Published: Friday November 11, 2011 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday August 5, 2013 MYT 6:21:55 PM

How foreign is English?

Exploring the foreignness of the English language.

EVER since I learnt to read, I have been fascinated by the written (and printed) word. It is awesome that a sequence of symbols can tell a story, describe the stuff of dreams and imagination, and lead one into a world of knowledge. The said symbols represent the script of a language.

Evolution of the English language

English is classified as a West Germanic language, but it is written not in the Gothic alphabet of German but in the Roman alphabet developed from Latin.

English is deemed to have undergone three stages in its development. Old English (ca 450 to ca 1100 ), also referred to as Anglo-Saxon, was the language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Words native to the English plus those that came with the Anglo-Saxon invaders and colonists are largely of one syllable, most of which have evolved with change of spelling to their modern form, e.g. a, after, bed, boon, child, day, dog, eye, far, fern, give, head, knife, land, man, night, off.

Middle English (ca 1100 to ca 1500) was the English which underwent a profound change (in linguistics among other things) after the Norman Conquest (1066). There was an infusion of Norman French (Old French) into English. Latin and the Roman script were introduced during this period. While French itself is a Latin-derived language, there is a difference in the way words from Latin and French came into English. For example, the words exceed and succeed came from the Latin root-word cedere “to go, to yield” through French and entered Modern English as such. On the other hand, words such as intercede and precede, which were derived from the same Latin root, entered Modern English directly from Latin.

Modern English (after ca 1500) is the English of Shakespeare and those that came thereafter. Modern English expanded with words consequent upon the age of exploration and colonization. The further advances in knowledge and in science and technology necessitated new terminologies, which were, and are, formed largely with word-elements from Latin and Greek. Borrowings from other languages added, and continue to add, to the English vocabulary.

‘Borrowings’ in English

Many foreign words have entered the English language. They are commonly called loan words. Loan is a misleading word. As one wiseacre deftly put it, the word may be on loan but it is never paid back. I might add that something on loan connotes that the thing is no longer available to the lender. Furthermore, no interest is being paid while the loan is outstanding.

How about the term hijacked word? No, also unsuitable – a hijacked word is one removed from its source language. How about adopted word? Still unsuitable – an adopted word is one taken away from another language which is, therefore, left bereft of it. How about shared word? Still unsuitable – “sharing” implies that an owner agrees to share, but no shared word has been the subject of an agreement between the owner and the one who contracts to share.

How about foreign word? A foreign word, i.e. a word from a foreign language but used in English, seems an apt term.

After that hair-splitting exercise, I must admit that loan word is a valid term, meaning “a word in one language that has been borrowed or taken over from another language” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1989). Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004 also admits the term, but as one word, viz. loanword, “a word adopted from a foreign language with little or no modification.”

Loan words? Borrowing? Adopting? Perhaps English, with its facile way of borrowing or adopting words, could make a search in other languages for another term for loan word – but minus its connotation of depriving the source language of the selfsame word!

Adopting words

English has a word for almost any thing or idea. Concerning a thing or idea for which no word exists in the language, English can easily build such word OR appropriate a pre-existing one from other tongues. Let us see how words are adopted into English. Words from a non-alphabetic language (e.g. Chinese, a pictographic then ideographic language), are just translated, as closely as possible, into English-sounding ones (e.g. kowtow, tycoon, typhoon); and likewise for adoptions from a language written in a syllabary (e.g. Japanese), with words such as honcho, kamikaze, and tsunami.

Then there are the non-Roman alphabetic languages such as Greek, Arabic, and Russian – and even German printed in the Gothic script. A conventional one-to-one equivalence for letters of the alphabet facilitates the transliteration of words into English.

And then there are the many languages which use the Roman alphabet. A common alphabet makes for ease in adoption, which then involves a mere translocation from a source language into English – but sometimes with some modification (see below).

The table, in setting out a select list of loan words, purports to hint at the extent of “borrowings” in the English language.

For other accounts of the contributions by foreign languages to English, see previous MOE articles: “Something foreign this way comes” (July 11, 2008), “The Latin in English” (Aug 28, 2009), “Combination words” (Oct 9, 2009), “It’s Greek to me!” (Dec 10, 2011), “Is English French-fried”? (Aug 26, 2011), and “Building blocks” (Sept 23, 2011).

Note: For some strange reason, words of Latin and Greek derivations are not classified as loan words.


A loan word may be admitted into English “as is”, or it may be modified in one of several ways – in respect of spelling and pronunciation, italicization, capitalization, and the use of diacritics. The degree of modification depends on the degree to which the loan word has been naturalized or Anglicized. The spelling may be changed (e.g. Malay teripang becomes English trepang, a type of sea cucumber; and Portuguese garoupa becomes English grouper, a type of fish known as kerapu in Malay). The pronunciation may be retained as in the original language (e.g. French debut and entourage pronounced as “” and “on(g).too.rahzh”; German wunderkind pronounced as “voon.der.kint”; and Italian cognoscente and imbroglio as “ko.nyo.shen.tei” and “im.bro.liyo”). On the other hand, pronunciation may be changed (e.g. Tamil pariah, pronounced in a harsh and contemptuous tone, is pronounced in English in an almost conciliatory tone, as “”.

German nouns are capitalized in their original language, but are not when adopted into English. Thus words like angst, blitz, kindergarten, wanderlust, wunderkind, and zeitgeist are admitted entirely in the lowercase in Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2004), although the word Schadenfreude remains capitalized.

In comparison, the German nouns angst, blitz, kindergarten, and wanderlust are also entered uncapitalized into Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1989), while Schadenfreude, Wunderkind, and Zeitgeist are capitalized – and italicized as well – to indicate that these words have not been fully Anglicized.

Loan words may also be modified in respect of the use of diacritics. A diacritic is a squiggly or other mark associated with a written character (vowel-letter or consonant-letter). It hangs over the written character, or runs through it, or is fused to it, thereby distinguishing that character from a similar but unmarked character to indicate a modified pronunciation or stress. Diacritics are used with certain alphabetic languages. Examples of diacritics are the acute accent (as in French passé), a grave accent (as in French père), circumflex (as in French rôle), cedilla (as in French façade), tilde (as in Spanish señor), and umlaut (as in German doppelgänger).

English per se also uses a diacritic, the diaeresis, which, like the umlaut, consists of two dots, but tinier, placed over the second of two adjacent vowel-letters, as in coördinate, naïve, and zoölogical, to indicate that the marked vowel-letter is to be sounded separately from the previous vowel-letter. However, this diacritic is commonly discarded in print. Similarly, the diacritics in many loan words may also be omitted.

Closing remarks

It is apparent, from the above outline, that English is virtually an invented language, for which due credit must be given to the English. It is, however, not a home-grown language, its Anglo-Saxon base and structure being the product of a faraway land. The language is classified as Western Germanic, which attests to its foreign origin. Even the country, England, and consequently the language, English, are named after the Angles, “a Germanic tribe originating from the Angeln district of Schleswig, which together with the Saxons and the Jutes invaded and conquered most of England during the 5th century AD” (The New Universal Family Encyclopedia, 1985. Random House, Inc, p.41).

The language received a huge injection of things French (language, culture, etc.) from the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) – to the extent that about 30% of the present-day English vocabulary is of French origin. Latin was introduced as the language of administration, and with it came the Roman alphabet (which was developed from the Latin language). English is now written and printed in the Roman alphabet, instead of the Gothic alphabet of German.

Latin (and the Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish) and Greek play a big role in English, to such an extent that, arguably, these two languages contribute the major part of the vocabulary of Modern English, overwhelming the original Germanic element of Old (Anglo-Saxon) English.

Borrowings from almost all other languages of the world add to the vocabulary of English.

With so much that is foreign in it, I daresay that English is a foreign language, even unto the English themselves!

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