When we “borrow” words we never give them back

tumblr_ltmgahlyz91qa3geco1_400One of the ways that the English language enriches its vocabulary is by recruiting words from other languages. This is called “borrowing”, although this is a misnomer because once we borrow (steal) a word, we never give it back.

Languages borrow from each other all the time, but English is one of the greatest poachers. English has borrowed from over 120 languages including German, Italian, Arabic, and Hindi. English borrows from indigenous languages too. “Pecan” and “moccasin” come from Native American Algonquin languages, as do the place names “Mississippi” and “Michigan”. Thanks to Australian Aboriginal languages we can say “A dingo stole my baby”, while “kangaroo”, “kookaburra”, “wombat” and various names for other iconic Aussie animals are also derived from indigenous languages. One-third of place names in Australia come from Aboriginal languages. I grew up in the coastal Sydney suburb of Collaroy which means “big reeds”.

Incredibly, about three-fifths of the entire vocabulary of English is non-native.

Borrowings reflect intercultural contact (and conflict) across time. During the Dark Ages there were many Scandinavian raids on Britain. This led to occupation, and the introduction of many Scandinavian words, including the common terms “die”, “give”, “husband”, “sky”, “egg”, and even our pronouns “they”, “them”, and “their.” Despite the above meme of English as a mugger of grammar, we don’t really borrow syntax anymore, nowadays we borrow vocabulary.

Following the Norman conquest of Britain in the 11th Century, English began borrowing from French. Throughout the Middle Ages, English borrowed some 10,000 words from French, approximately 75% of which are still in use. These include everyday words for food and cooking, such as “taste”, “dinner”, “soup”, “rice”, “toast”, and “sugar”, and numerous names for vegetables and fruits, including those words. This doesn’t mean that English was an impoverished language at all. It’s suspected that many of these borrowings were redundant but supplanted English because they sounded posh. We only borrow words that have prestige to us.

English lends a lot of words too, including “internet” and “computer”. Today, English is more of a lender than a borrower, but we still borrow words occasionally. Most of these are words for new foods and drinks, such as “sushi” and “affogato”.

Sometimes we borrow a word but don’t borrow its meaning. An interesting case is the word “tulpa”. If you Google “tulpa” you’ll find numerous sites claiming that this is a mysterious Tibetan word for a thought that can be turned into reality through sheer belief. This theory is popular as an explanation for the “Slenderman” phenomenon. Some believe that Slenderman is a tulpa created from the collective thoughts of thousands of people reading about and imagining him, thereby bringing him into existence.

In the current episode of Monster Talk, Blake Smith and I talk with Professor of religious studies Joe Laycock and Tibetan studies student Natasha Mikles about “tulpas”, and the fact that this is not a Tibetan concept at all. It appears that “tulpa” is a word that was borrowed, mistranslated, Anglicized in pronunciation, and then morphed into something entirely different.

To find out more about tulpas, check out the latest episode of Monster Talk.

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Haunting America, and Not What The Doctor Ordered (forthcoming).

1 Comment on "When we “borrow” words we never give them back"

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  1. Gary says:

    Leo Rosten (“The Joys of Yiddish”) described Yiddish as “the Robin Hood of languages” and a Charles Rappaport is quoted as saying, “I speak 10 languages, all of them in Yiddish”

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