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» Wednesday Linguistics: Borrow and steal


Wednesday Linguistics: Borrow and steal

2006-07-12 @ 11:32

Well, I missed last week’s WL (to many things going on). So here goes, another special request.
Languages are wonderfully adaptive and creative. You might say they are as creative as all the most creative speakers pooled together. When something new (an idea, a thing, etc.) pops up, the language (by that I mean it’s speakers) can do one of three things: adopt the foreign word that goes with it, use an existing word (or words) or create a new one.

It’s normal for languages to borrow words (and sometimes morphemes) and expressions from one another. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And the wider the language spreads, the more contact it has with other languages and cultures, the more it’s likely to borrow.

Sometimes words even go back and forth, as the vicissitudes of history leave their mark on the language. For instance, French borrow the word budget from (you guessed it!) English. But English got it from French some centuries before, back when the word was “bougette” and meant a small money purse. [When do we call it borrowing? Does the language intend to eventually give it back, like here?] This word wasn’t even French to begin with, it was borrow from Gaulish.

So what is wrong with borrowings? Nothing as such; it’s all in the way it’s done.

I like language creation, be it texts, words or expressions. Language is the main tool I use in my daily life (and my job, obviously) and I have great respect for its (tapped and untapped) internal resources. So, to me, it is a tribute to the force of a language to create new words (or recycle rare or obsolete ones, like French did with ordinateur (“he who creates order”) to translate computer), instead of trying to fit a foreign one in (like the French (in France) are doing for “e-mail”, when there’s the perfectly good and original courriel).

I think it’s a question of pride in what our language can do.

But sometimes the language does not have a ready word and the creation of one proves cumbersome. Then there’s no problem with adopting the new-comer. Sometimes this word can be used in contrast to the native one (like the good old example of ox/beef). I do it too when nothing seems to do in my own language (recently imported “oblivious” in French because none of the translation conveyed the particular meaning I was looking for, and it finds a perfectly acceptable French morphology in oblivieux).

7 comments to “Wednesday Linguistics: Borrow and steal”

  1. The word oblivious looks like an interesting choice. I might have guessed that it was a French word in the first place (compare it to “oublier” - to forget). In fact I Googled for the etymology, and it appears to have come from a related Latin word. Still, about half of English is either French or Latin, so it’s an excellent place for French to go borrowing–or asking for words back.

    Actually, wouldn’t it be funny if a language could demand borrowed words be returned. English might end up being stripped naked.

    I used to know a Greek fellow (George) who was very proud of the Greek language. One day I started teasing him by saying that Greek had stolen most of its vocabulary from English. Then I gave him the examples of words like ‘telephone’ and ‘television’. Of course, when he started to protest that those were Greek words that we had borrowed, I pointed out that they must be English words, since both telephones and televisions didn’t even exist until some English speaking guy invented them, so the Greeks must have borrowed them from us.

    Funny thing was that I fully expected George to laugh. Normally, he had a very good sense of humor. But this time he turned beet red and looked really mad. It was obvious that I had offended his pride in his language. A couple of very long minutes went by before he realized I was just kidding. Thank heavens he got the joke in the end. He was a little too big to be pissing off.

    I guess I am not somebody who really takes pride in his language. I am not sure I understand why a language is a thing to have pride in. But I do take great pleasure in my language, and in other languages as well. French, especially. And Spanish, too. They are very rich. And fun. I realize that I also take great comfort in languages. Perhaps because of where I lived as a child (Quebec, France, Germany, for example), I find myself feeling rather uncomfortable in linguistically homogeneous cultures. I feel a lot of things for languages, but for some reason, pride in a language does not seem to have anything to do with it. (I wonder if I am missing something.)

    Since you seem to seem to enjoy seeing the ways in which the French language can invent words, I thought you might like the French translation of Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”. (Perhaps you are already familiar with it.)


    Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux
    Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave.
    Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux
    Et le mômerade horsgrave.

    “Garde-toi du Jaseroque, mon fils!
    La gueule qui mord; la griffe qui prend!
    Garde-toi de l’oiseau Jube, évite
    Le frumieux Band-a-prend!”

    Son glaive vorpal en main il va-
    T-a la recherche du fauve manscant;
    Puis arrivé a l’arbre Té-Té,
    Il y reste, réfléchissant.

    Pendant qu’il pense, tout uffusé,
    Le Jaseroque, a l’oeil flambant,
    Vient siblant par le bois tullegeais,
    Et burbule en venant.

    Un deux, un deux, par le milieu,
    Le glaive vorpal fait pat-a-pan!
    La bete défaite, avec sa tete,
    Il rentre gallomphant.

    “As-tu tué le Jaseroque?
    Viens a mon coeur, fils rayonnais!
    Ô Jour frabbejeais! Calleau! Callai!”
    Il cortule dans sa joie.

    Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux
    Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave.
    Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux
    Et le mômerade horsgrave.

    (F. L. Warrin, 1931)

    To me that is a masterpiece of translation and word invention. (As best as I can understand it, anyway.)

    And by the way, if you happen to like translations of Lewis Carroll’s poems, I wonder if you are familiar with this almost syllable-by-syllable (albeit nonsensical) translation of “Humpty Dumpty”.

    So anyway, I wonder if I can pose my previous question (from my comment on your post of two weeks ago):

    How much does adopting foreign words bother you? Is it something you consider very important?

  2. Hmmm. I just noticed that some of the links I added (in my comment directly above) are not working. At least the link to the translation of Humpty Dumpty is working.

  3. I read that “translation” of Humpty Dumpty last year; a friend of mine has the “Mots d’heures gousses” (or like that) book. Quite ingenious.

    As to how much word borrowing bothers me, as such it doesn’t. But when it’s borrowing words that already have native equivalent, it bothers me a bit. It’s not so much a question of purity: the language can always grow by contact. It’s a matter of pride. I like my language, I like what it can do. What I can do with it. It is an integral part of my culture.

    I especially annoyed when it’s done to sound snob; to sound “in” by using the dominant language. If you’re gonna adopt foreign words, why not take those of more exotic languages that describe things that we’re not used to here.

    And I’m not talking about using words of another language when you talk, but about “officially” condoned used of foreign words when perfectly good native words exists. That bother’s me.

  4. Hi Marc,

    My French teacher said something in class that I found very interesting, and I was wondering if you could verify (or refute) it.

    He said that he had just learned that the French language effectively was born in Quebec. The story went that prior to the colonization of New France, there was no common language in (old) France. Supposedly, different languages were being spoken throughout the country, so the king issued a ruling that the people were to speak one language. The colony was established in New France at that time, and his rule was actually carried out there. The people of France proper took much longer to comply, so French was effectively born in Quebec.

    I have no idea if the above is true. I would certainly have thought that French was already a European lingua franca by the early 1600’s and earlier, so the whole thing sounds suspect to me. But if there is truth in it, I would sure love to know. It makes for a fascinating story.

    Any idea if it is true?

  5. It’s actually true, in a way. French became the official language of the French government in 1539; before that both French and Latin were used. But that doesn’t mean that the whole population actually spoke French, although it was the most widespread language. And it was, as you point out, a lingua franca (hence the expression).

    With the colonization of New France (Quebec being an British creation), there was a lot of people from various regions of France coming over, each speaking their particular dialect, so they were forced to adopt a more uniform language. I think it was more a matter of convenience than of law that “created” French here. In France, people from the various regions didn’t mingle as much as they did here, and it’s only around the time of the World War I that French became the language of every French person.

  6. Ah, I had actually forgotten that he (my French teacher) had also mentioned what you just said–that it was only around the time of WWI that French became the language of every French person.

    Probably you were right that convenience was a bigger influence than fiat in bringing the French together to speak a single language in New France.

    This is incredibly interesting stuff. I am astounded that I never caught wind of this before.

    Do you happen to know if the French of New France reflects a new form of the language (e.g.: as in a change from old French to modern French), or was it just a case of an existing form of French asserting itself as the dominant form of communication?

  7. stealing is better for what linguistics describe as borrowing.comment on that statement.

What do you think?