Language and Migration:
Loanwords in European Languages

Vocabulary Takeovers into English

English is the world language, but many people who use it do not know much about its origins. It is mainly a West Germanic language, but the English vocabulary is unusually large - probably more than 250,000 words - and only a relatively small part of that is of West Germanic origin. In fact, English has borrowed words from about 50 languages, in many cases only a few items, but a very large number from some. However, if you look at the frequency with which words are used today you will find that the Germanic words are most important; they form a kind of basic vocabulary. They are usually short with only one syllable: man, house, go, see, in, and, good ...

Here is a diagram of the most important influences on the English vocabulary, from a survey made in 1973:

"Old English" or "Anglo-Saxon" was the language that the Germanic settlers brought to Britain from Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia when they migrated to the country in the 5th and 6th centuries. Their West Germanic language adopted some words from Latin, since the Romans has ruled Britain before them, but very few from the language of the Celtic population that lived in Britain when they arrived.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, there was another wave of migration: Scnadinavians from Denmark and Norway conquered and colonized parts of Britain, and words from their language (Old Norse) entered English. Examples: bag, call, die, egg, get, husband, knife, mistake, skirt, take, want.

The next wave of migration came in and after 1066, when the Normans under William the Conqueror invaded Britain and took over the country. They spoke Old French, and through them tens of thousands of French words entered the English language, thus making the vocabulary much bigger than before. Today there are a lot of words of French origin while an earlier Anglo-Saxon word with the same meaning also exits.

Here are a few examples of French words, all starting with the letter A: able, abolish, accent, action, advantage, age, ambition, army, attack ...

Many words from Latin and Greek were included in the English language, although this was not the direct result of migration. The Germanic tribes had already learnt many Latin words from the Romans even before they came to Britain, such as "cheese", "fork", "kitchen", "table", and "wine". Christian monks brought further words, among them "church", "mass", "priest", and "school".

In the Renaissance, a large number of Greek and Latin words were imported directly, such as "democratic", "imaginary", and "enthusiasm". From the industrial age onwards, science and technology led to the creation of many new words on the basis of Greek and Latin. Examples are "analysis", "data", "experiment", and "theory".

It should be noted that a large number of words of Latin and Greek origin is found in all European languages and that they form a common "international" vocabulary. This can be seen from our little "Mini Dictionary of International Words".