Loanwords in English: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

English has unashamedly borrowed words from more than 300 other languages

loanwords in English
" Loanwords make up a huge proportion of the words in any large dictionary of English," notes Philip Durkin. "They also figure largely in the language of everyday communication and some are found even among the most basic vocabulary of English" ( Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English, 2014). (Lori Greig/Getty Images)

On the eve of the First World War, an editorial in the Berlin Deutsche Tageszeitung argued that the German language, "coming direct from the hand of God," should be imposed "on men of all colors and nationalities." The alternative, the newspaper said, was unthinkable:

Should the English language be victorious and become the world language the culture of mankind will stand before a closed door and the death knell will sound for civilization. . . .

English, the bastard tongue of the canting island pirates, must be swept from the place it has usurped and forced back into the remotest corners of Britain until it has returned to its original elements of an insignificant pirate dialect.

(quoted by James William White in A Primer of the War for Americans. John C. Winston Company, 1914)

This sabre-rattling reference to English as "the bastard tongue" was hardly original. Three centuries earlier, the headmaster of St. Paul's School in London, Alexander Gil, wrote that since the time of Chaucer the English language had been "defiled" and "corrupted" by the importation of Latin and French words:

[T]oday we are, for the most part, Englishmen not speaking English and not understood by English ears. Nor are we satisfied with having begotten this illegitimate progeny, nourished this monster, but we have exiled that which was legitimate--our birthright--pleasant in expression, and acknowledged by our forefathers. O cruel country!
(from Logonomia Anglica, 1619, quoted by Seth Lerer in Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. Columbia University Press, 2007)

Not everyone agreed. Thomas De Quincey, for example, regarded such efforts to malign the English language as "the blindest of human follies":

The peculiar, and without exaggeration we may say the providential, felicity of the English language has been made its capital reproach--that, whilst yet ductile and capable of new impressions, it received a fresh and large infusion of alien wealth. It is, say the imbecile, a "bastard" language, a "hybrid" language, and so forth. . . . It is time to have done with these follies. Let us open our eyes to our own advantages.
("The English Language," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, April 1839)

In our own time, as suggested by the title of John McWhorter's recently published linguistic history*, we're more likely to boast about our "magnificent bastard tongue." English has unashamedly borrowed words from more than 300 other languages, and (to shift metaphors) there's no sign that it plans to close its lexical borders any time soon.

For examples of some of the thousands of loanwords in English, visit these language and history sites elsewhere on About.com.

  • French Words and Expressions in English by Laura K. Lawless, About.com Guide to the French Language
    Over the years, the English language has borrowed a great number of French words and expressions. Some of this vocabulary has been so completely absorbed by English that speakers might not realize its origins. Other words and expressions have retained their "Frenchness"--a certain je ne sais quoi which speakers tend to be much more aware of (although this awareness does not usually extend to actually pronouncing the word in French). The following is a list of French words and expressions which are commonly used in English. . . . Read more
     
  • German Loan Words in English by Ingrid Bauer, About.com Guide to the German Language
    English has borrowed many words from German. Some of those words have become a natural part of everyday English vocabulary (angst, kindergarten, sauerkraut), while others are primarily intellectual, literary, scientific (Waldsterben, Weltanschauung, Zeitgeist), or used in special areas, such as gestalt in psychology, or aufeis and loess in geology. Some of these German words are used in English because there is no true English equivalent: gemütlich, schadenfreude. . . . Read more
     
  • Latin Words and Expressions in English by N.S. Gill, About.com Guide to Ancient/Classical History
    Just because our English language doesn't come from Latin doesn't mean all our words have a Germanic origin. Clearly, some words and expressions are Latin, like ad hoc. Others, e.g., habitat, circulate so freely that we're not aware they're Latin. Some came into English when Francophone Normans invaded Britain in 1066. Others, borrowed from Latin, have been modified. . . . Read more
     
  • Spanish Words Become Our Own by Gerald Erichsen, About.com Guide to the Spanish Language
    Following is a list, by no means complete, of Spanish loanwords that have assimilated themselves into the English vocabulary. As noted, some of them were adopted into the Spanish language from elsewhere before they were passed on to English. Although most of them retain the spelling and even (more or less) the pronunciation of Spanish, they are all recognized as English words by at least one reference source. . . . Read more

    As Carl Sandburg once observed, the "English language hasn't got where it is by being pure." To learn more about our magnificent bastard tongue, read these articles:

    * Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter (Gotham, 2008)