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.

Tradition

I’ve often thought about what it means to speak your mother tongue. When your parents raise you speaking the language of their ancestors, they endow you with centuries of tradition, faith, meaning, and lineage in doing so. Speaking your mother tongue, in addition to the language of where you live, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not something that you should throw away, as I have seen some of my classmates do. And it is this topic that inspired the poem below.

Forever marred are the broken statues of heroes,

Eternally rendered to rubble in mind and body,

And consigned to wither in the casket of human memory.

Their causes are quickly forgotten and shut inside

Dust-collecting archives that are prohibited to be opened

By the repressive force of the passage of time upon us.

Irrevocably disconnected are the children of migrants,

Who speak only in the tongue of their oppressive hosts,

From their perennial lineages stretching through time.

That immortal piece of the soul is forever lost to them,

Shelved in the library of forgotten faith and tradition,

Covered by a thin funeral shroud of empty sorrows.

Shall we forge tradition anew, to fill the empty void,

And try to hide the scars of dissociation and hate,

Only to be forgotten once again in the hearts of the people?

Need we recreate divinity time after time — Replace

The intolerant creator who rejects all but one aspect

And would damn those of contrary opinion?

What is tradition, what is faith, what is lineage,

When it can  so easily be erased and thrust

Into the depths of human experience as folly?

For what reason must we repeatedly remake ourselves

In order to fit the mold of foreign expectations,

And forge a signature onto a contract of oblivion?

So easily is the human experience made and dismantled

That the truth and untruth are not so far apart or separate,

Because time is beyond the power of individual remembrance.

We can only regard truth and untruth in the present

Because memory only persists then — It is replaced

In the future, and itself replaces the past, without remorse.