Thoughts on the Growth of Language 2: The Process of Borrowing Words

Let us call the language from which a word or a phrase was taken and borrowed the DONOR-language — say, French — and the language into which the word from another language is introduced the HOST-language, say, English. Clearly whenever a language imports words and phrases — become a host — that language also grows, regardless of whether its new terms are derived from a foreign source or are “home constructed” and therefore were invented by its current speakers!

Modern American English is full of such “home grown” words and phrases. The word *rap* for example has several meanings including the act of talking or discussing, freely, openly, or volubly (as suggested in Wikipedia). The word is also articulated in the same manner as the one spelled *wrap*, which means “to bundle up”. It is also related to the idea of establishing rapport, that is, refers to developing a sense of fellowship among speakers and members of a group. These group members will then determine which of several meanings also apply! It is a case where the meaning of a term will be strongly influenced by its context, not only by its dictionary definition(s). In short, the meaning of a word is usually — perhaps, most often — multi-determined. Conclusion: to search for a unique meaning of a word is, generally speaking, foolhardy.

But there are exceptions to this rule. The major exception relates to whenever a word has been deliberately imported from a Donor to a Host language. The import is commonly done by an individual, an anonymous agent who may believe that the home-language is currently somewhat short of a single word with which to expresses a unique and important idea. In this sense it is deficient, or his/her home-language may already be so muddled that a single, newly forged word may just cure it of confusion, indeed may “cleanse” it. The importation of a word which is borrowed from elsewhere may therefore — it is thought — have a therapeutic, a curative effect!

Jeff’s comments also forced me to re-examine my previous position in several ways. Most importantly how new words enter an existing language. Are new terms just inventions — added on the spur of the moment by a rogue interloper, or do such terms enter a language in more thoughtful ways? What actually happens? To answer this question would require much empirical research — and therefore lies beyond the mission of this blog. A process seems involved which has been largely overlooked not only by philosophers, but also by others who are interested in the growth and modification of language, our principal — but not only — method of communicating with others. Let me clarify this a little.

When we run short of words and expressions in our HOME-language several options are open to rectify this deficiency including that we draw from the vocabulary of other languages for help. In short, we can make up a perceived deficiency in our own language by unashamedly borrowing from another. Our own language then acts as “host” to foreign entries. What is transferred are not only the sounds typical of another language (which can be fun — try Xhosa!) but a very particular meaning that the borrowed word already possesses in its original language. However the broader meaning of the borrowed term may get damaged or lost in transfer from donor to home-language, although this need not matter too much. Who cares? Whoever has borrowed would not necessarily know about such damage or of the loss of meaning which resulted from the transfer from a donor to a host-language. Jeff, for example cites the fact that the French meuble (furniture) also implies mobility, whereas the opposite is true for the English term, but in Italian mobili refers to furnishings and immobili refers to real estate! — a direct reference to its non-movement!

Let me summarize: A borrowed word from a donor-language enters a host-language but it routinely carries only one of its meanings. It therefore enters the host-language without ambiguity! Its meaning in the host-language is pristine, unambiguous. It only carries the meaning assigned to it at the time it was imported by whoever borrowed the term! The borrower called the shots although he/she cannot control its future uses. The word has become public property in the host-language. It may even “wander off” and acquire other additional meanings than those intended by the original borrower. Since words are social objects and therefore are subject to the vagaries of such objects, this would be expected! The borrower may have borrowed with good intent, including a wish to combat existing multiple meanings in the host language, but the truth is that he/she has no further control over the situation. A meaning may wander off!

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