Jun 12, 2012

Linguistic Purism: A Backlash Against Excessive Borrowing and the Rising Lexical Debt

written by Jeanette Koenig

When translating Russian technical documents, I’m always surprised how many terms seem to be English cognates or borrowings, for example, tekhnichesky “technical,” plutony “plutonium,” izotopy “isotopes.” Doesn’t Russian have its own Slavic forms for these words? But as far as borrowing goes, it turns out English has its own enormous lexical debt.

Most native speakers of English don’t stop to consider the extent of foreign influence on their language, but it is considerable. Only about 25% of English vocabulary is actually native . The remainder comes from French (thanks largely to the Norman Conquest), Latin and Greek (mostly from the Renaissance), and other languages (via colonialism). Note that when we talk about what constitutes native English, we are referring to a specific Germanic language that supplanted what was spoken on the British Isles before the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes drove out the Romans, who in turn invaded the Celts.

Because most of our borrowings came from the language spoken at court or with the introduction of new concepts in science, philosophy, art, literature, and music, there has always been a tendency to view words formed from French, Latin, and Greek as more “literate” or formal than native words. Thus, for example, instructions on a medicine bottle will more likely instruct the user to consult a physician rather than to ask a doctor.

This tendency to use foreign words rather than native ones often causes a backlash. The French policy of discouraging the use of foreign (especially English) words in their language is, if not effective, at least well known. And Pushkin, who made substantial contributions to Russian, introduced new words by calquing foreign ones (translating each part of the word—prefix, root, suffix—bit by bit) rather than by borrowing.

Given the disproportionate amount of borrowing sustained by English, it is hardly surprising that it has also had its share of writers who argued for using native words, among them Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and George Orwell . They felt that foreign borrowings were pretentious and made English unnecessarily complicated and inaccessible to the average person. They argued that perfectly good native words existed or could be created to fill in any semantic gaps.

As a result, a movement called Anglish has sprung up over the years, in which words of foreign origin are replaced with ones from Anglo-Saxon. In its mild form, Anglo-Saxon words are preferred over of foreign ones, the aim merely being to make English more accessible to the average person. An example would be using the word unlawful instead of illegal.

In its extreme form, foreign borrowings are avoided entirely. Where gaps exist, new words are created by various means, for example, by replacing the word literature with bookcraft . Because extreme Anglish involves resurrecting obsolete words or coining new ones, it is arguably less about accessibility and more of an interesting intellectual exercise. If you’re curious about what’s native and what’s not, you can find a lot of information on the website The Anglish Moot . If you like word puzzles, you may enjoy deciphering the articles that are offered there, which are written in Anglish on a variety of topics.

To illustrate the impact that borrowing has had on the English language, I will be examining in my next blog a somewhat well-known essay first published in 1989 by the late science fiction writer Poul Anderson, called “Uncleftish Beholding” (“Atomic Theory”). Anderson claims that the article is based on the premise that “the Norman conquest of England never happened,”  though clearly it would be more correct to say that the piece is a rejection of all foreign borrowings (including Greek and Latin, not just French). Stay tuned to find out what we might have called terms such as atom, particle, and plutonium, had the English been successful isolationists.

Wikipedia. Lists of English loanwords by country or language of origin. Web. 08 May 2012. (citing Finkenstaedt, Thomas; Dieter Wolff (1973). Ordered profusion; studies in dictionaries and the English lexicon. C. Winter. ISBN 3-533-02253-6.)

Wikipedia. Linguistic purism in English. Web. 08 May 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglish

The Anglish Moot. What is Anglish? Web. 08 May 2012.< http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/What_is_Anglish%3F>;

The Anglish Moot. The Anglish Moot: About. Bookcraft/Literature. Web. 08 May 2012. http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/The_Anglish_Moot:About

The Anglish Moot. What is Anglish? Web. 08 May 2012.< http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/What_is_Anglish%3F>;

All One Universe. Tor Science Fiction (May 15, 1997) p 121


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