Creative Writing

Loanwords and the Evolution of English

For all its complexities, and thanks in part to them, English is a highly versatile language. Several other languages have government affiliated academies that dictate their proper usage, voting on things like the addition of new words. No such body exists for English, making its development less top-down and more of a dialogue between those at the top and the general masses.

One area where this can easily be seen is with loanwords. Cooperation is a good example, itself a second-hand loanword arriving to us by way of Middle French though originating from Latin. For many years cooperation had an umlaut (ö) over the second “o”. This diacritical mark was used to signal to readers that the adjoining vowels were meant to be pronounced as separate sounds rather than one: co-operation instead of coop-eration. As cooperation permeated the culture, the need for an umlaut to signpost this waned, and the diacritic was largely pruned from the language. This process is called Anglicization, or the adapting of words (usually foreign) to better suit the current conventions of English. Other languages have their own processes like these, with some being handled by committee, though English is uniquely suited to the adoption of foreign words and phrases, and to see why we need only look at its inception and development.

Old English

While not the British Isle’s first language group—that award going to Brittonic, a group of dialects spoken by Celtic settlers from Continental Europe—or even its second, the silver medal being pinned to the Latin of Roman colonists, Old English was the third language to cross the Channel. Old English is also called Anglo-Saxon, a name derived from those who spoke it. During the 5th century, for a variety of reasons scholars still debate about to this day, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes migrated to what would later come to be known as England. These Germanic peoples spoke a variety of dialects, which formed the immediate roots of the language tree we call English. But why English?

Our knowledge of this historical time and place mainly comes from accounts written down by Roman occupiers, their more culturally integrated descendants (the Romano-British), and outside observers who put down their records in Latin. The name Angles is an example of Latinization, a change of spelling from an original language to Latin to better fit the conventions of the latter. Academics disagree on the Germanic root word Angles stems from, but for our purposes here it is sufficient to note the linguistic shift and its subsequent alteration. Angles is itself another one of these alterations, a change made in consideration of modern linguistic sensibilities. In Latin texts, Angles often began with the character Æ, not A. In Old English this character is a modified rune of the character for “ash,” referring to an ash tree. Later writers simplified this Æ as the character fell out of use, either turning it into an A or an E, which along with other modifications is how we get from Ængles and Ængel-land to England, and its adjectival form, English.

Middle English

Some place the development of Middle English after the conquest of England by the Normans in the 11th century, and there are certainly good arguments for this, but suffice it to say, this invasion was the catalyst for a dramatic shift in the language. Normandy gets its name from the Vikings (sometimes called Northmen, or Northmanni in Latin) who invaded and settled the formerly Frankish territory. Overtime they assimilated with the locals who spoke a version of French, causing the Norman language to become linguistically intertwined with the local tongue. When they later invaded their neighbors to the north, the Normans brought along this language. As they had before, they adopted many of the local customs of those they conquered, and Anglo-Norman became the new language of administration. Because of this, French words and spelling patterns began seeping into English, and certain grammatical features of Old English began to disappear, like case endings. This melding of languages resulted from rulers interacting with the ruled, and their scribes juggling both languages in their heads.

Due to a variety of factors, conquest and prestige eminent among them, Latin saw sustained use among the European ruling classes and their officers for centuries after the fall of Rome, even in places where none of the peasants spoke the language. It was a language of sophistication, of high learning, and something young lords learned so that they could converse with other royals and aristocrats who had different native tongues than them. This is sometimes referred to as a lingua franca (a language of the Franks). Later, French also took on this role as a go-between language, especially for those involved with politics, due to the military ascendancy of France during the 18th century.   

Modern English

Unlike Middle English, there is no one dramatic event that scholars can point to as the reason for the language’s shift into modernity. The closest one might get is the printing press, yet the move from Middle to Modern began before Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. As previously mentioned, scribes influenced the currents of English, injecting bits of Latin and French into their texts, often intentionally though sometimes not. Another avenue for English’s modernization is literature, as seen with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. An international bestseller in its day, this and other works lead those in England and abroad to view English as a more serious language deserving of their respect, seeing as how it could render such an artful poetry and prose.

One of the printing press’ better known consequences is the uptick in literacy, though this was not the only important change it brought. Before the printing press, many words lacked standardized spellings. Some officials and scribes cared about this topic, though as industry often does, Gutenberg’s invention compelled conformity. Setting up the letters to be stamped on the page took time and effort, thus making consistency rather than personal preference more efficient. Spellings still shifted after the creation of printed books, but Modern English can be marked by this transition from phonetic and dialectical spellings to general orthographic consensuses.

All of this is to say, that English is at its core made up of and predisposed to borrowing from other languages. However, linguistic assimilation can have its drawbacks. The unique characteristics of other languages, such as diacritics, are often stripped away, and words sometimes lose their nuances when migrating from one alphabet to another. Despite this, I believe the pros of loanwords outweigh the cons. In that same spirit, here are a handful of words that I think English would benefit from borrowing.

Saudade

Those with an interest in words that are hard to translate are probably already familiar with this Portuguese one. Saudade describes a type of melancholy, a sort of longing for a person, place, or thing. Unlike most forms of longing, saudade applies to things one has access to but that have changed, usually in a manner where the past version or condition cannot be returned to. One example is a romantic relationship. Most change over time as partners deepen their knowledge of each other and their needs and wants change. Having a deep, potentially sad, nostalgia for who one’s partner used to be or the sort of relationship one had seems like quite a useful word to have in one’s lexicon.

Iktsuarpok

Another common feeling that it would be beneficial to have a shorthand for is expressed in this Inuktitut word. Iktsuarpok is a transliteration, meaning it is a word translated from one alphabet into another. Nuance can be lost when moving words between languages that both use Latin letters, and this can be doubly the case when there is even less common ground, yet the core idea here remains intact. Iktsuarpok means to go outside often, with the connotation that one is anticipating the arrival of another. It describes the feeling of nervous excitement one feels waiting for someone or something else to show up. Applied to a modern context, one could even think of it metaphorically, as in the sense of repeatedly checking one’s phone. Doing so does not make an expected response come any quicker, but it is a reflex many of us exhibit nonetheless.

Poshlost

This Russian putdown is also a transliteration. To describe someone as poshlost is to put them in their place. It applies to a person with an inflated sense of their own worth or skill, and is a way of saying they are not so special. Quite the opposite, poshlost calls them out as vulgar person whose conduct is in bad taste. In comedic terms, it can either be used to punch up or down. One can use it to skewer pretentious politicians and celebrities, or to correct someone who is putting on airs.

Wejbet

An Arabic word for a situation most have found themselves in on at least one occasion. Wejbet pertains to the feeling of not wanting to go a family gathering, though interestingly its meaning does not end there. It also carries a sort of judgement that acknowledges while sometimes one does not wish to attend an event with relatives it is better in the long run to do so.

Feierabend

There are several German compound words that could have filled this spot, though this one is especially fitting seeing as this article is coming to a close. Combining the words for celebration (feier) and evening (abend), Feierabend denotes the time period following a workday’s end, and the unique potential for joy and relaxation therein.

Most of these potential loanwords are descriptors of human emotions, sometimes culturally specific though generally not. It says something that the toughest words to translate tend to deal with emotions and human interactions. Individuals and societies have depths that we seek to simplify by condensing them into words like these, making them easier to express and share. Thinking of English as a sort of loan-language that is ready to adopt words like these might just enrich our ability to understand one another.

Works Cited

“A brief history of the English language”. http://www.oxfordinternationalenglish.com, Oxford International English Schools, http://www.oxfordinternationalenglish.com/a-brief-history-of-the-english-language/, Accessed 4 July 2020

“Feierabend”. en.wiktionary.org, Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Feierabend, Accessed 5 July 2020

“iktsuarpok”. en.wiktionary.org, Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/iktsuarpok, Accessed 5 July 2020

Marques, Nuno. “How And Why Did English Supplant French As The World’s Lingua Franca?”. http://www.babbel.com, Babbel Magazine, 20 June 2017, http://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/how-and-why-did-english-supplant-french-as-the-world-s-lingua-franca, Accessed 5 July 2020

“poshlost”. en.wiktionary.org, Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/poshlost, Accessed 5 July 2020

“saudade”. en.wiktionary.org, Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/saudade, Accessed 5 July 2020

“wejbet”. eunoia.world, Eunoia, eunoia.world/?words%5Bword%5D=&words%5Blanguagetag%5D=Arabic&words%5Btag%5D=, Accessed 5 July 2020

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