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How Languages Influence Each Other

Languages, like cultures, are rarely sufficient unto themselves. The necessities of intercourse bring the speakers of one language into direct or indirect contact with those of neighboring or culturally dominant languages. The intercourse may be friendly or hostile. It may move on the humdrum plane of business and trade relations or it may consist of a borrowing or interchange of spiritual goods—art, science, religion. It would be difficult to point to a completely isolated language or dialect, least of all among the primitive peoples. The tribe is often so small that intermarriages with alien tribes that speak other dialects or even totally unrelated languages are not uncommon. It may even be doubted whether intermarriage, intertribal trade, and general cultural interchanges are not of greater relative significance on primitive levels than on our own. Whatever the degree or nature of contact between neighboring peoples, it is generally sufficient to lead to some kind of linguistic interinfluencing. Frequently the influence runs heavily in one direction. The language of a people that is looked upon as a center of culture is naturally far more likely to exert an appreciable influence on other languages spoken in its vicinity than to be influenced by them. Chinese has flooded the vocabularies of Corean, Japanese, and Annamite for centuries, but has received nothing in return. In the western Europe of medieval and modern times French has exercised a similar, though probably a less overwhelming, influence. English borrowed an immense number of words from the French of the Norman invaders, later also from the court French of Isle de France, appropriated a certain number of affixed elements of derivational value (e.g., -ess of princess, -ard of drunkard, -ty of royalty), may have been somewhat stimulated in its general analytic drift by contact with French, and even allowed French to modify its phonetic pattern slightly (e.g., initial v and j in words like veal and judge; in words of Anglo-Saxon origin v and j can only occur after vowels, e.g., over, hedge). But English has exerted practically no influence on French.

The simplest kind of influence that one language may exert on another is the “borrowing” of words. When there is cultural borrowing there is always the likelihood that the associated words may be borrowed too. When the early Germanic peoples of northern Europe first learned of wine-culture and of paved streets from their commercial or warlike contact with the Romans, it was only natural that they should adopt the Latin words for the strange beverage (vinum, English wine, German Wein) and the unfamiliar type of road (strata via, English street, German Strasse). Later, when Christianity was introduced into England, a number of associated words, such as bishop and angel, found their way into English. And so the process has continued uninterruptedly down to the present day, each cultural wave bringing to the language a new deposit of loan-words. The careful study of such loan-words constitutes an interesting commentary on the history of culture. One can almost estimate the rôle which various peoples have played in the development and spread of cultural ideas by taking note of the extent to which their vocabularies have filtered into those of other peoples. When we realize that an educated Japanese can hardly frame a single literary sentence without the use of Chinese resources, that to this day Siamese and Burmese and Cambodgian bear the unmistakable imprint of the Sanskrit and Pali that came in with Hindu Buddhism centuries ago, or that whether we argue for or against the teaching of Latin and Greek our argument is sure to be studded with words that have come to us from Rome and Athens, we get some inkling of what early Chinese culture and Buddhism and classical Mediterranean civilization have meant in the world’s history. There are just five languages that have had an overwhelming significance as carriers of culture. They are classical Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. In comparison with these even such culturally important languages as Hebrew and French sink into a secondary position. It is a little disappointing to learn that the general cultural influence of English has so far been all but negligible. The English language itself is spreading because the English have colonized immense territories. But there is nothing to show that it is anywhere entering into the lexical heart of other languages as French has colored the English complexion or as Arabic has permeated Persian and Turkish. This fact alone is significant of the power of nationalism, cultural as well as political, during the last century. There are now psychological resistances to borrowing, or rather to new sources of borrowing, that were not greatly alive in the Middle Ages or during the Renaissance.

Are there resistances of a more intimate nature to the borrowing of words? It is generally assumed that the nature and extent of borrowing depend entirely on the historical facts of culture relation; that if German, for instance, has borrowed less copiously than English from Latin and French it is only because Germany has had less intimate relations than England with the culture spheres of classical Rome and France. This is true to a considerable extent, but it is not the whole truth. We must not exaggerate the physical importance of the Norman invasion nor underrate the significance of the fact that Germany’s central geographical position made it peculiarly sensitive to French influences all through the Middle Ages, to humanistic influences in the latter fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and again to the powerful French influences of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It seems very probable that the psychological attitude of the borrowing language itself towards linguistic material has much to do with its receptivity to foreign words. English has long been striving for the completely unified, unanalyzed word, regardless of whether it is monosyllabic or polysyllabic. Such words as credible, certitude, intangible are entirely welcome in English because each represents a unitary, well-nuanced idea and because their formal analysis (cred-ible, cert-itude, in-tang-ible) is not a necessary act of the unconscious mind (cred-, cert-, and tang- have no real existence in English comparable to that of good- in goodness). A word like intangible, once it is acclimated, is nearly as simple a psychological entity as any radical monosyllable (say vague, thin, grasp). In German, however, polysyllabic words strive to analyze themselves into significant elements. Hence vast numbers of French and Latin words, borrowed at the height of certain cultural influences, could not maintain themselves in the language. Latin-German words like kredibel “credible” and French-German words like reussieren “to succeed” offered nothing that the unconscious mind could assimilate to its customary method of feeling and handling words. It is as though this unconscious mind said: “I am perfectly willing to accept kredibel if you will just tell me what you mean by kred-.” Hence German has generally found it easier to create new words out of its own resources, as the necessity for them arose.

The psychological contrast between English and German as regards the treatment of foreign material is a contrast that may be studied in all parts of the world. The Athabaskan languages of America are spoken by peoples that have had astonishingly varied cultural contacts, yet nowhere do we find that an Athabaskan dialect has borrowed at all freely from a neighboring language. These languages have always found it easier to create new words by compounding afresh elements ready to hand. They have for this reason been highly resistant to receiving the linguistic impress of the external cultural experiences of their speakers. Cambodgian and Tibetan offer a highly instructive contrast in their reaction to Sanskrit influence. Both are analytic languages, each totally different from the highly-wrought, inflective language of India. Cambodgian is isolating, but, unlike Chinese, it contains many polysyllabic words whose etymological analysis does not matter. Like English, therefore, in its relation to French and Latin, it welcomed immense numbers of Sanskrit loan-words, many of which are in common use to-day. There was no psychological resistance to them. Classical Tibetan literature was a slavish adaptation of Hindu Buddhist literature and nowhere has Buddhism implanted itself more firmly than in Tibet, yet it is strange how few Sanskrit words have found their way into the language. Tibetan was highly resistant to the polysyllabic words of Sanskrit because they could not automatically fall into significant syllables, as they should have in order to satisfy the Tibetan feeling for form. Tibetan was therefore driven to translating the great majority of these Sanskrit words into native equivalents. The Tibetan craving for form was satisfied, though the literally translated foreign terms must often have done violence to genuine Tibetan idiom. Even the proper names of the Sanskrit originals were carefully translated, element for element, into Tibetan; e.g., Suryagarbha “Sun-bosomed” was carefully Tibetanized into Nyi-mai snying-po “Sun-of heart-the, the heart (or essence) of the sun.” The study of how a language reacts to the presence of foreign words—rejecting them, translating them, or freely accepting them—may throw much valuable light on its innate formal tendencies.

The borrowing of foreign words always entails their phonetic modification. There are sure to be foreign sounds or accentual peculiarities that do not fit the native phonetic habits. They are then so changed as to do as little violence as possible to these habits. Frequently we have phonetic compromises. Such an English word as the recently introduced camouflage, as now ordinarily pronounced, corresponds to the typical phonetic usage of neither English nor French. The aspirated k, the obscure vowel of the second syllable, the precise quality of the l and of the last a, and, above all, the strong accent on the first syllable, are all the results of unconscious assimilation to our English habits of pronunciation. They differentiate our camouflage clearly from the same word as pronounced by the French. On the other hand, the long, heavy vowel in the third syllable and the final position of the “zh” sound (like z in azure) are distinctly un-English, just as, in Middle English, the initial j and v must have been felt at first as not strictly in accord with English usage, though the strangeness has worn off by now. In all four of these cases—initial j, initial v, final “zh,” and unaccented a of father—English has not taken on a new sound but has merely extended the use of an old one.


Occasionally a new sound is introduced, but it is likely to melt away before long. In Chaucer’s day the old Anglo-Saxon ü (written y) had long become unrounded to i, but a new set of ü-vowels had come in from the French (in such words as due, value, nature). The new ü did not long hold its own; it became diphthongized to iu and was amalgamated with the native iw of words like new and slew. Eventually this diphthong appears as yu, with change of stress—dew (from Anglo-Saxon deaw) like due (Chaucerian dü). Facts like these show how stubbornly a language resists radical tampering with its phonetic pattern.

Nevertheless, we know that languages do influence each other in phonetic respects, and that quite aside from the taking over of foreign sounds with borrowed words. One of the most curious facts that linguistics has to note is the occurrence of striking phonetic parallels in totally unrelated or very remotely related languages of a restricted geographical area. These parallels become especially impressive when they are seen contrastively from a wide phonetic perspective. Here are a few examples. The Germanic languages as a whole have not developed nasalized vowels. Certain Upper German (Suabian) dialects, however, have now nasalized vowels in lieu of the older vowel + nasal consonant (n). Is it only accidental that these dialects are spoken in proximity to French, which makes abundant use of nasalized vowels? Again, there are certain general phonetic features that mark off Dutch and Flemish in contrast, say, to North German and Scandinavian dialects. One of these is the presence of unaspirated voiceless stops (p, t, k), which have a precise, metallic quality reminiscent of the corresponding French sounds, but which contrast with the stronger, aspirated stops of English, North German, and Danish. Even if we assume that the unaspirated stops are more archaic, that they are the unmodified descendants of the old Germanic consonants, is it not perhaps a significant historical fact that the Dutch dialects, neighbors of French, were inhibited from modifying these consonants in accordance with what seems to have been a general Germanic phonetic drift? Even more striking than these instances is the peculiar resemblance, in certain special phonetic respects, of Russian and other Slavic languages to the unrelated Ural-Altaic languages of the Volga region. The peculiar, dull vowel, for instance, known in Russian as “yeri” has Ural-Altaic analogues, but is entirely wanting in Germanic, Greek, Armenian, and Indo-Iranian, the nearest Indo-European congeners of Slavic. We may at least suspect that the Slavic vowel is not historically unconnected with its Ural-Altaic parallels. One of the most puzzling cases of phonetic parallelism is afforded by a large number of American Indian languages spoken west of the Rockies. Even at the most radical estimate there are at least four totally unrelated linguistic stocks represented in the region from southern Alaska to central California. Nevertheless all, or practically all, the languages of this immense area have some important phonetic features in common. Chief of these is the presence of a “glottalized” series of stopped consonants of very distinctive formation and of quite unusual acoustic effect. In the northern part of the area all the languages, whether related or not, also possess various voiceless l-sounds and a series of “velar” (back-guttural) stopped consonants which are etymologically distinct from the ordinary k-series. It is difficult to believe that three such peculiar phonetic features as I have mentioned could have evolved independently in neighboring groups of languages.

How are we to explain these and hundreds of similar phonetic convergences? In particular cases we may really be dealing with archaic similarities due to a genetic relationship that it is beyond our present power to demonstrate. But this interpretation will not get us far. It must be ruled entirely out of court, for instance, in two of the three European examples I have instanced; both nasalized vowels and the Slavic “yeri” are demonstrably of secondary origin in Indo-European. However we envisage the process in detail, we cannot avoid the inference that there is a tendency for speech sounds or certain distinctive manners of articulation to spread over a continuous area in somewhat the same way that elements of culture ray out from a geographical center. We may suppose that individual variations arising at linguistic borderlands—whether by the unconscious suggestive influence of foreign speech habits or by the actual transfer of foreign sounds into the speech of bilingual individuals—have gradually been incorporated into the phonetic drift of a language. So long as its main phonetic concern is the preservation of its sound patterning, not of its sounds as such, there is really no reason why a language may not unconsciously assimilate foreign sounds that have succeeded in worming their way into its gamut of individual variations, provided always that these new variations (or reinforced old variations) are in the direction of the native drift.


A simple illustration will throw light on this conception. Let us suppose that two neighboring and unrelated languages, A and B, each possess voiceless l-sounds (compare Welsh ll). We surmise that this is not an accident. Perhaps comparative study reveals the fact that in language A the voiceless l-sounds correspond to a sibilant series in other related languages, that an old alternation s: sh has been shifted to the new alternation l (voiceless): s. Does it follow that the voiceless l of language B has had the same history? Not in the least. Perhaps B has a strong tendency toward audible breath release at the end of a word, so that the final l, like a final vowel, was originally followed by a marked aspiration. Individuals perhaps tended to anticipate a little the voiceless release and to “unvoice” the latter part of the final l-sound (very much as the l of English words like felt tends to be partly voiceless in anticipation of the voicelessness of the t). Yet this final l with its latent tendency to unvoicing might never have actually developed into a fully voiceless l had not the presence of voiceless l-sounds in A acted as an unconscious stimulus or suggestive push toward a more radical change in the line of B’s own drift. Once the final voiceless l emerged, its alternation in related words with medial voiced l is very likely to have led to its analogical spread. The result would be that both A and B have an important phonetic trait in common. Eventually their phonetic systems, judged as mere assemblages of sounds, might even become completely assimilated to each other, though this is an extreme case hardly ever realized in practice. The highly significant thing about such phonetic interinfluencings is the strong tendency of each language to keep its phonetic pattern intact. So long as the respective alignments of the similar sounds is different, so long as they have differing “values” and “weights” in the unrelated languages, these languages cannot be said to have diverged materially from the line of their inherent drift. In phonetics, as in vocabulary, we must be careful not to exaggerate the importance of interlinguistic influences.

I have already pointed out in passing that English has taken over a certain number of morphological elements from French. English also uses a number of affixes that are derived from Latin and Greek. Some of these foreign elements, like the -ize of materialize or the -able of breakable, are even productive to-day. Such examples as these are hardly true evidences of a morphological influence exerted by one language on another. Setting aside the fact that they belong to the sphere of derivational concepts and do not touch the central morphological problem of the expression of relational ideas, they have added nothing to the structural peculiarities of our language. English was already prepared for the relation of pity to piteous by such a native pair as luck and lucky; material and materialize merely swelled the ranks of a form pattern familiar from such instances as wide and widen. In other words, the morphological influence exerted by foreign languages on English, if it is to be gauged by such examples as I have cited, is hardly different in kind from the mere borrowing of words. The introduction of the suffix -ize made hardly more difference to the essential build of the language than did the mere fact that it incorporated a given number of words. Had English evolved a new future on the model of the synthetic future in French or had it borrowed from Latin and Greek their employment of reduplication as a functional device (Latin tango: tetigi; Greek leipo: leloipa), we should have the right to speak of true morphological influence. But such far-reaching influences are not demonstrable. Within the whole course of the history of the English language we can hardly point to one important morphological change that was not determined by the native drift, though here and there we may surmise that this drift was hastened a little by the suggestive influence of French forms.

It is important to realize the continuous, self-contained morphological development of English and the very modest extent to which its fundamental build has been affected by influences from without. The history of the English language has sometimes been represented as though it relapsed into a kind of chaos on the arrival of the Normans, who proceeded to play nine-pins with the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Students are more conservative today. That a far-reaching analytic development may take place without such external foreign influence as English was subjected to is clear from the history of Danish, which has gone even further than English in certain leveling tendencies. English may be conveniently used as an a fortiori test. It was flooded with French loan-words during the later Middle Ages, at a time when its drift toward the analytic type was especially strong. It was therefore changing rapidly both within and on the surface. The wonder, then, is not that it took on a number of external morphological features, mere accretions on its concrete inventory, but that, exposed as it was to remolding influences, it remained so true to its own type and historic drift. The experience gained from the study of the English language is strengthened by all that we know of documented linguistic history. Nowhere do we find any but superficial morphological interinfluencings. We may infer one of several things from this:—That a really serious morphological influence is not, perhaps, impossible, but that its operation is so slow that it has hardly ever had the chance to incorporate itself in the relatively small portion of linguistic history that lies open to inspection; or that there are certain favorable conditions that make for profound morphological disturbances from without, say a peculiar instability of linguistic type or an unusual degree of cultural contact, conditions that do not happen to be realized in our documentary material; or, finally, that we have not the right to assume that a language may easily exert a remolding morphological influence on another.

Meanwhile we are confronted by the baffling fact that important traits of morphology are frequently found distributed among widely differing languages within a large area, so widely differing, indeed, that it is customary to consider them genetically unrelated. Sometimes we may suspect that the resemblance is due to a mere convergence, that a similar morphological feature has grown up independently in unrelated languages. Yet certain morphological distributions are too specific in character to be so lightly dismissed. There must be some historical factor to account for them. Now it should be remembered that the concept of a “linguistic stock” is never definitive in an exclusive sense. We can only say, with reasonable certainty, that such and such languages are descended from a common source, but we cannot say that such and such other languages are not genetically related. All we can do is to say that the evidence for relationship is not cumulative enough to make the inference of common origin absolutely necessary. May it not be, then, that many instances of morphological similarity between divergent languages of a restricted area are merely the last vestiges of a community of type and phonetic substance that the destructive work of diverging drifts has now made unrecognizable? There is probably still enough lexical and morphological resemblance between modern English and Irish to enable us to make out a fairly conclusive case for their genetic relationship on the basis of the present-day descriptive evidence alone. It is true that the case would seem weak in comparison to the case that we can actually make with the help of the historical and the comparative data that we possess. It would not be a bad case nevertheless. In another two or three millennia, however, the points of resemblance are likely to have become so obliterated that English and Irish, in the absence of all but their own descriptive evidence, will have to be set down as “unrelated” languages. They will still have in common certain fundamental morphological features, but it will be difficult to know how to evaluate them. Only in the light of the contrastive perspective afforded by still more divergent languages, such as Basque and Finnish, will these vestigial resemblances receive their true historic value.

I cannot but suspect that many of the more significant distributions of morphological similarities are to be explained as just such vestiges. The theory of “borrowing” seems totally inadequate to explain those fundamental features of structure, hidden away in the very core of the linguistic complex, that have been pointed out as common, say, to Semitic and Hamitic, to the various Soudanese languages, to Malayo-Polynesian and Mon-Khmer and Munda, to Athabaskan and Tlingit and Haida. We must not allow ourselves to be frightened away by the timidity of the specialists, who are often notably lacking in the sense of what I have called “contrastive perspective.”

Attempts have sometimes been made to explain the distribution of these fundamental structural features by the theory of diffusion. We know that myths, religious ideas, types of social organization, industrial devices, and other features of culture may spread from point to point, gradually making themselves at home in cultures to which they were at one time alien. We also know that words may be diffused no less freely than cultural elements, that sounds also may be “borrowed,” and that even morphological elements may be taken over. We may go further and recognize that certain languages have, in all probability, taken on structural features owing to the suggestive influence of neighboring languages. An examination of such cases, however, almost invariably reveals the significant fact that they are but superficial additions on the morphological kernel of the language. So long as such direct historical testimony as we have gives us no really convincing examples of profound morphological influence by diffusion, we shall do well not to put too much reliance in diffusion theories. On the whole, therefore, we shall ascribe the major concordances and divergences in linguistic form—phonetic pattern and morphology—to the autonomous drift of language, not to the complicating effect of single, diffused features that cluster now this way, now that. Language is probably the most self-contained, the most massively resistant of all social phenomena. It is easier to kill it off than to disintegrate its individual form.

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