Word Borrowing: The Inevitable Universal Phenomena

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Dutch is one of the closest languages to English. But in most of the ways, Dutch is as unfamiliar to English speakers as German is. The main reason for this is that the English language vocabulary is full of word borrowing. That has made English speakers quite different from everyone else. Could this word borrowing have been avoided?

The outside of a café bar showing its name in Norman French.
The picture shows a bar with its name written in Norman French. (Image: Man vyi/Public domain)

For English speakers, the result of being different is that if they want to learn a language that does not have a heavy layer of big word borrowing, then it is not only the small words that are hard, but big words are hard, too. But what is important to understand is that the word borrowing is unavoidable.

A lot of books say that the English language is uniquely susceptible to word borrowing, that English is unique in accepting words from other languages. This is just as correlated to reality as the audio-animatronic exhibit of the Hall of Fame of Presidents is at Disneyland. That is in no way related to what those men were actually like. This perception that English as a language is accepting words from other languages is nothing but popcorn. It is something for which people stand in a line to look at. It’s just not real. It is like saying that, imagine, a lot of statues are covered with pigeon droppings. There are no pigeon droppings at a fountain in a shopping mall that is enclosed. This is because pigeons can not get into that mall. This is like saying that in comparison to the fountain at the mall, statues have something inherent in them that makes them more susceptible to being covered with pigeon droppings. It is like the cause and effect are missing. In the mall, something artificial is happening.

Learn more about a new perspective on the story of English.

Word Borrowing in Other Languages

Title page of Johnson's dictionary.
This is the title page from the second edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary dating back to 1755. (Image: Samuel Johnson/Public domain)

Due to their cultural disposition, there is lesser word borrowing in some languages as compared to others. But there is very little room for wiggle, and generally speaking, when languages come together, words are shared, just as there is sharing of culture among the people, just like people want to know others from different cultural lines and even marry across cultures. This is not limited to books or travel only.

To take the example of Australia. There, it has become very clear that a family tree may never be charted of how all these languages came to be. There is some information from archeology, more from genetics, and then from some common sense that a small group of people might have arrived from Southeast Asia, maybe having taken a jump over New Guinea and then reached Australia, and then spread from there. It can be presumed that those people spoke some language that became 260 to 300 languages that were prospering in Australia before white people came there.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Word Borrowing in Australian Languages

But it does not tend to work when Indo-European treatment is applied to these languages. If they are compared, they do not make the same sense as the languages of Europe do. The reason for that is that there is a widespread word borrowing among all these languages. There are many estimates that say people must have come to Australia around 50,000 years ago and that date is starting to push further back. It could have been 60,000 years ago. That is a pretty long period for them to mix.

And in some parts of Australia, there is a very strong tradition of intergroup marriages. So word borrowing would be encouraged by that also. One language is spoken by the mother, and the father speaks another language. So that is the point. Then someone else’s mother speaks another language. It is natural for words to come together and get mixed up. So with this kind of word borrowing, how can a family tree be made? So while English is a bastard language, there are many Australian languages that are even bigger bastards. In a way, it is a natural process.

Take Japan, for example. It has been isolated until recently. But as a culture, they have many word borrowings from other languages. For example, from English of late, they have borrowed beisuboro. That is baseball, which they have adopted as per their sound system. Similarly, T-Shatsu, which is Tee-shirt in English, or boueifurendo from boyfriend in English, or fakkusu which is fax. So they are also doing word borrowing.

Learn more about language death—the problem.

The Universal Phenomena

Opening page of The Wife of Bath's Prologue Tale.
The picture shows the opening page of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Tale, from the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Another thing that can be seen and this applies universally, is that usually in word borrowing, words enter into a high and low relationship. It happened with Norman French in English. For example, regarding the fact that there is an animal called a cow but that the meat eaten is called beef. The cow is not eaten. Why is it so? Then there is a pig. But people don’t eat pig. They eat pork. It was not like that always. The same can be seen in many languages throughout the world. People kill an antelope. What are they eating? Are they eating antelope? No! They are eating wagadidi or some other word. There are common words for animals and their meats in some languages. Normans contributed their words for animals and the idea of pig and pork came from them and that is being seen as High. And the snorting shuffling animal itself is being seen as Low. In English, it was so that people used to eat pig. But the Norman French had their own word for pig. They had cuisine also, a cuisine art, which had evidently not happened in merry old England. 

However, what is most important here is that word borrowing is unavoidable. It is not confined to English, and it is not about only Europe, and it is not just about writing either. This thing happens all around the world. 

Learn more about an ancient encounter with a language possibly related to Arabic and Hebrew.

Common Questions About Word Borrowing

Q: What is the word borrowed from other languages called?

A word borrowed from one language, that is incorporated in another language without translation, is called a loanword.

Q: What is the word borrowing process?

In linguistics, word borrowing, which is also called lexical borrowing is the process by which a word of one language is adopted by another language.

Q: Is the English language a borrowed one?

English has been borrowing words from other languages for centuries. But according to Philip Durkin, Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, lately English has been lending more words than borrowing words.

Q: How has English borrowed from other languages?

Most of the word borrowing in English has been done from French and Latin languages across various periods of time. A general perception is that English follows other languages and searches for loose grammar in them.

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