Ready to have a laugh and twist your tongue into a knot?
When the English language started to expand its vocabulary, the process seemed like a wedding ceremony. Do you know how they say brides need something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue? Well, English had all of that except the blue. Anglo-Saxon words were old, Shakespeare’s words were new and all the loanwords from other languages were borrowed. If you can’t put your finger on the English words borrowed from other languages, think café, ballet, fiancé, spaghetti, espresso, pretzel. You got the point.
Of course, this story is far from true, but that doesn’t mean it won’t help you remember how the modern English vocabulary came to be. Unexpected connections are a good strategy for remembering new things. Anyway, enough storytelling for now. Let’s see what common words English “took” from other languages.
Where did English Come From?
The earliest forms of English, collectively known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon, developed from the North Sea Germanic languages that came to Britain between the mid-5th and 7th centuries AD. This linguistic influence made its way to Britain through the migration of the Anglo-Saxons from what is now northwest Germany, southern Denmark, and the Netherlands.
Not long after that, in the 8th and 9th centuries, Old English began to borrow foreign words from the Old-Norse-speaking Viking invaders and settlers. Subsequently, in the late 11th century, Middle English emerged, marked by a new influx of borrowed words from Old French following the Norman Conquest of England.
Early Modern English began in the late 15th century with the Renaissance trend of borrowing Latin and Greek words and roots, which also coincided with the Great Vowel Shift. The era culminated in the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare.
While the question may sound funny (“where did English come from?”), it is a popular inquiry among Google users for obvious reasons. After all, 1.3 billion people worldwide speak English either natively or as a second language. It’s only natural for them to be curious about the origin of the English language.
English Words from Foreign Languages
- Guru (Sanskrit)
- Tsunami (Japanese)
- Versatile (Latin)
- Vodka (Russian)
- Chocolate (Nahuatl, an Aztec language)
- Algebra (Arabic)
- Banana (Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal)
- Robot (Czech)
- Tycoon (Japanese)
- Yoga (Sanskrit)
- Shampoo (Hindi)
- Taco (Nahuatl)
- Safari (Arabic)
- Kangaroo (Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal language)
- Czar (Russian)
- Jungle (Hindi)
- Boomerang (Dharuk, an Australian Aboriginal language)
- Sushi (Japanese)
- Pajamas (Hindi)
- Loot (Sanskrit)
- Mosquito (Latin)
- Karaoke (Japanese)
- Lemon (Arabic)
- Penguin (Welsh)
- Ninja (Japanese)
- Ketchup (Chinese)
- Algebra (Arabic)
- Metropolis (Greek)
- Avatar (Sanskrit)
- Nemesis (Greek)
Although we usually call them “borrowed words”, these are also known as loanwords. According to Oxford Languages, a loanword is “a word adopted from a foreign language with little or no modification”. The transition from one language to another can happen through:
- Transcription, which means borrowing words while preserving their original pronunciation in the borrowed language;
- Transliteration, which involves adapting the written form of the loanword in accordance with the alphabet of the borrowing language;
- Loan translation, also known as calque, which involves borrowing words, phrases, or expressions by translating their literal meanings into the borrowing language.
French loanwords: English words that are actually French
Did you know that approximately 30% of the English vocabulary consists of words that have their origins in French and Latin? Considering that French was the language of the English king and his court for over 300 years, it’s no surprise. During that time, as many as 10,000 French loanwords came into English.
Spanish loanwords: English words that are actually Spanish
Unlike French loanwords which have been adapted into British English, most of the Spanish loanwords entered English via the North American English route. Cultural exchanges between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking communities led to an influx of loanwords related to food and music in particular. For example, words like “guacamole”, “salsa” and “piñata” have been borrowed into English from Spanish due to the popularity of the Mexican culture in the United States.
Italian loanwords: English words that are actually Italian
Thanks to Italy’s cultural influence throughout history, especially during the Renaissance period, many languages borrowed its words. Italian words related to art, music, architecture and cuisine have an especially high predominance in the English vocabulary.
German loanwords: English words that are actually German
Some of the first German words were borrowed into English during the interactions between Germanic-speaking tribes and English-speaking communities in early medieval Europe. Words related to everyday life, family, and community were among the earliest borrowings. Later, thanks to Germany’s influence in various fields, English borrowed German words related to science and technology, music, philosophy, literature and engineering.
Understanding the Size of the English Vocabulary
How many words are there in English? Many sources agree that the English language consists of roughly 470,000 words. However, most linguists advise to take that with a pinch of salt. While some words have become obsolete, new additions are always making their way into the English vocabulary, so it’s difficult to put our finger on an exact number. Then, there’s also the question of different variations of a single word like “go”, “went”, “gone”. Do we count that as a single word or as three separate ones?
One thing is certain: the English vocabulary is still expanding. As you know, English does not only borrow words from other languages, but it also constantly coins new words to reflect advances in technology.
Given its many borrowings, English can be considered a melting pot of foreign influences. Some sources go as far as to say that approximately 80% of the English vocabulary is borrowed. While it may seem like a lot, English is known for its predilection to foreign words. So, what do you think? Could this be true? Answer in the comments. 👇
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