If You Speak English, You're a Master of Many Tongues

By Jacobsen, Pamela D. | The Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

If You Speak English, You're a Master of Many Tongues


Jacobsen, Pamela D., The Christian Science Monitor


How many languages do you speak? One, maybe two, you say? Wrong! If you speak English, you use words from at least 35 foreign languages. Want proof? Read the next two sentences out loud:

"Jane saw a baby squirrel eating ketchup left out after yesterday's barbeque. Although she was still wearing her cotton pajamas, she hurried outside to chase the creature away."

There. You just spoke seven languages - counting English!

"Baby" comes from a Dutch word spelled the same way. "Squirrel" is French. "Ketchup" originated in Malay. "Barbeque" was borrowed from Caribbean Indians. "Cotton" was first an Arabic word. And "Pajamas" was taken right from the Urdu language of India. Surprised?

You shouldn't be. Tim Morris is an English professor at the University of Texas, Arlington. He says that when we speak English, we're using bits and pieces of many languages.

Loaned, but not returned

Dr. Morris asks his college English classes to count "loan words." These are words we use that were taken directly from other languages. He jokes about the term "loan words." "It's not like we're going to give these words back after we're done with them," he says. "Imported words" might be a better term.

Simple sentences may contain 15 percent or less of these Complex sentences may be 50 percent or more "imports." Scientific papers might use mostly loan words. "We use imports constantly," Morris says, "generally without any idea we are using them."

Was there ever a time when people spoke just plain English? No.

Scholars estimate that one-third of the world's languages are of Indo-European origin. These include English, French, Latin, German, Dutch, Celtic, and Slavic tongues.

Back around AD 450, when Julius Caesar was alive, English as we know it didn't exist. English is relatively young. Its roots go back 1,500 years, to Britain. People there spoke Celtic. Then came Anglo-Saxon invaders.

These conquerors spoke a language closely related to older forms of Dutch, Morris says. Dutch words like "woord," "gras," and "man," became the English equivalents "word," "grass," and "man." Anglo- Saxon "Anglish" became "English."

But our story doesn't end there. English continued to grow and change.

When Norman French invaded Britain in 1066, the English vocabulary got an enormous boost. Scholars say that nearly half of all English words are French in their origin. Words like art, orange, taxi, train, and surprise are a few examples.

When English colonists came to America in the 1700s, they encountered native Americans and their languages. Words like wigwam, teepee, chipmunk, possum, and tomahawk settled into the colonists' vocabulary.

Centuries later, in the early 1900s, immigrants streamed to America's shores. Italians taught us to say broccoli, macaroni, opera, and studio. Spanish speakers added mosquito, mustang, tortilla, and alligator. Bagel, kosher, and pastrami came from those who spoke Yiddish. And yam, gorilla, and jitterbug were taken from African languages.

Just how big is English?

Elizabeth Jewell is very interested in words. She's managing editor of the United States Dictionaries Department at Oxford University Press. She says that today's electronic communication makes it easy for new words, expressions, and usages, "to spread around the world very quickly." New technological developments add new English words "at an astonishing rate," she says.

It's impossible to say exactly how big the English language is. Even counting all the words in a dictionary won't give you an accurate figure. But you may be interested to know that college- size editions like Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate contain about 90,000 "headwords."

Headwords are main entries in bold print. Under a headword are plurals and various forms of that word, along with definitions. …

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