Thursday, 12 April 2012

Would you like an espresso?

Is espresso a necessary or a luxury loanword?

We have espresso from Italian and vodka from Russian.  We have aardvark from Afrikaans and alligator from Spanish.  In fact, English is full of words that have been ‘borrowed’ from other languages.  Some are so common, and have been a part of our language for so long, that we may not even guess that they are not historically ‘English’ (for example, the pronoun they from Old Norse which replaced the Old English plurals hi and hie by around 1400).

The examination of borrowings (or ‘loanwords’) can be quite complex as many aspects of meaning and use need to be considered. Investigating the status of English loanwords in German, Alexander Onysko and Esme Winter-Froemel demonstrate that a fundamental factor to consider is whether or not the Recipient Language (RL) has an equivalent word to match the one from the Source Language (SL).  For example, when Italian borrowed the English word computer, it did not have an ‘Italian’ word representing the concept of ‘computer’ and, as a result, the word computer was adopted.  In contrast, French has recently borrowed people from English to specifically mean ‘famous people’ and, due to this specific meaning, it now co-exists and competes with the French form célébrités.

This criterion is what formed the basis for traditional classifications of loanwords – Necessary vs. Luxury Loans.  A Necessary loan is one where the SL provides a term for a concept (e.g. the computer example above) while a Luxury loan is a word from the SL which, when introduced, co-exists with words of similar semantic meaning in the RL (e.g. the people example above).

However, Onysko and Winter-Froemel explain that these classifications have been criticised for what they imply – for example, a Necessary loan is not strictly ‘necessary’ as speakers of the RL could always try to express a new concept using existing components of the language.  Therefore, they propose the alternative classification of Catachrestic vs. Non-Catachrestic loans which re-frame the distinction between the two types of loan in neutral linguistic terms.  A catachrestic loan is one which introduces a new concept to the language (such as computer, e-mail and software from English to German) whereas non-catachrestic loans have some kind of semantic equivalent in the RL (such as English trend adopted alongside German tendenz) and end up developing more specific meanings.

Even so, Onysko and Winter-Froemel show that the classification of loans as catachrestic or non-catachrestic is not an either/or decision.  Of the 101 most common Anglicisms in the data they used from the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, 33 were classified as catachrestic and 70 as non-catachrestic - the new total of 103 resulting from surfen and cockpit being classified as both.  As well as some words showing characteristics of both types of classification, the data also highlights how words can evolve their meaning from non-catachrestic to catachrestic (e.g. okay and clever).  Therefore, they conclude, any investigation of borrowings must reflect a usage-based approach so that it is not just about looking at the words in isolation, it is how, when and where they are being used by the speakers of the language.
Onysko, A. and Winter-Froemel, E. (2011) Necessary loans – Luxury loans? Exploring the pragmatic dimension of borrowing; Journal of Pragmatics 43:1550-1567
doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.12.004

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

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