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English, the mongrel tongue

May We Borrow Your Language? examines the linguistic peculiarities of English

Rajiv Shirali 


How English has Stolen, Purloined, Snaffled, Pilfered, Appropriated and Looted Words from all Four Corners of the Worldtesting.. we are here....

Philip Gooden

Head of Zeus/Speaking Tiger

359 pages; Rs 799

Philip Gooden, who writes books about language as well as historical crime novels, calls the English language “a great borrower, a practiced thief.” May We Borrow Your Language? examines the linguistic peculiarities of English, and how the language has borrowed and “stolen” words from other languages down the centuries — from the seventh century to the twenty-first. It is necessarily selective, and the choice of words is random. Mr Gooden explains 109 words in dedicated chapters, but each chapter also explores, in a fascinating exercise, other words that are associated with these.

In the long sub-title that seems designed to illustrate the whole point of the book, the word “steal” is from Anglo-Saxon, “snaffle” from Low German, “purloin” from Anglo-Norman French, “pilfer” from Old French, “appropriate” from Latin and “loot” from Hindi — giving English the appearance of a linguistic mongrel.

Language is shaped by both history and geography, which influence the manner in which cultures interact. Britain’s location at one end of Europe ensured that it benefited from influences coming from both north and south, which took the form of invasions by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and the Norman French. Newcomers who turned into settlers brought their languages with them, influencing the Celtic tongue that was originally spoken by the people living in Britain and Ireland before the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and other northern European invaders from the fifth century AD onwards. The last of these conquerors (in 1066 AD) was William, Duke of Normandy, whose reign reshaped Britain in fundamental ways, and this is perhaps the reason French has had a greater impact on English than most other languages.

Scholars, merchants and migrants also helped shaped the English language, as Mr Gooden explains. When Britain began a long period of imperial expansion in the sixteenth century under Elizabeth I, it inevitably opened the way for the influx of terms from around the world — from India and lands further east, as well as from America and Australia. And when the cultural and military dominance of the United States replaced that of Britain across the globe, “American English” also entered the lexicon.

Words contributed by India are well-represented in the book, such as “loot”, “juggernaut” and “nirvana”, to name a few, drawn from Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit. Indeed, Urdu, too, was the result of foreign influences acting on a local culture — the mixing of Persian (the court language of the Mughals), and the Hindi spoken in northern India.

The word is short for the Persian expression “zabân i urdû” or “language of the camp”. When Persian-speaking soldiers intermingled with Hindi-speaking locals, Urdu came into being as a lingua franca, just as Norman French and Old English merged over the centuries to produce modern English.

Mr Gooden writes in his introduction that the word “borrow” in the title is sometimes a euphemism for “steal”, but argues that “to steal words from another language does not deprive that language of its own words; rather it is to share the original expressions more widely, in the process often giving them a different spelling, another shape and perhaps a meaning that has strayed some distance from the one in the source.” For example, “wicked”, once synonymous with evil, is now also slang for “excellent” or “cool”. Again, in medieval England, “jargon” denoted “chatter” or the “twitter of birds”, while today it means specialist or technical talk that is “meaningful to insiders but convey(s) nothing to those on the outside”.

Then again, some words always used along with others that mean the same, and never singly. Mr Gooden explains that words of a similar meaning from Norman French and Old English would often co-exist, or even be joined together. Hence, we have “law and order”, “ways and means” and “leaps and bounds”.

Mr Gooden qualifies to be called a lexicographer, a term derived from Greek and meaning “a writer on words”. He pays tribute to two members of this tribe. The first is the great English lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, and whose six assistants were tasked with copying out quotations to illustrate the words being defined. Johnson single-handedly selected almost a quarter of a million illustrative quotations, of which about half were actually used, with Johnson writing the meanings of more than 40,000 words. The second is the American Noah Webster who, in a deliberate decision to depart from the standard English spelling of some words and Americanise them for use in the newly independent country, published his two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.

May We Borrow Your Language? is a delightfully entertaining and informative tome that adds substantially to our knowledge of how the English language has grown and developed. In his autobiography, the advertising legend David Ogilvy had exhorted copywriters: “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” Mr Gooden’s wonderfully evocative prose suggests that he fully agrees.

First Published: Thu, February 09 2017. 22:41 IST