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.)

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 18 2014 3:31 PM What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 4:26 PM Global Oceans Break All-Time Heat Record; World on Pace for Warmest Year Ever
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.