LinguaTute

Loanwords: Helpful or Harmful?

A loanword is a word which has been adopted from another language, although this process is often much more permanent than its name would suggest. Even the word “loanword” is a calque of the German “Lehnwort”; the original term is a combination of “lehnen” (to borrow, to lend) and “wort” (word), and this has been translated word-for-word into English. Equally, the linguistic term “calque” is derived from the French “calquer” (to trace, to copy).

English is a particularly prolific borrower. As memorably expressed by the critic James D. Nicoll, it has “pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. [1] These words have become so ingrained into our everyday speech that native speakers are often unaware of the extent of this borrowing. 

For instance, did you know that the word “pyjamas” has its origin in Urdu (پاجامہ [pajāmā])? Or that “kiosk” is taken from the Turkish “köşk”, originally meaning a type of pavilion?

One benefit of this process is that it is often accompanied by cultural exchange. The introduction of a word can bring with it a new concept or a new perspective on the world, something that we would have previously been unable to understand or experience. “Schadenfreude” is often referred to as an untranslatable word because there is no direct English equivalent; we can only endeavour to explain it with a phrase such as “taking pleasure in other people’s misfortune”. Therefore, it makes sense for us to have borrowed the German word in order to succinctly express this feeling.

Similarly, “sushi” was first recorded in English in the 1890s, during a period of greater engagement with Japan, but it only appeared in an anthropological context until the mid-1970s, when the first Japanese restaurant opened in London. As a result of globalisation, sushi is no longer a dish exclusive to Japan, so the word is now widely used and understood in a variety of languages.

Furthermore, loanwords can enrich the vocabulary of a language by adding nuance. The English word “breeze” may have originated from the Old Spanish “briza” or Italian “brezza”, originally a nautical term meaning a light northeast wind. Although the English language already had the word “wind”, “breeze” has a greater specificity which enables us to describe the climate more accurately. It is also interesting that the English word has subsequently taken on additional meanings not found in the host languages, being used as a verb to refer to calm, confident movement – “he breezed into the room” – or describing something which is easy to accomplish – “she breezed through the task”, “the exam was a breeze”. 

However, the use of loanwords can be controversial – especially the accelerated adoption of English vocabulary. Institutions such as l’Académie française [2] warn that this risks erasing the idiosyncrasies of individual languages, and propose coining words using native roots instead. Certainly, many English loanwords end up looking or sounding unnatural in the recipient language. For example, “ресепшн” [resepshun] ends with a cluster of consonants, and this is usually avoided in Russian because such a combination of sounds is difficult to pronounce. This is also arguably an unnecessary borrowing since the native word “приёмная” [priyomnaya] already exists. It is derived from the noun “приём” [priyom] (reception, admission), with the addition of an “-ая” [aya] ending shared by many other Russian words which denote places – such as “прихожая” [prikhozhaya] (entrance hall), or “кладовая” [kladovaya] (storeroom). Over time, loanwords may be altered to better fit the phonetic and orthographic (spoken and written) conventions of the recipient language, but the problem is that rapid social progress and globalisation have given rise to a sudden flood of new English words which remain awkwardly foreign.

Moreover, the process of borrowing words is sometimes associated with political issues. Unfortunately, intercultural contact is not always benign and peaceful; in the case of English, many loanwords are the result of Britain’s colonial history, suggesting that the violent metaphor used by Nicoll is an appropriate descriptor of our lexical appropriation. The linguist Lyle Campbell notes that borrowing may also occur because of the perceived prestige of the donor language and culture. The influx of English terms into other languages indicates that anglophone countries now have a cultural hegemony. Notably, the lexicon of IT and social media is largely taken from English because most of the major tech companies, such as Google and Meta, are American. The fact that social media platforms are now key communicative tools means that this in turn influences the language of people around the world – especially younger generations, the most frequent users of social media, whose speech will often be peppered with anglicisms. But the adoption of English words purely because they are “trendy” or “cool” can alienate those who are unfamiliar with the language, as highlighted by a campaign launched by the Real Academia Española in 2016 [3] to target the overuse of anglicisms in advertising. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the use of unnecessary anglicisms in other languages can end up impeding effective communication by reducing the intelligibility of spoken and written statements. 

In conclusion, the appearance of loanwords is a natural linguistic process which is intrinsically neither helpful nor harmful to the development of a language. Issues arise due to the social and political context in which different languages are spoken, as this may create an unequal balance of power in which one language dominates another. Although loanwords can be helpful for expressing new concepts, the increasing prevalence of redundant English borrowings arguably impoverishes other languages and diminishes clarity of expression. As students of modern languages, we should be open to linguistic change but also mindful of the problems which could arise from the use of English loanwords when we are speaking or writing in another language. 

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