English Isn't Purely English

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.

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.

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