Foreign languages’ enrichment of English

Most professional translators, linguaphiles by definition, will no doubt be aware of the fact that the languages from and into which they are translating contain many loan words and borrowed terms from other languages. The relatively high proportion of English words which have been infiltrating the French language over recent decades causes much uproar among members of the Académie française, the institution designed to protect the French language from ‘degradation’, but the use of words from one language by speakers of another is in fact a natural aspect of a language’s development, and something not to be derided. Rather than impoverishing a language, using words and terms from another language enriches the stock of words at one’s disposal and can also open people’s minds to the contributions of other cultures.

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The BBC recently published an illuminating article exploring the surprising number of foreign words which are now used by English-speakers, and indeed readily accepted as being part of the English tongue. In the article entitled: ‘Does English still borrow words from other languages?’ (published on the 3rd February 2014), Philip Durkin, the deputy chief editor of the Oxford English dictionary and author of Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English noted that English has over centuries been enriched by hundreds of different foreign words. He cites several examples of words we all use in everyday speech which were originally ‘borrowed’ from another language: ‘famous, foreign, languages, use and taken are […] borrowed words’, Durkin writes, as well as more obviously ‘borrowed’ words such as sushi (a word first used in English at the end of the nineteenth century). An understanding of these cultural and linguistic layers which make up the English language can be very beneficial, as Durkin notes: ‘Knowledge of what is being borrowed, and from where, provides an invaluable insight into the international relations of the English language.’

English has borrowed many words from French, Latin and the Scandinavian languages, due in part to the way the British Isles were invaded. Durkin notes that the words ‘peace, war, just or very’ came into English from French, while ‘leg, sky, take or they’ were Scandinavian loan words. Conversely, England’s role as coloniser in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that many words of South Asian origin, such as jungle, yoga and khaki, also came to be part of the English tongue, writes Durkin. The language we speak today therefore bears the traces of the UK’s idiosyncratic history. Durkin states that English is now borrowing fewer and fewer foreign words as it becomes the international language of science, business and technology. Other languages are now borrowing words from English, hence the concern of the French about the increased infiltration of English words. The BBC article concludes: ‘Borrowings affecting other areas of the vocabulary typically follow the pathways of power and prestige between languages. English today may, for once, be more of a lender than a borrower. If we try to look decades or centuries into the future, who knows?’

Thus, we can see that while the common perception is that coming into daily contact with foreign languages is the province of professional translators, this is not strictly the case: when speaking English (or indeed any other language) in our day-to-day lives, we are (often unknowingly) coming into contact with words from other languages, and contributions from other cultures which can only serve to enrich our own.

Becky

LanguageNow