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Borrowed Words

It seems to be a fad, at least in Korea, but I suspect in many languages, to borrow words from “hip” languages. I’m not sure what establishes a language as hip, exactly, but a better word doesn’t currently spring to mind.

We know this as history fact. We can see it in our languages. In English, doubtless, we have often borrowed words just to sound “cool.” A number of French words have entered our language, of course, when it was a sign of education among aristocrats to speak French. I suspect few of them actually spoke the language, but I could be mistaken, and I’ll have to check into it later. We get any number of words related to cuisine from this period like mutton and beef to name a few. Then there are the words that even sound snooty like decor and elite.

We can also see this need to use foreign words, often pronounced as they would be in their language of origin, to indicate anything from class, education or simply experience. Who among us doesn’t know – or isn’t – an expat or avid traveller who aims to impress as much as possibly by rattling off words we don’t understand in the music of another land. The purpose may well be communication, but it’s not communication of the idea, since we have no way of knowing what they mean – and I don’t exclude myself from this shameful bout of snobbery. No. It’s about communicating status. Plain and simple.

From this tendency, in English with have assimilated words like tortilla, nacho, poutine, ouzo, hummus, shawarma, or instead of this last one, perhaps, kebab. Most of these have made their way into our local lexicon, though some people – ahem – will try to assert their own borrowed exoticism by pronouncing them with an exaggerated Spanish accent. Ever notice someone’s entire sentence flow stop as they accentuate “tortilla”, perhaps they’ll even stamp their foot on the floor and raise their right hand joining their thumb and middle finger, laterally raising and lowering their forearm. Or perhaps their pronunciation of hummus has just little too much “h”. 

Still, these words are pretty commonplace, but we all know someone who loves to through in foreign words belonging to the cultures they’ve learned of, through travels, through working abroad, or through friends from other countries.

The more fascinated the person is with the foreign culture, the stronger their assertion that English just doesn’t have the words to describe the reality they’ve discovered. Sometimes it’s true, often with food: pizza, pasta, chop suey, kimchi, sauerkraut, falafel, hummus.

Other times it’s true, like with schadenfreude, or “the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others” because apparently we hadn’t yet developed a word for that in English. There are, to be sure, cases where one language captures an idea better than another, and in those cases, borrowing the word makes sense. Take machismo for example. The Spanish concept of macho is difficult to render in English, and I think most readers agree, masculine, or many, don’t capture its full essence. These words tend to enrich the language.

Let’s take a few examples of English loanwords in Korean, a few of which I’ve noticed used in the cafe I sit in while I write this, starting with coffee. We also get cafecomputer, arbeit (a German loanword borrowed via Japanese), and pizza. These can safely be said not to have had an equivalent in the language before their introduction. Then, there are the borderline concepts like digital and communication. These can be rendered in Korean of course, but perhaps its necessary to make a new word or their unique meaning in English is a bit like machismo, it exists, but not exactly.

This brings me to the words that obviously come into the language because it’s in style to use foreign words. In these cases words clearly exist in Korean, but using them is either a way of portraying status, knowledge, or simply coolness. Let’s take some examples: communication (I feel the verdict remains to be decided on this one as I’m pretty sure there exist at least a few words for the same concept in Korean), stresssales (used in business contexts as in referring to the sales department), care, and the list could go on. These words are not likely to show up in any dictionary, they’re not likely to enter into a lexicon of “commonly used Konglish” because their very nature is the peppering of Korean phrases with English words, similar to the way English usage is creeping its way into other languages, and the way French words, Spanish words, and Chinese words find their way into English.

Going back to machismo. It’s not that we don’t have masculinity, or our culture is devoid of manliness, it’s that the word machismo describes as it were a particular brand of manliness, and thus merits being borrowed. The same thing can be said of most of the modern trendy words entering Korean from English, I believe. They add style, they add uniqueness to the speakers utterances. They add prestige, perhaps.

They are, indeed, part of what makes a language rich, and English today, wouldn’t be the language it is if historically its speakers hadn’t chosen to borrow words because they didn’t have existing words to match to something, the existing words felt insufficient, or they just plain wanted to show off their linguistic prowess, to add a certain finesse to their image.

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