Why Some Languages Borrow From Each Other More Than Others

borrown_photo_1Languages around the world borrow from one another on a constant basis, but some borrow more than others, depending on when and where they are in history. Here are a few examples, starting with English.

English Used To Take Way More Than It Gave

Historically speaking, we can attribute the roots of borrowed words to colonialism. English has borrowed heavily from Europe, namely from French and Latin because England was invaded in the Middle Ages by William II of Normandy. This 11th century invasion is known as the Norman Conquest. During William’s reign, French and Latin became the languages of the elites while English continued to be spoken by peasants. As a result, there was a divide in language between classes. However, with time, many French and Latin words trickled down into English. Furthermore, languages spoken by the elite classes were able to withhold the test of time because those who spoke it were literate and thus able to pass it on to following generations. Today, words with French or Latin roots make up about half of the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language.

But English didn’t just take from French and Latin. If we fast-forward to the early years of the United States, we’ll find ourselves in a melting pot of immigrants who spoke completely different languages, all of whom were eventually unified by English. Words such as leg, sky, take, and they are all of Scandinavian origin, while jungle, bangle, and khaki are all based out of South Asia. And these are just the most pertinent examples. English, as we know it today, is the product of languages from all sides of the world and all sections of history since its genesis. As we can now see, English in its early years took a lot more than it gave because it was spoken by the lower class. But that wasn’t the case everywhere. In many parts of the world, language borrowing was not so much a trickle down framework as it was of mutual exchange. borrow_photo_2 An Example of Mutual Exchange

Although Spanish and Portuguese are the primary languages of Latin America, indigenous peoples were met with a much more reciprocal give-and-take of loanwords than those of North America. When the Spanish invaded Mexico, the most common language was Nahuat, which was spoken by the Aztecs. Professor Bates L. Hoffer of Trinity University wrote, “Since Carlos I (ruler of the Spanish Empire) had decreed that the natives’ morals were not to be corrupted by exposure to Spanish works and behaviors, the Spanish in Mexico chose Nahuatl as the language of education.” Contrary to the trajectory of the Norman Conquest, when Spain invaded Mexico, the native language was preserved instead of being replaced in the education system.

The Influencers of Today

Today it’s got a lot less to do with colonialism, and much more to do with cultural influence. As you’ve likely noticed, English has completely turned on its head and is now much more a giver than a taker of words and phrases. Nowadays, you can find an English newspaper in virtually every major city of the developed world. Consequently, many English words have seeped their way into many languages, whether they like it or not –and many don’t. China has been making efforts as of late to ban English from signs, movie titles, etc. under the concern that it is diluting the purity of the nationally spoken Mandarin and Cantonese. They’ve also limited the amount of foreign films that can legally be shown in Chinese cinemas to only 20 per year and have banned the use of western powerhouse social websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as a means of preserving the language and culture. Despite their efforts, western culture continues to penetrate Chinese markets. “If we cleaned out all the borrowed words, less than half of modern Chinese will be left,” says one researcher of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Determined to learn Chinese and burst into China’s exploding market? Check out our free online Mandarin level test. Historically, we could attribute most borrowed words to the dominant lingua franca of the education system. Today, English is the lingua franca of the Internet. But in the end, as time keeps moving, so does the tide of influential tongues. Things change fast these days. While English is the language of global business today, Mandarin is the most spoken first language with over a billion speakers, and Spanish is expected to replace English as the second most spoken in the world by 2050, and maybe even sooner. So who knows what the future holds? One thing is for sure: learning a second language will help you in the long run. Contact Language Trainers to see how you can become a part of the global network. Get started today by taking one of our free online language tests!

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