September 30, 2016

Words of the Month - Loanwords

        English is notorious for being a borrowing language.  As the famous epigram puts it, English doesn’t just borrow from other languages, it follows them down dark alleys and rifles through their pockets for loose vocabulary.  Of course, the beauty of linguistic borrowing is that the donor language doesn’t lose what the borrowing language takes.  Everybody wins!  And English has enriched itself to a remarkable degree with its insatiable borrowing habit.  Consider the following story:

Remarks on a Timid Explorer
        Last Thursday a Massachusetts oil tycoon named Dan lost his final dollar.  He did not even possess an extra nickel for the jukebox, so he decided to depart on safari.  He packed his rucksack, duffel, and tote bag, put on a khaki suit and a plaid bandana, and bid his bungalow adios.
        He trekked a couple hours and paused for refreshment.  He devoured bananas and barbecued beef with catsup.  He opted to drink lime soda, not tea or coffee, because caffeine irritated his nerves, but soon he became anxious anyway.  He was terrified of cougars, coyotes, jackals and alligators, and especially bandits, hoodlums and thugs.  He was not naive, but in kindergarten he had read too much about ninja assassins.  It bothered him.
        First the only animals he observed were a gecko and an ebony and ivory skunk, but suddenly a horde of yaks galloped up in a stampede.  Fortunately, it did not take a sleuth to deduce they were coming.  Without panic, Dan hid behind a hickory tree.  When it was over, he was beat -- a zombie from exhaustion -- and he stumbled home, put on his flannel pajamas automatically, like a robot, and slept.

        Okay, it isn’t the finest literature, but the question is how many loanwords do you see in this story?  You presumably noted adios and ninja, perhaps naive and Massachusetts.  Maybe you found ten or even twenty more…  This story uses 135 unique words, of which 60 (44%) are borrowings into Modern English, and another 29 (21%) were borrowings into Middle English.  Moreover, those 89 loanwords - yes, 89 - were borrowed from more than 33 different languages.  So, 65% - considerably more than half - of the words in this story are not actually native to Old English.  Now that’s a language that likes to borrow!
      Of course it changes a little if you calculate the percentage not by unique words, but by taking frequency into account.  In that case there are 202 total words in the story, and only 44% are loanwords.  Here’s the story again, so you can see which words are which.  Those borrowed into Middle English are in italics, and those borrowed into Modern English are in bold.  (There are also links to some of the words that have been discussed in previous posts.)

Remarks on a Timid Explorer
        Last Thursday a Massachusetts oil tycoon named Dan lost his final dollar.  He did not even possess an extra nickel for the jukebox, so he decided to depart on safari.  He packed his rucksack, duffel, and tote bag, put on a khaki suit and a plaid bandana, and bid his bungalow adios.
        He trekked a couple hours and paused for refreshment.  He devoured bananas and barbecued beef with catsup.  He opted to drink lime soda, not tea or coffee, because caffeine irritated his nerves, but soon he became anxious anyway.  He was terrified of cougars, coyotes, jackals and alligators, and especially bandits, hoodlums and thugs.  He was not naive, but in kindergarten he had read too much about ninja assassins.  It bothered him.
        First the only animals he observed were a gecko and an ebony and ivory skunk, but suddenly a horde of yaks galloped up in a stampedeFortunately, it did not take a sleuth to deduce they were coming.  Without panic, Dan hid behind a hickory tree.  When it was over, he was beat -- a zombie from exhaustion -- and he stumbled home, put on his flannel pajamas automatically, like a robot, and slept.

        One perpetual note of caution: etymology can be very difficult to pin down, and a few of the words in here are uncertain or debated.  I tended to go with the interpretation that would swell my count, just to make my point, so it’s fair to say that there’s a margin of error of a few percentage points in either direction.  Still, the conclusion is valid: people accuse English speakers of failure to learn other languages, and in all seriousness I absolutely agree that we need to do better.  But give us credit - even when we speak only English we’re speaking dozens of other languages, too!

[Pictures: A Horde of Yaks!
Yak, wood engraving by Alan James Robinson from An Odd Bestiary, 1982;
Yak, linoleum block print with multiple blocks by Christopher Wormell from An Alphabet of Animals, 1990;
Y, wood block print by Antonio Frasconi from Bestiary, 1965;
Yak, wood block print from An Alphabet of Quadrupeds, 1852 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Y is for Yak, wood block print with multiple blocks by C.B. Falls, from ABC Book, 1923;
A Yin and a Yang of Yaks, linocut by Elizabeth Rashley from Ark-Bound Creatures, 2014 (Image from Avenue Press).]

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