Throughout much of history, the English language has borrowed words from
other languages to become the intermixed language that we know today. Yet in
recent times it has become more of a lender than a borrower, says Philip Durkin,
deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in an article for the BBC
English is actually a mixture of other languages that has evolved over time based on contact with other cultures. Linguists refer to English as a chain of borrowings that was the result of conquests by foreign invaders. Its adoption of words from so many different languages, known as loanwords, has resulted in it being one of most diverse languages on the planet.
From about 450 AD until the 11th century, various foreigners invaded England, bringing their language with them. Britain adapted its language with each invasion, mixing words to create a blended version of many different languages. The most influential languages were: West Germanic after the invasion in 700 AD; Old Norse from the Scandinavian Viking invaders in the 8th and 9th centuries; and most importantly, French and Latin through the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
Professor and author Anatoly Liberman describes loanwords as “a result of language contact in a certain place at a certain time”. For example, English started adopting Asian words (such as “jungle” and “yoga”) during the period of colonialism, when it had increased contact with this region.
The continued prevalence of borrowing words across languages demonstrates the close connections different cultures have with one another in our globalized world. The rise of global media, particularly online, and enhanced international communication has led to a greater need for a common language.
In their recent book, Globally Speaking: Motives for Adopting English Vocabulary in Other Languages, Judith Rosenhouse and Rotem Kowner hail English as “the lingua franca of the modern world, the common language used for science, international business and for communication”. They report that English is the official language of more than 75 states and territories across the globe and it is the world’s most popular choice of second language.
The ascendancy of English as a global language has drastically increased the number of words it now lends to other languages. Whether it is a French news reporter using the words “kidnapping” or “leader”; the development of the Chinese word kafei from the English word coffee; or the near widespread use of “Internet”, “computer”, and “meeting” in most parts of the world — it is easy to see the drastic influence English now has on other languages.
In contrast, says Durkin, the number of new borrowed words finding their way into the shared international vocabulary is on a long downward trend. Although English is now borrowing from other languages with a worldwide range, new borrowings into English today tend to cluster much more closely in a few subject areas, especially names of food and drink.
Here are a few examples of untranslatable words from other cultures:
A feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods, and a connectedness to nature. US poet Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote a whole poem about it.
Someone who asks a lot of questions. We all know a few people like that.
Spaniards are laid-back and sociable, and this word describes the period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with.
It means the glimmering, road-like reflection that the moon creates on water.
The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country — of being a foreigner, or an immigrant, of being somewhat displaced from your origin.