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Chris -- 2018-04-11

#1 2009-07-07 13:27:08

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2666

English isolationism

In The Secret Life of Words Henry Hitchings observes that only about 5% of the ninety thousand words added to the English vocabulary in the twentieth century were foreign imports. This is “the smallest volume of borrowings in any century since the Norman Conquest.” (p. 306)

On a later page (p. 325) Hitchings seems to hint at a reason for the loss of word imports. He quotes this passage from Tony Thorne’s Shoot the Puppy:

One reason why fewer foreign terms make it into English in the twenty-first century may be that these days a different sort of person is coining new language. A hundred years ago it was poets, ambassadors and international sophisticates…. Today it’s IT specialists, management consultants and financiers.

The point, I take it, is that the current crop of wordsmiths is no longer as familiar with foreign languages as their nineteenth century analogues were. But is this really the case? I suspect that the number of people who speak English and at least one other language has increased, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of the total number of English speakers. When you start adding up the people in countries such as India, Nigeria, and the Phillippines who speak English as a second language, and throw into the pot all of the people who learn English as a foreign language, English would appear to be exposed to more foreign languages influence than in any century since Harold Godwinson put Hastings on the map.

A better explanation for the reduced borrowing of foreign terms into English may lie in social and psychological factors. For a language to successfully borrow from another language, the act of borrowing has to convey social perks, with the borrowed words lending to the borrower a patina of sophistication or intelligence. In the nineteenth century, the ones who introduced new words into English belonged to a select group of ladies and gentlemen who, though not always ennobled, were “learned in the peerage of words” (Ruskin’s phrase, from Sesame and Lilies). Today the person who attempts to smuggle foreign goods into English often loses status. We accord greater respect to the smith who can forge new words out of English raw materials.

Last edited by kem (2009-08-14 11:36:17)

Hatching new language, one eggcorn at a time.



#2 2009-07-07 16:24:05

Registered: 2006-08-08
Posts: 1456

Re: English isolationism

If you consider that new words might flow from where new concepts and material things are generated and developed, then you would expect words to originate with dominating economies—and be exported from the language of those economies to other languages as those concepts and materials are marketed elsewhere.

It would seem that centers of cultural development tend to follow the money. (In the 20th Century, the art world of New York waxed as Paris and Berlin waned). So, new cultural ideas would develop within a society where wealth could be spent on something other than mere sustenance, and purveyors of culture would be more than happy to deliver their product in the language of the money that reaches their coffers.

If English had more language imports in past centuries it is because the other cultures which produced those earlier words had greater dominance prior to the 20th century. (So perhaps all dominating cultures have a net export of language during their heyday).

So, the title English “isolationism” doesn’t seem quite right. Some might say “imperialism,” but I would just say that the economic dynamics can be described without necessarily passing a judgment.

Last edited by jorkel (2009-07-07 16:38:21)



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