French and English have been tied together since William the Conqueror made French the language of royalty in England. Traces of that linguistic shotgun marriage persist. For example, when the peasants fetch the beast from the barnyard, it’s pig, cow and sheep, but by the time Monsieur sees it spiced and steaming on the table, it’s pork, beef, and mutton. This low-rent/high-rent juxtoposition can be striking, as with house and mansion, horseplay and chivalry, freedom fries and french fries, and so on.
Now sit back and enjoy as our very own Star Chamber Language Maven (quick: maven… what language is that from?) Alan Kennedy regales you with still more language yarns, this time on borrowed words in English.
Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?
by Alan Kennedy
Linguists use the term “borrowed” to refer to words that come into one language from a second, and get used frequently enough that they become like a first language word. As an example – we don’t really feel like we are speaking Swahili when we say we went on a safari (even though that is a word borrowed from Swahili; it means “journey”). You can often tell that a word has been borrowed from another language because the spelling seems non-English (e.g. tsunami, gesundheit, déjà vu) – but sometimes the non-English origin is not as evident.
When I first mentioned the linguistic notion of “borrowed words” to my wife Karen, she pointed out that it’s kind of a stupid term, because the language users are not planning to give the word back, nor have the originators been left without the word. [Queen Elizabeth to the President of Tanzania: “thanks awfully for letting us use the word safari. It has been ever so useful, but we’re quite done with it now, you may have it back”.]
Similarly, another term for this phenomenon, “loan words” is inaccurate. [We like saying karaoke, and we refuse to give it back to Japan, goddammit! Take baseball in exchange. You’re welcome.]
Nevertheless, linguists use the term “borrowed word” or “loan word” this way, and it is a useful concept, despite the misnomer.
The term borrowing is not usually applied to words with roots from other languages (like Latin and Greek). It refers more to words that not only didn’t come from Old English (a Germanic family language) but which have been taken, whole hog, from some other language and eventually find their way into English dictionaries. Sometimes the words are borrowed just as they are, and sometimes they are modified in spelling or pronunciation to make them more “English-like”. Let’s take cocktails as an example. Vodka comes to us directly from Russian, водка, pronounced quite similarly in that language, and letter-for-letter transliterated into English letters. Whisky, on the other hand, comes from the Gaelic word uisge which means “water” and is pronounced “oosh-kyuh”. (I will make no jokes here about how Scots drink/consider/treat whisky like water, in deference to my hard-working immigrant ancestors).
The language from which English has borrowed the most, by far, is French. A quick glance at a selection of fairly common words which we all know, and which are in the dictionary, makes the case:
|| bon voyage
|| c’est la vie
|| bon appetite
|| double entendre
|| déjà vu
|| en masse
|| en route
|| ménage à trois
|| faux pas
|| tour de force
|| film noir
|| au contraire
|| carte blanche
|| à la carte
|| nouveau riche
|| maître d’
|| savoir faire
… and this is just a partial list. Note that in almost every case, we English speakers are not pronouncing these words using usual English pronunciation rules. No one rhymes “buffet” or “chalet” with “get” by mistake (or “Chevrolet” for that matter); no one rhymes “corsage” or “sabotage” with “luggage”. We know these French rules so well, that they have become almost like alternative English pronunciation rules. Why do we English speakers borrow so much from French? Well, the Norman Conquest of England has a lot to do with it. And besides that, look at a map – France is England’s close neighbor. In that situation, linguistic borrowing frequently results.
Like all languages, English has borrowed many food words. The reason is perhaps self-evident. Which is easier to say: “I like sliced raw fish placed atop portions of sticky vinegared rice” or “I like sushi”? If people in some foreign locale have created an awesome dish with many ingredients or a specific recipe, it’s convenient to just take their word. Like any other words, some food words are borrowed fully (spaghetti, croissant, baklava) and some are modified a bit as they come into English (pretzel comes from the German bretzl; saffron from the Arabic زعفران “za’faran“). Because food words are so culturally rooted, English speakers have a sense that that they are using borrowed words when they say things like shish kebab (Turkish), smorgasbord (Swedish) or dim sum (Cantonese).
For non-food words, English speakers (according to my informal poll) tend to be less clear about where a loan word has come from. I’m not talking about obvious ones like karaoke or boomerang or aloha. I’m thinking more about words like cobra (Portuguese), robot (Czech), and boondocks (Tagalog). Even if you know a word is a loan word, you may not be able to guess which language. Can you guess where we get the words maven, chimpanzee, or yacht? Give yourself a minute.
O.K., the answers are Yiddish, Bantu (Southern Africa), and Dutch. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know. This stuff is really not considered common knowledge.
Native American Indian languages have contributed many words – not just in place names, but in words that seeped into American English and then became part of English at large. Aside from the culturally rooted terms like moccasin, teepee and tomahawk that we all tend to know, there are many words for animals (e.g. chipmunk, moose, coyote, possum, raccoon, jaguar, cougar) and foods (e.g. pecan, squash, persimmon, avocado) that English speakers did not likely know about until they came to the Americas. Well-known concept words from native American languages include totem (Ojibwa), kayak (Inuit) and pow-wow (Narragansett).
Here’s a little story using borrowed words. Take minute to read it and, if you want, underline words that you think probably came into English directly from another language.
I’m going on vacation next month, and this time I’m really gung-ho to head northward to satisfy my wanderlust. I have visions of cruises in and out of icy fjords, maybe stopping to sled across the tundra. I’m staying in an ice hotel – which even has an indoor health center; I can’t imagine a sauna in an igloo! The last trip I took was a fiasco, really a catastrophe. We went to Bali, thinking it would be a relaxing, angst-free time. The brochure for our resort showed guests in turquoise silk pajamas, eating caviar, shopping in colorful outdoor bazaars and feeding orangutans and giraffes. The reality was a run-down place which bordered a kind of jungle canyon. We had a feeling there was something less than kosher about the place as soon as we drove up. For one thing, it was covered with graffiti. The little kiosk which sold shampoo and things was always closed. Our bungalow was tiny; the bed was more like a futon with a saggy mattress. The room was stuffy but we couldn’t go out onto our patio to get a breeze because the weather seemed to veer between monsoon, typhoon and tornado the entire time.
Ready? here’s the answer:
| gung-ho, typhoon, silk
| wanderlust, angst
| fiasco, graffiti
| turquoise, caviar, kiosk
| giraffe, mattress, monsoon
| pajamas, jungle, shampoo, bungalow
| patio, breeze, canyon, tornado
I leave you with this final thought: hakuna matata.
No, that saying was not an invention of the Disney Corporation. It’s real Swahili language.
But you knew what it meant, didn’t you?