Sharing words among languages – loanwords

Published 15th November 2010
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Sharing words or otherwise know as Loanwords are words borrowed from one language and adopted by the speakers of a different language. This practice of taking a word from a foreign language and introducing it into another is a consequence of cultural contact between two language communities. Loanwords are often incorporated into a language to fill lexical gaps, to fulfil new expressive needs or simply because linguistic fashions have changed. Some keep their foreign appearance, while others are adapted to the orthography and pronunciation of the host language.

English has borrowed a great number of words and expressions from foreign languages. Some examples of loanwords taken from French are au-fait, that is used in English to mean “familiar” or “conversant”, déja vu, bon appétit, c’est la vie, garage, etc. English also uses numerous Italian words, among which are pizza, opera, mafia and ciao. From German, English borrowed angst, aspirin, flak, blitz, vandal, etc. From Spanish, English adopted the words tuna, from the Spanish atún, and cockroach, which was adopted though taking the Spanish word cucaracha and adapting it to an English pronunciation and spelling. These days, however, the dominance of English as official language within the cultural and international economic world has provoked a massive incorporation of English words in the languages of countries worldwide, though technology (especially computers and the Internet), pop and youth culture, the media and advertising, among other channels. Thus, English has now become the biggest source of loanwords in the world.

In many cases, the word or expression keeps its spelling and orthography when is taken into the host language but is then applied to a different meaning. In Swedish, a babysitter is a type of child’s seat, in German a cracker is a computer hacker and catcher means wrestler. In other cases, the word change the orthography and pronunciation adapting them to the host language, as it is in Polish dres, which means tracksuit, or lunatyk, which means sleepwalker.

Sometimes we find new words that combine a native with a foreign word, such as puenting, which means ‘jump off a bridge with a rope” in Spanish. Software, snowboard, star, futbol, yogur, are some other examples of the innumerable Spanish loanwords taken from English.

But, do loanwords impoverish or enrich the borrowing language? This is the controversy that exists nowadays around the use of these words, since there are many professionals who consider them a threat to the identity of the borrowing language. On the other hand, there are those who think that no language is self-sufficient, as no single language can describe all concepts, actions, realities, etc, so it will always be necessary to resort to borrowed words.

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