Are loanwords enriching or harming languages?

Updated: Sep 30, 2020


In only 60 years, between 1950 and 2010, data provided by UNESCO demonstrates how 230 languages have “died”, meaning they no longer have any native speakers. In fact, by the turn of the century, it has become a common theory in linguistics that, without anything done about it, around 3,500 languages may die out – that is to say around half of the current spoken languages around the globe. Most of these languages will be minorities, languages with few speakers.


Whilst this seemingly alarming information brings about many questions, such as whether languages are even worth preserving, in this article, we will look at what certain say the cause of this is: loan words.


Before we move on, however, I want to point out that loan words are certainly not detrimental to language and such a prescriptivist mentality is quite misguided. Nonetheless, this opinion is still fairly popular among many groups of people.


Perhaps I should have written *SPOILER* before writing that…


Still, many people would believe accepting new words can only harm the receiving language. In fact, entire political establishments are built around this mentality, such as the infamous Académie Française in France who have the role of preventing the common usage of English words in the French language.


Linguistic Purism:


Linguistic purism, as aforementioned, is a surprisingly popular opinion on linguistic issues, especially in circles where “proper” linguistic knowledge is lacking. In other words, it would seem the opinion that languages should remain pure - i.e. as different to neighbouring languages as possible – so that other languages do not “infect” or “harm” another language is born of ignorance.


That is not to say those who hold this view’s opinions should not be respected, but it should also be noted linguistic purist arguments were mainly held when linguists had not the rich source of information available to us now. Linguists once thought sound shift never occurs, but only for a very limited amount of words. But since then, new evidence has come to light, and opinions have evolved. To me, linguistic purism just seems like a ghost from the past.

Instead, many linguists, such as David Crystal, have developed a new way of thinking about this issue: that language change, particularly lexical change, is unavoidable and has happened for centuries. Crystal has written in time and time again that “there is no such thing as a pure language” and that “human languages cannot be controlled”.


In this sense, loan words are simply a natural consequence of linguistic evolution. Unless a language is completely cut off from the rest of the world, sharing new words is inevitable. One language taking another word from another is not what is causing languages to die out: that is the consequence of a multitude of variables, that extend beyond linguistics and go into politics. As Tore Janson wrote in his book The History of Languages, “languages remain quite different even after millennia of contact”.


So, that answers the question of whether loanwords are harmful, as the general consensus amongst academics is a stern no. Exchanging words is a very natural and frequent event and has never been demonstrated to have “harmed” a language. Besides, languages are much more than their vocabulary: languages contain a rich grammar and phonology. Perhaps there would be more reason to be concerned if languages were switching grammar systems as quickly as they were exchanging words, but this is certainly not the case. Loanwords are not harmful.


But we must also consider the other part of the question posed in the title. Do loanwords actually enrich a language, or is it that they are simply neither good nor bad as they are just a natural consequence of language contact?


 

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English is a “world-class expert on borrowing words” – Mark A. Mandell


As speakers of English, we may not be aware of this, but English has a very rich history of borrowing (and giving) words. In fact, as Andreas Simons pointed out in a 2017 article, 56% of English’s core vocabulary (that is to say the 5,000 most commonly used items of vocabulary) comes from French and Latin. What is considered “original” English and the English used before accounts of invasion makes up a very insignificant proportion of our English words.


Ultimately, with this knowledge, is it silly to ask if English is actually English? Perhaps German is more English than English if we think about comparing the current original language with the current ones. It just goes to show how English hasn’t been disadvantaged by any lexical borrowings.


According to Crystal, loan words are in fact more than just a natural phenomenon as they do enrich language. Loan words allow people to express their thoughts in a much more nuanced way. Crystal cited three examples; “kingly, royal, and regal”, which come from German, French, and Latin in that order. This has allowed people to express themselves more clearly. Crystal actually states Shakespeare’s success in his ability to manipulate language partially came from his ability to utilise loanwords effectively.


Moreover, the example triplet above demonstrates how loanwords don’t actually often replace words but provide alternatives that enhance the “original” word. In English, we use all three terms to describe something to do with the monarchy, but each word has a slight semantic difference. English serves as an example of how loanwords don’t necessarily replace an already existing word of the same meaning.


In any case, English is an excellent example of a language who achieves such expansion and dare I say global success without any political prevention in “protecting” English from foreign vocabularieses. English as a language has no political shield when it comes to foreign vocabulary. English is like a vacuum cleaner: it will hoover up any words it deems useful.


Other countries like France have political establishments to act as a shield from foreign vocabularies, like the aforementioned Académie Française. But often their efforts go unrewarded. The French Academy has had little success in introducing French words in place of English loan words. Even the infamous La Loi Toubon introduced in 1994 aimed at essentially banning all (English) loan words where the government could enforce it: this being mainly official documents and advertisements. This law, it is safe to say, was not really successful. There are many examples of French brands and adverts using English words.

This just goes to show how it’s not really probable to expect to control the usage of a language.


To me to you, and back to me


Due to the sparse history of the intercommunication of language groups and speakers, the amount of times words have been exchanged between multiple languages is uncountable (even if we had the knowledge of the entire history of language). As a result, certain words have been passed back and forth between languages.


This is particularly why I find it a little misguided to complain about loan words entering a language. For example, many Spaniards complain about “computadora” coming from English. However, they are misguided on essential linguistic context. The English equivalent “computer” comes from Latin, which underpins 75% of Spanish vocabulary. “Computer” is not English and thus, by saying they cannot accept it, they are putting 75% of their language into jeopardy.


This one example is a demonstration of countless other examples of words never belonging to one language. To refuse a word based on the principle of linguistic purism is very much misguided and inconsistent – that is of course unless one was to remove every single “loaned” word from a language.


Loan words don’t harm languages directly, but could they contribute to the death of languages?


People are not just worried about loan words in particular though, they worry about what loan words represent: a moving from one language to another. Currently, a linguistic purist is mainly worried about English becoming too dominant, eventually eradicating any other language.


Perhaps there is something important to be said about this. As English words become more heavily accepted and integrated into more languages, what is to stop English taking the leap into grammar. Historically, languages have mixed without a negative consequence, but history certainly does not tell the future. Never before have languages been so entangled, and exchanges been made so rapidly.


A fundamental theory to be considered here is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The theory that how humans think is determined by our language. Let us take, for example, French. As the French use more and more English words in French (i.e. not as a second language), the ability to distinguish French from English becomes blurred. As a result, loan words act as a doorstop prop open the door to the fundamentals of the French language, particularly the grammar. As French use more English words, as per Sapir-Whorf, the thinking of the language will change (however insignificantly). Over time, French speakers are more likely to adopt English grammar.


To a certain extent, this has already happened. It has become much more acceptable to dangle your prepositions like in English. In French, it would be “more” correct to say “la fille avec qui je parlais” (the girl with whom I was speaking), but you may hear more often “la fille qui je parlais avec” (the girl who I was speaking with). The latter represents a potential mimicking of the English syntax in French.


Nonetheless, this evidence does not suggest French is becoming more English: that is just one out of many explanations. Other linguists may argue it is simplifying a process of natural grammatical evolution and is not to suggest French is becoming more English. In fact, English moved towards using a dangling preposition not because it was becoming more like another language, but because it makes more sense to the users currently. Who is to say this is what’s happening to French?


In any case, what is clear is that loanwords are not harmful. What people are concerned with is what could happen if there are too many loanwords given to a language at one time. In the past, loan words have never been documented to be taken in by a language at such a rate as currently. Historically, languages have had time to allow words to integrate until they become essentially part of the language instead of being seen as foreign. The internet does not allow for this luxury.


A Good or a Bad Thing?


So far in this article, we have discussed how loanwords are inevitable and how no languages exist that are completely loanword-free. Whilst the second claim of the previous sentence is to some extent shown true, there is one linguistic case that we must consider: Sentinelese.

Sentinelese is the language spoken by a tribe of people in a secluded island of the coast of India. It currently has no contact with the outside world and has thought to have been completely isolated for 100 years, but some say for even thousands of years. Therefore, very little to none is known about the language and culture. Nonetheless, to a certain degree, it can be presupposed that no modern loanwords have been adopted in this language.


So, without loanwords, does Sentinelese not have the same linguistic richness of other languages?


Obviously, without knowing more about the language, nothing can be said for certain. However, it would be a great mistake, in my view, to say Sentinelese is linguistically inferior to any other language due to a lack of loanwords. Instead, Sentinelese may rely on coinages more heavily than other languages to replace having loanwords.


Chinese can be called upon to represent how this might work. Chinese finds it naturally difficult to get new words due to the way its writing system functions. It has no alphabet and uses characters represents an idea, rather than a sound.


Instead, Chinese is known to be great at creating new words within its own language and thus does not necessarily rely as much on borrowing. This is because the Chinese has a zero-tolerance towards words with no meaning. For example, emoji in Chinese is what the word emoji represents semantically rather than taking the word verbatim as other languages do. Emojis in Chinese is translated as “facial-expression-symbols” or “表情符號” in traditional Chinese.


Ultimately, what these two case studies demonstrate is how languages do not need loanwords in their traditional sense to function. Chinese demonstrates a form of semantic borrowing but does not often adopt lexical borrowings. Chinese represents how loanwords are inevitable, but languages can cope without an influx of them.

Conclusion


For as far as I am concerned, loanwords are inevitable when languages come into context and do enrich a language in some way. That is not to suggest languages which exchange words are more enriched than those which do not, as it could be suggested that languages sans loanwords would find another way to replace the richness brought about by loanwords.


Loanwords allow for languages to remain relevant. Loanwords provide more means to express ourselves more accurately. To the extent that linguistic relativism alters our perspectives, loanwords provide a more broad and holistic perspective on the world.


It is often considered that languages are tools that we use to express ourselves. So, if languages refuse to evolve, we will stop using them. It is for that reason I find loanwords do indeed enrich languages.

 

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