- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 04/03/2020
- language, language learning, localisation, Translation
Loanwords and their usage
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a loanword as a word taken from one language and used in another. Such words can also be called ‘borrowings’. Although, there is no ‘returning’ of words. Using loanwords is not like taking a loan from a bank or borrowing a book from a friend! These terms just describe the process of one language adopting words from another one (referred to as ‘the source language’ or ‘donor language’) without translation.
Borrowing is a result of cultural interaction between two language communities. It is often the consequence of close physical proximity, when languages of two neighbouring countries borrow words from each other, but not necessarily. Many languages have borrowed from English, Spanish or French because these languages and cultures are widespread and popular. The internet has also blurred the physical borders and made word loaning easier.
Why do languages borrow words?
Sometimes you may wonder: why does a language need to borrow words? Aren’t there enough words in the language itself?! Well, no! Sometimes there aren’t.
One of the common situations when borrowing occurs is the situation when an object from a foreign culture, enters into use so there is a gap in vocabulary. Quite often cultures will absorb these objects together with their names: pizza (Italian), sushi (Japanese), poncho (Spanish), and so on.
A great example of this is the word coffee – it looks the same (or very similar) in many languages as different cultures adopted the drink together with its name: café (French), káva (Czech), Kaffee (German), coffi (Welsh), καφές (Greek), and so on.
Speakers often borrow words to express a different shade of meaning. Perhaps they want something more nuanced, stronger, or with a particular connotation. For example, adore and admire (borrowed from French) express something a little different from the English like and love. After all, a ‘rendezvous’ sounds a lot more romantic than a ‘meet-up’.
There are other reasons for borrowing words that depend on cultural and historical contexts. Maybe speakers consider a particular language to be more prestigious. Or, an authority can impose the use of the words from their own language, over the other.
English is currently the most widely used language in the world and other languages borrow heavily from it, not just for the above-mentioned reasons. It is also the case that various ‘anglicisms’ – words and phrases borrowed from English – are preferred over words with the same meaning, that already exist in the language. They are considered to be ‘fashionable’ and ‘trendy’.
Can we do without loanwords?
The appearance of loanwords is a natural process. When two languages exist in close physical proximity or ‘interact’ (for instance, through the internet), they will inevitably borrow words from each other.
Borrowing often goes in both directions. However, there is usually some asymmetry — with one language borrowing more words than the other.
It is impossible to avoid loanwords completely. And there is no need to do that as they are a normal aspect of any language. Some people dislike borrowings and fight for the ‘purity’ of their language. However, loanwords actually add to the language as they can cover the gaps in vocabulary and create synonyms with more nuanced meanings
In 2014 a 72-year-old Japanese man filed a damages suit against Japan’s public broadcaster, claiming that its overuse of foreign loan words rendered many of its programs unintelligible, thus causing him emotional stress! He was seeking 1.41 million yen in damages. However, when handing down the ruling, the Presiding Judge said the use of foreign words cannot be proven to cause emotional distress.
That said, it is better to avoid overusing loanwords! Too many borrowings can make your speech sound like a mishmash of different languages. There’s a danger of becoming incomprehensible to many people who may be unfamiliar with all the loanwords you use. Also, in business, localising your language can help you to connect with your local market more directly.