Where Are You From, Loanword?

Let’s save some time and say it: Being exposed to other cultures and languages is one of the best things that can happen to you. Throughout history, English speakers have constantly been in contact with people who speak other languages. One of the coolest things that happens from that contact is language exchange. When a word from one language gets absorbed into another language, that’s called a loanword. Scholars estimate that English has integrated loanwords from more than 300 languages. Maybe you never noticed? That’s kind of the point. When a new word gets absorbed into English it just becomes part of English.

What usually happens is that English speakers find a word in another language to describe something they don’t yet have a word for. So they “borrow” that word. Forever. That said, loanwords fall into two categories: popular loanwords and learned loanwords.

So How Does This Work?

Words borrowed from other languages are at first considered foreign words. When a word has been accepted by a large number of speakers and integrated into the everyday speech of a language community, that’s when it becomes a loanword. At this point, pronunciation of the word usually adapts to the borrowing language through a process called naturalization or assimilation. Once the word no longer seems foreign, it is, in fact, a loanword.

Popular Loanwords: Food and Fighting

Popular loanwords are everyday words. You might not even realize that some of them came from another language. Most popular loanwords are the result of cultural contact. Many of them describe food, the arts, and entertainment. You probably know sushi comes from Japanese, and taco comes from Spanish, by way of Mexico. But some other food-related loanwords you might have forgotten are pizza from Italian, lemon from Arabic, and tart from French (the French spell it tarte).

War is another way a lot of loanwords have come into English. This actually goes way back to the beginning of the language. Viking invasions of England during the Old English period brought Old Norse words like war and ugly. In 1066, the Normans (basically the French), led by William the Conqueror, invaded and took over the British Isles. That made French the language of the English court for hundreds of years. As many as 10,000 loanwords resulted from that period of English history.

Interestingly, a lot of war-related words are loanwords. We’ve borrowed a number of terms from French (including grenade, cavalry, and bayonet). We’ve also acquired a decent number of German words (likeU-boat, zeppelin, and blitz).

Learned Loanwords: Scholarship and Skills

Learned loanwords tend to come from scholarly or specialized fields, like medicine or law. It’s usually easier to see what language these words came from. English, for example, draws from Latin for a lot of medical and legal terms.

It’s not always that cut and dry, though. Sometimes it’s harder to see the line between popular and learned loanwords. The word ballet, for example, comes from French, and the terms for the different positions and steps in ballet have retained their original French names. In this case, ballet is a popular loanword. Most English speakers recognize the word as referring to a type of dance. However, the specialized terms in ballet could also be considered learned loanwords because they’re familiar to dancers and choreographers (who are skilled professionals), but largely unknown to people outside the field.