Why does the English language contain so many borrowed words?

Grant Robinson
From the very beginning, English borrowed words from other languages. What began as a mishmash of Germanic dialects evolved into the descriptive and sometimes confusing English language we know today.



English is and always was a language that absorbed words from other languages. The rich blend of loanwords that makes up the English language as we know it today is comprised of at least 80% borrowed, loaned, and kept words. English was once considered the common tongue of peasants, while Latin and French were spoken in church and in court. From its earliest origins as a mishmash of Germanic dialects, what would become English was soon altered—complements of Scandinavians having gone a-Viking. Later, it swelled with the adaptation of numerous French words via power battles between monarchies to help form Old English. Over 10,000 words were permanently loaned during these tumultuous periods; crown, peace, herb, and banquet, for example.


On through to Early and Middle English, Chaucer created and introduced over 2,000 words to the language—friendly, learning, galaxy, and universe, to name a few. Similarly, at a later date, Shakespeare created and introduced over 1,700 new common words into the lexicon that are still in widespread use today. Also during this time came The Great Vowel Shift, which shifted pronunciation away from the Latin roots to something that was uniquely English. Then on to modern English from the sixteenth century until today. A time traveller could go back to 1580 London and quite clearly understand the local patois and written word.
Then on to modern English from the sixteenth century until today.


At every stage of its development, English has absorbed words from the Latin-based European Romance languages, particularly French. Other languages have also been raided for loanwords over the ages, including Dutch—coleslaw, boss, and booze; Japanese—typhoon, tsunami, and sushi; Portuguese—banana, baroque, and flamingo; Arabic—alcohol, apricot, and orange; Sanskrit—grass, committee, and love; Russian—balaclava, mammoth, and pogrom, and even Swahili—Jenga and mamba. Modern English still borrows from other languages. This isn’t surprising. As the ever more commonly used Western lingua franca, English needs to adopt other words from other languages, fields of study, technological development, and slang to remain robust in an interconnected world.


There are two types of loanwords—popular loanwords and learned loanwords. Popular loanwords are words that appear more in the everyday language and don’t require interpretation by a specialist. Their roots can be seen in their spelling, but they don’t require any kind of explanation as to their meaning. However, learned loanwords are most often borrowed from technical or scholarly fields. Many words in law, medicine, government, religion, and literature are learned loanwords. These words aren’t used in the day-to-day vernacular and are generally only understood by practitioners in the fields in which they are used.
Occasionally, there can be a blend of the two. Ballet, which is a loaned French word, is commonly understood as a type of artistic dancing. It would be safe to say that everyone who speaks English knows what ballet is. Many of the terms within ballet though, such as those that describe technique or particular movements, will not be known by people outside of dance academies.
It would be safe to say that everyone who speaks English knows what ballet is.
Borrowing and loaning are technical metaphors used by lexicographers to describe words adopted from other languages—English too has left its mark on other languages, but that is its own labyrinthine tale. When two cultural communities meet that speak different languages, the modification of a language is bound to happen, and this works in both directions. When names for foreign objects already exist in a foreign land, it is easier to borrow the existing word. Over time, it is subjected to anglicised spelling and pronunciation and is eventually incorporated into the language. Once its meaning does not have to be explained anymore, the word is considered conventionalised. It is far simpler to call a banana a banana when the locals call it a banana, than to make up an entirely new word.


Many a comedy routine has been based on the strangeness of English—why pronunciations aren’t what the words phonetically say or why plurals chop and change between subjects. It simply goes back to Ye Olde Times (which at the time would have been pronounced “The Old Times”) when adopted words kept the spelling of their root word as the pronunciations became more anglicised throughout the centuries. English can be strange; GHOTI spells fish.


Depending on how far back in history you want to go, English could be considered to have evolved almost entirely from loaned words. There have been distinctive phases in the development of English over the centuries. As wars were fought and rulers changed, as raiders raided and left their smatterings of words, and as trade and knowledge became more sophisticated over time, English continued to morph. English has always been in flux…