Essential Words to Know when Travelling

During a recent conversation about dystopian novels, the George Orwell classic 1984 was inevitably mentioned. In the novel, Big Brother wants to reduce number of words in the language in order to control people, for example, to stop people having ideas about ousting the authorities. This led us to thinking about how useful a minimal language might be. Due to our interest in adventure and world travel, we thought that it would be beneficial if everyone on the planet could learn a world language containing a minimal number of words, i.e. an essential vocabulary. That way speaking abroad would be easier. Wherever you travel you can also be assured that people can help you with your basic needs. Conversely, you can always help or assist a foreigner who is visiting or travelling through your country. A widely spoken second language is sometimes referred to as an auxiliary language.

The idea of a universal, constructed language is not a new one. Esperanto is fully fledged language developed in the 1870s and early 1880s by Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. It has as many as 2 million speakers in about 115 countries. Esperanto is phonetic language with simple pronunciation, largely consisting of root words that can be expanded into tens of thousands of words with prefixes, suffixes and compound words. Whilst many people would consider it beneficial for the world to share a single language, Esperanto is unlikely to be adopted as our universal language in the foreseeable future. Even if it was taught universally to all school children, it would be a long time before enough people could speak Esperanto for it to be really useful on a worldwide scale.

There are also condensed, constructed languages, such as Toki Pona which was published in 2001 by linguist Sonja Elen Kisa. Toki Pona has small vocabulary based upon 125 root words and was apparently designed to shape the thought processes of its users.

An alternative way to enhance communication for travellers could be for everyone to learn the crucial vocabulary in four the most widely spoken languages, i.e. English, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish. However, this would require four times the amount of effort and would inevitably offend speakers of other languages.

The 100 Word, World Language

We decided to lay down a template for the construction an auxiliary language that would benefit anyone travelling to a foreign country. In order to develop an indispensable travel language we asked ourselves:

  1. What is the smallest possible lexicon?
  2. How many words are needed and how many words can everyone possibly be expected to learn?

The answer that we decided upon in both cases was a convenient 100 words. Before we could decide upon which words are crucial for communication and therefore should be included in our vocabulary, we needed to create a few basic rules.

Essential Minimum Language Rules

In order to create an auxiliary language with a minimum workable word list a few rules were established, as follows:

Proper nouns, i.e. place names and people’s names, would not need to be included in the vocabulary.

Anything that must be spoken is a “word”, so numbers and punctuation may need to be included as words.

Many languages use tones and inflexions. Tones can be used to give the same word multiple meanings. This could effectively increase the number of “words” available, however tones may be too difficult for some people to pronounce. It would also make the simple language more complicated with more word meanings to learn and more chance for confusion. Besides, a compound word is still a new word which must be learnt and would effectively increase the vocabulary. Another example of this is raising your voice at end of sentence to imply a question, however it is clearer if a “question word” is used instead.

Some words have more than one meaning in one languages, but they probably will not in another language or they have different other meanings, so each word in the vocabulary must have only one meaning.

The number of compound words contained in the lexicon must be minimal. People think in different ways, so combining two words to make one may result in logical word for some people but it might be meaningless or absurd to other people.

The language needs to be kept it as simple as possible, with as few grammatical or other rules as possible. Conversation would largely be related to asking for information, help or things. Therefore with regards to grammar and sentence structure, little will really be needed other than to bear in mind that in different languages word orders can be reversed. Therefore if the person you are speaking to does not understand, try reversing the order of words in the sentence.

Essential Travel Words Vocabulary

Ideally, to create a 100 word world language, a brand new set of universally pronounceable words should be created for this vocabulary. Creating new words is outside of the scope of this article, so English words have been used to create the essential travel words vocabulary. In some cases there is not a direct English equivalent word. In these cases, the word “word” has been added to another word to convey the overall meaning, e.g. polite word and insult word.

General Words

  1. plus – meaning “yes”, as well as being a positive word to express something good, something large or something that you want something. So “plus cost” would mean expensive, “plus object” would mean a large object and “plus coffee” would mean that I want to have coffee.
  2. minus – meaning “no”, as well as negative word to express something bad, something small or that you do NOT want. So “minus cost” would mean cheap, “minus object” would mean a small object and “minus coffee” would mean that I do not want to have coffee.
  3. question word (this word is added on the end of a sentence to make it question)
  4. I
  5. you
  6. we

“we you” could be used for they and “we I” for us.

  1. male
  2. female
  3. spouse
  4. parent
  5. adult
  6. child
  7. help!
  8. police
  9. hello / goodbye word
  10. polite word (meaning both please and thank you)
  11. sorry / apologies word
  12. insult word
  13. repeat (to ask someone repeat the phrase – they should know the language of course, but they may well have a strong accent!)

Counting System

  1. zero
  2. one
  3. two
  4. many

In order to count higher than two, numbers would be created as follows:
“two one” = three
“two two” = four
“two two one” = five etc.

  1. So that it is possible to express large numbers, there must be a word to say that you are dictating number the digit by digit

Alternatively Roman Numerals could be used, since there are relatively few “words” needed, i.e. I, V , X, L, C and M. You would still need “zero” however.

Time and date

  1. day
  2. month
  3. year

Days and months can be referred to using the counting system:
“day one” is Monday
“day two” is Tuesday
“day two one” is Wednesday
“day two two” is Thursday

  1. hour
  2. minute
  3. immediately
  4. future
  5. past


  1. telephone
  2. internet


  1. toilet
  2. place
  3. drug ( “plus drug” would be a medicinal drug and “minus drug” would be a narcotic)


  1. need
  2. eat
  3. drink
  4. sleep
  5. worship / meditate
  6. sex
  7. smoke
  8. criminal act


See plus and minus above.

  1. hot
  2. cold

Shopping Words

  1. cost (to ask how much just say “cost” and the “question word” and point to object.)
  2. currency / cash
  3. credit card
  4. shop

Food and Drink Words

  1. carbohydrates (bread, potato, pasta, rice, noodles)
  2. meat / fish / protein
  3. diary products
  4. vegetables
  5. salt
  6. sweet / sugar

If you are a vegan, you can get passport with a translation into many languages:

  1. water
  2. tea
  3. coffee
  4. alcohol
  5. soft drink
  6. restaurant / pub / bar

Essential Travel Words

  1. passport
  2. visa
  3. validation ( “plus validation” means valid, “minus validation” means invalid)
  4. embassy
  5. walk
  6. bicycle
  7. motor cycle
  8. underground train / metro
  9. train
  10. bus
  11. taxi
  12. car
  13. plane
  14. slow down!
  15. ticket (for a return ticket you would need to say name of starting point, destination and starting point)
  16. hotel
  17. hostel
  18. make a booking word

The station would be “train place” and airport would be “plane place” etc.

Direction Words

  1. left
  2. right
  3. straight ahead
  4. back
  5. over there

For up and down, “plus” and “minus” can be used.

Health Words

  1. doctor
  2. hospital
  3. pain
  4. nausea / diarrhoea
  5. fever
  6. allergy

You can point to body parts to show the doctor where the pain or problem is.

If you have a serious health condition or allergy it would be wise to get multi-language translation containing details of any health risk.


  1. weather (“plus weather” for good weather, “minus weather” for bad weather)

It is only the British who go on about the “bloody weather” all the time, so there is no need for any other terms relating to weather!

Camping, Walking and Climbing Words

Since this is an outdoor gear blog, we obviously need some words to help ensure that we can participate in outdoor sports.

  1. tent
  2. campsite
  3. climb
  4. mountain
  5. crag
  6. footpath / trail
  7. map

Words that didn’t make it

It is quite tricky to limit the number of words required for effective communication. Here are some that did not make our vocabulary: it, heavy, light, want, give, have, love, gender, work, meet, animal and dog.

Try having a conversation!

We have tried to have some basic conversations, for example asking to book a hotel room for 2 adults for 3 nights, which was possible. However asking whether the price of the room included breakfast tested the language to it limits!

What do you think? Are there any words that we should have included or that we should omit from our lexicon? Let us know, click on “comments” below.

Phrases that didn’t make it

An additional idea for the creation of an auxiliary travel language is that phrases could be condensed into single words. Below are a few phrases that we could have included, but thought better of it. Just for fun!

  1. Please may I pitch my tent in your garden?
  2. My rucksack is packed with dehydrated stew
  3. Your waterproof jacket is extremely elegant
  4. My walking boots produce a foul odour
  5. May the force be with you
  6. The truth is out there

According to David McCreedy, author of The Four Essential Travel Phrases website, the phrases every traveller should know are:

  1. Where is my room?
  2. Where is the beach?
  3. Where is the bar?
  4. Don’t touch me there!

The last phrase is obviously of the utmost importance, particularly if you’ve already had answers to the first three.

Just for Fun! Below are some YouTube clips relating to language mix ups.

Fawlty Towers – The Germans

At 3 minutes 55 seconds into this YouTube video, hopeless hotel owner Basil Fawlty thinks he can speak German. Unfortunately when his guests tell him that they wish to hire a car “Wir wollen ein Auto mieten”, Basil thinks that they are offering to go and get some meat.

Monty Python – Dirty Hungarian Phrase Book

A scheming publisher has deliberately mistranslated phrases in a English – Hungarian phrase book.


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