General Question

_zen_'s avatar

What classifies as English? When is a (originally foreign) word English and when isn't it?

Asked by _zen_ (7809 points ) May 25th, 2011

I’ve been having an ongoing debate with a very learned friend here about what exactly is English – what is the English language – and more specifically, when is a word English and when is it, say German or French.

I don’t want to include the debate here – and I don’t want to state my point – but rather leave the question as is – and see how you jellies define the English language. Then I will be happy to add my thoughts.

But for now:

What is English?

When is a foreign word (a German word, e,g,) English?

What is the English language authority – and who decides what is English and what isn’t – both for you – and in general – if they differ.

Thank you.

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77 Answers

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

Can you give me some examples of what might be in a gray area?

_zen_'s avatar

@MyNewtBoobs Read the details carefully – and come up with your own definition. I cannot write anymore for now as I want to keep it objective. Read the details and try to answer the questions at the end – if not the OP.

Response moderated (Unhelpful)
meiosis's avatar

There is no English language authority that mirrors L’Académie française, for example. The compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary are probably the closest – they claim to be the definitive record of the English language. Each year they issue a list of new words that have made it into their dictionary. However, English is a constantly evolving language, and the OED are just mirroring common usage. If enough people use a word in speech and writing, it will become part of English.

anartist's avatar

Technically, when it is included in a major English language dictionary [and not in the foreign words and phrases section]. That is part of what new editions of dictuionaries are all about.
Things like angst, zeitgeist, savoire faire, discotheque, de nada, usw

Bagardbilla's avatar

The language is as it’s speakers choose and use it to be, the rest just come along after the fact and state the obvious.

Plucky's avatar

I think it has to do with how often and how many people are using the word ..before it is added to the english language. If a foreign word becomes english, I think it is because of the same rules: how often and how many people are using it – unless the foreign word is for something the english language has no equivalent for (such as many different foods – like the spanish “taco”). English is full of loanwords.
As for who decides what is added to english… I think the mainstream dictionary companies do – they do so through their own research. But, if you look at the bigger picture, I think a word’s usage in society is really the deciding factor. It doesn’t become popular if we don’t use it.

I tend to think of english as being a melting pot of many languages; one that keeps growing.

I hope that all makes sense ..I had a horrible time finding a way to explain it.

josie's avatar

The language which is described in the Oxford Dictionary

cazzie's avatar

Officially, a word is a word when the English Dictionaries include it. The cool thing is there are words added all the time.

ShanEnri's avatar

I don’t know about authorities or such, but I would think the origins of the words themselves determine the language.

_zen_'s avatar

@ShanEnri Read the details again – try to answer the question; what is considered English? What is an authority on anything? There must be an authority – read some of the posts and decide for yourself – but there must be some authority on a language – or how would it be taught in schools? I could right gibberish now and decide it’s English.

BarnacleBill's avatar

The basis of standard English language appears to have been defined by our good friend Samuel Johnson in 1755. It was commissioned by a consortium of English booksellers who were dissatisfied with other dictionaries of that time. It remained the preferred academic dictionary until the OED was published by Oxford University in 1928.

The OED is considered the definitive source of English and includes the etymology of words. English is a hybrid mishmash of other languages, based first on Old Engish – Anglo-Saton and Celtic words, and then as Great Britian was invaded—Vikings, Romans, Normans—other words were incorporated into the English language. Because of the widespread conquest of the Romans and the Normans, Romance languages have the same basis for many words. The Church and the standard of classical languages propagated the Latin as a component of a classical education. England’s command of the seas, and commerce, spread the English language to other parts of the globe and brought back new words, which, like slang today, fell into common usage.

marinelife's avatar

It is a matter of usage. It becomes English when it is commonly used for a while, and it has become accepted by the compilers of English language dictionaries.

Why is your question just about English? It applies to every language.

_zen_'s avatar

@marinelife – I have to disagree. First of all, the debate is specifically about English – and not about other languages in general. Second, as an example, Hebrew does its darndest to exclude foreign words, and has a committee (known as the Academy) to come up with “genuine” Hebrew words in place of the foreign terms. Thus internationally recognized “English” or foreign words, like television and telephone, will have a Hebrew word created for it – usually around the terminology to describe its function (if it’s a noun), or based on previous grammar – if it’s descriptive or a verb. Thus, telephone, rather than just becoming a word, is a “sach rachok” – which literally means long distance conversation (enabler) – thought it isn’t commonly used. It, the latter, is Hebrew. The former (telephone) is called “loaz” – a foreign term – not Hebrew. Slang. And as ooposed to English slang, which has a wonderful lexicon all its own, will one day – most probably and with enough usage – enter the official English language. Telephone will never become Hebrew – as the instrument already has a Hebrew term for it.

That’s that difference. My guess is that French is closer to Hebrew that way.

JLeslie's avatar

I have not read above answers yet. Here is my opinion. Words get accepted into the English language, but to me, they remain German, French, or whatever language. There are so many. Angst, schmuck, hors d’oeuvres, kindergarten, and on and on. I guess it could be argued that if over time English changes the meaning from the original language, then it becomes English? But, I still would say they are the language of the mother tongue.

flutherother's avatar

English doesn’t have any purity to preserve as its origins go back to Germanic languages and Latin with borrowings from all over the world. There is no authority for English words other than the dictionaries which merely reflect common usage, and the common usage of a particular kind of speaker at that.

I grew up in Scotland and the language we spoke in the school playground was quite different from that taught in class. What was taught in class was ‘correct’ English or that of the Oxford English Dictionary. There are lots of words and phrases used in Scotland which do not appear in the OED and that is why we have our own dictionary to reflect usage in Scotland, Chambers Scots Dictionary.

We speak English with our own pronunciation and with our own words. We use the ‘ch’ sound a lot as in’ loch’, which people in England are unable to pronounce. We use words like ‘ken’ for know or ‘cundie’ for drain which sound alien to the English but are recognisable in Europe. We do of course understand ‘proper’ English and speak it when required.

marinelife's avatar

@zen C’est la vie! Chacun a son gout.

JLeslie's avatar

@zen So are you saying the words do become English, once we English speakers use them enough? I am a little confused. I was thinking about your explanation about other languages. My husband’s family, Spanish speaking, uses the word lunch. I have no idea if it has been adopted into the Mexican version of the Spanish dictionary, but if it has been, I still think of it as an English word. I believe the origin of the word is German, like so much of English, but to me root or origin, and using the actual word are two different things. Also, again with Spanish, I remember an engineer on fluther saying most of the vocabulary in his profession are English and German words, in Spanish they use the German and English terms. The words must be in Spanish dictionaries, but I do not consider them Spanish words, so that is part of the reason behind my first answer.

@marinelife I think English is a trickier language to contemplate with this type of question. As zen pointed out Hebrew, and probably other languages, fervently try to maintain what they consider to be the integrity of the language from its origins. English is a mish mosh of languages to begin with, and we adopt words fairly readily. Back to my example of the word lunch in the first part of this answer, if it is now in Spanish dictionaries, do you consider it a Spanish word?

the100thmonkey's avatar

Many languages have their “academies”. Japan has a pre-defined set of about 1900 Chinese characters (kanji) and prescriptions on what is “standard” Japanese, such as that which appears in newspapers. There is no central organising body ,in the UK at least, which defines what is and what is not English. It would be impossible anyway – it’s a langue-voleuse.

I would suggest that the answer is found in pragmatics; I consider a word to be “English” when it no longer requires italics in written text to identify it as a loan word, and when its use in spoken text does not raise an eyebrow or cause the interlocutor to think “why are they trying to appear educated and refined by using a French/Spanish/etc… word?”

Tsunami is a really good example – the syllable initial affricate “ts” does not occur naturally in English, and the word is pronounced “sunami”. The weeks following the disaster in Japan, fluther was filled with the word, yet I’m pretty confident that no-one batted an eyelid at its use, and probably used the word several times a day in speech without triggering the reaction I spoke of above.

JLeslie's avatar

@the100thmonkey It seemed to me a lot of people around me in America during the Tsunami in Asia several years ago had never heard of the word. If not for the media coverage we have now, that word would still be a huge mystery to a lot of people. 10 years ago Tsunami would have raised eyebrows I think among a large portion of Americans. Is it that quick for you. In just a few years a word can go from using it in English, to being an English word?

The spelling doesn’t matter I think. English is full of crazy spelling and exceptions.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Well, the point I should have made was that the word has been in use for years in English already – I’d heard of it as a child. Perhaps it’s down to the difference between language communities, but my immediate circle of friends in the UK all knew what it was and used it freely.

The spelling matters, in my opinion as many words from other languages have been adapted to fit the sound system of English. “Tsunami” is still clearly a relatively new word, as is “psychology”. It clearly marks the word as foreign.

Take “kebab” as another example – there are variant spellings of the word, but if i sasy to my friends “I want a kebab” after finishing my dinner, they know what I mean.

marinelife's avatar

@JLeslie Regarding lunch. Yes, i would consider it now a Spanish word with English origins.

morphail's avatar

@the100thmonkey “psychology” is about 200 years older than “tsunami”.

But I like your point about how a word is “English” when it is no longer spelled with italics. Both “psychology” and “tsunami” were written in italics when they were first introduced, and this marked them as foreign words. Now they’re pretty much naturalized I think.

JLeslie's avatar

@marinelife Interesting. I consider it Spanish using an English word. But, I thi k it can be argued either way. It is kind of both I guess.

@morphail @the100thmonkey I never noticed italics for words of other languages.

LostInParadise's avatar

A word becomes a part of English when people don’t know or care about its origin. There are a number of people who use words that come from Yiddish who have no idea where the words come from. These words are well on their way to becoming a part of English, if they have not already done so.

anartist's avatar

Hebrew—has it incorporated any Yiddish, which has both elements of German and Russian?

What good does it do for Israel to invent terms for foreign words that no one uses? All that is doing is stagnating the language and creating a dictionary that is not useful for a foreigner trying to speak to real Israelis. France has accepted into common use words such as “le drugstore”—it would be interesting to know if these words are in their dictionaries as words like “discotheque” are in ours.

Germany also has lots of long “constructed” words that probably are replaced in common use by foreign words or abbreviations. Anybody know about how many foreign words are accepted in German?

Hebrew—has it incorporated any Yiddish, which has both elements of German and Russian?

anartist's avatar

A Conundrum:
If a foreign word or phrase makes it into the OED but not into Merriam Webster’s or Random House, IS IT ENGLISH?
Conversely, if a foreign word or phrase makes it into Merriam Webster’s or Random House, but not into the OED, IS IT ENGLISH?

JLeslie's avatar

@anartist My guess is no, Yiddish is not incorporated in Hebrew, but we need Zen to confirm. Hebrew was basically dead. The Jews brought it back to life, and seem to want to keep it pure. It’s like Latin. I cannot imagine adding the word telephone to Latin. By the way my Israeli-Mexican in-laws speak Hebrew and Arabic, and barely have ever heard of one word of Yiddish. But, I think Israel is something like 50% Ashkenazi, so I am sure there is still Yiddish spoken and probably newspapers there. Probably Tel Aviv is like NYC, with Yiddish words thrown around. Let’s see what Zen says.

ShanEnri's avatar

@zen my apologies for not paying attention to the details! After some thought on it I decided that the true authority (in my opinion) is the English speaking people. And wouldn’t all languages go back to the origins of all languages? Christians go back to the tower of Babel, for example. But the majority of people who speak English use a ‘new’ word and eventually you’ll find it in the dictionary.

sugabelly's avatar

okay for example the word Kingly is English-English. It was replaced by the French approximation Royal.

So technically, Kingly is actual English while Royal isn’t.

So instead of the Royal Wedding, it should have been the Kingly Wedding.

sugabelly's avatar

@the100thmonkey Tsunami is a Japanese word that Americans just started using a lot.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@sugabelly – I think i know that (I live in Japan).

Did you actually read my post or just scan it?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@sugabelly Except that no one getting married was a king. That’s why the more general word “royal” was appropriated in the first place.

GracieT's avatar

@sugabelly, I didn’t realize that tsunami wasn’t all that common in the West. My friends and I have known/used it for years and I thought everyone did.

JLeslie's avatar

@GracieT Definitely was not common in America until the big Tsunami in Asia 5 years ago. Well, maybe on the Pacific coast and Hawaii people were more familiar. However, I did learn about Tsunamis in school, I am 40. Just a lot of Americans seem to not retain much from school for some reason.

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail 6 years ago?

I don’t mean there was never a Tsunami before in history. Like I said, I learned about it in school. Stories of men leaving in the morning to go fishing, and then while out at sea not realizing the Tsunami was rolling beneath them, returning later to their village and finding it wiped out from the huge wave.

SavoirFaire's avatar

How does everyone here pronounce “tsunami”? I know @the100thmonkey said that English-speakers pronounce it “sunami,” but I learned it with the “ts” sound. Just curious.

JLeslie's avatar

What is a ts sound? How do you even say that? Yes, for me the T is silent, like in Tsar, but I write Czar.

JLeslie's avatar

My maiden name has a tk in it. Silent t.

_zen_'s avatar

The ts sound is very common in Hebrew and Yiddish. In English, Itsy, bitsy spider comes to mind offhand.

When searching for ts words, I found it interesting that many of the words beginning with ts come from Yiddish, or Russian. They are now, of course, English – which is sort of the point of this question.

Here’s a list of them

Plucky's avatar

I pronounce tsunami um how it’s spelt. I never heard of it as “sunami” until reading this thread ..lol.

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie The word started gaining in popularity after WW II.

anartist's avatar

@zen Only one on your list commonly used in English is/was “tsar”—now “Anglicized” to “czar”—after all—“tsar” is just a Russianization of “Caesar.”

Foreign words [just like archaic words] can also fade out of the English language.

The only tz word I use is tzuris and I know I am using Yiddish. Kibbutzim [or any plural?]—Is that an Israeli word that uses a Russian ‘tz’?

_zen_'s avatar

@anartist Ts is a common sound in Yiddish and Hebrew, as I said. It has it’s own, distinct letter in fact. Israeli is like American.

The word is Kibbuts, or Kibbutz. In other words, phonetically writing the Hebrew word for “commune” like community – which ends in the letter Tsadik – the ts sounding letter in Hebrew.

Words ending in “IM” – which sounds more like a long e sound “eem” – simply mean masculine plural. Thus one Kibbuts – two Kibbutsim.

anartist's avatar

Sorry—I meant Hebrew.
I noticed another spelling shift along the lines of Quadfi, Gadhafi etc.
I knew the word as kibbutz especially when I was younger had had college friends making Aliyah[?] and going to stay on a kibbutz for a year o a summer. Kibbuts is new to me.

And was it a newly created word, or did collectives exist before CE?

_zen_'s avatar

@anartist There are signs all over Israel infamous for their horrible spelling mistakes – but then, is there a standardized rule about phonetically spelling a word in English? I have even seen it spelled Qibuz and Qibbutz. I was told that it’s a leftover from the Ottoman Empire and before the British took over (Kibbutzim have been around for 100 years). Apparently, the Q without a U symbolized the K sound. Like I said, the Tsaddik (my spelling now) is the Hebrew letter which sounds like a TS together. How would you write the word Kibbutz then? TZ has a different sound – you do not hear the letter Z at the end of the word Kibbuts – so I think if it’s going to be spelled phonetically – it should be Kibuts (why use two B’s? It’s just a B sound in the middle – what do two B’s sound like anyway?)

:-)

anartist's avatar

dunno. As a young’un I just learned THAT WAS THE WORD. Now I know better—
You should see Thomas Jefferson’s spelling!
Long before I knew about dictionaries aiding the evolution of language. ~

_zen_'s avatar

Thanks – caught it in time. :-)

SavoirFaire's avatar

@JLeslie I pronounce “tsar” with the “ts” sound as well. Like @zen said, it’s like the sound in “itsy” or “bitsy.”

JLeslie's avatar

Tsaddik? You say the ts together? Is there an English sound like it? Like the CH for chanukah, or chutzpah, there is not really an English equivalent. I don’t know how to do it whe. The ts is at the beginning of a word. Ts is not like th or ch, which makes a new sound. Ts in the middle of a word is like two separate words almost, where the syllables split. Isn’t it? It-sy bit-sy. Kibbutz, is similar to an s on the end of any word ending in t. Bets, sets, vets, bits. Even chutzpah, chutz-pah; the ts or tz sound is at the end of the syllable, But the beginning of a word, I just have no idea how to say it?

JLeslie's avatar

@zen There are two b’s, because that’s how it is in English. Great explannation right. It is really a very good question for Jeruba. Sometimes it is because of the vowels in a word. Like, take for instance the word silo. If it were spelled sillo, it changes the pronounciation of the i. It goes from sigh-lo to sill-o when read by an English speaker. Another example many and Manny are pronounced differently, the double consonant changes the vowel. funy might be read foo-nee instead of funny.

My sister-in-law gets annoyed that Americans spell her name wrong, the want to put in a double LL, when she spells her name with one. But, it makes sense that Americans want to do it, because of how most words are spelled in English that are similar to her name. In Spanish there is no such thing as double consonant (except LL which makes a y sound sort of) so she just doesn’t get really why people do it, even though she is very fluent in English. i tried to give her a similar explanation to the one I just wrote to you.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@JLeslie You can hear “tsar” pronounced here.

anartist's avatar

@zen the first person to write kibbutz in English probably looked at words like bubble, puppet, toggle, tubby usw

_zen_'s avatar

@anartist Agreed. undefined Let’s just say that all bets are off. Bets off. Just as you do not separate the sound of TS there, it doesn’t matter if it’s (notice: it’s – same sound) at the beginning midle or end of a word, or phrase. Itsy bitsy spider. Do you pause to separate the T from the S? Nope – it’s just a TS sound. You don’t say It-See Bit-see – do you? I just say ITSY BITSY. That is the sound at the end of the word Kibbutz. Pushing the sound through clenched teeth.

JLeslie's avatar

@SavoirFaire Thanks. I have never heard anyone ever say Tsar like that. i am going to ask Simone and Dominc if that is how they pronounce it. If the T is pronounced why is Czar an ok spelling as well?

@anartist Exactly. In English we use the double consonant. Kibble, kibbutz. It just is how it is.

JLeslie's avatar

Hmmm. I thought of a word. I think tsk is spelled tsk, as in tsk tsk. But it is said tisk in my opinion.

_zen_'s avatar

@JLeslie Forget about tsk tsk – it’s a different sound – did you read what I wrote to anartist?

Let’s just say that all bets are off. Bets off. Just as you do not separate the sound of TS there, it doesn’t matter if it’s (notice: it’s – same sound) at the beginning midle or end of a word, or phrase. Itsy bitsy spider. Do you pause to separate the T from the S? Nope – it’s just a TS sound. You don’t say It-See Bit-see – do you? I just say ITSY BITSY. That is the sound at the end of the word Kibbutz. Pushing the sound through clenched teeth.

JLeslie's avatar

@zen I just can’t do it at the beginning of a word; it’s just me I guess. I am not trying to argue it is impossible or incorrect, it just seems unnatural to me. I guess it is similar to how my inlaws have a lot of trouble with th.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@JLeslie In Russian, there is obviously no T because there are three letters – that first letters gets a ‘ts’ in English but, generally speaking, I don’t pronounce the t at all since I can pronounce the Russian letter. However, it’s not like it sounds as if it’s ‘sar’ either so I think the ‘t’ gets you started on the word, like a jump off, but you don’t really make an emphasis on it. Since this is a foreign word, I think multiple pronunciations are okay.

JLeslie's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Is it more like a z? Zar?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@JLeslie No. Though I know some people say it like that.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@JLeslie “Tsar” and “Czar” are both acceptable spellings because there is no direct way of transliterating from Russian to English. The Russian spelling is ”цар.” This word is a contraction of the word ”цѣсарь,” which is a transliteration of the Greek ”Καισαρ,” which is itself a transliteration of the Latin “Caesar.” But while we pronounce the word “Caesar” as “see-zuhr” in English, the Romans would have pronounced the Latin as “kai-sahr” (this is also how the Greek is pronounced).

The issue is that the letter ”ц” does not have a direct equivalent in English. We try to make up for this by transliterating it into a combination of letters that (hopefully) mimics—or at least suggests—the sound from the source language. Both “ts” and “cz” capture certain aspects of the letter ”ц,” but neither is perfect. And as they are unusual combinations, many people just say “zahr.”

DominicX's avatar

@SavoirFaire

The main difference I think is that in English when we say something like “itsy-bitsy”, we say it more like “it-see bit-see” when in the Russian voiceless alveolar affricate, there’s no separating of the two sounds. “i-tsee bi-tsee” is a better way of making a more accurate comparison. The symbol for a voiceless alveolar affricate is: t͡s, with the curve above suggesting that the “ts” is a fusion of the two sounds rather than the two sounds said separately as in the English “it saw”. For that reason I do believe that “ts” is as accurate as possible, though I’m curious as to where “cz” came from. I doubt it came from English alone.

morphail's avatar

The ligature in /ts͡/ indicates that the sound is an affricate. You could do the same with the English affricates /tʃ͡/ (as in “church”) and /dʒ͡/ (as in “judge”).

Scientific transliteration uses the letter “c” for ц, which seems like a good compromise.

According to the OED, the spelling “czar” originates from one source in 1549, and for some reason it stuck.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@DominicX I actually do pronounce “itsy” and “bitsy” as “ih-tsee” and “bih-tsee.” I suspect that @zen does, too. That’s why we thought they’d be helpful as examples. Apparently, a lot of people don’t pronounce them that way (though I suspect they might when speaking quickly, just like the words “what you” are often pronounced “wha’choo”).

This is one of those things I love about Fluther. You can get all sorts of interesting information about how other people do things.

JLeslie's avatar

@SavoirFaire I wasn’t caught up in the spelling. I don’t worry much about how we try to spell things in English as long as people from the original language are ok with it. Yiddish is spelled ten different ways in English, no matter to me.

Interesting about pointing out you pronounce itsy ih-tsee. Itsy, or itty, which is synonomous basically, would be divided between the t and the s in English. If you had to put in a hyphen at the end of a sentence or demonstrate the syllables. It just has never occured to me ts is its own sound. I love this conversation. Something new to ponder.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@JLeslie Well, you did ask.

You are right, of course, about the technical division of syllables in a word like “itsy.” And I think if I were trying to be very careful about pronouncing it, I would probably say it more like “it-see.” Testing myself now, however, I actually find it a bit difficult to do. It’s just very natural for me to end the first syllable with a glottal stop and carry the “t” sound over to the second syllable. Maybe it’s an accent thing?

_zen_'s avatar

@SavoirFaire On a side note, but still linguistically – Hebrew adapted the Latin version and it is thus pronounced Key-sar.

@JLeslie I have to disagree with you – your pronunciation challenges of the word itsy aside. I do not think it is syllabically divided that way – I think it’s its and bits – and thus small its and bits would be divided as @SavoirFaire suggested: ih-tsy and bi-tsy. So you still have to pronounce the ts sound. Just a thought.

JLeslie's avatar

@zen It is arguable. Do I say it its-y? Or, it-sy? I see almost no difference. The it see bit see spider went up the water spout. I really think I am more of an it-sy person, than an its-y person, but it is almost indistinguishable between the two possibilities. I still can’t do ts in the beginning of the word. Lol.

_zen_'s avatar

LOL – I give up dear.

JLeslie's avatar

I think we would have to meet and you tell me how you hear me say it to be sure. Next time I travel to Israel I’ll look you up and we can go through all the words, itsy, bitsy, ditzy…

_zen_'s avatar

You are always invited.

_zen_'s avatar

@SavoirFaire LOL – that was great!

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