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Describing language
Describing language

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2.2 Where does English get its words from?

English didn’t become the most spoken language in the world without being influenced by the other languages that it has come into contact with. This contact – the result of population movements, invasions, colonialism, and now global communications – has left an imprint on what English looks like in the twenty-first century. Table 1 shows just some examples of words that have been borrowed into English.

Table 1 Words borrowed into English
    First recorded in English
Freckle from the Old Norse freknur 1386
Bamboo from the Malay bambu 1563
Barbecue from the Spanish barbacoa 1697
Ketchup from the Chinese (Amoy dialect) ketchiap 1711
Ghoul from the Arabic ghul 1786
Pyjamas from the Urdu paejamah 1801
Tzatziki from the Greek τσατσίκι 1960
Parkour from the French parcours 2002

You can see even from this small (in fact tiny!) sample that words have come into English from languages all around the world. Once they get into English, they tend to conform to English rules (spelling and pronunciation) and can sometimes ‘forget’ their origins. The Spanish for ‘the lizard’, for example, is el lagarto, which has ended up as alligator in English. We have a number of words from Arabic beginning with al-, which is also the equivalent of ‘the’: alcohol, algebra and the very modern sounding algorithm, which originates in ‘the man from Kwarizm’, the nickname of a ninth-century Persian mathematician from what is now Uzbekistan.

Not all English words have such exotic histories, of course, but even the most mundane are made up of some pretty exciting bits and pieces. This is what you will turn to now.