Loan Words and Borrowing: A Kind of Code-Switching?

by Jacomine · 6 comments

By Jacomine Nortier
Photo credit: Beatrice Murch

A few weeks ago I wrote about code-switching. People who switch back and forth between languages are more or less aware of their behavior, or at least they know that they make use of two (or more languages). But did you ever realize that we use elements from other languages when we think, or are even sure, that we use only one language?

In this last sentence, there are at least five words that were borrowed from Latin: realize, use, elements, language and sure. The words don’t only sound different in Latin, they look a little bit different as well. We use such words every day, and we don’t need to speak the other language to do so. We are often not even aware of using words from another language.

What is this borrowing about? Why do we do it? Is it restricted to English and Latin or is it more universal? That is what this article is about.

In the Netherlands, many people are afraid that English will become so influential that Dutch will disappear in the end. It is true that we use many, many English words in Dutch.  The word sale is now being used in place of the good old-fashioned word uitverkoop, not only in winkels but more and more in shops. The boekhouder is a controller nowadays. Bestuurders are managers. Although there are Dutch equivalents, we often choose to use the English words. On the other hand, I type this on a computer, for which we have no Dutch equivalent.

This looks like code-switching, doesn´t it? But it is different: code-switching is not necessarily concerned with single words. The examples I gave from English borrowed elements into Dutch are single nouns or verbs, not full sentences. And there is more: these single nouns are perfectly integrated into Dutch grammar, which makes them very ‘un-English’. We wrap them into Dutch rules, so to say: we can talk about a computertje, where a Dutch diminutive ending –tje is attached to computer, which makes it a small computer. Or we add infinitive –en to the verb shop: what we like is shoppen. We borrow words from English and make them Dutch.

Although most people in the Netherlands speak (at least some) English, they do not necessarily have to do so in order to use these English borrowed words. We can also talk about crème (English cream) and English speaking people can talk about a garage without knowing any French.

All languages borrow words from other languages and treat them as if they were their own. Or rather: the speakers are the actors, not the languages themselves, of course. Why do speakers borrow lexical material? Perhaps we (or they) find them cool and show that we are living in a globalizing world. Are languages not rich enough to take care of themselves without the help of words from outside?

Here are some reasons for borrowing:

Sometimes new concepts are introduced including the words that are used for them. English terms that are associated with computers, with technology, but also with football (UK) or soccer (USA) were introduced in other languages together with their concepts. The other languages simply did not have the words for the new concepts.

After some time, some equivalents are introduced, but not always. In Dutch, for example, we can talk about penalties, sometimes in the English way, but also with a Dutch pronunciation (penàlties) or about strafschoppen, which means the same. Corned beef is also something we borrowed from the English speaking word. Not only the stuff, but also the word. Again it is adjusted to Dutch: it is pronounced as cornèt beef and not recognized as English anymore. I might say: Ik ga een filetje saven (I am going to save a small file). You probably recognized file and save. We don’t use many Dutch equivalents for computer terms.

Another reason why we borrow from other languages is that it helps us to make distinctions that were impossible otherwise. An example: in Dutch we have the word huis (house). With the help of loan words (borrowed words) from other languages that you certainly will recognize, we can distinguish between several types of house: flat, appartement (apartment), split-level woning, bungalow.

Words are sometimes so well adjusted to their new language that it is hard to recognize their roots. Would you know what the origin of Japanese Makudonarudo or Amusuterudamu is? To find the origin, you should know that Japanese does not allow (most) clusters of two or more consonants. If a borrowed word contains such clusters, Japanese simply inserts an extra vowel. Now, with this knowledge you can see that the first word is MacDonalds, and the second one Amsterdam!

An interesting phenomenon is that we only borrow from languages that we look up to, languages with a higher status. Not necessarily in every respect, but at least in some specific areas. Some centuries ago, Russian borrowed sailing terms from Dutch that are still used nowadays. The Dutch navy was very important in those days, and provided Russian with the necessary lexicon. Examples that are still in use are ankor (from anker), skipper (from schipper) and kajuta (from kajuit). In the area of food languages borrow from other languages for obvious reasons: pizza, tandoori and nasi have spread all over the world.

Minority languages borrow numerous words from dominant languages spoken in the same physical space: Spanish or Chinese in the US have adopted and integrated countless words from English; Moroccan Arabic in the Netherlands Turkish in Germany, Punjabi in the UK: all these languages have borrowed many words from Dutch, German and English, respectively, the dominant languages of the surrounding world of those minority languages.

The opposite does occur but it is more rare: English does use words from Spanish (tortilla, tequila), but fewer, and more specific (food and drink!) than Spanish uses from English. In the Netherlands, we know and use only a few words from Arabic, Berber or Turkish: they have to do with food (döner kebab, couscous, which is more French than Arabic) and sometime other areas such as religion (muezzin, ramedan). The reason is that the migrants have adjusted to the majority community (although some people believe this is not the case). They have adopted concepts and words from the majority community.

Most countries or communities don’t welcome foreign words with enthusiasm. Some governments are even overtly opposed against linguistic ‘pollution’ and spend a lot of money on so called purist measures against (in their eyes) heavy borrowing. An example is France: it is not so long ago that people were fined if they would use too many non-French (i.e., English, usually) words in official texts.

An often-quoted example of a very purist country is Iceland. The Icelandic government used to play an active role in replacing words with other than (old-) Icelandic roots. The Icelandic people accept the proposals from a special linguistic committee and there are daily radio programs in which old Icelandic words for new concepts are discussed. This used to be the situation for a long period of time, but there are rumors that even Icelandic has started to borrow words from English now. I hope that there are Icelandic readers who can tell me what the situation is like nowadays.

Linguists study borrowing and they often conclude that it is a logical consequence of language contact. Languages have always changed and will always change. Whatever the measures or the amounts of money that are spent on this type of language policy: it does not work if the people are not willing to accept the proposals and keep their language ‘clean’. The question rises why some linguistic communities are more keen than others to keep loanwords  at a distance. Is it true or just a wrong impression that some linguistic communities are more caring about their language than others? I will discuss that in my next article.

Read more about loan words and borrowing:

On language contact in general:

  • Sarah Thomason (2001): Language Contact. An Introduction. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press.

More specific on borrowing:

  • Einar Haugen (1950): The analysis of linguistic borrowing, Language 26-2, page 210-231.
  • Roeland van Hout and Pieter Muysken (1994): ‘Modelling Lexical Borrowability’, Language Variation and Change 6, page 39-62.

In Dutch:

  • Jacomine Nortier (2009): ‘Taalcontact en Ontlening’, chapter 13 in Nederland Meertalenland, Amsterdam: Aksant, page 169-181

Don’t miss the first post in this series: Code-switching Is Much More than Careless Mixing: Multilinguals Know the Rules!

Jacomine Nortier is associate professor in multilingualism and sociolinguistics at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She teaches at all university levels. According to European norms she is a monolingual, i.e., she grew up with Dutch as her only language, but like all Dutch children she learned English, German and French at school and she communicates in all three of them. As a university student she learned the Scandinavian languages Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, and later she learned Moroccan Arabic as well. Her PhD thesis (1989) was about code-switching between Dutch and Moroccan Arabic. More recent publications are about code-switching and increasingly about urban youth languages, multi-ethnolects and multilingual internet forums. Over the course of the next few months she will be writing columns for Multilingual Living about how academic knowledge helps us understand our daily multilingual lives.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amy June 25, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Very interesting article! The French in France and the francophones in Quebec, Canada have their unique sets of anglicisms, and they are not identical! DH is in computer science and had a very hard time writing the abstract to his Master’s in French. Technology and science are two spheres where English tends to dominate, for better or worse.

Another is commerce. I recall an article in La Presse shortly after the 2008 crumble in the world financial markets, and there no short succinct French equivalents to the English abbreviations and terms used to describe key elements of the financial crisis. They gave the example of mortgage-backed securities eating up some 3 lines of text just to try and give a reasonable translation into French.

With commerce and other intellectual exchanges linking us all together, this problem will not go away any time soon…


2 Olgalucia September 19, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Are loan-words considered part of code-switching?


3 YULDUZ May 25, 2013 at 9:11 pm



4 Alfadel June 8, 2013 at 4:29 am

It very interesting article , I found it useful as I am preparing to do monograph in language browning ( English ) and Sudanese Arabic dialect. I hope I can find some support form you all.


5 anato wilfrid June 28, 2013 at 10:41 am

i like this article because it will help a lot for the research i’m carrying out on loanwords


6 Patricia September 5, 2015 at 2:23 am

Excellent article!
What would you say are some epistemological problems related to these theories?
Thanks in advance.


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