Loan words, diversity, and the evolution of language

I heard the expression ‘raison d’être’ the other day. It’s a nice reminder of how interesting and diverse our language is. It literally means ‘reason for being’. ‘Raison d’être’ is a lexical borrowing (or loan word)- an example of a word that we’ve borrowed from another language (in this case French), and we use now as our own.

How do loan words get there?

There are two main ways that loan words enter into language:

  • Need – if a word doesn’t translate into the language being used, over time speakers may borrow one from a different language – for example from new inventions (particularly in technological advancements) where there isn’t an existing word for the invention already.
  • Prestige – sometimes foreign words enter into our everyday use because speakers think they add a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the conversation.

Attitudes towards loan words

There’s a bit of a split in attitudes towards loan words, code-switching, and linguistic diversity. Most recently, France has been in the news for banning English gaming jargon like ‘streaming’ and ‘eGaming’ in an attempt to maintain language purity. Whilst there are a lot of English loanwords in French, the Académie Française (the official body for matters relating to the French language) keeps a close eye on Anglicisms that come creeping in, offering official translations and alternate terms for some, in a bid to preserve the French language. Once added to the official journal, these ‘pure’ terms must be used by government workers over the borrowed equivalents.

The evolution of language

I understand the desire to protect language, and I appreciate that I’m never going to understand how it feels to not be an English speaker from birth. It’s a privilege to be offered almost all communication in my first language. But I still see language as an evolutionary process – though it evolves much faster, and spreads more easily and quickly nowadays with the ease of technology.

English speakers, do you talk like Shakespeare? I highly doubt it. And if you don’t (I suspect you don’t), have you ever used a loan word before? If you’ve ever had a feeling of déjà vu, created art, moaned about the government, drank lager (or gin, or tea, or coffee…), gone skiing (or gone commando), believed in karma, shampooed your hair, lived in a bungalow or played chess – I could go on, but you get the picture – then you’ve used a loan word from another language.

Embracing diversity in language

In the UK, MLE (Multicultural London English) always seems to be under fire. MLE started emerging in London in the 1980s – based on the Cockney dialect of the East End, mixed in and influenced by some of the 300ish languages spoken in London. MLE features a high number of borrowings, mainly from Jamaican English and other African-Caribbean communities, such as ‘bredren’, ‘mandem’, ‘bare’ and ‘wasteman’. It isn’t just teenage slang, nor can it be attributed to a particular ethnic group. I don’t live in London, in fact where I am it’s about as rural as it can get, but you can still hear MLE influence in some speakers due to exposure in music and media. It’s diverse, inclusive, growing and evolving.

To promote diversity and social equality, we need to understand and be aware of linguistic changes, and not stigmatise dialects or its speakers. I saw a social media post recently of someone criticising the way teenagers speak nowadays, and I was happy to see that many people were helpfully sharing information on MLE and its history. If you have a teenager that comes home speaking slightly different from you, be happy that they are embracing change and inclusion – if everybody did, then certain social groups couldn’t be stigmatised.

What’s next for our language?

Whilst being widespread, MLE isn’t spoken or understood by the entire British population, but I can’t help but wonder which words will make it into our mainstream dialect over the coming years. Maybe the words that have been shunned or apportioned to a particular social group will be used by everyone as prestige in future.

Have you got a favourite loan word? Do you prefer to use loan words for prestige in your writing/translation over alternate terms? I’d love to hear your POV in the comments below 🙂


  1. George Piggott says:

    Aren’t loanwords actually working against language diversity around the world ?
    Loanwords most often come from already hegemonic languages, like English.


    1. Interesting thought! I guess I was only looking from the English language perspective.


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