Four Grades of Language Borrowing

Since the nineteenth century, the Georgian language has been significantly influenced by Russian. More recently, Georgian has begun to import words from English. Consequently, some Georgians are concerned about the “purity” of their language, and prescribe the use of “Georgian” words instead of “foreign” words. But some foreignisms offend the linguistic purist more than others. In this post I’ll give four categories of foreign words and phrases which are “foreign” and “native” to different degrees, with examples in both Georgian and English.

IMPORTANT UPDATE 4/20/14: New example added to Category III!

georgian russian street sign

I. Foreign words which are unmistakably foreign

These are words which, though they may be well-known, are well-known to be foreign. Foreign words are used for effect — perhaps to sound erudite, to sound fashionable, or just for fun.

Georgian example: Young Georgian men (at least those in and around Tbilisi) frequently greet each other with “Zdarowa, brat!“, a Russian expression meaning (I think) “Cheers, brother!” Certainly everyone knows that brat is a Russian word, and I think they know that (the slightly mispronounced) zdarowa is too. I take it that they think it sounds cooler or more striking than the Georgian equivalent “Gaumarjos, dzmao!

English example: When my classmates and I began taking Spanish in middle school, we all started ironically referring to objects by their Spanish names — “Hand me that lapiz,” “Where’s my libro?”, “I’m going to escuela,” that sort of thing. This was all done for fun, and the Spanish never had a real effect on our English. More generally, it’s not unheard of for Americans (I don’t know about other English-speakers) to occasionally use commonly-known Spanish words like dinero (money), amigo (friend), or hola (hello), and not just when talking to Spanish-speakers.

II. Words for things for which there are no native words

If you look in a beginning foreign language textbook (for Spanish, say), you’ll inevitably find something stupid like “Learning Spanish might seem daunting at first, but you already know lots of Spanish words, like taco, burrito, and quesadilla!” These kinds of words aren’t really foreign, since there are no native words with which they can compete or be compared. Prior to contact with Mexico, the Anglophone world didn’t have all those tortilla-based foods, so when they got them, they simply adopted the Spanish words. In general, exotic new things are often accompanied by the words of the cultures they come from. Food words, names of thitherto-unknown plants and animals, and place names frequently fall into this category. Examples here are obvious in both Georgian and English.

It should be noted that new things from the outside world have often been introduced into Georgia via Russia. Consequently, the Georgian words for New World plants like the potato and the tomato are the same as in Russian.

Exercise for the reader: Look up the etymology of the Georgian / Russian word for “potato” and observe how dumb it is.

III. Words for everyday things for which there readily available native words

These are the words that get people upset, since they’re real, tangible evidence of cultural influence. What I have in mind here are words that satisfy the following criteria:

  1. They are easily recognizable as being from a foreign source.
  2. They are names for things that are not at all exotic.
  3. They are used alongside (possibly supplanting) a commonly known, non-archaic native word with the same meaning.

The archtypical Georgian example here is pechi, meaning “stove” or “oven”, which comes from the Russian pech. Now, because Russian is so widely-known in Georgia, it is widely known that pechi comes from Russian, even among Georgians who don’t know much Russian. This satisfies the first criterion. Next, every Georgian home (at least outside of cities) contains at least one small wood-burning stove, often the only source of heat in the winter. So pechis are quite familiar to Georgians, satisfying criterion 2. Last, the Georgian word ghumeli means the same thing and is widely known (but not so widely used), satisfying the third criterion.

pechi stove

“Hand me a spichka, I need to light the pechi.”

Other words in this category (all from Russian) include pivo (beer, Georgian: ludi), mirozhni (ice cream, Georgian: naqini), and spichka (match, Georgian: asanti). With the last example, I didn’t learn the Georgian word until I heard an American say it, since I had only ever heard Georgians use the Russian word. In other cases (eg semichka, sunflower seed) I never learned the Georgian word.

Some Georgians will occasionally try to “correct” others’ use of these Russian words (“Don’t say pechi, say ghumeli instead!”). This is exactly as uppity and annoying as it sounds, and predictably such people almost immediately lapse back into using those words. At the same time, I’ve also been told that in many cases, the Russian words mean something similar to but distinct from the meaning of the corresponding Georgian word (exampe: pivo refers to commercially-brewed beer, while ludi refers specifically to home-brewed beer). However, just like when people in English try to enforce technical distinctions between words like “jacket” and “coat”, these differences are mostly idiosyncratic and not worth worrying about.

In English, examples of this category are harder to find. This is because, on the one hand, English has a bastard vocabulary with a huge variety of etymological sources, and so “English words” as a whole don’t really have a distinct character, making foreign words stand out less. And on the other hand, English is a language of imperialism, meaning that it influences other languages more than it gets influenced by them. (Additionally, Americans (at least) tend not to know foreign languages very well.)

Perhaps the best example of this in English is serviette. This is the French word for napkin, and from what I understand it is in use in Britain and Australia. It certainly satisfies all the criteria I’ve listed, but I don’t know how widespread its use really is. Maybe a reader from that part of the world can explain? Note that this is strictly a British / Commonwealth thing: in America, serviette would be considered unbearably pretentious, since Americans associate French with fanciness.

The best example I can come up with Another example is coriander.

cilantro coriander

In Britain, people talk about coriander leaves and coriander seeds. But in America, “coriander” refers exclusively to the seeds. This is because Americans refer to the leaves instead by the Spanish word cilantro (presumably because of extended contact with Latin Americans, especially Mexicans). So imagine that a British person with a knowledge of Spanish moved to, say Phoenix, Arizona and lived there for a few years. I take it that such a person would find herself, when speaking to Americans, using a word she knew to be Spanish (“cilantro”) to refer to something to which she could refer by using a perfectly good native word (“coriander”). This is a fairly contrived example, but maybe it imparts some of the flavor of the Georgian situation.

UPDATE 5/21/14: Compare the American “eggplant” with the British “aubergine”.

IV. Words that used to be in Category III but have become “nativized”

Time passes, and words that once looked foreign no longer do. Sometimes this is due to a loss of knowledge of the source language. In Georgia, this is certainly the case for a large group of words borrowed from Arabic and Persian (often through Turkish). Such words include chingali (fork), panjara (window), and khalkhi (people). Perhaps Georgians complained about the corruption of the Georgian language when these words first gained popularity hundreds of years ago, but today nobody gives them any thought.

English is shot through with words from foreign sources. Many of these are fancy, educated-sounding words, but some are non-fancy. For instance, mountain, river, and forest all came from French, despite their sounding “native”. Again, one can imagine Anglo-Saxon peasants complaining about French influence on their tongue after the Norman Invasion, but nobody can tell the difference today. Besides this, the American use of cilantro is definitely in this category.

Discussion Questions

1) Does the existence of Category IV words have any bearing on the validity of complaints about Category III words?

2) Is there any connection between Categories I and III? What about between Categories II and III?

3) What finer distinctions can be drawn within these classes of words? Are there any classes that have been left out altogether?

4) Find examples of English words in Categories III and IV.


8 thoughts on “Four Grades of Language Borrowing

  1. Georgian word for sunflower is making big comeback i tell you . It’s also a lot less common to say privet as a greeting, but saying gamarjoba to people of same age is still somewhat formal . But that might be a regional thing can’t generalize .

  2. Pingback: Turkish Phonology: Vowel Harmony | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

  3. I looked up the Georgian word for “potato” and it didn’t seem “dumb”. It seemed quite similar to German “Kartoffel”. (A dumber, dialectal German word for “potato” is “Erdapfel” (literally, ground apple).)

      • I read that it comes from an Italian word meaning a truffle-like thing. I could image someone seeing the odd shape of a potato and thinking it looked like a big ugly mushroom. Why is that goofy?

        And Kechjo, the “erdapfel” is a direct translation from the French for potato “pomme de terre” Also, why is that dumb? It’s a yummy food that comes from the ground; name makes sense.

  4. Category IV:

    Since you started from “people”, “fork” and “window”…

    People- Latin populus

    Fork- Latin “furca”.

    Window- Old Norse “vindauga”

    existence- Latin “existentia”

    influence- Latin “influens”, present participle of influo

    defeat- Latin “defit” 3rd. p. sg. pres. act. ndi. of “defio”

    Victory- Latin “victoria”, displaced native middle english “sye”

    I said “native” and… “native” also comes from Latin “nativus” 🙂

    Do I count such words as: Video, Audio, Mutant etc.?

    • Yeah, the category IV distinction tends to break down for English because English doesn’t have a particularly strong or distinct “native” base. Are Norse words old enough to be “native”? I don’t know.

      Here’s another Georgian one I learned: ფული comes from Persian (پول).

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