. Latin quattuor and Spanish cuatro = 4.

Asturian is a dialect of the Spanish (Castilian) language, not an independent language. However, Asturian is linguistically interesting, because it has retained its initial f unlike Spanish, eg ant in Latin is formica, in Spanish hormiga and in Asturian formiga. The names for chess pieces in Asturian are as follows: axedrez, rei, reina/dama, torre, alfil, caballu, peón and xaque. The Asturian words resemble Spanish ones. The ordinary king in Asturian is perréi, but the chess king rei.

Aranese (in Occitan/Gascon/Aranese aranés) is a variety of Pyrenean Gascon (a dialect of the Occitan language), spoken in Val d'Aran, in northern Spain. The names for chess pieces in Aranese are as follows: eds escacs ('chess'), arrèi ('king'), fièrço / arrèino ('queen'), tourre, cavaler, alfi and pezoun ('pawn', in plural pezous). The fièrço for queen is actually a medieval word (old Spanish alferza) from Arabic (< < Pelvi frazen meaning 'guardian'). Table

11 In English speaking countries non-players sometimes call rook a castle, which is now uncommon among players. This is the case for the Dutch kasteel 'id.' too. In Finnish linna (literally 'castle') means colloquially castling, more generally linnoitus 'castling', literally 'fortress'. Table

12 Apart from Bulgarian офицер, for the bishop there is a colloquial term фриц [frits]. This used to be a name given to German soldiers and officers in the WW II by the Bulgarians, from the German name Fritz. Maybe phonetic similarities have given a stimulus to this innovation for the new term for bishop (ofitser < > frits). Table

13 The name for chess in Czech can be either šach or šachy, the latter being plural. Jezdec 'knight' (lit. 'rider') is usually called as kůň (lit. 'horse'). Table

14 The name of the game in Slovak can be either šach or šachy. The former is singular, the latter plural, but both can be used interchangebly; singular is perhaps a bit more usual. Kôň 'knight' (lit. 'horse') can be also called as jazdec (lit. 'rider'), which is called so to distinguish it from kráľ when using abbreviations. The initial letters make the difference.

15 The Serbian and Croatian chess terminology. The word for pawn has many variations: pišak (c), pešak (s) or pješak (c, s) depending on the dialect. The pion (s) and pijun (c) for pawn is a loan from French. In addition kraljica for queen is used instead of dama especially among the Serbs. Both Serbs and Croats say rohada and rokada for castling. Colloquially, both groups sometimes use laufer or even lojfer for bishop. Kralj means king, dama = lady, kraljica = queen, top means cannon, kula = tower, lovac = hunter, skakač = jumper, konj = horse and finally pešak means infantryman or pedestrian.

16 The Hungarian word for pawn paraszt (= peasant) is indeed the informal version of the gyalog. The colloquial word for the huszár 'knight' is (= horse), and the word for queen vezér (= military leader) is királynő (= queen). The futár is no longer used for pawn. Table

17 Romansh has six dialects, Grischun dialect is used here. The king, queen, rook and bishop in other dialects: Sursilvan : retg dama tuor currider, Sutsilvan : retg dama tur curider, Surmiran : rètg dama tor curridier, Puter : raig dama tuor curridur, Vallader : rai dama tuor curridur. Romansh is a tiny language in Switzerland.

19 In Chinese: Table

20 Greek: zatríki ( ζατρίκι ; in classical Greek zatríkion) was a popular board-game in ancient Greece. Nowdays nobody would use the word zatríki in Greece in order to describe chess. They use σκάκι (skáki) instead.
The word íppos ( ίππος ) for knight literally means horse - as does the second given word, álogo ( άλογο ).
The word trelós ( τρελός ) for bishop means fool or crazy and is one of the chess terms that have been transferred to Greek from French. The French fou2 'fool' comes from Latin while fou1 'chess bishop' comes from the Persian pil 'chess piece or elephant'.
The word pióni ( πιόνι ) for pawn is another loan from French (pion).
In Greek check is either sah ( σαχ , transcribed also as sakh) or roua ( ρουά ): the first word is the common warning and descriptive name for the king in a number of languages, the second word is another loan from French (roi) as transliterated in Greek. Table


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