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Review of  Borrowed Words

Reviewer: Jessie Sams
Book Title: Borrowed Words
Book Author: Philip Durkin
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Yiddish, Eastern
Issue Number: 27.2129

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Philip Durkin’s goal throughout his book entitled “Borrowed words: A history of loanwords in English” is to demonstrate to the reader that investigating the history of any loanword in English is a complex pursuit that involves understanding both the linguistic and external (non-linguistic) histories of English. He writes for an advanced audience who is familiar with linguistics and, more specifically, to those who have at least a basic background in historical linguistics. This is demonstrated through the extensive use of footnotes to guide the reader to even more in-depth research, incorporation of empirical data, and dearth of family trees or maps that might aid the reader in understanding more of English’s external history. In the first chapter, Durkin addresses the specific goal he has for his reader: “the reader who perseveres should have a much more informed understanding of some of the assumptions, hypotheses, and uncertainties that underlie the sometimes rather bland statements made about how many words English has borrowed from other languages” (14).

The book is broken into six parts. The first two parts provide introductory information to terms used, data sources, and the pre-history of English, while the final four parts focus on the periods with the most extensive borrowing in English’s history. Parts III-VI offer the reader brief introductions, and Parts III-V have short concluding sections. After the lists of references and general index, the book provides a word index so that readers can more easily find the pages where specific loanwords are discussed.

Part I is comprised of two chapters, which introduce the reader to the concepts and empirical data used throughout the rest of the book. Chapter 1, “Introducing concepts,” focuses on terms used, typical processes for how words are borrowed, and differences in the types of loanwords (e.g., core vocabulary versus vocabulary specific to a field). Chapter 2, “Introducing the data,” turns the focus to the empirical data and the main sources from which that data was collected, including the third edition of the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ (which is, as of yet, incomplete), frequency lists from corpora, and lists of basic or core vocabulary across languages. Durkin also justifies his strong focus on Latin and French in his analyses by providing quantitative data to demonstrate the unparalleled influence both Latin and French have had on English’s vocabulary.

Part II has three chapters and provides the reader with information on early contact with other languages in continental Europe and Britain; in other words, it focuses on the “pre-English” stages of English. Chapter 3, “Historical and cultural background to c.1150,” primarily focuses on the external history of English prior to 1150, as well as the differences between loanwords and semantic borrowings. Chapter 4, “Very early borrowings into Germanic,” discusses early borrowings from continental Europe with a focus on comparative reconstruction as the evidence for these borrowings, as very little (if any) written records exist from that timeframe, while Chapter 5, “Old English in contact with Celtic,” focuses on Celtic contact and the “major incident of non-borrowing” from Celtic languages, which leads to “the sobering conclusion that this is largely a result of the relatively low esteem in which speakers of Celtic languages have generally been held by speakers of English over many centuries” (425).

The three chapters of Part III open with a discussion of Latin contact with Old English, both on the continent (Proto-OE) and in Britain, followed by more thorough examinations of the data to better isolate the types of loanwords that scholars can be most confident about. Chapter 6, “An overview of Latin loanwords in Old English,” provides evidence for early and late borrowings from Latin, providing semantic, phonological, and comparative criteria to best distinguish between those early and late borrowings. In this chapter, the reader is introduced to the first of many extensive word lists found throughout the book. Chapter 7, “Interrogating the data from Chapter 6,” examines the difficulties of relying on written data to determine if a word is truly borrowed or is an instance of a “single-word code switch” (124) from English to Latin and also compares loanwords in terms of word frequencies and distributions (based on ‘The Dictionary of Old English’). Chapter 8, “Methodologies,” then provides more extensive information about how to apply the semantic and phonological criteria from Chapter 6, bringing into the discussion complications that arise from the potential for Latin words to be borrowed through another Germanic language and not directly from Latin itself. It also returns to the issue of semantic borrowing, which “was a much more common process in Old English than borrowing of loanwords” (162). The data presented throughout Part III demonstrate to the reader “that little is inevitable in borrowing and there can be very different outcomes from very similar contact situations” (167).

Part IV has two chapters and changes the focus to the influence of Scandinavian on English. Chapter 9, “Introduction to Scandinavian loanwords in English,” provides historical context for borrowings from Scandinavian and focuses on one of the most shocking types of loanwords taken from Scandinavian: core vocabulary, such as ‘they’ and ‘take.’ These types of loanwords indicate a far different type of contact between English and Scandinavian, perhaps caused by a situation in which many speakers were bilingual. Chapter 10, “Identifying Scandinavian borrowings and assessing their impact,” incorporates word lists from Scandinavian, primarily organized by sound change evidence, though other considerations are included, such as features of derivational morphology and the lack of native cognates. A primary theme from Part IV is that, “Whatever yardstick we adopt, it is clear that borrowing from early Scandinavian has ultimately had a very significant impact on the core vocabulary of modern English, including even the closed-class grammatical category” (221).

The three chapters of Part V explore the largest explosion of borrowing in English’s history: Middle English and the loanwords from Latin and French, specifically focusing on how difficult it can be to confidently separate French loanwords, Latin loanwords, and words that are Latin in origin but potentially borrowed through French. The information in Part V demonstrates that “English borrowing from French and from Latin (frequently via French in the medieval period) is different and really rather unusual both in extent and kind” (223). In Chapter 11, “Exploring the contact situation and identifying loans,” Durkin focuses on two primary difficulties in tracing loanwords: (1) the inability to find the actual date (or date range) of entry of a particular loanword into English (because scholars are limited only to written records—what few there are), and (2) loanwords that fall into a category of “French and/or Latin.” He demonstrates how semantic, morphological, and phonological evidence can indicate a loanword’s route into English and provides lists of words that fit into three different categories: French only, Latin only, and French and/or Latin. He continues using those three categories in Chapter 12, “Quantifying French and Latin contributions to Middle English,” to quantify just how many words French and Latin contributed to Middle English and breaks the data down by 50-year increments. He further adds one last category (and another complication): Anglo-French loanwords (as distinguished from continental French loanwords). Chapter 13, “Example passages from English and multilingual texts,” provides sample Middle English texts with loanwords bolded and subsequent commentaries about each bolded word. One key aspect of Part V is to demonstrate the importance of a multilingual society when working with Middle English and its lexicon, especially when determining whether a word is truly borrowed or an instance of code-switching.

Finally, Part VI, which is comprised of four chapters, considers loanwords that have been borrowed in the last 500 years (i.e., borrowings after 1500), the impact of those loanwords, and advice for researchers who want to conduct their own historical studies. This part separates loanwords by source language, focusing first on Latin and French and then shifting to examples from languages that are among the 25 most frequent source languages for English loanwords. The last 500 years have shown a decreasing trend in the amount of words borrowed into English, as well as an increasing trend of borrowing from languages other than Latin and French. Chapter 14, “Borrowing from Latin and French after 1500,” discusses some changes in how English borrowed words after 1500, specifically focusing on borrowings from Latin and French. One of the major changes discussed is the difference in attitude speakers had toward loanwords. The chapter also highlights ways in which Latin and French loanwords have introduced changes in English, such as stress and derivational morphology.

In Chapter 15, “Loanwords from other languages: test cases,” Durkin focuses on the differences between direct and indirect borrowing (e.g., borrowing a Greek word through Latin) and the importance of being able to identify a direct from an indirect borrowing. He splits this chapter into two sections: (1) loanwords from European languages and (2) loanwords from languages outside Europe, such as Arabic and Malay. Throughout, he provides ample examples and demonstrates that loanwords that have entered English in the last 500 years are commonly associated with food, culture, imported goods, and flora or fauna native to a specific region. Chapter 16, “Long-term effects of loanwords on the shape of the English lexicon,” turns the focus to meanings rather than the words themselves, and words provided as examples are organized into semantic categories (e.g., the senses, the physical world). He writes, “the availability of full or near synonyms has often been exploited in order to realize finer distinctions in meaning, or to establish different stylistic registers” (400). Finally, Chapter 17, “General conclusions and pointers for further investigation,” offers concluding thoughts on the different types of contact situations in English’s history and the emphasis on loanwords from Latin and French throughout its history. Returning to the uncertainty of working with loanwords, he points out, “English is a particularly well-documented language for most of its history, although some of the most important episodes of borrowing fell in precisely those periods for which we have least documentation” (428).


Durkin achieves his goal of reaching “the reader who perseveres” (14) and demonstrates that etymologies are neither certain nor stale. It is refreshing to read a history of the English language from such a focused perspective, and Durkin is clearly passionate about the subject. Because the study of loanwords is also a study of political and socio-cultural history, he strives to bring past speakers and communities to life, reminding the reader that they were much more complex than a surviving document can capture. Furthermore, he does not try to present information as if it were clear-cut—he unabashedly points out hidden complexities and gray areas.

Some readers may feel frustrated by the fact that throughout the book, the quantitative data presented is primarily based on an incomplete edition of the OED, thus making it possible that the numbers presented are incorrect—not just due to gray areas but also due to incomplete data sets. However, in the final chapter, Durkin mentions that he will continue to update information on the book's companion website. Furthermore, readers not engaged with the material itself will most likely not be engaged by the writing; Durkin provides dense information and multiple lists of examples, making it easy for the reader to get lost in lists of words. By targeting a more specialized audience, though, he is able to skip quite a bit of introductory material and really focus on the finer points, thus enriching the content and supporting his overall goal for the book.

Ultimately, Durkin's book is a good research tool for those who have already had an introduction to the field; in other words, it is not meant for the uninitiated reader. Durkin nicely summarizes the importance of this book in a paragraph near the end of the final chapter:

Loanwords have a key role in the development of the lexicon, whether they offer ways of expressing new concepts or new ways of expressing existing concepts. They may lead to the loss of an existing word, or to semantic narrowing or specialization, or to a split between different registers. Investigating their history opens up new perspectives on the historical development of a culture and a society. Indeed, finer-grained analysis offers the potential to gain insight into a plurality of cultures and societies that share a common core of vocabulary but within which there are significant differences in the lexicons of particular groups or individuals. Ultimately, language is a vehicle of thought and expression, and the reception of loanwords into the system of a language is one of the ways in which a language changes and develops, and with it the resources of that language for formulating thoughts and communicating them to others. (428)
Jessie Sams is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her primary research interests include the interface of syntax and semantics, especially the intersection of the two within written English quotatives; history of the English language and English etymology; and constructed languages.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780198736493
Pages: 512
Prices: U.K. £ 18.99