July 13, 2007

The spoils of linguistic piracy

The Linguistic Mystic links to a very silly post by jedimasterwendy from the San Antonio Forum, "Speak English, Your In America Now", which urges us to

Petition to NOT modify our native language to include any foreign language.

This 12-word slogan has the lovely self-refuting property that (according to the OED) all six of its content words are borrowed from other languages: petition from Spanish peticionar, modify from French modifier, native from French natif, language from French langage, include from Latin inclaudere, foreign from French forain.

At this point it's obligatory to quote, again, James D. Nicoll's 5/15/1990 post to rec.arts.sf-lovers:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

[Update -- Bill Poser writes:

In this connection I have always found it amusing that the title of the major work of the traditional Japanese linguists, Tokieda's Kokugogaku Genron "Theory of the Study of the National Language", is entirely in Chinese.

This has not been a one-way trade. According to Zhou Chenggang and Jiang Yajun, "Wailaici and English borrowings in Chinese", English Today 20(3) 2004:

Borrowings from Japanese form a special category in Chinese, because most of them were acquired without graphic adaptations [i.e. the spelling was also borrowed -- myl]. Such borrowings amount to almost half of the words in Chinese dictionaries of neologisms (cf. Massini 1997:158). There are two types: coinages by Japanese using Chinese characters and Chinese-cum-Japanese-cum-Chinese borrowings. Massini (1997:154) calls the former original loans and the latter return loans. These may be hard to distinguish...

Both the term wailaici (literally 'word that came from the outside') and its predecessor and synonym wailaiyu ('language from the outside') are themselves wailaicis from Japanese (Massini 1997:153).

Another Japanese "return loan"is zhuyi "doctrine" as in shehui zhuyi "socialism" and ziben zhuyi "capitalism".

Lexical borrowing into Chinese is nothing new. According to Jerry Norman, Chinese, pp. 16-17

China's later cultural hegemony in East Asia has been confused with a kind of cultural and linguistic immunity which exempted Chinese from any but the most trivial of outside influences. Widespread acceptance of such a view has no doubt impeded a serious search for foreign influence in Chinese.

The Sino-Tibetan forebears of the Chinese must have come into contact with peoples speaking different and unrelated languages at a very early date. Unforunately, we do not know when the earliest Sino-Tibetan grups moved into the Yellow River Valley, nor do we know what sort of population they encountered when they arrived there. We can surmise, however, that the Sino-Tibetan dialect which is ancestral to Chinese was influenced in a number of ways by the language (or languages) which they encountered at this early period. Some of the typological difference found between Chinese and Tibeto-Burman may in fact be due to such early inguistic contacts. The fact that only a relatively few Chinese words have been shown to be Sino-Tibetan may indicate that a considerable proportion of the Chinese lexicon is of foreign origin. Some of the words for which Sino-Tibetan etymologies are lacking may go back t languages which have since become extinct; in other cases, however, words were borrowed from languages whose descendants still live along the present periphery of the Chinese-speaking area. Here I would like to examine several words that I think are ancient loanwords fro languages whose descendants are still spoken in China, or in countries adjacent to it.

Among the words that Norman proposes as ancient loans are gǒu "dog" (from Miao-Yao), hǔ "tiger" (from Mon-Khmer), dú "calf" (from Altaic).


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 13, 2007 04:53 PM