Borrowed Words in English

by Charles Fredeen

The “guests from another language,” or borrowed words, permeate the English language. Through linguistic osmosis, these many thousands of words were taken over from one language by another during the course of English history mainly due to the constant uninvited arrival of invaders to the island.

If borrowings are testimonials to our (“our” being humans) “physical mobility and mental laziness” then the British would probably win the gold medal. How could a country whose original inhabitants were Celts have ceded that language to the one we currently know as English? It is because of the many times that the British Isles were invaded, obviously by outsiders, who brought their language, dialects and customs into the country. As the invaders settled in, they transformed both the written and spoken words of the English residents, who were able to adapt through the assimilation of borrowed words.

Otto Jespersen1, in his book Growth and Structure of the English Language, points out that the English language is a “chain of borrowings” that was a result of the conquests of Britain by various invaders. The foreigners brought their languages to England but were unable to completely impose their languages on the British. Instead, the foreigners’ languages were intermixed as if being thrown into a blender with the native speakers’ words. With that, these groups succeeded, to varying degrees, in influencing the evolution of written and spoken English as we now know it.

First came the Romans and with their occupation of England, introduced Latin to some, but not all, its inhabitants. While the Celts co-existed with the Romans and “continental Germans,” only a few hundred borrowed Latin words are found in Old English, which was basically a “self-sufficing” language, according to Jespersen. With the Teutonic/Germanic invasions of 450 A.D., the Celtic language was relegated to the mists of its Irish island. But the inhabitants of England needed to communicate with their new neighbors and the borrowing of words began.

The Christianization of the country in the 6th Century forced more inhabitants to adopt Latin words and phrases through the Church. Still, these borrowed Latin words were used mainly in the realm of the upper classes when “every educated Englishman spoke and wrote Latin as easily as he spoke and wrote his mother tongue,” according to James Bradstreet Greenough and George Lyman Kittredge2 in their book, Words and Their Ways in English Speech. These “educated” men (and I would think women, too) could use the borrowed words both in conversation and on the written page.

Once the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived in Britain, and with the Celts displaced, the language literally began evolving as the new-arrivals began settling in. The Celtic influence began rapidly diminishing as the so-called “superior” borrowed words began to take hold. While at first speaking their own Teutonic languages, upon establishing themselves with the native inhabitants their language gradually drifted away from their home countries and began to mesh with one another. Of course, the language from this period would be barely recognizable to most, if not all, (except for etymologists) present-day readers. Yet, while the Angles, Saxons and Jutes brought us the original English language, the foundation of English as we know it today is Germanic with a massive French influence.

The history of the English language, and its borrowings, is founded on three invasions: Teutonic; Scandinavian (Vikings); and, most importantly, by the Norman conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy in 1066. (Luckily, the Nazis never made it across the Channel.) The Teutonic and Scandinavian invasions obviously affected the native language. But it was the French-speaking Normans, led by William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquérant), who introduced the greatest, most extensive and most permanent collection of borrowed or “loan” words, as Jespersen is fond of writing, to the English language upon their successful 1066 invasion of the island.

The Norman occupation lasted much longer than that of the Norse invasion and unlike the Scandinavians, who co-existed with the invaded, the Normans overwhelmed the English. The British status quo was tossed out as the Normans reconfigured the structures of England, from its legal system to its religions, by becoming the ruling masters of the island.

While the Normans brought their French to the British Isles, they, too, were also operating in a sense with borrowed words. If, as Greenough and Kittredge point out, French is simply Latin in a “corrupt form” then the conquered British inhabitants would have had to absorb two borrowed languages — French and Latin. And the question for them, if they chose to ask it, is from which genesis the written or spoken words the Normans brought to the shores came from — Latin or French.

The invading Normans also introduced a sort of language class warfare to the Britons. If a foreign language is thrust upon the conquered, one would think that it would spread from top to bottom through all strata of the inhabitants. The “losing” language would thus disappear. Yet, that did not happen after the Normans’ arrival. The conquered nobles adopted the French model, but the peasants retained the Germanic tongue, setting up both a class and a linguistic divide that would remain until their languages, and borrowed words, blended into Middle English.

But morphing French words and phrases into the English language does not mean there was a certain borrowing snobbery. Writers, such as Chaucer, or diplomats, the royalty, high-ranking members of the military and businessmen who were familiar with French culture (and given the closeness of European borders, easily attainable), readily adopted and adapted words borrowed from the French into the English language. In many cases, the borrowing was not cavalier, but was a necessity to communicate.

The Norman Conquest forced the creation of an entirely new way of English life, influencing the language of its law, religion, medicine and arts. Since the French/Latin-speakers were the dominant power, the Britons had to borrow words in order to simply communicate with their new masters who “ousted” some of the local vernacular. These “newcomers” may have rid some of the centuries-old English synonyms, but they became ingrained because of their ties to the originals. The Anglo-Saxon king and queen survived the French influence, but with the Normans along came such titles as duke and duchess. Well, Britons would have to be able to understand what either of these two terms meant and, thus, they would assimilate these borrowed words into, if not every day use, their sometime use.

According to Jespersen, many British adopted borrowed French words not only to communicate, but because they felt it was the “fashion” to imitate their “betters.” Again, while some might perceive this as a form of snobbery, many of us do strive to improve our language skills. While saying someone tried to overthrow a government is basic and to the point, using coup d’etat as the phrase is instantly recognizable to many readers and, almost, puts more of a sense of urgency to the event. You could say a woman is stylish, which I am sure she would appreciate, but substituting the borrowed chic usually makes more of an impact. Obviously, our knowledge of borrowed words not only expands our vocabulary but enables us to converse with one another.

While it is understandable that the Britons would borrow words that did not exist in their native language, such as majesty and mayor, it is somewhat mystifying why they would replace their swin with the French porc. That is unless you consider how the English farmers and French aristocrats dealt with livestock. With these two related words, the Germanic swin is more down-to-earth while the French porc was considered more refined. Swin evolved into the present-day swine, which is what English peasants would have been raising, while the porc or pork would have been what the upper-class French would eat. It is “animal versus food” and, again, the borrowings would elevate the perceived social standing of the English man or woman who used the French word. And as Greenough and Kittredge illustrate, sometimes the foreign word, such as divide, becomes more popular than the inhabitants’ cleave. Also, one word can crowd out another, with the native being the one shunted aside as in what happened to the local ey which was replaced by the Scandinavian egg.

The French language-influence on the English presented them with more abstract words than what the Britons might have considered to be their clear and concrete definitions of their native words. The English child as opposed to the borrowed French infant, or the English freedom compared to the French liberty are examples.

The amazing thing about the transformation and evolution of the English language is the extent to how receptive the country’s inhabitants were to outside languages, particularly French and Latin. It is almost as if an invader could plant a language seed and the Britons would cultivate it. But unlike the French who most likely would stay with that one language plant, the English (perhaps because of their love of gardening) seemed intent on growing as many synonymous words as possible. And, continuing with this somewhat silly gardening analogy, Jespersen points out that many times “the English soil has proved more fertilizing than the French soil” for transplanted words. Why offer one native word, as the French seem to enjoy, when you can convert a multitude of borrowed words and multiply them into synonymous bits of language as the English seem wont to do? Or, as the University of Minnesota’s professor and author of Word Origins and How We Know Them, Dr. Anatoly Liberman3 asks in his lecture, A Coat of Many Colors, is it “better to have two nostrils or one?” With a multitude of similar words, the English at least, seem to have embraced the “two nostrils” theory, sometimes using both the native and the borrowed words side-by-side.

This borrowing has also helped inflate the size of English dictionaries. The voluminous English dictionaries, as compared to French, German or Dutch dictionaries for example, can credit their size to the borrowings of foreign words the British adopted. If the English were originally concerned that their native language was not up to snuff with the French or Latin tongues, the Britons’ borrowings might give new meaning to “size matters.”

While I have mainly focused on the Norman Conquest and the seismic language shift 1066 created in the linguistic world, there were others that might have been subsequently involved in English-word borrowings — if they had arrived in time. Among them are Spanish and Italian, but as Greenough and Kittredge point out, while their influence upon English literature has “been very great, but upon (English) vocabulary these languages have had no appreciable effect.” That is because the Normans made the goal first and the English had basically borrowed all the words and phrases they needed.

England’s emergence as a superpower brought it, in a sense, border expansion because of colonialism. This also introduced its people to sights they had never seen and for which they would need descriptive words. The Britons could only borrow them as there was no native term to express what they encountered.

There were no such things as boomerangs or kangaroos in England, so when the Britons came upon them instead of creating entirely new words to define them, the easier alternative was to borrow the Australian words. Elephants, leopards and panthers also were not native to England and, again, these animal names would have to be borrowed for Britons to describe them to one another. Even the tomato, unknown in the country until its introduction from the New World, would have to be named. Borrowing from the Spanish tomate, the British settled on tomato.

While these examples were new words to the English and diversified their vocabulary, they did not affect the “structure” of their speech. Instead, they were “simply the adoption of names for particular things,” according to Greenough and Kittredge.

The Renaissance brought a multitude of classical words, particularly from France and Italy, increasing the Latin influence on language in England. But Italy, along with Spain, contributed few borrowed words because the English language was nearly completely formed by this age. The new words and phrases enriched the British language, but Jespersen believes at somewhat of a cost. Because of the various invasions, the English had, over time, begun to “shrink from consciously coining new words out of native material.” That concept brings us full circle back to the “physical mobility and mental laziness” aspect of borrowing words.

These, in a sense, exotic words now easily roll off the tongues of English-speaking people. We all know what a kindergarten, from the German, means. Most would know what a baguette or croissant, from the French, also mean. And, staying with baked goods, the Yiddish bagel (originally beygl) is certainly well known to many English-speaking people, particularly New Yorkers.

But do all foreign or exotic words lend themselves to borrowing and become ingrained in the English language? In The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, author Jack Lynch4 brings up the Arabic jihad and questions whether it is an English word yet. Before September 11, 2001, I doubt many English speakers had heard of the word. By September 12, I believe that jihad was as familiar a phrase to us as the word bread.

Liberman, in one of his lectures, illustrated the borrowed words sputnik and perestroika. At various points in time these borrowed words were all the rage. While I was too young to comprehend sputnik when it was launched, throughout my early school years I learned its significance. Yet, I doubt that any person in high school today would understand the word or fathom how quickly it was borrowed into the English language.

The same fate awaited perestroika. About six years after it was proposed in the Soviet Union, the word filled inches of newspaper copy in the mid 1980s. But I would be amazed to find any mention of Gorbachev’s initiative for today’s English-speaking newspaper readers. If borrowed words are a “result of language contact in a certain place at a certain time,” as Liberman phrases it in Word Origins, then these two Russian words fit the bill perfectly. But these etymons probably have little “staying power,” particularly since neither really forms ties with other words. So, like the many borrowed words from the past that failed to live on, these two are also probably consigned to the linguistic junk heap, at least for English readers.

In wrapping up, the borrowing of words illustrates that when two languages compete for domination over one another, adaptability and adoptability are key ingredients. The Celts did not understand this and their language was marginalized. The Germanic-speakers faced the same fate when confronted with the Norman Conquest, but many of the higher-educated Britons saw the (Gallic) writing on the wall and chose to borrow the necessary words and phrases to communicate in a changed environment. By, out of necessity, opting to borrow from their foreign rulers, the English language evolved into the most extensive and prolific on the planet.

  1.  ^ Jespersen, Otto. Growth and Structure of the English Language. 10th ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982.
  2.  ^ Greenough, James Bradstreet, and George Lyman Kittredge. Words and Their Ways in English Speech. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962
  3.  ^ Liberman, Anatoly Dr. (Ph.D.) University of Minnesota. Word Origins and How We Know Them. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. And assorted lectures from his Origins of English Words course.
  4. ^Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma. New York: Walker Publishing Co., Inc., 2009.

Copyright © 2010 Charles Fredeen. All rights reserved. Used by permission.