Language Matters - June 5, 2023 - 8 min

Loanword or Word on Loan?

Did you know that most English words don’t originally come from English? That’s right—most of the English words we use every day come from other languages.1 Such words are called loanwords: foreign words which enter another language. Over time, English has undergone major periods of change during which many of the words we use today entered its vocabulary. As language constantly evolves, English continues to adopt new loanwords even today. Here are some examples of words you may not have known were borrowings:

tycoon: from Japanese taikun (“great prince”)
khaki: from Urdu khaki (“dust-coloured”)
slew: from Irish Gaelic sluagh (“multitude”)

Sometimes, especially when discussing topics relating to other cultures (like when ordering tteokbokki—a type of simmered rice cake—at a Korean restaurant), English speakers use foreign words. However, just because a word is used in an English sentence doesn’t mean it is established enough to enter the dictionary (see e.g., How Do New Words Enter the Dictionary?) In this instalment of Language Matters, we will examine the journey loanwords take into English, and how to present words that are still distinctly foreign.

Where Do Loanwords Come From?

The first step in a loanword’s journey from one language to another is contact between two languages. When speakers of two languages interact for an extended period of time, observing and exchanging one another’s customs and ideas, they will begin using words from each other’s languages. Linguists refer to the language a word originates from as the source language. The language that acquires the new, foreign word is known as the borrowing language or receiving language.

Presumably, speakers of a receiving language could communicate just fine without the use of foreign words. Why borrow words at all? Generally, loanwords enter a language for one of two reasons: need and prestige.2 Once again, when one speech community comes into contact with another, members are often exposed to new objects and ideas that may not have existed in their own culture, and so speakers need a name for these new concepts. They will often use foreign words rather than inventing and collectively deciding upon entirely new terms. For example, the word papaya was borrowed from Arawak via Spanish since this fruit did not previously exist in the English-speaking world.

Other times, the receiving language may already have a word for a particular concept or object, but nevertheless borrows a word because of the prestige of the source language. In English, many such borrowings—also known as luxury loans—come from French. This is a result of the unique historical relationship between these two languages. Prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066, the English lexicon was composed primarily of words derived from Proto-Germanic. After the conquest, the aristocracy and positions of power were occupied by the Normans. Although the general population continued to speak English, the language of the conquerors—called Norman or Norman French, a dialect of Old French—became associated with the ruling class. As a result, many French words entered the English language because of their prestige despite the existence of native Germanic equivalents. This is why the French word prince came to replace the Old English æþeling despite their shared meaning.

Where Do Loanwords End Up?

Variation Across Dialects

On the topic of language contact, it is important to note that English itself is diverse, and different communities of English speakers have come into contact with different cultures over the years. Because each region or speech community has a unique history, different varieties of English often borrow words from different languages. Here are some examples:

French loanwords in Cajun English couyon (a foolish person), from French couillon (meaning same); sha (sweetheart; used to express that something is cute), from French cher (term of affection)
Maori loanwords in New Zealand English kai (food), from Maori kai (meaning same)
Irish Gaelic loanwords in Newfoundland English hangashore (a lazy person), from Irish Gaelic aindeiseoir (a wretch)

As seen in the examples above, a borrowed word can be integrated into one or more dialects of English without being established in all varieties of English. For example, many of the regional South African words in Antidote’s dictionaries come from Afrikaans or Swahili. While these words may be part of a South-African English speaker’s vocabulary, they would likely be unrecognizable to an English speaker from Wales. So if a South African invited their Welsh friend over to a braai (cookout) without further context, they might not get the message. Context is key!

Domain-Specific Loanwords

Often, loanwords from a language are concentrated around the same topics. Sometimes, this is because the culture of the source language may have been particularly influential in specific domains. Other times, loanwords may be related to plant or animal life that speakers of the receiving language had never encountered in their area of the world before contact with the source language. Terms related to art and religion have also drawn significant influence from other languages and cultures. This table provides some key examples of domain-specific patterns of lexical borrowing:

Domain Language(s)
of origin
Examples Reason for borrowing
Music Italian piano, arpeggio, forte, andante When Western musical terminology was standardized, many of the most influential composers were Italian.
Dance (ballet) French plié, pointe, barre, pirouette Ballet was popularized and its terminology was standardized in 17th-century France.
Food Various borsch (Yiddish/Slavic languages), linguine (Italian), kiwi (Maori), naan (Urdu) As English-speakers encounter unfamiliar foods from other parts of the world, they often conserve their foreign names out of need for a word.
Animals Various cockatoo (Malay), moose (Abenaki), koala (Dharug), raccoon (Powhatan) As English-speakers encounter unfamiliar animals from other parts of the world, they often conserve their foreign names out of need for a word.

All the words mentioned in this table are recognizable by the general population. However, foreign words used in more specialized contexts may not be. Awareness of one’s audience is crucial for clear and effective communication when using foreign words.

So Is It an English Word or a Foreignism?

As you might have guessed, answering this question requires a little nuance. Just because a borrowed word is well established in one variety of English and accepted by its speakers doesn’t mean it is now a part of standard English—or any variety of English, for that matter. In fact, English speakers often use foreign words which are not established loanwords in any English dialect! Generally speaking, if a foreign word is used and understood by speakers of the borrowing language who have no prior knowledge of the source language, it is said to be a loanword. By contrast, foreign words which are not well integrated into a language are called foreignisms.3 These words often require further explanation to be understood by a general audience. Not all foreignisms go on to become loanwords—only those which have gained widespread acceptance by native speakers end up in the dictionary, often undergoing some changes in the process.

You might be wondering how to tell the difference between a foreignism and a loanword. While the extent to which a word is recognized by native speakers of a language is a useful metric, there is no concrete threshold that determines when a word goes from the former to the latter. However, there are some clues that can reveal how established a word is in English. Here, we will focus on two main factors that can indicate how integrated a foreign word is in a language: the changes it undergoes in the receiving language and the way it is presented in text.

Evolution of Words in the Receiving Language

The longer a foreign word spends in a speech community’s vocabulary and the more it spreads to other speakers, the more it tends to change to resemble the borrowing language. This brings us to the second clue that a foreign word has become established in standard English—evolution within the receiving language. Most of the time, loanwords undergo changes so that they more closely resemble certain features of the borrowing language. Here, we will zoom in on how loanwords can evolve phonologically and morphologically. However, lexical borrowing is a complex process and one word’s journey won’t necessarily resemble another’s. Think of these phenomena as interesting patterns or clues rather than decisive features of loanword integration.

Phonological Changes

When a foreign word is borrowed, there is no guarantee that all its sounds will exist in the receiving language. This is the case with the word kayak, borrowed from the Inuit qayaq. The /q/ sound in this Inuit word is a uvular stop. This sound isn’t part of English’s consonant inventory, so native English speakers may find it difficult to pronounce. Instead, /q/ was substituted by /k/, which was already part of the English language. This phenomenon is called phoneme substitution, and it is very common in loanwords across languages.

Even if all the individual sounds of a word exist in English, it may not be possible to arrange them in the same way as the foreign language. Consider the word pterodactyl. This word was borrowed from Ancient Greek, which allowed consonant clusters like /pt/ to appear at the beginning of a word. Although this cluster still appears in the English spelling of the word, it is not pronounced. This is because although /p/ and /t/ are both English consonants, the phonology does not allow /pt/ at the start of a word. Instead, the /p/ is silent and the word is pronounced /ˌtɛrəˈdæktəl/.

Morphological Changes

One tell-tale sign that a foreign word is becoming more established in a language is the application of morphological inflections that are specific to the receiving language. This is a fancy way of saying that if a foreign word begins to take English word endings (think -ing for a gerund, or -s for a plural), then it is likely well-established in the English language, or on its way to become so! Take the English word beautiful as an example. This word is a combination of the word beauty (from the French beauté) and the Old English affix -ful. However, note that this is not a requirement. Many English loanwords have maintained the inflectional patterns of their source languages. A well-known example of this is the plural form of alumnus:

The university hosted a gala for its alumni.
The university hosted a gala for its *alumnuses.

Although alumnus is undeniably an English word, it does not take English -s in its plural form. Instead, it follows the rules governing pluralization in its source language. Alumnus is one of many Latin nouns whose plural form ends in -i. This doesn’t mean that is any less integrated into English than beautiful—these words just have different stories.

Presentation of Foreign Words in Text

When you come across a foreign word in a text, pay attention to the context it appears in. Is it in italics? Is it followed by a gloss, i.e., an explanation or definition, or even an English equivalent? If this is the case, the author has deemed that the foreign word is not established enough to be recognized by a general audience. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned tteokbokki (a Korean simmered rice cake). Although most people who are acquainted with Korean cuisine don’t require any further explanation, another English speaker who isn’t as familiar with the subject may not have understood what we were talking about. As such, if you encounter this word, don’t be surprised to see it in italics, or accompanied by a short definition or paraphrase. At the time of writing, tteokbokki doesn’t appear in Antidote’s dictionaries since we don’t currently believe it has loanword status—although if you’re reading this article from the future, this may have changed! Contrast this with the fellow Korean food term kimchi. Because this dish has gained so much popularity among English speakers, people are likely to recognize this word even if they know nothing else about Korean food. In writing, this term usually appears unitalicized and without further explanation, just like any other English word.

Guidelines for Using Foreign Words in English

When speaking or writing, how should one approach using a foreign word in English? With English having global influence as a major lingua franca, new loanwords enter the language without resistance from language authorities advocating linguistic purism. So it isn’t generally a question of whether you should use a foreign term, but how you should present it in text. Since each loanword has its own story, it can be difficult to provide a definitive, general answer. However, here are some things to think about that can guide you in the right direction:

Do you generally encounter this word in italics, or accompanied by a parenthetical expression providing a translation or explanation? In this case, it would be wise to follow suit. This is a sign that a general audience may not be familiar with this term, even if it is commonly used within a specific domain, like cooking (velouté, a type of sauce) or religion (Suhoor, a meal consumed before fasting begins during Ramadan).

Does this word use accents or diacritics? We covered this topic in depth in a previous instalment of Language Matters, called Using Accents and Diacritics in English. Check it out!

Who is your audience? What do you know about their knowledge of the context in which a given word is generally used? This is good to think about when trying to communicate anything, but it is especially useful if you plan on using potentially unfamiliar foreign terms.

Most importantly, is this word generally used and understood by English speakers who have no prior knowledge of the source language? If so, you can safely use it in an English sentence without needing any typographical indications or further explanation.

At the end of the day, each word has its own story. Some loanwords have been part of the English lexicon for centuries, others have arrived relatively recently, while others still haven’t fully made the jump. In this article, we looked at some linguistic markers of loanwords that might help you determine where a word is in its journey, but take these indicators with a grain of salt. Knowledge of a word’s context or of its potential audience can be immensely helpful. However, both language and history are beautifully complicated, especially when you blend the two together. New words will continue to cross over into English, just as others might fall out of use. If one thing is certain, it is that language will continue to evolve, just as it has always done. Sit back and enjoy the show, or contribute a verse!4

  1. “Which words did English take from other languages?”., (2018). Retrieved May 25, 2023. 

  2. Campbell, Lyle. Historical Linguistics: an Introduction. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 2013, (pp. 56–75). 

  3. Wang, Yinquan. (1999). Loanwords or foreignisms? English Today, 15(4), 55–58. Retrieved May 25, 2023. 

  4. For further reading on loanwords in English, see Philip Durkin’s Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English (2015). 

This article was concocted by
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