Oversalted with foreign words

The Economist reported last week on what it called “the vain battle to promote German”. It quotes the founders of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (Fruitbearing Society), a literary group almost 400 years old, who centuries ago described the German language as “watered-down and oversalted” with foreign words. This old and common complaint has been taken up again by the New Fruitbearing Society, founded in 2007.

The degree to which foreign words “water down” or “salt” a language is subjective, and even the foreignness of a word can be debatable. Simeon Potter has written about the English language’s “highly technical efficiency in word-formation which enabled it . . . to absorb new elements and from these elements to shape new compounds”. This very efficiency troubled some traditionalists, who by default preferred words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Robert Burchfield called the quest for Saxonisms* “an unrealizable nationalistic dream”.

English is an unusual case, not least for the cultural power it has wielded through historical circumstance. But for all its force as the international lingua franca, it is far from monolithic. Its singular name is convenient but misleading: despite the popularity of simplified international forms such as “Basic English” and “Globish” (or the popularity of the idea of them), there are countless varieties of English, all taking their own unpredictable paths and becoming, in many cases, mutually unintelligible to varying degrees.

The boundaries between languages can be as much administrative and political as linguistic. In the so-called battle between languages, ground is always being gained here and lost there; their statuses and relationships never stabilise. Words seep from one language into another, sometimes remaining as they are (e.g. Gestalt, Zeitgeist), being translated as a calque (e.g. homesickness is calqued on Heimweh), or suffering what Burchfield described as “the indignity of being absorbed into the syllabic and other patterns of the receiving language”.

If languages survive through a process analogous to natural selection, it’s probably as complicated as it is in biology — and perhaps even less predictable, being human-centred. We can see related and ancestral forms in the morphology of words we use just as in the morphology of plants and animals we see. Anthony Burgess, in Language Made Plain, wrote that there is “fascination in looking for the family face under the whiskers”; that invasion and academia had given English “the surface appearance of a Romance language”, but that it remained “very much a Germanic dialect”.

This is unlikely to console the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, whose grievance is understandable but who would do well to prepare for disappointment. I’m all for languages retaining native words and expressions, but there are limits to how much influence — not to mention control — any person, lobby group or statutory body has over anyone else’s usage. L’Académie française is a telling example. Moreover, causes like this tend to attract purism and scapegoating, neither of which squares with the practical promotion of a language.


* Saxonism: “a name for the attempt to raise the proportion borne by the originally & etymologically English words in our speech to those that come from alien sources” (H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage).

[Image adapted from here.]

15 Responses to Oversalted with foreign words

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh those purists. They should take a page out of the computer science classes conducted “as gaeilge”, in Dublin and the classes were booked solid. I do believe the prof was awarded a Fulbright for his work.
    Sorry I can’t search and link being in the dark hell of Dialup Dementia.

  2. Stan says:

    WWW: Irish has been undergoing a resurgence in recent years, especially among non-Irish nationals. The country is mostly populated by people (like me) who wish they could speak it better, but it’s in a far healthier state than it was when I was young, thanks in no small part to committed cultural and educational enterprises.

  3. Saxonism.. It sounds like a word that the Ireish Irelanders would have used to describe some act of a West Brit!

    I’ glad that Gaelic survives. Like Welsh it certainly won’t go the way of Norn or Yola…

  4. Stan says:

    You’re right, Jams — it does! Wikipedia says there are “attempts to revive [Norn] on cyberspace as Nynorn (New-Norn)”, and links to an interesting website with a small but enthusiastic community. So who knows…

  5. Good luck to them. Now lets see a tiny corner of Wexford turned into a yoltacht!

  6. Sean Jeating says:

    Oh yes! For the same reason(s) – to offer but one example – what since the time French used to be en vogue for about one century in German used to be spelled ‘Portemonnaie’ now per ordre de mufti (ha ha ha) ought to be spelled ‘Portmonee’.
    The result of the ‘great’ Rechtschreibreform [reform of (the German) ortography-],launched to make impeccable ortography easier for everybody, can be witnessed online in f.e. the comment-boxes of any German newspaper.

    Conclusion: Changing the rules does not necessarily increase the amount of people who will understand them.
    Ha ha ha, why would I feel such amused.

  7. Stan says:

    Jams: Yoltacht is a great word. It deserves a real referent.

    Sean: Amusement is an appropriate response. Even if an attempt to reform spelling includes some sensible suggestions, as a grand plan it seems impractical and unrealistic at best. I imagine decisions being made only after prolonged consideration by a committee through the filters of its members’ wayward passions and arbitrary peeves. Confusion, compromise and inconsistency would seem inevitable.

  8. Aidan says:

    Interesting post. I just blogged on the same thing today, there is a (free) paper about the position of global English I linked to that might is interesting reading (http://www.britishcouncil.org/learning-research-englishnext.htm).
    English cannot really be compared to most major languages precisely because it doesn’t have a controlling language academy. That has major disadvantages because it means that English grammar and spelling are much harder to define. On that issue I wrote one time: “Many English speakers may never have studied any grammar and the spelling conventions are generally based on the major dictionaries like the Webster for American English and the Oxford for British English. English is a language that could do with some spelling reform as the often wholly non-phonetic spelling makes it pointlessly difficult. How would you even go about this without some kind of international governing body?”.
    Languages like Icelandic have very effectively adopted new words or revived old ones to deal with new concepts (e.g. simi was an old word for thread which they revived to mean telephone). It is impossible to totally control what words are used in a language but it is also true that measures can be taken to prevent the wholesale anglicization of languages.

  9. Stan says:

    Hi Aidan. Thanks for the comment and the link to David Graddol’s paper, which I’ve downloaded for later reading. I agree that measures can be taken to protect and promote native languages, but I’m sceptical about the degree of influence an official language academy could wield. In English, even groups of modest and admirable principles, such as the Society for Pure English, have faded into obscurity. Fowler put it well: “What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes.”

    Spelling reform also has potential advantages, but I think these are outweighed by its disadvantages. Irregular spelling and dialectal variants act as a link to neighbouring tongues and ancestral forms. Settling on official new spellings of familiar words would, I suspect, confuse more than it would persuade. Even a modest overhaul would entail much more effort than it’s likely to warrant; Robert Burchfield and Philip Gove (editor of Webster’s Third) discussed the possibility of reconciling some AmE–BrE spelling differences, but it came to nowt.

    (Note to other readers: Aidan’s post is here.)

  10. Aidan says:

    Well, I speak two languages every day (Polish and Dutch) which have language academies and I would not underestimate their influence. Polish people are very aware of ‘correct’ Polish. Despite the prevalence of English imports in Dutch popular programs such as ‘Tien voor taal’ on the television demonstrate the respect people have for the guiding hand of the language institute. Every time there is a spelling reform here we have major television coverage.
    English spelling would be hard to reform now because of the lack of a governing institute. As I am Irish I use British and American spellings interchangeably. What annoys me in English is not so much the lack of phonetic spelling as the inconsistency, in other languages you almost always know how to write what you hear, not so English. In one way the advantages you assign to English are the same as the advantages of character based languages like Chinese. It depends on how you see the link between written and spoken language. For me they should be more closely linked than is the case with English.
    Another advantage of a language academy is touched on in that paper. If you ask me who owns or rules English I cannot answer that question but I can tell you who controls French and Spanish. The very fact that English speakers are not in control of their own language means that second language speakers can take control and cut out the middle man. The result is that a debased form of English is becoming the world’s lingua franca and English speakers are forced to adapt accordingly (or risk not being understood). In a way we have given away a major competitive advantage, the English language is the biggest open source project available to mankind ;-)

  11. Stan says:

    Thanks for the background on the Polish and Dutch academies, Aidan. I agree that English would be harder to reform, for several reasons. Regarding the inconsistency of its pronunciation, the notorious -ough exemplifies the difficulty of re-standardisation: any changes to spelling would probably only produce further inconsistency and ambiguity. Minor changes might be possible if there were a suitable authority or sufficient public momentum behind a new spelling or usage.

    As English goes global, it inevitably sacrifices subtlety and complexity for reach, but in the long term it loses neither, I think. I like your description of English in the last line, but I would suggest that civilisation, or humankind itself, is the biggest open source project available to us!

  12. Simone says:

    Speaking German and English on a daily basis, it’s not so much the ‘Denglisch’ (Deutsch/Englisch) that annoys me, but, strangely, the atrocious spelling of the English language that’s taken hold through ‘text speak’ *shudders*
    I think a big problem of English taking such a strong foothold in Germany, and ‘watering down’ the language, is the perception that it’s ‘cool’ to intersperse every sentence with at least one English word, whether you actually know what it means, or not. Also, the ‘germanification’ of English words – such as using ‘Ich habe den Film gedownloadet’, as opposed to ‘Ich habe den Film heruntergeladen’ just hurts my eyes. Gah!

  13. Stan says:

    That seems like a fair criticism of “Denglisch”, Simone. Certainly gedownloadet looks and sounds a bit silly when the native heruntergeladen does the same job perfectly well. You make a good point about the perception of the language. Irish struggled for decades, partly because it was considered not only impractical but uncool; the recent revival is due in no small part to its having been rebranded for young people as an exciting, dynamic, and sexy language. Was Deutsch angeht, vielleicht muß die Werbung rebooten sein!

    I generally avoid txtspk except when the circumstances argue in its favour, but it can be very useful in appropriate contexts. David Crystal has defended it soundly.

  14. John Cowan says:

    The fact that English doesn’t have an academy to standardize it doesn’t mean that it’s not standardized to a remarkable degree. There is much more difference between the standard forms of European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese (which have separate, but cooperating, academies) than there is between any pair of standard English varieties. (Accent is not part of Standard English.)

    How does this happen? By what physicists call a Hartree-Fock process. Lexicographers compile what publishers do, and publishers do what they believe lexicographers are telling them to do. As a result, there is rapid convergence on one or in some cases a small number of forms.

  15. Stan says:

    John: Thank you, that’s an interesting point about the standard varieties of Portuguese. Although I can’t claim to understand the Hartree-Fock method, what you say about lexicographers and publishers makes immediate sense. It seems to be a kind of gravitational attraction in the service of greater utility.

    On standardisation, Huddleston and Pullum (2005) wrote: “the grammar of Standard English is much more stable and uniform than its pronunciation or word stock: there is remarkably little dispute about what is grammatical . . . and what isn’t.”

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