"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
James D. Nicoll
This week I will discuss a famous quotation from The Linguist List and explore what English is and why people learn it.
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore.
Some English teachers tell students that they must learn the original pure English and not accept Hong Kong English words like congee. (Words like congee, shroff and dim sum can be found in A Dictionary of Hong Kong English from HKU Press.) This is nonsense for several reasons. Very few people can read the original Old English; it was the language of uncivilized pirates who raided Britain in the fifth century. Modern English has so many foreign words that it could not function using only words from Old English. These foreign words include television (Greek-Latin), chopsticks (Hong Kong English) and skirt (Old Norse). This is the problem Mr. Nicoll is referring to in his first sentence.
(He also uses some colourful language. "Cribhouse" is based on crib, an old word for brothel. A "whore" is a sex worker; the word is probably from hora the Old Norse word for an adulteress. Purity is a euphemism for virginity.)
We don't just borrow words;
The English language is very quick to borrow words. All living languages borrow words from each other, but the English do more of it. Most languages find a way of describing a new thing with their own words instead of borrowing. The English language actually prefers to take the word from the original language and use it. For example, the potato in French is pomme de terre; which means apple of the ground. The English used the Caribbean word batata to make the word potato. Batata originally meant sweet potato; English speakers confused the two plants. Borrowing was not always done cleverly.
...on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
Recently the languages English has most often borrowed from are Latin and Greek. These languages had a history of holding more advanced technology and culture than barbarians like the early English. So they were very prestigious languages. At the time English was a very low status language with a history of only being used by poor farmers. At different historical times the rulers of Britain spoke Old German, Danish or French. The church used a lot of Latin, of course. As the English language developed and grew it often lacked words for important concepts, so these words were copied from other languages.
(Again Mr. Nicoll uses obviously interesting word choices "rifle" is from an older French word meaning "to search through and steal from" (literally to scratch). An alley is a small narrow street between buildings too small for cars; it is from the old French allée.)
Mr. Nicoll's quotation shows the frustration people sometimes feel when confronted with unreasonable demands to regulate English and tell people what words they can and can't use. It is in the nature and history of English to be open to words from other languages. The English language is changeable and adaptable.