LINGUIST List 8.810

Sun Jun 1 1997

Sum: French loan words, Language evolution

Editor for this issue: Susan Robinson <>


  1. Melanie Misanchuk, two summaries

Message 1: two summaries

Date: Thu, 29 May 97 13:04:41 MDT
From: Melanie Misanchuk <>
Subject: two summaries

I apologize for being so negligent in posting these summaries to
questions I asked 6 weeks ago. The responses were plentiful and
very useful, and quick! Congratulations go to James Vanden Bosch
( and Rob Pensalfini (rjpensalMIT.EDU) who
answered my questions on French loan words and language evolution
BEFORE I had even received the posting from LinguistList. Wow.

The figure I had remembered was that some 10,000 words were
borrowed from French into English. As most people said, it comes

Baugh, Albert C. (1951), _A History of the Eng Lang_, 2nd edn.
Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, p.215.
which was basically the only place I hadn't looked.
Other interesting information:
p. 327 "According to Jespersen, nearly half (42.7 percent) of the
French borrowing in English to ca. 1900 belong to this [1250-1400]
period. 36.
>From Thomas Pyles, The Origins and Development of the English
Language. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1971, 2nd ed. Pyles is
quoting (his footnote 36): Jesperson, Growth and Structure of the
English Language, 9th ed. Oxford 1954 (orig. pub. 1905).

Other references: Coleman, Julie (1995) The chronology of French
and Latin loan words in English. _Transactions of the
Philological Society_ 93, 95-124. There are further references
there. There's also a recent book, I think, by Christiane
Steve Seegmiller wrote: 

The total number of borrowings from French is certainly much
higher that 10,000 - probably ten times that number or more, if
you count the word in an unabridged dictionary (rather than, say,
the 20,000 most common words). I have heard figures (perhaps from
Jespersen again, I'm not sure) to the effect that 80% of all of
the words in are borrowings, and 80% of those are from French and
>From Terry Nadasdi
I just saw your posting on Linguist. I don't have an exact
reference, just a suggestion of where you might consider
looking. I just had a look at my M.A. thesis which was on English
loan words in Canadian French. I have a quote there which
suggests that W.D. Whitney might be a place you could look. The
quote is as follows:
"rarely has any cultivated tongue, during a like period of
history given up more of its ancient material than did the 
English during the few centuries which succeeded the Norman invasion ..."

This quote by Whitney was taken from A. Elliot, 1889 in an
article entitled "Speech Mixture in French Canada", American
Journal of Philology, vol. X, 2 "Speech Mixture in French
Canada", American Journal of Philology, vol. X, 2
No. 38. p. 158-186. I unfortunately no longer have the 
article with me, but your library should have it in order 
that you might find the original
Whitney source which give actual numbers of loan words from
French to English.
Thanks again to (in no particular order):
Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew (
David Denison (
Steve Seegmiller (
Terry Nadasdi (
Burns Cooper (
W.H.Edmondson (
Terry Lynn Irons (

(and anyone else I missed)
This was my original second posting about the evolution of

> I once read that the natural evolution of a language is from
> analytic to synthetic. I've been unable to find that assertion
> since, and am wondering if I made it up. 

Replies to this open question were much more varied and I'll
quote them all.
>From Rob Pensalfini (rjpensalMIT.EDU):
I can't comment on who might have said it, but it has probably
been said. I think English serves as a counterexample to some
degree, where you had a highly inflecting language that lost a
lot of its inflection (verbal and nominal) and now uses
prepositions et al where case marking would have once done the

I always imagined it as a circle, so that a fully isolating
language might start to incorporate certain things and over 
the centuries become synthetic, polysynthetic even 
(incorporating not only adpositions but
pronominal arguments). Eventually, some of the distinctions
encoded in the inflection might be lost, some of the inflection
might be lost altogether, and then the language (we're talking
centuries later again) might use independent words (perhaps
adverbials or something) to indicate particular grammatical
relations, and lo and behold you've got an isolating language
The fact that change in either direction is possible is why there
are two sides to debates on things like what the ancestor Australian
language(s) might have looked like. Australia has both head marking
(polysynthetic) languages and dependent (case-) marking languages, as well as
languages that are a mixture of the two. Some people think that the
original language was dependent marking and that truncation and
cliticisation of pronouns led to head-marking (Ken Hale and I are
among these people), while other people take the equally valid
view that the ancestor was synthetic and that case marking
developed in conjunction with the loss of head marking.

Hope this was of some use,

 Carl Mills (Carl.MillsUC.Edu) wrote:
I don't know who made up this "theory," but they are probably

On this view, what happened to English between ca. 800 and

>From Peter Daniels (
There are some remarks on this in the new book by Anatole Lyovin,
*Introduction to the Languages of the World* (Oxford, 1997); I
don't remember whether he gives references. But the notion of
progress between types is certainly found in Max Muller. I
believe it was folks like Boas who laid it to rest; meanwhile the
Romance future formation cycle had been noticed, and if high-
class languages like Latin and French could oscillate between
analytic and synthetic, then obviously it couldn't be an
evolutionary sequence!

>From John Halloran (
A trend from agglutinative to inflective was identified by
Bernard H. Bichakjian in his article "Evolutionary patterns in linguistics"
which appeared in Studies in Language Origins, vol 2, ed. Walburga von
Raffler-Engel, Jan Wind, and Abraham Jonker
(Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1991), pp. 187-224. He
also identifies some other trends in linguistic evolution.
Geoffrey Sampson ( wrote:
My memory is that Adalbert Schleicher, who was the first writer
to describe language evolution as a natural process akin (or even
identical) to biological evolution, thought of the movement from
analytic to synthetic as a decay which came about after the
intellectual progress of mankind had attained a point at which it
no longer needed to be supported by specific linguistic
structures -- and that this was linked to themes in Hegel's
philosophy, about which I am deeply vague.
>From Ian Dale (
I take it you are referring in the first instance to Wilhelm von
Humboldt. A few quick references. Edward Sapir (Language, 1921,
chapter 6) deals rather extensively with a rather more detailed
typological comparison, without specific reference to
Humboldt. Charles F. Hockett (1958, A Course in Modern
Linguistics, p181) dismisses such ideas out of hand, without giving a
reference. R. H. Robins (1964, General Linguistics: An
Introductory Survey, pp 331 - 335) also discusses this sort of classification
and does refer specifically to Humboldt's "Ueber die Verschiedenheit
des menschlichen Sprachbaues, Berlin, 1836 (reprinted Darmstadt,
But as to any sort of "natural evolution", all (and I imagine
this "all" would include nearly all linguists) agree that this is out
of the question, especially if "evolution" has anything to do with
"progress," and especially since most languages display both
synthetic and analytic features (not to speak of such other terms as
polysynthetic, agglutinative, isolating, and inflecting).
>From Asya Pereltsvaig (
I don't know if it's of any help to you or it will just confuse
you, but I remember reading somewhere of just the opposite
approach: that languages develop from synthetic to analytic.
However, I can't address you to a reference right now.
Laurie Bauer ( writes:
If it is, the history of Romance from Latin needs some
explanation -- or English from Germanic, for that matter. 
Yet if you consider French le livre, je l'ai lu, moi in terms 
of phonology instead of traditional word breaks, we could argue 
that we have le_livre je_l'ai_lu moi in three words, the middle 
one of which is synthetic, derived from a more analytic 
j'ai lu le livre. So we find both directions occurring naturally.
Whew! Thanks to everyone. This has shown me that there is no
simple answer and that I should just as likely believe the
opposite as what I thought I had read.
Melanie Misanchuk
Department of French Italian and Spanish
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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