Attitudes to linguistic borrowing

So I’ve been quiet on the blog-front in recent months: mostly finishing my MPhil thesis and revising for exams. Now I find myself in that slightly eerie Zwischenphase between Masters and PhD. Happily, I’ve had plenty of things going on to fill my time. One of the things I’ve been working on is preparing to teach a new undergraduate paper from October: History of the German Language. The reading list sent out to students is longer than both my arms put together and I’ve had my work cut out getting through it, let alone getting further than it. One of the topics is Medieval and later loan vocabulary, which essentially focuses on lexical (but also phonological and morphological) borrowing into German at different periods and from different languages.

The Germanists amongst you will be aware that German has borrowed extensively from several languages over the years, but probably none more so than French in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To give you a bit of (very basic historical) background, the Thirty Years War was not  a great time for the German economy, and there was much trade with France as a result. In addition, French and German dynastic relations had become ever more intertwined, and many thousands of Huguenots were seeking refuge in Germany from persecution in France. Culturally, then, Germans had begun ever more to look to France. French loans are consequently found in abundance in technical language, newspapers/journals, as well as letters from the period, influencing such semantic fields as military vocabulary (Attacke, marschieren), fashion (Brokat), food (Schokolade), the home (Balkon), pastimes (Promenade), trade (Billet), diplomacy (Administration) and kinship terms (TanteOnkel). Many of these loans were dropped in subsequent centuries, but some remain. Scholars estimate that Standard German as spoken today is made up of about 5% of words of French origin.

Rather like today, commentators in the seventeenth century had strong opinions about the use of language and in particular the use of French loans. What I found interesting is that these opinions were often inconsistent. Brunt (1983) explains that public opinion in Germany showed various conflicting attitudes towards the French in the mid-seventeenth century:

On the one hand they [the French] were the epitome of all that was cultivated and elegant; on the other they were an inferior race, lacking all the German virtues, whose language and fashions were exerting a deleterious effect upon German society. (p22)

Towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War […] there arose among certain writers a conviction that the whole of German society was in a state of decline due to neglect of native virtues and the imitation of foreign manners.  (p62)

What I always find amusing about studying the history of languages (or of anything) is that the same ideas keep coming round again. The fact is, linguistic purism has been alive and well for centuries. The above German example strongly reminds me of British attitudes to so-called ‘Americanisms’, but it’s also true of the response of many speakers of other languages to English loans. On the one hand (and speaking very broadly), we embrace much of the culture and attitudes crossing the pond from the US, but at the same time there’s a feeling that ‘Americanisms’ ‘infiltrating’ the (English/German/whatever) language are having a deleterious effect on our society. One need only think back to this article from the BBC last year, in which a commentator lists the ‘Americanisms’ which he found to be the most ‘ugly’ and ‘pointless’.* We see conflicting attitudes even in this little piece. The author broadly upholds some things about America which he deems to be positive (even including some ‘Americanisms’ here), but he also writes of the ‘sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe.’ The idea is that abandoning our own ‘distinctive’ dialect(s?) comes about as a result of idleness and is a negative thing.

Examining attitudes towards linguistic borrowing from the past, however, serves to show that connecting lexical borrowing with the deterioration of society is nothing new.

The seventeenth century German equivalent of Engels’ article above was the pamphlet. I’ll leave you with a quotation from one called Der Vnartig Teutscher Sprach=verderber (‘The wicked German language corrupter’) from 1644:

Seithero die Complementen […] auffkommen / so ist die Teutsche Trew/ Glaub vnd Redlichkeit auβ Teutschland gezogen.

(‘Ever since these [linguistic] complements (i.e. French loans) have been around, the German sense of loyalty, faith and integrity has been hauled out of Germany.’)

*Rather embarrassingly (and as is often the case with perceptions about language), the author of the article is unaware that his linguistic perceptions do not match up to reality. In the event, 80% of his ‘Americanisms’ are not, in fact, American (at least in the first instance). See this link from the folks at Language Log for more info.


Brunt, Richard (1983): The Influence of the French Language on the German Vocabulary (1649-1735). Berlin: de Gruyter.

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