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English in the world today
English in the world today

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English through history (Part 3)

One of the reasons for the change that has happened to English over the centuries is that, since its very beginnings, English has always been in contact with other languages. The influence from this contact can be seen most clearly in the way that English is full of what are known as loanwords. The term loanword, or borrowing, is used to refer to an item of vocabulary from one language which has been adopted into the vocabulary of another. The process is often the result of language contact, where two or more languages exist in close geographical or social proximity. The dominant language often absorbs new items of vocabulary, either to cover concepts for which it has no specific word of its own, or to generate a slightly different function or nuance for concepts for which it does have existing words.

Some loanwords retain their ‘foreign’ appearance when they are adopted, and people will often then use them specifically for the sense of exoticism that they impart. One can talk of a certain je ne sais quoi, for example, or of a joie de vivre when speaking English – in both cases invoking images of French culture to enhance the meaning of what is being communicated. Other loanwords, however, become completely naturalised, until speakers of the language no longer notice their ‘foreignness’ at all. Below is a short selection of words of foreign origin which are in use in modern-day English. As you can see, they come from languages from all parts of the globe.

frecklefrom the Old Norse freknur, first recorded in English in 1386
steakfrom the Scandinavian, steik, 1420
bamboofrom the Malay, bambu, 1563
barbecuefrom the Spanish, barbacoa, ‘a framework of sticks set upon posts’, 1697
ketchupfrom the Chinese (Amoy dialect), ketchiap, a sauce, 1711
ghoulfrom the Arabic, ghul, an evil spirit, 1786
dinghyfrom the Hindi, dengi, 1794
pyjamasfrom the Urdu, paejamah, 1801
cafeteriafrom the Spanish, 1839
tycoonfrom the Japanese, taikun, meaning ‘great lord’, 1857
rucksackfrom the German, 1866