Lend me a word

English is a bit of a mongrel. It is basically a West Germanic language, but contains words from many other languages, especially French, Latin, Greek and Old Norse. In fact, only about 26% of English vocabulary is Germanic, 29% is from French, 29% from Latin, 6% from Greek, and the rest from many other languages [source].

When English borrows words from other languages, which it does all the time, most people see the process as a positive one that expands and enriches English vocabulary.

There will always be some who object to the adoption of certain words, however, within a few generations, or even a few years, those words can become fully integrated in the language, and people might not even be aware they were borrowed in the first place.

Japanese is also open and accepting of foreign words, mainly from Chinese and English. These loan words are changed to fit Japanese phonetics, and some are shortened and combined to make original new words, such as リモコン (rimokon) = remote control, and オープンカー (ōpun-kā) = convertible car.

Borrowing between languages is common around the world where languages come into contact. The borrowing often flows from large languages, like English or Spanish, into smaller languages, such as regional, minority and endangered languages.

When smaller languages borrow from bigger languages, some believe the smaller languages suffer in the process, becoming corrupted, impoverished, polluted, etc. Such sentiments are much less common when talking about borrowing from smaller languages into bigger languages.

There seems to be a double standard here.

Borrowing will happen, even though language regulators, such as the Académie française, might object and try to stop it. Languages change and influence one another. They can borrow many words from other languages without losing their identity, and without breaking down into incomprehensible grunts.

What do you think?

Do languages benefit from borrowing?

9 thoughts on “Lend me a word

  1. Japanese is curious in that it borrows foreign words only as nouns. Japanese verbs are a closed class, and the only borrowed verbs I know are サボる saboru “to skip, to play hooky” and ググる guguru “to google”.

  2. old_nomad: There are several more borrowed verbs, like マクる makuru ‘to eat at McDonald’s’, カフェる kaferu ‘to go to a cafe’, カフェオレる kafeoreru ‘to have a café au lait’, スタバる sutabaru ‘to go to Starbucks’, ダブる daburu ‘to be duplicated, to repeat, to overlap’ (from ダブル daburu ‘double’), ハモる hamoru ‘to harmonize’, トラブる toraburu ‘to experience trouble, to be out of order’ (from トラブル toraburu ‘trouble’), コピる kopiru ‘to copy’, テロる teroru ‘to commit an act of terrorism’.

    I hope that last one doesn’t put this blog on some kind of watch list 😀

  3. I’ve also come across a related double-standard where smaller languages are criticised for borrowing words via English for ‘modern world’ concepts – technology, politics, etc., and people use thus to suggest that this means the smaller lang. is somehow unsuited for the modern world. Often the source word in English is made up of Latin/Greek elements anyway!

  4. Russian borrows a lot of words, including computing terms, from English, even though it’s not so small. Some Russian speakers don’t like this, either.

    I wonder if there is some general law explaining why some languages prefer to borrow words while others prefer to make up their own?

  5. As a Frenchman, I think :
    1 – Why should we borrow a word, if we already have one with the same meaning in our language ?
    For example : “switch” in French, when we have “commuter”. Moreover, we have to adapt it to our grammar, which is easier from French to English than in the opposite direction, because of the conjugations and the difference between verbs and nouns.
    2 – Why should’nt we borrow, if there is no word with this particular meaning ?
    For example : “management” or “start-up”.
    3 – It makes me smile that in Quebec, the stop road signs are marked with “arrêt”, while they have so many other borrowings from English, including exact copies of English phrases translated into French. In France, we have “stop” on our stop signs…
    4 – I think we should’nt either have the attitude of certain languages like Icelandic, that refuse most intrusions and try to create words with their own roots, including such words as television or radio.
    5 – I’m far more concerned with the invasion of feminine forms in our vocabulary, in order to increase the role of women in our society. Many of those are even no correct forms, grammatically speaking. For example : “professeure” for the feminine of “professeur”. No other professional term has this feminine form : chanteur > chanteuse and acteur > actrice.

  6. But you said “Why should’nt we borrow, if there is no word with this particular meaning ?” Obviously there was no word for “software” before “logiciel” was invented.

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