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James Nicoll quote \ UCT English Language Centre

English Words Borrowed from other Languages

Modern English words, as we know them, have an interesting background. So where do so many of the foreign words in English actually come from?

The English language has a long history of borrowing words from other languages. These “borrowings” can usually be traced back to specific periods in history. It is estimated that the origins of modern English can be broken down as follows:

Latin 29%
French (includes Anglo-French) 29%
Germanic Languages
(Old/Middle English, Old Norse, Dutch)
Greek 6%
Other languages/ uknown 6%
Derived from Proper Names 4%

See the chart here:

It may surprise you that some of our most common words are borrowed.

Here are TEN common borrowings:

They/their – This common pronoun comes from the Old Norse word “Peir”.

Person – This comes from the Latin “persona”. It was adopted by the French language and then eventually made its way into English.

Very – This despised yet commonly used adjective comes from the Old French “verai”, which means “true”.

Dollar – This comes from Czech through Dutch. Its roots are connected to the origins of the mint itself: a factory where coins and currency is produced.

War – This comes from the Old French “werre”.

Leg and Skin – Both words come from Old Norse and replaced “shank” and “hide” upon their arrival. Although the words still exist in English, they are used only for animals once slaughtered.

Slaughter – This comes from the Old Norse “slatr”.

Skipper – This comes from the Dutch “schipper”. Many of our nautical terms are derived from Dutch due to the trade links that existed.

Court –  In French this means the king’s residence and was often the place to which someone was called in order to respond to accusations.

Zero – This comes from Arabic. In fact, many of our words related to numeracy, mathematics and trade can be traced back to Arabic.

So extensive is English’s borrowing habit that it prompted this rephrasing of an earlier quote by James Nicoll:

"English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar." James D. Nicoll


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