The Famous Sími or The Myth of International Words

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
Gearr leum gu: seòladh, lorg

This page isn't so much of a lesson or lecture, rather it's an attempt at making us think about borrowing words from more than just one perspective. And before I even start, there is no "answer".

The question of loanword vs neologism is something we have all come across. This issue arises no matter what language(s) we speak and simply because as long as a language is alive, the culture it is connected with changes, and nothing in human culture is static unless dead. We invent things, we introduce new things, some things become obsolete and die out, someone else introduces a new thing ... there are many ways for change to arise. Think about it - Shakespeare didn't have a word for Pokemon or desktop and Goethe didn't know what an Auspuff is (German for an exhaust) - simply because these things didn't exist.

We constantly re-arrange our language to fit our communicative needs, both on a personal level and on a collective one. Human language is uniquely adapted for this task because we inherit from our language environment a set of finite rules for how to put words together but we do not a finite set of phrases. So once we have mastered these rules, we can express a limitless number of things. It's like maths. You could try to learn all the possible additions there are and get nowhere. Or, you could learn the rules of addition and be able to do any addition that comes your way, no matter how big or small the numbers.

So why should you be interested in all this? Well, the thing is, there are essentially two ways of dealing with this business of describing a changing environment with words. Both ways are equally valid and controversial.

Either a language can deal with a new concept, say a technological innovation, by using the native repertoire of words, or, the language can borrow words from a different language.

The Save the Planet way - Re-use, Re-cycle

Let's look at the first way of dealing with a technological innovation, because there is more than one way. You can either take an old word or even an obsolete one (mearning a word that has been recorded but isn't in use any more, so it's a dead word, in a sense) and simply re-apply it to the new concept. It's not as uncommon as you may think. The following are all 'real life examples' used in everyday language to name a new creation by using previously used words:

sími a (formerly) obsolete word for a certain type of fishing line in Icelandic ⇨ telephone
waka the Māori word for a canoe, which in most urban settings has come to mean ⇨ car
clò-bhualadh hitting of cloth - the original context of this word having been cloth-printing, now generalised to mean ⇨ printing
Aufrüstung a German word which originally referred to a knight putting on his suit of armour ⇨ armament
book derived from an old Germanic word bōks which means 'beech' - as the only writing the ancient Germans knew was done on rune-sticks made from beech, they simply transferred the word when 'real books' as we know them came in ⇨ book
Buchstabe based on the above bōks and stabi, a 'stick' - again referring to the above rune-sticks, this word has been transferred to mean a ⇨ letter (of the alphabet)

And so on. OK, shoot me, the process was not "planned" in all these examples but I'm just using them to illustrate a point.

Stitch 'n Bitch

So what else can we do? A language can form a new compound, which describes the use or function of this new concept. Here are some more real life examples:

béésh be hane'é a lovely Navajo word which literally translates as 'instrument, with it talking takes place' ⇨ telephone
timmisartok Greenlandic, and one of those few words of which we know when it was born - it is part of a longer phrase meaning 'to fly like a bird (without flapping its wings)' - born in 1927 when Lindbergh flew over Greenland in an ⇨ airplane
lightbulb yep, the thing you plant if you like spring flowers, modified by <light> so you know which one to put where ⇨ lightbulb
garagardo barley wine - as the Basques had long cultivated vines and faced with this new-fangled Germanic drink, they decided this was an appropriate term for ⇨ beer
milá haŋska long knife - a word that conjures up bad memories for the Dakota, as it hails back to their first encounters with the Americans, who were sporting bayonets and came to mean simply an ⇨ American soldier
šuŋka wakaŋ another Dakota word literally translating as mysterious dog - as dogs had been the main animal of burden, this was deemed appropriate for a ⇨ horse

The list is long. Although common, this one often leads to controversy.

Linguistic credit crunch

And then there is the other way - borrowing words. Just a few examples:

ketchup English, from the Cantonese for tomato sauce ké jāp
langasaid Gaelic, from Scots langsett which in turn is most likely based on French chaise longue - a 'long seat' langsettchaise longue
Schässloh This time Bavarian for a settee, but again based on French chaise longue - a 'long seat' chaise longue
līp Going the other way round, this is an English word borrowed into Cantonese - anybody guess what it means? It's a lift. How on earth? Easy - Cantonese does not have consonant clusters such as ft and the closest thing it has to final -f is final -p, hence līp ⇦ lift
kiosk Wonderful word-journey. Originally from Persian kūšk a palace to Turkish köşk a pavillion to French kiosque and ultimately to English. kūšk
bilasáana Navajo for an apple from Spanish manzana
sofutō Japanese. Go on, guess what it means and where it comes from ... it's Japanese for software. How on earth? Easy. Japanese words must have a CVCV structure - so you stick in extra vowels to begin with. But then you'd get *sofutowaro, much too long, so you shorten it to sofutō ⇦ software
gaapaaso'ob Maya for glasses. Yes, from Spanish, good guess. The underlying word is gafas and since Maya doesn't have an f it replaces it with p and sticks a plural ending o'ob on - even though gafas already is plural. No, not weird, see below ... gafas
cherry Originally a mass noun in Norman French cherise. This got borrowed as [ʧeʁiːz] to begin with, but then people (wrongly) decided the -[iːz] obviously must be plural (cf. house [haʊs] houses [haʊziz]), so singular must be cherry. cherise

Enough of the linguistic trivia, where is the point? The first point is that all living languages do a bit of everything when having to deal with new concepts.

Peace and Harmony on Earth?

But if borrowing and creating new words is such a common thing, why is this such a contentious issue? It's a question of power and numbers.

When you have language X and it borrows a few words from language Y, that generally doesn't pose a problem. Given enough time, the borrowed term will get adjusted to fit the general patterns of that language. Think of the example with līp in Cantonese. It took the English word and whittled it down until it fit the Cantonese sound structure. So the language is a word richer and no harm has been done to either language.

Problems appear when this "healthy" equilibrium gets upset. For example, if the cultural and technological differences between these two language communities are vast, then the language on the receiving end is faced with a difficult choice. How does the receiving language cope with potentially huge numbers of new words, words which in many cases do not fit easily into that language? Do you adjust these en masse? You won't have the leisure to adjust a few dozen words over a period of several years - you may be faced with thousands of them. You will probably need some body of people who sits down to do this deliberately. But even after determinations have been made, what is the best way to disseminate the new words to make them widely available. And since they are no longer built on a general consensus, not everyone will agree.

This issue goes even deeper because, with the right set of circumstances, your community may become bilingual. And one of the funny things that happens in such communities is that younger people who are fluent in both languages tend to reject these "adjusted" words because they "know how to say them properly" in both languages. In Gaelic, a good example is cana. This is a loanword which has added a schwa [kanə] at the end to make it "fit better" and avoid messy issues related to the genitive case. As a word, it was fairly successful and had wide circulation until the younger population began to switch from predominantly Gaelic speakers to predominantly English speakers. Suddenly this was a "marked" term, a clear loan which had had a Gaelic facelift ... maybe because Gaels couldn't say the word properly? And suddenly, younger people, conscious of this word, to some degree start saying [kan], or start using the purely English term [kæn] to use a more "neutral" term.

But the much more thorny issue is that borrowing a large number of words without "adjusting" them can wreak havoc on the structure of the borrowing language. Turkish is a good example of such a language.

Turkish has a fascinating feature called vowel harmony - which means that certain vowels may only be grouped with certain other vowels. In Turkish, this means that only the front vowels i, e, ö and ü are allowed in any single word. Alternatively, only the four back vowels of Turkish u, o, a and ı are allowed in a word. For example, in the word çiçek 'flower' all vowels are front. In the word yoğurt yoghurt on the other hand, all vowels are back. Based on that, all Turkish endings have two variants, one with a back vowel and one with a front vowel; so, the plural of the above words is çiçekler and yoğurtlar.

In come the words hotel, taxi, doctor and telephone. Doktor is an obvious choice, because it already happens to conform with Turkish vowel harmony. But what about the others? None of them conform. So this batch ultimately got borrowed as otel, taksi and telefon, violating Turkish vowel harmony. You might ask, "so what?", and to an extent that's a legitimate question. The issue of having to pick an ending - taksiler or taksilar doesn't hinder people from communicating in Turkish. But you are breaking one of the major rules of Turkish phonology. So the question every language community has to decide for itself is how much of this it can and will accept.

Now Gaelic doesn't have vowel harmony, but it has a number of other things which are "big" rules regarding the sound system. For example, in Gaelic, stress may only occur on the first syllable except in two other clearly defined cases - in close compound nouns (e.g. MacDhòmhnaill) and in a small group of adverbs (e.g. a-mach). Faced with English loans, this creates a dilemma for Gaelic because stress can occur practically anywhere in an English word - banána, pérmit, permít, hydrochlóric and so on. Do you apply the Gaelic rule, throughout, when borrowing a word and get ['b̊anana], or do you retain the English stress pattern and initiate a major change in Gaelic phonology? The problem is that it won't just involve one or two words once you start down this route.

What about Gaelic reducing unstressed vowels or not allowing dental t followed by [i] and [e] vowels?

Simply saying that we will replace every loanword with a native neologism isn't practical because the Gaelic world doesn't have the mechanisms to distribute such terms to lots of people and help them use the new terms. In Iceland, hardly any loanwords are taken on and instead, after a public discourse, Icelandic terms are coined or resurrected. So what is Gaelic to do? Which rules do we keep? How much do we want to stretch them? How much should we stretch them?

What's needed here is really a healthy discourse between people who are willing to look at the complexity of Gaelic and build a workable framework, a roadmap for how we want to deal with this issue and then apply it. Ad-hoc rendering of English words into what appears to be a Gaelic "version" won't do really. Neither will burrowing one's head in the sand with the excuse that "Gaels never had microwaves" ... neither did English speaking people until 1954. Or that X is an "international word". There is no such thing as an "international word" because for every language that has borrowed the word telephone you can cite another which hasn't because the word is just unworkable in that language. German has Telefon, Cantonese has dihn wá because Cantonese words just can't have more than one syllable. Spanish has teléfono and Cheyenne has ase-éestsestotse because *tehepon (Cheyenne has no r, f or diphthongs) just doesn't roll off the tongue.

And of course, as we often forget, new words only sound off to us because we are consciously aware of the fact that they are new. However, once the young generation learns them, they become words which are "just there", like any other words. To us, "freedom fries" sounds silly. But if people continue to use this phrase, it'll just be "the series of sounds by which we call them fried potato thingies" for the next fast food generation ...

"Meditate on this I will" as Master Yoda says ...

Beagan gràmair
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