The Many Origins of the English Language

A Blog About Language
March 10 2014 12:33 PM

The Many Origins of the English Language

In Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English, I examine how words borrowed from different languages have influenced English throughout its history. The above feature summarizes some of the main data from the book, focusing on the 14 sources that have given the most words to English, as reflected by the new and revised entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Using the date buttons at the top of the graphic, you can compare the impact that different languages have made on English over time. In the "per period" view, you can see the proportions of words coming into English from each source in 50-year slices from 1150 up to the present day. Compare, for instance, how the input from German has grown and then declined again from 1800 to the present day. (The earliest period, pre-1150, is much longer than 50 years, because more precise dating of words from this early stage in the history of English is very problematic.)

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If you switch to the "cumulative" view, then you can see how the total number of loanwords from each language has built up over time. Here the shifts from one 50-year period to another are rather less dramatic, but the long-term shifts are still very striking. You can see, for instance, how German, Spanish, and Italian all slowly come to greater prominence. You can see this very clearly if you select any start date and then press the "play" button. (If you would like to see the numbers behind the graphic, a selection of graphs and charts from Borrowed Words is available here.)

 A truly global sweep

The data lying behind this graphic reflects some of the biggest changes in the history of English. Today, English borrows from other languages with a truly global sweep. For instance, borrowing from Japanese has shot up over the past hundred years. Words like judo, sushi, or tsunami have broken through into the vocabulary familiar to everyone. If we look back to the 1800s, Latin, French, Greek, and German are much more dominant. This owes a great deal to the specialist vocabularies of science, technology, and learning; compare for example oxygen, borrowed from French (but formed from elements of Greek origin), or paraffin, borrowed from German (but formed from elements of Latin origin). Looking a little further back, in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s there are familiar words entering English from Spanish, like guitar or cargo or (ultimately from languages of the Americas) potato or tomato, and from Italian, like macaroni, opera, or piazza. There is a slightly earlier seam of borrowings from Dutch, like deck, luck, or pickle.

The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room, however, is how Latin and French dominate the picture in just about every period. Even the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from Latin (e.g. fork, street, wine), and ever since the Norman Conquest English has been borrowing hugely from French and Latin—quite often taking the same word partly from each of these languages, especially in the medieval period. Words like government, pay, science, or war (from French), or action, general, person, and use (French and/or Latin) have become an indispensable part of English. Even among the 1000 most frequently used words in modern English, not far short of 50 percent have come into the language from French or Latin. Numbers do not always tell us everything, though: the total of loanwords from early Scandinavian is relatively low, but the language of the Vikings has left some of the most intimate traces in the vocabulary of English, with words like leg, skin, sky, and even they, their, and them.

A version of this post appeared on Oxford Dictionaries.

Dr. Philip Durkin is Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English.

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