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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.

Accent fusion… it’s all relative, really.

The topic of accents fascinates me, as does the fact that so many language learners don’t really seem to “get” them. That, and the fact that people of all walks of life are obsessed with the idea of a “pure” or “original” accent. “Where do people speak the ‘purest’ Spanish?” “Where in the world do English speakers have no traceable accent?” All of these questions just make me smirk.

Accents are relative, really. One man’s (or woman’s) accent is another man’s native dialect. Imagine for a second there were impenetrable barriers around the various regions of the United States. In that world, if you grow up in Texas, spend all your life in Texas, never leave Texas and only know other Texans – admittedly a total impossibility in this modern age – then you would never know that anyone else in the world spoke any differently than you. Of course, if by fluke one day you happened across some traveler who’d somehow found away through the linguistic barrier, and he was from New York, then you’d probably find it difficult to decipher what he was saying. And of course, he would be the one who “talked all funny.”

The problem is, people often think it’s the other person who has the accent, never bothering to imagine things from the other’s perspective, and the inevitable truth – we all have accents – is lost to them. This brings us to ideas of linguistic purity or correctness, which takes us down even more slippery slopes. Most people assume, for example, that British English is the closer variant to the original, or Italian is the romance language that most closely resembles the language spoken in Rome 1500-2000 years ago before Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian were born. Italians, for certain, would like to think so.

The reality is interestingly enough most likely quite the opposite. It’s well known to linguists who study the evolution of language that change generally happens more rapidly in central, cosmopolitan areas than in the periphery. New words, pronunciations and expressions arise and spread more rapidly through the urban centers of culture, than through isolated out-ports and distant villages.

There are plenty of examples. The modern Spanish pronunciation of “c” and “z” as a sound similar to the English “th” came about in Spain around the time of the colonization of the Americas, and the new pronunciation never did catch on on the other side of the Atlantic. Jeju Island, in Korea, I’m told, has several archaic sounds that don’t exist anywhere in the rest of the country, though I can’t say I’ve ever heard what they are. Newfoundlanders are  perhaps the only people in the English speaking world who still pluralize you as ye, a snapshot of a brief period of history when the practice was more common. Americans hold on to the long forgotten past participle forms of “gotten” and “forgotten” whereas the British have let go of them entirely.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. It never is. There are certainly examples to the contrary, where the cultural center has retained the more old-fashioned form and the periphery was at the vanguard of change. Numerous neologisms were created from the borrowing and mixing of languages after Chris, John and Jacques sailed the Oceans in search of a trade route.

When it boils down to it, it’s almost impossible to figure out who speaks the “purer” form of the language and where. Nobody, anywhere, could possibly speak any language the exact same way people spoke it several hundred years ago. Forget hundreds, actually, put on a movie from the 60s and you can hear how much the lingo has changed.

Travel to any part of the world where large communities of expats, be they Kiwi, Yankee, Ozzie or Canuck. What accent do any of them have? Even within a few years, it seems like the average English speaker begins to bend their tongue to blend in with the locals, even if there are no locals to blend in with. Vocabulary, syntax and grammar are all susceptible to the same magnetic gravity of communication needs. It’s a fusion many of us living abroad have come to find normal.

Accents, I’m convinced are relative. They’re also evolving, dynamic and fascinating. Each one tells a story, it has a history in the life of it’s owner, even before he or she was born. Rather than criticism and judgment, the many accents of this world and its speakers, deserve dignity and respect.


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