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English Is The Most ‘Borrowed From’ Language

U.S. British Flags

Britt Peterson notes that English is the leading language in the world when it comes to “loanwords,” words that are adopted in whole or in part by other languages, often the the consternation of linguistic purists:

It’s a common experience for English speakers abroad: suddenly recognizing a familiar word in a newspaper, or on a billboard, or in a fragment of conversation. Since World War II, English has become by far the leading exporter of “loanwords,” as they’re known, including nearly universal terms like “OK,” “Internet,” and “hamburger.” The extent to which a language loans words is a measure of its prestige, said Martin Haspelmath, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute. English, clearly, is now on top.

But that imbalance can build resentment. In France, the secretary of the Academie Française called last December for a “reconquest of the French language” from loanwords; in China, government-friendly papers printed screeds this spring against “Wi-Fi,” “VIP,” and “e-mail.” Even as many governments work to protect languages from the spread of English, however, speakers in those countries go blithely off to “hot jooga,” meaning that official policy and the daily reality of English may be very different things.

Linguistic loans can appear in a number of forms: Some float on the surface of a language, while others are more integrated. Because English and Japanese have very different sound systems, for instance, Japan often adapts words in ways that make them nearly unrecognizable to English-speakers. Über-Japanese media franchise Pokémon actually takes its name from English (“pocket monster”). Japan’s “puroresu” is another abbreviated compound, from “professional wrestling”; similarly, the extra syllables required to pronounce English consonants have given rise to “purasuchikku” (“plastic”) and “furai” (“fry”). Then there are loans where a word stays intact but the meaning shifts. A “smoking” is French for a tuxedo, and a “dressman” is a German male model. Chinese people say they want to “high” when they want to have a (non-drug-related) good time.

Loanwords are fun to track, from the perspective of the loaner. But if you’re the borrower, there can be a feeling of defeat, that you’ve relinquished your own way of saying things. This has fed linguistic purism: attempts to cleanse languages of foreign influences, or resist them in the first place.

Peterson goes on to discuss the efforts in many countries to push back against the anglicization of their language, with perhaps the most well-known example of that in the West being actual edicts by the French Government over the years to prevent the use of English words in the French language, often to the point of absurdity. Other examples can be found in efforts by nations that were once dominated by foreign powers to reassert their own culture by purging their native tongue of the language of the former colonial power. As Peterson notes, South Korea responded in this manner after it achieved independence from Japan at the end of World War II, and both India and Pakistan tried to separate the many similarities between Hindi and Urdu that had developed over the centuries.

In most cases, including the French example, these efforts end up failing because languages are not something that are easily controlled by central governments. They are, instead, something that evolve over time based upon common usage. No matter how much it tries, no government can control a evolutionary process like the development of a language. If French people want to adopt English words rather that using some bizarre official French counterpart approved by the government, then the odds are that its that choice that will end up dominating in the end. Similarly, as the Koreans, Indians, and Pakistanis found, trying to “purify” a language that developed over hundreds of years if not longer, and adopted words and phrases from another language along the way, is a nearly impossible task. Perhaps in some totalitarian state one could do that — and that raises the interesting question of what the linguistic differences between North and South Korea might actually be after more than six decades of separation and isolation in the North — but in the real world, it’s just not an achievable goal.

As for Peterson’s broader point, it isn’t at all surprising that English has become the language that other languages are most likely to borrow from. For hundreds of years now, under the political and military dominance of the British Empire and now the cultural dominance of the United States, English has been the dominant language on the planet. It is the language that airline pilots and air traffic controllers generally speak even in nations where English is not the native language. It is predominantly the language of international trade and diplomacy. And, most importantly, it is the language of the most pervasive and all encompassing popular culture the world has ever known. Just as Latin became the language of a large part of the world when the Roman Empire dominated, Arabic became the language of choice for a territory that stretches form Morocco to Iraq, and Mandarin came to dominate in China, English is the dominant language on the planet and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Even though it’s unlikely that English will ever replace other languages the way that Latin, Arabic, and Mandarin did, the fact that its words are being adopted by other languages should be no surprise at all.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Thieves. Why can’t they just be satisfied with their own language?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. Mr. Prosser says:

    American English, yeah! Make me a sandwich, I want ham on a baguette with mayonnaise and dijon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    It stands to reason. English is more of a lingua franca or even a pidgin, a hodgepodge of languages used by people who are native speakers of other languages, to communicate among one another. Compare it with a language like Chinese or even German which has far fewer borrow words than English does.

    As the waggish comment above suggests, it’s hard to say a sentence in English without using a half dozen words borrowed from other languages.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  4. al-Ameda says:

    English is as close to an open source language as there is in this world. People from everywhere can understand a bit of English use it and generally be understood by so-called “native Americans” much of the time. This is no mean feat. If you don’t believe it, go to France or Germany and try out a little of their language and see if you can get by. English is open source.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    There are a number of things going on here.
    !. yes English has a lot of French words but keep in mind French was the official language of Britain for a few decades if not centuries .
    2. English has more words than most languages, In Germany they can’t really play word games because everyone knows all the words.
    3. During the 20th century much of the technical innovation came from the US so it only makes sense that the English words for those innovations would be incorporated into other languages. For example the German word for television is Fernsehen, but guess what – most people refer to it as a TV.
    Here in the Pacific Northwest there was something known as the Chinook Jargon, a trading language used by the NW tribes to communicate. When the French trappers and traders started coming into the area French words were added to it. When English speakers moved into the area English words were added to it. I suspect the English language is the result of a jargon created by the various ethnic groups in early Great Britain.
    In Japan they actually have a separate alphabet for foreign words.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Mr. Prosser says:

    @al-Ameda: Open source, what a great desciptor, thanks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. ED61 says:

    http://www.translationdirectory.com/glossaries/glossary159.htm

    I think english took more then taken from :-)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Mikey says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    In Germany they can’t really play word games because everyone knows all the words.

    In Germany half the words are made up of the other words.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @Mikey: That’s true, they do tend to tack existing words together to make “new” words.

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    English has a lot of French words but keep in mind French was the official language of Britain for a few decades if not centuries

    The latter. French became the official court language of England in 1066, and was replaced by English as the official language in English courts, the last bastion of official French, in 1731. (Law French was a second language for all of the lawyers by then, but still…)

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    English is more of a lingua franca

    Heh.

    or even a pidgin

    Technically, it’s more of a creole, at least if you buy the (convincing to me) arguments of John McWhorter.

    English is so brazen in acquiring vocabulary, it sometimes steals the same word twice from the same language. There are quite a few pairs like “ward” and “guard” (both from French, at different times), “skirt” and “shirt” (both from the same Norse word), etc.

    James Nicoll’s internet-famous comment seems appropriate here:

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Creoles develop from pidgins.

    The reason I characterized it as a pidgin is that pidgins tend to be more predisposed towards borrowing than creoles. I’m not sure what the technical term for that is. I’d say “syncretistic” but linguistic syncretism means something different.

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  13. Grumpy Realist says:

    @DrDaveT: oh, I love that quotation. So true.

    Japanese has obtained a lot of its scientific vocabulary from other languages–Chinese, Portuguese and German as well as English. The Chinese is fine, because they use the characters as well, but a huge amount of the rest has come in only via phonetics. So when I’m trying to read a Japanese paper on organic chemistry, I’m trying to read the Japanese phonetic mapping of a German word. Groan…

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  14. DrDaveT says:

    @Grumpy Realist:

    So when I’m trying to read a Japanese paper on organic chemistry, I’m trying to read the Japanese phonetic mapping of a German word.

    Oddly enough, I’ve seen that. My Japanese aunts taught me the katakana alphabet long ago. When I worked for a Japanese-born scientist in college, I could usually puzzle out the loan-words in his Japanese technical articles. But that only gets you so far — you need to also make the leap that /porima/ means “polymer”…

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  15. Franklin says:

    I’ve been trying to learn Japanese (and mostly failing). But I am shocked by the number of loan words; it seems you can double your vocabulary if you just know which English words they have. And although they sound funny, the pattern seems fairly consistent to me.

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  16. Ron Beasley says:

    @Grumpy Realist: Not exactly true. Although they still use some Kanji their written language is primarily alphabetic.Many Japanese can’t even read Kanji anymore.They have 2 alphabets, one for Japanese words and one for foreign words,

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  17. Eric Florack says:

    Are we forgetting Latin?
    Mind you this is straight from the hip…. but since so much of the KIngs English is itself derived from Latin….. I wonder a bit at the conclusions being drawn here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  18. sam says:

    “It is the language that airline pilots and air traffic controllers generally speak even in nations where English is not the native language.”

    I’ve been watching the World Cup and wondering what language is used when the ref talks to the players. I’ll bet it’s English . Y si tiene el fútbol, tiene el mundo.

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  19. grumpy realist says:

    @Franklin: Except you have to know what language the loan-word is from to make any sense.

    The other idiosyncrasy is that Japanese mix-n-match as well as truncate all sorts of loan words, which is why you get “waa-puro” for “word processor”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. grumpy realist says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I’d say it’s the other way around. Whereas writing used to be limited to the Kanji people could remember, with the advent of “word-processors” and putting stuff in phonetically, the “average number” of Kanji that people use has gone from 2000 to 3000 characters.

    And that’s not looking at the extra characters one ends up learning for particular areas. For instance, there’s at least one character that is only ever used when describing a design patent. But if you’re working in Japanese patents, you’ll run across it all the time.

    (I lived in Japan for ten years working at Japanese companies and inside the Japanese government.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Dave Schuler says:

    @sam:

    Your questions answered. Apparently, the refs speak English among each other and players speak whatever language they know to the refs. There’s no guarantee they’ll be understood. It’s up to them to get their point across.

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  22. Franklin says:

    @grumpy realist: But aren’t a large percentage of the loan words from English? That’s been my experience *thus far*. (I’m just talking everyday speech, not the specialty words for science, etc.)

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  23. grumpy realist says:

    @Franklin: Yes, a lot of the standard borrowed stuff is English (modulo the mangling). Scientific stuff, Not So Much.

    I much, much prefer when they swipe the vocabulary from Chinese. At least I can read the bloody stuff!

    Oh, and the meaning of a Chinese character in Chinese isn’t necessarily the same meaning as the one it has in Japanese, so there’s that as well.

    Have discovered that roughly 1/5 of the words in Russian seem to have been borrowed from French, German, or English. And then there’s the other way around (“bistro” having entered French, courtesy of a whole bunch of Russian soldiers stationed in Paris courtesy of some 19th-century war.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. Dave Schuler says:

    @grumpy realist:

    From about 1700 right up until the Russian Revolution the Russian aristocracy spoke French. Many didn’t speak Russian at all–the most famous poet of the Russian language was a native speaker of French.

    Nearly all Russian words dealing with the modern world (modern until 1918) are French. Most Russian words dealing with the 20th century world are English.

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  25. Franklin says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Oh, and the meaning of a Chinese character in Chinese isn’t necessarily the same meaning as the one it has in Japanese, so there’s that as well.

    Yeah, I asked a Japanese acquaintance about that recently. He tried to communicate at a business meeting in China by writing symbols, but they recognized them as meaning something else.

    However, apparently Chinese characters do all mean the same thing to Chinese people, regardless of whether they speak Mandarin or Cantonese or some other dialect. I actually would have been surprised if the Japanese could read it, too.

    I’m impressed that you can read kanji … holy cow that seems complicated with two pronunciations for most of them.

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  26. DrDaveT says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Although they still use some Kanji their written language is primarily alphabetic.

    Syllabic, not alphabetic. 50 characters, each representing a consonant-vowel pair, plus a character representing a terminal “-n”.

    I’m not an authority here, but I thought it was a pretty thorough mix of hiragana (the syllabic alphabet for native words) and kanji (the borrowed pictograms), with katakana for children and loan-words. @grumpy realist can correct me if I’m wrong there.

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