Borrowing (Words)

reading in East Timor_16
Creative Commons License photo credit: J.P. Esperança

About a year ago – already! – I posted about the Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus, to be found here:

I’m not a frequent user of thesauri myself, although upon Joanna Young’s advice at Confident Writing, I did get the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, which I promise will not sit on my shelves picking up the dust. But I like the Visual Thesaurus for at least one feature, the Word of the Day, which I receive by e-mail.

Due to e-mail overload (and work overload) I don’t have the time to read every definition every day, but I check every word that I don’t know.

Many English words are derived from Latin or Greek. But even more interesting are French loaners: among recent deliveries were ‘de rigueur’, ‘chaine longue’, ‘galosh’, ‘mise en scène’, ‘outré’, ‘déjà vu’, ‘vol-au-vent’, and plenty more.  Believe it or not, I even check those, because when borrowing a word, foreigners have this tendency sometimes to provide it with a slightly or a totally different meaning.

Every person having their quirks and idiosyncrasies, I find great pleasure in using the phrase ‘raison d’être’ whenever I can. I love the sound of it, and the ‘foreign-ness’ of it in English. You could say I can be a bit of a snob! :)

French is obviously not the only language that provides loaners to the English language, but as every historian of languages will tell you, many French words have crept into the English language over the centuries. A historical truth that should come as a solace to those on this (European) side of the Atlantic who are endlessly complaining that the French language is becoming contaminated by too many English words.

It’s a fact that languages seem to have lives of their own, beyond any attempts made at protecting them from foreign (and therefore bad) interference. Even though translators have a duty to maintain high linguistic standards, there is no denying that this is very much context-dependent: at a recent conference, I interpreted a presentation made by a French expert about the Internet, communications, etc. Apart from the little words ‘le’, ‘la’, ‘les’, that were in French, the rest of his speech was a sea of English nouns and verbs. He did make an effort at times to use the ‘proper’ French words, but you could tell that this was a real effort. And there was no haughtiness about it. He was simply speaking his usual language: a mixture of French and English.

Interpreting at IT conferences is very interesting in this respect, as you witness the whole spectrum of people’s backgrounds, involvement in state-of-the-art technology, early adopters or followers, in the language they use. So, what can you do about it? Should we turn into ayatollahs of languages, or go with the tide?

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One Response to “Borrowing (Words)”

  1. Ilaria Says:

    I’m for keeping it open to foreign words, definitely. IT-wise, I kind of like all those English words that got a coat of (fake) Italian, such as “to click” = “cliccare” or “to chat” = “chattare”. They belong to a restricted field that makes translation easier. :-)

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