Borrowed but not returned

One of the great strengths of English as a global language has been its ability to borrow words from other languages. As a linguist, I have often described English as “German with French spelling and Scandinavian pronunciation”, but the case is even more complex than that.

Before the 11th century, the vocabulary of Old English consisted of an Anglo Saxon base with borrowed words from the Scandinavian languages (Danish and Norse) and Latin. Latin gave English words like street, kitchen, kettle, cup, cheese, wine, angel, bishop, martyr, and candle. The Vikings added many Norse words: sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window (wind eye), husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die, they, their, them. Celtic words also survived mainly in place and river names (Devon, Dover, Kent, Trent, Severn, Avon, Thames).

Many pairs of English and Norse words coexisted giving us two words with the same or slightly differing meanings. Examples below.

Norse anger contrasts with Saxon wrath
Norse ill contrasts with Saxon sick
Norse skill contrasts with Saxon craft
Norse scatter contrasts with Saxon shatter
Norse skin contrasts with Saxon hide
Norse skip contrasts with Saxon shift
Norse bask contrasts with Saxon bathe

In 1066, the Normans conquered Britain. Norman French became the language of the Norman aristocracy and added a superfluous amount of vocabulary to English, for example ‘admiral’, ‘government’, and ‘parliament’. More pairs of similar words arose.

Norman French close contrasts with Anglo-Saxon shut
Norman French reply contrasts with Anglo-Saxon answer
Norman French odour contrasts with Anglo-Saxon smell
Norman French annual contrasts with Anglo-Saxon yearly
Norman French demand contrasts with Anglo-Saxon ask
Norman French chamber contrasts with Anglo-Saxon room
Norman French power contrasts with Anglo-Saxon might
Norman French pardon contrasts with Anglo-Saxon forgive

Because the English underclass cooked for the Norman upper class, the words for most domestic animals are English (‘ox’, ‘cow’, ‘calf’, ‘sheep’, ‘swine’, ‘deer’) while the words for the meats derived from them are French (‘beef’, ‘veal’, ‘mutton’, ‘pork’, ‘bacon’, ‘venison’).

The Germanic form of plurals (‘house’, ‘housen’; ‘shoe’, ‘shoen) was eventually displaced by the French method of making plurals: adding an s (‘house’, ‘houses’; ‘shoe’, ‘shoes’). Only a few words have retained their Germanic plurals: ‘men’, ‘oxen’, ‘feet’, ‘teeth’, and ‘children’.

By the end of the 14th Century English was no longer recognisable. It began to be called Middle English ass opposed to Old English. The language kept on adopting new terms like how a sponge takes to water.

Centuries later, during the British Empire the greatest influx of foreign words was seen; ‘kangaroo’ and ‘boomerang’ are native Australian Aborigine words, ‘juggernaut’ and ‘turban’ are from India, ‘barbecue’ and ‘cannibal’ are from Central America. ‘orange’ and ‘checkmate’ are from Arabic through Spanish, and ‘chocolate’ is from Nahuatl (the Aztec language). An innumerable amount of Modern French words and phrases have even been borrowed into English to describe certain concepts; ‘tour de force’, ‘cliché’, ‘hors d’œuvre’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘coup d’état’, ‘aperatif’ among countless others. The list of borrowed words is enormous.

Other languages that have contributed words to English include Greek, German, Hindi, Italian, Malay, Dutch, Farsi (from Iran and Afganistan), Sanskrit (from ancient India), Portuguese, Spanish, Tupi (from South America) and Ewe (from Africa).

The success of English has been partly to do with its acceptance of foreign terms making them English in the process. The vocabulary of English is the largest of any language. The uniquely English thesaurus is a testament to that fact.

But even with all these borrowings the heart of the language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. Only about 5000 or so words from this period have remained unchanged but they include the basic building blocks of the language: household words, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements, most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. Grafted onto this basic stock, was a wealth of foreign contributions, to produce what many people believe is the richest of the world’s languages.

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One thought on “Borrowed but not returned

  1. Pingback: Shit, faeces and excrement! – The colourful linguistic history of English. | aperi mentis

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