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How do English phrases travel across countries?
All living languages change. It’s a fact of life that some people find uncomfortable, but that no one can prevent. The only languages that don’t change are dead ones.
How does change happen? The chief way is through mutual influence, when languages – which means people – come into contact with each other. An immediate effect is that words and phrases begin to be exchanged.
Origins of English
The history of English shows this taking place from the very beginning. When the Germanic tribes first arrived in Britain, bringing with them the dialects that would become English, their vocabulary already contained words and phrases borrowed from Latin, a consequence of the interaction with the soldiers of the Roman Empire.
Today we think of such words as 'butter', 'cup', 'kitchen', 'mile', and 'street' as true English words, but they are all Latin in origin ('butyrum', 'cuppa', 'coquina', 'mille', 'strata'), taken into Germanic while the tribes were still on the European mainland.
The process continued over the centuries. An everyday word like 'take' reminds us of the Viking invasions, for this came from Old Norse 'tacan'. So did 'knife' (from 'knifr'). Even basic grammatical items were affected: 'they', 'them', and 'their' are all from Old Norse.
When the French arrived, in the eleventh century, the borrowing became a flood, with thousands of French words expanding the vocabulary to an unprecedented size, in such domains as law, religion, politics, food, and the arts – 'duke', 'abbot', 'war', 'peace', 'pork' and 'beauty'. During the Renaissance, Latin added tens of thousands more.
In all cases, the words traveled because cultural contact – in its broadest sense – made them do so.
The history of contact
This history of contact is one of the reasons that English has so many near-synonyms: we can 'ask' (from Old English), 'question' (from French), and 'interrogate' (from Latin). We can talk about a 'fire', 'flame', and 'conflagration'; 'kingly', 'royal', and 'regal'. But although French and Latin are the dominant voices, they are put in the shade by the accumulated impact of the many languages that English has since encountered as its speakers moved around the globe, especially in the days of the British Empire.
Today, a search through the files of any major dictionary shows the presence of hundreds of languages, from 'aardvark' (Afrikaans) to 'zygote' (Greek).
It’s been estimated that around 80 percent of present-day English vocabulary comes from languages other than the original Anglo-Saxon Germanic. English seems to always be a vacuum cleaner of a language, sucking in words from whichever culture it was in contact with. The process continues. In recent years, dictionary writers have been considering such new borrowings of words from other languages.
But not everything in language change is due to borrowing. When we look at recent lists of updates in the dictionary world, we find hundreds of phrasal expressions, such as 'solar farm', 'travel card', 'skill set', 'cold caller', 'air punch', and 'set menu'.
Blends of existing words form an increasingly large component of modern vocabulary, such as 'glamping' (glamorous + camping) and 'Pokemon' (pocket + monster), as do internet abbreviations, such as 'GTG' (got to go) and 'BRB' (be right back).
And it’s here that we see the most noticeable phenomenon of the last few decades: the impact of English on other languages. The traveling is now going in both directions.
Over a decade ago, Manfred Görlach published his Dictionary of European Anglicisms, showing English to be "the world’s biggest lexical exporter”. The book lists hundreds of words and phrases that have entered the languages of Europe. A small selection from letter 'A' shows 'ace' (from tennis), 'aerobics', 'aftershave', and 'aqualung', as well as phrases such as 'acid house' and 'air bag'.
The factors are exactly the same as those that brought foreign words into English in the first place, such as business, culture, medicine, sport, the arts, popular music, science and technology. The difference is that these expressions come from all over the English-speaking world, with American English the primary supplier, thanks chiefly to its presence in the media.
The impact of media
It is the media that provides the main answer to the question “How?”. In the old days, face-to-face contact caused expressions to be shared, and it would take time for words to travel – a generation before a word would become widely used. Today, the use of English in film, television, and especially the internet allows 'word travel' to take place at a faster rate than ever before.
A new word or phrase invented today can be around the globe by tomorrow, and if it appeals it will spread on social media and become part of daily use in no time at all. Even an everyday phrase can receive a new lease of life in this way.
Many countries try to resist the borrowing process, thinking that an uncontrolled influx of English expressions will destroy their language.
The evidence from the history of English shows that this does not happen. Because of its global spread, English has borrowed more words than any other language – and has this caused its destruction? On the contrary, in terms of numbers of users, English is the most successful language the world has ever seen.
Borrowing does change the character of a language, and this too is something that causes concern. But again, I ask: is this inevitably a bad thing? Shakespeare would have been unable to write his characters in such an effective way without all those borrowings from French and Latin.
Much of his linguistic playfulness and creativity relies on how everyday words are contrasted with their scholarly or aristocratic counterparts. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Don Armado gives Costard a coin as a tip, calling it a "remuneration".
Costard has no idea what the word means, but when he looks at his coin he realizes he’s been given a tiny amount. “Oh, that’s the Latin word for three farthings”, he reflects. “I will never buy and sell out of this word”. It always gets a laugh from an audience.
Keeping up-to-date with language change is probably the greatest challenge facing foreign language learners because there is so much of it.
Textbooks and teachers face a daily risk of falling behind the times. But the risk can be reduced if we build an awareness of change into the way we present a language. And understanding the natural processes that underlie linguistic change is the essential first step.
More blogs from Pearson
Sometimes, it’s nice to share cultural insights with our students so they can get a deeper understanding of the context of the language they are learning. However, without lots of time and money, it can be tough to travel to an English-speaking country yourself and experience what life is like first-hand.
But what if you could learn about British history, customs and culture from the comfort of your sofa?
That’s right - in an instant you could be transported back to the dark cobbled streets of 19th century London, to an industrial town in northern England or a rural village in Surrey.
Today, we want to share six English stories set in Britain that provide cultural, historical and social aspects of British life, both past and present.
So sit back, relax and let us take you on an adventure.
Written by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
This story about the intelligent and beautiful Emma was first published at the end of 1815. The book, which takes place in a fictional village called Highbury (located in the charming county of Surrey), covers themes such as romance, social class and female empowerment.
Emma is a social person who enjoys seeing people happy and contented. She spends her time arranging marriages between her friends but sometimes makes mistakes. Will the problems she causes upset people? And can she find love herself?
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray
Written by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
This philosophical yet supernatural thriller, first published in 1890, is full of lies, secrets and mystery. The tale revolves around the main character, Dorian Gray, who after inheriting a property from his grandfather, travels to London and soon makes new friends. One of his new acquaintances paints a portrait of Dorian, who makes a dangerous wish that he would give anything - even his soul - to stay as young and good-looking as he appears in the painting.
Soon, things start to go wrong and his life gets out of control. But he doesn’t seem to get older. Why? The terrible secret he’s hiding in his attic is the answer. What could it be? Allow yourself to travel back to Victorian times and see London through the eyes of this handsome and hedonistic young man.
Written by Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880)
Written under Mary’s pen name,George Elliott, this work of realism was first published in eight installments during 1871 and 1872. The story, set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch from 1829-1832, tells a tale of science and discovery. It follows Dorothea, a young woman determined to change the world and Dr. Lydgate, an ambitious man who wants to be a leader in science. Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate are both married, but soon their marriages go wrong.
Can they ever be happy? Will they achieve their dreams? Although the central theme of the book revolves around the marriage of the two main characters, with many historical references such as the 1832 Reform Act, the beginnings of the railways and the death of King George IV, Middlemarch is great for those who are interested in history as well as provincial life.
4. Four Weddings and a Funeral
Written by Richard Curtis (born 1956)
Those looking for a more modern look at British life can learn plenty about customs and cultures in this contemporary book, which has been adapted from one of Britain’s funniest and most popular films. Released in 1994, Four Weddings and a Funeral is about Charles (played by Hugh Grant in the film), a charming man who is very unlucky in love.
One day, during his friend’s wedding, he meets a beautiful girl called Carrie. Unfortunately, she does not plan to stay in England, and travels back to the United States. But they keep meeting each other, so maybe things can work out for the couple. Laugh while discovering the ins and outs of the British social scene in this romantic comedy.
5. North and South
Written by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865)
North and South, published in 1855, is about a young woman named Margaret Hale who moves with her parents from rural southern England to an industrial town called Milton in the north. There, she meets a wealthy mill owner named Mr. Thornton, and though she dislikes him, he immediately falls in love with her.
During her time in Milton, she witnesses what it’s like to work in the mills where employers and workers constantly clash. As his workers go on strike, will Mr. Thornton be able to charm Margaret? This complex and provoking story follows the working class struggle during the Industrial Revolution.
6. Oliver Twist
Written by Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Published in 1832, Oliver Twist was Dickens’ second novel. The story tells the tale of a young orphan we can all feel for. Oliver is brought up in a workhouse where he is beaten, starved and poorly treated. With no parents to look after him, he decides to run away to London, where he joins a gang of thieves.
His new friends look out for him, but can they protect him from a life of danger and crime? An interesting look at the darker side of Britain’s capital, Oliver Twist is still popular today with film, musical and TV adaptations.
Want some more reading inspiration for your English lessons?
Discover graded Readers featuring some of the world’s best-loved authors.
Pearson has Readers adapted from classic English novels with audio files and a comprehensive teacher resources section, meaning you can use them in class with your students too.
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