How immigration made English a richer language
Immigration was a hot topic in this month’s general election, but have you ever noticed how many of the words you use originally came from other languages?
If you’ve ever studied French, Latin, Greek, or even Old Norse, you’ll know that English speakers have imported thousands of words from other languages over the centuries. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to distinguish between ‘English words’ and imported words.
In Melvyn Bragg’s book and accompanying TV series, The Adventure of English, he explores how we’ve assimilated the languages of invaders and interlopers into our writing and our speech.
The Romans gave us wine, fork and letter. The Vikings contributed they and – perhaps surprisingly – smile and happy. And in 1066 the Normans brought number, soldier and justice. But it was the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who supplied lots of the simple Old English words that make up our everyday vocabulary – words like you, here, there, field, wood and home.
Bragg argues that Old English survived partly because it sat well on the tongue – the words were simple, short and direct. As an example, he says that in Winston Churchill’s famous 'we shall fight on the beaches' speech, the only word not rooted in Old English was surrender.
We supplement this mish-mash of inherited languages with words we’ve actively recruited. These are the highly-skilled migrant workers of the language world – words that sum up an idea so neatly, we just had bring them in. They include words like smorgasbord, sangfroid, klutz and schadenfreude. And then there are words like bungalow and cappuccino that were once new to us, but now we can’t imagine life in Britain without them.
I, for one, would like all of them to stay.