Which major language has the lowest percentage of borrowing?

by on July 6, 2014 at 7:40 am in History, Uncategorized | Permalink

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.

I also liked this bit:

…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.

That is from Britt Peterson, there is more here, hat tip goes to The Browser.

1 Andreas Baumann July 6, 2014 at 7:58 am

Good read. However, some annoying mistakes.

It is incorrect to say that the French have a meaning-shifted term, because – at the time they borrowed it – “smoking jacket” was the standard way to refer to what we, today, would call a tuxedo. It’s the English term that has shifted.

Weird that they didn’t mention my favorite loanword, “shitstorm” in German, which has such a neutral tone that Merkel can use the phrase in official speeches.

2 Brian Donohue July 6, 2014 at 12:30 pm


3 dearieme July 6, 2014 at 8:09 am

“English, with one of the highest, has 42 percent.” If someone insists as treating English as “really” Insular West Germanic then of course the borrowings look high. If you accept that it’s a pidgin tongue, view it as matured by, say, the death of Shakespeare, or death of Chaucer, and calculate borrowings after that, you’d get a lower result. But duller headlines, I suppose.

4 Clair July 6, 2014 at 8:22 am

English is not a pidgin in the slightest. At most it could be a creole, but it isn’t that either.

5 dearieme July 6, 2014 at 9:05 am

What is it, then?

6 Steve Reilly July 6, 2014 at 9:45 am

A pidgin, to quote Wikipedia, is “a simplified version of a language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common.” So English obviously isn’t that. You might be thinking of English as a creole, “a stable, full-fledged language that originated from a mixture of two or more languages.” But really English is just a Germanic language with lots of loanwords from French (and Latin and some Greek and other languages).

7 Ed July 6, 2014 at 11:23 am

So what is the percentage of Norman French words in English?

I always thought the case for English as a creole of Norman French and Anglo Saxon was pretty obvious, but it seems to be heterodox among professional linguists.

8 Steve Reilly July 6, 2014 at 1:50 pm

I think the difference is that creole come from pidgins. They aren’t just a language that take on a lot of vocabulary from another language.

9 prior_approval July 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm

‘But really English is just a Germanic language’

As long as doesn’t actually care about grammar, such as verb placement (for example – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_conjugation#Separable_and_Inseparable_verbs) or declension (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_declension).

10 dearieme July 6, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Even before the Normans arrived, there may presumably have been some convergence between Anglo-Saxon and Danish, if the two dominant peoples were to talk to each other. After the conquest the new ruling class needs eventually to talk to the rest of the population, and that gives English. After, what?, nearly three hundred years it becomes the (or a) language of the King.

“really English is just a Germanic language”: that’s an interesting model. What is its basis?

11 Steve Reilly July 6, 2014 at 5:52 pm

English is Germanic because it comes from proto-Germanic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_languages

prior_approval, calling a language Germanic doesn’t mean it has the same grammar as German. Germanic and German are different things.

12 dearieme July 6, 2014 at 6:41 pm

Well there you are : English is 100% borrowed because it all comes from proto-Germanic, or Danish, or Norman French, or……

13 Vanya July 7, 2014 at 5:07 am

@ prior_approval – Picking some arbitrary mutations in grammar and syntax is no proof of anything. Italian also has very different verb placement from Latin, and has lost a gender and almost all the noun declensions. Not to mention a lot of Gothic/Germanic loan words – “guerra”, “sapone”, “guardo”, “schiena”, “elmo”, etc. So Italian is not a Latin language?

You should also look at other Germanic languages like Swedish, which are must closer to English in terms of verb placement and noun declension.

14 Willitts July 6, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Almost all language is derivative, making them all ‘creole.’

English is a full-fledged language that is highly adaptive to new ideas and news modes of expressing old ideas. This ‘borrowing’ is what makes English clearly superior in communication albeit only a few, like McCloskey, seek to retain its beauty.

The thought constraints of Chinese is what makes them so susceptible to domination. It is a step toward Newspeak.

15 John Thacker July 6, 2014 at 10:48 am

Well, one has to draw the line somewhere. By the same sort of calculations, Japanese has as many loanwords as English, since it’s quite possible to distinguish Sino-Japanese words (different pronunciations for characters, longer, certain typical sounds) from native Japanese words, even if some of those Sino-Japanese words have been used for centuries.

The parallel is very similar to English and French/Latin/Greek– Sino-Japanese words form the majority of words in a Japanese dictionary, but only a good 20-25% of words used in everyday speech (but a greater percentage in formal writing), since the native Japanese words tend to be simpler, basic, everyday concepts (and of broader meaning rather than precise– “heart” as a term encompassing the organ, the soul, feelings, thoughts, spirit, etc. as in English is native Japanese kokoro, whereas specifically “heart the medical organ” is Sino-Japanese shinzoo.)

16 ThomasH July 6, 2014 at 9:00 am

English seems to be very accepting of “loan words.” Indeed the very notion that “loanwords” are in some way not Emglish or less English than non-loanwords, whatever they may be, seems odd.

17 Willitts July 6, 2014 at 5:48 pm

More eager than accepting. I contend it is both the result of open-mindedness and the cause of it.

18 Dismalist July 6, 2014 at 9:27 am

I haven’t read the article. But as I have read the article about GDP in the Browser, I don’t have to.

19 Z July 6, 2014 at 9:35 am

The natural follow on questions are how does this flexibility in language turn up in the culture? What role does that play in regional population genetics? English with its high degree of precision and flexibility to borrow useful words, lends itself well to inventiveness. Maybe it is serendipity or maybe it is something else.

20 jtf July 6, 2014 at 9:47 am

Re: Chinese loanword percentage, bullshit. The people who did this study obviously drew the boundaries in such a way as to reinforce their preconceptions. Japanese is a very prominent source of loanwords into Chinese, stemming mainly from the early 1900s when Chinese intellectuals went into Japan and learned terms for modern concepts there. Just because the words happen to be Chinese-like and use Chinese characters has no bearing on whether they are indigenous. Just to give one example, the Chinese term for “cultural revolution” (文化大革命) is composed of two Japanese loanwords (文化 – culture – Japanese bunka) and (革命 – revolution – Japanese kakumei) and only one (大 – large, big, major) that is purely vernacular Chinese in origin.

21 jtf July 6, 2014 at 9:55 am


“But the direction of borrowing between China and Japan has notbeen one-way. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese borrowed extensively from Japanese as part of its effort to modernize and Westernize. What were borrowed, however, starting from the late 1860s, were mainly Japanese coinages of Chinese character compounds used to translate Western academic and abstract concepts. Japan, in a continuation of the Edo intellectual tradition, placed heavy emphasis on things Chinese during this period, so it is natural that Chinese played such an important role in new word coinages (Seeley 1991: 136). Common examples of this are 歷史 lìshǐ/rekishi ‘history’, 哲學 zhéxué/tetsugaku ‘philosophy’, 手段 shŏuduàn/shudan ‘manipulation, means’, 積極 jījí/sekkyoku ‘positive, active’, and 目的 mùdì/mokuteki ‘goal’…

“Chinese might well not have chosen the particular combinations of characters used to form the compounds in this category; but since the Japanese had already created them, and since in most cases they did not “offend Chinese sensibilities”, they were conveniently adopted. Because the form of the loans was completely Chinese – the “Japanese” contribution was the choice of character combinations, not the morphemes themselves – these “loans” are seldom even recognized as being “assembled in Japan from Chinese components”. They are for the most part deeply assimilated in the modern Chinese language…”

22 John Thacker July 6, 2014 at 10:42 am

I think it’s quite likely that simply the database cited is far from complete. It gives a couple of examples of borrowing from Japanese into Mandarin, including 目的、電話、銀行 (look towards the bottom here.), but certainly doesn’t list all the ones I’d expect to see. It appears to merely be a collection of words given by contributors. As such, while it’s a interesting source for examples, the percentage given is simply not accurate and not worth hanging an article on.

23 John Thacker July 6, 2014 at 10:54 am

However, I think it is quite fair to say that, on the whole, Chinese has lent more words to Japanese than vice versa, even if that database is far from complete and we say that the first culture to choose to put together kanji/hanzi compounds for a particular meaning originated the word. (Even that is tricky; for even your examples of 文化 and 革命 one can find *some* classical Chinese text where someone used that combination with approximately the same meaning; it’s just that the word didn’t really catch on until several centuries later after the Japanese re-coined it.) So the percentage is indeed still quite skewed.

24 Bill Rich July 6, 2014 at 11:29 am

Those borrowed by Japanese from China were usually done before the 1900, while words Chinese borrowed from Japan were mostly after 1900.

25 John Thacker July 6, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Largely, yes.

26 ummm July 6, 2014 at 9:57 am

American English more so than other languages and cultures, including other populations that use English, seems to have a particular rigidity and formalism to its use. This is probably due to the explosion of literacy in the past few decades, widespread education, well as society deeming such formalism of utmost importance.

27 dearieme July 6, 2014 at 2:13 pm

“I think the difference is that creole come from pidgins”: that sounds pretty arbitrary. Why would one adopt that restriction?

28 dearieme July 6, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Oops, wrong place; sorry.

“American English more so than other languages and cultures, including other populations that use English, seems to have a particular rigidity and formalism to its use.” It certainly seems to have changed quite a bit since my boyhood (I can just about remember many visits from American cousins), youth (my first visit to the US – it lasted three months), and young manhood (when I knew many American academic visitors). Back then the American English I heard was direct, and often had a laconic elegance. Nowadays it seems largely to be constipated, wordy, and mealy-mouthed.

29 Steve Reilly July 6, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Because that’s the definition. It’s no more arbitrary than the definition of any other bit of jargon.

30 Bill Rich July 6, 2014 at 11:27 am

Japan often adapts words in ways that make them nearly unrecognizable to English-speakers, and also unrecognizable to Chinese as Japanese either, so that Chinese didn’t even know that these were borrowed. E.g. the Chinese terms for “logic”, “quality” were borrowed from Japanese. Chinese has no “logic” nor “quality”.

31 Yancey Ward July 6, 2014 at 11:31 am

Wow, Pokemon has a whole new double meaning!

32 Dan Weber July 6, 2014 at 2:19 pm

It’s spelled “Pokémon,” you Philistine.

33 Cowen reader July 6, 2014 at 12:03 pm

It is quite an exaggeration to call it a list of the major languages: http://wold.clld.org/vocabulary

34 Kevin P. July 6, 2014 at 12:24 pm

That site’s maps place Old Norse in the middle of Austria and Greek on the coast of Turkey. Bugs?

35 Patrick Byrne July 6, 2014 at 2:47 pm

I believe that ‘puerosetu’ is the Japanised pronunciation of ‘playstation’. Also, ‘echi’ means (so I hear) ‘saucy’ or more literally ‘a little bit pornographic’ – this being a pronunciation of the ‘h’ at the start of the romanised word ‘hentai’ !

36 Mark July 6, 2014 at 8:04 pm

To me, the Japanese word “patoka” is quite funny. That’s how they say “patrol car”.

37 Matt July 7, 2014 at 3:27 am

Learning new loanwords doesn’t doesn’t seem harder than calques, or else languages like Chinese would have speakers with more elaborate vocabulary.

The pro-calque strategy is very puritan in terms of phonetics. It doesn’t really seem to make words easier to learn (although maybe that depends on the languages phonology, pragmatics and grammar), and makes texts less intelligible to foreign speakers. It comes up a lot in things like the academy francaise, but do these superficial calques serve to preserve culture? Would we English speakers be better at physics if it were phrased in the language of the Uncleftish Beholding, http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/Uncleftish_Beholding, or do transparent roots like “waterstuff” and “seedweight” confuse more than they clarify?

Chinese is perhaps not so much distinct as an imperial language, I guess, as an insular one, where the speakers aren’t too concerned about whether their borrowings are understandable by non-speakers (and given constraints of the Chinese logo-phonetic system).

38 Vanya July 7, 2014 at 5:12 am

What jtf said, but also the study of Chinese is biased towards written standard Mandarin. Many modern spoken Mandarin and Cantonese dialects have a much higher proportion of English loanwords.

39 Rough Rider July 13, 2014 at 8:40 pm

We only have room for one language in this country, and that is English. These “loanwords” should be returned to those we borrowed them from.

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