There’s nothing like visiting Finland to make an English-speaker appreciate the value of words borrowed from other languages. Finnish, as I learned during a trip earlier this month, is an agglutinative language, in which parts of words stay distinct instead of fusing together. This makes for very long words, like “kahdenneksikymmenenneksiyhdeksänneksi” (one way to say “29,” according to my guidebook), and considerable bewilderment for a visitor. To me, it might as well have been Klingon, only with more umlauts. Every now and then, though, a light would shine through the darkness: I’d catch something like “hot jooga” or “muffensi” or “grill maisteri,” and sigh with relief.
It’s a common experience for English speakers abroad: suddenly recognizing a familiar word in a newspaper, or on a billboard, or in a fragment of conversation. Since World War II, English has become by far the leading exporter of “loanwords,” as they’re known, including nearly universal terms like “OK,” “Internet,” and “hamburger.” The extent to which a language loans words is a measure of its prestige, said Martin Haspelmath, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute. English, clearly, is now on top.
But that imbalance can build resentment. In France, the secretary of the Academie Française called last December for a “reconquest of the French language” from loanwords; in China, government-friendly papers printed screeds this spring against “Wi-Fi,” “VIP,” and “e-mail.” Even as many governments work to protect languages from the spread of English, however, speakers in those countries go blithely off to “hot jooga,” meaning that official policy and the daily reality of English may be very different things.
Linguistic loans can appear in a number of forms: Some float on the surface of a language, while others are more integrated. Because English and Japanese have very different sound systems, for instance, Japan often adapts words in ways that make them nearly unrecognizable to English-speakers. Über-Japanese media franchise Pokémon actually takes its name from English (“pocket monster”). Japan’s “puroresu” is another abbreviated compound, from “professional wrestling”; similarly, the extra syllables required to pronounce English consonants have given rise to “purasuchikku” (“plastic”) and “furai” (“fry”). Then there are loans where a word stays intact but the meaning shifts. A “smoking” is French for a tuxedo, and a “dressman” is a German male model. Chinese people say they want to “high” when they want to have a (non-drug-related) good time.
Loanwords are fun to track, from the perspective of the loaner. But if you’re the borrower, there can be a feeling of defeat, that you’ve relinquished your own way of saying things. This has fed linguistic purism: attempts to cleanse languages of foreign influences, or resist them in the first place.
Sometimes purism peaks after a war or in a post-colonial situation. South Korea tried to de-Japanify its language after World War II; the Indian and Pakistani governments tried to separate Hindi and Urdu after their partition. A purist approach can also be a smaller language’s way of resisting outside influence. In Iceland, the Icelandic Language Institute preserves the country’s Viking-era language by cobbling together new terms from indigenous roots. Some Native American groups do the same to resist English.
Chinese is an imperial language that has always loaned more than it borrowed. In the Max Planck Institute’s World Loanword Database, Mandarin Chinese has the lowest percentage of borrowings of all 41 languages studied, only 2 percent. (English, with one of the highest, has 42 percent.) In part because of the difficulty of translating alphabet-based languages into Chinese characters, it’s common to see what are called “calques”—nonphonetic literal translations like “re gou” for “hot dog” or “zhi zhu ren” for “Spiderman.” Despite (or because of) the vast appetite among the Chinese for learning English as a foreign language, Chinese ministers have recently cracked down on loanwords. And yet Chinese people still say “baibai” and “sorry”; “e-mail” is just a lot easier than “dianzi youjian,” the official substitute.
When languages are full of borrowed words, it’s often not by choice. Romany has many loans because of a history of extreme marginalization. Japan has a long tradition of cultural borrowing; it was also occupied for years after World War II. Vietnam, following centuries of successive occupations, has a high rate of Chinese and French loans presaging more recent English ones like “canguru,” according to the Max Planck research. Other languages are more deliberately open: According to research by Anne-Line Graedler, an English professor at Norway’s Hedmark University College, the Danes are the most welcoming Scandinavian country to loans.
Most languages fall somewhere in between the extremes. Many European countries went through a period of linguistic nationalism in the 19th century and continue to regulate loans today. The Language Council of Norway, for example, has created official “Norwegian” spellings for English loanwords since 1996—although some, like “pøbb” (pub), were apparently rejected by the Norwegian people. Finland, fairly open to loans, has the Kielitoimisto, the Finnish Language Office, which helps create neologisms like “pehmelö” (“smoothie”) and advises on how to adapt foreign words into Finnish. Smaller European languages like Czech, Slovenian, and Croatian (with its “džez,” or jazz, and “hardver”), have traditionally been more resistant than larger ones.
It’s not hard to see why governments would seek to defend their languages. But some linguists think a staunch anti-English stance may be counterproductive. Truly endangered languages tend to be encroached on mostly by their dominant geographic neighbors, says Selma Sonntag, a political scientist at Humboldt State University who studies language purist movements: “The threat isn’t from English, it’s from whatever the official language is within their area.” Linguist David Crystal, author of “English as a Global Language,” has written about how Welsh-language purism may be furthering an elitism that prevents younger speakers from adopting the tongue. And it’s worth noting that English owes much of its vitality to its long history of borrowing from French, Latin, Arabic, and pretty much any other language it met. “Loanwords...do alter [a language’s] character—but is this a bad thing?” Crystal told me. “Imagine English without French or Latin loanwords. No Shakespeare, for a start.”
When England became an empire, English began borrowing less and became the prolific word lender it is today, Haspelmath told me. If we start borrowing again—the way Arabic stopped exporting words to the rest of the world once its empire crumbled and started borrowing more from French and English—we’ll know we’ve seen the apex of our cultural influence. Until then, at least we’ll be able to find a hot yoga class just about anywhere in the world.
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.