Wily Words: How Languages Mix on the Level of Words

Transcript from a lecture series by Professor John McWhorter, Columbia University

There are 6,000 languages. They are always changing, and these changes produce dialects. At the same time, all the world’s languages and dialects mix with each other—that’s a natural process. The most intuitive way that languages mix is on the level of words. It is, in fact, just the beginning; languages also mix, a lot, in terms of grammar. But it begins with words.

For example, English is a bastard language in terms of our vocabulary. We have a vocabulary of extremely mixed origins, and we are used to going into a dictionary and finding that a word traces back to Latin, French, Dutch, or Greek. It’s almost the unexpected case if it traces back to Old English. We assume that we are going to be taking this long trip around Europe and even other parts of the world in figuring out where ordinary words of English come from.

English is Weird

It is estimated that, in the Oxford English Dictionary, 99 percent of the words were taken from other languages.

But actually this is something that is more common for English speakers than for people who speak many other languages. If you are a Pole, for example, you go into the dictionary and most of the time you find out that your basic words came from a Slavic ancestral language. But in English, out of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary—which is considered a relatively comprehensive sample of all of the words—it has been said that 99 percent were taken from other languages. That leaves only 1 percent of words that trace back to the original Old English root stock.

As it happens, those Old English words also represent 62 percent of the words that we use the most, words like and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, from. However, most of our vocabulary actually came from somewhere else. How English began and where English is now in terms of words are vastly divergent phenomena.

Take the sentence:

Yet the vast majority of our vocabulary originated in foreign languages, including not merely the obvious Latinate items like “adjacent” but common, mundane forms not processed by us as continental in the slightest.

In that sentence, every word longer than three letters is not English. To give emphasis, it would be:

Yet the vast majority of our vocabulary originated in foreign languages, including not merely the obvious Latinate items like “adjacent” but common, mundane forms not processed by us as continental in the slightest.

All the words in bold are foreign. That’s how bastardized our language is. Where did all these words come from?

diagram of maps showing language influences on english
A History of the English Language (click to enlarge)

Viking Invasion

A major incursion was when Vikings from Scandinavia took over the northern half of the British Islands. They spoke Old Norse. Old Norse and Old English were closely related languages, both Germanic, and they were about as close as Spanish and Italian, or maybe even Spanish and Portuguese. But the Vikings did not speak Old English, they spoke Old Norse.

The Vikings didn’t only come and beat people up. They came and stayed and they married into the society, and blended in, and became kinder, gentler barbarians.

The Vikings didn’t only come and beat people up. They came and stayed and they married into the society, and blended in, and became kinder, gentler barbarians. As a result, there were Old Norse words that were brought into English, about 1,000, by one count. They were basic words, like both, same, again, get, give, sky, skin. The form are for to be: you are—that are comes from Old Norse. These are not original English words. These are Scandinavian words.

image of viking longships
The Viking invasions of England dramatically impacted the English language.

Sometimes they even gave us interesting doublets. Our original word was shirt, and they had a word, skirt. Those two words were cognates, the same word in the two languages, closely related. As it happened, shirt came to mean something that is on top of you and then skirt was used to refer to something that is, usually, if you’re a conventional dresser, on the bottom of you. But originally they were the same word. Skirt is from the Scandis and shirt was original.

Invasion by More Vikings

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry—which records the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry—which records the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Then, starting in 1066, there was the occupation of England by French speakers. Specifically it was the Normans and a dialect was not the standard, but a different dialect of French. The Normans were descended from Vikings, too. Norman was a form of Norsemen. The Vikings had decisively affected history throughout western Europe for a long time, and the region that is now France was no exception. In a way, it was another Viking invasion, except these were people with a different level of civilization.

image showing the death of Harold Godwinson from the Bayeux Tapestry
Death of Harold Godwinson from the Bayeux Tapestry

So the Normans took over England for roughly 200 years. As a result, the official language of England, so to speak, was French. This was the language that was used in the government; this was what was used in court. This was the language that was used most often in writing. At this point there is a time when documents in English become rather rare, because French is the language in England, of all places.

So now we have Old English, which has taken on all of these Scandinavian words, then there’s this new layer of French words. And at this point we’re actually at a whole new stage of the language, which is Middle English.

As a result of this contact, there were a great many French words that were borrowed into English, and we’re never going to give them back. As a matter of fact, according to one count, there were 7,500 words of this kind. These are words like air, coast, debt, face, flower, joy, people, river, sign, blue, clear, easy, large, mean, nice, poor, carry, change, cry, move, push, save, trip, wait, chair, lamp, pain, stomach, fool, music, park, beef, stew, toast, spy, faith, bar, jail, tax, and fry. All those words, which don’t feel foreign to us at all. They seem like good English words. They’re not. These words came from French.

So now we have Old English, which has taken on all of these Scandinavian words, then there’s this new layer of French words. And at this point we’re actually at a whole new stage of the language, which is Middle English. But we’ve got this vocabulary that is making English very peculiar in terms of its words, compared to its sister languages, the Germanic languages like German and the emerging Scandinavian languages and Dutch.

Latin and Greek by Means of Education

image of a monk transcribing a text
English inherited lots of words from Latin, as well as Greek.

The third layer was the Latin layer. The Latin layer came in largely as the result of English becoming a language of learning. When that happened, we inherited lots of words from Latin, as well as Greek. Latin ones including client, legal, scene, intellect, recipe, pulpit, exclude, necessary, tolerance, and interest.

What this means is that an English that had developed without these lexical invasions would be very peculiar to us. Icelanders can read literature in their language written in the 1300s without much trouble. There are some adjustments to be made, but it’s still very much the language they speak today. It just seems arcane. It seems different. Or, a modern Hebrew speaker does not have to go to a whole lot of trouble to read Biblical Hebrew from a millennia ago.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. It’s available for audio and video download here.

But for us, Beowulf is completely opaque without extensive training. It might as well be German, and yet it is our language not all that long ago. This is, to a large extent, because of this massive lexical incursion. The words that we borrowed by the thousands mean that our very basic expression is different from the way it would be if we had less diversity.

Advantages

This has advantages, and it has disadvantages. One of the advantages is that because English has so many Latin and French words, in particular, we have a good head start when we want to learn vocabularies of French and other languages that are descended from Latin. This is especially true when you are talking about the more formal layers of the vocabulary. For example, if we’re learning French, in the beginning we’re dealing with things like poisson means fish and lait means milk and livre means book. These are things that you just have to learn by rote. But generally, learning the more advanced vocabulary is easier, because it tends to be cognates of words we already know.

The word for association in French is association. That’s not hard. Opportunity is opportunité.

The word for association in French is association. That’s not hard. Opportunity is opportunité. The word for present is présent. None of these things give trouble. So often there’s a sense that as time goes on, French gets easier, because getting a bigger vocabulary is just a matter of learning some sound tricks and rendering our own big words in French phonology, because we borrowed most of the words from them, anyway. That’s one advantage.

Disadvantages

Unlike speakers of other languages, there is no language that is close enough to English to make it really easy for us to pick up.

But then there is a disadvantage. We have such a mixed language in terms of our words, in a way that is so contingent upon certain historical currents, and that couldn’t have happened to any other language. What that means is that unlike speakers of other languages, there is no language that is close enough to English to make it really easy for us to pick up. If a Spanish speaker is learning Portuguese, it’s a snap. The same is true for a Russian or any Slav learning Ukrainian. If a Russian wants to learn Czech, it’s not going to be a picnic, but the whole structure is familiar, and the vocabulary matches very closely. If you talk to just about anybody in the world, there is some other language that is like it. For English, there is no language like that.

One of the closest languages to English, for example, is Dutch. Dutch is as unfamiliar to us in most ways as German. Much of this is because our vocabulary is this big, arbitrary splotch of borrowings. As a result, if we want to learn a language that does not have that heavy layer of borrowing of the big words, then not only are the small words hard, but the big words are hard, too.

If a Pole wants to learn Russian, she can kind of do it before she goes to bed every night, because it’s not going to be that hard. For us, we need coffee and therapy to learn Russian.  

For example, in Russian, bread is xleb. Water is voda. Fish is ryba. You just have to learn to pronounce and remember them. Then you’re kind of hoping that a word like association is going to be like ahsosseeayshun or something, but it isn’t. It’s soedinenje. You just kind of have to know. Or an opportunity is a vozmožnost. In Russian, you just get kicked everywhere, because the vocabulary doesn’t match at all.

If a Pole wants to learn Russian, she can kind of do it before she goes to bed every night, because it’s not going to be that hard. For us, we need coffee and therapy to learn Russian. That’s the advantage and disadvantage.

Borrowing is Inevitable

But what’s important to realize is that word borrowing is inevitable. It is something that happens all the time. You read in a lot of books that English is uniquely susceptible to borrowing, that English is uniquely accepting of words from other languages. That is about as correlative to reality as the audio animatronic exhibit of the Hall of Presidents is at Disney World. That has nothing to do with what those men were really like. The notion that English as a language is uniquely accepting of words is just plain not true.

There are some languages that borrow fewer words than others because of cultural dispositions. But the room for wiggle is very small, and in general, when languages come together, at the very least, they share words, just like people tend to share when they get to know each other across cultural lines and even marry.

Australia

For example, in Australia it has become clear that there may never be a family tree charted of how all their many languages came to be. We know from archaeology, increasingly from genetics, and then just from common sense, that a small band of people must have come from Southeast Asia, probably taking a jump over New Guinea to Australia and then spread from there. Presumably those people spoke a language and that language has since become the 260 to 300 languages that were thriving in Australia before the white man got there.

But when we try to do the Indo-European treatment on those languages, it tends not to work. It seems that somehow you compare them, and it doesn’t make the kind of sense that the languages of Europe do, and the reason for that is the rampant borrowing between all of these languages.

According to many estimates, people would have come to Australia 50,000 years ago, and it may have been 60,000 years ago. That’s a long time for there to be mixing. And there’s a strong tradition in parts of Australia of intermarriage between groups. That would also encourage borrowing of words. Mommy speaks one language; daddy speaks another one. Naturally words are going to come together. English is a bastard language, but many Australian languages are even more so.

Japan

Or Japan. As isolated as Japan has been until rather recently, as a culture, they have many borrowings from other languages. Just from English, lately, they have beisuboru, which is baseball adapted to their sound system. T-shatsu, which is T-shirt; bouifurendo, which is boyfriend, or fakkusu, which is fax. So they borrow these words, that’s what they do.

High/Low Relationships

Words can enter into high-low relationships with other words. Pork is a high word, pig is a low word.

Another thing that you see, and this is quite universal, is that often when words are borrowed, they enter into a high and low relationship. In English this happened with Norman French. Have you ever thought about the fact that there is a cow, but then we eat beef. We don’t eat cow. Why? You don’t eat pig. You eat pork. That isn’t the way it used to be. If you look at many languages around the world, if you kill an antelope, what are you eating? Antelope. In many languages the word for animal and its meat are the same thing. You went and you shot an animal, and you ate some animal.

The idea of pig and pork came from the Normans contributing their words for the animals and that being seen as High. It used to be that you did eat pig in English. But the Norman French, they had their word for pig. They also had the art of cuisine, which apparently had not happened in merry old England. When you’re sitting there eating with silverware, in between four walls with some sort of central heating in a chair, then you’re having pork. But outside that context, that animal is just a pig.

Chinese Borrowings

You see this in other places. For example, Japanese has two different kinds of numbers. If you just wanted to say, one, two, three, four, that’s ichi, ni, san, shi. Those are Chinese borrowings. The original Japanese numbers have been kind of put to the side. For hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, yottsu—the original Japanese numbers—those are used when telling children’s ages, or something like that. But the Chinese numbers were brought in as the higher form. Japanese actually has thousands of Chinese words, from different stages of Chinese’s development, too, so it did it many times.

The Chinese have also contributed to Vietnamese. The Chinese occupied Vietnam for over 1,000 years, although it was a very long time ago. So around 30 percent of the Vietnamese vocabulary is Chinese; this is something that is common.

A Worldwide Phenomenon

But mainly what’s important is that this kind of sharing is inevitable. It’s not just about English, and it’s not just about writing. It’s something that happens worldwide. We have to think about how people felt about English changing at the time. Because if we chuckle at them, then we have to be careful what happens when we look in the mirror today. There was a time when the French words in English were still processable as new. When you could be a living person and have a sense that this is English, but that word is French—words like soldier and pleasant. There were people who decided that those words didn’t belong. They were interlopers, you had to get rid of those words.

For example, in 1561 an Englishman named John Cheke rather sanctimoniously wrote:

Our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borrowing of other tunges.

He suggested that, instead of saying lunatic, because the lune root is Latinate, we should say that a person is mooned, because then it uses our native word. Needless to say, this did not happen. The fact is, when he was talking about pure, vnmixed and vnmangled, pure and mangled are French words. He didn’t realize how hopeless this was; now we dismiss him. We think he’s this archaic figure who refused to get with the times. But it’s the same thing with Spanglish today. This was what’s going to happen to languages.

When we look at language mixture, the first thing that we see, the most immediately processable thing, and the most universal aspect of language mixture is that languages are constantly trading words.

From the lecture series The Story of Human Language
Taught by Professor John McWhorter, Columbia University

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