Language is a constantly evolving entity, dependent on how people are currently speaking and the types of things they are speaking about. This evolution has continued at a particularly rapid rate over recent years due to the fast moving development of digital technology and how widely it taken on board. Another big factor in language evolution is travel, the meeting of other cultures and the taking on board of each others’ ideas.
In our blog this week, eSense Translations explores the concept of language ‘borrowing’ and shares some examples of borrowed words that are used in the English language.
One way that languages evolve is through the overlap and merging with one another. You would struggle to find a wholly ‘pure’ language that has not, at some point, taken some of its form from elsewhere.
‘Borrowing’ is a part of this process and is when one language ‘borrows’ a word from another. Languages are like magpies, in that they will find and take onboard vocabulary sourced from other languages and adapt the words for their own use. These ‘borrowed’ words are also often referred to as ‘loanwords’.
Over recent years, English has become a dominant international language, particularly with communication over the internet. It has therefore become a major ‘donor’ language and you will find a lot of new digital terms used in English, as loanwords, in other languages.
Equally English has a long running history of being a huge ‘borrower’ of words from other languages.
According to David Crystal, English has adopted words from over 350 different languages, with about 80% of our English words being borrowed from other languages. Many of these loanwords come from Greek and Latin, but also French, German and Spanish have a big influence on our communication.
With France’s gastronomic reputation, it is unsurprising that we have adopted some of their terms into our language. For example ‘pork’ and ‘beef’ have been borrowed from the French ‘porc’ and ‘bouef’ and even the French term ‘cuisine’ is now readily used in English.
In fact, it is becoming more common today for English to adopt the original culinary terms for items from other countries too; consider ‘affogato’ (an Italian dessert), espresso (also Italian, the small coffee pick-me-up), tarka dal (an Indian lentil dish), ‘taco’ (Spanish – a Mexican dish made up of a filled tortilla) and ‘sushi’ (the now well-known Japanese rice dish, often with fish or vegetables).
There are also a number of more abstract concepts that are frequently seen in English:
‘Faux pas’ – French origin, used to refer to a mistake or blunder in a social situation
‘Kitschy’ – German origin, often used when something is poor taste or tacky, sometimes knowingly so.
‘Alter ego’ – although now well-integrated into the English language, has origins from Latin, meaning another self or differing personality
Even some of our simplest words have been borrowed from other languages:
‘They or their’ has come from the old Norse word ‘þeir’
‘Person’ originates from the Latin word ‘persona’ and came to us via its use in French
‘Leg’ again comes from the Norse word ‘leggr’ and replaced our previous word ‘shank’!
Borrowing is the result of the contact between two cultures and often occurs when an unfamiliar concept is introduced to one side. There is not sufficient vocabulary to describe the concept and therefore an efficient way of integrating it into the language is to borrow the word. These concepts could be for example political, cultural or technological.
Normally, when the loanword is first taken onboard, the initial speakers will be bilingual in the language or at least familiar with the term being used. The loanword may initially be spoken with the accent of the original language, but as it becomes used more widely, it is integrated more fluidly into the language.
As discussed previously, there has been a lot of borrowing in recent years due to the technological advancements in the digital world and also from our interest and enthusiasm for other cuisines. However, borrowing has also occurred with culture concepts such as ‘ballet’ and ‘opera’, both of which are loanwords. We have also borrowed words for our building of structures, such as ‘castle’, ‘igloo’ and ‘teepee’.
eSense Translations sees many of these loanwords across different languages when reviewing translation work.
As cultures continue to overlap and take onboard vocabulary from each other, what effect will this have on our languages in the future? There has been concern over recent years over the disappearance of minority languages and the increasing dominance of languages such as English. However, ‘borrowing’ is a process that has occurred over many, many years and is part of what makes languages what they are today. No doubt in another century or so, our languages will have evolved even further.
By Lorna Paice