The vocabulary of every language comes from two sources. One is from the language itself, as it develops over the years. The second is from other tongues that come in contact with the original language, lending it words — loanwords — that influence the language as it grows and changes.
Words are now moving from one language to another incredibly quickly, due to the inventions and innovations of the 20th and 21st centuries, principally the internet. English, however, has now become the ‘master-lender’, and the rest of the world is now the ‘global borrower’. English dominates vocabulary in the fields of science, technology, education and business.
English began its own linguistic borrowing after the Romans left Britain in the 5th century. England’s native Anglo-Saxons suffered invaders from Scandinavia who also invaded their language. Old English (450AD to 1150AD) absorbed some very basic words, such as ‘give’, ‘take’, ‘leg’ and ‘they’.
The second period of borrowing occurred after the Norman French invasion of 1066. French and Latin words flooded into English for two hundred years, especially in the areas of education, religion, the law and officialdom. Examples include ‘age’, ‘city’, ‘idea’, ‘material’ and ‘suffer’. In fact, almost half the most frequently used words in English originally came from French or Latin, and arrived between 1066 and 1500.
In the period from the late 13th century until the early 17th century — known as the ‘English Renaissance— the development of English was dominated by linguistic specialists. These scholars considered Latin and Greek to be the languages of education. Thousands of new words from the classical languages entered English, words such as ‘genius’, ‘apparatus’, ‘paralysis’, ‘pathetic’, ‘invention’ and ‘gradual’. An enormous category of words ending with the Greek-based suffixes ‘-ize’ and ‘-ism’ also came into the language.
The next stage in the history of loanwords arrived after the Renaissance as Britain took its first steps in the creation of what would eventually become the world’s largest empire. Country after country came under British control. By World War One, the British Empire controlled 23 per cent of the world’s population. When Britain’s soldiers, civil servants and businessmen returned home from time spent in the Empire, they brought with them numerous words —especially from India, which gave English ‘shampoo’, ‘jungle’, ‘yoga’, ‘pyjamas’ and ‘bungalow’.
In another sense, Britain’s Empire, or rather its lost empire, also contributed its own loanwords to English —although indirectly through an old enemy. The Spanish presence in the Americas was a rich source of new words to English in the early decades of the 19th century, notably ‘fiesta’, ‘bonanza’, ‘canyon’, and ‘stampede’.
The next and perhaps final chapter in the history of loanwords borrowed into English came from the fields of science and education in the 18th and 19th centuries. English adopted ‘oxygen’ from French, for example, and ‘paraffin’, ‘semester’ and ‘seminar’ from German. Why the final chapter? Well, English has now, thanks to cultural and technological developments and inventions, such as the cinema and the internet, become the primary source of loanwords for the rest of the world. Ironic when we consider that most of English actually comes from other languages!