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.

Racism in Language: The Origins of “Black” People

After having read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, I participated in a Socratic discussion on the mimesis (the manifestation of societal or real-world perspectives in art) of racism in the novel. This got me thinking: certain words in different languages have inherently racist, exclusionary, or derogatory meanings or undertones.

Let’s consider the word, “black.” It is a common word, not really seen as offensive or rude by most people. However, as one of my classmates pointed out, the use of a color to refer to an entire people is indeed somewhat if not entirely pejorative in sentiment (historically speaking of course). This is evident in the fact that most Romance languages, those of countries that participated in slavery of some kind in the New World, do not use the actual word for “black” to refer to those of African descent, not in polite/accepted speech anyway. There is no overlap between the color and the demographic term. In Spanish, you would would say moreno/morena or prieto/prieta (though as I understand it, the latter is highly offensive in the Caribbean). Even Portuguese, the language of the country that initiated the slave trade in the first place, distinguishes negro and preto in reference to people as polite and offensive, respectively. As Dr. Molefi Kete Asante points out, this supposedly neutral term stems from a generalization for all the Africans of different ethnic groups and backgrounds.

African cultural and ethnic differences were neither recorded nor considered important in making distinctions, any African was black, and any black was a Negro, and Negroes had no cultural heritage. To recognize Africans as Asante, Yoruba, Ibo, Ibibio, Hausa, Mandingo, Fulani, Wolof, Serere, Kikongo, Fante, and so forth would have meant ascribing history, cosmologies, indeed, humanity to those who were enslaved. Without humanity, Africans could be called the worst epithets thinkable by white Americans.

Now, here’s another word: kaffir. This is widely known to be a word akin to the n-word in English in both its history and severity as a pejorative, mostly in South Africa, against Africans. This word comes from the Portuguese borrowing from Arabic for non-Muslim peoples in Africa. The original word itself simply means, “non-believer” with respect to Islam. However, you may also be familiar with the kaffir lime. This fruit’s name has similar but separate origins. Hindus and Muslims alike on the Indian subcontinent adopted the Arabic term to refer to the people of Sri Lanka, where the fruits were grown, and so they were named. As as result, this word does have racist connotations as well. However, in many places, particularly in Muslim countries and India, the word is completely innocuous, simply meaning, “disbeliever” with respect to one’s own religion, though it is not necessarily a nice thing to say.

I’m not sure I can find any other words at the moment, but I am sure they exist in every language. Feel free to share this on Facebook and Tumblr and discuss this (in a civil manner, I hope)!