Sunday, November 20, 2011

Borrowed Words

All languages borrow words from languages with which they come in contact; English is unique in the extent to which it has done so. Henry Hitchings in his book The Secret Life of Words estimates that English has borrowed words from 350 different languages. This book deals extensively with this phenomenon [1] of the English language. Wikipedia estimates that only 26% of the current 700,000 to 1 million English words come from its Germanic roots, the rest are borrowed from other languages. Words of French origin actually exceeds German, making up 29% of English vocabulary and Latin (including technical words) ties with French at 29%, with the remaining 16% coming from all the other languages [].

There are different levels to which borrowed words become assimilated into English. Some words like ensemble or bratwurst are obvious borrowings and partially retain their foreign spelling and/or pronunciation. At the other extreme are words like marmalade [2] or mayor that have become Anglicized to the extent that we can't tell from the words themselves (pronunciation or spelling) where they are borrowed from, or even that they have been borrowed. The level of assimilation depends on time and usage - the longer since it was borrowed and the more it is used, the greater its degree of "Englishness" and the more familiar it appears to us. For example, words from Greek like area and problem are  more familiar than euphoria and persona; and from French marriage has been Anglicized while montage retains its French pronunciation.

Many borrowed words result from the age of exploration in which new things were discovered from around the world and named from words taken from the local language. Chimpanzee is from the West African language Tshiluba, geyser from Icelandic, sauna from Finnish, and futon from Japanese. Closer to home, Saskatoon berries and pemmican are from Cree words, as is the name of my province Saskatchewan [3].

Similarly words may be borrowed because there is no English equivalent, even though the object or notion is well known. My favorite example of this is the German word Ohrwurm (literally "ear-worm") for that tune you just can't get out of your head. Other loanwords may already have an English word for it, but the new word is more descriptive (entrepreneur) or adds a particular shade of meaning (scarlet and vermillion from French).

The terms "borrowing" and "loanword" seem rather odd in reference to words, as the loaning languages don't have to give up their words and there is no expectations of having to pay them back (sort of like your teenager "borrowing" $20 to go to the movies). English however has returned the favor many times and loaned words to languages from which it has previously borrowed. French now has le weekend and cool, Japanese intanetto and wado purosessa [4], and German has die bluejeans and der blogger.

[1] from Greek
[2] from Portuguese
[3] A story goes that some American hunters pull into a gas station and ask the attendant where they are. The attendant replies "Saskatoon, Saskatchewan". One hunter then turns to the driver and says "I told you we went too far north - the natives don't even speak English".
[4] Try saying them out loud without the final "o".

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Forces of Language Change

Modern linguistics accepts that all languages are constantly changing and considers this a normal process. But if normal, then what are the forces behind language change?

Guy Deutscher in The Unfolding of Language devotes several chapters to answering this question. First he lists and dismisses three "obvious" reasons for languages to change. 

The first is to keep up with new technology and ideas. While this accounts for many new words, especially during the last few decades, it utterly fails to account for the vast majority of seemingly random changes which have occurred over many millennia. Language change has been recorded, over the space of one or two generations, among stone age tribes whose technology hasn't changed in over 30,000 years.

The second "obvious" theory is that languages change from contact with neighboring tribes by borrowing or imitating vocabulary and grammar. As I showed in the previous post, the French speaking Normans and later Latin speaking clerics and clergy had a significant influence on the English language. But change happens even in isolated peoples. The island of Papua New Guinea has 850 indigenous languages (about 14% of the world's 6,000) precisely because the tribes live in isolated mountain valleys.

The third theory is that people seek novelty and like to change things just for the sake of changing them. But most people actually fear change and try hard to prevent it from happening. This explains why, even though pronunciation of English has changed much in the last 400 years, spelling has changed little, resulting in the problems discussed in my last post.

So if these theories don't explain language change, then what does? It's only in the last few decades that linguists have developed satisfactory answers. Before providing three motives for change, Deutscher  addresses the question of who does the changing. The answer of course is that we all do, albeit unintentionally. I refer you to the quote on my blog header. One cow wanders off the path a little - perhaps to crop a fresh bunch of grass, or to follow a butterfly - and the one behind follows. As an example, I've noticed people lately using the word "perfect" at the end of a transaction as a new way of saying "thank you". I overheard a really absurd situation in the bank last week when the teller apologized to a customer for not having enough American dollars to complete the requested cash withdrawal for her planned holiday to the States, and asked her to come back in a few days. The customer answered "perfect" as she turned away empty-handed. My point here is that as silly as this expression seemed to me the first few times I heard it, I now catch myself using it sometimes. I admit it - I am a human cow. In summary, we all are the modifiers of our language, unintentionally and often unknowingly. Now - what motivates us to make changes?

Deutscher lists three motives for language change: economy, expressiveness and analogy. Economy refers to the human propensity for energy conservation - especially our own. In other words, we are just plain lazy. We pronounce words and phrases with the least effort possible to still be understood. "I don't know" comes out as "dunno"; "what's up?" something like "tsup?". These examples, from my youngest son's telephone conversation earlier this evening, involve omitting one or more syllables from a phrase. The words "don't" for "do not" and "what's" for "what is" are examples of the very same thing which have become formalized as proper English.

A countering motive to economy is expressiveness where we add more words for emphasis. Instead of replying with a simple "yes" we might say "by all means" or "I'd be delighted". I explained in the August 25 post on Grammaticalization how this led to the development of the French word "pas" to mean "not". As words become overused (an "awesome" salad), the intensity of their meaning is reduced (similar to the value of money with inflation) and new words must be found to replace them.

The third motive, analogy, is a force that returns order to language. Irregularities in grammar over time become more regular. Children learning to talk do this unintentionally, and are usually quickly corrected. Classic examples are "I goed" or "two foots". Sometimes these "mistakes" catch on. Deutscher gives the following examples: the plural of "book" used to be "beek" but changed to "books" in the 13th century; "eyes" replaced "eyen" as the plural of "eye" in the 14th century; and "kine" was replaced by "cows" for the plural of "cow" in the 16th.

These changes do not occur everywhere at once. They start at a particular place and time - perhaps with a 4 year old! Others copy and it starts to spread. Both versions would co-exist, for several generations, with one gradually growing in popularity until it becomes the standard. Sometimes we can find in literature examples of two versions co-existing. Chaucer in "The Merchant's Tale" uses the word "maked" referring to God's creation of Adam (chosen to rhyme with "naked") and four lines later uses "made" for God's creation of Eve (chosen to fit the line's meter). Note - this is an example of economy, not analogy. A word which uses the regular past tense form ("maked") is in the process of being changed into an irregular one ("made") just because it's easier to pronounce. A similar current situation is "dove", the past tense of "dive", which, at least in North America is replacing the regular "dived", perhaps following "drive" and "drove". Both forms are in current use.

Different languages change in different ways, which has resulted in the 6,000 extant languages today plus the tens of thousands of extinct and intermediate languages of which we can only surmise.