News & Updates

Home » Essay » Influence of Language Contact on English Language

To what extent has language contact affected the English language?

In discussing the influence of other languages on the English language, the term ‘language contact’ may be defined as “the impact of other languages on English as a result of socio-historical interaction” (Márquez 90). Languages are dynamic entities, which are constantly evolving to reflect our needs and the state of the societies that we live in (Bex 26). This is certainly the case for the English language, which has been heavily influenced by many languages throughout history as a result of numerous invasions, proselytism, interest in so-called ‘prestigious’ languages, and many other factors, with the code-switching that ensued as a result of these having a profound impact on English. Therefore, this essay will illustrate the enduring impact that language contact has had by looking at how aspects of the English language like lexicon, orthography, phonology and place-names have been greatly affected by English’s interaction with other languages, with particular focus on the influence of the Italic languages of Latin and French.

Regarding lexicon and place-names, Latin has undeniably left a lasting impression on the English language. For instance, Jonathan Culpeper states that the Romans’ most successful raid under Emperor Claudius in AD 43 was what successfully laid the foundation for the partial Latinisation of many of Britain’s Celtic place-names (2, 3). While it remained rare for British place-names to be mostly derived from Latin origins, rare exceptions such as “Speen” from the Latin “Spinis” do exist; however, one of the most prominent legacies that Latin left occurred through compounding, with certain elements of the names of numerous cities and towns having Latin roots (Nielsen 154, 155). For instance, the suffix “-wich” in place-names such as “Greenwich” was derived from the Latin “vicus,” meaning “village” (Ayers and Cherry 7).

Regardless, while Latin certainly had an impact on many British place-names, it also left a more general mark on the English language in the form of borrowed lexicon and loanwords. According to Culpeper, while early Christian missionaries introduced approximately four hundred and fifty Latin words into Old English through religious texts, and thousands of Latin loans entered the English Language during the Middle English period from areas “such as religion, science, law and literature,” it was not until the sixteenth century that borrowing from Latin and Greek became extremely popular (36, 37), which became a defining feature of Early Modern English (c.1500 – 17000). This may be explained by the influence of the Renaissance (c. 1300 – 1600), which was a time of significant interest in the sciences and arts, and which led to a renewed interest in Latin as the language of “scholars, scientists and philosophers” (Minkova and Tunberg xxvi). However, as there were no English equivalents for many of the complex scholarly terms featured in these texts, approximately seven-thousand Latin loanwords entered the English language, which often represented abstract concepts, unlike English words of Germanic origins (Culpeper 39). Also, several Latinate roots have been borrowed numerous times, resulting in doublets; for instance, the Latin word “sal” has inspired numerous English words, including “saline” and “salary” (Green 35). Nonetheless, borrowing from Latin decreased after the seventeenth century, mainly due to English’s newfound prestige and status as the language of scholarship (Culpeper 37, 38). Regardless, it is clear to see that Latin has had a profound impact on the English lexicon through thousands of loanwords.

On the other hand, because of the Norman invasion of 1066, French became the official language of law and administration in England and, due to its prestigious status as the language of the upper class and the code-switching that occurred after the invasion, approximately ten-thousand French words “associated with warfare, rule, law and fashion” (Millar 126) were adopted into the English language during the Middle English period (c. 1100-1500) (Mellinkoff 97). However, while some Norman-French terms completely replaced their Old English counterparts, such “fortune” replacing “wyrd,” semantic change occurred when both terms survived, with an example being the distinction between the Old English “house” and the French loan “mansion” (Culpeper 37). However, much like Latin, French borrowing has been in decline since the upper class stopped speaking French and English became regarded as the new language of administration (Culpeper 37, 38), yet the influence of French has lived on in various levels of borrowings, such as through borrowed food-related lexis like “poultry,” phrases such as “ménage à trois,” and bound morpheme suffixes like “-ible” (Fromkin et al. 358, 505). Unlike the written lexis of Latin, the fact that French influenced English mostly through spoken vocabulary is significant because it places French loanwords between Germanic and Latinate lexis in that they may convey a mixed register and refer both concrete and abstract concepts (Culpeper 39).

However, while Norman-French generally had a small impact on place-names as most British places already had established names by 1066, some elements of French did inspire certain naming practices. For example, the French-speaking aristocracy routinely named castles and estates like “Belvoir” and “Malpas” directly after landmarks and places in France, Norman scribes substituted sounds for some more familiar to French (which is reflected in the spelling and pronunciation of places such as “Cambridge”), and the prevalence of double-barrelled named manors like “Kingston Lacy” can also be attributed to the French aristocracy, who often gave their properties recognisable names to distinguish their manors from others (Mills xvi). Consequently, much like Latin, it is undeniable that French has had an impact on the place-names and lexicon of the English language.

Moreover, it may be argued that both languages have had a significant impact on the orthography and, in turn, the phonology of the English language. The fact that English spellings are not always phonemic, for example, may be attributed partly to the move from the Runic alphabet to the Latin alphabet used by the Romans during the Conversion Period (c. AD 597 – AD 735), which meant that there were not enough orthographic counterparts for all of the Old English phonemes, as the Latin alphabet consisted of only twenty-three letters (Culpeper 22). Also, Doreen Scott-Dunne has noted that Latin impacted English orthography and phonology through etymological respellings. For instance, because of the renewed interest in Latin and Greek texts, many Renaissance scholars decided to respell certain words to make them orthographically resemble their Latin origins, which is evident in the change of words like the Middle English “det” to the modern “debt,” which now more closely resembles the Latin “debitum” (62). However, while this simply resulted in the addition of silent letters to many words (Scott-Dunne 62), other Latin-inspired spelling changes were mirrored by significant changes in pronunciations. For example, Renaissance scholars often added the letter after in words to make English appear as prestigious as Latin, which changed lexis like the Old French loan “trone” to “throne” (Algeo and Butcher 155).  This resulted in a change of pronunciation, with the word’s first phoneme shifting from [t] to [θ]; nonetheless, this was not a universal change for all words that contained the letter , and words like “Anthony” did not always change in pronunciation in British English, which exemplifies the fact that language contact can often result in a lack of regularity (Algeo and Butcher 155).

Furthermore, French scribes during the Middle English period may have caused English spelling variations (House 243), which often led to phonological changes. For instance, the runic symbol <Æ¿>, which represented the phoneme [w], was scarcely used after 1300, due to it being replaced by the symbols or , which originated in northern France (Culpeper 22). Also, the letter represented a vowel in Middle English, but a consonantal that was pronounced as [dÊ’] appeared during the Middle English period, which is often attributed to the influence of Norman-French (House 241). However, another significant phonological impact occurred because the importation of French lexis during the Middle Ages encouraged a “separation of voiced and unvoiced fricatives into separate phonemes” (Millar 126). While Old English had simply represented [f] and [v] as at the start of words and in other positions, the importation of French lexis like “voice” that began with the phoneme [v], along with the desire to speak with a ‘prestigious’ French accent, meant that graphological distinctions between the phonemes naturally occurred (Millar 126).

Similarly, while lexis such as “centre” was borrowed from the Latin “centrum,” the influence of French meant that the grapheme started to represent the phoneme [s] instead of [k] in some words (Culpeper 26), leading to a lack of regularisation. Additionally, while Old English had a strict stress pattern, in which stress fell on “the first central (not prefix) syllable,” the stress pattern of French was variable depending on each word and, therefore, prosodic changes had to take place during the Middle Ages so that French loanwords could be smoothly integrated into English (Millar 126). However, while etymological respellings of some words took place to show their French origins, scribes sometimes incorrectly assumed the etymology of words like “island,” meaning a was added to the Middle English “iland” to make resemble the Old French “isle”, even though the word was originally from the Old English “iegland”, and therefore had Germanic roots (Horobin 112, 113).

By and large, the profound influence of Latin and French on the English language exemplifies the fact that languages are not static, and continuously evolve organically in order to meet our linguistic and societal needs. In fact, English itself has already split into separate variations like American English and Australian English, which each have unique variations based on their contact history. Moreover, due to advances in travel and technology, English continues to be shaped and changed by more languages in our modern world, as evidenced by recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary such as “dopiaza” (“dopiaza, n.”) and “maitake” (“maitake, n.”), which have Hindi and Japanese roots, respectively. Therefore, while syntagmatic, paragigmatic, social and technological changes (including scientific discoveries and the development of the internet) are arguably the primary causes of language change in the twenty-first century (Algeo and Butcher 10), language contact has undeniably had a significant impact on the English language overall, and will most likely continue to play a role in influencing various aspects of the English language for years to come.

Works cited:

Algeo, John, and Carmen A. Butcher. The Origins and Development of the English Language. Seventh ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2013. Print.

Ayers, Donald M., and R. L. Cherry. English Words from Latin and Greek Elements. Second ed. Ed. Thomas D. Worthen. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1986. Print.

Bex, Tony. Variety in Written English: Texts in Society: Societies in Text. London, England: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Culpeper, Jonathan. History of English. Second ed. London, England: Routledge, 2005. Print.

“dopiaza, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. Accessed 30 December 2016.

Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language. Ninth ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.

Green, Tamara M. The Greek & Latin Roots of English. Fifth ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Print.

Horobin, Simon. Does Spelling Matter?. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

House, Linda I. Introductory Phonetics and Phonology: A Workbook Approach. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1998. Print.

“maitake, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. Accessed 30 December 2016.

Márquez, Miguel Fuster. Working with Words: An Introduction to English Linguistics. Eds. Miguel Fuster Márquez and Antonia Sánchez. València, Spain: University of València, 2011. Print.

Mellinkoff, David. The Language of the Law. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004. Print.

Millar, Robert McColl. English Historical Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh, England: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. Print.

Mills, A. D. A Dictionary of British Place-Names. Fourth ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Minkova, Milena, and Terence Tunberg. Latin for the New Millennium: Level 2: Student Text. Vol. 5. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2009. Print.

Nielsen, Hans Frede. The Continental Backgrounds of English and its Insular Development until 1154. Vol. 1. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1998. Print.

Scott-Dunne, Doreen. When Spelling Matters: Developing Writers Who Can Spell and Understand Language. Ontario, Canada: Pembroke, 2012. Print.