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10 Surprising Words The English Language Borrowed

We English speakers like to pretend that English is the center of the universe, but do you know how many of the words we use every day were borrowed from other languages?

According to Dictionary.com, if you open up an English dictionary, approximately 80 percent of the words inside were originally borrowed from another language. Latin and French are the most important sources of loanwords. Latin is the largest source of loanwords overall, but French is the most significant source of new loanwords.

Some loanwords are easy to spot, like “entrepreneur.” Others have become so embedded in the English language that you might be surprised to learn they were borrowed. Here are some examples:

1. Leg : If English hadn’t borrowed the Old Norse “leggr,” we might still call our lower limbs “shanks.”

2. Skin: “Skin” comes from Old Norse, too. The Anglo-Saxon synonym is “hide.”

3. Sky, from an Old Norse word meaning “cloud,” replaced the Anglo-Saxon “heofon” around 1300.

4. They, their and them: These pronouns come from the Old Norse “þeir,”  and replace older the older plural pronouns hie, hire and heora.

5. Science comes to English directly from Old French. French, in turn, borrowed the word from the Latin “scientia,” meaning “knowledge.”

6. War: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “war” comes from the Old North French word “werre.” Prior to this borrowing, “Old English had many poetic words for “war” (wig, guð, heaðo, hild, all common in personal names), but the usual one to translate Latin bellum was gewin “struggle, strife.”

7. Person: “Person” is another English word with both Latin and French origins. It comes from the Old French “persone,” which is itself a French borrowing of the Latin “persona.” 

8. Cockroach: This ubiquitous pest gets its English name from the Spanish “cucaracha.” Cucaracha became “cockroach” through a process called “folk etymology,” where people began to replace the elements of the unfamiliar Spanish word with bits of English that sounded more familiar.

9. Very: The blandest adjective ever comes to us from the Old French “verai,” which meant “”true, truthful, sincere; right, just, legal.”

10. Alcohol is actually an Arabic word.  So, how did we end up borrowing the term for liquor from a culture that doesn’t even drink?  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word comes from the old Arabic word for eyeliner, “al-kuhul.” In those days, “kohl” was made of finely powdered antimony produced by the chemical process of sublimation:

“Powdered cosmetic” was the earliest sense in English; definition broadened 1670s to “any sublimated substance, the pure spirit of anything,” including liquids.”

Which English words were you surprised to find out had been borrowed? Let us know in the comments!

Linguistic Divide in Belgium

Belgium’s European parliament election, which is due to take place on 7th June, has been riddled with feuds over the rights of Dutch and French speakers.

The BBC reports that francophone political parties have been denied billboard space for their election posters in two mainly Dutch speaking municipalities close to Brussels.

Belgian politics closely mirrors the countries deep linguistic divide. Around 60% of Belgium’s population speak Dutch, while 40% speak French. Approximately 100,000 French speakers live in the mainly Dutch speaking suburbs of the capital.

Political paralysis hit Belgium after last year’s general election. With its long running tensions over language rights effecting all parties, it took months for the political parties to form a new coalition.

This is a difficult and very complicated issue for any country to bear.  Can the Belgian politicians work together and learn to communicate despite the language barriers?

A Moment in the Sun for the Pirahã Language

The Pirahã language is spoken by only about seven hundred people, members of a tribe living deep in the Amazonian jungle. However, the language has long been the focus of an ongoing academic controversy. This year, the release of a new book by Dr. Daniel Everett, one of the few outsiders who can speak Pirahã, as well as a documentary about his work are set to bring the debate to a head and give this unusual, unknown language a moment in the sun.

What makes Pirahã so unique and controversial? If Dr. Everett is correct, the language lacks many standard features, like words for numbers. Most importantly, according to Everett the language lacks what’s known as “recursion,” the ability to embed clauses into other clauses. An example of recursion would be a sentence like “Mama said that grandma used to say that life was like a box of chocolates.”

As the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, in 2002 Noam Chomsky (whom you might call the reigning king of linguistics) co-wrote a paper that called recursion the “only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.”

The key question here is simple: how much does culture influence language? Everett believes that the Piraha lack this linguistic feature because they live so much in the present that they quite simply have no need of it. Their culture doesn’t require it. Chomsky, on the other hand, believes that all human languages have a Universal Grammar, a set of innate characteristics that are hard-wired into the human brain independently of culture. And if recursion is one of the innate key features of human language, and the Piraha don’t have recursion…well, either the recursion is there and Everett is missing it, or Chomsky’s 2002 assertion about recursion is incorrect.

And that means it’s time to get out the popcorn, because while linguistics is generally perceived to be a dry, academic field, there’s actually all sorts of drama going on behind the scenes. The Chronicle of Higher Education calls linguists “uncommonly hostile. The word “brutal” comes up again and again, as do “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish.””

As of right now, one study of the Piraha language from a research team at M.I.T has found “suggestive evidence that Pirahã may have sentences with recursive structures.” So, Everett may indeed be wrong. But if nothing else, this controversy (and the attempt to bring it to the masses via the documentary) should prompt a moment of appreciation for how unique and varied human languages are, as well as highlighting the importance of preserving the ones that are threatened.

Rosetta Stone

Unlocking the Meaning of an Ancient Hieroglyphic Script

Translating ancient scripts is difficult, especially when the civilization they belonged to is long gone.

We lucked out with the ancient Egyptians when we found the Rosetta Stone, which had the same passage translated into three different scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian and classical Greek. Since linguists could read classical Greek, they were able to use this knowledge to understand the hieroglyphic script on the stone.

However, there is no similar artefact available for ancient scripts such as the hieroglyphics used by the Indus Valley civilization. These people lived approximately 4,000 years ago, along what it now the Indian-Pakistani border. They were very technologically advanced for that time, living in cities equipped with the first known urban sanitation systems in the world.

They were also excellent traders who developed an extremely accurate, standardized system of weights and measures. But could they write? Many of their artefacts are decorated with symbols, but nobody knows what these symbols mean. In fact, some researchers doubt that they even represent a written language at all.

So, researchers at the University of Washington have teamed up with researchers from India to try to translate the script using computers. The computer program looks at existing examples of the script and tries to perceive patterns in the order of the symbols.

Using a statistical method called the Markov model; the program has been able to demonstrate that the placement of symbols follows a logical pattern, supporting the theory that they represent a language. As one of the researchers noted in the article referenced above, “The finding that the Indus script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia is provocative. This finding is hard to reconcile with the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols.”

closest to English

Which Languages Are Closest to English?

Have you ever wondered which languages are most closely related to English? Well, wonder no more! Here are the 5 languages that linguists say are the most closely related to English. Some of them might surprise you…

The Closest Language to English: Scotsscotslanguagemap

The closest language to English is Scots . . . assuming you consider Scots a language, that is. According to a 2010 study by the Scottish government, a majority (64%) of Scottish people don’t.

And yet, Scots began to diverge from English as far as back as the Middle English period.  The UK government classifies it as a regional language and it is protected under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Fast Facts About the Scots Language

  • Scots is spoken by about 1.5 million people
  • Technically, the Scots alphabet has one more letter than the English alphabet. The last letter, called yough, looks like a backward “3.” The letter “z” usually replaces it.
  •  Scots has been primarily an oral language for so long that it does not have a standard spelling system.

Scots is not only the closest relative of the English language, it’s also been heavily influenced by its “big brother.” So, how easy is it for an English speaker to read Scots? Try it for yourself!

Aw human sowels is born free and equal in dignity and richts. They are tochered wi mense and conscience and shuld guide theirsels ane til ither in a speirit o britherheid.

Got that? It’s Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here’s the English translation:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

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Language and Genetic Analysis Sheds Light on the Origins of Humanity

In Africa, a team of researchers has combined linguistic and DNA analysis of African tribes to shed light on the migrations of early humans more than 50,000 years ago.

The study, which has been going on for the past 10 years, is a continuation of an earlier study by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a geneticist from Standford. During the study, researchers took DNA samples from many remote African tribes, looking at more than 3000 people in 121 population groups. They also compared the results to Europeans and African Americans living in the United States.

By looking at the DNA of the study participants and looking at languages they speak and how they have changed over time, researchers were able to map out the origins of different tribes, showing where their ancestors came from originally. DNA analysis is a great way to discover genetic connections among people, but linguistic analysis often provides a necessary tool to fill in the gaps. The distinctive characteristics of specific language groups can link people across a continent, revealing a common ancestry.

Also, when people migrate, their language is influenced by the language of the areas in which they settle. Borrowed words included in a language can help create a map of the different places the people that speak that language have been, as well as the different groups of people they encountered along the way.

For example, languages with distinctive “clicking” sounds are spoken by tribes spread across the African continent. Researchers think that this language group may be the original language spoken by humans, and DNA analysis confirms that the tribes that speak languages in this group have common ancestors. Based on these migratory patterns, the researchers theorize that modern humans first emerged in southern Africa, near modern-day Namibia, and then began to migrate up to populate the rest of Africa and eventually, the world.