Wily Words: How Languages Mix on the Level of Words

From the lecture series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D.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.

The word English. Close-up of the word English in a dictionary
(Image: Christopher Ewing/Shutterstock)

English is a language of mixed origins in terms of its vocabulary. A search in the dictionary reveals many of our words were borrowed from Latin, French, Dutch, or Greek; it’s almost unexpected if a word can be traced back to Old English. A common assumption about English is that it derived its language structures from other European languages and even other parts of the world.

English is Weird

Seven of the twenty volumes of printed second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989).
It is estimated that in the Oxford English Dictionary, 99 percent of the words were taken from other languages. (Images:Dan/Public domain)

Adopting words from other languages is more common for English speakers than for other foreign language speakers. If you are Polish for example, the majority of 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 our words—it has been said that 99 percent were taken from other languages; approximately 1 percent of our words can be traced back to the original Old English root.

As it happens, Old English root words represent 62 percent of the most commonly used words, like and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, and from. However, most of our vocabulary came from some other language. How English began and where English is in terms of its evolution, are 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 bolded words are foreign. Where did they all come from?

Learn more: How Language Changes—Sound Change

Viking Invasion

English experienced a major incursion when Vikings from Scandinavia invaded and ruled over the northern half of the British Islands. The Viking invaders spoke Old Norse. Old Norse and Old English were closely related languages of Germanic origin, as close as Spanish and Italian or Spanish and Portuguese.

The Vikings didn’t invade and leave; they settled by assimilating into the society through intermarriage and blended in over several generations.

image of viking longships
The Viking invasions of England dramatically impacted the English language. (Image: Michael Rosskothen/Shuttertock)

The Vikings didn’t invade and leave; they settled by assimilating into the society through intermarriage and blended in over several generations. As a result, approximately 1,000 Old Norse words were adopted into Old English, and comprise basic words like both, same, again, get, give, sky, skin. The form are for to be, as in “you are”, comes from Old Norse. 

Some words given to English are interesting doublets. Our original word was shirt and the Norse equivalent in Scandis was skirt. Those two words were cognates, the same word in the two languages, closely related. As it happened, shirt came to mean a garment for the upper body, and a skirt was used to refer to an item of clothing covering the waist down.

Learn more: Language Families—Clues to the Past

The Norman Invasion

Starting in 1066, England was occupied by the Normans, who spoke a dialect of French. The Normans, whose name derives from the word Norsemen, were descended from Vikings. The Vikings decisively affected history throughout western Europe for centuries, and the region that is now France was no exception.

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry
Landing of Normans in England. Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting ships coming in and horses landing. (Image: web site of Ulrich Harsh/Public domain).

The Norman occupation of England lasted roughly 200 years, resulting in French becoming the official language of England, used in the government, court, and most often in writing. This was the point in time when documents in English become rare since French was the dominant language spoken at that time.

English’s borrowed vocabulary makes it unusual, compared to its Germanic sister languages like German, emerging Scandinavian languages, and Dutch.

Consequently, many French words were added to English. According to one count, there were 7,500 words of this kind, words such as 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. While these words seem natural to modern English speakers as common English, their origins are distinctly French.

Old English’s next stage of development was Middle English. English’s borrowed vocabulary makes it unusual, compared to its Germanic sister languages like German, emerging Scandinavian languages, and Dutch.

Learn more: Does Culture Drive Language Change?

Latin and Greek by Means of Education

The third layer was the Latin layer, which came in largely as English became a language of learning. During that transition, English inherited many words from Latin as well as Greek. These words include client, legal, scene, intellect, recipe, pulpit, exclude, necessary, tolerance, and interest.

If English had developed without these lexical invasions, it would seem peculiar to us. Icelanders can read literature written in the 1300s in their language with little trouble. While there are some adjustments to be made, it’s still similar to the language they speak today; it just seems arcane. Speakers of modern Hebrew may have little trouble reading Biblical Hebrew from a millennia ago.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript
For us, Beowulf is completely opaque without extensive training. (Image: Jwrosenzweig/Public domain)

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

But for us, a text like Beowulf is completely opaque without extensive training. It might as well be German, and yet it was once a form of English not long ago. To a large extent, English evolved because of this massive lexical incursion. The words that we borrowed by the thousands mean that, with less diversity, our basic expression is different from the way it might have been.

Advantages

There are advantages and disadvantages to this shifting morphology. Because English contains so many Latin and French words, students have a head start learning the vocabularies of French and other languages that descend from Latin. This is especially true when discussing the formal layers of the vocabulary. For example, learning French means learning concepts by rote: poisson means fish, lait means milk, and livre means book. Generally, it is easier to learn more advanced vocabulary because there are cognates of familiar words in both languages.

The word for association in French is association; the word opportunity is opportunité.

The word for association in French is association; the word opportunity is opportunité; the word for present is presént. None of these things give trouble. Often there is a sense that as time goes on, French becomes easier, because gaining a larger vocabulary is a matter of learning and rendering our own words in French phonology, as many of our words are borrowed from their language. That’s one advantage.

Disadvantages

This means that unlike other languages, there is no sister language of a similar structure to English that makes it easy for English speakers to pick up.

But there is a disadvantage. The evolution of English was contingent on historical currents, occurring in a unique way that couldn’t have happened to any other language. This means that unlike other languages, there is no sister language of a similar structure to English that makes it easy for English speakers to pick up. If a Spanish speaker is learning Portuguese, it’s a snap. The same is true for a Russian or Slav learning Ukrainian. If a Russian wants to learn Czech, it will not be easy, but both share a familiar structure and the vocabulary matches closely. There is no language like that for English.

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 an arbitrary mismatch of borrowed vocabularies. As a result, if we want to learn a language that has not been heavily borrowed from, both small and large words will be difficult.

If a Polish-speaker wants to learn Russian, the structure and vocabulary have enough crossover that it can be picked up over time and with practice.  

For example, in Russian, bread is xleb, water is voda, and fish is ryba. You have to learn to pronounce and remember them. If you’re hoping a word like association is something like ahsosseeayshun or something similar, it isn’t. It’s soedinenje. The word for an opportunity is vozmožnost. Russian is difficult because the vocabulary doesn’t match at all.

If a Polish-speaker wants to learn Russian, the structure and vocabulary have enough crossover that it can be picked up over time and with practice. For us, we need extensive study, coffee, and possibly therapy to learn Russian.

Borrowing is Inevitable

What’s important to realize is that word borrowing is inevitable and happens all the time. You may read in many books that English is uniquely susceptible to borrowing and accepts words from other languages. This is not correlative to reality. The notion that the English language is uniquely accepting of words is untrue.

Some languages borrow fewer words than others because of cultural dispositions. But the wiggle room on this is small. When languages come together, at the very least, they share words.

Learn more about a new perspective on the story of English

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 common sense, that a small band of people likely migrated from Southeast Asia to New Guinea before crossing to Australia who spread out from there. Presumably, those people spoke a language that has since become the 260 to 300 languages that were thriving in Australia before its colonization by European settlers.

Attempts to do a comparative treatment on Australian languages similar to Indo-European languages tend not to work. In comparing them, their evolution doesn’t make the kind of sense that the languages of Europe do; the hypothesis for this is the rampant borrowing of words between all these languages.

According to estimates, people would have arrived in Australia 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. That’s a long time for mixing to occur. There’s also a strong tradition in parts of Australia of intermarriage between groups, which would also encourage borrowing words from other languages. Each parent speaks one language and naturally, words will come together.

Japan

Take Japan as another example. As isolated as Japan has been until recently, culturally they have borrowed from many other languages. From English, they have beisuboru, which is baseball adapted to their sound system; T-shatsu for T-shirtbouifurendo for boyfriend; or fakkusu, which is fax.

High/Low Relationships

Another universal aspect is often when words are borrowed, they enter into a high and low relationship. This happened in English with Norman French. Have you ever thought about the fact that there is a cow, but we eat beef? We don’t eat cow. Why? We don’t eat pig, we eat pork. The high and low relationship wasn’t always present in English. Looking at many languages around the world, the word for the animal and its meat are the same.

The idea of high and low language, like pig and pork, came from the Norman contribution of their words for the animals, and this was seen as High. It used to be that you ate pig in English, but the Norman French substituted their word for pig, pork

Chinese Borrowings

The difference between high and low relationships exists in other languages, too. Japanese has two different kinds of numbers. If you just wanted to say, one, two, three, four, that’s ichi, ni, san, shi, which are Chinese borrowings. The original Japanese numbers have been put aside for the specific purpose of telling children’s ages: hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, yottsu. But the Chinese numbers were brought in as the higher form. Japanese has thousands of Chinese words from different stages of Chinese development through history.

The Chinese also contributed to Vietnamese; around 30 percent of the Vietnamese vocabulary is Chinese. Vietnam was occupied for over 1,000 years, from 111 BC to 938 AD.

Learn more: What Is Language?

A Worldwide Phenomenon

What’s important to acknowledge is that this kind of sharing is inevitable. It’s not just about English or writing, but something that happens worldwide. We have to think about how people felt about English changing at the time. There was a time when the French additions to English were considered new and still distinct from the mother tongue, words like soldier and pleasant. At the time, some people decided that those words didn’t belong and wanted to get rid of those words.

For example, in 1561 an Englishman named John Cheke 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 lune’s root is Latinate, we should say that a person is mooned because it uses our native word. Needless to say, this did not happen. Though Cheke spoke about language as pure, vnmixed and vnmangled, pure and mangled are French words. He didn’t realize how hopeless this was; we now dismiss him. Today, he is an archaic figure who’s ideas of language was rejected. A familiar example of modern times is Spanglish.

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

Common Questions About How Languages Mix Words

Q: Is English a mixed language?

English is a mixed language in the sense that we have inherited the majority of our words from other languages.

Q: What happens after a language comes into contact with another language?

After a language comes into contact with another language, either the word from one language wholistically enters the other language (for instance, baguette is the same in English and French), or new words are formed that are a hybrid of these two languages.

Q: Which languages influenced English?

Languages that influenced English include Celtic, French, Latin, Greek, and Spanish.

Q: When was English first spoken?

The origins of English can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxons, who arrived in Great Britain in the 5th century and spoke what is known today as Old English.

This article was updated on October 7, 2019

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