If you have ever watched a foreign film, you may have been surprised to hear more than the odd English word coming through loud and clear as part of the dialogue.
This is not really surprising, considering Britain’s imperial ambitions over the last 200 years. The reach of US culture in this century and the last has similarly acted to spread English to the four corners of the world.
But what you may be less aware of is the debt to which English owes other languages. It is well known that before 1066, Britain was a melting pot of cultures born of successive invasions, from the Romans, the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxon and Jutes, through to the Vikings and eventually the Normans from France.
These influences on the forefathers of the British people contributed to what we commonly known to be the English language today. Yet English has never stopped expanding its vocabulary, and those very same continents that interacted with British and American travellers in the 18th and 19th centuries have also contributed a plethora of words and expressions to modern English.
A recent book by senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Philip Durkin, titled Borrowed Words, explores the debt that English owes to the world’s languages.
Mr Durkin said in the Mirror: “Close contact does not inevitably lead to borrowing.
“Names of foods, plants, animals, and other features of the natural world are borrowed as part of basic traffic between those in different parts of the planet.”
The success of the Anglo-Saxon in displacing the ancient Britons means their Germanic tongue can be taken as the root language of Britain. But the foreign language that has loaned English the most words is Latin. The influence of the Romans spread across Europe, including over most of Britain, and gifted the English language with around 13,000 words.
Britain’s close proximity to France, not to mention the Norman Conquest in 1066, means that French is the next great influence, at 6,000 words.
Viking invaders settling in Britain from Scandinavia also had a great impact on the English. They brought with them words such as:
But what of languages from further afield.
Words from different continents:
Admiral is from the Arabic for ‘commander of the sea’ – Amir al-Bahr.
Tycoon comes from the Japanese word taikun, meaning ‘great lord’, and was used as a title for the traditional ruler of the region, the shogun. It first entered the English language when the US Navy returned from a mission in Japan in 1857.
Bungalow comes from the Gujarati word bangalo, which is a derivation of the Hindi bangla, meaning ‘Bengali’. This was used in relation to a house built in the Bengal style – which at the time was a small, one-storey home.
Juggernaut is from an ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. The original word Jagannath meaning ‘world-lord’ was one of the names given to the god Krishna. A form of worshipping the deity was to haul a huge statue of the god through the street on a giant cart. It was said that some followers would throw themselves under the cart and be crushed. Whether that was true or not, the word came to mean in English a mercilessly destructive and unstoppable force.