Eating lunch in a working man’s restaurant in Hong Kong I hear mostly Cantonese but with occassional English words, "passion," for example.  Borrowed words or loanwords surely tell us something important about ideas or concepts that the first language lacks.  Most loanwords are for things (e.g. mouse for a computer device), it’s pretty easy to explain the adoption of such words.  But what about words for which the thing has always existed but not the word?  Chinese speakers tell me that there is a word for love but passion is more difficult to translate.

What are some of the major conceptual loanwords?  What do loanwords tell us about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? What loanwords does English need?  There appears to be a large literature in linguistics on the adoption and evolution of loanwords but less on the cultural significance of loanwords.  Comments?


"What loanwords does English need?"

Well, we all know that French is lacking in one or two. For example, as we've been told, they have no word for "entrepreneur".

On the more basic subject of loanwords, you can quite neatly track the globalisation of metallurgy and chemistry by looking at the roots words for the elements. Iron and copper, for example, have different root words in most languages (for example, Russian, zhelezhnyi and medh respectively although I wouldn't trust my spelling) while those metals discovered in more modern times (tantalum, the rare earths etc) use the same roots in all languages.

In italian there is no word for "politically correct". So they use the english term. I think that is very telling of italian society.

English desperately needs to borrow the word "doch" from German. It's meaning is a bit hard to define, but basically it's the easiest way to tell someone they're wrong or to contradict someone. You can only do it when they're making a negative assumption. "You didn't go to the play?" "Doch." = I did. Or, more importantly, "That isn't true!' "Doch."= Yes it is and you are WRONG!
There is no way to counteract the doch. I've tried. It's an argument ender.

Foreign words can outcompete the native word for the concept if the native word is taboo or just unfashionable. Or they can coexist and eventually acquire different shades of meaning. If English adopted so much vocabulary from Norman French due to lexical gaps in Old English, it would be amazing that the Anglo-Saxons managed to communicate at all.

Obviously "Faux pas" and "lingua franca" are major conceptual loanwords in English. The first of which is quite surprising, given the attention to manners of the English and American upper classes. The second of which.... well, perhaps it only outshone "common language" because it's more fun to say.

Words spread among languages for a variety of reasons. The sweeping generalization that these changes "tell us something important about ideas or concepts that the first language lacks" is a bit misleading. For instance, Old English already had a word for a residential dwelling (house) but adopted an additional word (mansion) through contact with the Normans. In French, "maison" is just any old house. The transfer between languages had more to do with prestige than missing concepts.

The same principle should hold true between English and Chinese i.e. Chinese speakers are using English loanwords to make their speech sound more exotic or cosmopolitan. The Chinese can certainly express "passion" within Mandarin, a language with far deeper roots than English. There are in fact many choices about how to express passion, one of which happens to be the English. As an economist, maybe it would be better to ask what costs and benefits drive this word choice at the margin, and thus drive language change.

A good number of the words for Western scientific and philosophical concepts in Chinese were translated from English and German into Japanese using earlier Chinese terms with slightly different meanings. These terms then came back into Chinese in the early 20th century with their new meanings. E.g. 民主 minzhu, for "democracy" and 科學 kexue for "science." The Japanese, of course, are also kings of the transliteration.

Also interesting to note is the English words that Chinese living in an English speaking country often use even when speaking Chinese to each other. One of the oddest is "care" as a verb. I've often heard the phrase "我不care" ("I don't care") in the US among native Chinese speakers.

Of course native English speakers living in China do the same thing with certain words. I've found that 厲害 lihai, which means a range from "intense" to "formidable" and so forth (and I've heard applied to everything from a teacher's demeanor in class to the size of a man's penis), is a term often used when English speakers in China who know Chinese are speaking English to each other.

"Te Quiero", in Spanish. There is an enormous difference between "querer" and "amar", whereas in English you only have "love." For example, one would never say "te amo" to a family member.

In my experience, the closest thing to "te quiero" in english is "I love you", whereas the closest thing to "te amo" is "I'm IN love with you." Still, it's fairly sloppy.

Russian apparently lacks lots of basic concepts that are familiar to English speakers. Thus there is no easy way to say "enjoy" or "fun".

The Turkmen language uses one word, ajy, to cover all strong flavors except for sweet and salty -- bitter, minty, spicy hot, sour -- all ajy. This from a people sitting on a major hub of the silk road! (It's also interesting that after 70 years in the Soviet Union, they have borrowed Russian words for everything related to government, business, and technology, but not flavor).

On a related note, I wonder if there are languages that have more nuanced terms for smell than English, and if so, why don't we borrow them? It seems that when describing smells we have little to rely on other than simile.

"What loanwords does English need?"

From Swedish: Lagom. Meaning "just the right amount". Maye it could be translated as "average" or "sufficient", but these words suggest some degree of abstinence, scarcity, or failure, while "Lagom" carries the connotation of perfection or appropriateness.

You've already loaned words like "ombudsman" and "smorgasbord" from Swedish, by the way :)

I like the picante/caliente distinction, and I've noticed that since getting reasonably familiar with Spanish, I now always use "spicy" instead of using "hot," and my kids seem to be picking up the same usage.

Although it's not a word, exactly, being able to put things in the subjunctive is something else we've mostly lost in contemporary English, and which communicates something useful.

A lot of languages use the same word for security against attackers (good locks) and safety against disasters (good smoke detectors). Similarly, English uses "security" to mean both actual resistance to attack, and the feeling of being protected from attack--it would be nice to have separate words for those two.

I always like "GuanXi" from Chinese. It means connection or relationship, but when used with people, it can generically mean family relationships, cronyism, relationships cultivated through bribery, etc.

In China, it's often used even when speaking English, and quickly becomes one of the standard loanwords used by English-speakers living and doing business in China.

Another one is "ri nao": meaning a crowded, busy, but generally fun environment.

Barzun says "hsin" from meaning mind-and-heart.

Passion has a ready correspondent in Chinese. It's "Jiqing" (激情). I guess people in that restaurant use the English word passion just because it's more fashionable rather than there is a lack of Chinese equivalent.

Russian apparently lacks lots of basic concepts that are familiar to English speakers. Thus there is no easy way to say "enjoy" or "fun".

In Russian, the concepts of "enjoy" and "fun" can only be communicated by pantomime: waving an imaginary bottle of vodka and doing that dance where people squat on their heels and kick alternate legs forward, accompanied by Quest for Fire grunting. You're right there's no easy way to say it; it's exhausting.

In French, l'esprit de l'escalier. It means thinking of a witty comeback too late after the moment to use it has already passed.

I guess the French are wittier than the English.


Just for the record, the pinyin is "re'nao" 熱鬧 with an "e" rather than an "i." But a great example, as is "guanxi."

Here in Taiwan, I've been amazed at the amount of English that pops up in conversations on talk shows here. So often, normal every day words that exist in Chinese just come out in conversation. I don't particularly understand why this is.

Recently, for instance, when then-Presidential candidate Ma Ying-Jiu went down south to stay and campaign, it was called his "long stay." Everywhere (on the news, talk shows, etc.) they were calling it his "long stay."

Moreover, certain words are taken from English and then take on different meanings. Unfortunately, I can't think of many good examples. The first thing that comes to mind is the abbreviation "NG," which is used to define a scene blooper in a movie where an actor messes up his lines. This, obviously, comes from "no good," but we don't actually say that. We call them bloopers.

Chinese has actually picked up a lot of English slang, like "好cool!" ("cool" in this case usually sounds like "coo" and there is a Chinese character that corresponds to it, but I don't know what it is). Before I could speak any Chinese but knew that they had adopted a lot of English slang, I also suspected that 那個 and 這個 (pronounced quite similar to "nigga" and "jigga"*) were also sino-ized forms of American slang from listening to rap music. I said to my girlfriend, "You know, you might not want to say those words if you come to the US," to which she responded, "What, 'this' and 'that'?"

* in the US, when songs had the word "Nigga," it was often changed to "jigga" on the radio and TV. I don't know if that's still the case.

I've always wondered why the Japanese insist on using the English forms of 'Penis' and 'Toilet'...

I'm only familiar with English and Spanish, but the Spanish distinction between "ser" (to be fundamentally) and "estar" (to be right now) is just a marvelous economy to have available. Not a distinction you can't make in English, but there isn't any way to do it elegantly.

In the Philippines we do not have a word (actually a single or at least a concise wording) for "righteous indignation". I think it is because you are never expected to be indignant in any social situation.

I did enjoy the smirk of a French banker giving a presentation who said "Excuse my lapse into French but, you know, there is no English term that quite corresponds to 'joie de vivre'. "

Aaron-- Robert's characters were fine. He was using the complex form of "wu," which is certainly appropriate as he is in Taiwan.

Thank you for referring back to your 2004 post. Games theory clearly needs "ilunga" as a name for a strategy.

It is also interesting that two of the ten words of English voted most difficult to translate are loan words from other languages. Plenipotetiary is the Latin plenipotentiarius. Kitsch is from Yiddish and/or German.

I have sometimed thought that the ease with which English has been accepted as the current lingua franca is partly because almost everyone coming new to English finds terms from her or his mother tongue embedded in it. If your difficult to translate Emglish words are a fair sample, could we say that perhaps 20% of English may be reasonably classed as loan words?

Please note that "无聊" is from simplified Chinese that is commonly used in mainland China, while "無聊" is from traditional Chinese, which is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Wugong and Passerby, and Robert,

I feel totally stupid and apologize. That's what I get for only studying in the PRC. Sorry!

What English really needs is the Mandarin "ta" which means "he/she/it" as the case requires.

This makes the clumsy politically correct he/she his/her sentences flow smoothly and well.

I try to use it whenever I am speaking to someone who would understand, ta usually get what I mean.

Russian apparently lacks lots of basic concepts that are familiar to English speakers. Thus there is no easy way to say "enjoy" or "fun".

Perhaps for people who just started study Russian it is not easy.

"Веселье" overlaps with "fun" about 90%.
"Enjoy" is a bit more difficult but only because "Удовольствие" is not a verb. "Имей удовольствие" is a perfectly identical to "enjoy".

With Japanese, perhaps to a greater extent than other languages, you have to be careful to distinguish between loanwords adopted because there was no pre-existing native word, and those adopted simply because foreign words are cool and annoying to older generations.

Yes . . . but note that an awful lot of Japanese is just borrowings from Chinese. The same is true of Korean. "Milk" was noted above -- but that's 牛乳. Gyuunyuu in Japanese, and ooyoo in Korean, both borrowed from Chinese (though changing with the sound system of the language, much as Milk becomes miruku.) But it's surely not the case that the Koreans or Japanese had no native word for "milk" before they borrowed the term from the Chinese, however many centuries ago. Somewhat unusually -- and, as I understand it, problematically for the usual vocabulary-based historical linguistic analysis -- Chinese borrowings affect both Korean and Japanese down to the level of the most basic vocabulary. For example, both Japanese and Korean have a "native" number system (hana, dool, set, net etc. for Korean, and hi, fu, mi, yo etc. for Japanese), but in my experience, you'll usually hear people counting out with il, ee, sam, sa or ichi, ni, san, shi, both borrowed from Chinese.


It would be called "koniec tygodnia" in Polish, but that would be 5 syllables, as opposed to 2. So the shorter (cheaper?!) version won and is used by everyone.

"English could use a word to identify one's children's "parents-in-law." In Yiddish the word is "machatunim," but that's a mouthful for many English speakers.

What words do other languages use for this relationship?"

For the life of me I don't know why, but in French it's "beau-pere" and "belle-mere," meaning (more or less) "handsome father" and "pretty mother." Perhaps this has something to do with flattering them into letting you marry their daughter.

The French also stole the term "weekend" wholesale, probably not because they had no concept of it, but because it's shorter than "fin de la semaine." This is pure speculation, though.

At some level aren't pretty much all languages a hodge-podge of wanderworts? I realize this may be more true for English than for some others, but it still seems to be fundamentally sound.

Mian Zi="face" I liked how English literally translated it but kept the Asian meaning. Guanxi is a good Chinese word to loan to English (not too hard to pronounce either). Culturally, it's really important to understand both words when dealing with Chinese business and politics.

I second the "English needs a word for spicy hot (heat) versus temperature hot (also heat...)", there is a distinct word for each in Chinese. Apparently the English speaking countries don't have a long enough history with spicy foods to have developed that.

I totally agree that we need the word "picante" in English. Spicy for not suitable because a food can be spicy and not hot.

But sometimes we mean "I apologize" and others we mean "I empathize with your situation." Ashia is used for the second kind of sorry.

The ambiguity is useful.

there are examples of loaned words returned.

In french they say "flirter" for flirt. Borrowed from English but the English had first of all borrowed "conter fleurette" from the French which meant to seduce. Fleurette became flirt which in term became flirter.

In French I found no good, simple way to say "fun" or "awe".

In English, I agree that we need the he/she/it pronoun

And the more cheap kamas of all kinds of game gold is very good.

You shouldn't have a joke with them, if you speak chinese you will more difficult to open your mouth.

I think it's interesting the verb "esperar" in Spanish. In English it can be translated into "to wait" "to wish" or "to expect". I once asked a native Spanish-speaker whether it just depended on the context you were using to differentiate between these meanings and he repied: "no, para nosotros es un concepto nada mas, significa lo mismo". (For them there is no difference between these ideas, it means the same for them no matter how you use it where for us "I expect you to come", "I hope you come" and "I wait for you to come" have very different connotations.

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