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A loanword (or loan word) is a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language. The concept of a loanword is similar to, but not the same as, that of a calque. A calque, or loan translation, is a related concept where the meaning or idiom is borrowed rather than the lexical item itself.

Coincidentally, the word loanword is itself a calque of the German Lehnwort,[1] while calque is a loanword from French.

Problems with the term 'loanword'

Strictly speaking, the terms borrow and loanword, although traditional, conflict with the ordinary meaning of those words since nothing is returned to the donor languages.[2] However, this metaphor is not isolated to the concept of loanwords, but also found in the idiom "to borrow an idea." An additional issue with the term loanword is that it would seem to imply that the loaning is limited to one single word as opposed to phrases such as déjà vu, an English loanword from French. While phrases like déjà vu may be used as a single lexical item by English speakers (i.e., an English speaker would not only say déjà to convey the meaning associated with the full term déjà vu), in the donor language (French, in this example), speakers would be aware that the phrase consists of two words. For simplicity, adopt/adoption or adapt/adaption are used by many linguists either in parallel or in preference to these words. Some researchers also use the term lexical borrowing.[3][4]

Loanwords entering a language

Donor language terms may enter a recipient language as a technical term in connection with exposure to foreign culture. The specific reference point may be to the foreign culture itself or to a field of activity where the foreign culture has a dominant role.

External associations (from travel abroad)

A foreign loanword is arguably still outside the recipient language, and not yet a "loanword" when it is fixed in the local culture. What is "exotic" varies from language to language. Thus, English names for creatures not native to Great Britain are almost always loanwords.

Loanwords from a dominant field of activity

Examples of loanwords from a dominant field of activity:

  • Arts - Most of the technical vocabulary referring to classical music (e.g. concerto, allegro, tempo, aria, opera, soprano) is borrowed from Italian and likewise in ballet from French.
  • Business - English exports English terms to other languages in business and technology (examples le meeting to French).
  • Philosophy - many technical terms, including the term philosophy itself, derive from Greek dominance in philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, economic theory and political theory in Roman times. Examples include democracy, theory and so on.
  • Religion - religions may carry with them a large number of technical terms from the language of the originating culture. For example:
    • Arabic (Islam) - Arabic words like hijab
    • Greek (Christianity) - Likewise Greek words like baptisma have entered many languages as baptism or similar.
    • Hebrew (Judaism) - Some terms in the Hebrew Bible have been carried into other languages due to being borrowed rather than translated in Bible translations. For example Hebrew shabbat ("day of rest" שַׁבָּת) has been borrowed into most languages in the world: in Greek the word is Σάββατο; Latin sabbato; Spanish sábado; and in English Sabbath. The major exceptions are languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean where Chinese characters used and words are often translated rather than transliterated; for example, "Sabbath" is translated as "(peaceful) rest day" (安息日, Mandarin: ān xī rì, Japanese an soku jitsu, Korean an sig il) rather than transliterated.
    • Latin (Catholicism) - Latin words like missa and communio have entered English as mass and communion.
    • Sanskrit (Hinduism) - words like guru (teacher)
  • Science (Latin) - medicine (itself a Latin loanword) uses a large vocabulary of Latin terms (sternum, appendix), as a result of medieval advances in medical science being conducted in Latin - even if some of the earliest Latin medical texts were translations from Greek and Arabic.

Loanword passing into general use

When a loanword loses foreign cultural associations it has passed into general use in the language. This is the case with a number of English language terms where a dictionary entry will show that the etymology is French (typically from the Norman Conquest onwards) and not from Anglo-Saxon origin.

Loanword resistant areas

By contrast, function words such as pronouns, and words referring to universal concepts, are the most static words within each language. These function words are borrowed only in rare cases such as English they from Old Norse þeir. Sometimes only one word from an opposite pair is borrowed, yielding an unpaired word in the recipient language.

Linguistic classification

The studies by Werner Betz (1949, 1939), Einar Haugen (1950, also 1956), and Uriel Weinreich (1953) are regarded as the classical theoretical works on loan influence.[5] The basic theoretical statements all take Betz’s nomenclature as their starting point. Duckworth (1977) enlarges Betz’s scheme by the type “partial substitution” and supplements the system with English terms. A schematic representation of these classifications is given below:[6]

On the basis of an importation-substitution distinction, Haugen (1950: 214f.) distinguishes three basic groups of borrowings: “(1) Loanwords show morphemic importation without substitution. [. . .]. (2) Loanblends show morphemic substitution as well as importation. [. . .]. (3) Loanshifts show morphemic substitution without importation”. Haugen has later refined (1956) his model in a review of Gneuss’s (1955) book on Old English loan coinages, whose classification, in turn, is the one by Betz (1949) again.

Weinreich (1953: 47ff.) differentiates between two mechanisms of lexical interference, namely those initiated by simple words and those initiated by compound words and phrases. Weinreich (1953: 47) defines simple words “from the point of view of the bilinguals who perform the transfer, rather than that of the descriptive linguist. Accordingly, the category ‘simple’ words also includes compounds that are transferred in unanalysed form”. After this general classification, Weinreich then resorts to Betz’s (1949) terminology.

Models that try to integrate borrowing in an overall classification of vocabulary change, or onomasiological change, have recently been proposed by Peter Koch (2002) and Joachim Grzega (2003, 2004).

In English

The English language has often borrowed words from other cultures or languages. For example:

Spanish definition English definition
"hat" "a wide-brimmed festive Mexican hat"
Other examples of words borrowed by English
from Hindi from Afrikaans from Malay
juggernaut (from Sanskrit 'Jagannath')

[from Persian origin]
[via Afrikaans from Malay]

Some English loanwords remain relatively faithful to the donor language's phonology, even though a particular phoneme might not exist or have contrastive status in English. For example, the Hawaiian word ʻaʻā is used by geologists to specify lava that is relatively thick, chunky, and rough. The Hawaiian spelling indicates the two glottal stops in the word, but the English pronunciation, /ˈɑː.ɑː/ or /ˈɑːʔɑː/, contains at most one. In addition, the English spelling usually removes the ʻOkina and macron diacritics.[7]

The majority of English affixes, such as un-, -ing, and -ly, were present in older forms in Old English. However, a few English affixes are borrowed. For example, the agentive suffix -er, which is very prolific, is borrowed ultimately from Latin - arius (with similar forms found in other Germanic languages). The English verbal suffix -ize comes from Greek -ιζειν (-izein) via Latin -izare.

In languages other than English

English loanword exports to other languages

Direct borrowings, calques, or even grammatical constructions and orthographical conventions from English are called anglicisms. This leads to a virtual pseudo-dialect where language consists of words from two (and sometimes three or even more) vocabularies. In French, for example, the result of perceived over-use of English words and expressions is called franglais. Some English terms in French include le week-end, le bifteck (beefsteak), and le job (in France) or la job (in Canada). Spanglish is the English influence on the Spanish language, while Denglisch is the English influence on German, and Dunglish is the English influence on the Dutch language. Conversely, words are oftentimes borowed from other languages by English speakers. For example, a straight clone from Swedish into English – like the word smörgåsbord – is called a sveticism (in Swedish svecism).

Loanword transmission in the Ottoman Empire

During more than 600 years of the Ottoman Empire, the literary and administrative language of the empire was Turkish, with many Persian, and Arabic loanwords, called Ottoman Turkish, considerably differing from the everyday spoken Turkish of the time. Many such words were exported to other languages of the empire, such as Albanian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Greek, Hungarian and Ladino. After the empire fell in World War I and the Republic of Turkey was founded, the Turkish language underwent an extensive language reform led by the newly founded Turkish Language Association, during which many adopted words were replaced with new formations derived from Turkic roots. This was part of the ongoing cultural reform of the time, in turn a part in the broader framework of Atatürk's Reforms, which also included the introduction of the new Turkish alphabet. Turkish also has taken many words from French, such as pantolon for trousers (from French pantalon) and komik for funny (from French comique), mostly pronounced very similarly. Word usage in modern Turkey has acquired a political tinge: right-wing publications tend to use more Islamic-derived words, left-wing ones use more adopted from Europe, while centrist ones use more native Turkish root words.[8]

Dutch words in Indonesian

Almost 350 years of Dutch presence in what is now Indonesia have left significant liguisitic traces. Though only a small minority of present-day Indonesians have a fluent knowledge of Dutch, the Indonesian language inherited many words from Dutch, both in words for everyday life, and as well in scientific or technological terminology.[9] One scholar argues that 20% of Indonesian words can be traced back to Dutch words.[10]

Cultural aspects

In order to provide a more well-rounded understanding of the complexities of loanwords, certain historical and cultural factors must be taken into account. According to Hans Henrich Hock and Brian Joseph, “languages and dialects… do not exist in a vacuum”—there is always linguistic contact between groups.[11] This contact influences what loanwords are integrated into the lexicon and why certain words are chosen over others. Using the example of Plautdietsch/Mennonite Low German, the influence of many historical and cultural factors can be seen in the loanwords adopted by this unique language. For example, as Mennonites were pushed from the lowlands of Germany into Poland and then on to Russia due to religious persecution, Plautdietsch took vocabulary from Dutch, Frisian, Russian, and Ukrainian and integrated it into their own language. Mennonites also emigrated worldwide, where they took their language with them to four continents and over a dozen countries.

Some examples of Plautdietsch loanwords are given below:

Plautdietsch word
(recipient language)
Donor language word English gloss
drock Dutch druk busy
ladig Dutch ledig empty
kjast Frisian kest wedding
kjwiel Frisian kwyl spit
schessnikj Russian чеснок garlic
lauftje Russian лавка general store
Borscht Ukrainian борщ beet soup
Warenikje Ukrainian варе́ники dumplings

Loanword transmission patterns

Changes in meaning when loaned

Words are occasionally imported with a different meaning than that in the donor language. Among the best known examples of this is the German word Handy, which is a borrowing of the English adjective handy, but means mobile phone (and is hence a noun). (See also: Pseudo-anglicism.) Conversely, in English the prefix über-, taken from German, is used in a way that it is rarely used in German. An abundance of borrowed words taking on new meaning can be found in Rioplatense Spanish. For example, the English gerund camping is used in Argentina to refer to a campsite, and the word wok, borrowed from the Cantonese word meaning pan, is used to mean stir-fry.

Idiomatic expressions and phrases, sometimes translated word-for-word, can be borrowed, usually from a language that has "prestige" at the time. Often, a borrowed idiom is used as a euphemism for a less polite term in the original language. In English, this has usually been Latinisms from the Latin language and Gallicisms from French. If the phrase is translated word-for-word, it is known as a calque.

Changes in spelling when loaned

Words taken into different recipient languages are sometimes spelled as in the donor language (such as many of the terms above). Sometimes borrowed words retain original (or near-original) pronunciation, but undergo a spelling change to represent the orthography of the recipient language. Welsh is a language where this is done with some consistency, with words like gêm (game), cwl (cool), and ded-gifawe (dead giveaway). The French expression "cul de sac" (meaning "dead end" or "no through road") is used in English as is, with the same meaning but a spelling pronunciation: the 'l' is mute in French but enunciated in English.

Changes in pronunciation when loaned

In cases where a new loanword has a very unusual sound, the pronunciation is frequently radically changed, a process sometimes referred to by the archetypal name of the law of Hobson-Jobson; this is particularly noted in words from South Asian and Southeast Asian languages, as in this example. Some languages, such as Jèrriais, have a tendency to apply historical sound-shift patterns to newly introduced words; while Jèrriais speakers would have little difficulty pronouncing "parki", partchi (to park) is the word used, displaying the typical Norman ki → tchi shift.

Most languages modify foreign words to fit native pronunciation patterns (including morpheme structure constraints, morpheme combinations, and morphophonemic alterations).[12] Whether or not a change in pronunciation occurs depends on multiple factors such as: if the sounds occur in both the original and target languages and the level of contact between cultures. An excellent example is Japanese, which has an enormous number of loanwords (gairaigo). Japanese often denotes gairaigo in the writing system with the use of カタカナ(katakana). There was a massive ancient influx from China, and then a flow of new words came from European languages, particularly from Portuguese, which was spoken by the first European people whom Japanese encountered in the transition from the Middle Ages to Early modern period. Recently, most gairaigo have come from English, though there have been numerous loanwords borrowed from Dutch, German, French and other languages. There are almost always significant pronunciation shifts.

Japanese katakana Romaji IPA Donor language word English gloss
パン pan /paɴ/ Portuguese pão [ˈpɐ̃w] bread
コップ koppu /kopːu͍/ Portuguese copo [ˈkɔpu] glass (cup)
フラスコ furasuko /ɸu͍̥ɽasu͍̥ko/ Portuguese frasco [ˈfɾaʃku] (laboratory) flask
じょうろ jōro /dʑoːɽo/ Portuguese jarro [ˈʒaʀu] watering can (jar)
バレーボール barēbōru /baɽeːboːɽu͍̥/ English volleyball volleyball
ソープ Sōpu /soːpu͍/ English Thorpe name: Thorpe
ソープ sōpu /soːpu͍̥/ English soap soap
ホワイトハウス howaitohausu /how͍aitohau͍su͍̥/ English White House White House
rangēji-raboratorī /ɽaŋɡeːdʑi̥ ɽaboɽatoɽiː/ English language laboratory language laboratory
terefon-kādo /teɽefoɴ kaːdo/ English telephone card telephone card
パトカー pato-kā /pato kaː/ English patrol car patrol car

Longer gairaigo are often shortened:

Japanese katakana Romaji IPA Donor language word English gloss
サントラ san-tora /saɴ toɽa/ English soundtrack soundtrack
デパート depāto /depaːto/ English department store department store
ハンカチ hankachi /haŋkatɕi/ English handkerchief handkerchief
カーナビ kānabi /kaːnabi/ English car navigation system car navigation system

In some cases, the original meaning shifts considerably through unexpected logical leaps: buffet → バイキング baikingu (Viking): derived from the name of the restaurant "Imperial Viking", the first restaurant in Japan which offered buffet style meals.[13]

dress shirt → ワイシャツ waishatsu: derived from the words white shirt and shortened.

There are other cases where words are borrowed, seemingly at random, and used in totally inexplicable contexts. This is often the case in the names of small businesses and in anime and manga series such as Bubblegum Crisis. Gairaigo is so large a part of the modern Japanese vocabulary that there are specialized dictionaries for it.


Main article: Reborrowing

It is possible for a word to travel from the recipient language to another and then back to the original donor language in a different form, a process called reborrowing. Some examples are:

Original Borrowed to: Reborrowed to original as:
French bœuf “ox” English as beef, the root of the English word beefsteak bifteck
Greek κίνημα (transliteration: kinima) French as cinema “motion picture” σινεμά (transliteration: sinema) “motion picture”
English animation Japanese as アニメ, (transliteration: anime) "animated movies" anime (Japanese-style cartoons)
Hebrew keli-zemer “musical instrument” Yiddish as klezmer “(traditional Ashkenazic) musician” klezmer “(traditional Ashkenazic) musician”[14]
Russian бы́стро (transliteration: bystro) “fast” French as bistro, “a small restaurant” бистрó (transliteration: bistro, “a small restaurant”)

See also



  • Betz, Werner (1949): Deutsch und Lateinisch: Die Lehnbildungen der althochdeutschen Benediktinerregel. Bonn: Bouvier.
  • Betz, Werner (1959): “Lehnwörter und Lehnprägungen im Vor- und Frühdeutschen”. In: Maurer, Friedrich / Stroh, Friedrich (eds.): Deutsche Wortgeschichte. 2nd ed. Berlin: Schmidt, vol. 1, 127–147.
  • Cannon, Garland (1999): “Problems in studying loans”, Proceedings of the annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 25, 326–336.
  • Duckworth, David (1977): “Zur terminologischen und systematischen Grundlage der Forschung auf dem Gebiet der englisch-deutschen Interferenz: Kritische Übersicht und neuer Vorschlag”. In: Kolb, Herbert / Lauffer, Hartmut (eds.) (1977): Sprachliche Interferenz: Festschrift für Werner Betz zum 65. Geburtstag. Tübingen: Niemeyer, p. 36–56.
  • Gneuss, Helmut (1955): Lehnbildungen und Lehnbedeutungen im Altenglischen. Berlin: Schmidt.
  • Grzega, Joachim (2003): Onomasiology Online 4, 22–42.
  • Grzega, Joachim (2004): Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Heidelberg: Winter.
  • Haugen, Einar (1950): “The analysis of linguistic borrowing”. Language 26, 210–231.
  • Haugen, Einar (1956): “Review of Gneuss 1955”. Language 32, 761–766.
  • .
  • Koch, Peter (2002): “Lexical Typology from a Cognitive and Linguistic Point of View”. In: Cruse, D. Alan et al. (eds.): Lexicology: An International on the Nature and Structure of Words and Vocabularies/Lexikologie: Ein internationales Handbuch zur Natur und Struktur von Wörtern und Wortschätzen. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1142–1178.
  • Oksaar, Els (1996): “The history of contact linguistics as a discipline”. In: Goebl, Hans et al. (eds.): Kontaktlinguistik/contact linguistics/linguistique de contact: ein internationales Handbuch zeitgenössischer Forschung/an international handbook of contemporary research/manuel international des recherches contemporaines. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1–12.
  • Stanforth, Anthony W. (2002): “Effects of language contact on the vocabulary: an overview”. In: Cruse, D. Alan et al. (eds.) (2002): Lexikologie: ein internationales Handbuch zur Natur und Struktur von Wörtern und Wortschätzen/Lexicology: an international handbook on the nature and structure of words and vocabularies. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, p. 805–813.
  • Weinreich, Uriel (1953): Languages in contact: findings and problems. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Zuckermann, Ghil’ad (2003), Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Bloom, Dan (2010): "What's That Pho?". French Loan Words in Vietnam Today; Taipei Times, [1]

External links

  • World Loanword Database (WOLD)
  • Discussion on how loan words exacerbate Future Shock (Streaming audio & mp3)
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