Loan Words in the English Language

Loan Words in the English Language

Have you ever wondered why there are three different concepts for one word in the English language, for instance weird, odd and strange? This is because native and foreign terms co-exist in English: weird derives from Old English, odd from Old Norse and strange from Old French.

This lexical variation is not a new development: throughout the history of our language, English has been adding thousands of words to its lexicon by acquiring new words from other, often unrelated, languages: risotto and pizza comes from Italian, vodka from RussianGoulash from Hungarian, coffee and yoghurt from Turkish and ketchup from Chinese.

Lexical borrowing

Borrowing means that words which originated in one language are now used in another, even by people who don’t speak the ‘lending’ language. Many terms are borrowed or coined to cover the lexical gaps which have arisen as a result of technological developments, for instance the word television derives from Greek tele ‘far’ + Latin visio ‘thing seen’.

stack of vintage photos

Photograph, for example, is derived from Greek photo ‘light’ + Greek graphos ‘written’. Editorial credit: Steve Allen /

But it gets even more grammatical… According to Haugen (1950), there are five different types of lexical borrowing:

  • Loanword: the word and the meaning are borrowed, e.g. hummus (or humous)
  • Loan-translation: literal word-for-word translation of both parts of the lending compound, e.g. superman derives from the German ‘Übermensch’
  • Loan-rendition: the translation vaguely captures the original meaning: refrigerator is translated as ‘ice-box’ in Chinese
  • Loan-blend: one part of the compound is borrowed, the other one translated
  • Semantic loan: only the meaning is borrowed, not the word

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Borrowing in the English language

Already in Old English times, many Celtic loans were used to describe place names, e.g. Cumberland is ‘the land of the Cymry or Britons’. Latin loans were mainly used for terms associated with Christianity, for instance munuc ‘monk’ or mæsse, ‘mass’. Old Norse and Old English were mutually intelligible and therefore many everyday terms were borrowed from Old Norse: common nouns (fellow, sky), adjectives (ugly, loose, ill), verbs (take, cast), prepositions (till), conjunctions (though), pronouns (they).

In Middle English over 10,000 French loan words arrived in two stages. Before 1250 mainly technical words were borrowed from Norman French: legal (government, prison, court), religious (clergy, abbot, sacrament), military (army, soldier, sergeant) and miscellaneous (pork, beef, mutton) terms. And after 1250 mainly cultural terms were acquired from Parisian French: fashion (fashion, dress, coat), domestic settings (curtain, towel, blanket), social life (leisure, dance, music) and literature (poet, prose, romance).

The word ‘restaurant’ also comes from the French.

In Early Modern English the largest expansion of vocabulary was through word-formation processes and borrowing: mainly from Latin (perfect, logic) and French (elegant, decision), but also from other languages, such as Greek (theology, trilogy), Italian (opera, balcony), Spanish and Portuguese (alcohol, alligator).

Written by Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf is Head of Digital at Toppan Digital Language. He has an interest in how technology can help businesses achieve their marketing objectives. He's been working in digital marketing and web development since 2001 across a wide range of industries and clients.

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