Loanwords: Good or Bad?

In many languages, words from other languages are frequently borrowed to supply words for meanings that either don’t already exist or the words that do exist are not sufficient. Other times, they borrow them for convenience or no real reason at all. In this post, I’m going to talk about the place of loanwords in languages.

English speakers, you may not realize it, but English has tons of words borrowed from other languages. The majority of our technical and specialized vocabulary is borrowed from Latin and Greek. Take the word “logic”, from the Greek logos (reason). Or “regal”, related to the Latin regis (king). There are other words that we are less aware of, due to their normalized pronunciations or common use. A common mistake is that loanwords are typically used only in specialized or very proper versions of a language. In English, the word for the meat of a cow, “beef” is from Norman French, bœuf, which was adopted to distinguish it from the animal in Old English, cu (cow). Less obvious borrowings include jungle” from Hindi जंगली (jangli), meaning “forest”, or “algebra”, from the Arabic الجبر (al-jabr), meaning “the reunion of broken parts”.

These words have become very normal for English speakers to say, and we hardly think about it anymore, since the origin of a word almost never has any consequence on social dynamics in English. However, in other languages, loanwords have a very consciously felt function and can be sensitive depending on how they are used.

An easy example that I’ve brought up before is Hindi-Urdu. The two main dialects of this language, Hindi and Urdu, are distinguished primarily by how much people use Perso-Arabic loanwords. Urdu in India is regarded as a poetic form of Hindi, and is heavily associated with Muslims, which can range from being good to bad, depending on the politics and sensibilities of a particular person. Urdu uses a lot of words borrowed from Farsi and Arabic. In Hindi, there are comparatively fewer, and borrows primarily from Sanskrit and English. For example, both Hindi and Urdu speakers will say gāḍi for “car”. (I’m using IAST since the scripts are different for Hindi and Urdu.) However, when saying “welcome”, Hindi speakers will say svāgat, whereas Urdu speakers will say ḥuś āmdīd. The use of Urdu versus Hindi has generated great controversy as to whether they’re different languages and questions over the social dynamic with respect to what kind of Hindi-Urdu they use.

Another dichotomy of loanwords that exists in nearly all subcontinental languages is the use of English loanwords. This usually happens in expat communities, among the children of expats who may not speak the language as well as their parents. As a Kannada speaker who lives in America, I don’t use the proper Kannada words for some thing because I either don’t know them or they’re really long and clunky to use. For example, I’m more likely to say “statistics” in English with an Indian accent (yes very stereotypical I know), but the proper word is ಸಂಖ್ಯಾಸಂಗ್ರಹಣ (sankhyāsangrahaṇa). My grandparents often advocate the use of pure Kannada because they think it’s more important to preserve the language in its original form than “corrupt” it with foreign words. But even Kannada borrows from Farsi and Arabic, so it’s questionable as to why those words are more acceptable than English. In many Indian expat communities, the use of English loanwords can be seen as a mark of not knowing the mother tongue as well (which very well may be true). To be honest, this is usually the opinion of the older generation, especially in India.

It’s unclear whether using loanwords is good or bad, especially when we don’t have words for things. I think that ideally, we should use the pure version of a language, but as is often the case, we don’t know the language that well. It would be better to teach the pure version, but as for practice of the language, we should let it take its course.

I hope you found this article informative and interesting! Please feel free to comment or share this article.

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I’m a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I’m obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages.

I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.