Does English still borrow words from other languages?


English language has “borrowed” words for centuries. But is it now lending more than it’s taking, asks Philip Durkin, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

English speakers may not be famous for being au fait with foreign languages, but all of us use words taken from other languages every day.

In that last sentence au fait is an obvious example, but famous, foreign,languages, use, and taken are also borrowed words. Knowledge of what is being borrowed, and from where, provides an invaluable insight into the international relations of the English language.

Today English borrows words from other languages with a truly global reach. Some examples that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests entered English during the past 30 years include tarka dal, a creamy Indian lentil dish (1984, from Hindi), quinzhee, a type of snow shelter (1984, from Slave or another language of the Pacific Coast of North America), popiah, a type of Singaporean or Malaysian spring roll (1986, from Malay), izakaya, a type of Japanese bar serving food (1987),affogato, an Italian dessert made of ice cream and coffee (1992).

A spot of pibroch for the Sassenachs
A spot of pibroch for the Sassenachs

One obvious thing that these words have in common is that not all English speakers will know them. Probably affogato and tarka dal are likeliest to be familiar to British readers, but they do not yet belong to the vocabulary that you would expect just about every British person to know, and experiences will differ greatly in different parts of the world.

The number of new borrowed words finding their way into the shared international vocabulary is on a long downward trend”

Some words slowly build up in frequency. For instance, the word sushi is first recorded in English in the 1890s, but the earliest examples in print all feel the need to explain what sushi is, and it is only in recent decades that it has become ubiquitous, as sushi has spread along the high street and into supermarket chiller cabinets in most corners of the English-speaking world. But, commonplace though sushi may be today, it hasn’t made its way into the inner core of English in the same way as words like peace,war, just, or very (from French) or leg, sky, take, or they (from Scandinavian languages). This isn’t just because they were borrowed longer ago. It owes a great deal to the different influences that foreign languages have had on the word-stock of English over the centuries.

It’s very hard to be precise about the boundaries of the vocabulary of any language, especially a global one like modern English. Every speaker of a language has a slightly different vocabulary. English speakers living in New Zealand are likely to be familiar with a wider range of words of Maori origin, like Pakeha, a New Zealander of European descent, aroha(sympathy, understanding), kia ora – a greeting or farewell. English speakers in Scotland may know more words of Scottish Gaelic origin, likecranachan, a type of dessert, pibroch, bagpipe music, Sassenach, Englishman. Dictionaries, even very big ones like the OED, monitor those words that have some traction in English across the world. This sort of monitoring reveals some surprising trends. Although English is now borrowing from other languages with a worldwide range, the number of new borrowed words finding their way into the shared international vocabulary is on a long downward trend.

One big reason for this is the success of English as an international language of science, scholarship, business, and many other fields. If we think about words coming into English from foreign languages in the 18th and 19th Centuries, we may think first of the impact of colonialism and expanding trade. Words like jungle (1776), bangle (1787), yoga (1818),khaki (1863) came into English from languages of South Asia. But in many other cases new words slipped into English as a result of scientific coinages in other European languages. For example, oxygen reflects the French name oxygène that the scientists Lavoisier and Guyton de Morveau gave to the recently discovered element in the 1780s. The word is formed from elements that ultimately come from Greek, but it was coined in French and then borrowed into English.

Yoga made its first English appearance in 1818
Yoga made its first English appearance in 1818

A similar story applies to paraffin, formed in German in 1830 (from Latin elements), and then borrowed into English in 1835. Other borrowings likesemester (1826) or seminar (1889) reflect German innovations in higher education. Such borrowings are still sometimes found today, but have become much less common, as English has become the lingua franca of the world of learning (and of so many other fields). Today, the balance is tipping much more towards English as a donor of new words (eg internet,computer, cell phone, meeting, business) rather than a borrower. By contrast, new borrowings into English today tend to cluster much more closely in a few subject areas, especially names of food and drink.

If we look back further, it was in the Middle Ages that the everyday vocabulary of English was affected most deeply by borrowing from other languages. In the wake of the Norman Conquest, French and Latin put English in the shade for centuries as the language of learning. The church, law, and officialdom. Even everyday business records were typically written in Latin or French down to the late 1300s. This has left an indelible mark on the English language today. Words like age, air, cause, city,idea, join, material, poor, suffer, tax have become part of the fabric of modern English. Not far short of half of the 1,000 most frequently occurring words in modern written English have come into the language from French or Latin, mostly in the period from 1066 to 1500.

Fewer in number, but even more striking in their impact on the language of everyday life, are those words that came into English from Scandinavian languages. When communities of Scandinavian settlers in late Anglo-Saxon England began to switch to using English, they brought with them some words that have become part of the most basic layer of the vocabulary of English, such as give, take, hit,leg, skin, sky, and even the pronoun they. This was greatly helped by the close similarities between the early Scandinavian languages and medieval English.

Close contact does not inevitably lead to borrowing. For example, although English has been rubbing shoulders with Welsh and other Celtic languages in the British Isles for many centuries, relatively few words have come into everyday English from this source. There are some examples, like trousers, gull, clan, or (maybe) baby, but they are tiny in number compared with the vast numbers borrowed from French and Latin, and they have had less impact on the everyday language than words from Scandinavian sources.

Ultimately, patterns of borrowed words reflect complex patterns of cultural contacts across the centuries. Names of foods, plants, animals, and other features of the natural world are borrowed as part of the basic traffic between peoples in different parts of the world. Borrowings affecting other areas of the vocabulary typically follow the pathways of power and prestige between languages. English today may, for once, be more of a lender than a borrower. If we try to look decades or centuries into the future, who knows?

Know your English!

What is the difference between ‘pillow talk’ and ‘small talk’?

(R Madan, Bhopal)

‘Small talk’ or ‘idle talk’ refers to the polite conversation you have with someone whom you may or may not know very well. The conversation usually revolves around topics that are neutral; nothing that is likely to make either party angry. A person usually indulges in small talk when he meets someone for the first time. ‘Pillow talk’, on the other hand, is the conversation that one has with one’s spouse or significant other. Since the conversation, in this case, usually takes place when the two individuals are in bed, it tends to be intimate or personal.

*Bala is not very good at making small talk.

*There is no pillow talk. He falls asleep the moment his head hits the pillow.

What is the meaning and origin of A1?

(K Sankaranaryanan, Madurai)

This rather informal expression has been around for over 200 years. When you say that something is ‘A1/A one’, you mean that it is excellent or first rate. The expression can be used with people as well.

*The car is over ten years old, but the engine is in A1 condition.

*As a teacher, Aishwarya is A1.

Lloyd’s, a British company that insured ships, coined the term. Before any ship was insured, the company inspected it and then rated it. The letters A, E, I, O and U were used to indicate the condition of the hull of the ship, and the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc. were used to indicate the state of the equipment (cables, anchor, etc.) on board. If the ship was rated A1, it meant that both the hull and the equipment were in excellent condition.

Is there a connection between ‘wit’ and ‘half wit’?

(R Revathi, Chennai)

Yes, there is. The term ‘half-wit’ is used nowadays in informal contexts to refer to someone who is rather foolish or stupid.

*The company has hired a bunch of half-wits.

*I’m not going to let you marry a half-wit like Ravi.

A ‘wit’, on the other hand, is someone who has the gift of the gab; he keeps the listener amused by his skilful play on words.

*Chalapathi, a notable wit, died in a car accident last night.

The term ‘half-wit’ was originally used to refer to a writer of mediocre wit; he was a ‘dealer of poor witticisms’. A ‘half-wit’ failed in his attempt to be funny half the time!

How is word ‘zenith’ pronounced?

(R Kulkarni, Pune)

There are two different ways of pronouncing this word. Some people pronounce the ‘e’ like the ‘e’ in ‘set’, ‘bet’ and ‘pet’, while others pronounce it like the ‘ee’ in ‘fees’, ‘bees’ and ‘knees’. The final vowel sounds like the ‘i’ in ‘pit’, ‘kit’ and ‘hit’. The word can be pronounced ‘ZEN-ith’ or ‘ZEE-nith’. It comes from the world of astronomy, and it was originally used to refer to the highest point reached by a celestial object — like a star, for instance. Nowadays, the object can be anything — a ball, a missile, a rocket, etc. The highpoint or the most successful phase of one’s life can also be called ‘zenith’.

*Nandu’s career reached its zenith when he was just thirty.

*The missile exploded much before it reached its zenith.

Courtesy : thehindu

Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize winning-author, is dead

Nadine Gordimer, a South African Nobel Prize winning-author who died on Tuesday in Johannesburg. (File photo)
Nadine Gordimer, a South African Nobel Prize winning-author who died on Tuesday in Johannesburg. (File photo)

Nadine Gordimer was first a writer of fiction and a defender of creativity and expression. But as a white South African who hated apartheid’s dehumanisation of blacks, she was also a determined political activist in the struggle to end white minority rule in her country.

Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991 for novels that explored the complex relationships and human cost of racial conflict in apartheid-era South Africa, died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Johannesburg on Sunday. She was 90 years old. Her son Hugo and daughter Oriane were with her at the time, Gordimer’s family said in a statement on Monday.

The author wrote 15 novels as well as several volumes of short stories, non-fiction and other works, and was published in 40 languages around the world, according to the family.

“She cared most deeply about South Africa, its culture, its people, and its ongoing struggle to realize its new democracy,” the family said. Her “proudest days” included winning the Nobel prize and testifying in the 1980s on behalf of a group of anti-apartheid activists who had been accused of treason, they said.

Per Wastberg, an author and member of the Nobel Prize-awarding Swedish Academy, said Gordimer’s descriptions of the different faces of racism told the world about South Africa during apartheid.

“She concentrated on individuals, she portrayed humans of all kinds,” said Mr. Wastberg, a close friend. “Many South African authors and artists went into exile, but she felt she had to be a witness to what was going on and also lend her voice to the black, silenced authors.”

Gordimer struggled with arthritis and rheumatism but seemed to be in good spirits when they last spoke three weeks ago, he said.

“Our country has lost an unmatched literary giant whose life’s work was our mirror and an unending quest for humanity,” South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, said in a statement.

Prof. Adam Habib, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, described Gordimer as a “revered intellect.”

During apartheid, Gordimer praised Nelson Mandela, the prisoner who later became president, and accepted the decision of the main anti-apartheid movement to use violence against South Africa’s white-led government.

“Having lived here for 65 years,” she said, “I am well aware for how long black people refrained from violence. We white people are responsible for it.”

Gordimer grew up in Springs town, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Britain and Lithuania. She began writing at age 9, and kept writing well into her 80s.

She said her first “adult story,” published in a literary magazine when she was 15, grew out of her reaction as a young child to watching the casual humiliation of blacks. She recalled blacks being barred from touching clothes before buying in shops in her hometown, and police searching the maid’s quarters at the Gordimer home for alcohol, which blacks were not allowed to possess.

That “began to make me think about the way we lived, and why we lived like that, and who were we,” she said in a 2006 interview for the Nobel organisation.

In the same interview, she bristled at the suggestion that confronting the human cost of apartheid made her a writer.

“If you’re going to be a writer, you can make the death of canary important,” said Gordimer, a small and elegant figure. “You can connect it to the whole chain of life, and the mystery of life. To me, what is the purpose of life? It is really to explain the mystery of life.”

She said she resisted autobiography, asserting that journalistic research played no part in her creative process.

Telling Times, a 2010 collection of her non-fiction writing dating to 1950, offers some glimpses of her own experience. She wrote in a 1963 essay of a meeting with a poet giving her an idea of a life beyond her small home town and her then aimless existence.

Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days appeared in 1953, and she acknowledged that it had autobiographical elements. A New York Times reviewer compared it to Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, saying Gordimer’s work “is the longer, the richer, intellectually the more exciting.”

She won the Booker Prize in 1974 for The Conservationist, a novel about a white South African who loses everything.

Among Gordimer’s best-known novels is Burger’s Daughter, which appeared in 1979, three years after the Soweto student uprising brought the brutality of apartheid to the world’s attention.

Some readers believe the family at its centre is that of Bram Fischer, a lawyer who broke with his conservative Afrikaner roots to embrace socialism and fight apartheid. The story is salted with real events and names including Fischer’s. The main character is a young woman on the periphery of a famous family who must come to terms with her legacy and her homeland.

“Gordimer writes with intense immediacy about the extremely complicated personal and social relationships in her environment,” the Nobel committee said on awarding the literature prize in 1991.

In her Nobel acceptance speech, Gordimer said that as a young artist, she agonised that she was cut off from “the world of ideas” by the isolation of apartheid. But she came to understand “that what we had to do to find the world was to enter our own world fully, first. We had to enter through the tragedy of our own particular place.”

After the first all-race election in 1994, Gordimer wrote about the efforts of South Africa’s new democracy to grapple with its racist legacy. She remained politically engaged, praising South Africa for the progress it had made, but expressing concern about alleged backsliding on freedom of expression.

“People died for our freedoms,” Gordimer, who had had works banned by the apartheid government, told The Associated Press in a 2010 interview. “People spent years and years in prison, from the great Nelson Mandela down through many others.”

Courtesy : thehindu

Competition for the Reader

Winged Post conducts a competition for the voracious reader inside you. Are you ready for the big challenge?

A competition form Winged Post
A competition form Winged Post

Allan Ahlberg turns down Amazon-sponsored award

Ahlberg says he turned down the award several weeks ago
Ahlberg says he turned down the award several weeks ago

Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg has turned down a lifetime achievement award after discovering it was sponsored by Amazon.

The writer, whose books include Each Peach Pear Plum and Funny Bones, was due to be honoured at the Booktrust Best Book Awards last week.

In a letter to the Bookseller, he said he felt compelled to decline the honour because of Amazon’s tax arrangements.

“Could Booktrust not have found a more moral sponsor?” he wrote.

“Tax, fairly applied to us all, is a good thing. It pays for schools, hospitals – libraries!

“When companies like Amazon cheat – paying 0.1% on billions, pretending it is earning money not in the UK, but in Luxembourg – that’s a bad thing.

“We should surely, at the very least, say that it is bad and on no account give it any support or, by association, respectability.”

“The idea that my ‘lifetime achievement’ should have the Amazon tag attached to it is unacceptable.”

The online retailer has been heavily criticised ever since its low tax contributions were first revealed in 2012.

Amazon UK sales are routed via a Luxembourg affiliate
Amazon UK sales are routed via a Luxembourg affiliate

Amazon’s UK subsidiary paid £4.2m in taxes last year, the online retailer’s accounts show, despite making sales of £4.3bn.

The tax bill is so low because when shoppers in the UK buy items from its store, the payment is taken by a subsidiary based in the low tax jurisdiction of Luxembourg.

It is also reduced because the company only pays tax on its profits – which were £17.1m in 2013, with much of its turnover ploughed back into expanding warehouses and negotiating deals on its products.

Amazon has always insisted that it pays all required taxes in every jurisdiction that it operates in.


Booktrust’s chief executive Viv Bird said she was disappointed Ahlberg had turned down his award but “this was his personal decision.”

“Booktrust works with a wide range of partners in order to fulfil our charitable aim of bringing books to children and children to books,” she said.

“We are also grateful for the tremendous support we get from many eminent authors and illustrators. Amazon’s sponsorship of the Best Book Awards, in its inaugural year, enabled us to celebrate some of the best of children’s literature, create a buzz around books, and make a significant contribution to our mission of encouraging more children to read.”

Many of Ahlberg's books were illustrated by his wife Janet (left), who drew this picture of the Ahlberg family for 1981's Peepo!
Many of Ahlberg’s books were illustrated by his wife Janet (left), who drew this picture of the Ahlberg family for 1981’s Peepo!

The prizes, which were handed out last week, were voted for by 12,000 schoolchildren across the UK.

John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars was named best book for 12 to 14-year-olds.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck won in the nine to 11-year-old category, while Stephan Patiscame’s Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made took the 6 to 8-year-old category.

Best picture book was won by Peck Peck Peck, the latest story from Maisy author Lucy Cousins.

No mention of the lifetime achievement prize was made at the time.

Allan Ahlberg began his writing career in the 1970s, and his wife Janet illustrated many of his picture books – including The Jolly Postman, Ten in a Bed and the Ha Ha Bonk Book.

Janet, who won a Kate Greenaway medal in 1978 for her illustrations of Each Peach Pear Plum, died of cancer in 1994.

The couple’s daughter Jessica now illustrates many of her father’s books.

Courtesy : bbc

English Idioms

English Idioms play a vital role in the development of the language of an individual. Let us look at an idiom a week.

Idiom of the Week
Idiom of the Week

Know your English

Know your English

What is the meaning and origin of ‘smoke and mirrors’?

(Jawaid Hasan, Patna)

This expression is frequently used in American English, particularly in the contexts of politics and marketing. When you refer to the statement made by the CEO of a company as being nothing more than ‘smoke and mirrors’, you are suggesting that the individual is distorting or obscuring the truth; that he is, in fact, lying. A company that is going bankrupt will often issue statements in the press to make investors believe that the situation is much better than it actually is. When you say that a politician’s argument is ‘smoke and mirrors’, you mean it lacks substance.

*Use smoke and mirrors if you have to. We must convince the investor that he is in good hands.

*The government’s report on inflation was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

I understand the expression comes from the world of magic shows. A magician depends upon smoke and mirrors to perform his tricks. The mirrors help create an illusion, and the smoke is frequently used to divert the attention of the audience.

In restaurants, you find people are either talking on the phone or texting instead of the talking to the person they are with. Is there a word for this?

(L Revathi, Vellore)

This is happening everywhere; at home and in public places, people are constantly busy communicating with everyone, except with those who are sitting right next to them! Such behaviour is called ‘nocialising’. The individual is not socialising!

*We hardly talked. Rahul spent the evening nocialising.

What is the difference between ‘laden’ and ‘loaded’?

(K. Kasturi, Trichy)

When you ‘load’ a car or a truck with something, you put a lot of things inside it — it could be anything: empty suitcases, boxes, blankets, sand, etc. The items that we put inside the vehicle may or may not be very heavy. The ‘lad’ in ‘laden’ rhymes with the words ‘made’, ‘paid’, and ‘jade’; the word is pronounced ‘LAID-en’ with the stress on the first syllable. It comes from the Old English ‘hladan’ meaning ‘to load or heap’. When you say that a truck is laden with boxes, you are suggesting the vehicle is loaded with heavy items; the word suggests that someone or something has been ‘heavily weighed down’. ‘Laden’ is mostly limited to literary contexts; it is usually followed by the preposition ‘with’.

*The trucks were laden with farm equipment.

*We could see from a distance that the trees were laden with fruit.

Is it okay to say, ‘The club is nearly half of a kilometre away’?

(J Nikhila, Mysore)

No, it is not. We have to say, ‘The club is nearly half a kilometre away’. Usually, ‘half’ and ‘half of’ can be used interchangeably in most constructions — without really affecting the meaning of the sentence. For example, there is no difference in meaning between ‘Half my friends are moving to Delhi’ and ‘Half of my friends are moving to Delhi’. But when we are talking about measurements or quantities, ‘half of’ is not used; ‘half’ is the preferred form. We don’t say ‘half of a dozen’, ‘half of a bottle’, ‘half of an hour’, etc.

*Renu used half a dozen oranges to make the juice.

*Thiru ate half a packet of chips before dinner.


“If you don’t agree with me, it means you haven’t been listening.” — Sam Markewich

Courtesy : thehindu