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Feb
28
2020

English Isn't Purely English -- by Douglas Phillips

English. This language that many of us speak is quite old, with roots going back to the 6th century when it was brought to Britain by Saxons migrating from northern Europe. Every language evolves, but what I find most interesting about modern English is that it isn’t pure. Not even close. Many of the words we speak every day are borrowed from other languages, sometimes without us even realizing their non-English nature. Go to Starbucks, for example and order a venti cappuccino. Or make it a grande, or a tall (apparently Italian was good enough for Starbucks for two sizes, but not the third).

Foreign words are scattered throughout English. Especially French. Women wear rouge, perfume, berets, and brassieres, or other lingerie that might be risqué by exposing more derrière. In aviation (yes, it’s a French word), airplane parts include the fuselage, empennage, and ailerons. We cook an omelette for breakfast, use the toilette, then rendezvous with friends at a restaurant for aperitifs and hors d'oeuvres before a dinner liaison. En route to a cabaret, we step over the debris of an avant-garde poster torn from a building façade. It’s an image of a ballet dancer doing a pirouette. In silhouette. Totally déjà vu!  Sorry. Got carried away. You get my point. French is everywhere. And I didn't even use ricochet.

Many visual and performing arts borrow whole glossaries from other languages. Ballet positions are almost all French (en point, pas de deux, and others), but musical scores include a barrage of Italian words: fortissimo, adagio, allegro.

Russian words enter our language in strange ways. Some we know are Russian because they relate to news stories out of Russia: pogrom, gulag, politburo, or the favorite term used by Russian bad guys in a movie, comrade. But there are some Russian words that I bet you didn’t know were Russian. What’s a white whale with a nose like a dolphin? Yup, a beluga. How about a prehistoric hairy elephant? You guessed it, the Russian word, mammoth. For geography buffs (like me), frozen, treeless landscapes of the far north are classified as taiga or tundra. Both are Russian words.

German has a handful of words in English, some that we recognize as German, some we don’t. Our five-year-olds go to kindergarten. When someone sneezes, we say gesundheit. We might have angst that a poltergeist has invaded our dachshund. Instead of a taxi, we might call for an Uber. Except for food (sauerkraut, bratwurst, pretzel), many German words (like schadenfreude) have fallen out of use because they're just too hard to say! You might say they are kaput.

I’ll end with the scientific angle, for example, Arabic. You didn’t know there are Arabic words in English? There aren’t many, but algebra and alcohol were both borrowed from Arabic. Notice that they both start with al, a very common prefix in Arabic. The original words are al jebr and al kohl. Those sound more Arabic, right? Most people know we use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, …) but it’s less known that most stars have Arabic names. In fact, every star in the Big Dipper constellation is Arabic. Alkaid, for example. But don’t pronounce it like a clumsy American (All Kade), say it like Aladdin would – Al Kah-EED.

Yup. Arabic.

Posted by Douglas Phillips 28 Feb at 00:05
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Responses to this blog

Stromberg 7 Mar at 00:49  
Also interesting:
"Tycoon" comes from Japanese.
"Amuck" (as in running amuck) comes from Malay.
"Pajamas" comes from Hindi.

I wonder if there's any major language English hasn't borrowed from.
Bluewave 7 Mar at 04:54  
In Bahasa Indonesia...

amuk or amok = go berserk
orang hutan (forest person) = orangutan
kutu (bugs) = cooties
awatar = avatar (via Sanskrit, I think)
rambutan (hairy) = rambutan (a small, hairy tropical fruit)
Komodo = Komodo dragon
ganja = marijuana (also Sanskrit or Hindi?)
Java (largest island in Indo) = Java (coffee)
Pallas 7 Mar at 14:05  
Bluewave

amuk or amok = go berserk
Berserk = Old norse
Daldham 9 Mar at 01:11  
I have a wonderful book on my shelf, 'The Story of English' by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil (Formerly from the PBS News Hour. ) The history of old Albion and its constantly being invaded by Vikings, Danes, the French (Normans) and Roman Catholics, each bringing language with them that added to the lexicon is a great bit of history. The place and language were 'colonized' long before that term came into use.
It opens with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson , 'The English language is the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven'. Highly recommended.
Boudiccca 18 Mar at 09:07  
It behoves us to acknowledge the contribution of Latin - the root of many English words. One source claims that 60% of our words are derived from Latin, and the percentage in the field of science is greater. Disclaimer: I hold no brief for Latin - I was forced against my will to learn it at school.
Brancook9 18 Mar at 10:53  
Go far back enough in any language's history and you'll find that it is never purely itself

English is a Western Germanic language that probably originated sometime around the 7th century (I believe the Venerable Bede is the source for this very early history). Sister language from whence derived is Frisian, spoken on the northeast coast of the Netherlands. Thus, a very close relative of Dutch. Watch Paul at Langfocus for more informatoin! www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGP7N_Hdmok

The Frisian-speaking sailors settled among the preexisting tribes: the Angles (Angle-land: England), Saxons, and Jutes. Wikipedia says that these tribes were speaking a very early form of Norse/Swedish.

F John Mcwhorter in his "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" does a fantastic job arguing for the Celtic influence in English around this time period: his thesis is that Welsh contributed the "Do/Does" question form, and the "I am writing", etc. present continuous mood, which are features you do not find in other Germanic languages.

That said, English retains the bare bones of its Germanic predecessors. Anyone who has studied German will remember the 4 cases: Nominative, Accusative, Dative, and Genitive. Old English retains these cases exactly; they exist in fragments today. Dative: NOT "who do you call," but "whom do you call;" Genitive, NOT "who book is this" but "whose book," etc.

Of course, you also have Latin in the higher courts. This would have come with the Romans in the first century and joined with Brittonic, proto-Celtic; later to form mainland Welsh.

So, by the the 7th century, there's a stew of proto-Germanic dialects, some pieces of Welsh, and Latin in the higher courts.

Then you have Viking invasions, who come bearing a different variant of Old Norse.

Then you have Alfred the Great who repels the vikings, starts the school system, and champions learning and Latin.

And of course, you have William the Conqueror and the Norman Invasion of 1066. Difficult to judge the amount of cognates: a quick Google search says that English assumed approximately 7,000-10,000 French words at that time.

French becomes the language of the high courts, Latin the language of learning, and Anglo-Saxon the language of the farmers and indentured servants. These distinctions are still evident today: cow derives from Anglo-Saxon, but beef is French. Pig is Anglo-Saxon, but pork is French. etc. People nowadays who like 'plain English' are also, unconsciously, taking solidarity with the early medieval Anglo-Saxon working class: they will accuse you of snootiness if instead of sad (Anglo-Saxon), you say melancholy (French); confectionery (F) instead of sweet (AS); sentiment (F) to mood (AS), etc.

These represent the groundbreaking changes in English. After that, wars and trade and general contact with the outside world account for much of its vocabulary. No doubt Arab merchants contributed sizable portions of Arabic and Spanish. Also, Persian in the early middle ages made a huge impact—sugar, candy, caravan, pajama, shah, scarlet, rose, bronze, kiosk, sherry, and serendipity are all Persian.

Satyam822 27 Mar at 09:29  
Good work Mr.Douglas that's what makes English acceptable almost to every corner. Its a great work but you can consider about influence of Hindi on English
Nic0110 15 Apr at 15:36  
I've always found this interesting. There's a Great Courses course called, "Language Families of the World," that digs into the origins, roots and development of languages. It's fascinating, and well worth a listen if you've got time.

It's a lot cheaper on Audible or the Great Courses Plus.
Fictiondog 15 Apr at 16:20  
Nic0110
I've always found this interesting. There's a Great Courses course called, "Language Families of the World," that digs into the origins, roots and development of languages. It's fascinating, and well worth a listen if you've got time.

It's a lot cheaper on Audible or the Great Courses Plus.
Great Courses are free on Kanopy. (Kanopy is a library-borrowing film app, but you need a library card to use it. You can probably get a library card electronically from your local library.)
Stromberg 15 Apr at 16:40  
Brancook9
F John Mcwhorter in his "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" does a fantastic job arguing for the Celtic influence in English around this time period: his thesis is that Welsh contributed the "Do/Does" question form, and the "I am writing", etc. present continuous mood, which are features you do not find in other Germanic languages.
Oooh. Didn't know that. Cool.
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Dinojosh84 2 May at 03:28  
I knew some of these but definately not all ! Cool angle. Appreciate it.
Emilyfan 9 May at 18:07  
This subject always brings me surprises. Here's two. 1) Comedian Kate Clinton used to be a teacher. She was teaching a student irregular plurals and asked for the plural of leaf. He said tree. 2) I love the layered doubles that occur so frequently. For example Ireland's districts are called counties. County Tyrone being one of the famous ones. Owen is a common Irish name. Anglicised Eoghain. Tir is the Gaelic word for county. County Tyrone is the county of the county of Owen. Waterford Crossing. Wiesbaden baths. No end to them.
Fictiondog 9 May at 19:20  
Emilyfan
...I love the layered doubles that occur so frequently. For example Ireland's districts are called counties. County Tyrone being one of the famous ones. Owen is a common Irish name. Anglicised Eoghain. Tir is the Gaelic word for county. County Tyrone is the county of the county of Owen. Waterford Crossing. Wiesbaden baths. No end to them.
Here in Los Angeles there are tar pits. Pretty amazing, actually, to think that saber toothed tigers and mastodons and mammoths once roamed this city; we know because their bones got stuck in the tar pits.

Los Angeles — itself a Spanish name, the city being named originally El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles "The City of Our Lady the Queen of Angels" — was established as a city by the Spanish and has many other Spanish names.

La Brea means "The Tar" in Spanish, and the tar pits are today called The La Brea Tar Pits. Yup, The the tar tar pits.

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Onalimb 9 May at 20:07  
Along the same lines, my favorite (English isn't purely English) is something that has popped up in the last few decades:

Chai Tea

I'm going from memory here, but my understanding is that countries that originally got their tea by land called it cha or chai. Countries that got it by water called it tea.

So chai tea is just tea tea.
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