‘Because X’ in Finnish and Norwegian, because borrowing

November 20, 2015

Languages often borrow from one another: it’s a common source of linguistic growth and change. Normally what gets borrowed is words, called ‘loans’, ‘loanwords’, or ‘borrowings’ (though the terms suggest eventual return, which isn’t how it works). Any word that isn’t a loanword is a native word.

English is a frequent borrower, being full of loanwords from many other languages. This ability to integrate foreign forms is one reason for its success. And it goes both ways: because of English’s status and reach, it’s a common ‘donor language’ for others. The World Loanword Database is a useful resource on the phenomenon.

Less often, other linguistic elements are borrowed, like grammatical structures or pronunciations. An example of the former is because X, a popular construction in informal English.* I first wrote about because X in 2013, elsewhere picking it as my word of the year (the American Dialect Society later did likewise). Such was its impact that the phrase was discussed not just by linguists but by more mainstream outlets.

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Kibitzing chess players and editors

April 18, 2015

After a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). It uses a form of the Yiddish word kibitz twice in short succession:

In the April sunshine four fat men sit at a chess table in the park across the street from the university. All four of the men are wearing dark cardigan sweaters. Two of the men are playing chess, and two of them are kibitzing, but the game has been going on for so many Sundays now that it seems almost as though they are playing four-handed, the players and the kibitzers indistinguishable one from the other.

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

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Mar dhea, moryah — a sceptical Irish interjection

May 14, 2012

The Irish phrase mar dhea /mɑr’jæ/, /mɑrə’jæ/ “mor ya” is characteristic of Irish English speech. It’s a sceptical interjection used to cast doubt, dissent or derision (or all three) on whatever phrase or clause precedes it. Mar dhea literally means as were it, i.e., as if it were so.*

Sometimes mar dhea is translated as forsooth, but I’m not sure this is helpful. Better to consider it an ironic insertion similar to As if!, Yeah right!, or a sarcastic indeed or supposedly. Bernard Share, in Slanguage, describes it as an “expression of sardonic disbelief or dissent”, while P. W. Joyce says it’s:

a derisive expression of dissent to drive home the untruthfulness of some assertion or supposition or pretence, something like the English ‘forsooth’, but infinitely stronger [English As We Speak It In Ireland]

Mar dhea has been anglicised in many ways, for example moryah, mor-yah, maryahmara-ya, maryeah, mauryah, maureeyah, muryaa, moy-ah, and moya. It’s a testament to its popularity in Hiberno-English, the diversity of Irish pronunciation, and the difficulty of finding precise orthographic correspondence between the two tongues.

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