Turnabout is fair play?

by John Q on October 10, 2006

The Australian reports on the “infiltration” (or maybe “infiltrazione”) of Italian by English words, quoting Michele Cortelazzo, lecturer in linguistics at the University of Padua, who is quoted as saying

Prime recent examples were flop instead of the Italian fiasco, and trend instead of tendenza.

Does anyone notice un problema here?

Given that concern over Franglais, Spanglish and so on has been around for many decades now, I’d be interested to know whether the influence of English on other European languages goes beyond the importation of a relatively modest number of loan words. My very limited observation suggests not, but lots of readers here are in a much better position than me to comment.

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Blagdaross » Blog Archive » English influence on Swedish
10.10.06 at 6:12 pm



kid bitzer 10.10.06 at 4:22 pm

okay–I’ll play straight man.

No, I do not notice un problema here. What is it?

I have reread that sentence several times looking for some ironical, undermining fact about it, but I just don’t see it.

I do notice that “fiasco” is an example of an Italian word that has infiltrated English.

But I don’t see how any number of Italian loan-words in English would undermine the thesis that Italian is now experiencing a surge of English loan-words.

(I mean, unless the thesis being maintained was: “Italian is using English and those Anglophones *never* borrow Italian words!” Or “Italian is running a trade-deficit with English and they *never* buy our products!”)

Probably you saw some other problema. But I ain’t seeing it.


Scott Martens 10.10.06 at 4:36 pm

I’d be interested to know whether the influence of English on other European languages goes beyond the importation of a relatively modest number of loan words.

No, although “relatively modest” depends on how many you think more than modest would be, and on how you do the counting.

The social and political impact of having people think that all the cool stuff happens in English can be a real issue, but borrowing lexical items – even large numbers of lexical items – is of little significance so long as everybody knows those words. If using English words in place of well-understood Italian ones becomes a marker of status – something some people can use to snub those who don’t know the foreign terms that they’re using – then something is wrong.


xangal 10.10.06 at 4:52 pm

There are a lot of people in Spain who use “noun+to+infinitive” instead of a “relative clause” because of English.


John Quiggin 10.10.06 at 4:57 pm

kb, that was indeed my problem, as the title indicated – in fact, an earlier draft referred to the trade balance metaphor.


dearieme 10.10.06 at 5:07 pm

I read some Medieval Latin the other day and was struck by how much easier it is than the Classical Latin of schooldays. Then I realised why: the clerks were writing in an English word order. Insidious stuff, English.


Vance Maverick 10.10.06 at 5:09 pm

I’m sympathetic to the Italians’ complaints, not least because as an American in Italy, I wanted to feel I was really in a foreign country.

But fashionable words can come and go, and even a well-established loan-word can be returned. In German, literary German anyway, there was a time when practically any French word could be used with German syntax (ex.: “reüssieren”). The trend passed, and now we’re on to another. (Including of course the famous pseudo-loan-words, like “Handy”.) I think the anxiety is unnecessary.


David Weman 10.10.06 at 5:42 pm

“I’d be interested to know whether the influence of English on other European languages goes beyond the importation of a relatively modest number of loan words.”

As far as Swedish, yes, both the writen and spoken word is riddled with anglicism, ie phrases that are literal translations of english phrases. It leads to a lot of clumsy and ugly prose.

In the last 20 years or so, people who aren’t confident writers, have started writing compund words as separate words. Presumably, this is because of influence from English. Probably a majority of the younger generations do this. If it will eventually become the rule, which isn”t certain, I think it would be a rreal loss for the language, compounds are great.

In most disciplines, doctoral theses are only written in (generally kind of poor) English, which wasn’t the case thirty years ago, and some are a little worried if present trends continue, the language will be impoverished, and no one will be able to write on certain subjects in Swedish, like African languages where technical writing and other kinds of complex writing is always done in the colonialist language, people don’t have the proper vocabulary in their native tongue. Swedish has of course a long, long way to go before we get the African situation, but the present situation is somewhat problematic.

We are generally spared from these kinds of “Woe! Foreign words pollutevour language” discussion. I wonder how often these people who english speaking media love to report about are representative of elite opinion in their countries as opposed to random cranks.


engels 10.10.06 at 6:06 pm

I don’t really know German but I’m pretty sure Denglish could be added to John’s list.


Ian 10.10.06 at 6:14 pm

Scott Martens: “If using English words in place of well-understood Italian ones becomes a marker of status – something some people can use to snub those who don’t know the foreign terms that they’re using – then something is wrong.”

True; but most forms of language are exclusionary in some way; certainly all forms of “low” slang, as much as the elitist use of foreign words. And the mainstream – at least, the mainstream of English – itself has a hefty quotient of exclusionary vocabulary. (Such as, maybe, the word “exclusionary”.)

The much-hyped infiltration of other languages by English is a fad: partly silly, potentially (if rarely) stylish, and always exploitable as a caste signifier. But however damaging its use might occasionally be in social interaction, its linguistic significance is pretty ephemeral. Eg, the Russian language seems to have survived its dismissal by the faddish-minded among Russia’s 18th century aristocracy.


Jacob Christensen 10.10.06 at 6:30 pm

David Weman almost said it but the real issue in Scandinavia (i.e. Sweden, Denmark and Norway – Iceland is a special case and I know nothing about Finland) is not so much about words as about domains.

Scandinavians hava always been happy to take words from foreign languages (first Low German, the French and now English) and over the course of time integrated them in the structure of spoken and written language.

Interestingly, I have a hard time seeing any clear pattern with regard to which foreign words survived when I compare Danish and Swedish: Danish uses the French cirka, Swedish the German ungefär. On the other hand Danes eat kartofler and the Swedes potatis.

For now, I’ll spare you the story about mayonnaisekrigen back in the 1980s when the Danish Language Council wanted us to take the cue from Norwegian and start putting majonæse on our smørrebrød. The politicians didn’t. Perhaps out of reverence to the French cuisine.

If we turn to computers, dator, mjukvara and h̴rddisk are accepted terms in Swedish while datamat and programmel failed to catch on in Danish. (Computer Рspoken in fake English Рand software are used). On the other hand, Swedes talk about webben while Danes surf internettet.

The one English word which can send me in to a rage is branding – but that is not so much because business consultants have forgotten that Danish already has the words mærke and mærkevare as because they present branding as the solution to everything. The next business consultant who starts to speak about branding should be branded – in the orgininal sense of that word!

But the real problems for minor languages like Danish and Swedish has to do with domain loss where the business world and universities are happy to ditch native languages in favour of English. Using Latin as Lingua Franca was less of a problem when less than 1% of the population entered university.

Dropping Swedish or Danish in favour of English – which some prominent people in Swedish higher education want – is a problem when 30-45% enter higher education, even if it is “only” to become pre-school teachers or nurses.

On the other hand, parochialism is also a problem in the academic workd and lots of private companies do international business – though Sweden and Germany, not the U.K. or the U.S. are Denmark’s largest foreign trade partners.

Ironic twist: In Denmark, the Social Liberal Party recently proposed to make English an official language alongside Danish. The proposal was met with a lot of criticism from all sides – including the newspaper Berlingske Tidende which has renamed – sorry: rebranded – its business section from Erhverv (German) to – you’ve guessed it – Business.

Yikes, this comment is four times as long as the original post. Sorry…


Jacob Christensen 10.10.06 at 6:34 pm

(I’ve also noted some 400 spelling errors in my first comment now that I see it in full. This is what happen when you write in a foreign language.)


Down and Out in Sài Gòn 10.10.06 at 10:00 pm

It’s not just the loan words – it’s how they’re transliterated that’s important. Vietnamese was under heavy French influence for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It borrowed quite a few words, but modified them to fit the language’s phonetic constraints. For example, French gare (“station”) became Vietnamese ga, and salad became xà lách.

These days, many words are borrowed without modification at all, including a lot of computer-related terms like Internet. That’s an influence of English, but I believe that’s also the influence of near-universal literacy. (Literacy would have been 5%-10% 100 years ago.)

I think I’m seeing the opposite behavior to that pointed out by Devid Weman at #7. Vietnamese words and names were traditionally split into single syllables (xà lách provides a good example again, as does gia đình, “family”, and even the city name in my tag). Now I’m noticing that some words are now written as more than one syllable joined together, like bêtông (concrete). More English, perhaps?


j 10.11.06 at 2:09 am

Just to add to Jacob Christensen’s points about Scandinavia: the situation is very similar in Finnish. We also get a lot of loan words from English but often modify them to suit our phonetic constraints, and, sometimes, add or substitute our own suffixes (so, for example, the dreaded branding becomes brändäys, substituting the Finnish -äys for the English -ing).

The influence is not limited to vocabulary, either. Two examples come to mind: traditionally questions in Finnish have not been accompanied with a rising intonation, but this is now heard in the Helsinki area (particularly among young women, for some reason), and the impersonal you (as in the next sentence) is nowadays quite common in spoken Finnish. Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have heard anyone using it.

Finally, some idioms are translated word for word. You can even hear politicians saying pitkässä juoksussa (in the long run) in interviews. The problem is that our word juoksu (run) only refers to the physical activity. It’s hard for me not to think about marathon runners when I hear it.


Greg Moore 10.11.06 at 3:11 am

Inevitably (given the geographical proximity of the two nations), Welsh contains a great many anglicisms – mostly, as one would expect, terms relating to modern life and technology. The tendency seems to be to appropriate an English word and then cymrify the spelling: thus, “teiar” (tyre), “brêc” (brakes) and, my personal favourite, “bwci” (bookmaker). Drunken pub conversations are also frequently punctuated by bursts of untranslated anglo-saxon.


Henry (not the famous one) 10.11.06 at 4:33 am

No mention of Myles na gCopaleen? He first appeared in print to respond to a writer in the Irish Times who complained that Irish had no words for terms like “buzz bomb.” His point, if I remember it correctly, was that Irish speakers should be glad they had to borrow the English terms.

Another question: what about the penetration of hip hop English (“bling,” “dis”) into other languages?


bad Jim 10.11.06 at 4:58 am

I’m under the impression that English has a great many more words than most other languages, to such a degree that the size of one’s vocabulary is taken as an approximation to one’s intellectual capability. Such a superfluity is likely to leak.

There is a difference between a flop and a fiasco.

The Anglophonic appetite for words encourages their continual creation and recycling. What’s a hip term of approval? “Word.”

Contrast a department store in Amsterdam, with signs idiomatically pointing towards “Nooduitgang”, with one in America using terse Latin: “Exit”


Claire 10.11.06 at 7:03 am

I’m reminded of a proverb:

“English is a very rich language, because it has borrowed so many words. Romany is a very poor language, because it has borrowed so many words.”

bad jim, there are many factors that influence vocbulary size. The largest English dictionaries are larger than other language’s largest dictionaries, but that’s partly because they include archisms, technical terms, and regional vocabulary. The number of words your average English speaker knows is about the same as for other languages.


Alan Peakall 10.11.06 at 8:03 am

According to a paragraph in the Financial Times “Observer” column sometime in the 1980s, a cross-channel ferry announcer once delivered the line:

Ladies and Gentlemen, the buffet is now open. Mesdames, Messieurs, le snackbar est maintenant ouvert.


Tom Hurka 10.11.06 at 8:49 am

And if I remember correctly, language purists in Quebec used to insist that “le hot dog” be replaced by the more properly French “le chien chaud.” I don’t believe it caught on.


Mike 10.11.06 at 9:38 am

To hell with other languages, what about English being invaded by American? Crisps are ‘chips’, chips are ‘fries’, rubbers are ‘erasers’, my mobile is a ‘cell phone’, my trainers are ‘sneakers’, and nobody knows what a biscuit is anymore.

Madness! Madness!


Peter 10.11.06 at 10:16 am

It indeed is true, as a prior commentor noted, that a flop and a fiasco are not the same thing.

An example to illustrate the difference:
A movie is a “flop” if it does poorly at the box office but there are no other lasting consequences.
A movie is a “fiasco” if it does poorly at the box office, the studio executives responsible for approving it are fired, its failure becomes a staple of late-night comedy, and the actors find it very hard to get other parts.


eweininger 10.11.06 at 10:34 am

It indeed is true, as a prior commentor noted, that a flop and a fiasco are not the same thing.

See Tarquin’s fine meditation on the difference between a fiasco, a debacle, and a fuck-up.


eweininger 10.11.06 at 10:47 am

Fucked up the link.


lemuel pitkin 10.11.06 at 12:05 pm

In Argentina (and maybe in other Spanish-speaking coutnries, I don’t know), it’s common to adopt use English words with an “ing” ending, even where they would not be used that way in English. For example, a campground is a “camping,” a parking lot is a “parking,” etc.


JR 10.11.06 at 1:52 pm

English originated when Anglo-Saxon speakers and Norman French speakers created a language that is neither Romance nor quite Germanic. So English has always vocabulary from more than one language. This means that English speakers are comfortable with words whose roots we don’t know. Since we don’t care whether we know a word’s root or not, English has always been hospitable to words from other languages.

Romance languages work differently. An educated Romance language speaker expects to know the root of any word, and how that word relates to all other words with the same root. All words have a family, and each family’s pedigree is apparent. A foreign word sticks out like an ugly, unwanted orphan.

This is why educated Romance language speakers – the French especially, but also Italians and Spaniards – find the adoption of English vocabulary so distressing, and also why native English speakers find their distress unintelligible, and therefore ridiculous.

PS- Mike, you’ll be interested to know that “cookie” came into American English from the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley. So when cookie eventually replaces biscuit entirely – as it will do – you can take comfort in the fact that it’s a European word after all.

PPS – I put that “do” in there to make you feel comfortable.


pdf23ds 10.11.06 at 2:11 pm

kid bitzer, I do believe that “una problema” was borrowed from Mexican Spanish, not from Italian. But maybe it was borrowed from both. The point was (I think) that English speakers don’t complain about how their langauge has so many loan words, so why should Italians? But that’s not a good point anyway—English speakers in the past *have* complained about that, and don’t do so as much any longer only because English is so dominant internationally.


pdf23ds 10.11.06 at 2:15 pm

“This is why educated Romance language speakers […] find the adoption of English vocabulary so distressing”

I don’t think this is it. I think the only reason it’s distressing is because it’s part of what is seen as a very likely, if gradual, death of their language in favor of English. Educated speakers of any language will allways have there pet peeves.


kibnick 10.11.06 at 2:36 pm

In Hebrew, masculine plural is indicated by the suffice “im.” Years ago, the headlights used in Peugeot automobiles had the trade name “Shieldbeam” marked on the inside of the bulb. In an Israeli garage I worked in many years ago, the mechanics called a headlight a “sheeldb.”


JR 10.11.06 at 2:38 pm

Contrast a department store in Amsterdam, with signs idiomatically pointing towards “Nooduitgang”, with one in America using terse Latin: “Exit”

Yes, but in the US, signs point to “Elevator,” while in Amsterdam they point tersely to “Lift.”


James Wimberley 10.11.06 at 5:23 pm

The underground train station beneath Frankfurt airport has a sign advertising Traintickets: as German a compound word as Handy.


rilkefan 10.11.06 at 7:41 pm

It’s my impression that Germans have picked up the unfortunate apostrophe-s-as-plural from us.


KCinDC 10.11.06 at 8:15 pm

Kibnick, I believe the phrase is “sealed beam”, not “shield beam”, and the resulting Hebrew plural is “silbim”.

Bad Jim, I suppose “emergency” is understood in most “exit” signs, but is it really a difference in the languages that causes it to be omitted from the English sign and not the Dutch one? And is plain “uitgang” never found?


Matt McIrvin 10.11.06 at 9:31 pm

Anyway, in the UK the sign would say “way out”.


bad Jim 10.12.06 at 3:23 am

Actually, I love “Way Out”, although, when a tube station has multiple exits, it would be handy if one was labeled “Far Out”. I even like “Sortie”; it makes me feel like a pilot just for riding the Metro.

My difficulty isn’t so much with “Nooduitgang” as with “Notausgang”. One quickly learns in any German city’s streets that “Ausgang” means “Exit”, but it may be worthwhile to keep in mind that “Notausgang” doesn’t mean “Not an exit”.

The Anglophone Latin preference doesn’t always serve us well. In English, Freud’s plain “es” und “Ich” wound up as “Id” and “Ego”. One might surmise that he would have used Latin if he’d meant to.


astrongmaybe 10.12.06 at 10:53 am

Not sure whether there has been any deep syntactical effect on German – I’d love to know of any study of it – but there sure are a ton of asinine loan words. Sometimes the borrowings are very slightly wrong (“und ‘last not least’…” and “ein Who-Is-Who” bug me more than they should), but what’s unlikeable is mostly the tawdriness of the really visible ones, borrowed from MTV and business jargon more than anywhere else.

To be fair, sometimes the hybrids can be fantastic: there is, or was, a lounge bar in Berlin called “Scotch and Sofa”, a brilliant name, but not something a native speaker would come up with; couldn’t say exactly why I think that. I quite like “Handy” for cellphone too.

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